Words & photographs: ANJUMAN DEODHAR
The Gundlakamma River meanders serenely through the countryside. Dragonflies buzz noisily on the sides of a small hill rising from its banks. A lone tractor trundles along. It’s a lazy hinterland scene. And, in the midst of all the quiet, a cluster of red structures stands benignly. There’s not even a board announcing that you’re at the Buddhist Mahastupa of Chandavaram. Considered second in importance only to the one at Sanchi, this magnificent dome dates back to somewhere between 2 BCE and 2 CE. At one time, the hillsides were littered with ancient artefacts. Many were spirited away by unscrupulous treasure hunters and the ones that weren’t are now in the safe custody of the Archaeological Society of India. The mahastupa has been painstakingly restored, and, for anyone in the know, its sheer historic and archaeological significance is quite stupendous. The best part is that you’ll probably have it all to yourself. This alone is reason enough for you to visit Ongole, the largest city in the Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh. But, of course, it isn’t the only one.
Pakala Beach makes a fine reason to go as well. The waters of the Bay of Bengal are thriving with marine life and every morning hordes of fishing boats come back to shore with a rich cargo of crabs and other bounty. This is a quintessential fishing village and it’s likely that you’ll be the only visitor here, save for the fishermen and their brightly-coloured boats. Even if you don’t plan on venturing into the water, it is a great place to observe the fishermen at work. Carry back a few crabs with you, if you please.
In the vast countryside surrounding Ongole, you’ll find some truly interesting temples. Of these, the ones at Bhairavakona were hewn straight out of the rock face in 7 CE, and are definitely worth a visit. There are seven Shiva temples that face east; the solitary one that faces north is home to idols of Lord Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. You’ll also find a 200-ft waterfall here, whose flow ranges from a cascade to a mere trickle, depending on how good the monsoon has been. Another intriguing Shiva temple is the one located near the village of Jammulapalem. There are an astounding 1,116 Shiva idols here, arranged in a neat geometric pattern around a central, larger one. And, if size – not numbers – is your thing, head to the Veeranjaneya Swamy Temple at Ponnur, which boasts a 24-foot-high and 12-foot-wide statue of Hanuman, carved from a single, enormous block of granite. Naturally, it is quite popular among the devout.
If temples aren’t your thing, set out on a sojourn to the nearby villages of Vetapalem, Bapatla and Chirala. While Chirala is known for its textile industry with an astounding 400 shops located in one marketplace alone, Vetapalem is known for its cashews, and Bapatla has a popular beach named Surya Lanka.
If you’re looking to ditch more popular ways of holidaying in favour of glimpses of lesser-known rustic, countryside sights, Ongole fits the bill quite handsomely.