Tag Archives: Backpacking in India

A Rare Connection of Hockey Between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu

I have been fortunate to meet many like-minded people online, through travel blogging. Recently, I happened to meet one of such friends offline, during his visit to Bangalore. He greeted me with a souvenir, a nice palm leaf box containing chikkis. He explained that it was the ‘panai olai petti’ containing the famous candies from his hometown. After I returned home, a little bit of online browsing about this souvenir unfolded some interesting facts for me.

The palm leaf box containing the Kovilpatti chikki
The palm leaf box containing the Kovilpatti chikki

Talking about the southern states of India, two neighbours have a lot in common. What triggered this thought were the names of places starting with the letter ‘K’, one from each state. Kodagu and Kovilpatti from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu respectively. Meanwhile, the ‘C’ is what makes these two ‘K’ places famous. ‘Cauvery’, the holy river originates in Kodagu and ‘Chikkis’, the peanut candies of Kovilpatti has earned a GI tag for itself. Enough is written and done on the internet about either of the places.

Palm leaf boxes of Kovilpatti mithai being Repurposed as planters
Palm leaf boxes of Kovilpatti mithai being Repurposed as planters

But what turned out to be more surprising and a rather rare connection between the two ‘K’ places of these states is their common love for the National sport of India- Hockey. In my earlier post, I have mentioned how the largest festival in the world dedicated for any sport (hockey) is celebrated in Kodagu. But what I learn now is that Kovilpatti too, shares its history with Indian military and the influences of the British to have a strong hockey culture. With at least a dozen hockey clubs and several players making it to the Indian national team over time, the people of Kovilpatti have an unabated enthusiasm for the national sport.

What I do know is, that there are several other lesser-known places in India where people celebrate sports other than cricket. Only initiatives by governments, support from sponsors and adequate media publicity can encourage and motivate more people to nurture a sporting culture in our country, anything other than cricket.

The Story of my Solo trip is an e-book now

My visit to the arid land of Spiti was my first solo trip in all sense. I have previously spoken about its beautiful landscape and the wonderful people through my blog posts. But, on a personal note this travel has been one of the most impactful trips of my lifetime. So, here is the entire story in the form of an e-book.

Through this book, I seek your company while I backpack alone on a trip to the mountains. I want you to join me when I gate crash a mountain wedding and dance to the first snow. I want company when I confront a mummy and when I visit a vault full of millennium old paintings. Stay with me as I return home with an unsettling chaos running in my tummy. As you read through the pages of this book, you can bite into the juicy apples of Kinnaur all along, walk with me meeting people and go on a virtual trip to the Spiti valley and back.

You can get your copy of the e-book on Amazon by clicking on the image or the link below:

Click on image to buy the copy of ‘My Spiti Sojourn’

Yes, I know the language could have been tuned a little more and the English, could sound a little more polished. But, due to reading the same story over and over again, a few mistakes have outflown, my humble apologies! This book had been compiled in the first covid lockdown (Apr 20) and I have been procrastinating to publish it for over a year now, even post 2nd lockdown I (Apr 21). So, finally it had to be done….. But, I promise that my intention of sharing my story and experiences from the road has been compiled to the best of my abilities. I wish you all read, enjoy your virtual trip to Spiti and share your honest thoughts about it…

A weekend Backpacking trip to Satara

This was a post monsoon, weekend trip I had planned with two other friends who had joined me from Bangalore to Mahabaleshwar. The main agenda of this trip was to visit the ‘Khas plateau’ in its bloom season, but it was just for a day (Click here to read more about my visit). Since we were travelling all the way, we decided to extend the weekend for a little longer by adding a few other places and make it a backpacking trip around Satara district.

Our Itinerary:

Day 0: Leave from Bengaluru to Satara (overnight private bus)
Day 1: Satara to Wai (MSRTC bus), Visit to Menavali village & Dhom Dam; Wai to Panchgani (Local bus), Local sightseeing and night’s stay at Panchgani (Walk and shared taxi for local transportation)
Day 2: Panchgani to Mahabaleshwar & local sightseeing at Mahabaleshwar (hired taxi for full day); Mahabaleshwar to Satara (MSRTC bus) and night’s stay at Satara.
Day 3: Visit to Khas plateau & local sightseeing at Satara town (hired taxi); Return from Satara to Bengaluru (overnight KSRTC bus)

The details:

Day 1: Wai and Panchgani.

Since we required to start our Khas plateau visit from Satara, we decided to visit the places around the town later (on day 3). So, we moved ahead on the day of our arrival at Satara.

After alighting at Satara bypass on NH4 that morning, we hired an autorickshaw to reach the bus stand located in the town. From there, we boarded a MSRTC bus to our first major destination of the day: Wai.

Part 1: Places to see in Wai

I had come across the name of this place in a newspaper supplement. I had read that a large part of Shahrukh Khan’s “Swades’ movie was shot in and around Wai. Since we had to anyway pass through this place to reach our intended destination of the trip, I thought it was a good idea to add Wai it our itinerary. However, we had no idea of what to see and things to expect in Wai. We decided to just go there and explore the place by ourselves. Upon our arrival at Wai, we enquired with a few locals who guided us to the banks of the Krishna river.

A. Menavali village: A walk of good couple of miles from the Wai bus stand, we arrived at this village located on the banks of river Krishna. The locals call this as the Wai ghat as well. Apart from being a prominent setting for several Bollywood movies, the Wai ghat is also an important destination for history and archeological buffs. It holds great treasures from the times of the Marathas and the Peshwas. It is especially known for the contributions by the 18th century Maratha stateman- Nana Phadnavis.

Phadnavis Wada: Wada is a local name for a residential mansion with an inner courtyard. Residential complexes leading to river banks on one end and housing temples is a signature architectural style of the Peshwa era. The Phadnavis Wada located on the Wai ghat is one of the handful of such structures that still remains intact.

We did a quick visit to the Dholya Ganapathi mandir & Sri Kashi Vishweshwar Mandir (This temple is called as the Kashi of Maharashtra), both situated on the river bank.

Wai ghat on the banks of river Krishna at Menavali village
Wai ghat on the banks of river Krishna at Menavali village

As we took a stroll along the ghat, I realized that reality was far from the destination on reel. The real Wai looked very laid back and rustic. However, we decided to sit by the riverside and spend some time by photographing the local kids enjoying their time by diving and swimming in the polluted waters of the ghat.

B. Dhom dam: This waterbody is a good place for water sports with a nice view of the surrounding mountains. Located at about 10kms from Wai and connected by frequenting local shared jeeps, it is a nice place for catching a sunset. But, we gave this is a miss since we hadn’t booked our accommodation and has to reach our next destination ASAP. The bus left Wai and travelled around the curvy road of the mountain. The entire journey was beautiful with great views of the Dhom dam whose waters reflected the clear blue sky.

Part 2: Places to see in Panchgani

We had alighted at our next major destination: Panchgani. Although Panchgani is a small hill town that doesn’t extend beyond a stretch of 2 kilometers, surprisingly, it is an educational hub of Maharashtra. Around 42 international schools are located here. Given its small area, all the popular tourist places in Panchgani are located close by. So, we decided to get off with our backpacks at the entrance of the hill station, explore the landmarks and then find a place for our stay. The details of our time in Panchgani is as given below:

a. Harrison’s Foley view point: This is the first major landmark you come across, even before you actually enter the town. However, we thought of giving it a miss because our next stop was going to give us a view of this Foley as well.

b. Sydney point: We got breathtaking view of the Dhom dam from here. After a long day travelling and walking with our backpacks, we thought this was just a perfect place for us sit down and soak in some relaxing views. We sat down right there on the footpath, facing the dam and spent some peaceful time amid nature. After spending some good time and having all our limbs relaxed, we walked back towards the main road.

c. Table land: Our actual plan was to check-in to a hotel and sleep early that evening. However, we changed our minds and decided to visit the table land to use up our time in the remaining daylight. Sometimes, even with no plans, god really wants you to be at the right place at the right time. That’s how this evening turned out to be. As we went up the road leading to this place, it looked like quite a mela up there. There were so many makeshift shops set up and the place had been littered all around with plastic bottles and wrappers. But, as we walked past the maddening crowds, we saw that the table land was a vast stretch than expected. We decided to walk the entire land before dark. The grassland was naturally gifted with vast stretches of native flowers: all white, purple and yellow. It was a magical place that got us busy photographing the silhouettes of the grazing cattle, the horse riders etc. against a beautiful backdrop of the setting sun. An artificial lake amid the grassland added romance to this place. The sky was painted in all hues with a beaming full moon reflecting in the lake’s water, adding to the spectacle. It felt like as if the sun had gone down sooner that day. With that, we had to scoot out of the place as area suddenly started to feel deserted and had no guiding lamps to the main road.

d. Rajapuri caves: This place falls on the way up to the table land. We were told that the cave has a temple dedicated to lord Ayyappan and hence, women of menstruating age are not allowed inside. With that, we headed back to the town and checked-in to a hotel.

We wanted to have some food that are a must try in Panchgani. So, we dumped all our luggage in the hotel room and set-out to walk around the town, yet again.

  • Panchgani is famous for channa, chikki and fudge: the shops say this all over the place. So. we picked up some of these to carry back home.
  • What caught our attention was a bottle of strawberry wine at a wine store.
  • The day’s events concluded with a sumptuous spicy hot ‘veg Kolhapuri with roti‘ for dinner.

On the following morning, the idea was to be at the table-top for sunrise. However, we snoozed the alarm for a little longer and we woke up only when the hotel staff rang the doorbell. We then started our day with a yummy plate of Poha for breakfast and hired a taxi to our next destination: Mahabaleshwar.

Day 2: One day at Mahabaleshwar

The hill station is a favorite haunt of tourists from the nearby metropolis and afar. Mahabaleshwar can be broadly classified into two parts, the New and the Old. Both have been explained in detail in a separate post as the list of things to see and do in Mahabaleshwar is going to be long.

Kate's point and the elephant head view point at Mahabaleshwar
Kate’s point and the elephant head view point at Mahabaleshwar

Day 3: Satara and Khas Plateau

This day was the sole reason that had got us to plan this entire trip. We woke up early to reach Khas plateau for sunrise and get some wonderful photographs. Being early gave us the benefit of avoiding the scorching sun and also to escape the crowds that would normally pour in at a later time.

Apart from my visit to Khas plateau that requires a separate post, I am listing the places of interest around Satara town for those wishing to explore this region:

a. Around Khas plateau: If you have sometime in hand, you can drive further from the Khas lake to reach the boating village of Bamnoli and take a boat tour to Vasota fort or Tapola.
b. Vajrai and Thoseghar waterfalls: These picturesque places were a disappointment when we arrived there as these are mainly rainfed cascades.
c. Chalkewadi windmill station: Considering that we had visited a windmill station earlier, back in our home state and to save time, we gave this place a miss.
d. Forts for the history buffs: Sajjangad, Ajinkyatara, Pratapgad, Kalyangad are places that can all be covered, but only with the convenience of having own transport. We skipped our visits since we were largely dependent on public transportation and taxi service that was expensive.
e. Natraj temple: This ancient structure located in the center of Satara town, is worth visiting

The Pink balsam carpet at Khas valley
The Pink balsam carpet at Khas valley

Food to try in Satara:

  • Kandi peda: This is a specialty sweet of this region
  • Zunka baakri: This is roti made of a locally available variety of maize, we had it for a late lunch that kept us filled throughout our return journey.
  • Fresh strawberry with cream in Mahabaleshwar.

We boarded a bus back to Bengaluru and thus, ending a long weekend in Satara.

The papersweet of Athreyapuram

This was a part of our family’s five state road trip covering Chhattisgarh – Odisha – Andhra – Telangana – Karnataka in Dec’20.

The visit to the place described in this post was impromptu. While I had just woken up at Rajahmundry and was scrolling through the watsapp status updates of some of my contacts, I happened to see a post with green paddy fields that was captioned as ‘Andhra’s best kept secret- Konaseema’. The videos of my friend driving around those green paddy fields and through the roads lined with coconut trees had me hooked instantly. For a moment, I was reminded of the Kuttanad or Karavali regions of the neighboring states. I looked up on Google and realized that I was just around. As per the original plan, we were supposed to leave for Bengaluru by Afternoon. The drive to Konaseema was in the opposite direction. But, noting a few special things to do in this region, I managed to convince my family to allow me to drive for about 30 additional kilometers before returning to Bengaluru.

Firstly, we drove through the Dowleshwaran barrage. It is one of the chief sources for water based agriculture to the several villages in the surrounding. This heritage barrage passes over the group of islands created by river Godavari. The lush greenery and sandy beaches of these islands seemed to me like they were gleaming in joy from the nourishment of mother Godavari. We were told that boat rides to these islands can be availed during early mornings by talking to the local villagers. For now, we couldn’t afford it on our schedule and hence, proceeded by adding it to our to-visit list. The destination that I wished to visit in Konaseema on this trip was a tiny village called Athreyapuram.

The serene roads of Konaseema

After crossing the Dowleshwaran barrage, the roads suddenly transformed from noisy and dusty to a serene and scenic stretch with lagoons, banana plantations, paddy fields and palm fringed canals. With number of tiny shops suddenly lining the road, we did notice that we had entered Athreyapuram. But the drive and the scenery was so serene that we lost track and drove past the village and gone ahead. We came into our senses only when we realized that there was no sight of any more shops on the road. What shops? These are shops that sell a traditional sweet of Andhra Pradesh called Putharekulu. What’s so special about this Andhra sweet one may ask. This is a snack that looks like paper and tastes like sweet.

It was several years ago that I had tasted this peculiar looking paper at one of the events hosted by the department of Khadi & cottage industries. But it was long forgotten and the memories were rekindled by the early morning watsapp post. It had gotten me all drooling until I reached Athreyapuram. This tiny village is where this sweet paper was invented! For an unassuming person, it looks like lot of ghee, nuts and jiggery is rolled into a super thin white tissue paper before eating. But it is not just the ghee and the jaggery that gives it its flavors, making of this paper is in itself a labour intensive job.

We returned back looking out for a shop and we stopped at a small family run establishment. The excited family demonstrated the steps of making a perfect roll of this traditional Andhra sweet. Boxes of authentic Putharekulu were the souvenirs we bought for our friends and family. Here, is a small video on our drive around Athreyapuram and the demonstration of making Putharekulu.

A tour of Athreyapuram

This is my humble attempt to promote local tourism and help small businesses in these trying times. Please try to reach out to them and order your favorite local products from around India.

What is that one favourite souvenir you have bought from your travels? Please do share your thoughts on this post with me. I would love to hear them.

Happy Ten, TheLostLander

There is no big leap, only baby steps. TheLostLander celebrates a decade on the cloud!

‘The Lost Lander’ celebrates her birthday in February, virtually and literally! 10 years ago, I hosted my first blog on the world-wide web a.k.a. the cloud. And a few decades prior to this, I came kicking to this badass world… Both in February!

It all started with a concept of having a scrapbook. I would write about special moments and save all the memories from pleasant trips by pasting the tickets in a book. As the book started to get filled and weigh bulky, I eventually learnt about a thing called “blogging”. All I knew about this fancy terminology was that people wrote what they wanted and posted it in a space called internet cloud. So, that’s how I opened my account on a platform called ‘Blogspot’. Honestly, I don’t remember the timeline and this screenshot from the now de-func ‘BlogSpot’ page is what reminded me that it was way back in 2011.C.E. that I first created a page for myself on BlogSpot and posted personal content for two years.

My first blog page on blogspot

I was somehow not happy with the aesthetics of my page when I saw other bloggers creating content on fancy looking websites. While browsing, one of the earliest websites on this space, a site called as www.thelightbaggage.com is something that really triggered a new direction for my content. Mr. Arun is one of the earliest travel bloggers whom I followed and continue to admire for his dedication to explore and document offbeat and lesser-known places till date. Meanwhile, a friend suggested that I change my platform to ‘WordPress’ to host my website. That’s when I exported my existing content to a new platform (WordPress), built my feature rich website from scratch and picked a random (fancy-sounding) blog-name for myself. Back then, I had no idea what and why people wrote blogs. That’s perhaps the reason for choosing my blog name as well… ‘The Lost Lander’ on a clueless mission to explore the web and the world.

Not even in my wildest dreams had I thought that I would come this long. For me, what started as a transition from a paper-back scrapbook to a virtual book-keeping of special memories, has today evolved and grown into a full-fledged web space to discuss travel.

With a focus on travel writing, the need to create content for my site encouraged me to embark on newer travels and that in turn led me to writing more. Yes, with so much content and less readership, I make no denial that there has been a low phase too. The website went into a year or two with absolutely no content. ‘A phase of self-discovery’, they call it in philosophy. But that’s when a few friends at my workplace discovered ‘The Lost Lander’ and motivated the innate writer in me to create more content. With that, I started to write again and tried to improve its structuring with continuous feedback from well-wishers who read it.

Parallelly, each travel gave me a newer perspective on things. Wildlife tourism, heritage walks, architectural tourism, cultural tourism, Agri-tourism, Industrial tourism, art-study tours, tribal tours, eco-tours, biking, trekking, spiritual tours, culinary tours, ancestral tourism- I hadn’t imagined that I would learn so many forms of travel existed and that I would enjoy EACH of it in wholesome! With that, my travel preferences and style too evolved. From being one who crammed up a trip schedule with as many places as possible on the itinerary to slow travel, from family vacations to road trips with friends, from solo travel to leading a group of people on treks, from being a quick one to post a trip itinerary to being mindful of responsible travel, I have grown!

Noting the consistency and the honesty in my content, I got lucky that brands started to approach me with opportunities to collaborate. A few were paid and a few were barter. And the urge to vent out my travel stories paved way to a few publications in National and local newspapers along with some magazines as well. Although I don’t consider myself a good photographer, a few photos from my website saw the light of the day by getting featured on prominent sites as well. While at this, the sustenance on the cloud too, started to become extremely competitive. From the basic need of setting up a website to maintaining it so that my website shows up somewhere there, Blogging has thrown open an entire universe to me. I learnt tools and terms like SEO, Analytics, Traffic, Keywords, backlink generation and so many other things.

Since the last decade, ‘The Lost Lander’ has only been on a continuous journey of learning, growing and evolving. And without the constant support of YOU wonderful readers, this wouldn’t have been possible. Positive feedback has been taken with humility and criticism is welcomed with equal respect. Constructive criticism is what motivates me to learn more. While I try to take this journey forward, I request you all to shower me with your support and blessings!

Lots of Love,
The Lost Lander

A personal chronology of Deepawali celebration

The list starts from 2015, a religious celebration of the festival of love and lights- Deepawali. Well, I’m not a religious person who would indulge in ritualistic prayers and pooja on any festival. But what started as travelling during this season to utilise my unused leaves combined with maintenance shutdown period at my workplace, has somehow religiously stuck on as a ritual of travelling to a new place, every year.

Circa 2015- Tamil Nadu:
My brother and I ventured out on our backpacking roadtrip to Tamil Nadu, Kumbakonam to Pondicherry. Well, this was an adventurous start I guess, we had to cut short our trip due to a cyclone that had battered the east coast. Result: Crazy floods and crazy drive through the flooded areas. On the main festival day, we had reached Chidambaram- a must read post about our experience. A bad one then, a memorable one now.

A flooded village near the Indian east coast after a cyclone
The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram

Circa 2016- Assam:
This was my first solo trip ever and the first time in the north-eastern part of India. After exploring Meghalaya, I had tagged along with a couple of other fellow travellers. We happened to experience one of the most beautiful Deepawali sights. First, the drive through the lamp lit national highway, then watching the best sunset over river Brahmaputra onboard a ferry to Majuli and the crazy ass lamp lit welcome on the Majuli island.

An image of the daily life in Majuli shot during sunset
Sunset at Majuli

Circa 2017- Karnataka:
After a crazy long year of travelling across India, my friends and I decided to have a simple deepawali roadtrip, closer home in the western ghats. We drove to the famous Agumbe ghats and the places around.

Circa 2018- Himachal Pradesh:
One of THE best solo trips of my life, where I couldn’t find a single traveller to tag along through the entire trip. This thus, became a thorough personal and local experience in the Spiti valley. On the day of Deepawali, I was on my way back with a brief stopover at Shimla. A trip that made an impact on me, perhaps forever.

the view of the Kinnaur Kailash mountains at Sangla
Sunset view from Sangla bus stand

Circa 2019- Kerala:
A solo weekend exploring Varkala, it was a short one but yet overwhelming. It was a happy-hippy trip, in a true sense.

Sunset from Varkala Cliff
The sunset from Varkala cliff on Deepavali 2019

Circa 2020- Karnataka:
Fears of travelling afar due to Covid-19, personal commitments and taking advantage of working from home, this was the longest duration I spent in my hometown in the last 15 years. Quite unlikely to mention the highlights, but the Deepawali of 2020 indeed tops all the above from the list.

Paddy and coffee plantation in Kodagu
The view of the farm, from our ancestral home in Kodagu

Circa 2021 – West Bengal: This was a trip that was planned on a whim by 2 of my friends and me, where my brother joined in at the last minute. It was a completely new kind of Deepawali celebration which we experienced during trip. Large pandals setup at every 100meters to celebrate Kali Pooja was something unknown to us about Siliguri in the state of West Bengal. That night, we reached ‘Manebhanjang’ a small town located at the entrance of the Sandakphu trek to the Singalila ridge, the highest point of West Bengal. It was yet another experience to witness an amalgamation of Gurkha, Buddhist, and Hindu culture in the way this town celebrates its festival of lights. Much like the carol singers during Christmas, people form into small teams and go from door to door singing, dancing, and spreading joy and blessings.

Circa 2022- Saudi Arabia: It’s a first time for me to spend Deepawali out of my home country but still in accordance to my tradition of visiting a new place during the festival. This time, work brought me here. Although there wasn’t much we could do like in India, some shopping for sweets at Indian sweet meat shops was a little bit of home we brought for ourselves while staying away from homeland. But, I feel grateful for this opportunity and experience life has brought to me during this Deepawali that has helped me to grow into a little stronger person I was when left India.

What are your stories about celebrating Deepawali / Diwali? What do you do normally?

Celebrating the festival of Love and lights at Varkala

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.

A demonstration of playing the hand pan/ Hapi pan by the vendor

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!

My friend enjoying her time with the happy pan (Image blurred intentionally)

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 😊

My visit to the Golden island

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.

The sunset from Varkala cliff on Deepavali 2019

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.

My sea view dinner table at Varkala

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.

Kappil beach

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?

Exploring Vidarbha on a Long Weekend

Vidarbha- the region consisting of Nagpur and Amravati derives its name from the epic city of Mahabharata. With several references made in Ramayana and Mahabharatha, it is not just historically important, but is also economically important as it is a mineral rich region in Central India. Vidarbha is a cultural melting pot with its strong influence in culture, history and geography of the country.

When opportunity knocks at your door, grab it! That’s what I did.. A friend was getting hitched at Amravati and the nearest airport for me to fly down was at Nagpur. So this time, it was an opportunity to explore the Vidarbha region. But that came with its set of challenges. It is one of the hottest places in India and the ceremonies were scheduled during the peak of the summer season. So, my colleagues and I decided to hire a self-drive car to ease the travel hassles of local transport. We wanted to visit the prominent landmarks around the region. There are a plenty of them. Hence, the itinerary was planned such that all major landmarks around Nagpur were covered on a single stretch before hitting the highway for the night’s stay at Amravati. Along with that, the region offers its own delectable cuisine. We wanted to include some of the popular dishes/snacks on our list as well.

So, I present my visit to Vidarbha in two parts. One, listing the landmarks visited and second, with a list of food to try in the region.

Part 1: Places to see in Nagpur and Amravati

  1. The geographical centre of India before partition: The ‘zero’ milestone is from where all distances were measured and highways originated in India, before Pakistan was formed. For all the hype around this place on social media, I was surmised to see that it was poorly maintained and is located in a corner of a busy main road. I had imagined it to be centrally located at some kind of a junction on a busy road.
IMG_20180324_190242
The zero milestone of undivided India

2. The DeekshaBhoomi meditation centre: This is where Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution is said to have given his first sermon after he converted to Buddhism.

3. The Swaminarayan temple was a beautiful place located within Nagpur city. The Dragon palace temple and Ramdham Park are some other places located within the city if you have more time in leisure. The lakes in the city can easily be given a miss. However, some heritage structures like churches, schools and the railway station lend an old-world charm to the city.

IMG-20180324-WA0062
Swaminarayan Mandir

4. Adasa Ganesh temple: This visit can be done by taking a small deviation before hitting back the same highway.

5. Mansar: This is an archaeologically important site, believed to be of Pravarapura, an erstwhile capital of the Vakataka kingdom that ruled the Vidarbha region.

6. Ramtek: Located at about 5kms from Mansar, this is considered to be a holy hill to people of all faiths. ‘Gad Mandir’, an old beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Ram is situated atop a hillock. Solitude is available in abundance here with a great view of the entire area. The Ramtek hills is also believed to be a place where the mythological King, Kalidas wrote his epic poem- ‘Meghdoot’. There are several places that are significant among the Jains and Buddhists too that are located in the vicinity.

7. The Ambala Lake: The ghats of the lake located at the base of the Ramtek hills are lined with beautiful ancient structures and was my favourite place of the trip.

8. Khindsi Lake: Get yourself cooled with some water sports (recommended if you have leisure time at your disposal.)

9. Nagerdhan fort: Soak in history at the erstwhile capital town of the Vakataka dynasty. (Recommended only if you have some more time for leisure.) It is a further 10kms drive from Ramtek.

10. Pench National park: Don’t miss an opportunity to stay over and do some tiger sighting in the land of ‘The Jungle Book’. It is the same forest where the story of Mowgli and Bhageera is based at, that we have all grown up watching and listening to.

There are a lot of scenic places around Pench that I can help you with if you are planning to stay over at one of the jungle lodges. We did not have the luxury of time as we had to drive back all the way as our stay was booked at Amravati. The Amravati region is home to several wildlife sanctuaries and temples that can be accommodated if you’re traveling on a luxury of time and an own vehicle, which we had to give a miss.

11. Chikaldhara: The highest point of Vidarbha region and the only hill station is located in Amravati. For a person like me hailing from the coffee hills, it was quite exciting to know that Amravati is the only coffee growing region in Maharashtra state.

Part 2: Food and Sweets to try in Nagpur

Talking about the highlight of this trip, it was definitely the FOOD!! The Varadi and Saoji are the two popular cuisines of the Vidarbha region. So, it was a culinary treat for our taste buds to experiment on something fiercely spicy and so rustic in taste. While our day started with delicious plates of ‘Poha with Tarri’ and ‘Samosa Tarri’ for breakfast at one of the several roadside tapris, lunch was a simple delectable Varadi thali at the ‘Gad Mandir Bhojanalay’. We managed to find space in our tummies for street food with several pit stops along the way that tasted heavenly and ended our day with a grand non-veg varadi menu for supper at a star hotel where we were put up for the night.

IMG_20180401_143553
The Varadi food that kept us going!

Nagpur is synonymous with oranges and the brand ‘Haldirams’. So, the visit would have been incomplete without trying the ‘Orange Burfi’ at one of the Haldirams outlets spread across the city. Do pick up a box of ‘Mango soan rolls’ from Heera sweets to please your sweet tooth along your return trip!

With the short time of a weekend that we had, this was the best we could accommodate in our schedule. Tell me what other things would you recommend to do, see and experience in Nagpur and Amravathi?

The home of the Indian National Emblem- Saranath

This visit to Saranath is a part of my fortnight long backpacking in the typical pilgrimage circuit of Uttar Pradesh covering Lucknow- Ayodhya- Faizabad- Varanasi- Saranath- Allahabad- Agra- Mathura-Brindavan- Fathehpur Sikri– Delhi

This article was featured in Toyota’s in-house magazine ‘Carz’ Apr~Jun’18 edition

The Details:

Back then, I had read history for the heck of passing the subject and today here I am… Travelling to know more about the rich history soaked heritage of my country… And in the pursuit, my friend and I stumbled upon this little forgotten land from the pages of history- Saranath. It was as if the history textbooks of primary school were walking alive with us… Saranath is an important destination both religiously and historically. So, people of varied interests can be found strolling the streets of Saranath. When we alighted, a volunteer offered to take us for a guided tour around the place and we nodded a yes! A couple of visitors from different countries joined us seeking me to be their translator while the Hindi speaking guide took us around. So I was doubling as a curious traveler and a travel guide cum translator.

Firstly, Saranath is the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon to the five disciples after attaining enlightenment. Hence, a very important place religiously for the Buddhists. Today, the Chaukhandi Stupa, an octagonal structure made of brick and mortar stands at the very same place welcoming the visitors to this town. It was originally built in the Gupta era and later renovated during the Mughal rule.

As I explored the place, I realized that people from different countries have made their presence with Buddha temples built in their native styles of architecture. The Nepali, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Bhutanese etc. to name a few. While each temple style is unique and beautiful, you realize that the statue of Lord Buddha too is different in each of them. Buddha is worshipped in different forms in different countries… Seated Buddha, sleeping Buddha, standing Buddha, meditating Buddha ET all… The murals inside the Japanese temple grabbed my attention… I was told that the complete interiors is made of sandalwood… The idol, palanquin, the doors and even the chandeliers!

A small walk from there, is ‘Mulagandha Kuti Vihar’, the Nepali temple. What makes this place special is the third generation peepal tree adjacent to its premises. Fondly called as the grandson of the Bodhi tree, it is grown from a twig of a peepal tree believed to be the son of the original Bodhi tree that exists in Sri Lanka. With prayer chants and smell of incense in the air, it is truly a place of calm and solitude. We were quick to pick a few leaves of this holy tree as a souvenir from this little place.

IMG_20170309_121021
The Thai temple

Next, it was some history time! We bought an entry ticket at the ASI counter to take a stroll around the ruins surrounding the Dhammek stupa. It is believed that the Mauryan emperor Ashoka had built small clay mounds at ten places where the ashes, the urn and the embers of Lord Buddha were buried which were eventually refurbished as large stupas by the different rulers in the course of history. Dhammek stupa is believed to be one among these ten stupas and hence, a very important one for the Buddhist pilgrims who throng here from across the globe. And that very place where the Indian National emblem was born! The pillar on which the four headed lion is seated was commissioned by emperor Ashoka to commemorate his visit to Saranath. The broken part of the pillar was found during the excavations of this site and later transferred to the ASI museum in Saranath. Today, the bottom portion of the pillar surrounded by four posts holding a stone slab are the things remaining from the original relics at the exact same spot. One way it is nice that nobody has tried to restore this pillar back as the easy accessibility to it would have got the emblem all over the internet with the insensitive photo/selfie-enthusiastic tourists.

IMG_20170309_135651
The site of Ashoka pillar with the Dhammek Stupa in the backdrop

A visit to Saranath would definitely be incomplete without getting a glimpse of the ORIGINAL National emblem of India. We deposited our valuables including cameras and cellphones in lockers provided along with the entry ticket to the ASI museum and headed to THE place. A chill ran down my spine on being greeted by this majestic sandstone structure bearing the lion capital, the original form of our National emblem. The four headed Asiatic Lion is seated on a lotus- The national flower of India. Our guide narrated the religious relevance of the emblem in Buddha’s life. The lion represents Buddha himself who stressed upon equality and justice in all spheres of life (all 4 directions). While Gautama was in his mother’s womb- she had a dream of a white elephant entering her womb representing prosperity. The bull represents the young prince Siddhartha’s strength, the horse depicts Siddhartha’s renouncing his royal life and Lion is the depiction of Siddhartha’s transformation into Buddha. When Baby Siddhartha learnt to walk, a lotus bloomed under his feet after the first seven steps and the lotus is said to have faded at the passing away of the Lord- Hence, the inverted lotus. The Ashoka wheel is called the Dharma Chakra, representing the movement of life with 24 spokes- each for the hours of a day… It is true to admit that the national emblem evoked a sense of pride in my heart.

Ours is such a rich country in terms of history, culture and heritage! Every stone in India has a tale to tell… Having been restricted from the access of shutterbugs makes this sight all the more valuable and meaningful! There are several other sculptures and artefacts in this museum making it THE BEST museum day in my life!

The last leg of our Saranath walk tour was a visit to the handloom centre where demonstration of weaving a Banarasi saree was given and there it concludes! Sometimes you end up having this feeling of unplanned trips are the best things to happen… And Saranath is one such place!

Conclusion Remarks:

  • Must do– Walk tour of the town
  • Must see– The Original form of the Indian National emblem at the ASI museum
  • Best souvenir– The leaves of the Grandson of the Bodhi tree.
  • How to reach– There is a railway station in Saranath. It is more convenient to hire an autorickshaw for a 30minute ride from Varanasi.
  • Stay– There are several Dharamshalas run by people from different countries.

A Weekend at the Land of Ramayana- Ayodhya

This visit to Ayodhya is a part of my fortnight long backpacking in the typical pilgrimage circuit of Uttar Pradesh covering Lucknow- Ayodhya- Faizabad- Varanasi- Saranath– Allahabad- Agra- Mathura-Brindavan– Fathehpur Sikri– Delhi

We were scheduled to arrive at the land of Ramayana- The Epic of Indian Mythology! Ayodhya is believed to be built by Manu, the first man on earth as per the Vedas. This land was the capital of Ikshvaku dynasty of Suryavamsha- lineage of the Sun, of which Lord Ram was the most popular ruler. Lord Ram has been revered as a symbol of a perfect man. Irrespective of religion, every child born in India grows up listening to stories from the Ramayana. Young girls grow with dreams of having a husband similar to Lord Ram. That said, it was no less a dream to travel all the way to the land where the greatest empire of all times existed, at Ayodhya.

Our Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Arrive at Ayodhya, Lakshman ghat & Saryu Aarti during sunset, boat ride in river Saryu
  • Day 2: Saryu Aarti during sunrise, Treta Ke Thakur, Ram ki Paidi, Nageshwarnath temple, Hanuman Garhi, Dashrath Mahal, Kaikeyi Mahal, Baal Ram Mandir, Dant Dhawan kund, Kanak Bhawan, Ram janmabhoomi, return to Faizabad.

The Details:

A small platform which ended even before the train made its 1 minute long stop, very laid back village scene and just 2 tracks with a yellow ‘AYODHYA’ railway board welcomed us as we arrived there by an afternoon train. An old man and his cycle rickshaw awaited us on the other side of the tracks. We told him our hotel’s name and he said 50 Rs. We hopped on to the cycle and our dream journey kickstarted!

It was as if the rickshaw was our time machine that took us back in time as it slowly inched through the main commercial area.. A typical rural setup. Dusty roads were flanked by old tenements on both sides from end to end. The rich embossings on the facades of each house was unique and gave us a sense of an era bygone. Each house enclosed a shrine from where the smell of incense had filled the environment. The main street had everything being sold in the stalls from colourful plastic ware, brass souvenirs, religious beads, clay articles et all. The Chai-wallas were busy serving their brew in clay cups and the Jalebi-wallas were spiraling the batter into hot oil. Fruit vendors did brisk business on carts.. Amid all this, the prayer chants of ‘Ram Siya Ram, Siya Ram Jai Jai Ram’ from the temples in the bylanes echoed in the air giving us the sense of a heavy atmosphere. There was so much character in this small stretch! Just as if we were woken up from a dream, our rickshaw halted and our driver broke the silence- “Madam, your hotel.” he said pointing out at a very modern building which looked very sophisticated for an otherwise laid back country side.

We freshened up and had a rather sumptuous meal at their inhouse restaurant. It was already sunset time and upon enquiring about the nearest sightseeing places, our hotel caretaker told us to head towards the ghats to catch the Saryu Aarti. We had to rush as the sun was nearing the horizon. While we were asking for directions and running towards the Lakshman Ghat, my friend and I stopped abruptly at a sight.. The first glance of the Ayodhya that we had heard about, as kids. A visual treat that looked straight out of a fairy tale. ‘This is AYODHYA, Man!” we both blurted in unison. The oblique rays of the setting sun added a glorious gold to this Royal beauty. Although the structure is relatively new from the 19th century or so and not the original Kingdom that Ram had spent his days at, we stood there dumbfounded for a couple of minutes. After taking an eyeful of it, we walked towards the Lakshman Ghat where the Aarti was about to begin. We hitched a boat ride across river Saryu and back, from where we watched the aarti. Upon return to the river bank, we took a rickshaw to the Hanuman garhi main road to get our dose of kulladwala chai before calling it a day.

IMG_20170307_070712
Our “The AYODHYA view” at Lakshman ghat

Next day, we woke up early to reach the ghats for the aarti during sunrise. Post that, we took a walk along the chawl photographing the artistic friezes. We explored the inside streets and the several temples inside those ancient tenements. Treta Ke Thakur, Ram ki Paidi, Nageshwarnath temple are all in this surrounding. We got talking to several residents both Muslims and Hindus and they all seemed excited to share what Ram meant to them. For some Lord Ram was a brother, for some a father and a son for some.. A curious family from the chawl even invited us over to their house for breakfast and took us across the fortress to introduce us to their relatives.. We were deeply moved by the innocence and simplicity of these people. We then bid a warm goodbye and headed towards the heart of the town..

From there, we reached the Hanuman Garhi, an important temple built on a fortified walled structure high above the ground level. Lord Hanuman is believed to have had kept a vigil on Lord Ram as a kid. A man offered to guide us around other important temples around the place. Some being Dashrath Mahal, Kaikeyi Mahal, Baal Ram Mandir, Dant Dhawan kund among the important places out of the 7500+ temples that are believed to exist in Ayodhya. Some of these places accepted donation towards the construction of the Ram temple. One’s name would be then sculpted out on a tile or a block of stone which would be used in the construction of the temple, that the localites were hopeful would be built someday, soon.

Kanak Bhawan was the highlight of the places with its architectural beauty. This structure is said to have been entirely plated with gold (Kanak) back when Kaikeyi had gifted it to Sita during Ramayana. A board on the wall explains the evolution and modifications done over different periods and by different rulers who ruled Ayodhya. We attended the aarti at noon before heading towards THE PLACE!! “Ram Janmabhoomi”.

Being one of the MOST controversial areas in India, we had to deposit all the things in a safety locker including watches, water bottles, cameras- basically everything before entering the premises of the birth place of Ram! Rifle armed commandos guarded the entire area. We had a long queue and four rounds of frisking to really get there. Women guards frisked us in really uncomfortable places and it was a strange experience to go through, inside our own country. I was made to throw away even the vermillion I had kept in my pocket from the Hanuman Garhi temple because they couldn’t trust me on carrying random powder.

With all the embarrassment, uncomfort, tiredness in the scorching sun- when we finally made it there: I did not realize that it was Lord Ram’s birth place. The King of Ayodhya!!! Small idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman were placed inside a Swiss tent as if the trio were still continuing their vanavas in the Kaliyug. Off-beat camping in a deforested jungle. I had still not come into belief that this is how India’s mythological hero was treated in his own house. I burst into tears and I didn’t have a reaction. I went berserk for a while until my friend calmed me down.

We couldn’t visit the Ayodhya research centre which has lot of information collected from across the world about Ramayana and the holy land of Ayodhya. Mani Parvat on the outskirts is another place I would suggest if you have time which gives a good view of Ayodhya. Although a 20Rs. per head ride in a tempo can take you to Faizabad, the district headquarters; I would recommend you to take a 1000Rs. boat ride along the Saryu which will take you to Ram Ghat at Faizabad for the evening aarti.

Summary:

My entire stay here has been a great one with both Hindus and Muslims coexisting and helping me get around the place. Never did I feel the communal rife. It is one BIG political ticket for easy votes and in interest of no social harmony. Like really!! When there is Ali in Diwali and Ram in Ramzan, do we really need to fight in the name of God??? The question needs to be pondered over…

Fact file:

Must buys: Chillums (clay pipes), handmade religious cotton carry bags.
Must dos: Get a glance of the Ramayana trail on the India map at the Ayodhya research centre, boat ride from Lakshman ghat(Ayodhya) to the Ram ghat (Faizabad)