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Rocky retreat

Sittannavasal: Peeling plaster, faint frescoes. Yet, a cavern for couples, says SOMA BASU

NEVER BEEN on a camel ride? Try the next best thing - the pitted 16-km stretch from Pudukottai to Sittanavasal. When you are not nursing your poor back, you might have to stop to ask the odd shepherd, running a watchful eye over his flock, for directions.

An exercise that can be unnerving (asking for directions, I mean, not watching sheep). Inevitably, almost all those I ask for directions are puzzled by the fact that I am going to the Sittanavasal caves alone. I figure our why they seem so mystified only much later.

Sittannavasal is a quiet green belt with a natural cavern and a rock-cut cave temple of great antiquity on two sides of the same hill. Inside the dimness of the 2nd Century Jain cave temple, an ASI staffer traces out the painted figures on the ceiling with a twig. "This is a fish... an elephant... a lotus tank."

All I can see, despite my perfect 6/6 vision, is peeling plaster and what must be the faint traces of frescoes covered under centuries of soot - a fading line here, a patch of colour there. The ASI man goes on: "These frescoes are comparable to the Ajanta-Ellora paintings." Having read about this in the tourist literature, I have heard this pitch national heritage monument, which remind the visitor more of ill-maintenance than the wonderful history it should evoke.

Next stop: an even darker and smaller room. Directing me to stand in the centre, he faces a corner, takes a breath and chants a deep "Om".

Over the next few seconds, the stones seem to come alive as the cavern reverberates with the sound.

I shift my attention from the frescoes and take a look at the sculptures of the Jain Theerthankaras in Aseenamudra.

A sudden silence before the voice booms again: "Please write something for my benefit."

I find I am the last in a long list of unsuspecting visitors who have been persuaded to pen a few kind words in a visitor's register. I try the "Om" trick but fail to persuade the rocks to echo in the manner they should have. Then I head up for the natural cavern.

Trudging up the 300 steps cut into the face of the hill leaves me gasping. I am the lone climber under a scorching sun.

An unexpected and far-from-friendly encounter with a group of monkeys doesn't help much to keep my cool either.

When I reach "Eladipattam", as the natural cavern is known. I find its floor is market into spaces for 17 rockbeds, each with a pillow. The largest of them contains a Tamil-Brahmi inscription that goes back to the 2nd Century BC. The view from the top is beautiful. There is greenery everywhere interspersed with large tracts of water.

Groves of palm, coconut and banana fill the eyes. The wind is whippy.

Then I notice the presence of couples, holding hands, tucked away cosily behind bushes and boulders. Graffiti and the sad litter of plastic wrappers are further reminders that this place is something of a `lover's pradise'. Now, I understand why the people I had stopped to ask for direction were so puzzled that I was travelling alone.

I climb down to a small lake below where the sight of migratory birds changes my mood.

So do the screams and laughter of children playing in the vicinity.

A 15-minute walk separates the two rocks at Sittannavasal.

In between is a park, grandiosely named the "Tamil Divine Park" but containing not much more than dry fountains, uncut grass and rusty play equipment for children. It still attracts picnickers though.

Sittanavasal is good for a day's outing, but ideally one should stay in Pudukottai and go on excursion tours of the numerous dolmens, stone circles and other prehistoric megalithic burial sites, stone temple and forts - all of which lie within a radius of 40 km.

How to get there?

Pudukottai is 110 Km from Madurai.

Average hotels are available for stay.

The camera may be a redundant companion as a photography is banned at many of the heritage sites.

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