For someone visiting Chhattisgarh, experiencing the tribal culture and enjoying the rawness of the natural landscape in Bastar would undeniably be the priority. If you are lucky, then you might get the opportunity to visit a tribal Ghotul. A Ghotul is a structure that accommodates people. It is either an open arena with earthen floors, without walls and with roofs laid with wood and hay or it is a completely closed structure built with earthen walls decorated with various murals. ‘But what is so ho about it?’, one may ask.
The primary purpose of a Ghotul is what makes it important in the regional culture of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. It is a socializing club for the unmarried youth of the Muriya and the Gond tribes which also in some parts, serve as a dormitory for the registered members. Young boys and girls register themselves with a Ghotul of a particular village or area when they hit adolescence and the functioning of this traditional club is presided over by a head boy and a head girl from the respective tribe. Here, every evening, the members gather and learn the essentials of taking up a new life ahead of them. Reaching adolescence means that they are become eligible to get married and take upon the responsibilities of running a family. So, they are taught all the required life skills like managing a house and a family, folk traditions, music, cooking, religion, cleanliness, discipline, sympathy and everything else. The whole idea is to pass on and contain the traditions within the tribe.
This also promotes inter-tribe or inter-Ghotul weddings so that a member of a particular tribe doesn’t leave the community and the strength of the community is sustained. While pre-marital sex is considered as a taboo elsewhere in India, this culture encourages the youth to indulge in sexual activities to find the most compatible life partner. It is said that if a member of a Ghotul gets pregnant and doesn’t know who the father of the baby is, the village will adopt the baby and nurtures it as everyone’s own child.
Due to the rich ideology of conservation of the culture, people from across the globe come to study and understand the functioning of these Ghotuls. The Muriyas indulge in celebration of the little things from their daily lives. For example, after a successful hunt in the wild, a birth in the community, a betrothal, etc. They have about 12-15 different types of dances that they perform to celebrate these everyday joys. There are rituals and a sequential procedure on how the members need to conduct themselves in the course of visiting a Ghotul like getting ready, dressing up, assembly and starting the evening at the Ghotul.
I got an opportunity to visit one such Ghotul and here is a video of a dance they performed for us.
As a small introduction to the video above: In this dance, you can see two hunters dancing around and in between the other members, while musicians are standing in the middle and playing the traditional instruments. There are also a couple of men wearing head gears that look like chital / spotted-deer which indicates that this celebration is after a game was shot-down by the hunters and brought to the Ghotul for a feast.
What are your thoughts and views about the Ghotul system? Share them with me through the comments below.
If you have your own vehicle and planning to do a bit of rural and tribal tourism in Bastar, then you might come across several structures that are endemic to the region. Some are integral to the local culture and a few are modern additions but unique to Bastar. Here are a few such structures that may spike the curiosity of any new person noticing them around.
Mata Mandir: One might be surprised to see random wooden structures lying around by the roadsides or in the middle of some farmlands. No two are similar in appearance. Some maybe fixed structures and some may have wheels like pushcarts. These are temples or places of worship are usually dedicated to Bheema Dev & Godandi Dev, deities of the Muriya Tribes. A godman from the tribe is believed to possess the spirits of the deities and walks with these wooden tools or push carts. If you have a closer look at one of these structures, you will notice that it has been designed to place his legs and walk with it. You will however, come across concrete structures that are influenced by modern construction materials.
Gudi: These are the lesser known wonders of India, also called as the ‘deceased pillars or column of the dead’ in modern terminologies. The dead persons from the Maria and Muriya tribes believe on sending a person happily after his death. Hence, the tradition is that they bury the body in a vertical/ standing position and erect a flat stone slab or a wide pillar at the grave site. These stones are then painted with artistic patterns and nice verses are written about the deceased on these slabs (This is something similar to the of placing a headstone in the burial of some mainstream religious culture).
Gotul: These are traditional centers of socializing and learning for the youth of the Madiya and Muriya tribes. These are spaces either with mud walls or open wooden floored spaces with wood and hay roofs. Unmarried girls and boys congregate every evening at a Gotul where they socialize, indulge in various celebrations and merry making, learn the basic skills of leading a life and managing a family. This is also where they indulge in choosing their own life partners. The basic ideology of a Gotul system is teaching the youth of life and cultural lessons and building and containing the traditions within the community.
Termite hill: If you ever take a drive around the villages of Bastar, you will notice that their houses are unique. They have mud walls, hay roofs and floor and a large front yard neatly smeared with cow dung. I got an opportunity to go inside and take a look at the interiors. That’s when I realized that these tribal houses may even have large termite-hills inside their houses or perhaps in their bedrooms. These tribes are nature worshippers and believe that these termites are gods that have chosen their homes to take shelter. Hence, termite hills are auspicious and cannot be destroyed. Further, after worshipping this anthill all year, there is a specific day in a year when the family prays the almighty, seeks his permission and then removes these dwellings and releases the mud/ clay into a nearby water source. Same is the case before any tree is cut in a Bastar village. The tribes invoke their deities to get permission before axing them.
Gau-Mata chowk: This is a modern addition with a cultural significance that can be found at the entrance of every village in Bastar. ‘Kamdhenu’ the holy cow feeding a calf is a popular representation in Indian culture. Similarly, this image has been a large part of the Bastar culture. You can see it even in their art and crafts. Coming to the Gau-Mata chowk, these are concrete structures around which the cattle of the entire village is assembled together, twice a day. From here, one person or one household from the village takes the responsibility each day to take the assembly of cattle out for grazing and return to the Gau-Mata chowk. From here, the cattle assembly disperses every evening and are then taken back to their respective sheds.
Atal chowk: This is another modern structure named after the former prime-Minister of India, Sri.Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This is just a concrete pillar erected at the entrance of every village in the Kondagaon / Bastar region.
Do you know any other unique structures from Bastar that you think that I have missed out? Do drop in your comments and share the information with me.
Ever since I chose to do ‘Slow travel, it has given me ample opportunities to understand newer cultures and traditions. Since slow travel allows me to interact with more local people, I also get exposed to a lot of local music and art. One such knowledge gained during my interactions with the various tribes of Bastar is the various musical instruments made and used by them for various purposes.
Khut/ Khoot: This percussion instrument is a hollow trapezoidal shaped wooden block. It is hung around the neck of the person playing it and is struck with two wooden sticks to create a unique sound.
Maandaar: This is a small size drum that resembles a dholak. It has a hollow wooden body and wound with leather strips from end to end. The two sides used to create the sound are made using specially chose animal hide. It is tied around the waist and struck either with bare hands or using very thin wooden sticks to create the sound.
Gadha Baja: This is another percussion instrument with a resemblance to the (Bayan) Tabla. It has a hollow wooden body with a wide playing surface firmed with leather. It is used either individually by hanging on to the neck of the player during a celebration or used in pairs at temples and religious gatherings. Sticks are used for generating the sound here as well.
Taal: This instrument is a pair of metallic hand cymbals that are common to the rest of India’s folk music scenes as well.
I got an opportunity to witness the indigenous music of the Muriya Gonds during my visit to a Gotul. All the above-mentioned instruments can be seen in their performance. Click below to watch the Muriya tribal performance with all these instruments.
The other musical instruments used by the tribes of Bastar are as below:
5. Sulur: This is a wind flute handcrafted out of a specific bamboo. The sound is generated by swinging the flute in the air (unlike the normal flutes that needs air to be blown into it). The bamboo tube is decorated with very fine and artistic designs engraved on to it. This flute is used for two purposes. Firstly, it is sounded while grazing their cattle and secondly, it is used in festivals and similar ceremonies. Click on the below video to watch how a wind flute is played.
6. Mohiri: This is a wind instrument made using bell metal. There are two types. The ‘Bada mohiri’ is used in festive occasions and the ‘Chota Mohiri’ is used during all other ceremonial and social gatherings. Watch the below video for more details.
7. Tribal trumpet: Another common feature of the popular ‘Dokra bell metal craft’ in the region is the tribal trumpet. I couldn’t certainly tell which tribe uses this in particular, but this wind instrument is a popular souvenir picked by the tourists and art enthusiasts who flock the region in large numbers.
There were many iterations in the initial plan and the destination was changed multiple times, but my family and I finally decided to visit and explore Bastar. Holistically, Bastar is a region spread across multiple states and was primarily ruled by the Kakatiya dynasty. But with changing administrations and new state formations, the Bastar region is now split into seven districts in the state of Chhattisgarh with Bastar itself being the name of a district. The region is one of the richest in India in terms of tribal culture and reserves of natural resources. Taking Covid safety precautions into consideration, we decided to drive our own vehicle instead of taking a flight or public transportation to avoid coming in touch with random people.
When people in our immediate acquaintance got to know about our choice of destination, a few thought that we were crazy. And then, a few concluded that we had lost it when we told them that we were doing a road trip right through the red-corridor area. But it was a combination of inquisitiveness, curiosity, adventure and assurance of safety from a local friend that finally got my family and myself on a road trip to what is infamously called the Naxal heartland- Bastar. To add a little bit of spark to this wild road trip, was our new ‘Flame-red’ colored car that was delivered to us just a couple of days ago. We did not have a number plate on it and were going to cross five state borders with a ‘Temporary Registration’ sticker.
With all that background, let us discuss the crux of every traveler’s doubt- Is Bastar safe for travelers?
First things first, about Bastar-
The public transportation or connectivity in the Bastar region is almost non-existent. So, if you are a budget traveler or a backpacker, then this trip will not work out for you. Hire a self-drive vehicle either from Raipur or Vishakhapatnam (The nearest major cities with airports) or get one from home.
For stay at this point in time, there are ‘zero’ places listed on Airbnb. Limited hotels are available only at Jagadalpur which you can make your center point of travel. Alternatively, there are some resorts run by the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board (CTB) scattered in good locations across the region that you can manage to find online or through local contacts.
The Details of our visit to Bastar.
We started this trip from Hyderabad on the morning of Christmas-2020. As our journey proceeded from the plains towards the forests, the changing terrain was an indication that the red-color (of the red-corridor map) was getting more significant. We strictly adhered to two conditions laid by our friend/ local guide who was based out of Bastar. One, to stay connected from the time we started from Hyderabad and update him frequently (based on the mobile network). Two, do not drive after sunset. We had planned the entire route and our halts in consultation with him. With Kothagudem, we had officially entered the ancient ‘Dandakaranya forest’ region, the modern ‘Naxal heartland’. Only difference is Ravana had kidnapped Sita from the region back then, one could possibly be kidnapped or shot at by a Maoist in modern day. The day’s drive was mostly un-exciting with a good wide National highway passing through Sal tree forests alternating with cotton fields till Badrachalam, where we stayed for that night.
The following day, when we took a deviation towards Konta at Chatti junction is when we started to notice the actual change in terrain and demography. Civilizations suddenly disappeared and the roads became emptier. For most stretch it was just us, driving either through thick forested areas or large open grasslands. No man-made concrete structures, whatsoever. Even if it felt like we reached a tribal settlement after driving for a few kilometers, the settlement was limited to just one or two huts with their set of cattle and poultry. It was a little eerie to think of, but that did not stop us from halting our car and taking a few photographs.
After reaching Konta (The Andhra-Chhattisgarh state border) is when we started to sense the heavy air around us. Every village that came thereafter was spread across 1 to 2 kilometers along the highway. And every village had a CRPF camp with an armored MPV (Mine Protected Vehicle) at their gates, ready to be driven out at any given point. All camps had hero stones erected near the gates with names of the martyrs from the respective camps who had died during service. We were heading towards Sukma, possibly the brightest red spot one would find on the map. With extremely unreliable mobile connectivity to reach out to our guide, we had started to reconsider if we had made the right decision to take the road less travelled! Anyway, there was no way we could undo our plans since we were already there now. Instead, we decided to go ahead by thinking about the adventure and excitement that may come ahead to us.
Meanwhile, I got a message delivered on my phone from our guide. It had the contact name and number of a volunteer (Person X) based out of Sukma. We were told to meet Person X and have a cup of tea with him at Sukma before continuing our journey towards Jagadalpur. After reaching the Sukma bus stand, we called Person X and waited for him to arrive. In a bit, a young boy came to us on a bike and asked us to follow him. Even before we could complete our words of enquiring his name, he said: “Haan, haan, follow my bike” and we trailed him through narrow residential lanes to a big mansion. Another man (Person Y) welcomed us warmly and we were kind of overwhelmed and at the same time, wondering whom and why we had to meet someone in Sukma.
Person Y asked us, “Weren’t you supposed to be a big group of people?”
“No, it was just our family travelling”, we clarified.
“But Person Z told me that five of you will be arriving here for the meeting”, he said.
“Person Z? But we were supposed to meet Person X!”, we told him with a perplexed look on our faces.
We realized that there was some confusion. We were at a wrong place… in Sukma! I immediately called up Person X and told him about the situation. I then handed over my phone to Person Y and we were fortunate that both X & Y knew each other. Both of them were local leaders and represented the same political party. X came to Y’s house and it followed with some chai served to us. Our basic introduction and conversation were limited to local politics, our journey so far and our trip to Chhattisgarh. About half an hour later and as discussed with our guide from Bastar, we decided to continue our journey further.
A short while later, when we were ascending the Ghats, a bunch of CRPF men who were on their random patrol stopped us and enquired the details of our trip. Without much drama, they let us go after knowing that we were random tourists, heading to Jagadalpur from Bangalore.
Our guide arrived at Dorba with his family and escorted our car for the rest of the day. We reached Jagadalpur for the night’s stay. Over the next few days of our stay in Chhattisgarh, we explored several settlements and hamlets located in areas where no roads exist. Through our extensive drive through vast expanses of paddy fields and coal, iron and other mineral rich mountainous and forest terrain, we got a better sense of geography and geo-politics of the area.
So, come to the point! Was it safe?
I would like to explain this with multiple incidents and my viewpoints. PLEASE NOTE that these opinions are purely based on my personal experience. This may differ for each person visiting there.
As per our guide, our visit to the local’s house in Sukma was to acquaint us with a localite in that region so that, if we were being tracked by someone, they would know that we were harmless tourists and not associated with any other intention. But my viewpoint is that, apart from Sukma, we explored the districts of Dantewada, Bastar, Kondagaon, Kanker, Narayanpur, Gariaband and Dhamtari during the course of our stay in this region. All considered to be core areas of Naxalism/ LWE in the state. We drove our number less car with a ‘KA-TR’ sticker all around –> Not a single day did anyone stop us, ask us or threaten us. It felt like we were travelling in any other Hindi speaking place in India.
When we entered the villages, we had a local person accompanying us almost always. We were told that a lot of villagers worked as informants to the Naxals. (starting from children as young as 8-10 years to grown adults, across gender). So, if a localite familiar in a particular village that we were visiting accompanied us, we would be safe –> My viewpoint on this is, when we moved to the interior parts, the villagers could speak only the local dialects of either Halbi or Gondi. Why that, when we visited the Gotul on one of the days, I even understood a portion of a conversation between two villagers standing next to me. They were discussing that I was a foreigner, who had come there to see their dance. Like really? I look so INDIAN in color, features, dress and in every other sense. Even then, the exposure of these tribals to the world outside their villages is so limited that any visitor would look alien. In such a scenario, communication would’ve been a task for us if we wanted to understand their culture better. A translator helped us to bridge the gap in communication.
We were told that the Naxalites come out after sunset and bother the villagers for rice and other needs. We had heard of stories of how people/visitors/ guests were kidnapped from houses at night. We met so many villagers from various tribes, visited their houses and ate their food. They were excited to host us and shy to talk to urbanites. Never at any point did I feel like we were going to be harmed. We even stayed for a night at Dantewada and most other nights at Kondagaon. The villagers didn’t seem to talk about anything to me like kidnap or murder.
There are several tribal communities that are still primitive in their culture and do not come out in contact of normal civilization. Barter still exists in this part of the world. Permits are required for entry of many villages, especially for those visiting the Abujmadh area. To think of, it is unfortunate that inspite of conscious efforts by governments to empower the tribes, it is still falling short.
Somewhere near Kanker, we were by ourselves on a night journey towards Raipur. While we were told that the highways were safe, there is one point where we were asked to stop and wait for about 2 hours. With us, there were hundreds of other vehicles also who had stopped and spent the hours getting a nap during the waiting time. Daily, the ITBP policemen do combing in this area. Inspite of several positive experiences like those above, things like these present the intensity of the underlying danger and threat.
By having all these presumptions, it cannot be ruled out that naxalism is REAL. And it is in abundance in these areas. The underlying thought cannot be ignored that I must have gotten lucky!
My verdict on safety for travelers:
I went to Chhattisgarh and returned safe. Every place across the WORLD has its own threat, but in different ways. When you are in Rome, be a Roman. So, whichever place you choose to travel, keep the local customs and sentiments in mind. If possible, get in touch with a localite and take them into confidence. Travel to build connections and build connections to travel.
This place happened as part of my family’s road trip through Bengaluru– Telangana – Chhattisgarh – Odisha – Andhra Pradesh – Bengaluru.
Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would be waking up for a new year in a place so new! Never had I imagined that I would be waking in Odisha for a new year. I did not have an idea even until the evening of 31-Dec-2020. It was a spontaneous decision to proceed with our journey from Bastar, Chhattisgarh that late evening. We decided to cut the driving time to reach Vishakhapatnam, by covering the distance by night. We chose to stop at any good hotel that we would come across along the highway for the night’s halt. It being the New Year’s Eve, we were okay to catch some sleep in the car itself in any eventuality of not being able to find a good hotel.
Anyway, the National highway was patchy for most of the way and the night driving kind of got annoying with several trucks and enormous amounts of dust in the atmosphere. Hence, we decided to halt and settle down after finding accommodation at a highway side hotel in Jeypore. With the Covid-19 related curfews around, there was no pomp, no party or toast for the night of the new year and we all surrendered to the sleep gods for the night! However, before falling asleep, my brother and I did a bit of google search for things to do for the next morning at Jeypore before proceeding on our journey ahead.
After waking up on the next morning, we realized that the inhouse restaurant at the hotel was going to open late that day. Even at 08.00.a.m., the rest of the city too seemed to be still sleeping. We couldn’t find any place to have our breakfast and the most important meal for us to keep us going for the whole day. While we were randomly driving around the city in search of food, we could not spot a single shop that was open for anything else apart from farm fresh vegetables and fish being sold by the tribal folk from the surrounding villages on the roadside. Someone suggested us to visit the Jagannath Mandir to serve dual purpose. One, it would be good to visit a temple on the first day of the year and secondly the ‘Bhog’ could be bought at the temple and complement as our breakfast.
The suggestion seemed good to us and so we parked our car around some space and walked the streets towards the temple. It was quite surprising and interesting to see that almost all households had their front yards or doorsteps cleaned with water and decorated with rangoli designs drawn in front of their houses. And all rangolis had the wishes for a ‘happy new year-2021’ written in them. To think of, it was a traditional but a modern approach to conveying new year wishes without meeting people in times of Covid-19. But to our dismay, even the temple was shut. I’m not sure if this was closed only now to avoid people from gathering due to Covid or it was normally shut on all new years’ days. But it did seem a little weird from what I have been used to seeing- people thronging to religious places on the first day of a new year. Also, that meant we had to wait to find food or satiate our hunger with the raw veggies and fish from the streets. Anyway, that was unthinkable for us and we decided to head out of Jeypore. Although the Jeypore palace was just around, that too was closed due to some renovation work. With nothing much in particular to do in the city, we decided to proceed on the highway towards our next destination.
We stopped at least two dozen times to take photos of our car set in the empty highway and in the middle of the panoramic green scenery around. We reached Araku, our next major stop by noon for lunch. Having said that, though there is nothing much to do here, Koraput district as a whole is huge and has great potential for nature tourism in future. My first and small stint in Odisha has been a pleasant one. This trip has been an enriching one in-terms of the knowledge, experience, perspectives I have gained with respect to geo-political scenario in central India, culture and demography. Indeed, a happy new year to me!
However, I found it challenging to find good food. Firstly, the towns wake up late. Secondly, large population is comfortable with street food. I found it a little uncomfortable and unhygienic. Idly and Dosa are the most common breakfast items. But for being someone who hails from the heartland of these dishes, the flavors of the Sambar and chutney was unfathomable. So, unlike all my other travel where I look out to try new and local culinary specialties, I mostly survived on fruits and biscuits for my meals during this trip.
When we reached Koraput town, we ate some fruits for our breakfast. I found a small shop selling milk and some local sweets. I bought a small portion of ‘Chenna poda’ and ‘Rasbara’, that were quite heavy for the small quantity that we ate.
For those of you who might be interested to know what landmarks are there to explore in Jeypore: * The Jagannath temple & the Jeypore palace are the two things in the heart of the city. * There are several waterfalls as you move towards the periphery of the town. * Gupteshwar is a cave temple and an important pilgrimage site at a short drive towards the Chhattisgarh border. * We stopped by at the ‘Subai group pf Jain temples’, a lesser known place with rich heritage. * We also happened to get a little intrigued with large throttling sounds of aircrafts while we were driving on the highway, only to realize that they were the sounds of aircrafts being tested at the distant hills. HAL has its engine assembly plant around there and you can see it on your way.
Apart from these places, it is mostly the drive and the scenery that pleases you all along your way. * There are several tribal communities inhabiting the hamlets around Jeypore, whole of Koraput and the surrounding places that may be of one’s interest in tribal culture. * As we drove towards Araku valley, we stopped multiple times to just stand and enjoy the views, the mountain range and innumerous large lakes all along our way.
* There is also the upper and lower Kolab dams for a short getaway or a picnic.
If you are travelling with the right company, then drive slowly and enjoy the journey.
The standard itinerary with PTU: Day 1: Depart from Bangalore (Leave HSR layout) by 08.00.p.m. Day 2: Reach homestay by 06.00.a.m., freshen up and start the hike by 09.00.a.m.; Return to the homestay by evening Day 3: Visit Nagara fort enroute home, reach Bengaluru by evening.
The story of my weekend: A total of 16 people including two trek leaders were supposed to board the bus at various pickup points across Bangalore. While HSR layout was the first pickup point, the last and the biggest bunch of people were supposed to board at Mekhri circle. When the driver cranked the engine to leave HSR, the last member boarding the bus noticed that a rear tyre had a flat. So, it needed to be changed and the punctured tyre required to be fixed before proceeding for the long journey. After about an hour, the stepney was replaced and the bus arrived at the second stop.
People boarded and the Bus… did not start. This time, the battery had drained, completely! A mechanic arrived in a while and told that it could not be topped up and needed a replacement. Well, it was another good couple of hours until the bus finally left…. With an assurance from the ‘travels company’ assuring that there won’t be any more breakdowns.
Meanwhile, I had taken an autorickshaw to reach Mekhri circle to hold up all the people who had arrived there. The co-leader managed the people who had already boarded the PTU bus. Most of them being first timers on their solo travel, their growing anxiety with the extending delay in the tour was quite a challenge to clarify all their doubts and questions. It was 00.30.a.m. by the time the bus finally arrived at Mekhri circle instead of the scheduled 09.30.p.m. We quickly wrapped up the initial welcome and introduction that usually takes a while on normal trips. Everyone needed some sleep before climbing up the Kodachadri trail.
It was approximately 01.30~02.00. a.m. and the bus had reached somewhere around Sira town. Then suddenly, everyone in the bus woke up for a LOUUUD thud noise. The driver stopped the bus. I walked to his cabin and got down with the driver with a torch light to check what the issue was. The driver found a broken bolt under the bus, near the engine room. The radiator had started to leak profusely, and the engine belt had ripped off. The driver informed me that there was no way that the bus could move. Trying to find a mechanic in the middle of the night would only be futile. The options we had was to find one back in Nelamangala (this would take a good few hours) or wait in the bus until morning, find a mechanic in Sira, find spares, get the bus fixed and then proceed. Proceed further to Kodachadri or return to Bangalore. In either case, Saturday would be gone. We pushed the bus to the side of the highway and decided to take time to figure out the next POA (Plan of Action).
I called up the PTU organizers and informed them of the situation. We were fortunate to find a chaiwala (petty Angadi), the ONLY place with light and people movement in the drop-dead night. The people in the bus got down and occupied themselves with their dose of mid-night chai and smokes until we figured out an alternative. None of them would settle for a full refund and wanted PTU to ensure that they got what they had signed up for.
It was a weekend. It wasn’t going to be easy to find an alternate bus or a TT (Tempo Traveler). While my co-lead was waving at every other bus that came on the highway (both KSRTC and private buses) to check if there were empty seats, I was calling up every random travel company listed on google and checking for availability of buses. Either they were all booked for the weekend or people would just abuse me for waking them up in the middle of the night and hang up. To add to it, I was the ONLY person in the entire bus who could speak Kannada. So yeah, I literally had to manage the show and all the translations, communications and co-ordinations. Finally, one KSRTC bus stopped! They had sufficient seats to accommodate all of us as well. But we had a new challenge. The travellers with us had ganged up and would not agree to board a red bus (Karnataka Sarige bus). All requests to convince seemed futile and we let go off the KSRTC bus. After a total of about an hour, the chaiwala managed to find us a localite who had agreed to come with us for a per kilometer charge that was double the normal price. PTU organizers agreed. The TT arrived. Next challenge? It was a 12-seater TT, we were 16 in total. We, the leaders convinced ourselves to sit on the floor of the ramp between the two rows of seats and another 2 travelers volunteered to fill the already crammed space. Ensuring that everyone else got a comfortable space, the journey continued. Fortunately, we had no more surprises and we reached the homestay by 09.30.a.m.
We took time to freshen up, have breakfast, get the forest permits for the trek and finally started our ascend by 11.00.a.m. All went fine, by god’s grace. This was my first PROPER trek in Kodachadri, the previous one was another adventure worth a read. We climbed up the Hidlumane waterfall, arrived at a local house enroute to have a surprise Majjige (buttermilk) stop, crossed paddy fields, areca and banana plantations, Mookambika temple and finally arrived at the peak marked by the Shankaracharya Mantapa. The landscape and the entire path were unrecognizable for me from what I had seen on my previous visit. It was now exploited and overdone by tourists. There were a few hikers who felt exhausted and wanted to give-up halfway. But as a trek leader, it was my personal obligation to ensure that EVERYONE completed what they had signed up for and no one stayed back without some safe company. Finally, everyone made it to the peak, and it was now mission accomplished. Well, only partially!
The real deal was in the descend. We had a 4×4 ride awaiting us for our return. It is one that is BEYOND explanation and you only hold on to the roof bars hoping that you don’t have a few broken bones or dislocated joints by the time it ends. There is NO road, only a slide down a ditchy/bumpy gradient path. This 4×4 jeep ride alone supports the livelihood of several people around the area. Hence, the localites aren’t letting a road happen even if the government wants to develop this important site of tourism (we were told so by one of them). So, if this ride is considered as an adventure and a source of employment, then you can imagine how memorable this experience must be, right?
Well, in spite of all the delays and breakdowns, it gave me a sense of achievement by the end of the day for having met the itinerary. Though we paid late exit fine at the gates, this was a PTU experience in its true sense. More adventures to come, until then- Keep tripping…. Plan the Unplanned!
Solo tripping during Deepavali has somehow been a ritual that has caught on to me since 2015. In 2019, I was out in Kerala. I was going to spend three days at a place considered somewhat to be a hippie destination. Train tickets were sold out and hence, I boarded an evening bus from Bengaluru. After a long journey, I alighted at Kollam on the following morning, from where I got a passenger train ride to my destination: Varkala Sivagiri.
The itinerary for three days is as follows: Day 1: Janardhan Swamy temple visit, Lazing and hippying around the cliff and the Varkala Promenade Day 2: Golden island, Sivagiri Mutt, Ajengo Fort, Varkala Light house and Munroe island Day 3: Kappil beach
The Story: It was a pleasant train journey along a scenic route. I had a nice Kerala breakfast at a restaurant across the railway station and then followed google maps to the hostel that I had booked online. I did not mind the long walk to the hostel that was located close to the famous ‘Cliff point’. I always consider walking as an opportunity to explore the streets and get acquainted with any place that I visit. After checking in at the hostel and freshening up, I headed out to visit the ancient Janardhan Swamy temple. After offering my prayers, I walked back to spend the rest of the day at the beach.
While I was walking along the beach and silently enjoying the romance of my feet with the waves, I noticed a woman (in her sixties, which she later mentioned during our conversation) walking on the beach too. With a smile on her face, she was enjoying her lone time. But at the same time, she seemed to be struggling with something. I felt as if she wanted to mingle with the people around there, she wanted to get herself photographed, but something was holding her back. I smiled at her and she smiled in return. I offered to take her photo and she was glad. Eventually as I spoke to her, I realized that she wanted to socialize with the locals but was struggling with the language. She was French and couldn’t speak neither the local language nor English.
As I spoke slowly, she translated it on her phone and communicated back with me through the mobile phone translator. we had become good friends by the next hour. She mentioned to me that she was in India to help herself with the loss of her husband and was accompanied by a friend who had traveled all the way only to be by her side. She was in Varkala since a month and was staying at her cousin’s house who was married to a localite. She was learning Yoga and aromatherapy and was keen on buying good incense sticks from India. She walked me along the entire beach and showed me around the marketplace. She then sought my help to negotiate with a local vendor to buy her a ‘Hapi pan’, a musical instrument that she had been eyeing since the past month that she had been living there.
I managed to get it for her at almost half the price that he had quoted to this ‘Foreigner’ and I can’t explain how happy she was with her new possession. She then walked me down the cliff, laid down her shawl on the ground and sat me down. She started to play her musical instrument and it was a sight to see the sparkle of happiness in her eyes. Sometimes, these little things of bringing joy in others’ life means EVERYTHING!
Post sunset, she walked me till my hostel and bid goodbye with a REALLY tight hug! She said she was extremely glad that she had met me and asked me to join her at the Yoga classes on the following morning if I had time. “The morning recitation of the Shlokas by the beach is my favorite time of the day” she said. I informed her of my plans of exploring other places around Varkala and that I wouldn’t be able to meet her. I gave her my phone number to get in touch if she needed any help and we both parted.
It was a night of celebration at the hostel. The hostel had people from various corners of India and the world and were all dressed up in traditional Indian wear. The premises were decorated with diyas and rangolis. It was a special Diwali, for sure 😊
The following morning, I hired an auto rickshaw and did a quick visit to the Sivagiri Mutt and the fort before heading towards Ponnumthuruttu. Fondly called as the Golden Island, it is a protected forest area reachable only by boat. It has a few ancient temples and it reminds me much in line of ‘Devarakaadu’ or sacred groves in my hometown. It was indeed a pleasant ride. Apart from the auto driver and the boatman, I was the only other person in the boat, in the island and hence had the blissful time with nature. Although I had plans of taking a boat ride in the nearby Munroe island at Sunset, I later decided to stay back in Varkala itself. By evening, I returned to the cliff again at sunset time. Believe me when I say, the BEST Diwali of my life was in that day’s evening sky. It was a riot of colours.
After the sun sank into the horizon completely, I decided to treat myself with some nice sea food. It is one of those strange moments when you are made to feel at home in an unknown land. As I was strolling along the promenade, undecisive of which restaurant to go, I heard someone say: “Akkayya, ninga Kodagu-l elli?” in a male voice. In my mother tongue, that translates to: “Sister, which part of Kodagu do you belong to?” I was astonished and surprised for a moment. We got talking and he said he belonged to a native tribe from Kodagu, settled in Varkala. He had been working at a restaurant there since several years. On being asked how he recognized me to be a Kodavati, he pointed out at my unique Kodava facial features. That was SOMETHING for me to hear now! He volunteered to choose the lobsters and the crab for me from the aquarium, got me a beach-facing-candle-lit table and served the best sea platter I had tasted in a while. It is one of those overwhelming evenings of my life. All time for myself on a Solo-date-dinner night and still made to feel at home by a random person.
The next morning, I headed to the beach to grab some English breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised when my French friend and her friend, both arrived at the same restaurant. We three conversed on a multitude of topics and spent good long time together. While the two of them later dispersed, I stayed back at the restaurant waiting for a friend who was riding down from Kochi to meet me. On his arrival, I walked up to settle my restaurant bill at the counter. The cashier said: “No madam, your bill is already settled.” I was amused and told him that I had been eating until now and hadn’t left my table. So, he informed me that a foreigner lady had paid for my orders. There I was, in yet another overwhelming situation. My French friend had paid for my share of the bill too.
My friend and I then commenced our ride towards Kappil beach, situated on the outskirts of Varkala. It is one of the finest beach side roads I have been to. Somehow, I drew parallels with Maravanthe beach in coastal Karnataka. But moving away from the highway, my friend took me to some deep hidden jewel of locations. I guess it would be fair to call this as my 4th best part of the same trip. Some amazing places can be explored only by hanging out with the locals. He is a Malayali and knowing the offbeat locations enable me to experience one of the craziest bike rides of my life. We drove several kilometers LITERALLY along the edge of the world; like the EDGE! Even if the moist soil under our wheel slipped or the rider went slightly off balance, we both would’ve gone along with the sea, beyond the cliff. All this, while riding through poor visibility due to wild shrubs that were standing taller than us. And then, the shrubs opened into yet another beautiful sunset.
Upon return to Varkala, I picked up some incense sticks with essential oils and dropped them off as souvenirs to my French friend at the Yoga center (A surprise that she would receive only the following morning, after I was gone). Then, I did a quick check out from the hostel and boarded the night train back to Bengaluru. The train route is for yet another post, someday!
My Deepawali of 2019 was all about spreading love and feeling loved. How often have you got lucky and overwhelmed with warm experiences during travel? And how often has it been multiple times on the same trip?
As I had mentioned in one of my previous stories about my first solo trip, I had tagged along with two Bengaluru boys whom I met at Shillong. After covering Meghalaya, we took delivery of a brand new ‘Maruti Swift’ from a showroom in Guwahati and set out on a random road trip across the North-east. (click here to read the complete story). We finished exploring the Ziro valley and were left with 4 more days before our return flight to Bangalore. We worked out many options to best utilize the available time (4 days were too little to go ahead to Mechuka and return to Guwahati, we would be on a tight time if we did Tawang and had no backup in the eventuality of a car breakdown on those bad roads, Sandakphu was doable but we weren’t equipped with sufficient gears).
That’s when I popped the option of visiting Jatinga. An unheard place for the other two with me, I explained: “It is a place where mass suicide of migratory birds takes place due to an unknown phenomenon. And this is THE season to witness it!”. There was enough curiosity inside the car but no clue on how to get there. We browsed quite a bit, scrolled through several web pages of the forest department and landed on a random contact list of IFS officers in Assam. We picked a random name (it sounded very South Indian, hence we wanted to try our luck). We got lucky and the call got through. A little perplexed at why random tourists may be interested in visiting this place, the IFS officer asked us to call him a day later as he was travelling. We were ok to wait for confirmation, as we were anyway going to reach Itanagar only on the following noon. That’s where we had to pick our route, whichever worked out- Guwahati or Jatinga.
On the following day, we called on the same number again when we had reached a good network zone. The IFS officer got us connected to another forest officer, posted in Haflong. We got in touch with that officer, who then guided us to reach his office in Haflong. He warned us against stopping ANYWHERE along our way and keep updating him every now and then about our location. We relied heavily on Google maps and were driving through Asian Highway no.1. PS: We would be heading towards Dima Hasao district and the entire route was notoriously infested with anti-social elements.
We commenced our drive on a road that would lead us to Thailand (only if we extended our holidays by a fortnight more), guided by Google maps. But for now, it was destination: Haflong, the only hill station in Assam. The under-construction road was patchy every few kilometers, alternating with smooth asphalt and bumpy gravel. At one point, the road with endless stretch of forest cover was so beautiful and intimidating for a photo stop but we were scared for even a pee-stop. We were however, at the mercy of google-Mata’s directions!
“Not all who plan and come here get lucky, as the weather plays a crucial role in being able to see it, even after reaching here. The wind direction tonight is very favorable. You are here at the RIGHT time to witness the mass-suicide of the birds. Be ready by around 12.00.a.m., the jeep will come here to pick you all. The officer and I will join you at my house and then we shall proceed to Jatinga.” The Hotelier said before leaving us. We were all excited! After freshening up, we placed an order for a hearty Dimasa meal for supper. ‘Try Local cuisines, wherever you are’ was a mantra all three of us religiously followed. The must try-dishes were recommended by the friendly chef at the lodge.
The poor car had gone through so much abuse on its very first road trip that it deserved a good shower. While the boys drove out to the town to find a good spa for the car, I decided to stay back at the lodge. The wooden furniture in an open dining space with mellow music playing in the background and cold misty breeze from the green trees around, blowing on my face was enough reason for me soak up some inspiration to write my next story. As a couple of hours passed, the boys returned. I don’t know if the car found a spa, but the boys for sure found a bar 😛 They returned with a few liters of judima, the local brew of rice beer.
We were the lucky few who were to witness nature’s phenomena, one so rare that it is unexplainable by science. We had braved quite an adventurous drive to make it thus far… But the weather was such, that I can’t blame them. The two drank up the stock ignoring all my alerts, warnings and requests! It was now nearing 9.00.p.m. and so, blame it on the ambience of the dining area. While the meal was being arranged on the table, the two were dozing away. Jatinga and the birds were all flying away from me now, faintly to the elusive distance 😛 I tried to keep the two up, at least to finish up the meal and not waste it. The two walked up to their room and had passed out within the next few moments. “See you Jatinga, next time!”, I silently spoke while breaking the roti in my hand.
It did not feel right for me to drive into a forest alone with someone whom I barely knew. Hence, I decided to make ‘Nothao’ my destination for the night. I requested the hotel staff to serve the same food on the following morning (there was SO MUCH food, that neither of us would want to throw it off), informed the hotel owner and the forest officer of my situation and silently slid into the comforting warmth of the rugs in my room.
Anyway, the miss was made up for, by the two boys who had been my travel partners for the last 2 weeks (well… partially). We explored a little bit 9f Haflong. The duo spoke to the officer and a hike to the highest peak of Assam- Hapeo peak was organized. That’s yet another story you might want to read here. Thus, happened our misadventure to Jatinga and the last bit on my fortnight in the north-east.
With a closed group of family and friends, about 10 of us planned this weekend trek to this lesser known hill, a little away from Bangalore. We started from Bangalore at 05.00.a.m. with an intention to finish the hike back down before the sun goes up. It was dawn by the time we drove towards Kanakapura and reached a village called Kanchanahalli, in Malavalli Taluk of Ramanagara district. The Kaccha road thereafter till the base of the hike, passes through fine landscape and traditional village of ‘Mysore Karnataka’ region. The hill is a part of the ‘Kabbala Forest reserve’ area. The early morning rays added extra charm to the cloud kissed peak of the ‘BheemanaKindi hill’ at the distant end and the fog covered coconut groves and vibrant green farms on either side of the road. What else? Picture this: A dozen peacocks dancing in the middle of the road! Well, a pleasant welcome; I must say 😊
We finally arrived at the base of the hill, parked our cars and started the ascend. It starts at a small godown sort of a structure from where, is a well laid out stone path through the forest, right till the destination. Well, let me clarify that unlike most of the common treks around the city that promise you a breathtaking view after a good climb, this one has a MASSIVE stone arch at the end. With this large arch, goes the legend from Ramayana. ‘Bheema’ hit the large rocky monolith with his ‘Gadhe’ and thus resulted this Natural arch, locally called as ‘Kindi’. The smaller pieces scattered are believed to be the ones which appear to have been arranged one on-top-of the other in the adjoining smaller hillocks by the consecutive civilizations, over a period of time.
The difficulty level of the climb is moderate, but the gradient is steep. Since I hadn’t eaten anything since the previous afternoon, acidity was taking a toll on me. I was feeling nauseous and tired and trailing everyone on this trek. (That’s also the reason I didn’t take many photos of our ascent and the video attached below includes more visuals from the descent). I somehow made it to the top, all worthwhile the effort. A small temple dedicated to Nandi sits in a corner underneath the massive rock arch overlooking the dense forest cover below. Apart from a few squawking peacocks and chirping birds, we thought we were the earliest mammals to arrive there. But not until we saw some freshly laid elephant poop at the peak…!
I had some biscuits and relaxed there for a bit until I felt fine. From a few known localites, we had heard that there exists a perennial pond somewhere close by. We walked behind the boulders that overlooks the millet farms beneath. We climbed up the hill further and we ventured out in pursuit of the pond. Mind you, the trek path ends at the temple and we were venturing out beyond, into the forest (Do not try this adventure). The sloppy path didn’t have a proper trail and we followed each other and stayed together so that we wouldn’t get lost. We walked further, a few broken trees (Bamboo, Indian Gooseberry, hog-plums etc.) perhaps warned us from going further, the pachyderms had just crossed the path. From there, we arrived at a small opening in the green cover- a large boulder. As the mist had engulfed the entire view, we sat there for a while hoping for it to clear out and get some good view of the valley below. But no luck and we decided to walk back.
Our stomachs were grumbling for food by the time we reached back to the base by 10.00.a.m. One of the members in our group had a relative in Kanchanahalli and hence, we were invited for brunch at their house. We drove to their house, passing through my FAVOURITE views of Karnataka: The rural hamlets of ‘Mysore Karnataka’ region. Traditional houses with wide porticos on raised platforms, red-oxide floors, clay tiled roofs supported by wooden pillars are a delight, I tell you!! Sometimes, cattle sheds on one side and a bicycle on the porch too is a common sight, so very typical to this region and so warm and old world. I have always gaped at those tiny streets in awe. So, today was my first opportunity to see the interiors of one such house, all that I had only seen in Kannada movies till date. Picture this: they are locally called ‘Thotti mane’ and the central living room has a central area which opens to the sky. Talk about natural ventilation and lighting, it has been part of our ancestral architecture from time immemorial. It also serves as an area to wash our feet and hands when we enter home, before we touch anything else. (Connect it with self-sanitizing during Covid times, after you come home from outside??)
Well, a pleasant happy day for me and a nice, happy, simple, warm meal for the tummy 😊 We head back to the city…. Hoping for another warm weekend to arrive soon….
This is yet another of my family’s random drive day, thanks to Corona unlock weekends… This time, our random pick was in the direction of Bannerghatta forest. We drove past Jigani marble market towards Ragihalli state forest. We drove around randomly and stopped wherever we thought we had a good vantage point. The place being around the fringes of a national park and in the fertile stretch of countryside, there was lots and lots of greenery all along. We stopped by at the IIM-B new campus plot near Mahanthalingapura from where we got a distant view of the ‘Ragihalli Betta’. (Remember our drive to Gullahatti Kaval? We had the view of the hill from a different direction- Click here to read the complete article) The cloudy and cool weather here made everything perfectly amazing, with a great combination of bright green and dull grey. With permission of a millet farm owner present there, we sat in his farm overlooking the green valley for a while, with some packed food and water.
After resuming our drive and on recommendation of a friend, we deviated from the main road leading to the Ragihalli state forest. It was quite an offbeat surprise for our ageing hatchback, but he performed smoothly compared to any youthful 4×4 SUV. A random deviation got our hatchback into an overflowing stream (with water level almost up to the doors). We didn’t know the way ahead, but our driver(my brother) didn’t switch off in the middle of the stream. Another car in the opposite direction directed us to the correct road from where, it was an unpaved gravel laid forest path for a few more kilometers, before passing through a couple of laidback villages. After the tree laden trail was over, small rocky hillocks appeared to our left and a vast stretch of farmland flanked the valley to our right. Apart from a few villagers transporting their goods on two wheelers, we were the only people in this stretch for most distance. We continued an uphill drive until there appeared a junction with a temple at the top. Watch the video of our drive below:
A milestone at the junction read that it was ‘Koratagere Doddi’. Thanks to the lockdown and social distancing norms, it had been several months since I had been to a temple and I was excited at the sight of it. From the architecture of it, the structure seemed to be a Sun temple. But google says it is a ‘Paanchala Kshetra’ that was closed at that time. However, the place seemed to be beautiful and we decided to park our car and take a stroll. We walked a few yards to our right and believe me when I say, it looked BEAUTIFUL! We were at a flat rocky tabletop cliff from where we could see a good stretch of the city outskirts. We decided to sit there for an hour at least and enjoy the strong breeze that kissed our faces hard. But yeah, the time was cut short by the rain gods who manifested themselves from the distant dark clouds to a sudden pounding of rain.
We had no choice but run to our car for shelter. But wow, what a wonderful setting it was: Green grass, grey sky, hill on one side, valley on the other and a lonely temple ahead of us. We saw no signs of the rain stopping as we waited in our car and decided to continue our drive, back home but in the direction of the road ahead of us. Thanks to the rain, we did nothing specific to stop-by and take note of. But yeah, the Ragihalli Betta now appeared closer and COMPLETELY mist / cloud laden, a view not everyone gets lucky with.
Overall, a wonderful day out with family to a place where I belong: to Nature 😊