Tag Archives: culture

A mind numbing winter experience in Ladakh

So well, thank you for dropping by. This post is an elaborate impromptu itinerary we came up with when we were stranded in Leh, sometime before Ladakh became a separate Union territory. If you’d are interested in planning an itinerary, stick around this post. But, if you’re keen to know the fun story behind our plan going haywire, I recommend you to also read my brother/ co-traveller’s perspective. (Click here to read his story)

Stick around a little more, to know my side of the same story. Then tell me what you liked 🙂

Here’s mine!

What was supposed to be an once in a lifetime experience of trekking on a frozen river- ‘The chadar trek’, rather turned out to be a wonderful experience in its own way.. Thanks to a landslide on the Zanskar, a natural dam had been formed stocking up water for over 5 kms. If incase this natural dam collapsed due to the built up pressure, the stored water would wash away the nearby areas causing flash floods. Hence, citing safety reasons, the goverment had issued ‘section 144 – Shoot at sight’ to anyone attempting to go anywhere close to the river.

We decided to break away from the trek organiser and explore Ladakh on our own.. Oh yeah, before I forget to mention- None of our phones were working(No connectivity via phone or internet)- Thanks to all our pre-paid connections. Only postpaid connections work in this part of the country due to security reasons (given its proximity to disputed border areas). Thus started our lifetime experience of the mind-numbing winters in Ladakh.

Day 1: It was noon by the time our early morning flight took off from Delhi airport, thanks to bad weather conditions. Just 20minutes after take off, a small but prominent layer of cloud seemed to appear at the horizon.. But within no time, we realised that we were approaching the Himalayas. In just few minutes, the GPS indicated Shimla on the map in the TV infront of our seats. A never-ending stretch of deep gorges, ravines, formed the beautiful landscape below. Few minutes further up.. Yes..!!! we couldn’t contain our excitement of flying over the snow covered mighty Himalayan peaks, we were jumping for a spot at the windows taking turns.. It was the first time we were seeing snow! Click click click…. The cameras went on and on… It was as if we were in an enclosure which was floating up in heaven.. It was absolute FEAST to the senses.. all the way… till touch down🙂

You are flying over the Himalayas...
You are flying over the Himalayas…

Inspite of the glaring bright sun, it was 6 below zero degrees when our flight landed at Leh- one of the highest airstrips in the world. We took a cab to the hotel that we were informed by the trek organiser.

The day went by just making an alternative plan for the trek that could not happen. Also, it was necessary to get acclimatized to a scary combo of High altitude + low temperature(It went upto -25deg on some days of our trip). So we just had to stay bummed to our rooms(without heaters..!!) and warmup ourselves 😛 We shopped for a lot of thermals in Leh market (we got cheap & good quality stuff..)

Day 2: It was the last day of the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery– Enroute we visited the ‘Hall of fame‘- the war museum. We happened to be there at the right time when an Indian airforce carrier was about to land. With the Sham valley & other mountain ranges all around the airstrip, it called for the exact photo that had inspired me to visit Ladakh more than a year ago.. We later headed to the monastery where the day long festivities and mask dance was going on.. We walked up the stairs to the holy abode of Kali(which is open for public viewing only during Gustor festival) before we comforted ourselves by finding a seat amid the chaotic crowd that had assembled. After the event, we did a bit of souvenir shopping at the mela that was put up and a lot of binging on Ladakhi food. We took a cab to Shanti Stupa which is best for sunset viewing. After the sun was down, we took the stairs down which we were told was a shortcut to reach Leh town by foot.

Mask dance at the Gustor festival - the annual fair at the Spituk monastary
Mask dance at the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery

Day 3: Drive through Changla pass(the 3rd highest pass in the world) at a nerve freezing temperature: Get a quick grab of food at Karu town. Here one needs to get the Inner Line Permit to proceed towards Pangong Tso- the controversial border between India & China. The lake was partially frozen- where we could drive over most part of it and experience the chadar partially 😛 If one has an extra day, they could head to Tso Moriri, a salt water lake and camp there overnight before returning to Leh. But, we took back the same route so we could cover the Shey Palace, Thikse monastery & got a glimpse of the Rancho school of the ‘3 Idiots’ fame. Hemis monastery- the wealthiest monastery in India remained unreachable by road since it was winter.

A milestone at the Pangong tso
A milestone at the Pangong tso

Day 4: It was a lonng day.. A wonderful drive on a roadless route which seemed to have been carved all out of ice and sprinkled with snow.. A small slip of tyre could get deadly as beautiful as the valley seemed to appear. We couldn’t ask for more when it began to snow just when we alighted at the end of the highest motorable road in the world- the Khardungla pass. Continue on the road that leads to the cold desert of Ladakh- The Nubra valley. With minimal vegetation, and sand dunes all around, you should not be missing out the ride on the Bactrian camels which are endemic to this region and is a critically endangered species. Visit the Diskit monastary- where a 32 feet statue of Maitreya Buddha looks upon Pakistan. Towards the end of the valley is the Siachen glacier- the highest battleground in the world and the glacier forms the source to the biggest irrigation system in the world-The Indus. Catch a good night’s sleep at a traditional homestay there and experience authentic Ladakhi hospitality.

View from a monastary
View from a monastery

Day 5: Start early cuz the day will be short with too many places to cover on a single stretch from Leh. We took the Kargil road- a drive through Sham valley. First stop was at Nimmoo where we filled our fasting tummies. The next quick stopover was at Pattar Sahib Gurudwara. The straight stretch of road looked as if it was peircing right through the horizon. We were driving through the magnetic hill. The road which is believed to have defied gravity where a car with ignition off and neutral gear moves uphill- against gravity..!! We were not quite convinced with our experience though, which made us agree to the scientific explanation of it being an optical illusion. We arrived at Chilling- The confluence of the Indus and Zanskar. The partially frozen stretch was intimidating to walk over.. But we were warned by a cop not to go near the banks.. all thanks to section 144 😛

The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar
The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar

We continued our journey through rustic Ladakhi villages, monasteries dotting the distant hillocks, frozen waterfalls, bare poplar trees, narrow truss bridges, army barracks, hot water springs, ice hockey fields, etc. We came across wild deers, yaks, pashmina sheep, wild horses and other fauna endemic to this high altitude region.. Likir monastery was beautiful with the Buddha statue smiling in between the snow clad mountains all around. Our last destination was Lamayuru monastery– The start point for many treks in this region.

Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of a few more hours and safe conditions at the border to go further upto the Kargil border. We wanted to drive back through Drass valley- The coldest inhabited place in India and the second coldest in the world. Again, If I had an additional day in hand, I would have loved to get an inner line permit to spend a day at DhaHanu valley: home to the endangered community of the Dard people. I would love to go back ASAP atleast to document their customs, traditions, photograph their intricate jewellery and costumes before their numbers further deplete. Had I been blessed with a couple more days, I would want to do the Markha valley trek andand experience the tribal life in its raw & purest form.. And spot a snow leopard in its natural habitat at the Hemis national park- the largest national park in India and the highest national park in the world.

During winters, most of the town is shut for the season. The few places that are up, open after 11.00.a.m and close by 5~6.p.m. We missed out on some fine shopping of souvenirs, local handicrafts and dry fruits.. Probably, some form of connectivity of phone or internet could have helped us to cover more places and organise our trip in possibly a better way.. But, NO REGRETS..!! We’ve still done what most people don’t dare to- Experience the bitter winter of Ladakh. That’s all the time we had for.. We had to pack our bags with a super heavy heart to carry back home..

Day 6: It was a rare phenomenon that we had woken up with that day, early at 6.a.m. It was snowing in Leh. There usually is no snowfall at Leh town… But that day I guess the town had started to miss us… the sky was crying heavily.. We reached the airport by 07.30.a.m. The security measures are very stringent for those leaving Leh which easily needs about 2hrs. 2 rounds of passengers’ frisking and 2 rounds of baggage screening. And then, you have to individually identify your baggage until which it will not be loaded to the flight..!! Quite a strenuous task for the security personnel… While it is considered as a fun trip for the touristy people like us.. It’s a salute to the bravehearts : The Indian army.. Who bare all odds like extreme climatic conditions and unpredictable threats to their lives, strive day and night to ensure that we are safe.. The flight took off over the mountainthat said ‘Touch the sky with glory’.. in the true sense…

I will come back ASAP for more..

Julley Leh..!!

Places to Visit in Trichy in a day

This visit to Trichy was a part of our family’s backpacking trip, mainly conceptualized to cover a portion of the Coromandel coast during this trip. Our itinerary for this trip was Bangalore – Mayiladuthurai – Poompuhar – Tarangambadi – Karaikal – Nagapattinam – Velankanni – Tanjavur – Trichy – Bangalore.

After a long day exploring Tanjavur, we boarded an evening bus to Tiruchirappalli. Trichy is a name given by the British, perhaps the shortened version of the original used for the ease of pronunciation. After reaching the town, we checked into a lodge in front of the central bus stand, had a sumptuous meal and retired early.

  • It was day 3 of our backpacking. The places covered in our Trichy day trip were:
    • The island town of Srirangam
    • Thiruvannaikaval
    • St. Lourdes’s church
    • Rock Fort

The visit in detail:

Since this was not the first visit to Trichy for my parents, this plan was just a Trichy day trip. They wanted to just go around the major landmarks that are typically frequented on a traveler’s circuit. But Trichy is beyond just pilgrimage and ours is a family of explorers. So, in spite of covering these popular landmarks, we still added a few elements of history and architectural explorations into it to make it more meaningful than just going around these places. In fact, as someone who views places from a historian’s perspective, places are usually recognized by a specific dynasty that had an influence in its overall culture. For example, Mahabalipuram is associated with the Pallavas, Tanjavur or Kumbakonam is a major territory of the Cholas, Madurai with the Pandya and so on. But, when it comes to Trichy, this town was never a capital of one particular kingdom. However, it has remained a very important place throughout history and across timelines, thereby picking up influences of all major dynasties that ruled over this region. Hence, it is safe to say that Trichy represents a confluence of all south-Indian architectural styles.
I would like to elaborate on the places we visited to give my readers a brief idea of these places when they plan their trip to Trichy.

Landmark 1: Srirangam

We got ready early next morning and boarded a local bus to Srirangam- the abode of Sri Antya Ranganatha Swamy. This is the Tamilian counterpart of AdiRanga at Srirangapatna and MadhyaRanga in Shivana Samudra (All three are island towns formed by river Kaveri). Srirangam is an important place of worship for the Vaishnava sect of Brahmins or the followers of Lord Vishnu. When we arrive there, there was a long queue and we managed to get a glimpse of the historic idol of Sri Ranganatha sleeping on a serpent after a long wait in the queue. (There is a long history of how this idol came into being, worth a read).

But pilgrimage aside, we were there to enjoy the architectural marvels of the city. If you are someone who loves to walk and explore a place by foot, it would take a good 2-3 hours to simply walk around the main temple complex. Although the main gopuram or the outermost tower is the latest among all the towers in this temple complex, it is the largest temple tower in the world. With a spread of 156 acres, the temple complex itself is believed to be the largest functional temple premises in the world.

The complex consists seven rounds of walls/fortifications before you reach the sanctum sanctorum. Each wall was added by the successive dynasties that reigned in this town including the Pandya, Cholas, Hoysala, Vijayanagar, Pallavas and the others. The art specific to each of these eras can be noticed in the complex. The entire complex has 21 temple gopurams where one could easily get lost in the vastness of the complex if attempting to see each of them individually. After entering the main complex, a ticket of Rs.10 per head took us through narrow stairs leading to the roof of the temple. This is called the temple viewpoint, from where all 21 temple towers could be seen from a single spot. There is also a 1000 pillar hall which was earlier used as a venue to host dance events, now remained locked. We admired the fine sculptures on these pillars through the bars of the closed gates and continued our walk further.

The Antya Ranganathar swamy temple at Srirangam
The Antya Ranganathar swamy temple at Srirangam

The banks of river Kaveri is just behind the temple, which can be accessed by walking through the rear door of the temple. With blazing sun even at 10.00.a.m, the sand and the asphalt road were already heated up. Hence, our barefooted attempt to walk to the riverbank was less a walk and more a run. Hailing from a place where the holy river originates and flows gracefully with water all through the year, it was unexpected and disappointing and to see her riverbed running TOTALLY dry in this part of her journey. But after talking to the localites, I cheered up a bit as they were looking forward for a good monsoon in the coming month. We were told that the river would flow almost in spate during the monsoons (Even submerging the very place that I was standing at). We came back to the temple again, had some fresh fruit juice from one of the stalls outside, wore our footwear and took a walk around the temple.

Big houses, with very small entrance, compactly built next to each other, allowing no or very less ventilation inside was the trademark style of Srirangam. These streets take pride in being home to one of the highly educated communities of the country- the Iyengar Brahmins.

Oh yeah…!! It was BURNING hot and I was pretty sure I’d go back home like a grilled chicken after this walk. But then, we wanted to make the most of the visit because life is uncertain, and no one knows for sure when we would be visiting again.

Landmark 2: Thiruvannaikaval

Though the population of Srirangam mainly comprises the Iyengar (the followers of Vaishnavism), the then rulers have also built temples for the Iyers (the followers of Shaivism). Hence, our next destination was to see the temple built for Lord Shiva. We boarded a bus to Thiruvannaikaval. This temple is as beautiful as the Ranganatha temple, however, the history behind the latter has made it more prominent. Though many people visiting this city give a miss to this temple, it should be noted that this is one among the five temples built for Shiva representing the five elements of life. This one represents water or Jala Linga. One of the residents in the complex noticed our interest in exploration and suggested us to visit the Amma or Parvathi temple, another beautiful ancient temple usually missed by visitors. It is located right behind the Shiva temple.

The entrance to Thiruvannaikaval Shiva temple
The entrance to Thiruvannaikaval Shiva temple

Landmark 3: St. Lourdes’s church

From the temple, we had a nice south Indian meal at a nearby hotel after which we headed back to Trichy town. We visited the St. Lourdes’s church in the city. The Gallo-Catholic design of the church architecture and the neo-Gothic spires are beautiful in this early 2 centuries old heritage structure.

St. Lourde's church
St. Lourde’s church

We did a bit of shopping in the by lanes and the Trichy market around the Teppakulam (Temple tank) before we started our ascend to our next destination.

Landmark 4: Rock Fort

This single projection of land in an otherwise low/Flat Trichy town dates back to the pre-historic era. It is beyond words to describe how in those days, could someone has created such beautiful structures out of a hard monolith. What appears to be just a random protrusion of earth from outside, is in fact a haven for the art lovers in the inside. There are stairs, numerous temples, artistic pillars and idols carved out of the same rock all the way up. There is a Ganesha temple at the summit from where one can enjoy the view of the entire Trichy town, the Kaveri river flowing around Srirangam, the temple gopuram, the rail lines traveling in and outside the city. The fun was doubled by the cool but strong winds that blew taking away all the tiredness from our minds.

The view of river Kaveri from the summit of Rockfort
The view of Srirangam and the river bed from the summit of Rockfort

As we decided to descend down, we realized that a door that had remained closed during our ascent was now wide open. There were some beautiful paintings peeking out of the door intimidating us to go inside and see what was there. We stepped inside and it was amusement that followed. It was a vast hall carved out inside the same rock with beautifully sculptured pillars and amazing paintings adorning the walls. A priest noticed our interest and started explaining the story depicted by each painting. He then told us to hurry up and walk inside through another door. There, the maha mangalaarthi (the last pooja of the day.!!) for goddess Parvathi was just about to begin. Just as we reached there, they unveiled the curtains for us to get an eyeful of the beautifully decorated goddess.

Just while we were sipping the holy water, we were again asked to rush through another door, cross a narrow chamber that led to the Shiva temple. The deity was getting ready for the final pooja of the day. Prayers are offered only thrice a day: During sunrise, at noon and before sunset. And we were lucky for being there for one of these (the last one). The curtains were parted from the deity and the huge idol was being bathed in the pancha-Amrutha. Then, he was neatly dressed in dhoti, decorated with fresh flowers and the pooja culminating with Arathi. The curtains were back signaling us that the god would then go to sleep. We felt truly BLESSED…!! by the end of this, I could see my mom weeping in joy for being lucky to witness this Pooja. We had witnessed an event that was so unexpected.

At the exit of the Cave temple / Rockfort
At the exit of the Cave temple / Rockfort

Again, the presence and strong hold of almost all major south Indian dynasties could be felt there with the exquisite designs present in the art there. We thanked the priest and took leave to descend the stairs leading us down to the market.

Landmark 5: GR restaurant

A final destination to our tour: a local recommendation for an evening chai. GR restaurant is housed in an old building in the heart of the city (enroute to Rock fort). The Valli appam is a must try here. The interiors of the hotel are commendable which has rock pillars, structures & collectibles that reminds one of the grandeurs of temple architecture that this region is renowned for. A cup of piping hot filter coffee was a grand ending to our Trichy day trip!
There are many lesser known temples around Trichy and equally beautiful with rich artwork which takes up another full day. But one day was all the time we had with us before wrapping up trip in Trichy to Bangalore. So, I shall come back soon.

A secular pilgrimage along the Coramandel coast

This was a family backpacking trip, mainly conceptualized by my dad and had been long due. He wanted to see how the end of River Kaveri; our family deity looks like. Accordingly, we made an itinerary and a route map. Our family of four backpacked with the below itinerary:

Day 0: Depart from Bangalore (Travel mode: Overnight train to Mayiladuthurai)
Day 1: Visit Poompuhar, Tarangambadi, Karaikal, Nagore and Velankanni (Travel mode: local bus; Stay: Church run lodges at Velankanni)
Day 2: Explore Tanjavur (Travel mode: local bus; Stay: Hotel at Trichy)
Day 3: Explore Trichy (Depart to Bangalore by overnight bus)

The first day of our backpacking is presented here, which took us across three important landmark destinations along the east-coast, covering all three prominent faiths in India. That’s why I call this part of the trip as a ‘secular trip’ with of course covering the intended destination: Poompuhar, the end of the River Kaveri or the point where this Holy river meets the sea.

Destination 1– Poompuhar

The name reminds one of the arts and crafts of Tamil Nadu while Cauvery emporium strikes a similar bell back home at Karnataka. The link for both the names is common. While the latter relates to Tala-Cauvery, the birthplace of river Cauvery at Karnataka, the former marks the end of the same river at Tamil Nadu. Both being holy places for the Hindus of South India.
We were welcomed by a stretch of fishermen selling salted/seasoned & dried fish at the shore of this historic beach. There is a sculpture art museum on to the right side, at the entrance. To the left is Ilanji Mandran, a bathing place said to have had mysterious powers of curing health ailments that dates back to the Chola era. A walk for about a kilometer along the roaring sea leads us to the river mouth. It is believed that river Cauvery (a female) runs towards the sea (a male) at this point. If one stands and watches the river mouth at this point, the rapids of the river joining the calm sea can be seen quite evidently. The calm sea lashes her back towards the land with his waves side by side. A dip at this juncture is believed to be very holy (Hailing from a community that worships this river as a family deity, at least this is what I have grown up listening to). This place is also called Kaveripoompattinam as called by the Cholas and is a place of importance to the archaeologists.

The Ilanji Mandran at Poompuhar
The Ilanji Mandran at Poompuhar

Apart from the river mouth and a walk through the historical monuments mentioned above, there is nothing much to do at Poompuhar otherwise. The Kethu & Budha sthalams among the Navagraha temples are close by- I will save them for another article.

With that, we boarded a bus to our next destination- Tarangambadi. Then from there, to Karaikal beach.

Destination 2- Nagore

The little town of Nagore is known for the Hazrat Syed Shahul Hameed Dargah of the Islam faith. We were welcomed warmly by the priests there who helped us with the procedures of offering our prayers. Going by history, this dargah stands as a symbol of peaceful co-existence between the Hindus & the Muslims as people from all faiths come here for worship. There are 5 minarets out of which the tallest one was built by a Maratha King of Tanjavur for being cured of his ailment by the miracles of Shahul Hameed. From there, we headed to our last destination of the day.

One of the 5 minarets at the Nagore dargah
One of the 5 minarets at the Nagore dargah

Destination 3: Velankanni

It was sunset time when we arrived at the Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Good Health. We walked through the lines of stalls bustling with activities, pilgrims, tourists, hotels and other urchins to reach the seashore. This place is so crowded almost all through the year, that if one just stands in the crowd, the crowd will take you forward without you actually having to try to walk. We walked back to the Basilica of the Arogya Matha as she is fondly called to offer our prayers. The history dates back to 3 events occurring from 16th century onwards where Mother Mary appeared to a milk vendor, a buttermilk vendor and the Portuguese sailors who survived a severe sea storm. There is Matha Kulam / the holy pond and 2 chapels built at the respective places of the above occurrences.

We then took a brief walk at the donation’s library where all the gold, silver & other expensive offerings made by the devotees are kept for exhibits.

The shrine of Our Lady of Good Health at Velankanni
The shrine of Our Lady of Good Health at Velankanni

With that, a tiring, yet a pleasant journey in quest of god ended in a peaceful slumber at a Church run lodge… The following morning, we board another TNSRTC bus to our next destination: Tanjavur.

Offbeat Places to See in Tanjavur on a daytrip

This visit to Tanjavur was a part of our family’s backpacking trip covering the route: Bangalore – Mayiladuthurai – Poompuhar – Tarangambadi – Karaikal – Nagapattinam – Velankanni – Tanjavur – Trichy – Bangalore.

Following a long day of a secular pilgrimage in the Coromandel coast, we boarded a morning bus to Tanjavur. Tanjavur, the cradle of Dravidian culture and a hub of the Chola art and architecture needs no introduction. There’s no dearth for information on the internet. A visit to this land was on my parent’s ‘bucket list’ and this was a trip planned for its materialization. With a day’s time at our disposal (VERY short for a slow traveler like me), we decided to cover the major landmarks that a typical tourist would want to see in the capital of the Cholas.

It was the second day of our backpacking. The places covered in Tanjavur were:
• BIG temple (Brihadeesvaran temple)
• Saraswathi Mahal complex
• Grand Anicut / Kallanai dam

The details:

As in case of every other civilization, a river holds all the life. In this case, Tanjavur was born on the fertile delta created by river Kaveri. This is the land that has nurtured and held on to the Dravidian culture till date. Apart from this, its local economy has largely been agrarian based ana is rightly called as the rice bowl of South India.

Landmark 1: The Big temple

The iconic monolith of this land was spotted even as our bus was still pulling off at the bus station. The monolith seated gracefully atop the ancient temple with a weight of 800 tonnes was still far away. As we reached, we stood there in awe, gazing at the vast premises of the mighty temple. The temple tower is the tallest in the world and stands testimony to the Cholas’ love for art and fine engineering skills even in the iron age. It is believed that a ramp was laid from about six kilometers to facilitate the placement of the monolith Kalasha atop the tower. The walls of the corridor are adorned by fine paintings that were done with a mixture of limestone and organic extracts. The temple walls have sculptures of numerous mythic animals which is the highlight of the Cholas’ temple architecture.

The entrance at the Brihadeesvaran temple
The entrance at the Brihadeesvaran temple

‘The Great living Chola temples’ is a group of three Chola temples located across Tanjavur district. Together, these three temples represent an architectural conception of the pure form of the Dravidian style. The Tanjavur Brihadeshwara temple is the most easily accessible of them all and is located in the heart of the city. (The other two temples are the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram and Gangaikondacholisvaram). Although the Brihadeshwara temple is fondly called as the Big temple, it has multiple names. With a simple translation of the name into local language, it is called Thanjavur Periya kovil. The great Chola king Raja raja named this temple as Rajarajesvaram and the deity Shiva in Linga form as Peruvudaiyar. A few people also refer the temple with the name of its deity as Peruvudaiyar kovil.

The Tanjavur paintings adorning one of the roofs
The Tanjavur paintings adorning one of the roofs

Landmark 2: Saraswathi Mahal complex

We took an autorickshaw ride from the Big temple to Saraswathi Mahal. This is reckoned among the oldest functional libraries in the world and was patronized by the Tanjavur rulers. One can find some very old, rare and original copies of important manuscripts, scientific research publications etc. here. Adjoining it, is the palace of the Marathas of Tanjavur. The palace is partially used as the residence of the descendants and remaining portion is converted into a museum.

Behind this building, is the art museum which houses some rare and famous bronze idols created during the Chola era. The Cholas were the earliest people to have used the lost wax technique to create the bronze idols with a very scientific approach (as per the documented procedures in the Vedas).

The Saraswathi Mahal Library
The Saraswathi Mahal Library

Just outside the museum, we picked up a pair of Tanjavur bommai from the souvenir shop. These famous Tanjavur dolls are colorful handcrafted figurines where the head is suspended on a pivot which gives a dancing/swinging movement to the doll. Hence, they are often referred as the Tanjavur thalayatti bommai or the dancing headed dolls. Another artform you cannot ignore or miss while in this city are the Tanjavur paintings. Considered as a divine artform, with gold embellishments, Tanjavur paintings are considered as a symbol of royalty.

Landmark 3: Grand Anicut / Kallanai dam

From there, we boarded a local bus to reach Grand Anicut (as called by the Britishers) or Kallanai (the local name). This is a standing example of the engineering marvels constructed over 2000 years ago by the Cholas (later modified by the British). This oldest functional water regulation structure in the world is a dam constructed with uneven stones / random boulders across river Kaveri with a desperate intention to divert the water before joining the sea so that it can be used for irrigation around the delta region. This dam divides the river into four streams known as Kollidam Aru, Kaveri, Vennar and Puthu. Later, the Lower Anicut/ Kollidam was constructed by the British before the water actually joins the sea.

An epitaph at the  Grand Anicut
An epitaph at the Grand Anicut

With this, our time in Tanjavur had almost come to an end. On the other end of the dame, we sat inside a local bus and waited for it to start to our next destination on our trip: Trichy.

The monsoon delicacies of Coorg

So stuck up with my professional life.. I am finding little / No time to visit my native, where my basics belong to.. Politics, emotions, manners, education- on the whole the basics of every aspect of the human that I am today 🙂

Nostalgia fills my heart as I hear of heavy rains in the recent weeks- little villages have turned into islands, water levels are atleast 2 feet above bridges, waterlogged paddy fields now look like a never ending stretch of the river itself.. WOWwww…. An amazing picture of a rain fed rather filled-green COORG flashes infront of me.. And what my heart is craving for at the moment is some AWESOME Coorgie food.. And what my taste buds are asking for are the lesser known typical monsoon delicacies native to Coorg and cannot match their original taste if tried to re-create in any part of this wide world even by the greatest chef ever born..!! So here goes the list..

VEGETARIAN:

1. Therme thoppu palya (Fern salad)

2. Kembu suli curry ( Colocasia shoots)

3. Baimbale curry (Bamboo shoot curry)

These are varieties found only on river banks.

4. Kaad maange curry (Wild mango curry)

5. Kummu curry (Mushroom curry) especially the wild varieties- Aalandi kummu, Nucchi kummu, kaatola kummu.

The above stuffs taste deadly when combined with hot Akki Otti(Rice rotis) prepared on mud ovens lit with firewood 😉

6. Chutta chekke kuru (Roasted seeds of ripe jackfruit smeared with red soil and dried in the sun and preserved especially for the monsoon)

NON-VEGETARIAN:

7. Njend curry / Chutta njend (Fresh water crab curry /Roasted crabs)

8. Chutta yarchi (Barbecued meat)

9. Onak yarchi fry (Since Coorgs hunted regularly, venison, wild boar, barking deer and several other kinds of wild game formed part of their diet. These meats were also sliced, rubbed with salt and turmeric, strung or skewered and sun-dried or hung from the rafters in smoky, wood fired kitchens)

10. Koile meen curry (Used to be in abundance where bamboo traps were laid in cold, swift flowing streams and the flooded paddy fields were full of these tiny freshwater eels)

SWEET DISHES:

11. Kuvale putt (Prepared with ripe Kuvale chekke (a variety of jackfruit, locally called Kuvale) wrapped in Kuvale ele (Leaf from a local plant found on riverbanks) and steam cooked.

12. Baale nurk / nurk putt ( Bananas fritters)

13. Maddh paaysa/ Maddh putt (Porridge /cake made of an aromatic herb, which is expected to have 18 types of medicine available only during the month of kakkada or aadi)

And last but definitely not the least – A peg of Nell-kall (vodka made of paddy) and some homemade wine…. Or a cup of steaming hot ‘Bellatha Kaapi’ for the teetotalers .. 🙂

People often complain about my eating habits and how choosy I get about what I eat and the little quantity that I peck onto.. Treat me with a platter filled with the above stuffs and see how I can binge on… This city food is CRAP.. and not what I savour…Not even the 6-course expensive meal cooked by the executive chef de cuisine of the costliest restaurant in the world…!!

Kuvaleputt , Nurkputt & Kummu
Kuvaleputt , Nurkputt & Kummu

The best of Trivandrum in a day

I had the opportunity of visiting this city in the southernmost part of India as a part of a Business trip. Our work was mostly sufficient to do for one full day. However, the transportation options connecting Bengaluru to Trivandrum weren’t convenient. Trains took nearly 48 hours one way and the distance is too far to cover by road. The connecting flights are scheduled around noon. Hence, by choosing to fly to complete my work assignment (as a car doctor), I had some time to explore the city as well. Since my visit spanned over a period of three days, I used my spare time (early mornings and evenings) to cover major landmarks in and around Trivandrum (officially called as Thiruvananthapuram). If you are someone visiting this city for exclusively tourism purpose, then these places can be covered in one day and combine it with an additional day trip to Kanyakumari- the southern-most tip of mainland India.

My Itinerary:

Day 1: Bengaluru to Thiruvananthapuram (morning flight), drive past Shangamughan beach, Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple visit, Puthenmalika / Kuthiramalika Palace & wooden museum,
Day 2: Shopping at SMSM institute crafts emporium, Maha Chips store, Covalam beach & Vizhinjam lighthouse.
Day 3: Return from Thiruvananthapuram to Bengaluru (Flight)

The details:

Was it the coastal line being abundantly lined by the coconut trees along with the rhythmic beats of the famous drums resonating in the air? Or could it be the SUVs & MUVs that underwent the brutal checkup by me during my so called ‘Business trip’? Well, I’m not sure. But, all these definitely made my visit to this little silent capital city, an AWESOME one. A city of Trees & Vans & Drums put together, Trivandrum it was!

Day 1:

A morning flight from Bangalore landed my colleague and myself at the Trivandrum airport by 09.30 a.m. A car was waiting for us outside, which drove us past a fishing hamlet enroute to our workplace. We began our work without wasting much time. My job (as a car doctor) more often involves driving around the places we go to as part of the checking routine of the automobiles. It was no different here either.

We got to see scenic and offbeat roads around this capital city of Kerala. Fishing dories anchored, fishermen carrying their day’s catch, the blue sea water reaching to the horizon and a lovely lady’s figurine sculptured by the Shangamughan beach side were some of the views I caught from the cabin. Further, as we crossed the toll road and drove across a bridge through the by-pass road, we were greeted by the backwaters dotted by the houseboats. It was indeed a warm welcome to the city..

After finishing the day’s work in the evening, we freshened up at the hotel and headed out for the much anticipated part of our visit to Thiruvananthapuram. A visit to the richest temple in the country: Sri Padmanabhaswamy. For all the hype and media space grabbed by this temple, I had expected a BIG crowd of tourists(Not Pilgrims) here. I had imagined the sight to be like all other famous temples in India with fussy godmen, lot of petty shops dotting the walkway selling pooja items etc. among other things. But in total contrast to what I had imagined, this has been one of the BEST temples I have visited till date (among the well-known and famous landmarks).

I’m not a pious or a temple person, but this place has truly stood apart. I am someone who believes that ‘a temple is a place where one has to FEEL god and that’s possible only when the place is PEACEful’. I prefer holy places to be silent and less-crowded. And this place stood out for just that..!! A strict dress code and prohibited entry for non-hindus, a stringent adherence to the temple rules, limited crowd, silent ambience, an eyeful of the darshan of the massive idol lit by mere oil fed lamps: The place hadn’t given up its sanctity in the form of commercialisation, to all the attention grabbed by it’s hidden chambers of gold.

Main gate - Padmanabhaswamy temple
Main gate – Padmanabhaswamy temple

After offering our prayers, we visited the old wooden museum inside the Puthenmalika / Kuthiramalika Palace just outside the temple premises. The structure built by the erstwhile Travancore kings is a damn nice place for the art lovers. Like most regions in Kerala that sleeps with the setting sun, we headed back to the hotel to call it a day.

Day 2:

After finishing our work around evening, we set-out to do a little bit of city trotting. No visit is complete without taking back souvenirs. The rule in my work team is (on a lighter side), ‘Whether you finish your assigned job or not, whether you return safely or not, we don’t care. Bring us souvenirs and the local snacks to eat.’ So, we shopped for some local crafts at SMSM institute crafts emporium.

SMSM institute crafts emporium
A wooden piece of art at SMSM institute crafts emporium

From there, we walked through the narrow lanes to one of the biggest shops I have ever known that sells just ‘CHIPS’: ‘The Mahachips store’. Chips of different varieties, made to order and packed just then. I picked up about 10kilos of banana chips & jackfruit chips as giveaways, something that will be much awaited for back home in Bangalore, even more than my safe return. (The even funnier part was that this bag of chips was the single largest (Fragile) cabin baggage I was carrying with me. The cabin-crew was amused to know what was in it when she offered help to place it in the upper cabinet).

What’s a visit to Thiruvananthapuram, without soaking your feet in Covalam beach? That’s where we were headed next. After strolling along the beaches, we walked upto the Vizhinjam lighthouse for a good view of the sea. The view was simply delightful. A stroll along the crowded beach, beautiful view of the sunset, some yummy local chaats to munch on, it was indeed an awesome end to an eventful business trip.
And we head back to Bangalore in the earliest flight on the following day.

View from the Vizinjam lighthouse
The view from the Vizinjam lighthouse

Don’t miss to try these three things while you are in Trivandrum (or anywhere else in Kerala):

  • Fresh banana & jackfruit chips and Kerala halwa
  • Hot palam puri with a cup of burning hot Kerala tea
  • Frog thigh fry (available only in select places).

The Kodava Hockey Festival

Army and Hockey runs in Kodava blood.. It is that time of the year again when the schools and colleges are closed for summer.. Bosses have approved the leave requests from their Kodava employees atleast a month in advance.. Schedule is out.. Flight tickets booked in time as a player /Techie/Banker working abroad has to make it for their family match.. Its the biggest and the maddest festival dedicated to a sport anywhere in the world… It’s the ‘Kodava Hockey Festival’ yet again…!!

Over 300 teams participate with players including people of all age groups- right from a 10yr old primary school kid to a 75 yrs old granma.. Anyone with a mere passion for the game are allowed to join the team, only to fight it out for the coveted trophy each year.. Only 2 rules apply to participate- #1. Be a Kodava and represent your family team   #2. Play the game with passion.

One Kodava family volunteers to take the ownership to organise this huge event each year. This year- it was the ‘Madanda’ family. Hooked up with too much work, I couldn’t make it to this year’s tournament.

The Iychettira cup cover photo
The Iychettira cup cover photo

Hence, I’d like to make a mention of the last tournament I had attended- ‘The Iychettira Cup-2012’.

The Indian hockey team during the opening match
The Indian hockey team during the opening match

The opening ceremony was a gala event with some of the who’s who of the Indian VVIP league gracing the event.. It was followed by a nail biting, action packed, stiff fight during the exhibition match between the ‘Indian national team’ and the ‘Coorg XI’.. The men in blue(Oops.. in white) battled it out at the end though..

Palanganda vs Kaliyanda match in progress
Palanganda vs Kaliyanda match in progress

During the 23 days long sporting fiesta, the family where I belong to- The Somayanda family, came through till the 5th round/the quarter finals, but failed to make it further.. The last day was the final fight between Palanganda and Kaliyanda.. The latter lost the cup inspite of a tough fight of 1-2.

Trophies lined up for the final presentation ceremony
Trophies lined up for the final presentation ceremony

One has to experience the madness sitting amidst the crowd cheering for their family teams atleast once in their lifetime.. All up there in the spectator gallery with just one thought in their mind and one feeling in their hearts- ‘HOCKEY’..!!

Picture courtesy: Iychettira cup website

Madurai (Part 2) – Centre of arts and culture

There is no existence of a place without the people, and with civilization exists its culture. Madurai has its own share. My previous post (Madurai Part 1) was exclusively about the architectural landmarks spread across the city. But it would be injustice if the other things associated with this amazing city goes without a mention. Of course, the write-up could run into books if I had to write about each of them. And it isn’t necessary that everyone travelling is a pilgrim or a history buff or an architecture enthusiast. Hence, here’s an attempt to throw light on other aspects that any visitor to Madurai can expect. This is not a detailed one, but I touch upon various dimensions that you can theme your trip around Madurai. Do let me know if this post helps or if there is any other dimension I missed. Here goes my list.

Art:

  • Sculptures: adorning every temple wall, pillar and their towers are a marvel in itself.
  • Carpentry: Several wooden vahanas used to carry the idols of the various deities in the temple are something that need the attention of art afficionados.
  • Handicrafts: Various accessories used for decorating Devi idols, made of delicate sequins, etc. are sold in several stall inside the large corridors of the Meenakshi temple.
  • Mural paintings: This needs no introduction, the famous Madurai paintings are a gift of the Pandyan era, adorning the temple walls.
Clockwise from top left: 1.The sculptures on the western tower of the Meenakshi temple; 2.One of the mural paintings from the temple walls; 3.The wooden carriages for the temple idols; 4: Handicrafts from the temple stalls

Food:

Listing just a fixed menu while in Madurai would just be an understatement. If you are a foodie, Madurai would need two full days to explore its culinary delights alone. It is famous for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties. I’d probably write a separate post about it sometime later. But this list is the list that we had when my family visited. But believe me- it is BEYOND!

  • Breakfast – Idly & Sambar, Pongal + a cup of filter coffee
    11.00.a.m – Jigarthanda (it’s more like a combination of falooda & kulfi)
  • Lunch- Puliyogare @ the temple store, curd rice, Sambar rice
    4.00.p.m.- Karupatti (palm sugar) coffee
  • Dinner- Anything after 7.00.p.m is called meals. Must try is the ghee roast & rava Masala dosa

Costume:

  • Sarees for women & Dhotis for men.
  • Madurai cotton sarees with simple prints and zari borders with temple designs are popular.

Jewellery:

Among the locals- particularly those belonging to the Thevar cast, it is believed that women are prettier with bigger earlobes. Hence, the girl child born in this community is made to wear a traditional earring called the ‘Thandatti’ when she is young. The thandatti is said to evoke the 3 levels of our world: terrestrial, astral and divine and these levels are associated with Mandala. Each piece of this weighs 27gms and is made of gold and this piece of jewelry is specific to Madurai.

A Thevar woman wearing the traditional Thandatti earring

Shopping:

Shopping at Madurai is all about wholesale vendors and there are specified streets for each of them.

  • Cotton sarees/ dress materials: Shops are all around the temple complex
  • Steel utensils: Plastic beads & girls’ accessories, gold plated imitation jewelry to name a few.
  • Pooja related accessories & crafts: Particularly inside Pudumandapam (1000 years old market)
  • Farm produce: Varieties of plantains / bananas and green groceries among the others.

A brief intro to a city full of life and activities. Justice yet to be done. Signing off with a hope that it has helped someone somewhere in some form who is seeking for some info on this Pandyan city….

Exploring the Architectural Marvels of Madurai

This was a family backpacking trip planned exclusively to explore Madurai. This city has served as the capital of the Pandyas and is a key destination that has nurtured the Dravidian culture. For anyone who hears the name of this famed city, they know of the Meenakshi Amman Kovil. A typical traveler / tourist / pilgrim would visit just that temple and takes pride in marking it in their travel map of places visited. But what one doesn’t realize is, that Madurai is beyond just this. The contribution of the Pandya kingdom is not limited to just the Madurai Meenakshi temple and can be seen and felt in several structures just around the same city. Also, a portion of the Madurai city has a history beyond the Pandyas too. Hence, our family wanted to reserve this long weekend, exclusively for Madurai. We boarded an overnight bus from Bangalore and reached Madurai at 6.00.a.m. on the following morning.

Like most of our family trips, we wanted this also to be an impromptu vacation. Apart from to and fro travel, nothing else was fixed. As per me, you would need a good 2-3 days to have a quick run around doing this same itinerary as ours, exploring ONLY Madurai. If you are an art and history buff or a foodie, I warn you to carry additional days!

Itinerary:

Day 0: Leave from Bangalore by night (KSRTC Bus)
Day 1: Reach Madurai. Visit Meenakshi temple, Thirumalai Nayaka Mahal, Vandiyur temple tank, Koodal Alagar temple, Gandhi museum, Pudumandapam.
Day 2: Alagar Kovil, Alagar Murugan temple, Pazhamudhir Solai temple, Tiruppanakundram Murugan temple, Dargah of Hazrat Sultan, return to Bengaluru.

The details:

After alighting the bus, we walked around the Meenakshi Amman Kovil to find a good hotel. Since this is the heart of the city, it wasn’t hard to find a decent lodge around there. We checked into a hotel that was located just in front of the temple’s west gate. We freshened up quickly and left for the main part of the trip for anyone visiting Madurai.

  1. Meenakshi temple: A visit to the abode of the Pandya architecture. The entire temple complex is fortified and has 4 entrance towers, one on each of the 4 directions. The sculptures on each of these towers are out of the world. Once inside the complex, I started to wonder which world of wonder I had stepped into. It took us more than 4 hours to finish only a quick walk around inside the temple and also get the darshan of Meenakshi Amman and Lord Sundareswaran.
The finely decorated interiors of the Meenakshi Temple
The finely decorated interiors of the Meenakshi Temple

There are a lot of stalls inside the complex selling various handcrafted articles. The temple art museum within the same premises is a must visit. The central sculpture of Natarajan, or the dancing form of Shiva is believed to be one of the Pancha Sabha of the lord. This place represents the silver hall and Shiva is believed to have performed the ‘Sandhya Thandava’ dance form here (More on the Pancha Sabha Kshetras in another post). Also, there are 1000 pillars, all decorated with intricate pieces of sculpture. The dim light used for each pillar added up to the beauty of the place. The Madurai paintings adorning the walls of the temple requires another post to talk about. I go speechless when I get to explain about the South Indian temples. They are beyond words. Internet has plenty to feed and I don’t want to get into the details. After a tour of this massive temple complex, we decided to head out to explore the city beyond the Meenakshi Kovil.

Inside the Temple art museum
Inside the Temple art museum

2. A small walk through the narrow lanes took us to the Thirumalai Nayaka Mahal built in the 16th century. Fine architecture with elegant paintings on the roofs and vaults is neatly presented in a simple combination of half-white and velvet red colors. There is sound and lights show conducted here every evening. However, we could not make it.

The interiors of Thirumalai Naickar Mahal
The interiors of Thirumalai Naickar Mahal

3. From there, we took a local bus to Vandiyur. This is where the annual event of the famed Teppotsavam / Float festival takes place to celebrate the birthday of King Thirumalai Nayak in January. This tank is supposedly the biggest of its kind in the state of Tamil Nadu. With the float festival just 2 months away and monsoon season just passing by, this tank still remained dry during our visit. When we enquired with a few locals passing by about how the event was going to be conducted in a dry tank, we were told that the water will be fed in January from the Vaigai river through artificially laid underground channels. This is truly amazing how such a concept was laid way back in the 16th century. But for a newcomer like me, the dried lake was an eye sore as it was used was a watering hole by many vandals at the time of our visit.

Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam - the island temple
Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam – the island temple

4. Taking another bus from there to Periyar and a small walk from there through the stinking / dirty by-lanes, we reached the Koodal Alagar temple. A quick pooja and a walk around the temple was a nice boost up. The architecture here too, is similar to that of Meenakshi temple.

5. We had to rush to The Gandhi museum as it would close by 6.00.p.m. However, we could not make it on time. This was once called the Tamakkum palace of Rani Mangammal. Today, the museum supposedly houses 14 articles that were used by Gandhiji, along with his sacred ashes and blood-stained dhotis. Gandhiji is said to have visited the city five times during his lifetime.

6. On our walk back to our hotel, we came across an old marketplace called as Pudumandapam. This is a 1000 years old shopping mall, supported by huge sculpture rich stone pillars. The stalls are occupied with tailors, handicrafts vendors, wholesale dealers of pooja related and general accessories. A good place for shopping traditional artefacts at Madurai, and that too in a market that is so old!

Entrance of the Pudumandapam
Entrance of the Pudumandapam

7. On the following morning, we boarded a local bus from Periyar bus stand to travel 21kms towards Alagar Kovil. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Meenakshi Amman’s brother. The village is surrounded by an old fort wall, it gives a good view of the green hills around the temple. The architecture is similar to Koodal Alagar temple in the city.

8. A trek of 3kms uphill, through green forests and monkey infested walkways lead us to the Murugan temple. It is one among the six abodes of Lord Murugan and hence important among the pilgrims.

9. A walk of half a kilometer further uphill took us to Pazhamudhir Solai temple. A temple dedicated to Goddess Rakkaya exists close to a natural spring called Nuburagangai here, where devotees take a holy bath. But what seemed strange to me was that the place was probably the only temple I had ever been to, which charges an entry fee into the temple itself. This is where the famed Chittrai festival is observed during the month of April.

10. From there, we took the next bus back to Periyar, from where we had to take another connecting bus to Tiruppanakundram. This was a cave temple at the foothills of a hillock. It is believed that Lord Murugan was wedded to Devyani, daughter of Indra at this place. Hence, this is also counted one among the 6 abodes of Lord Murugan.

Entrance to the Tiruppanakundram Murugan temple
Entrance to the Tiruppanakundram Murugan temple

11. Up the hills, is the Dargah of Hazrat Sultan Sikandar Badshah shaheed Radiyallah Ta’al anhu. Owing to time constraint and exhaustion, we thought of skipping the climb.

Other lesser known places we skipped due to time constraints were the Kazimar mosque and Goripalyam Dargah. At the center of the city is the Kattabomman junction. This is where a part of the old Madurai fort exists. Today this is not more than a public library. Further, every street in the city has a history behind it: This link to an article from “The Hindu” don’t do this usually, but would make a special mention about the streets of Madurai. Every street in the city has a history behind it: This link to an article from “The Hindu” explains it all- Where moats made way for motorways

This was all about us getting around the place for seeing some of the historically important landmarks around Madurai. But the list is endless and time, very limited ☹ I have covered a few other must-do things while at Madurai in a separate post. I wish to be of some use if you are planning a trip there. (Click here to read further)

The abandoned tribes and the abuses- Kunde Habba

I always wanted to witness this celebration but have been quite apprehensive about facing the wrath of the abuses that will follow with the joy.. And moreover, this happens in the southern part of Coorg and I get to know that the festival happened only after it has happened..!!

But some wild wishes do come true- this time my encounter was unplanned and I’m glad it happened.. Occasion: “Kunde Namme” a.k.a. Kunde Habba or the “Festival of abuses”.

The tribes belonging to the Jenu-kurubas, Betta-Kurubas, Yeravas, Paniyas, Kembetti and other sects all congregate in a common place- usually a town area to celebrate their festival of abuses and to make merry. By abuse- I mean abuse God, man, machine and everything that they come across on that day. This is a tradition that has passed on through generations among these tribes.

Kunde Namme- The masked men
Kunde Namme- The masked men

Legend has it that the main deity Aiyyappa had taken the tribe into a thick jungle for hunting. Deep in the jungle, he fell in love with Bhadrakali and eloped with her leaving his followers abandoned. Since then, the day is observed every year where these tribes abuse their god for betraying them. They find god in everything and every person they come across and hence abuse them in turn.

The people are togged in weird clothes- some men dress up like seductress, some like ghosts, some like witches and some dress up just random and as weird as possible.

They block every man(outside the tribe) on roads, barge into shops in the town and demand money. If you don’t pay them what they demand- you are abused; If you pay what you are demanded for- you still get abused..!! Remember.. God will not come to your rescue on that day as he himself is in soup 😛 (Kidding..!!)

Kunde Namme- Dressed up men all set to charge into a shop
Kunde Namme- Dressed up men all set to charge into a shop

Also, most of the members of this group belong to the labour class who work in estates, domestic helps etc. Hence, the day doubles as a good chance for them to vent out all the frustration on their masters..!!

Kunde Namme- The band set guys
Kunde Namme- The band set guys

But, at the end of the day- they all congregate in their common place of worship and surrender to their god, plead for his mercy and ask for his blessings for the rest of the year. A part of the total money they collect for the day is used to have a lavish dinner and the rest is religiously offered to the deity.

This festival happens on the 4th Thursday in the month of May and is celebrated in and around Gonikoppal considering its proximity to the Nagarhole National Park where most of these tribes are based.