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It was in the year 2009 that I was introduced, inadvertently, to two activities in my life – Self-supported cycling tours and Asha for Education. It would be impossible to gauge the impact of these two activities in my life over the next decade and possibly, much more into the future. In March 2009, I undertook the tour of Malabar – an eighteen day cycling tour on the west coast of India; an unique experience that brought me in touch with many ground realities of the world. In June 2009, I visited Thulir – a project supported by Asha, during a cycling tour in Dharmapuri district. Over the last decade, it is certainly not an understatment to say that Thulir has been my another home.
I was keen to combine both and find out if I can do a cycling tour covering the projects supported by Asha for Education. I looked up to the list of projects supported by Asha in Tamil Nadu and chose five of them (Thulir was an automatic choice!) for site visits. Padmanava a.k.a Paddy, projects co-ordinator at Asha, helped me with an introduction to each of the projects. Thanks to Sulu and Anand at Cycology, my bike was fitted with a pannier and I was ready for the tour.
Asha for Education was started in 1991 by Late VJP Srivatsavoy, Prof. Deepak Gupta, and Prof. Sandeep Pandey, during their student days at the University of California, Berkeley. Their belief was that education is a critical requisite and an effective catalyst for social and economic change in India. Over the next 3 decades, Asha has grown in manifold across USA and India, raising funds for numerous supporting grass-root level institutions, and managed in a decentralised manner through various chapters. For details, please visit the website http://www.ashanet.org
I was introduced to the Bangalore chapter of Asha through their running program, anchored by Santosh, a volunteer with Asha, before he moved to start Runners High. From Santhosh to Anita and Sanjeeev, I started getting interested in the projects supported by Asha. Since 2013, I have been a project steward for Thulir and you can read my site visit reports here.
The Tour Plan
Day 1 – February 24, 2020 – Ride upto Mettur
My first destination was Puvidham school, located in Dharmapuri district, about 200 Kms from Coimbatore. Riding all the way on the very first day didn’t look like an option to be contemplated. Also, reaching a remote place like Puvidham in late evenings could be challenging; and I detest riding in the dark. I split the ride into two days with a halt at either Mettur or Erode on the first day, depending on my energy levels. The ride from Coimbatore to Bhavani was on the National Highway with very little to report. The soreness in my legs, following the half-marathon at Annur, was bothering me and I preferred to ride it with ease. I reached Bhavani at about 11:30, before it started getting too hot. The ride from Bhavani to Mettur was a reminiscent from the Tour of Tamil Nadu (ToT) 2018, when we rode from Erode to Hogenekkal on day 1. The Tamarind trees on either side of the road offered much wanted protection from heat. One of the sad outcomes of the road expansion projects in India is the axing of these trees from the road. They were planted decades earlier and had myriad benefits for a host of people. I was reminded of this excellent piece in The Hindu few years back, where the author poignantly concludes,
Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.
I reached Mettur at about 3:00 PM after a lunch enroute. I was able to find a budget hotel to crash for the night and keep my bike securely. The entry to the Dam closes at 5:30 PM, and my afternoon nap delayed my visit.
Day 2 – February 25, 2020 – Ride from Mettur to Puvidham
The start on the second day was delayed in fixing a puncture and then, a bizarre incident of dropping a glass of tea! The owner was kind enough to let me go for Rs. 10 towards damages and offered another cup of tea too. The ride had plenty of climbs starting from the ghat section near Mettur dam. The view from the top of the hill was breathtaking.
The route until Mecheri was chaotic with lorries and school buses. The number of school buses has increased in Tamil Nadu exponentially over the past decade; largely because, it offers an excellent scope for the owners of the school to make big bucks. In the process, the distance travelled by children has increased taking much of their percious daily time, which could have been used for better purposes. After some breakfast at Mecheri, the ride to Puvidham was through some scenic village roads. It was a pleasure to ride in these roads – well paved and superior to many city roads in India.
Before reaching Puvidham, the route took me to Nagavathi Dam, which was nothing more than a vast tract of empty land. Dharmapuri is one of the most drought prone districts of Tamil Nadu. Despite the fact that the river Cauvery flows through it, the region is economically backward and relies on rain-fed agriculture. I reached Puvidham in time to have lunch with Meenakshi, the founder of the institution.
Day 3 – February 26, 2020 – Stay at Puvidham
The origins of Puvidham goes back to 1992, when Meenakshi, an architect, and Umesh, an engineer turned agriculturist, decided to settle down in the driest region of Tamil Nadu and engage in conservation efforts. Early 2000, Meenakshi started the school, which offered an alternative to conventional education. Starting with her own children, she wanted the school to be a place of self-learning through nature and physical activities. The school also has a hostel attached to it and it caters to both local children as well as outstation children. Children study here upto class 8 and then proceed to the the high school nearby or at Dharmapuri, located about 20 kms from Puvidham.
I spent the day at Puvidham talking to the teachers and students, and attending some of their classes. My favourite class was learning to spin the cotton by using a takli or drop spindle. It was here where I learned that my hands don’t listen to my eyes and I ended up struggling to spin the takli. I promised Meenakshi that I will learn before I visit Puvidham next time. The challenge now is in getting a takli, which seems to be unfamiliar even in Khadi shops.
You can read my site visit report at the project page. The school is supported by Asha – London and Seattle chapters – since 2004. To know more about Puvidham, you can visit their website or visit the project page in Asha website.
Day 4 – February 27, 2020 – Puvidham to Thulir
I started from Puvidham after an excellent coffee from/with Meenakshi. My first destination was Dharmapuri, where I planned to have my breakfast. Dharmapuri, a nondescript town, is known only for being the district headquarters and that, it is on NH7. Finding a decent breakfast place was a challenge. From Dharmapuri to Harur, the ride was through one of the finest roads – it was unbelievable to see a well maintained broad road with reasonable tree cover. I was likely to be late for lunch and requested Anu to keep lunch for me, as I always relish Thulir’s wonderful lunch. After Harur, the route took me to Theerthamalai with plenty of short and steep climbs. This was my third visit to Thulir in bicycle. The first one was in 2009, when I reached Jolarpet by train and rode from Jolarpet to Thulir, after riding up Yelagiri. The second time was in 2015, when I rode from Pondicherry to Thulir via Thiruvannamalai. I rode different bikes in each of the above occasions, and this time, it was a chance for my third bike to pay a visit to Thulir. I reached the school at about 3:30 PM, an hour before the school closes. With the senior students out for a tour, the school was filled with the tiny tots. Some kids were curious on what I would do if my tyre was punctured!
Day 5 – February 28, 2020 – Stay at Thulir
Thulir was started by Anu and Krishna in 2003 when they moved to the Sittlingi village. The objective of Thulir is to cater to the educational needs of the Sittlingi Valley, located amidst the Kalrayan hills in Dharmapuri district. Thulir started out as an after-school learning centre for school going children during evening hours and holidays. Later, they introduced a Basic Technology Program for school drop-outs. After a few iterations, it has now evolved into a primary school. Personally, it has been a great learning for me in associating with Thulir for over a decade and witnessing the change in educational needs in the village. The day was spent well at the school interacting with teachers and lunch with the children. In the evening, the senior students (age 8-10) returned back from their trip and it was a pleasure meeting them. Some of them travelled for the first time without their parents.
You can visit Thulir website or follow my journey with Thulir over the past decade in the project page in Asha website.
Day 6 – February 29, 2020 – Thulir to Payir
It was the additional day of the year and I certainly wanted to make it count. After some lovely coffee from Archana, I set out on the ride well after the sunrise.
The first 20 kms was through the Thumbal forests and I hoped to encounter a bison or two; alas, none were around. The road was unexpectedly good for long stretches and I was thrilled to ride on it! Unfortunately, good things don’t last longer, and I encountered a rough patch for about 5 Kms, where I missed my MTB the most! I crossed Thumbal and reached the Salem-Villupuram highway for some hot breakfast. I had to find the route to take me to Malliyakarai, where I join the Attur-Thuraiyur road towards Thuraiyur – familiar from the ToT 2015 edition, when we rode from Thuraiyur to Kallakuruchi. The day was getting tough and my struggle to ride further found me under a pipal tree for relief from the heat. These unplanned rest breaks offer some time for additional contemplation on whether the trip is worth anything before reassuring myself to hang on there. At Thammampatti, I found a ‘new’ restaurant to get charged up for rest of the ride. My riding speed certainly improved after the lunch.
Thuraiyur brought back memories of ToT 2015 and the difficulty of finding a place to have our dinner and breakfast as most restaurants were very small back then. Padmas cafe, where we had our breakfast, has since been upgraded and the capacity has been expanded. I stopped for a coffee and some pleasant conversations with the owner, before riding to Payir. It was a slow day and I reached Payir at about 4:30 PM. I was warmly welcomed by Senthil and Preethi and had my dinner with them, listening to their stories of starting Payir.
Day 7 – March 1, 2020 – Stay at Payir
It was obvious that getting time with Senthil seemed practically impossible as he is engaged with various facets of Payir round the clock. On Saturday, there were students seeking his help in academics after his dinner time. He was still kind enough to allot some time for me on Sunday. Senthil is a engineer by graduate and worked in corporate for a decade. He quit his high flying career to relocate himself to Thenur and start Payir. His TEDx talk would give an excellent overview of his work at Thenur and the surroundings.
You can read more about Payir in their website. Asha has been supporting the educational program at Payir since or visit the project page in Asha here.
Senthil is also an Asha Fellow since 2017 and I was keen on knowing about his work and plans. I had a freewheel chat with him about the various challenges in the region and his work with them over the decade and half. Later that evening, I also attended a meeting of farmers in that region over watershed management in that region. You can read more about his fellowship and my observations in the Fellowship page here.
Day 8 – March 2, 2020 – Payir to Madurai
I was keen to find out routes that would keep me away from the highway for that day but couldn’t find any. My first pitstop was Manachanallur. I wanted to stop for a coffee but the cozy hotel tempted me to have some hot idlis and vadai before washing it down with a cup of coffee – the breakfast was cheaper than a coffee at some of the city restaurants! I wanted to bye-pass the Trichy town to avoid the morning traffic. In the process, I could catch a glimpse of the Rockfort while crossing the river Cauvery.
After crossing Trichy, the barren highway had very little to describe. At times, you feel that you are riding towards the end of the world. This is exactly where the podcasts came handy. On this tour, I rekindled my love for podcasts. Apart from the usual favourites from The Guardian, there were few others that got me interested like We Crashed by Wondery. On that day, I was listening to a two and half hour conversation between TM Krishna and Amit Verma in a lovely series called The Seen and the Unseen. It was a thought provoking conversation on caste, carnatic music, gender, privilege, and social structures, as viewed through his own life. I am sure a reference to his name can get people polarised to extremes; but this was one conversation where I find him being honest with himself. He was willing to accept that his rise in music was not just a symbol of meritocracy but also linked to his antecedents, caste, and the society he grew up in. More so, on that day, it helped me to cover 50 Kms in an otherwise boring ride. I reached the outskirts of Melur for my lunch at about 1:00 PM and stayed put there till 3:00 PM. I reached the “Temple City” at 4:30 PM after surviving an ‘attack’ by a two-wheeler, which seems to be an integral part of riding in Madurai. Although a long day of 10 hours and 30 minutes, my riding time was only about 7:21 – tail wind helps!
In Madurai, Asha supports the Madurai SEED project at Karumbalai. It is an after school learning centre for school going children aimed at education beyond the school curriculum. The objective is to help children continue going to school and also, to find out the true potential of the children. The assistance extends beyond their education in helping them achieve their aspirations. To know more about Madurai SEED, you can visit their website or view the project page here. In addition, the founder of the project, A. S. Karthik Bharati is also a Asha Fellow. I had planned to visit the centres during the evening (as it functions only in evenings and weekends) and meet Karthik for a chat the following day. The evening was well spent going around the four centres of Madurai SEED in Karumbalai.
Day 9 – March 3, 2020 – Visit to Gandhi Museum, Meeting Karthi Bharati and ride to Vathalakkundu
I started the day by visiting the Gandhi Museum, purely out of my inquisitiveness. This was the first time I have even heard about it as people rarely associate Madurai with this museum. Housed in the erstwhile palace of Rani Mangammal, it was inaugurated in 1959 and contained some interesting collections of memorabilia from the life of Mahathma Gandhi. It also had an extensive photo exhibition on freedom struggle.
The photographs from the Gandhiji’s trips to Tamil Nadu were treasure troves. I was particulary impressed by the collection of letters that Gandhiji had written to various people. One of the letter was addressed to the Principal of Gujarat College requesting him to re–admit the students who had participated in the civil disobedience movement. At a time when people are debating the relevance of students’ participating in political movements, this was interesting.
The next two hours were spent conversing with Karthik and he was kind to take me for lunch too. Karthik has been a Asha Fellow since 2013, supported by Asha Boston. He grew up in the Karumbalai area and was the first graduate in his family. He was keen on giving back to the society as he was supported by others. This prompted him to start the Madurai SEED and has since worked extensively with the children and youth in that locality. You can read more about his fellowship in Asha Project page here.
The ride from Madurai to Kodaikanal was about 120 Km. I preferred to split into two rides – from Madurai to Vathalakkundu (or is it Batalgundu or Batlagundu?) that evening and climb the ghats, the following day. I was hoping that the hotel where we stayed during ToT 2010, enroute to Kodai, would be still around. I reached Vathalakkundu and realised that the hotel has been shutdown sometime back! I had to ride back to the town to find Hotel O2 Residency, who were kind enough to allow me to carry my bike to the room. It was good to finish this section of the ride earlier to allow the following day only for the climbs.
Day 10 – March 4, 2020 – Vathalakkundu to Kodaikanal
My first conquest of Kodaikanal was back in 2010 when we rode from Vathalakundu via Pattiveeranpatti and Pannaikkadu. This time, I chose to ride through the highway. I find riding uphill as a very ‘spiritual’ experience – I struggle, I curse it during the ride, but the satisfaction of accomplishing it surpasses it all. Riding slowly with high cadence is like a poetry in motion; it is just between you and your bike. My first attempt to climb hills was in 2008 when I rode uphill to Coonoor and yet, every ride still makes me feel that it is the first time I am trying it. It has been a learning experience, shuffling my ride strategy between cadence and power. Often, the breathtaking views after few hundred metres of climb will reaffirm the confidence and push towards further climbs.
There were some additional challenges – The newly laid road caused a few problems with the stones sticking on to my tires. A temple festival in one of the villages that held the traffic for a while. After reaching Kodai, I was surprised to see rooms unavailable in TTDC on a weekday during off-season! I finally checked in at Hill Top Towers, who also provided me with a safe place for my bike. I believe many hotels and homestays have been shut down in the recent past due to violations of building rules, among others.
I spent the evening going for a walk around the Kodai lake. The ambience around the lake tempted me to go for a run, which I did on the following two days. The one awkward moment was when someone asked me if I want to rent a bicycle! A statue of Jawaharlal Nehru was an interesting find, when you observe the names of dignitaries in the inauguration plaque.
Day 11 – March 5, 2020 – Morning run, Betsy Creche, and the phone!
The day started with a pleasant morning run around the Kodai lake. It was a scenic location and a 5K run was possibly the best thing that one can do in Kodai. The road was largely free from traffic and there were a few fellow walkers and runners enjoying their morning there. It was a reminiscent of my days in Pondicherry doing my morning runs at the promenade. I feel that every city must allot some roads for the exclusive use of early morning walkers and runners.
I was scheduled to meet Ms. Hilda at the Betsy Elizabeth Creche that morning. The creche was located a little away from the hotel and it was best to ride the bike all the way. The Creche has been supported by Asha Seattle since 2007. You can read more about the funding and support by Asha on the project page.
The afternoon was spent visiting Sai Sruthi and a walk around the lake again. Somehow, I didn’t seem to get tired of the lake even if I visit it again and agin. I was also glad that I was there when there aren’t many visitors, if I visualise how chaotic it would be during the ‘tourist season.’ There was garden inside the lake which caught my attention, not for its maintenance but for the person after whom it has been named. It was named after Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, who died in Kodaikanal as a political prisoner – some historical facts that I was not familiar with.
On the way back to the hotel, I found these interesting lines from The Bible in a Church.
After taking this picture, my phone fell flat and the screen broke! Yeah, the weary and burdened phone was given some rest!
Day 12 – March 6, 2020 – Morning run at the lake and Ride back home
It was impossible to resist another chance to run around the lake. I started the day with an energetic run on Kodai lake and bade farewell to its beauty. Little did I know that the following weeks will be deserted for worse!
I started the ride after a sumptuous breakfast at Hilltop, watching children being dropped at the Kodai International School by the parents during the ‘rush hour’ – One would think that settling down in Kodai is to have a laid back life; not for these parents though. A long downhill ride was awaiting me with a 5K climb in the middle. The ride was a repeat of the last day of ToT 2010, when we rode from Kodai to Pollachi. On that day, the road from Perumalmalai to Palani was ‘exclusively’ for us, as there was a landslide in-between and heavy vehicles couldn’t come through it. Even otherwise, there wasn’t much traffic and it was an absolute beauty to ride overlooking deep valleys and through tall trees. Memories of riding with Manjula and ‘Singham’ Magesh flashed by as I rode towards Palani. I am posting the pictures from that ride. The picture by Ryan on that day was outstanding (left one)!
After Palani, I had no choice but to take the route via Pollachi, as my phone was not available for navigation. The road from Palani to Pollachi was turning out to be a nightmare to ride. Thanks to the good-old ways of finding routes – Oral enquiries – I found some alternate route to avoid Pollachi. The route was tough with rolling hills but was largely free from traffic making it a pleasant ride. After crossing Chettipalayam, while riding towards Pothanur, I spotted my fellow cyclist, Manju returning from work. He went ahead and warmly welcomed me back to Coimbatore with sugarcane juice! Since Cycology was on the way, my first priority was to go and thank Sulu and Anand for their support before heading home.
These are journeys without destinations; There are only temporary halts. This was the longest tour since my tour on the west coast, a decade back. Every cycle tour teaches me plenty of things – from cycling perspective and society, in general. This time around, it was more to do with Asha, the projects supported by Asha, my own association with Asha and the projects, and importantly, how I can contribute more through Asha. The best part of volunteering for Asha has been that it is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. For me, as a project steward, it was a great experience to engage in the development of Thulir over the past decade and see the transformation during this time. It also helped me to step outside the bubble that I was living in and understand the bigger challenges that people face in their daily life.
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