India: so big and with so many colourful, flavourful things to experience! Lots of people dream of having their own Indian exploration experience, but where do you start? How 'bout by traversing the country using a mode of transport that's somewhat endemic to the landscape, the rickshaw or tuk tuk? Sounds like a pretty cool way to do it doesn't it.
Firstly this is not a whirlwind tour – your max speed, even in a tricked out rickshaw, is about 60kmph. So you've still got plenty of time to see the country as it passes, while also travelling in your own vehicle at your own pace. This is also an opportunity to get off the standard tourist trail – sure, see the Taj, but then do something that lets you interact a bit more deeply with India as well.
These days you can amp up the excitement of your trip by adding an element of competition – joining in with other like minded tuk tuk teams, and racing your way along wonky, bumpy roads in wonky, bumpy vehicles. And probably loving every spine jarring, death defying minute. This is the route of the first ever Rickshaw Challenge, so now a classic, from the hubbub of Chennai to the peace-perfect beaches of Poovar in 11 days. And here's how it goes...
Chennai makes for a good start for this sort of mini-adventure. It's got good transport links and there's a lot going on here. It's also a good place to source your tuk tuk and spend a bit of time getting to know your new vehicle.
This being the first day of actual touring you might think that it would be along an uneventful route, but that's not the case at all. The less speed hungry driver could stop and see some fine examples of ancient rock carvings and sculpture, at what's now thought to be some kind of school for sculptors, in Mahabalipuram. Mahabalipuram is on the Bay of Bengal and it's been a port town since the 7th Century, so there's views and rich cultural experiences to be had here if you can spare the time.
Today's route also takes you through Auroville, an 'experimental', 'universal town' - read hippy town -before reaching palm-fringed, colonial Puducherry.
It's still very obvious that Puducherry was a French colonial town just from the grid layout of the streets you'll be tuk-tukking along, but it's worth getting to know 'the French Riviera of the East' a little better. Hang out on the beach, stroll the town admiring the architecture or visit one of the museums or temples. If you're here on a Sunday the market is worth a look in.
There's 170 odd kilometres to cover today, but you should still make time to see some of Thanjavur's treasures (most are architectural so if you're not into ancient temples and palaces then use this as an opportunity to sleep late in Puducherry).
Brihadeeswarar is probably Thanjavur's most famous temple; built in the 10th Century it's adorned with detailed frescos and shrines to Hindu deities and it has the tallest central tower of any Hindu temple, which tapers to a point near the top to avoid casting a shadow at noon. And it makes up about a third of the Great Living Chola Temples UNESCO World Heritage Site, which also includes Airavatesvara, known for its ornate art, and the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple.
Today is the longest stretch of driving, at the end of which is Madurai, best known for its Meenakshi Temple. There have been grand temples on this site for millennia, as Tamils believe that this is the spot where Shiva appeared to the ruler of the kingdom, asking to marry his daughter. So the Shiva temple is at the centre of the complex. This is also where a lot of ancient Tamil art and literature has been stored so it's a pretty famous visitor attraction.
Today's route passes by a famous Christian pilgrimage site, Our Lady of Snows Basilica. None other than St. Francis Xavier visited here in 1542 to 'bring God to the people of the Pearl Fishery Coast', and you can see why he'd come, it's a lovely place to visit.
After your adventure on the roads today there's a real treat in store for you, because Courtallam is also known as the 'Spa of South India'. This moniker comes from the fact that Courtallam is on the banks of several perennial, and a few seasonal, rivers – and their associated numerous waterfalls. Banks which are also lined with health spas.
Today's journey will take you all the way to the very tip of the Indian Peninsular, to Kanyakumari, an ancient town that's been a pearl port, a hub of ancient medicine, a pilgrimage destination and a great centre for art and religion for centuries. So it's an understatement to say that there's a lot to see here. There's a famous ashram, a 41m tall statue of Thiruvalluvar and the fact that this spot is on the cusp of three great bodies of water means that the coastline - and the sunsets and sunrises – are amazing. Watching the sun is genuinely one of the things that makes this place a tourist destination. Among many though.
After you've diligently enjoyed the sunrise it's time to head off on the final leg of the race – on to Poovar! And to the golden beaches that grace its shore. Poovar and Kovalam beaches are world famous for their beachy perfection. These days Poovar is a resort town, consisting of a cluster of restaurants, Ayurvedic therapy rooms, hotels and shops. And focused around a vast stretch of warm, gold and black sand and a shallow wash of blue sea protected by a jutting headland, topped with a tall lighthouse and a fringe of palm trees... Sounds relaxing doesn't it. Here you can celebrate your journey. Or if you were part of a competition then your race victory – or drown the sorrows of your defeat – in style and comfort. And relive some of the highlights of your trip with some of your competitors, getting in some practice before you regale your jealous friends at home.
If you like the idea of a rickshaw race then Rickshaw Challenge can organise all the details for you.
If you want to buy your own tuk tuk then here's some information about rickshaws for sale.