Vellore always reminds me of Malgudi, the fictional town created by R.K. Narayan. Its air of rustic camaraderie strikes you the moment you ease off the maddening highway into the city’s residential hub. I am captivated by the broad tree-lined avenues; beautifully painted palatial homes decorated with exquisite terracotta art; women in half-saris balancing brightly coloured pots over their heads, smiling and greeting one another as they pass; and tiny roadside temples sheltered by huge neem and tamarind trees.
But there are many dimensions to Vellore. It is also a dynamic city that is rapidly growing and developing. Its famed Christian Mission Hospital (CMC) is a hub for medical tourism and visited by people from around the world. The city also has Tamil Nadu’s second largest prison, which once held freedom fighters, including former President R. Venkataraman who was confined here in 1940-41. The sprawling Vellore Institute of Technology campus throbs with life and has a large number of international students.
The ramparts of Vellore Fort, made of granite blocks fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, glitter under the harsh sun. I feel I can see centuries of its history in the flickering reflections in the moat’s water. Parts of it are now dry, but it is easy to believe that it once swarmed with crocodiles.
The fort was built by local chieftain Chinna Bomma Nayak in the 16th century, under the patronage of the Vijaynagara kings, and occupied by a succession of rulers. It became an English garrison in 1760, playing a crucial role in the fight against Tipu Sultan. After his death, his sons and daughters were imprisoned at the fort by the British. This eventually led to the bloody Vellore Mutiny in 1806, one of the first uprisings against British rule. The picturesque fort seems like an unlikely spot for such power struggles.
Within the fort, there is a mosque, church, and the looming Jalakanteshwara Temple: Its name translates to “Lord Shiva residing in the water”. Massive gates leading into the courtyard are studded with lotus flowers cast in iron. The pillars have beautiful carvings of men on horseback, prancing elephants, and an assortment of deities. As I bent my head to enter the low-ceilinged inner sanctum, I felt I was entering a sacred cave with a powerful aura. Imagine my surprise when I learnt that this was once an arsenal storehouse. In one corner of the two courtyards, there is a well from which a secret passage is believed to lead to the Palar River, though it is too dark and deep to explore (fort open 9.30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Fridays and second Saturdays; entry ₹5 for adults, ₹3 for children, ₹100 for foreign nationals, ₹20 for cameras).
Vellore is surrounded by pockets of scenic greenery with several wild residents. Begin your exploration at the serene Amirthi Forest and Wildlife Sanctuary. The Amirthi River waters this fertile area, which is full of swaying trees, mini waterfalls, and rolling grassland. As you stroll through the lush park trying to identify bird calls and spot elusive deer and antelope, do remember to survey the abundant herbal garden (25 km/40 min south; taxis ₹500 for round trip).
The fragrant biryani from the town of Ambur (50 km/1 hour west; taxis ₹1,200-1,500 for round trip) uses a special, stubby rice called seeraga samba, a traditional variety grown in Tamil Nadu and known for its chewy texture. Unlike Hyderabadi biryani, the meat and rice are cooked separately and then together in a closed clay pot over a slow fire. Try it at Star Biryani, famous fourth-generation vendors (₹150 per plate). If you don’t have the time to make a special trip, the roadside stalls in Vellore Bazaar, Katpadi, Gandhinagar, or on Arcot Road do a fairly authentic version.
I also love Vellore’s budh pedas (pal khova in Tamil) and highly recommend the rich milk dessert. Bombay Ananda Bhavan, which has branches across the city, specialises in making these sweets that cost ₹300-350 per kilogram. To try a unique local confection, have the petal-soft, pink cream buns at the local DVP Bakery that practically melt in your mouth (Long Bazaar Road, near Vellore Market).
Sripuram Temple is a recent addition to Vellore, yet it has become a huge attraction. Visitors throng to the golden shrine, located south of the city amidst a soothing carpet of green. It is one of Tamil Nadu’s biggest shrines, occupying a built-up area of over 50,000 sq. ft. in grounds that sprawl over a hundred acres. Entire gopurams, both inside and outside, and an array of pillars arranged around a star-shaped courtyard have been plated with gold at a cost of about ₹300 crore. The path to the temple is flanked by golden archways, symmetric bushes, dancing jets of water, and bright lamps.
I was awestruck by the ornate ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Massive pillars give visitors the impression of being borne by carved gold-plated elephants, and delicate floral patterns lace the gold gopurams. About 20,000 varieties of bushes and trees have been planted in the surrounding gardens. I learnt that it took 500 masons 7 years to complete construction of the temple. I wasn’t surprised: The structure is bound to leave an indelible impression (daily 4 a.m.-8 p.m.; www.sripuram.org).
Appeared in the January 2015 issue as “Facets of a City”.
Vellore is located in northern Tamil Nadu and is 125 km/3 hours east of the capital Chennai. Buses ply regularly between the two cities (tickets from ₹300). Taxis charge ₹2,500 for the one-way journey. There are frequent trains from Chennai to Vellore Katpadi junction (duration 2-3 hours; tickets from ₹160).