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.
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.
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.
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?
The people on the east coast are the God’s chosen ones to have a grand celebration of festivals.. Tsunami for Christmas.. Cyclones for Diwali..!! All does not go quite well for these innocent people. Almost entire city of Chennai is drowning due to the record breaking incessant rains.. and other districts along the eastern coast have suffered even worse losses.. People including patients, infants, veterans are suffering the worst among all- Travel is not a parking your butt and firing to glory setup like in Safaris. You need to move yourself to places to experience and explore. I realized this better on my recent trip along the eastern shoreline of India.
It was a bright sunny day when we started from Kumbakonam. But, like I have already mentioned in my previous post, It had been raining incessantly over the last couple of days. The original plan was to take a bus to Cuddalore town from Kumbakonam from where we would head to Pichavaram mangroves. However, by travelling to Gangaikondacholapuram, we had already covered half way to Chidambaram(Through a different route) and so we decided to continue on the same route and then take a bus to Pichavaram.
Our parents had been trying to contact us to ensure our safety and not to venture near the sea coast. We were informed that a deep depression alert had been called by the Met. Dept. in Chennai, Cuddalore and Pondicherry owing to Cyclone-Roanu in the Bay of Bengal. When we checked the news online, we got to know about the weather conditions, but since the day was bright, we did not take our Met. Quite seriously and decided to take a chance by continuing with the plan. From GK cross, we got a bus to Mannarkudi from where we were supposed to take another one. However, the conductor told us that the road was blocked the previous night due to a tree that was uprooted. Although cleared, he wasn’t sure if the route was worthy for us to go. Without really understanding the seriousness of his advice, we boarded an overly priced private bus which ferried us to Chidambaram. Our road was flanked by the Kollidam until most stretch. The river looked beautiful as the sun rays sneaking from amid the thick clouds reflected on the brown waters while she was flowing in full spate leading into the Grand Anicut which was filled till its max.limit. From there on, started an eye-opening travel saga..
Little distance ahead, we saw that the river and the road met at their corners at most turns. Gradually, the river overflowed crossing the road at some places. Our bus crossed the river at these junctions. And gradually, the water level increased covering the road for stretches in kilometers. Our driver was a real super star- who could figure out exactly where the road lied in the ground where water was above the tyre height. A slight slip in the road meant fatal where the entire bus with about 25-30 passengers could get washed away by the strong currents of the spiteful river. I had only seen such things in the news.. Now I was right there, witnessing the scene first hand: Stretches of villages laid submerged ahead. We could see the utensils floating around while the water was filled above waist level. At some places, the thatched roofs and the hay huts had given way.. Hundreds of hapless people were standing by the roadside staring at the void that the rain had created in their lives. It was a heart rendering sight. However, our driver remained focused and drove us across to reach the safe harbor at Chidambaram in just a while. If a night’s rain could wreak so much havoc, I DON’T want to imagine the condition of Tamil Nadu (especially, such remote villages) when a month’s rain poured down in just a day..!!
It was around 03.00.p.m. and we alighted right infront of the Thillai Nataraja temple at Chidambaram which remained closed until 04.00.p.m. Hence, we decided to drop the luggage at the hotel that was booked online and look out for some food since we hadn’t eaten since morning except for a pack of biscuits. When we were shown our room- we were a little perplexed. The bedsheets looked extremely old, torn and dirty. I checked the bathroom which was a bigger turn off. The toilet floor was covered with a thick layer of algae, slush and mud that had accumulated over years and unwashed ever since it was set-up. The flush lever was broken, the taps rusted and unhygienic bucket & mug. My brother and I looked at each other’s face- and both knew what was running in each other’s mind. We were feeling so suffocated inside that room and opened a window to get some air.. And there, a nasty breeze smelling heavily of booze hit our noses.. I said, “Let us keep our bags here and go around the town to find another hotel, come back and check-out”. However, my brother was apprehensive about leaving our bags there too.. But, he nodded an OK upon insisting. We were too tired to walk around with our bags all over since we were extremely hungry. We started to walk down the stairs and as if the injury wasn’t enough- I happened to step on a large mess of barf, thrown up by some drunkard on the stairs and slip down a couple of steps. I have done innumerable budget travel and THAT was the WORST EVER experience..!!
I maintained my calm but my brother gave up.. He started to pester me to go back to Bangalore. I said, “Let me first wash my feet in some clean place and visit the temple which must have opened by now; find some food and then decide.” Somewhere in my mind, I still wanted to complete my trip. But, yet wasn’t sure.
The temple is an architectural marvel, having contributions from various dynasties of the south that patronized art. Each and every stone, pillar, strut, beam and tile has either a scientific or religious significance. This temple is spread over 40acres and has 9 gateways representing 9 orifices of a human body. We entered through the west tower which is the inspiration for the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam where all the 108 postures have been carved on. The 109th posture is reserved for the Sanctum where Shiva is represented in a dancing posture. Prayers are offered 6 times in a day and we had rightly reached there for the 4th one at 05.00.p.m. We witnessed the holy ritual of curtain parting and got a wonderful darshan of the Shiva in his three forms- The ‘Form’ as the anthropomorphic Nataraja in his Ananda Thandava posture-The posture of eternal bliss, the ‘Semi-form’ of crystalised Linga and the ‘Form-less’ as empty space representing the element ether/Akasha identified by a garland of 51 Bilwa leaves of gold adorning the empty space behind the curtain.
Legend has it that Shiva realized that he was losing a dancing competition to his wife Parvathi and scared of facing defeat to a women, performed the Oorthava thandava knowing the weakness of a women. This posture required Parvathi to lift her leg above her head level and so shied away from doing it in public. Having been frustrated with this attitude of Shiva, she decided to leave him. The furious avatar of Parvathi is worshipped at the Thillai Kaliamman kovil on the city outskirts where she is said to have been calmed down by lord Bramha and asked to stay. That is ALL there to see in Chidambaram.
Pichavaram, the second largest mangrove forest in the world lies 20kms away from this city. The thillai trees that grow here is the one that gives its first name to the Nataraja temple. It is believed that Shiva got his attire of tiger skin-moon on matt hair and serpent around his neck while he was travelling through these Thillai forests. But, due to the continued weather alert, we decided to forego the plan to continue the trip further. Then, we walked the WHOLE of Chidambaram town, and it was JUST CLOSED for Deepawali- with NO RESTAURANTS..!! The entire town was SOO DIRTY with garbage littered around everywhere.. We found only ONE supermarket open in the entire place and we got a cup of sweet corn to sate our tired souls. We decided to LEAVE the city the same night and NEVER return back. We booked our return tickets and checked out from the hotel.
Our city woes did not end there.. We had 3 hours more to kill and were told we’d find a decent restaurant near the bus stand. And so, we found this AC luxury restaurant- ‘Vandayar- Southern Spice’ serving only fried rice when we reached there at 07.00.p.m. After repeating our order thrice (for the only dish available) and 2hrs of waiting while some VIP guests were attended to with a feast of all the dishes on the menu, we walked out of the restaurant in frustration. As we walked out, there was power cut. In a dark and dingy bus-stand, we spotted the only stall that served tea and some biscuits. The little candle light was just enough for him to reach out to things in the kiosk. We were essentially scared of stamping some more muck that could’ve been laid in the path. And, then google worked- Pointing to another hotel- Saradharam right across the road. We were served tasty food quite fast and we returned to the bus stand. We were delighted with yet another surprise that our bus was delayed by 2 hrs!!! As we waited there in the dark platform of the bust stand, some drunk men started throwing glass bottles at the crowd there. Luckily no-one was injured but the downpour of bottles and splatter of glass pieces continued for a while.
Though we boarded the bus at 10.00.p.m. and caught up some sleep.. Only to be woken up at sunrise after the bus broke down. Although we were given an alternate bus in a while, we were quite anxious until we reached home with the rain that kept pounding continuously ever since the time we boarded the bus at Chidambaram. YES.. We reached home safely in the morning and the story had a HAPPY ending.. 😛
My wish of covering the five main Shiva temples- Checked
Find a place that I swear by not to return back- Checked