Like Puducherry, Karaikal (130 km S of Puducherry) is a lazy hamlet built to a geometric grid holding tentatively on to its French antecedents. Its main thoroughfare, Bharathiyar Road, is lined with shops selling everything a small town may need. It’s also a preferred halt for those wishing to go to Thirunallaru, the abode of Lord Saturn, barely 5 km west of Karaikal, and Our Lady of Velankanni, 25 km away. Within the town is the 1891 Church of Our Lady of Angels, the 19th-century Mastan Syed Dawood Dargah and the ancient temple of Karaikal Ammai.
The temple of Karaikal Ammai has an interesting story that is traced back to the 7th century Bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu. The tale recalls how a rich merchant’s pious wife, Punithavanthi, fed mangoes meant for her husband to a hungry sadhu. Angry at being slighted in this manner, the husband chided his wife. Terrified, she prayed to Shiva who bestowed upon her a basket of celestial mangoes. She is included as one of the 23 Nayannar (saints) of the Tamil pantheon. To this day, during the Mangani festival (June- July) when the procession bearing the goddess passes through the town, people throw mangoes at her!
The temple dedicated to Lord Saturn, Darbaranyeswarar Temple at Thirunallaru sees a large number of pilgrims every day, but on Saturdays it’s a mad house. The silver-plated idol of the lord is worth a darshan.
Entry Free; Timings 6 am-noon and 4-9 pm, open all days.
If unusual temples tempt you, make a dash to the Jadaayupureeswar Temple at TR Pattinam, 5 km south of Karaikal on the Karaikal-Nagappattinam Road. This temple is dedicated to the mythical bird, Jatayu from the Ramayana epic. A small shrine right of the main sanctum hosts the small blackened statue of the brave avian who is believed to have fallen here after a desperate fight to free Sita from Ravana.
Entry Free; Timings 6 am-noon and 6-9 pm, open all days
Where to stay and eat
Karaikal is a small town so there aren’t many hotels to choose from. The newly refurbished and government-run Arasaral Guest House (Tel: 04368-220530; Tariff: â‚¹400-600) on the Beach Road is your best bet if you want a room overlooking the Arasal River which flows into the Bay of Bengal here. The rooms are basic but clean and come with attached baths and TV. Meals have to be ordered in advance. Two other comfortable stay options are Hotel Paris (Tel: 220306; Tariff: â‚¹400-1,050) on Bharathiyar Road, which offers marble flooring, AC accommodation and a restaurant, and the Hotel City Plaza (Tel: 222730; Tariff: â‚¹350-750), also on the same road. Both these are the preferred halt for city pilgrims.
Bharathiyar Road is also where most of the eateries (tiffin rooms) are situated. Mathura restaurant on Market Street offers more variety (pepper dosa for one) besides an AC family room where many VIPs stop for a bite. The cuisine is purely Tamilian. For a bite of non-veg (their Chicken 65 is a delight), a glass of chilled beer and a laidback evening under the stars, head for the Karaikal Tourism Department-run Garden Restaurant, located in a colonial bungalow on Beach Road. Look out for the still functioning old lighthouse that looms over the property. Karaikal Beach nearby comes alive in the evenings. Stop by the makeshift stalls to sample some Tamil variations of Chinese dishes.
Velankanni (27 km)
The sight of the bright white Church of Our Lady at the edge of the Velankanni Beach is simply stunning. The huge church, sprawled over flat land surrounded by prawn farms and cashew groves, was originally dedicated to the patron goddess of sailors known as Our Lady Star of the Sea. This is evident by the large shipping masts gracing its compound and the tiles arranged around the goddess at the altar. Later Our Lady Star of the Sea became a renowned healer.
Today, Annai Velankanni, as she is popularly known, is the patron goddess of doctors and the ill. In the small museum adjoining the church there are glass tables filled with prayer-letters mounted with silver plates (shaped into body parts or organs such as arms, legs, uterus, liver, etc) and stethoscopes sent by devout Indian medics from all over the world.
Entry: Free and open to all
Timings: 6 am-noon and 4-9 pm The doors of the church open into a large square and a bazaar selling inexpensive utility items and souvenirs. Local craft is restricted to seashell products and colourful clay toys.
The main bazaar lane stretches into the sea where you can eat delicious pomfret and other sea fish. Taxi to Velankanni charges â‚¹1,000-1,500 (return).
Nagore (10 km)
On your way to or back from Velankanni, stop by one of the most important Muslim pilgrimage centres in the region, the Andavar Dargah at Nagore, south of Karaikal. The dargah too betrays its shipping past. Large shipping masts grace its odd assortment of minarets that appear to have been erected at different points of time.
Nagappattinam (14 km)
The ancient port of Nagappattinam (south of Karaikal) also falls en route to Velankanni. You’ll know you are there when you see some 1,500 odd trawlers docked in its tiny bay and notice the sea eagle soaring in the sky. With the fishermen sorting their catch on the beach, it’s a great photo op. If you are coming from Puducherry, the best option is to halt at Karaikal, which offers decent accommodation
(Return taxi fare from Puducherry â‚¹1,000- 1,500)