It took just one day in Bhadrachalam to make us decide we needed to stay longer than the three nights we originally booked. It’s a lovely small town, located upriver from Rajahmundry on the same side of the Godavari, offering plenty of temples, a couple of nice short walks along the river, and the chance to take a one- or two-day river trip among the scenic Papikondulu Hills. So we asked Mr. Ramachandran, the owner of the hotel where we stayed, if we could stay another eight nights.
While the town is famous for its 350-year-old temple featuring a unique representation of Rama, it isn’t featured in any of the India guides aimed at foreign travelers – at least, not that we’ve seen. That’s probably why we haven’t seen any other non-Indians while we’ve been here. It’s also probably why people are constantly asking to take selfies with us – we’re a very unusual sight. We don’t mind, as these selfie sessions sometimes end up as interesting conversations, though often limited by the lack of a common language. People here speak Telegu, not Tamil (I have a little Tamil), and our Hindi is also pretty limited. But still, humans do manage to communicate well across language barriers, and it’s a lot of fun to push the envelope.
In addition to friendly people, there’s a lot to enjoy about Bhadrachalam. First and foremost, of course, is the Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple. Built about 350 years ago, the temple has an interesting set of stories about the people associated with getting it built, and about the devotion of Bhadra Maharshi, the Rama devotee whose steadfast, passionate desire to see Rama manifest physically is why the temple was built on this rocky hill above the Godavari River.
We visited the temple twice a day, morning and evening, and every visit felt different and distinct. You can certainly feel the devotion of the people who come to visit from all over India, mostly the south. Devotees arrive in family groups, or with groups of friends, and offer fruit, flowers, incense, and other sacred substances. People sit around the temple on stone steps or in corners, reading sacred texts alone, or sometimes to each other. There are pujas throughout the day, and in the evening, after aarti (an offering of fire), priests sing beautiful bhajans. One evening there was dancing. Two groups of women, one clad in green checked saris, the other in purple saris embellished with gold, danced in circles, beating sticks in rhythm, as musicians played and sang. A tall, thin priest at the temple, whom we heard singing bhajans most evenings, danced in the center of the purple-sari circle; he was lithe, graceful and very light on his feet, with a joyous expression on his face as he danced and sang. I wish I could share video or even photos of all this, but cameras aren’t allowed in the temple.
Visiting the temple became the anchor for our days in Bhadrachalam, other than the two days we took trips: one by bus to Parnashala, where two small temples mark important parts of Rama and Sita’s story, and the other by boat to Parentallipali and the Papikondulu Hills. We enjoyed walking the long riverside promenade, which winds along the curve of the Godavari from the Ayyappa temple at one end to the far end of town at the other.
We got to know the small neighborhoods of Bhadrachalam, just walking around mornings and evenings. I liked the smaller temples around town, each with its own distinctive art and small shrines.
We spent most of our early evenings by the Godavari, watching people worship and then spread out their clothing to dry after their ritual dips in the river. Small motorboats offer rides out the exposed sandbars, where you can make your offerings right in the middle of the river. There’s a distinctive chant that goes out over the loudspeakers at intervals: “Sita Rama motorboat shikar.” It’s basically a marketing chant, but it became stuck in our heads like a mantra. (Turn up the sound!)
It was fun shopping for vegetables and fruit in the small market street, wandering the residential areas of town and climbing the small hill above the temple. Alan got his hair cut near the Hanuman temple in Car Street.
The big event of the week was the visit of a famous Telegu movie actor to the Sri Sita Ramachandra temple. We never saw him, but the streets around the temple were packed with people eagerly awaiting a glimpse. Yes, it’s all very small-town – and that’s a big part of Bhadrachalam’s charm.
There are lots of hotels, sadans and dharamsalas (pilgrim accommodation) available in Bhadrachalam. I’m sure these fill up quickly during major festivals and holidays, but when we were there, you really had your pick of places to stay. You can walk up the hill from Temple Street to look at the sadans and dharamsalas perched above the temple, and there are quite a few more on the street that runs from the south side of the temple towards the town, away from the river. These sadans and dharamsalas range in price from Rs. 300 or less per day to about Rs. 800 per day, so they’re in the budget range for Bhadrachalam.
Hotels cost a lot more – anywhere from Rs. 1000 to a couple of thousand per night. We stayed in a particularly nice hotel called the Srinidhi Residency. It’s literally a one-minute walk from the hotel to the Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, which is why we chose it – plus the reviews on TripAdvisor.com were very good, and deservedly so. The Srinidhi is clean, well-kept and offers spacious rooms, plenty of hot water, mostly-working wifi and a very nice staff. The owner was kind and friendly, and we felt welcome and comfortable during our 11-day stay.
Bhadrachalam is a small town, and the food options for visitors are pretty limited. There’s a pure-veg sit-down restaurant called the Sri Anjenaya at the bottom of the hill close to the temple (look for the Sri Sudharsana Residency; the restaurant is just opposite). The staff are nice, and their midday “meals” (set meal of rice, curried vegetables, dal, sambar, curd, rasam and pickle) are both unlimited – all you can eat – and economical at Rs. 70 per person. Like most South India restaurants, the Anjenaya offers specific options at specific times. In the morning you can get bonda, idly, dosa and pessaratu; evenings, you can get chapatti, dosa, bonda. That’s it.
The other options in easy reach of the hotel are all dhabas, or food stands, often operated by local families on the front porches of their homes. We became very fond of one dhaba at the back of the temple. We call it the Locker Room, because there’s a business by that name right next door, renting lockers to pilgrims who want to secure their bags for the day. The dhaba serves the most delicious food we ate in Bhadrachalam. Its pesseratu is a real standout: large, crispy, filled with uppma that’s deliciously flavored with sweet spices, and served with sambar, plus excellent coconut chutney and a second chutney that changes from day to day. The tomato chutney is good, but I prefer Locker Room’s mint chutney – it’s spicy, fresh, tangy and delicious. Locker Room’s chili bhajis and crunchy vada, served in the afternoons and evenings, are equally good, too. Their tea is nothing to sneeze at, either.
Here’s a clip of the Locker Room cooks making pesseratu (on the left side of the tawa) and dosa (on the right).
Then there’s Pesseratu Bhadram, a small sit-down restaurant on Temple Road that’s one step up from a dhaba. Located in a humble small building, and family-run, Pesseratu Bhadram is famous – so famous that there are large photos of the owner with a well-known Telegu actor on the walls inside.
The food is good here, and the tea is outstanding, just the way I like it: strong, not too much milk, and with moderate sugar (it’s hard to avoid very sweet tea in South India). Pesseratu Bhadram’s version of pesseratu is smaller and softer than the ones made at the Locker Room, and they’re tasty.
To get to Pesseratu Bhadram, walk up Temple Road away from the temple and river, towards town. When you get to the Hanuman temple in the middle of the road, take the right-hand fork and after 7 to 10 houses, look for Pessaratu Bhadram on your right. It’s below street level, so you walk a few steps down to the front door. It’s open from 6:30 to 10 AM, and serves only breakfast food (idly, dosa and vada in addition to pesseratu).
If you want a bit more variety, you can walk or take a rickshaw to the main road where the TSRTC (Telangana State Road Transportation Corporation) bus stand is located. There are a number of restaurants here, mostly across from the bus stand, and we tried three of them. The standout, in our experience, is the Shree Kalki Hotel. This humble-looking place serves excellent sambar, crispy fresh dosas, fluffy idly, unusually good coconut chutney, and satisfying midday meals. Their version of meals includes nicely cooked vegetables, thick curd and good dal. Their tea also makes my list, because it’s strong and they were happy to make it for me with little or even no sugar. We also really enjoyed the waiter who served us there: He was friendly, helpful and fun to joke around with, even with the language limitations.
As usual, we dealt with the lack of variety in the food by eating one meal a day in our room. We normally buy a half-kilo of tomatoes, a lemon, a chili, a bunch of cilantro, one or two red onions (they are small), and whatever else we can find (sometimes we got lucky and found a cucumber or a green bell pepper). We chop up all the vegetables, add the juice of the lemon and some salt, and enjoy this improvised salad. We also buy fruit to supplement our diet, and occasionally some groundnuts (peanuts). Tender green coconuts are also a nice snack that adds to the variety, and sometimes we buy a couple of 100-gram packets of curd, which we pour into our steel tumblers.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, having a basic set of dishes makes traveling in India a lot easier. We brought two forks and spoons from home, plus a very sharp pocket knife for slicing vegetables and fruit. In Tiruvannamalai, we bought two steel plates and two tumblers. Equipped with these, plus a green scrubber for vegetables and one for dishes, we’ve been able to supplement our diet quite successfully, and stay healthy and happy.