Navagraha Ottam – Part 5

All’s well that ends well! That’s precisely what I was expecting on a final day of the arduous, yet enjoyable trip. While a finish looked all but assured, a grand finish was what I was expecting. It didn’t look as easy as expected. I got up with a severe pain in the arch of the left feet and could not even manage to stand straight in the first attempt. More than the pain, it was the fear that got me concerned. Some feet massage and I felt better to stand up and get ready for the run.

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The Team at the Start

We soon set out for the one final run of 24K towards Thirunallar, the last of the nine destinations. Started out slowly but felt better as I found some rhythm in running with Ram. Passing through one of the villages, we were greeted by two boys on occasion of Gandhi Jayanthi. One of them was ironically named Stalin! It was heart rendering to see them decorate a picture of Mahatma Gandhi and distribute chocolates to all passer-bys.

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Gandhiji…. with Stalin

Ram and I were soon joined by Bala and Selva. Selva (sir) was truly a master in Spiritual Discourses and he shared some interesting stories. My first meeting with Selva was in Hyderabad Marathon in 2012, where he was struggling to finish a marathon. In this trip however, he was one of the fittest and running at amazing speeds on all days. He spared some time for us for his talk and yet proceeded to finish stronger than the rest.

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We soon crossed the TN-Pondicherry border and entered the Pondicherry state. Proudly stated that this is my daily affair.

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Our breakfast was arranged at a Petrol station in Pondicherry state. Some of the runners chose the skip the breakfast, whereas we preferred to eat and then go. Bala was getting treated for his blisters. It was a miracle indeed to see him run with those severe blisters. His resilience to accomplish the task is unparalleled as I have seen it in his attempts to run 12 marathons in 12 days and 21 half-marathons in 21 days!

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We entered the small town of Nedungadu and soon started discussing the importance and necessity of having a state like Pondicherry. Our only concern really was about the distance to be covered and no distance markers seems to be helping us out. Take the one pictured below! We could not make it whether it was 12 or 13K to Karaikal.

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We filled our time discussing the political situation in Pondicherry state and the pressure the state exerts on the central exchequer. A poster of a politician proudly claiming his monumental achievement of getting ‘record amount for crop loss relief’ helped in substantiating some of my arguments. Soon, we were there at the final destination and eagerly posed at the final board before the turn towards the temple.

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Vishy welcomed us with a nice chocolate. I proceed to get my head tonsured before taking a dip in the temple tank. A lovely picture with two shining heads with the temple tank on the background sums up the ‘Grand Finale.’ A visit to the temple and we were soon off to our hometowns with memories of one life time!

Ram 1


It is practically impossible to justify the trip in few words and this blog definitely does not do much justice on a stand alone basis. It has to be read in conjunction with the Race Booklet prepared by Bala, Selva and Shanti, Ram’s Blog filled with titbits and significances from the trip and other blogs by our fellow runners like Vishy and Durai. There are many significances of the trip that I am yet to discover. One friend of mine pointed out to the long existing diversity of religions in the region and another one informed me that most of these places have a mention in the Tamil Classic Ponniyin Selvan. I can only wish it was not an end but a start!

Navagraha Ottam – Part 4

Day 3 looked daunting for both runners and support team alike and there was a mountain to climb. For runners, it was about covering the total distance of 49 Kms in 4 stages – 13, 14, 8 and a final leg of 14 kms and for the support team, it was to ensure that none of us run more than planned. Any deviation from the course will lead to drastic increase in distance and can lead to more woes for runners. The team got ready earlier than other days and we started the run much earlier than the daybreak.

Our first destination was Vaitheeswaran Koil and route was fairly direct from Mayiladuthurai. It was quite tiring initially but soon found the rhythm to keep moving at a steady pace. Vaitheeswaran Koil has of late, become famous or infamous for its nadi josiam or Palm leaf astrology. I had frequented the place on many occasions, the most recent being in May 2013 when Srini and I cycled all the way from Pondicherry for a weekend ride. To keep the conversation going, I started boring Ram with ‘facts’ like I have been visiting this place with a different mode of transportation each time – train, bus, car, cycle and now by foot!

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We reached Vaitheeswaran Koil in about 2 hours and few minutes. I have plenty of pictures taken in this place on the previous two occasions I visited and the place doesn’t seem to change much to prompt me to take photos again. The place housed the Sevvai graha(the equivalent in English is Mars). My earliest memory of this temple was those red beads, salt & pepper offered to Lord Vaitheeswara (the doctor) for curing of diseases. His consort was Thaiyal Nayagi which Srini referred to as Surgeon in our previous trip. I called up home to remind them that I am a dutiful scion of our ‘clan’ as I placed my obeisance to the family deity!

After our breakfast, we started our next stage of run towards Thiruvengadu. The route was supposedly a mystery although we were sure of the direction to be followed. The crew did an excellent job in positioning themselves at appropriate places to guide us safely.

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Expected a better reaction!

En route, we saw Shreya having the world’s best ‘kuchi’ ice. Sadly, she gave a bad expression when asked for a picture of her with the icecream! Shreya, daughter of Bala, was the youngest member of our support crew. She was enthusiastic all through the trip helping us in every possible manner. Her assistance with the ‘dry fruits’ deserve a special mention.

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That’s what heat does to you!

Before Thiruvengadu, we had another gentleman who offered his house for us to rest and also showed us an easier route to the place. It was a welcome rest as the day was getting really tough on us. We finally reached Thiruvengadu at about 11:30 AM in time to have a dharshan of the Lord Budhan (Planet Mercury). A rest house (constructed in 1960s and still serves well) was arranged for us to refresh and have our lunch. The facilities were excellent for us to recover from the heat and plan for the rest of the afternoon run.

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Thiruvengadu Temple

After a brief rest, I and Ram started our run earlier than the rest of the team. The next destination was Keezhaperumpallam, easily the most complicated name we encountered in the whole trip. To ensure that we remember the name well, we broke down the name into two parts and ensured that each one of us remember at least a part. The route was towards the historic town of Poompuhar or Kaveripoompattinam as the next destination was located close to the town.

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Wonder no feminist has ever bothered to protest!

The road was filled with arches in memory of the characters from the Tamil Classic ‘Silappadikaram.’ A week before the trip, I was trying to explain the importance of this story to a group of children only to find that there weren’t any. A mediocre story, hyped up by the politicians and the key protagonist of the story, Kannagi has more importance in the recent political history of Tamil Nadu. I also found that a memorial was built for her although the name Patthini Kottam sounded regressive for me. The arches in memory of Kovalan, Kannagi, Madhavi (yes, Madhavi) sounded absurd and made me wonder if a treatise like Silappadikaram deserves materialistic flamboyance in these forms.

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Kannagi Arch

Further down on the road was this site apparently important from archeological perspective. A layman view would have been that it looked like one of those unfinished construction sites in Chennai. Nevertheless, it is archaeological site and we have to attach importance to it.

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Just before entering the town, we take a diversion towards south to reach Keezhaperumpallam. We cross the river Kaveri for a final time during the trip. The river becomes very narrow and hardly resembles the majestic look that it had in earlier places. We also a had a view of the Poompuhar light house.

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The last view of Kaveri

Keezhaperumpallam, which wasn’t far away from Poompuhar, houses Lord Kethu. It was one of the smallest temples we visited during the trip. After offering our prayers, we set out for one final run towards the final destination for the day – Sembaranar Koil, where we were scheduled to spend the night.

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The ever present crew at the final turn

 The final leg of the run was mixed with tiredness and a sense of satisfaction that much of the run for the day is over. The initial route looked a bit confusing but it was fairly easy once we hit the Poompuhar-Mayiladuthurai road. As always, I and Ram started our run earlier and let most of the runners go past us. Durai and Vadivel chose to accompany us and we had some interesting conversation with Durai on some myths vs reality when it comes legal profession. You can read Durai’s report on the trip in his blog here –

There cannot be any complaints about the food, electrolytes or water offered to us on the run as well as off the run. Our crew tirelessly worked towards squeezing dozens of lemons to prepare fresh lemonades for us every day and Shreya did her part in ensuring that I get my dry fruits when I wanted it! Three days of ‘runners’ diet can be excessively boring. Running past through small towns, one cannot miss the fragrance of the Bajjis and bondas being fried in roadside shops. The next time, the crew passed us asking our needs, I had the temerity to ask for a Vazhakkai Bajji evoking laughter amongst my fellow runners. Few minutes later, the car passed us with a hand raised out of the window offering me a vazhakkai bajji neatly wrapped in a news paper (yeah, that’s how it is and also helps is absorbing excess oil). Shanti (Bala’s wife) and Bhanu (Vishy’s wife) had stopped their car and managed to get a freshly prepared vazhakkai bajji for me. There wasn’t a better inspiration for that evening run!

Meanwhile, the ‘speedsters’ – Srikumar and Neville haven’t yet run past us leaving us to wonder what’s happening to them. On seeing Chakra run alone, they have dropped their pace and chosen to accompany him till the end. Running is never a solo feat; it has always been a team show. The last few Kilometeres were navigated in the dark thanks to the incessant power cuts in those region. The night was spent at Sembaranar Koil.

Navagraha Ottam – Part 3

One done; three to go. It wasn’t the distance we ran that mattered; it was more about the frequency of start-stop-start that made the run more difficult. After a good night sleep and an early morning coffee (Our crew made sure that we are served coffee every morning), we were all set to start the second day of running. Our itinerary included visiting three temples, five stages of running totaling about 44K and as always, plenty of surprises.

Start of Day2
At the start, in Thippirajapuram Agraharam

Our first destination for the day was the Raghustalam in Thirunageswaram which was about 11K from Thippirajapuram. We started a little after the sunrise and it started getting hot a bit early. It was a Monday morning and running towards a town like Kumbakonam cannot be a pleasant experience. After reaching Sakkottai, we took a small dirt road with less traffic and reached our destination. Thirunageswaram is also renowned for the Uppliappan temple and I am not sure which of these temples is more popular than the other. Visiting that temple was subject to time constraints. Given our struggles with the existing plan, any detour looked a distant dream.

Reaching Thirunageswaram

I have some memories of visiting Thirunageswaram about 2 decades back with my parents. The temple is renowned for a unique phenomena – when the abhishekam is performed for the idol with milk, it is said that the milk turns blue in colour. As a small boy, I made some comment that it must be because of some blue powder with the priest and remember given a stern look from my parents. I still haven’t witnessed it yet and not able to agree or disagree. This temple was one of the biggest that we visited during the trip and I was disappointed that the distance we walked around the temple was not included in the total distance! Our breakfast was arranged in the temple premises. The speedsters – Neville and Srikumar enjoyed the luxury of visiting the Uppiliappan Temple.

Raghustalam Temple

We began the second stage of running at about 10:00 AM under blazing sun. The run was towards Suryanar Koil located at a distance of about 12K and follow it with another 4k run towards Kanjanur. After visiting these two temples, we were to proceed towards Vanathirajapuram (another 11 Kms) for our lunch and afternoon rest. The itinerary looked daunting for both I and Ram. We wondered if we can take a break at Kanjanur and do the rest 18K after lunch and rest. Before we even reach that stage, we had a mountain to climb in the run to Suryanar Koil and Kanjanur.

Thiruvidaimaruthur Temple

The next town in the route was Thiruvidaimaruthur. It was a small town sharing some of the features that one would witness in most towns in that region – A dilapidated building, this time it looked like a mansion, beautiful temple, congested market place and curious onlookers. After Thiruvidaimaruthur, we again cross the rivers Veerachozhan and Kaveri and join the Kallanai-Poompuhar road.

Polluting the water?

Another sight of Kaveri and Selva cannot resist the temptation of ‘floating in water.’ This time, he was joined by his mom along with Shreya and Krishna. Ram and I were invited to join the party but we politely declined as the day’s schedule was frightening us in a big way. We enjoyed the scene from the top of the bridge along with a few onlookers. I tried to pick up some conversation by suggesting that the river is polluted by these folks from Chennai and if you continue to allow them to bathe, Kaveri will become another Cooum. They didn’t seem to bother about those remarks and mentioned that they feel that the river belongs to everyone.

Few metres away, we met one of the characters of our trip – Sub-Inspector ‘Captain’ Mariappan. We spotted a police officer who looked extremely busy stopping oncoming vehicles and questioning them. We felt that it would be responsible on our part to go ahead and report ourselves to him. Ram took the lead in approaching him and wished him. The first response from him was in a half-baked Hindi that would put this movie scene to shame. Ram tried his best to get him talk in Tamil but he refused to do so. On seeing his name badge, we asked if he is ‘Inspector’ Mariappan. He responded that he is Inspector ‘Captain’ Mariappan by which it was definitely sure that the man was ‘floating in water,’ albeit of a different kind. We left the scene quickly wishing that he encounters either Bala in Hindi or Peter in English.

Suriyananar Koil

Suriyanar Koil, as the name suggests, is dedicated to Lord Suryan or Sun. Kanjanur was approximately 4 Km from Suriyanar Koil. I suggested to Ram that it will be better if we walk it to that temple in our ‘temple gear’ than change into running gear and back to temple gear to visit the temple. Ram agreed to walk with me and the consequence was the biggest fashion faux pas of 21st Century. Attired in the ‘kavi veshti’ and ‘yellow thudu,’ I added dark glasses (like you know whom!) and a crocs slipper for my feet! Ram added black glasses and a camera to his attire of Veshti and Thundu.

Picture by Ram

The walk from Suriyanar Koil to Kanjanur was truly the ‘spiritual walk.’ Except those expensive gadgets, we both gave the impressions of a true ascetic. After much of running-walking, the walk relaxed our legs for the subsequent stages of the trip. After running in my minimalist footwear, crocs slippers gave me the much wanted comfort for my feet. So, who cares about the fashion disasters!

Kanjanur hosts Lord Shukran (Venus) and we managed to sneak into the temple just before it was closed for the after noon. By now, our crew judged that most of us will be tired to run another 12K for lunch and arranged to bring the lunch to Kanjanur. They also managed to convince the temple authorities to allow us to take rest in the temple premises itself. More about their magnificent work in Ram’s blog.

With Vishwanathan

Before our lunch arrived, we managed to grab the free lunch in the temple premises itself. Any lunch is delicious when you work for it and even better, if free. I also managed to get some education on the right way to lay the banana leaf. Contrary to my perception that the broad side of the leaf has to be on the right, it seems that the end of the leaf (not the one near the stem) must always be on the left side irrespective of the width (but didn’t learn how to identify that)!.

Lunch at Kanjanur Temple. Picture by Ram

Our afternoon rest was in the temple premises and the veshti-thundu came handy for spreading it on the floor. With a gentle breeze to cool us down, afternoon nap made me feel better and ready for the 18K run towards Mayiladuthurai. Selva seems to know the course of the river Cauvery inch-by-inch. Not very far from Kanjanur is the spot popularly known as ‘Vada’ Cauvery. It is here alone where the river flows towards the Northern direction. Feeling fresh from the afternoon nap, I agreed to join the rest of the crew for my only act of polluting the river.

Our next destination was Vanathirajapuram which was originally our destination for Lunch. Krishna did have some complaints over the length of my legs. We were received at Vanathirajapuram by the staff of Suja Shoei with an attractive banner.

6 x 4 copy

We took a break to enjoy the felicitations and refreshments. Further down the road was both Ram as well as his wife’s native places. Getting into a town late in the evening is a challenge by itself and after some hiccups, we found our final destination at Mayiladuthurai.

The arrival at Mayiladuthurai brought me in touch with some familiar people. The owner of the house in which we stayed was uncle to my friend Balaji. It was his dad who was the custodian to the house and his mom had prepared a delicious payasam for the entire team.

with Balaji’s dad Ponnuswamy

The route for the final stage for the run can be viewed here.

Navagraha Ottam – Part 2

वक्रतुण्ड महाकाय सुर्यकोटि समप्रभ

निर्विघ्नं कुरु मे देव सर्वकार्येषु सर्वदा

The first thoughts for the morning were set on having a cup of filter kaapi in davara-tumbler. Staying in a traditional Agraharam house which included two oonjals (loosely translated as Swing which I feel does not do justice for the wonderful piece of furniture), it’s nothing less than a Divine experience to sip a cup of filter kaapi relaxing on the oonjal.

Photo by Vadivel
Photo by Vadivel

Asking for a coffee, when we must be grateful for the stay in the first place, looked very greedy and out of place for a ‘spiritual aspirant.’ The stars seems to be good to me though! The ladies of the house had woken up at 3:30 AM to get our coffees ready in time for our 5:00 AM departure. It was the first of many unexpected surprises in the trip and shows the extent that people respect the traditions and religious practices in India irrespective of who undertakes it or what form it takes.

Ganapathy Agraharam Temple
Ganapathy Agraharam Temple

Our start got delayed by few minutes and we made our way towards the Ganapathy Temple situated next door. The temple was opened slightly earlier to help us offer our salutations to Lord Ganesha ahead of the trip. After the customary breaking of coconut (strangely, no one rushed to pick the pieces), we proceeded towards Thingaloor by a mini-bus where we were scheduled to start the run.

Thingaloor, as the name suggests, houses the temple of Chandran (Moon), one of the Navagrahas. Located about 8Kms from Ganapathy Agraharam, it was a tiny hamlet possibly famous for the temple alone.

Thingaloor Temple
Thingaloor Temple

A small temple with Lord Shiva as the presiding deity, but the attraction has of late shifted to that of Lord Chandran and there were significant crowd at about 6 AM in the morning. We offered our prayers and proceeded to start the run. At about 6:45 AM, we started the Navagraha trip with a marathon. As mentioned earlier, I did not look at the schedule in detail and was made aware of this fact, only the previous evening. It included a brief halt at Manniyar Thalaippu for our breakfast.

Runners at the Start of the run
Runners at the Start of the run

The run started well after the sunrise denying us the benefit of a pleasant early morning weather conditions. That said, most of our route was well covered with canopy of trees protecting us from direct sunlight. Eleven out of the thirteen runners started the morning run with Bala and Vishwanathan (‘Hubli Express’) set to join us later. I chose to be ‘extra-cautious’ from the very beginning and found an appropriate company in Ram to run with me. Ram was still recovering from his niggling problem with his plantar fasciitis. More about that in his blog here. He was yet determined to do the run for his ailing brother-in-law and sister.

First sight of Cauvery
First sight of Cauvery

We ran past Ganapathy Agraharam and soon had the first sight of the river Kaveri (also spelt as Cauvery). The river was in its full bloom with copious water from the South-west monsoon. Had we run this route a year back, we would have been deprived of this beautiful sight. Our breakfast was arranged at Manniyar Thalaippu, about 12 Kms from Thingaloor. Most of the distances are approximates as there weren’t many runners who opted to switch on their GPS devices. You can view the route here.

Manniyar Thalaippu is a scenic location where River Manniyar branches out of river Kaveri. Encouraged by Selva, most runners opted to take a dip in the river Manniyar which was shallow.

Bathing or taking pictures?
Bathing or taking pictures?

I refrained from choosing to take a dip simply because I wasn’t confident that I can run another 32 Kms to Alangudi after that. It would have been a great experience to take a dip, follow it up with the sumptuous breakfast of pongal, vadai, coffee and then head to Ganapathy Agraharam for a nap in the Oonjal. On narrating the same, Krishna endorsed it by saying, ‘That is life.’ Sadly, that wasn’t the choice we had for that day.

The place also features iron shutters, used to regulate the flow of water from Kaveri to Manniyar, installed way back in 1850. We had our breakfast on the banks of Kaveri and resumed our run under blazing sun, knowing well that I have another 32Kms to run towards Alangudi.

With Shreya and Krishna at Manniyar Thalaippu

The Three Youngest Participants – With Shreya and Krishna at Manniyar Thalaippu

The next town that we reached was Papanasam, famous for a temple of Lord Shiva and also the birth place of Poet Papanasam Sivan and as I learn from Wikipedia, Sri Sri Ravishankar of the Art of Living. The group disintegrated quickly into smaller groups of varying speed and energy levels. Ram and I were amongst the tail-enders and progressed slowly towards our destination.

An old theatre at Papanasam
An old theatre at Papanasam

We were soon joined by Krishna who did well to run about 5K with us. At times, I did feel like telling him that some day, I will make him run as much as his dad made me to run now! Krishna was a sweet kid who helped us a great deal during the trip. Initially, he looked a little upset on missing his vacations. But, soon found ways to enjoy himself during the trip, be it running with us or helping us with water/electrolytes or those wonderful massages with his foot in the evening.

Ram and Krishna running over Kaveri
Ram and Krishna running over Kaveri

Our guides informed us that the next places that we need to look forward to was Valangaiman. The mile-markers (or KM-markers) did not provide adequate information and we relied on the distances provided to us by the passer-bys. We usually chose to accept the estimates of the person offering us the lowest number. On being asked where we are up to, we offered the answer Alangudi and it didn’t surprise many. It looked like many undertake similar tours although not clothed like us.

The heat on that day made the run a massive challenge. Neither Ram nor I had run beyond a 10K in the previous one month (in case of Ram, it was more than a month). At one point, we found running any more really tough and looked for a place to take rest. We reached a nearby house and sought permission to rest on their pyol (thinnai in Tamil). The standards of hospitality were so high that they also offered a bottle of ice-cold water.

காலத்தினால் செய்த நன்றி சிறிது எனினும்

ஞாலத்தின் மாணப் பெரிது.

With Senthil
With Senthil, who offered his pyol for us to rest

Most traditional houses have a pyol on the front which is used as a meeting place, receive visitors (unknown ones, the known ones are directly taken inside the house) and importantly, offer a space for rest to passer-by’s. Today, cities have apartments worth crores and yet don’t even spare an inch for the benefit of general public, not even the public space mandated by the Development authorities.

We reached the town of Valangaiman from where we have to take a deviation towards Alangudi. We took the guidance from our support crew and moved towards Alangudi. At one intersection, we saw Durai and Vadivel running towards us from the opposite direction. They had lost their way ended up running another 3 Kms. Although, it did provide us with some ammunition to have a hearty laughter then, I have to admit that a 3K ‘extra run’ on a day like that would have put me off from proceeding with the tour. Appreciation to Vadivel and Durai for moving ahead and finishing the tour.

The next hamlet was Semmangudi, famous through the Carnatic musician, Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer. A couple of Kilometeres further, we hear the war cry, ‘Ram chandra Ki’ and it was our Bala and Vishwanathan who caught up with us despite a two and a half-hour late start.

Ram with Bala and Vishwanath

They did make us feel that it is high time that we pull up our socks and finish the run soon. Bala and Selva had originally promised to be the ‘sweepers’ during this run. Given the difficulty of the run that day, they cannot be expected to keep up their promise though. We had to watch out for a ‘temple under construction’ on the way. It was also our clue that we are close to Alangudi. The temple wall seems to eye-catching at a height of at least 30 feet!

Reaching Alangudi! Insane moment, not for the first or last time though!

We finally reached the Alangudi at about 3:00 PM after getting completely roasted in the heat. You can view the route here. We were housed in a Wedding hall where we could comfortably have bath, lunch and some stretches from our Physio Mani. On most occassions, that would have been end but this was only an end of the beginning. Few minutes after closing my eyes, I was told that it’s time for the next round. We visited the temple which houses the Lord ‘Guru’ (Jupiter) and paid our obeisances. Another 12K to go to reach Thippirajapuram, the final destination for the day. Vadivel and Durai accompanied me and Ram for some distance before getting tempted by a pool of water, well, for bathing. We continued our pursuit towards Thippirajapuram with an interesting encounter with a ‘philospohical’ drunkard. He was riding a cycle bit haphazardly that prompted me to warn him about the oncoming traffic. He started his philosophical rant that he is not worried about his life and death, purpose of life, earning money and what not. Asked if he is drunk, he replied affirmatively and added he is on his way to the next town for another round!

Once it got very dark, we resorted to more walking than running constantly cribbing about the recklessness of the drivers – high beam, rash driving, lack of civic sense and total apathy towards any social good. Tamil Nadu registers the highest number of deaths in road accidents and yet everyone drives thinking that he is definitely not the next one to meet the same fate.

Reaching Thippirajapuram

The night halt was arranged at Narayan’s home in Thippirajapuram. We were hosted and honoured by Narayanan, his friends and relatives. There was a press meet arranged and our run got featured in two Tamil News papers. That was the first time, I got recognised since moving to Pondicherry as both papers carried my name as ‘Puducherry’ Balaji!

Dinamani – October 3, 2013


Navagraha Ottam – Part 1

Saturday, September 28, 2013 – I disembarked from the train at Kumbakonam to venture into an unknown territory of long distance running – A multi-stage run into roads that I have never known before. The run was a consequence of ‘Bib’ Bala’s association with Selva ‘Sir’ and a confluence of their passions in scriptures, temples and running. They threw the challenge out open to a group of runners and those who opted (or successfully coerced by Bala/Selva) includes Ram, Neville, Srikumar, Durai, Peter, Vadivel, Vishwanathan, Suresh, Chakra, Ravikrishnan and I. In addition to the runners, the crew for the event included Bala’s family – Shanti, Krishna and Shreya, Vishwanathan’s wife Bhanu and Selva’s Mom. There were people from all age groups from the little Shreya to Selva’s 73-year old Mom sharing the same passion, energy and enthusiasm to get the best out of the trip.

Bala and Narayanan on the Bus to Ganapathy Agraharam
Bala and Narayanan on the Bus to Ganapathy Agraharam

We were welcomed by a rousing reception from Narayanan and his team. Narayanan was chosen to lead this contingent over the following 4 days and little did he know what was in store for him. It was his 20 years friendship with Selva that has dragged him into this event as a race director… this wasn’t a race… so, let’s call him ‘The Run Director’ or  best, Our Caretaker, which would summarise his role during the event. It is still difficult to believe how Selva convinced him to take up this challenge. Whether it was the run or the temples or Selva’s friendship that inspired him, we were extremely lucky to have someone like him leading the contingent.

Narayanan was never a runner though he looked fit enough to run a marathon. An epitome of calmness, soft-spoken, short, bespectacled man, dressed so well to lead a contingent of formally dressed office going folks than a bunch of half-naked running ones. At first sight, it was impossible for most bystanders to associate him with our group. There were times I felt like telling him that he is just too nice to lead this flock. It was his conduct that set the standards of behaviour for the rest in the group and importantly, ensured that this is not just another running event but an event with a deeper meaning. In tours like these, where one’s physical body is tested to its extremes, it is not uncommon to see the participants lose their cool even to the slightest irritations. Narayanan’s presence ensured that the tour was free from any major outbursts and unpleasant incidents.

Narayanan also arranged a grand felicitation ceremony for us at his home in Thippirajapuram, where we were housed at the end of day 1. He further honoured us on our completion of the run at Thirunallar with a garland.

Being felicitated by Narayanan. Photo by Durai
Being felicitated by Narayanan. Photo by Durai

The same can be expressed about the support staff during the trip. They showed enormous patience to wait for every runner to finish the run and take meticulous care for all our needs. In addition to them, Narayanan had also arranged two cooks who prepared delicious food for us throughout the trip. They set up their kitchen in different places closer to where we would be present during the meal time and cooked food for us. It ensured that we benefit from ‘home-made’ food and also avoided any stomach related disorders.

Support team during the event
Support team during the event

Our first destination was the tiny hamlet of Ganapathy Agraharam, located about 30 Km from Kumbakonam. We were driven to Ganapathy Agraharam and scheduled to stay there for the night. As the name suggests, the village also houses a beautiful temple of Lord Ganapathy where he planned to inaugurate our run, the next morning. We were accommodated in a refurbished traditional Agraharam house and the inmates of the house warmly welcomed us despite their sleep getting disturbed by our late arrival. The accommodation was offered to us on a pro-bono basis.

We organised a quick pre-run briefing for the following day’s run. Ram conducted an one-minute interview with all participants on what drove them to take up this challenge. The only answer I could offer was that Bala asked me and I couldn’t refuse. It is always tough to resist Bala’s commands simply because he leads from the front! I also had the privilege of accompanying him for one day out of his 12-day-12 marathon adventure.

The ‘Official clothing’ for the event was soon unveiled – A handloom Veshti or veatti and a thundu. I prefer to use the Tamil words as the English equivalents fail to convince me of their purpose they are designed for. Dhoti (with origins in Hindi) is too generic and thanks to Bollywood, today most do not know the difference between Veshti and Lungi. Thundu, translated as towel, would imply that it is a piece of cloth used to dry oneself. The purpose of these two garments far exceed the actual purpose they were designed for. It was during this trip that I found the multivariate utility of Veshti and Thundu.  Apart from being a quick-fix solution for decent piece of clothing, it also served as a bed spread, for protection against mosquitoes, heat and various others. It took very less changeover time to transition our appearance from a runner to a ‘spiritual aspirant.’ It was also a welcome change to see these kits instead of the usual T-shirts which I have accumulated over many running events in the past 4-5 years.

We settled down for a short night sleep as we were scheduled for an early departure the following day.

The Navagraha Ottam – Preview

There is no better way to reflect on my Comrades experience except through a short story of RK Narayan. And the one that sums it up best would be ‘The Hero’ – where Swami attains stardom by accident and how alone knows what he did was out of luck while rest thinks that it is an act of bravery. Shankar Nag did a great job depicting the story in his Malgudi Days.

My Comrades Marathon experience was very similar to that. Just like Swami, I was confined to my own world of running until my friends dragged me into running the Comrades. I managed it to finish it miraculously and now gone back to my simple world of running. The post run accolades have been coming in regular intervals (mostly undeserved) and still keep coming even if the medal has already started rusting. Since that miraculous run, it has been a relatively quiet year of missing many morning runs with a few exceptions – the run with Bala on 8th day of 12 days 12 marathon endeavour, the run up to Kothagiri from Mettupalayam and couple of marathons, which I struggled to finish.

Just when I decide to confine my running to a simple 5K-a-day runs, Bala a.k.a ‘Bib Bala’ throws down the gauntlet – ‘Navagraha Ottam’ – A run across 9 temples in Thanjavur District over four days. The details of the run and its significance was beyond my ability to comprehend. All that I am aware of the run is that I need to run for 4 days in a row (haven’t accomplished that for more than 5 years!) and on each day, I need to cover a distance ranging from 40-55 kms. Bala and his team has prepared an excellent write-up (with an unauthorised profile of mine) and an android app. You can download the fancy Android app from here. and the PDF from here – The Spiritual Run.

I have to admit that I haven’t read the document in detail as yet and prefer to read it after the run. Instead, I look forward for the four days with wonderful company – the challenge is just a consequence! I am looking forward to the run more than completing it. Moreover, these are the runners whom I look up to for inspiration. Some of them whom I can take liberty in profiling,

On the top of the list is ‘Bib’ Bala (I hate to see him write his name as Bala J, creating unnecessary confusion). He is the guru of ‘repetitive running’ – 21 half marathons in 21 days, 12 marathons in 12 days and many other such feats.

Selva Sir, the suffix is crucial as his appearance quite often reminds me of my hostel warden. He is indeed the Captain on the run (while Mr. Narayan has volunteered for the role of non-running Director of the run)

Ram Viswanathan, Need I say something? One can write a book on him. For most runners, their running autobiography will be invariably titled ‘I ran with Ram’

Neville – He gives tough times for many challenging events. Be it riding his bike for over 1000 Kms or running/cycling all through day, he accomplishes every challenge with such an ease and yet retains his humility.

Srikumar – He runs a lot and yet does not want to be called a runner. A year back, he appeared for the Hyderabad marathon having not run for over 6 months and yet finished it helping other runners. Few months back, he went on to run half-marathon every day for 80 days!

Viswanthan Jayaraman – A celebrity runner who shuns publicity. You can read more about him in this piece.

Bala’s Family – Bala’s wife Shanti, writer of the brochure, and his two kids. They deserve appreciation for their tolerance levels towards Bala’s eccentricities. Now, their tolerance levels are to be further tested by his eccentric friends.

And many others about whom you can read in the excellent brochure

The opportunity to run with this group was indeed tempting and cannot be missed. Notwithstanding how the run goes, I look forward for every moment of the run.