Sunday, July 5, 2015

Chennai Metro - New boy in town

Chennai transportation landscape has been a fine example of mix of road and rail transport moving masses in an economical way.  City is blessed with a suburban rail system dating back to the 1920’s and over the period saw many new modes of transport like MRTS getting added and few like trams giving away.  City expanding drastically, coupled with rapid economic activity, it was time for a rapid people mover system which inherited the best of world’s technology.

CMRL Metro Car

Blue eyed boy

21st Century Metro rail wave having made its presence felt in the Metros of Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Jaipur finally decided to hit the shores of Namma Chennai.  CMRL (Chennai Metro Rail Limited) the SPV formed for this purpose started the work in the year 2009 and project saw light with the commercial operations starting on 29th June 2015.  This day will be a red letter day in the history or Chennai transportation when a new mode of transport is taking shape almost after a Century.  (I am discounting MRTS here, it being an ugly contraption of SR’s failed attempt on Mass transit system).

Chennai - here we come!!

Image Courtesy : CMRL website

Chennai Metro Phase-1 which comprises of two corridors to a length of 45kms has a unique proposition of 55% of its length being underground.  The Alandur – Koyembedu stretch running to a length of 10kms which has been opened to public and is part of the green line which when fully opened will run from St. Thomas Mount to Chennai Central.  The blue line which crisscrosses it, runs from Washermanpet to Chennai Airport.  The newly opened corridor connects CMBT (Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus) and will prove a boon to the wary traveler once the whole network is in place.

Chennai Metro Alandur Station

MTC bus stop  abutting the Alandur Station

I chose to visit the metro on next day of inauguration to avoid milling crowds and cover the Alandur – Koyembedu stretch.  Starting point was the Alandur station which is located on the GST road just next to Kathipara Clove leaf floyover.

Ticket counter

Fare Chart
Chutties rule
Chennai Metro Travel Card
Chennai Metro token
Travel card usage and balance detail screen at stations
Display at ticket counter

Ticket Vending Machine - can dish out tokens as well as recharge cards
Train Schedule

Arriving at Alandur station just an hour into its operation we were greeted with very lean crowd as desired.  Counter staff just a day old were getting a hang of things meddling with the new gizmos.  Getting hold of the smart cards, we hit the concourse.  CMRL offers one time use tokens and smart cards for the pax and smart cards offer a 10% discount on the journeys.  Card recharge machines are placed at every station with ATM’s machines in their vicinity. 

Station and Infra

 CMRL has adopted a bare bones approach in designing the stations and structures don’t have a wow factor attached to them.  Stations are more functional in nature and have provision for future commercial exploitation.  Green line which runs through the GST and IRR has all its stations on arterial roads and within reach.  

Baggage and pax screening by security personnel

Access control turnstile - Travel card and tokens work here
Four Platform details at Alandur Station
Platform and line details

Lifts at Stations

Alandur is a huge two tier station and monster escalators lift you up to the third level where plies the green line.  Entry to the platform area is restricted through access control turnstile which allow only pax with tokens or valid travel cards.  Baggage and pax screening is done before letting in the pax on to platforms.   Escalators are not provided for Pax getting down from stations (i.e. to Ground level) and two level climb down would be a task and not sure if lifts can handle huge crowd.

Platform and signages

Typical Chennai Metro Plaform 

CMRL plaforms have continued the legacy of earlier metro systems in India with simple structure occupying minimal space which is a permium in Metro cities.  Platform area is filled with user information boards and public address system dish out the needded detail on train schedules.  Trilingual boards (English, Hindi and Tamil) are present only announcing the station name, otherwise bilingual (English and Tamil) appraoch is followed for all other information boards.

Trilingual station name board at CMRL

Maze of information boards
Green Line - Platform Number - 1 reads the board

Next train to Alandur will arrive in 3 mins
Coach position for the physically challenged
Keep off the yellow lines on the station platform

Markings for queue formation at door position
ATM's at Platform

Security peronsal have been deployed to guide pax on the platform and ensure them to fall behind the yellow line.  Once the whole network comes into place and huge crowds thronging the metro during peak hours, travellers have to get used to the queining system at the plaforms against the door markings on the plaform floor.  Facility and rules being new, common Indian will take time to tame the kid in him.  Platform area also has private bank ATM’s and commercial exploitation of the available infra will be a game changer.

Display screen for train opertaor

Display screens are positioned at the starting of each of the platform.  These screens dish out visuals from the cameras positioned at various locations in the platform till its end.  This helps the pilot to check out for passenger boarding status before starting from the station.

Rolling Stock

With the announcement came the shining blue Alstom rake which will take us on the joyride to Koyembedu.  Overhead traction is adopted by CMRL and rakes run on the standard gauge.  Here, Delhi metro need to be commended, who could prove the point and break the shackles of BG and take the country towards standard gauge based rapid system.  The Alstom rakes are built at the Tada, AP and missed the "Made in Chennai" tag by meager 50kms.

4 car rake
Digi destination boards in the front
2014 built Alstom Metro Car

4 car rakes are currently doing duty and stations are capable of handling 6 car rakes in future.    

Inside of a normal class coach

Seat in the Normal Class
Hat rack - luggage storage space inside the coach

Special Class

Inside of a Special Class

Approaching station information inside the coaches

Station progress information inside the coach

Ladies have a dedicated space in the rake as well and remaining rake forms the normal class.  The concept of Special Class is not a great idea considering its non-existence on other Indian Metro systems.  Very bad idea of providing special class as now ticket checkers would be required to monitor users of this new class.   Another notable first in CMRL is the presence of luggage racks.  Otherwise, the in-metro car announcements and digital scroll boards do the job of informing the pax of upcoming stations do job well.  

Space provision for physically challenged

Trains breezed past five stations and dropped us at Koyembedu in 17 mins flat, not bad.  Koyembedu also houses the CMRL administrative office and a huge yard.

CMRL administrative HQ at Koyembedu

CMRL yard at Koyembedu

Just into the second day of operation, decent office going crowds was a welcome sight.  Few points that could not miss sight were the pending works being carried out at stations which are nearing completion.  MTC has no wonder turned the other way by not operating any feeder buses to Metro stations.  Stations like Alandur which has in its backyard thickly populated areas will benefit much with MTC “Small buses” acting as feeder services.
With the launch of Metro, high time Chennai babus decide to have a unified transportation authority to help people travel seamless across modes.

In all though a small 10km beginning, Chennai Metro for sure is going to herald a new travelling experience which will be fast, safe and efficient and will help cover the city with ease.

Yours truly

Few videos taken during the trip:

Monday, March 16, 2015

Gingee - "Most impregnable fortress in India"

Gingee fort located south of Chennai is a far lesser explored/ talked about destination.  Having witnessed those mighty walls snaking through the mountains when driving across the dusty town, i had often wished to exlpore this piece of history.  Looking at the options for a one day bike trip this time, Gingee sounded a good spot to spend a day in the lap of forgotten era.  

Threesome Muthu, Self and Arun (L to R)

Route Map:

Three of us were game ! Journey started on a lazy Saturday morning to explore the little known wonder.  Roads were a breeze till Tindivanam on the NH45.  A deviation from here puts you on the road to Tiruvannamalai.  This road can be aptly called the hall of shame for NHAI.  Roads don’t actually exist in many places and sounded safe only during day light. 

NH66 Tindivanam - Tiruvannamalai Road (Pic Courtesy: Wanderlust Traveler @ TeamBHP

Back breaking bike ride came to a halt at 9:30AM when we were greeted by monuments dotting the outskirts of Gingee town.  Had a feeling of some sort similarity in layout of Hampi and Gingee…further probing proved the initial thought.

Wading through the dusty Gingee town we arrived at the gates of Gingee Fort.  ASI security staff double up as guides here.  It’s better to hire a guide considering the huge area that need to be covered spread over two hills.

Quick facts of the Gingee fort before we start..

The Gingee Fort complex is on three hillocks: Krishnagiri to the north, Rajagiri to the west and Chandrayandurg to the southeast. The three hills together constitute a fort complex, each having a separate and self-contained citadel. The fort walls are 13 km and the three hills are connected by walls enclosing an area of 11 square kilometres. It was built at a height of 800 feet (240 m) and protected by a 80 feet (24 m) wide moat. – Wiki

Massive wall cutting through the road


  •        Jains had dwelt in Gingee from 200 B.C. to 500 A.D
  •       During Chola regime (900 A.D. – 1003 A.D.) a small fort was first built atop the hill.
  •       Under Konar regime (1190 A.D. - 1330 A.D.) the fort was strengthened
  •       For a brief period, fort was with the Hoysalas in first half of 14th century
  •       In 15th century, fort passed on to the Vijayanagara empire and was ruled by the Gingee Nayaks.  Under their regime, Gingee saw massive expansion and was modelled on the lines of Hampi.
  •       Nayaks rule ended with the fort passing on to Bijapur Sultans in 1649 A.D
  •        Bijapur was in possession of the fortress of Gingee till 1677 A.D., when Shivaji, took control over it during the Carnatic expedition. The Marathas greatly strengthened and fortified its defences.
  •       In 1698 fort fell into the hands of Moguls (Aurangazeb) after siege which lasted seven years which was led by Shivaji’s son Rajaram.
  •        It then passed on to Rajput Sawrup Singh – vassal of Aurangazeb in 1700 AD
  •       Then on to his son Raja Desingh who lost the famous battle to the Arcot Nawabs.  The ballets are sung in and around Gingee till date about his bravery.
  •        French took control over the fort in 1750 and then on to the British in 1799.  After that Gingee had been free from the ravages and anarchy of war, but subject to desolation and decay.

I had to put together this roller coaster history of the fort after reading through a dozen portals as the ASI staff are good just to take you around all places.  Only history they know is the folkfore of Raja Desingh which they feed you through the day.

Garrisons all the way up

Fort is under the control of ASI from the year 1921, and are doing a decent job of maintaining the ruins with the available paltry resources.  Fort of such magnitude require far bigger army of men to maintain it to the standard of say the Agra or Fatehpur Sikri forts.

Plan was to cover the hills of Krishnagiri in the first half and Rajagiri being the bigger one was planned for the second half.

Guided tour started with us climbing the Krishnagiri fort which is a easier climb in comparison to the Rajagiri hill.  Steep flight of steps put together with crude stone slabs is all that takes you to the top.  Gingee was planned to a be self-sufficient city which meant it could bear years of enemy siege and natural calamities with ease. 

Cannon post with turntable facility
On the way to the top we came across many granaries, oil wells, caves for collecting rain water.  Watch towers dot the fort wall running across the hill and few cannon launch pads with turn table facility enabling 360 degree coverage amply portray the capabilities what once was “troy of the east”.


Ghee storage tank

Lakshmi Temple

Flight of steps lead us to the plundered Lakshmi temple bereft of any statues.  Few natural color paintings can be seen on the temple walls.  

Lakshmi Temple

Natural Dye Paintings

Ranganatha Temple

Ranganatha temple  has an elaborate structure with bali peeta and mantapa for deity procession.  Other structures are just in shambles and hardy anything to make out of them in their current state.  Further climb leads to the ornate kalyana mantapa.  

Sacntum - Ranganatha temple

Kalyana Mantapa

Paintings inside Ranganatha temple


A structure of indo saracenic architecture is seen on the top of the mountain.  It is considered built for the Muslim wife of Desingh.

From the top of the Krishnagiri hill, majestic Rajagiri hill and the place complex ruins can be seen at a distance.  Bracing ourselves of the big climb of the day we made quick descent.
With renewed gusto we started our explorative sojourn of Gingee’s Rajagiri Hills which forms a major part of the fort complex.  

View of the Rajagiri Hill from Krishnagiri Fort

Only sad part of the guided tour that I realized after getting back is that, only story we were fed of Gingee was the that of Raja Desingh.  Absence of informed guides is a bane and they just prove good to help you cover all spots.

Entrance to the Rajagiri Hill Fort

At the entrance of the fort complex, is the Sadatullah Khan mosque.  He was  trusted general of Desingh.  Further down are two ponds Chakkarakulam and Chettikulam.  Being an arid region, such ponds were of yeomen importance.  Fort saw major development during the Nayaks and profile of the place is very similar to Hampi on this note.

Structure - Final rights of Raja Desing were perfomed here

Next to the pond is a big raise structure on which was lit the pyre of Raja Desingh. Desingh is a war hero who continues to live in the hearts of locals who speak of his bravery in local focalfore and street plays.  At the young age of 22 with just an army of 350 horses and 500 men which was not match to the army of Nawab which was 8000 horses and 10,000 men strong.  Mounted on his horse Neelaveni, fought valiantly and attained martyrdom.  Nawab impressed with his valour, arranged for his funeral with state honours.  Desingh’s young wife immolated herself on the pyre, giving credence to the practice of sati.  In appreciation of the supreme sacrifice the Queen, the Nawab ordered for a new town to be built in her name, the present ‘Rani pet'. In the name of their infant son, the Nawab got another town ‘Balajipet' built – which later came to be known as ‘Walajapet'.

Kalyana Mahal tower

Sprawling structures which housed the royal staff

Kalyana Mahal, one of the very few structures that remain intact.  Built during the Vijayanagara rule, it has a square court in its centre with a high tower measuring 27m and was used as living area for the queens.  Sadly it was closed for maintenance and we had to settle with exterior pics.


Granite Stair

Next to the Kalyana mahal is the sprawling darbar hall surrounded by the resident quarter of the kings staff.  One interesting structure we came across was the spiral stone stairs which was just one thing out of the world.  Usually such designs are seen in wood and having them made of hard granite speaks of fine architects of the past.

Magazine Storage

Moving ahead, we came across the Magazine storage area.  This was an underground structure beautifully integrated to a crevice in a huge stone mass.  Small openings on the top lead to least exposure for the explosives to heat and moisture.  Men had to be dropped through ropes to get into this underground yard.

Elephant Tank

Huge arch of the Elephant Tank

To the South further, stood a water body by name Elephant tank. Steps are provided in the Southwest corner of the tank so that elephants could climb down and get out easily.  Again different versions of this structure are up in the in air on the actual purpose it was meant for.  Afternoon sun was blazing with the summer having just started, our guide – a retired Army man stood strong to his trait. 

Inside on of the huge Granaries


Granary with three portions

Next came set of two big granary (one of them is wrongly believed to be a gymnasium though).  Interestingly, guide asked us to climb the footsteps going around the structure and reach the top.  Once back, there he goes bingo! “I was preparing you people for the hard climb of 1,000 steps under the hot sun for next two hours”.  True military istyle!

As we move towards the steps, announces a board that entry further is prohibited after 3PM.  Further enquiry with the guide revealed the fact that, being surrounded by dense forest, animal trouble is something which ASI is wary of.  To ensure that people are made to come down before 6 PM, they stop fort entry.

Difigured sculpture - Venugopalaswamy temple

Monkey trouble started once we started climbing the steps, stick wielding guide ensured they are at bay.  Steady climb atop the hill, we encountered that Venugopalaswamy temple which contains a stone slab depicting a remarkable piece of sculpture cut out in bold relief on the side of a mass of rock. Herein are carved a panel of Lord Krishna playing the flute with his two wives, Rukmani and Satyabhama, and two female figures.

Kamalakanni Amman Temple

 Thankfully flight of steps stop made way to flat plain walk along the vegetation which lead us to the  Kamalakanni Amman shrine.  It is a working temple with a huge stone in the front bearing the image of a buffalo.  Every year buffalos are slaughtered as an offering to the presiding deity. 

Wooden Bridge

Further climb through steep stairs lead us to two cannons and set of granaries.  The fort is surrounded by Muttakadu Forest on one side and steep cliff on the other side providing it a natural defence.  The entrance to the main citadel you encounter deep chasm about 24 feet in width and 60 feet in depth. This chasm has been further artificially deepened. The entrance to the citadel, as we find it to-day, is by means of a wooden bridge thrown over it. 
In all it does prove to be an impregnable fort.  Mughals had a tough time with the Marathas here as any attempts to use Monitor Lizard to climb (Marathas own technique) the walls were thwarted by way of trained eagles which would pull them down. 

Bell Tower cum Flag post on top of the Rajagiri hill

Ranganathaswamy temple
 The final summit after an hour and half of tough climb is a desolate Ranaganatha temple and a bell cum flag mast tower.  The picturesque view you get from the summit is a sight to behold and puts to rest all tiredness accumulated.

View of Venkataramana temple from Rajagiri hill

Spending some time enjoying good wind and the views from the top of the world we had to rush down to the Venkataramana temple situated a km away from the base of the hill.  As we got down, beautiful aerial view of temple mesmerised us. 

Venkataramana Temple

Gopura - Venkataramana temple

This temple was built by Muthialu Nayaka in 1540 A.D. - 1550 A.D.  The temple abounds in gopuras, mandapas and sculptured panels depicting gods and goddesses in scenes from the Hindu epics. The temple seems to have faced hard times during the French occupation (after 1761 A .D.) From this period the temple experienced forms of decay and old archaeological wealth was plundered by subsequent invaders. Locals reveal the fact that, before restoration by ASI, it mound of soil which had engulfed the temple.  In this temple there are also deities of Devi, Aandaal and Narasima.

 There is a well which has crystal clear water and a netwrork of water ways bring in the water from Chettikulam tank into it.  French removed many pillars from this temple and placed them in Pondicherry which can be seen even today.  Recent efforts by Right wing organizations has resulted in the start of worship at the temple after 330 years.  We were asked to sign a register maintained to help them win the case in the court to continue worship.  Such is the sorry state of the Nayak wonder. 


 Huge dwarak palakas with broken nose greet us at the entrance of the sanctum.  Huge wooden board is seen covering up the underground chamber beneath the sanctum meant for exigencies.  Offering our prayers to the lord and some photo shoot, we had to rush a bit to call it a day.  Bad roads back home till Tindivanam were very much in our mind and had to be covered in decent sun light.  Bidding farewell to our guide who had spent the whole day with us, we departed with our hearts and minds full.

Overall Gingee is good weekend spot for Chennaites to explore and history buffs to ponder about.

Few pointers:

  • Gingee is located 156kms from Chennai and is located on the Tindivanam – Tiruvannamalai NH66
  • Being part of an arid region, better to avoid visit in summers as exploration involves hard climb through the day in open sun.
  • No good eat outs are available at Gingee, better to take some packed food
  • Guides are available and can be contacted at the ASI ticket counters
  • Climbing up the Rajagiri fort is prohibited after 3PM
  • Beware of monkeys, they are very good at techniques of scaring humans.