Tag Archives: Famous Indian temples

A quick getaway from Bangalore- Siddarabetta trek

Lockdown 5.0. simply put, was just another normal day in Karnataka, except that the educational institutions were still under lockdown. So, unwinding on a weekend after a long work week was normal too. With friends, I chose to hike on a Sunday morning to Madhugiri betta, the second highest monolithic hill in Asia. We started from Bangalore at 04.30.am. hoping to start the hike as soon as the gates were opened. While KSTDC has been abundantly promoting post-Covid tourism in the state, we had a surprise awaiting us at the trek base. Since Madhugiri fort comes under ASI’s protected monuments (controlled by the central government), we were told that trekking wasn’t permitted by the Central government. Hence, we were left with two options. Either return home or find another hill nearby where we could hike.

We chose the latter. So instant suggestions that came from someone in the group was Devarayanadurga and Siddarabetta. Then, we decided to give Devarayanadurga a miss as we all favoured a hike over a flight of stairs. We arrived at the base of Siddarabetta where we noticed a board that said, ‘climbing the hill with footwear was a sin’. Since many people use this path to visit a temple situated halfway, we didn’t want to hurt the local sentiments by wearing our shoes. Thinking that ‘a barefoot hike was definitely going to be an experience’ in our heads, we left our shoes back in our car.

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Below: The welcome arch at the base; Top: The initial climb

The initial part of the climb, until the Siddeshwara Swamy temple was steep but easy with well laid out steps and iron rods to hold onto. When we reached a small temple kind of a spot, the path split into two. The Siddeshwara Swamy temple was to the left, where too many people seemed to be as if there was no pandemic going on and there exists no concept called ‘Social distancing’. We decided to distance ourselves from the gathering and took the path to the right. With having to pass between too many boulders, it did seem a little confusing initially. The distant passing clouds now seemed as if they had come to meet and greet us. But after walking a little ahead, we reached an area that was a transition from dry rocky mountain to rain soaked green forests. The real challenge of walking barefoot started there, with unassumed ground with gravel and possible thorns from the shrubs.

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Left: The rocky path to the temple; Right: The forest path to the view point

A little further, we reached an open rocky area where the view in front of us was playing hide and seek with each passing cloud. Apart from the drizzle and gusty winds that made it difficult for us to stand, we were mind-blown by the view we saw each time the clouds cleared out. There exists a small rain fed pond, a couple of meditating chambers that house Shiva Lingas (history unknown) and dilapidated remains of an old fortress. There was nobody else other than us in this entire stretch. We walked further and crossed two more hills before deciding to return, or else we would lose our way back.

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Top: The dilapidated fortress wall; Bottom left: A large rock; Bottom right: One of the meditating chambers

It started to rain on our return, and we were quite drenched by the time we made it to the car that was parked just at the base point. The small eateries and stalls were slowly opening by that time which we chose not to visit, in order to avoid any social contacts with anyone else outside the group that we had gone in. We ate a few biscuits as a substitute for breakfast that we had carried from home and decided to stop the car next, only at home. It was a much-needed break and a pleasant little hike.

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The view at from the peak

Summary:

A town in the foothills of Kinnaur Kailash- Kalpa

That morning, I had arrived at Reckong Peo and already done 4 rounds of the main road in the town with my heavy backpack, an uphill climb and down. I was searching for a hotel or a homestay. The only one that I found near the bus stand was out of my budget. I enquired with a few in the town and they suggested me to go to Kalpa. Kalpa is around where, all sightseeing places are situated and has a range of options to stay at. Accordingly, I sat in a local tempo traveler and started my ride towards Kalpa.

A narrow winding road, lined with apple trees on both sides with golden foliage, finally took me to a seemingly small town. The conductor announced: “Kalpa, last stop!” with narrow cluttered lanes, shops and eateries inside small sheet moulds, houses tucked behind high rise stone walls- the town looked very old school. Imagine a quaint town overlooked by the beautiful mighty mountains.. for me, it was a moment of ‘awe’ at first sight. I enquired with a few shops at the bus-stop for my stay and they guided me to walk further inside the village. I found a good one and the hotel was very new. So, the clean room, warm blankets and 24×7 hot water were just perfect for me to settle in there. But what lured me the most to the hotel room was the view from the window. Kalpa is very famous for its apple orchards. I was there towards the end of the apple season and so all the leaves were just about to shed their golden leaves. So, imagine a golden stretch against a background of white Himalayan mountains? I was mind blown!

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A view of the Kalpa apple orchards with the Kinnaur Kailash mountains in the backdrop

My stomach was growling, and I fed it with Paratha at a small restaurant opposite my hotel. The lady running the eatery was quite amused to see a lone girl who had travelled so far. She enquired about myself and asked me to return in the evening after I had finished my sightseeing. “I am busy attending to customers, come in the evening when both of us are free, let us chat up and spend some time”, she said.
I walked down the alley to the only Buddhist monastery I had seen in the entire trip thus far. It was a very small one compared to all the other ones I had seen in Ladakh or back home in Karnataka. But irrespective of their size, Buddhist monasteries always have their own charm and pull. I lit a couple of incense sticks, rolled a few prayer drums and sat there for a few moments watching the mountains in silence before continuing my walk further, randomly through the alley.

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A street in Kothi village, Kalpa

I stopped along my way to ask a man across a fence, for directions to Roughi village. He was working in his apple orchard, busy getting the fruits harvested. He called me inside his farm and enquired where I wanted to go. He told me that my destination was 6+kms away. It would be difficult for me to get a vehicle at that time. I said I was Ok to walk the way as I was more curious in exploring the place. He was quite surprised when I asked him if I could help in plucking the pome. After a while, he handed over a packet full of apricots when I began my hike towards Roughi.

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A walkway past an apple orchard at Kalpa

The walk and the scenery are best, only when witnessed and cannot be expressed in words. Only little would my limited photography skills help. I quickly made friends with a dog at a random house along my way. The dog accompanied me, and the owner let it come. Re-iterating again, the view was unbelievable. The stretch of road happens to be one of the steepest and I tried to take a peep down the deadly valley below. I pulled myself back after my head went into a tizzy. The dog continued to walk when I walked and stopped when I paused for a photo. There was a point when he was tired and panting and I had to make a bowl out of a plastic sachet from my bag for him to have some water. That said, we together reached Roughi village just after noon 😊

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A bus passes the suicide point, enroute Roughi village

Beautifully groomed orchards, the suicide point, a quaint village in the foothills- Roughi was a warm tiny settlement with nothing very specific to do. After wandering around for a while, I made friends with a few kids who were returning from school, ate a few fresh apples from my bag that I had been received from random passersby on the road and finally settled down at the village entrance, hoping to find a ride back. I was all alone on the road. I spent almost an hour waiting and I was losing my patience as well as fearing the cold that would be brought in by the setting sun. There was no way I could stay there because I had dropped off all my essentials in the hotel in Kalpa itself. I started to walk rather than waiting there. After covering almost a mile, I heard an engine from behind. I turned back and waved them to stop. It was a couple in an Alto car, heading towards Reckong Peo. They obliged to drop me off along their way.

There was still time for sunset, and I thought I could use the daylight to explore the lanes of Kothi village. Although I aint a trained architect, the structure of the ancient Kalpa fort was something that I loved. I walked down through the villages, spoke up with inquisitive villagers, visited the chandika temple and finally settled down at the viewpoint to grab the golden hour of the setting sun over the Kinnaur Kailash mountains. I had seen the mountain from the rear side at Sangla. Now here I was, experiencing the moments of tranquility, in front of one of the holiest destinations of Lord Shiva. Believers who cannot make it to the Kailash mountains in China come here. Hence, Kinnaur Kailash is believed to be the alternate abode of the Lord.

As I was admiring the sight and capturing it in my DSLR, an old Bengali couple identified me as the one who had taken some nice photographs of them at the Kamru fort in Sangla, a couple of days ago. They asked me for a favour. They asked me to zoom into the peaks of the mountains with my camera and show them their deity… I was perplexed and asked them what it was. They explained……. “To the left side of the mountain was the Shiva Linga and right side was his consort- Parvati”. I was quite amused at hearing this and tried to capture images of both the manifestations with my camera. When I showed the images to them, to my utter surprise- they both started jumping and screaming and clapping with joy. They both folded their hands in front of my camera screen and chanted their prayers. Next thing I saw was the lady kept her palm on my head and saying, “We were saddened that we couldn’t get a closer view of his manifestation even after travelling this far. You showed us our lord! May he bless you with all the best and happiness in the world”, they wished me a good future. For me, it was quite an experience. I was unsure if I had to call it their innocence of praying the camera or admire their faith that had brought them this far. But I was feeling very good about myself that I was able to bring so much joy to someone. I was feeling an inexpressible emotion from within.

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Top: Sunset over Kinnaur Kailash; Below: magnified view of the manifestation of Shiva and Parvati

As the sun went down, my jaws started to chatter in the biting cold. I rushed to my room, warmed up myself with the thermals I had and stayed indoors until I felt comfortable. Around 7.00.p.m., I decided to step out to meet the aunty running the restaurant just outside. She said she would be free after closing the shutters at 07.00.p.m. I had carried millet Rotis from home which I thought I will share with her while buying some curds from her to make a dip for my rotis. She was excited at seeing me and called her family members to meet me. The restaurant was only an extension of her house, separated by a closed wooden door. Hence, she took me in and showed me around how traditional Kinnauri houses looked in Kalpa. We were back in the restaurant, chatting up over a hot glass of chai that she made for me. I gave her my rotis for tasting and she made me pulkas for supper. I returned to my hotel after a good couple of hours with her.

The next morning, I woke up early to catch the bus to my next destination, Nako. I grabbed a quick bite of bread omlette at the restaurant before saying a goodbye to my new friend at Kalpa.

A gastronomic walk tour of South Bengaluru

You have probably read my earlier post on exploring the offbeat landmarks of Old Bengaluru. Here is another one. This time, it was a culinary trip of Old Bengaluru to a friend who had flown down to this southern metropolis, from the so-called Northern part of India. I had been asked to take him on a gastronomic tour of my city. For someone who has a penchant for everything old school, I thought Old Bengaluru would be perfect to call it a day. ‘From vintage automobiles, architecture, iconic restaurants serving traditional recipes to by lanes and alleys that narrate their own individual story of the city, this section of Bengaluru has everything that would tickle a bone or two of this mad man’, I thought.

Having largely spent my teenage in North Bengaluru and given my familiarity with the area, Malleswaram was my first choice. However, given the convenience of commutation from my current place of stay, I chose to show him around South Bengaluru. But when one says South Bengaluru, it is a world in itself and the geographical area is large to fit all in one day. Hence, I took time to mark a quick map of restaurants to cover, along with giving a peak into the cultural heart of the city. This part of the metro lays in stark contrast to the Bengaluru, that the millennials from Whitefield and Marathahalli know of.

The obvious choice was a walk tour of Basavanagudi and the Pete area. These are the two most important clusters of true Bengaluru that have held onto the roots, despite the rapid and traumatic transition this city has seen in the last decade in the name of urbanization and modernization. Under the canopy of massive native trees, the aroma of the by-two filter kaapis shared at the numerous Shanti Sagar and darshini food joints, the air here feels different from anywhere else. With almost every street dotted with Classical dance and music schools and happy nonagenarian couples whizzing in their Padminis and Ambassadors, it has a different vibe here. One can find some of the traditional old houses and landmark restaurants only in these localities to really experience old Bengaluru. Each of these iconic eateries have a near century old history and their old school ambience is still intact inside the heritage structures that house them. With a small appetite for food and a big quest for exploration, the portions of food were limited only to the signature dishes of each restaurant, to accommodate more places. So, here is my itinerary of a gastronomic tour of Bangalore of yore.

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The Big bull temple, Basavanagudi

Meet-up point: Basavanagudi is the name of a temple (It translates to ‘Bull- Temple’). Basavanagudi is the name of a locality in South Bangalore, named after the temple. It is an extension of the Pete area, which was specifically created to accommodate the upper class, and more-specifically the Brahmin community. No trip to South Bengaluru is complete without a visit to this landmark temple built by Kempegowda, the founder of Bengaluru. Apart from the Big Bull temple, the Dodda Ganapathi and the Bugle rock (a small watch tower from the Kempegowda era) are a must visit on the same premises. If you time it up well, you can part-take in the annual groundnut fair in the locality. (Read here to know more about the history of the Kadlekai Parishe). After meeting my friend here, we started our gastronomic tour to our first food stop.

Food stop 1 (Breakfast): As synonymous as Dosa is with South India, Vidyarthi Bhavan is with South Bengaluru. Ask anyone for the best Dosa in the city and this place scores on top unanimously. It is a restaurant started initially to cater to the student community of the area which started a new culture of a hangout place for friends in those days. On most days, the queue can extend well up to a kilometer. My friend and I wiped off our plates of their signature Masala dosa for breakfast. (Click here to read further about the history of Vidyarthi Bhavan)

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Vidyarthi bhavan, Basavanagudi

Food stop 2 (Light eats): No foodie who visits Bangalore is satisfied without taking an evening walk on the Eat street at VV-Puram. However, I decided to go here in the morning, in order to avoid the maddening rush. Honey cake and Congress bun at the iconic VB Bakery was what we needed. This is the first Iyengar bakery to be established in Karnataka which has paved a new culture in baking (Read here for more about V.B.Bakery). Avarebele (Val bean) is a favorite ingredient of the Bengalureans, who have a dedicated annual fair to celebrate this pulse (Click here to read further about Avarekai mela). Hence, picking up a packet of avarebele mixture for home from one of the stores there was an obvious choice.

Food stop 3 (11 o clock, coffee): It is an important break time for the employed section of the society. Brahmin’s Coffee bar is a household name for their filter coffee and the delectable chutney served with idly on their very limited menu. This tiny eatery is in a corner of Shankarapuram, which is also famed for the Shankaramatha, a learning center of the advaitha philosophy. We had a quick stopover for a hot cuppa this little place is known for, before heading to Pete. (Read further about Brahmin’s coffee bar here)

Food stop 4 (Lunch): To satiate the hunger pangs, I planned to treat my friend with an authentic Bangalorean affair. With multiple theories surrounding the origin of the military hotel culture, the history of these restaurants dotting across the southern part of Karnataka is unclear. Bangalore is home to some of the best in the state. I don’t think there would be any better meal than ‘Ragi Mudde oota’ savored at a military hotel to get a peek into the local flavor, including the ambience. Hence, we were lunching that afternoon at S.G. Rao’s military hotel, located in the cotton Pete area. A typical military hotel meal includes Kaal soup, Ragi Mudde and Mutton biriyani. (Click here to read further about S.G. Rao’s military hotel)

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S.G.Rao’s military hotel, cottonpete

Food stop 5 (dessert): A meal is complete only with a nice dessert. If there is one sweet meat that is synonymous with Karnataka (Mysore state), it is Mysore pak. Since I couldn’t take my guest to Mysore for that, the closest I could get is at Sri Venkateshwara sweet meat stall located at Bale Pete, a short walk away from cotton Pete. Their Mysore pak and dumroot are the sweets my friend packed for his roommates back in his hometown. (Click here to read about Sri Venkateshwara sweet meat stall).

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Sri Venkateshwara sweet meat stall, Balepete

The Pete walk: An old Bengaluru exploration is nothing without a walk along the narrow snaking lanes of the Pete area, the true business epicenter of both New and Old Bengaluru. This area is segmented into various sections and named according to the commodity sold and the communities that resided there in the yester years. From green groceries, handloom, steel, plastic to precious metal, everything is available in this locality. An early morning walk in the famed flower market is an experience in itself. We limited ourselves to just the mainstream sections while exploring some of the ancient temples, mosques and heritage houses of the Kempegowda era. In the meanwhile, we kept munching on numerous snacks from several popular stalls on our way. Although these eateries are old, the flavors are largely north Indian, owing to the Marwari and Baniya community that reside here in majority.

The heritage structures of the Victoria hospital, Bangalore fort and Tippu Sultan’s summer palace all lay on the side of the road for the history and architecture buffs who have a little more time in hand. But this is all we could fit in our day. Thus, ended a gastronomic tour of South Bengaluru.

I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour with me too… did you? Or did you not? Share your thoughts with me…

There are many other iconic restaurants in Basavanagudi if you have a larger appetite. These are a few other places that you must check out when you are here: The new modern hotel, Mahalakshmi Tiffin room, Janata Tiffin rooms  are a few among many others.

Souvenirs to buy:

  • Coffee filter and freshly roasted coffee powder: The best filter coffee is available only in South Bengaluru, and hence my friend thought this was a more significant thing to buy from here.
  • Channapatna wooden toys: These are GI tagged handicrafts made with organic colors and largely popular in the western market, it comprises a large collection of traditional toys.

Bhaderwah- the Mini Kashmir in the state of Jammu & Kashmir

It has been over a year since this trip has been past and yet remains one of the best so far. I have written about ‘the Peace ride’ to the lesser known places that we explored as part of the expedition organized by Jammu & Kashmir tourism. So here goes another throwback to that wonderful ride to Bhaderwah.

Snow-capped mountains, lush green meadows, pine trees, tulip gardens, skis and snow boards… Do these things paint a perfect picture of a state known for its valleys? If you guessed it to be J&K, Yeah, you’re right! To be more precise, did you guess it to be Kashmir valley? If you did, then you can’t be more wrong. I’m talking about the least talked region of the state (now union territory)- Jammu.

For those who have heard little about Jammu, the mention of scenic or adventure hotspots comes as a surprise for all they know is only its religious places, the most popular being the Vaishno Devi shrine. For tourists visiting this region, there are several lesser-known destinations around Jammu city that are as beautiful as its popular counterpart in the Kashmir region. But, continue to remain unexplored and Bhaderwah being one among them. Bhaderwah is a town located in the Doda district and is called as ‘Mini Kashmir’ by the locals. This nickname itself gives a fair picture of the beauty of this place.

There are several attractions in Bhaderwah to mesmerise all genre of travellers who visit here during any time of the year. Bhaderwah is also called as ‘Nagon ki bhoomi’ (land of snakes) giving one a sense of its connection with mythology. Vasuki Nag is believed to be the keeper of Bhaderwah and hence the temple dedicated to this snake lord holds significance in the local culture. Thousands of pilgrims participate in the annual ‘Kailash Kund’ yatra that starts from the Vasuki Nag temple. The highlight of the temple is the idol of the presiding deity that is carved out of a black stone and is standing at an inclination. The temple is nestled within the narrow lanes of the town that snakes through ancient and traditional wooden houses from the time when the valley was ruled by the kings of Bhaderwah and Chamba. The town’s association with Mahabharata too can be felt at the ‘Gupt Ganga’ temple, on the banks of river Neru. The Pandavas are believed to have lived here during their exile. The Bhaderwah fort situated atop the town gives a good view of the entire region.

The annual Tulip festival, Tilligarh rose garden and Gatha lake resort are some nice places for a day’s outing. Trekkers seeking to explore some breath-taking vistas can hike up the Jai Valley, Sonbain glacier, Kailash Kund, Peer ki pindi (camps of Akbar) or Seoj Dhar Meadow and connect with nature. If you are an adventure buff, the Jammu tourism has put in great efforts to cater to this segment with various outdoor activities like rafting in the Chenab river, rappelling, rock climbing, parasailing etc. Since Bhaderwah witnesses high snowfall, its high valleys are a great place for winter sports like skiing and snow-boarding too. It is slowly catching up as an alternate to Gulmarg in the state.

Dirt roads and numerous water crossings in the region don’t fail to keep the adrenaline rushing for bikers who choose to ride here. The biking enthusiasts can opt the road through Padri, the highest motorable road in this region. Chattargala Pass is the highest motorable road and the most untouched point in Bhaderwah and offers a 360-degree spellbinding view of the entire region. It connects Bhaderwah with Basohli, another town of historical importance. One might be lucky to spot the endangered white vultures at this point or even some musk deer or Asian bears after a short hike up the hills.

The road to Basohli is picturesque with meadows, streams and typical pine trees all along the way. Sarthal valley is one of my favourite pit-stops along the way. With nothing much to do, it is beautiful with its laid-back scenery with Bakarwals (Shepherds) settlements amid green meadows and gushing streams from the glaciers. The seven-tiered waterfall located here is worth a short trek before riding up the treacherous road towards Basohli town. Basohli town itself is beautifully located on the backwaters of the Ranjit Sagar dam flanking it.

With political unrest being rampant in Kashmir, the main source of income through tourism has taken a huge toll in the state in the last couple of years. Jammu is very safe for all kinds of travellers and the tourism department is putting their best efforts to familiarize tourists with the other unexplored areas of the state. If visiting this state has long been on your bucket list and the unrest at the borders has kept you away, I think it is time you relook into your plan to visit the Mini Kashmir instead!

Fact file:

  • Getting there: Jammu is well connected by airport, rail and road. You can hire a self-drive car or a taxi from the city to visit the other sightseeing places. Bhaderwah is 280kms(about 5hrs) by road from Jammu city.
  • Stay: TRC (Tourist Reception Centre) guesthouses run by the J&K tourism dept., several homestays and budget hotels are available. Tilligarh tourist complex is a great place for one seeking luxury in nature.
  • Must try: Sip a cup of ‘Desi Chai’, a pink coloured tea that can be consumed either with salt or sugar.
  • Must buy: Basohli miniature paintings.

Celebrating a mountain wedding in the Himalayas at Geu

The weather had gotten colder and windier when I woke up that morning at the Nako homestay. The met department had issued an alert for a possible snowfall in the next 48hours. After finishing my breakfast, I decided to head further up the highway. My intention was to drop by a village named Geu, enroute and reach Tabo for the night’s stay. Geu is a small deviation from the highway with no direct connectivity of public transportation. I enquired with a couple of people at Nako for a taxi and I was offered a round trip for Rs.4000. I didn’t want to return and having to pay that amount even for a drop seemed more since I was on a budget trip. I decided to take a chance and go there by myself. I boarded the next public bus until Geu cross and hoped to hitch a ride to Geu or hike up the 8kms road leading to the village. ‘Why so much adventure?’, one may ask curiously. “I wanted to see a mummy in India, the unknown, for which Indians travel to afar countries.” Not many people know that there are about five mummies in India itself, out of which the one I was going to see is of a Buddhist Llama. It is believed to be over 500 years old and has been there in the open without any preservatives.

After alighting at the Geu Cross, I waited at the small bridge for about half an hour, hoping for a ride. As the cold winds were getting harder to stand, I decided to start walking up the trodden road with my backpack. Just then, a pick-up truck came in honking behind me. I put my hand forward signalling them to stop. The driver told me that he was sorry as the seats were filled with more people than what it could accommodate. It seemed to me like they were a large family, all dressed up in their ethnic Kinnauri attire. I told them it was Ok for me if they let me sit in the trailer. “The weather isn’t good outside. You will feel cold.” He politely said out of concern. I told them I’d be fine and hopped on after he nodded an approval.

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The Buddhist shrine atop the hill at Geu

The drive along the next 7kms to Geu was as insane as it could get. The super bumpy road runs parallel to a river in a scenic yet landslide prone barren land. Hence, there is no tarmac and is filled with rocks and gravel all the way. If not the thick layer of thermals and my balaclava, I would look like a zombie doused in south-Indian sambar. I mean, there was a thick layer of dust all over me from head to toe, all thanks to the open trailer and dry winds. It was already noon when I reached Geu. The family with whom I had got a lift until there, invited me to join them for lunch. They had come there to attend the wedding of a family member, they said. It was a small hamlet with about 15 households and no hotels or restaurants. When I turned down their invitation telling I had to head back asap after seeing the mummy, they insisted me to join them in the celebrations and that something can be managed for the night’s stay. I nodded an unsure okay!

Next thing I saw myself doing was being guided into the dining hall with a grand welcome alongside a traditional Kinnauri Band baaja. The meal served mainly comprising of wheat bread, dry fruits and nuts was healthy and simple as per the norms of rest of India where a wedding food is usually heavy on ghee, oil and sweets. The welcome drink too was a subtle namak wali chai, being served from a centrally placed firewood oven in the dining hall. I was force-fed and taken care of as if I were a part of their family (and the village itself). There is always this special thing about the people in the hills, their hospitality would have no match. After the meal, the Bride’s village got ready to welcome the groom to Geu. He belonged to Hurling village. It was an evening of colour, music, dance and fun. I got to experience a tradition which I had never heard of until that evening… Just a couple of hours ago, it was not even in my faintest thoughts that I’d be dancing in the mountains along with the baraatis (the wedding convoy, as it is called in India). What an unbelievable experience!

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The Kinnauri women in their traditional ceremonial costume

After the baraatis were taken inside the house, A few villagers and I walked up the small hill where exists a Buddhist shrine. The mummy is housed in a small room alongside the shrine whose key was taken from one of the caretakers at Geu. When I got there, I was rather surprised to see this mummy comfortably sitting in the open room…. With no preservatives, no wrapped fabric and just a small glass case to keep it away from direct human touch of the visitors, it is still very much intact. Its hair and nails are believed to be still growing. While the locals with me offered their prayers to this mummy Llama, I was watching this INCREDIBLE piece of science and faith!

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The mummy Llama

With the setting sun and dropping temperature, the winds were getting stronger and we all headed back to the house. Each house was filled with so much chit-chatting and laughter going on, around the central fireplace where the guests were munching on the local snacks and hot brews. I was accommodated in a large warm room at the village’s only guesthouse. My stay was sorted for the day and I heaved a sigh of relief for the faint doubt I had until I had a confirmed place to stay.

Very unusual to a regular day in the mountains where all villages sleep early, the celebrations had only begun at 07.00.p.m. to say the least. The evening faded into night and the night became morning… The wedding was an all-night affair. There was food, drinks, dance, songs and so much fun as in any wedding. Everyone had lost sense of the freezing temperatures outside the hall. What was surprising? While there was so much fun and frolic inside the wedding hall, the men in uniform from the Border Security Force continued to perform their duties outside, walking around the village keeping vigil on infiltrators. “The Chinese territory lies just behind this hill”, a localite explained. “We have our kith and kin who are married off there. They are all Kinnauri and share exactly same culture as us. Sadly, they can’t come here to join the festivities because they are Chinese. It is not that we don’t meet, Chup-Chup-ke koi climbs the hill and comes here and goes off there occasionally. That’s why the BSF is here”, he said. It was 02.00.a.m. when I returned to the guest house with a few others to get some sleep before a long day that followed.

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The Kinnauri men in their traditional ceremonial costume

I woke up at sunrise the next morning and got myself ready with my backpack. I had to find transportation and hence wait until someone was heading out of the village. From 07.00.a.m., I was walking up and down the village street because I had to keep burning calories to keep myself warm. The villagers noticed me and insisted me to have breakfast with them. Just as I was washing my plate, I heard a car. The Maruti 800 was already carrying more than its capacity. As I continued to wait, another pickup truck ignited its engine. It too was full. Yet, I found another pickup. The driver said he would go only after all the members came. I said I will wait with him for them to come. A good half an hour and three cups of tea later, the members finally arrived. I was again seated in the trailer with a couple of others on our way out. This time, the cold windy, dusty and bumpy drive was accompanied with some nice warm conversations with the mountain people. We arrived at Hurling; the groom’s house was a short hike up the hill from the main road. The family insisted me to tag along with them for the second day too. “You have seen only half of the ceremonies at the Bride’s village. Now, the convoy with the couple will arrive here to continue the celebrations at the groom’s house. We came early to see that all arrangements are in place before the rest arrive. Please join us.” They insisted. Hurling was halfway to my next destination- Tabo. As tempting as the invitation sounded to experience a complete mountain wedding, the fear of getting stranded in a snowfall made me decide to find a way to reach Tabo asap!

Thus, ended an experience of a lifetime- A wedding in the mountains! There is always magic in these mountains and its people that will keep calling me back again and again!

A Land where Art is Divine- Pathanamthitta

Dense canopy of trees, swaying coconut palms, houseboats cruising through the pristine backwaters, wooden canoes of the locals fishing in narrow canals- Well, does this paint a picture of Gods own country? When opportunity struck, I decided to give the usual things a miss and explore a region that is least spoken about in the tourist circuit. A land where art is considered divine and celebrated in all its form- Pathanamthitta.

First thing I did while approaching Pathanamthitta was lowering all the windows of my car, to breathe in some clean air. With almost two third of the district comprising of forest cover, it is no wonder that Pathanamthitta is the least polluted city in India. The remaining one third is a combination of the city and plantations. We were heading to the homestay we had booked, not very far from the city centre. It was nestled in what the locals call as a residential area that was far from imagination of a city soul. The narrow roads were flanked by rubber, tapioca and banana plantations for most stretch and marsh lands for the rest. Bunches of jackfruits hung down from tall trees among several other tropical trees like litchi, rambutan etc. that had the fruit lover in me all drooling. My stay was at a traditional Kerala house nestled amidst a huge garden. Its wooden portico with clay tiled roof had me fancy struck.

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Enroute to the homestay

Surprisingly for me, Pathanamthitta hosts some of the largest annual religious congregations in the world. The Sabarimala yatra and Maramon convention are next only to the Haj. Giving a pass to the famous backwaters of Kerala, I had driven this far to explore its vibrant and divine culture and art. My plan for the first day was to visit two of the 108 Divyadesams, both located in Pathanamthitta. I had arrived at the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple, particularly for a tour of a foundry that makes the historical ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ (Click to watch the video).

This GI tagged handicraft is culturally important in the state of Kerala. The know-how of making it is endemic to Aranmula and limited to the descendants of only one family who now live around this temple. Unlike the familiar glass mirrors, these are finely polished metal sheets. Watching these men toiling in their workshop to bring an alloy to life, which is integral in all Malayali celebrations was like living a dream for me.

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Left: moulded metal sheet before polishing; Right: Polished & finished mirror

A short drive away from there was my next destination: Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple. With its ancient wooden architecture, this beautiful temple sprawls on a huge area. Here, the prayers are offered five times a day and the last prayer was specifically that interested me the most to visit here. Kathakali is performed inside the temple premises everyday as a form of prayer to put the deity to sleep. I was like a little child in wonderland who lost track of time watching this performance that went late into the night.

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A traditional Kathakali setup at the Kochi international airport

An early morning drive to Gavi or Konni elephant camp is what I was recommended for finding a piece of nature. Charalkunnu, Kakki reservoir, Perunthenaruvi waterfalls are few of the other nearby places that tourists usually visit. But I decided against it all and while away some time exploring the neighbourhood of my homestay before checkout. It was as calm and peaceful as anywhere else. While sipping a cup of Kattan chai, I was reminded of my previous trip to Alleppey. Hundreds of wooden canoes measuring over 100 feet, long enough to be called snake boats, gather from across Kerala to compete for the coveted title. Each boat carries at least hundred oarsmen, all singing the Vanchipattu in chorus. Breathing the heavy air filled with anxiety of the spectators, it was a lifetime experience. Like Alleppey, Aranmula too hosts one of the largest boat races in Kerala. The Aranmula race is held on the last day of Onam as a celebration of Lord Krishna crossing river Pampa.

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The oarsmen ‘”Women” from Alleppey

I had planned my return route to Kochi such that I could cover some of the interesting landmarks along the way. The first stop was at Kalloppara, where an ancient Hindu inscription exists inside a church. I had read about how two faiths co-exist under the same roof that houses a Bhagavati temple and a Mary’s church. But my drive through the streets of a residential area ended at a bridge that connected Kalloppara. It had collapsed during the floods that ravaged Kerala last year. Having three rivers flowing through it, Pathanamthitta was one of the worst affected.

I hit the main road again and headed to Thiruvalla. Since it was dark the previous night, I was there again to have a look at the famed mural paintings on the altar of the Paliakkara Church. The church at Paliakkara and Niranam (my next destination) both have their history dating back to the arrival of St.Thomas in India in 54.A.D. This trip was all about an amalgamation of art and tradition. Be it wildlife, religion, architecture, history, art or culture, I believe Pathanamthitta has something for everyone.

(P.S.: I’m against the idea of taking photos inside any place of worship, as a form of respect to its sanctity. Hence, I do not have any pictures from the interiors of any place of worship)

Fact File:

  • How to reach: The nearest airports are at Kochi and Trivandrum. Kottayam and Alleppey are the nearest Railway stations. KSRTC buses and taxis are available from these places to reach Pathanamthitta by road.
  • Get around: local buses are quite frequent; Taxis can be easily availed.
  • Best time to visit: September to May (Anytime apart from monsoon)
  • Stay: Luxury hotels are sparse. Cheap and Budget hotels are available in plenty considering the pilgrims who come here for Sabarimala yatra. Homestays are available to experience the true essence of Kerala.
  • Must do: Attend a Kathakali performance, visit a mirror foundry, Bathe elephants at Konni.

The Mountains beckon in the Apple valley of India- Kinnaur

I wasn’t sure if solo-traveling would be safe in Chhattisgarh, the campsite wasn’t ready yet for a Gujarat trip, Rajasthan had the election around the corner albeit having the perfect weather, the public transportation system wasn’t convenient in Arunachal, Uttarakhand had unpredictable weather of late, Jammu was done just last year, Dharamshala stretch would be too mainstream, Lakshadweep was too short a trip for the time I had. Maybe I should just settle down with the Sahyadris in Maharashtra or sign up for a fortnight long yoga session at Rishikesh or a Yakshagana course at Mangalore perhaps! I had tele-travelled almost the whole of India to decide where I wanted to go. And then, this happened! Just 4 days before departure, the mountains beckoned and I had finally decided to visit the Kinnaur valley in Himachal Pradesh.

Nothing was clear to me apart from the to & fro flights to Delhi. People around me were busy and my vacations couldn’t wait, lest they be lapsed without pay or without use. Although not very keen on solo travelling, I think that’s how life threw itself upon me when I longed to go to the mountains! The mountains have always been kind to me and have had me meeting them regularly over the last 4 years. I don’t know the reason for this special bond I share with the mountains. May be because I come from a nature worshipping community, that my connection with them is so instant and strong. The mountains had me amidst them yet again. From being a shy kid at ice breaking in public gatherings to having done a complete solo backpacking in an off-season, to meeting and hanging out with strangers and making new friends from travels, my journeys have brought me a long way! The mountains have been kind and have protected me all the way…

Given that I would be alone and I get muscle cramps when the temperature drops, the one thing I had to make sure while planning my trip was to not push myself too hard to see too many places or do anything that could drain me out. Hence, I decided to do it one place at a time, plan my next destination only after reaching a place and move only when I felt like I had sunk in well in the current place. So that said and Kinnaur had me there! After I had reached Himachal, there was absolutely no fear of being a solo-women traveller and no worries over safety concerns at any point of time. The people were amazing who derive their strength from their deep values… From being stopped by random locals on the road and being offered the juiciest apples from the valley to eating local food and getting invited to houses for coffees, from befriending the locals and then to being invited to attend a traditional Kinnauri wedding, from waiting for the day’s only public bus or hitch a ride to having stuck in a place for 3 days without any electricity or transportation due to snowfall, from meditating in the millennium old monastery to confronting a mummified Llama in the mountains, from driving past a valley of green-rock-and-sand onward to having returned through the same valley painted white in snow, from being seen-off by a close friend at the trip start to I seeing-off a stranger at the end of the trip: Whoa! What a journey it was!

So, the route taken by me was: Delhi- Kalka- Shimla- Sangla- Rakcham- Chitkul- Sangla-  Reckong Peo- Kalpa- Nako- Geu- Tabo- Rampur- Sarahan- Shimla- Delhi. Some of the key destinations enroute and things I did were:

• The trip started with the ‘Himalayan queen’ train from Delhi and then I connected to the mountain railways from Kalka to Shimla, a part of the UNESCO World heritage. Stopping at several stations enroute, a ride in the loco thugging along the narrow-gauge through in-numerous tunnels and winding pathways in between the green pine laden cliffs and verdant hills was worth an experience.

• The hustle of the desi music blasting at full volume had filled the atmosphere as the HPSRTC bus I boarded at Shimla cruised through thickets of sweet smelling Juniper and deodar. A solo snow laden peak emerged from amidst the green mountains. Call it layers of dew laden and mist covered hills, they sparkled as the sun’s early rays found their way forming several vibrant spectrums as the morning ride gave me the first glimpse of a horizon that had a never-ending line of snow-capped mountains.

• When the bus alighted at Sangla after making its way through steep gradient, blind corners and breath-takingly scary heights of the snaking roads, the sun was calling it a day. It had cast a golden red glow to the entire range of Kinnaur Kailash mountains. I couldn’t have asked for more as I stood there to be welcomed by this magnificent view right in front of the bus stand. The hike up the Kamru fort to catch the golden peaks up close was a cherry on the icing.

• The next day was an exhilarating bus ride through the Sangla valley, overlooked by the Kailash mountains on one side and the beloved untamed Baspa river flowing below. The ride was adventurous with waterfall and river crossing, cliff-hangers, landslides and occasional sightings of mountain goats or yaks. Quick stop-over at Batseri village painted in shades of crimson, chrome to ochre with the trees of apples, apricots and walnuts was a feast to the eyes. A walk down to the river at Rackcham helped me to connect with the Kinnauris with very warm conversations. They offered me a ride through apple orchards and buck wheat farms before meeting the sole Indian tricolour waving at Chitkul, a village bordering China & Tibet.

• The following morning, I started early to Kalpa- a quaint tiny village with old traditional houses amid the Kinnaur apple farms. A solo hike through the suicidal roads to Roughi village turned out to be special when a random dog decided to accompany me all the way. Again, the setting crimson sun cast its magical spell over the manifestations of Shiva and Parvathi seated conveniently in the Kinnaur Kailash mountains overlooking the village. With the chants from the Buddhist monastery next door and swaying prayer flags as I looked out of my window the next morning, I couldn’t have asked for a better start for my day.

• That day, I did a bit of shopping and grooving to traditional Kinnauri music with the locals at Reckong Peo, the ‘Gateway to Kinnaur valley’. It was the annual fair where people from all over the state had congregated to buy and sell local Agri-products and handicrafts apart from sipping the local apple brew. Packets of pine-nuts, dried apples and apricots along with the traditional Kinnauri hats were perfect souvenirs to take back before boarding the bus to my next destination.

• This road is when the landscape starts to surprise you. The green canopies make way to steep rocky cliff-hangers. The on-going construction of the Karcham Wangtoo dam only warns you to be aware of shooting stones where landslides are as common as confronting vehicles from the opposite direction on the single-track road. And then, the Rocky mountains disappears suddenly making way for barren landscapes with sand and loose rock laden cliffs. The blue Sutlej river snaked between the valley and the view of the treacherous roads winding around the steep gradient hills was indeed a sight to behold! It was pitch dark and biting cold when I alighted at Nako, to check into a homestay under the clearest star-studded night’s sky.

• Although the weather had gotten more colder, it was one of the finest mornings so far. A walk around the village of Nako, with mud-smeared walls of houses built of wood and clay is one of the highlights of my entire trip. While strolling through those narrow walkways of the village, I felt as if I was exploring a maze. With the early morning vibes of a typical village with cattle roaming around, children walking down to schools, chants and incense from the ancient monastery rising in the dew laden air, it was an altogether different world there. The view of the distant snow-capped mountains and the barren winding landscape around had me spellbound for the rest of the day.

Next destination was Geu, a village that can be reached only if luck be by one’s side. Having no direct connectivity through public transportation, I waited on the highway hoping to hitch a ride to a place that is often cut-off due to landslides. It was wedding bells chiming in this tiny hamlet that day… I was fortunate, to say the least! A large family heading towards Geu not only obliged to offer me a ride in the trailer of their crowded goods carrier, they also invited me to be part of the celebrations. From being treated with the finest Kinnauri delicacies to dancing with the baraathies in a traditional mountain wedding, I could not ask for more. It was an all day and all night affair!

• I woke up in the biting cold next morning to hike up the hill and pay a visit to the mummy of a Buddhist monk, believed to be over a 500yrs old. Strangely, it has been there in open atmosphere without any chemicals and among the only few mummies available in India. Quick breakfast at the wedding house and I was good to head out by hitching another ride until Hurling.

• The weather had gotten worse that day with a forecast of precipitation by day end. As I waited at Hurling for my next ride, the guy making rotis at a hotel offered me a cup of free chai and got me a free drive with his customer to my next destination. With a loaded car and a person with a broken leg hanging out of the rear seat, the people who agreed to drop me were more than sweet to accommodate me in the front seat and they carry my backpack on their lap all the way in the rear seat.

• So then… Tabo happened! This was the place I had been looking forward to all the way. Considered to be one of the holiest places for the Tibetan Buddhists, I sunk into meditation mode for good few hours with the soothing fragrance of the Juniper interiors of this millennium old monastery constructed out of clay. It was BLISS and I can’t explain it further. The millennium old paintings all over its inner walls and roofs, the golden manuscripts were something incredible. Since artificial light sources are believed to damage the organic colours, I eagerly waited for specific time of the day for the sun to light up specific rooms to see this wonder. It is called the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’ for a reason, you see!

• The morning when I woke up, the mountains had moved closer to me with a heavy overnight snowfall. This was a sight to which the heart of a snow-deprived-south-Indian-city girl in me had skipped a beat. I had to extend my stay at this monastery due to heavy snowfall for next 2 days and with no electricity, phone connectivity and no plumbing that worked whatsoever, it was ‘THE” time! Amid all this, I had the rare opportunity to relish the Tabo apples (one of the best in the world) every day of what was being offered to the deity at the monastery.

• Finally, after getting my drive back to Shimla- I had plans to stop by at Rampur Bussahr to see the erstwhile palace and stay at Sarahan, one of the Shakthi peethas in the foothills of the Himalayas. But, the mountains had an altogether different itinerary for me for the last 3 days! So, thus was my sojourn in the Himalayas, the mighty incredible Himalayas!

Since Rohtang pass had closed by end of monsoon, I did only Kinnaur and half Spiti and returned the same way back (Although a little hectic with 3 days required only for travel, on the same route). If you are traveling in the summers, then you can start from Shimla and complete Spiti & Lahaul via Kaza and exit from Manali, thereby not repeating your route.

Summary: With the changing landscape throwing surprises at the wink of an eye, each mile was magic. The valleys were overwhelmingly beautiful! When the mountains beckon, just pack your junk and head out! The destination doesn’t count, the journey is worthwhile!

This article is featured in Deccan Herald’s Travel supplement: ‘DH Travel’ on 25-May-2019

Exploring the backwaters of Karnataka- Thonse

Although the places that I choose to write about may not stand a chance to be compared with the Sundarbans or the Pichavaram forests… None the less- The Arabian sea coast has its own share of beautiful places in terms of its mangrove creeks. And while Kerala is synonymous with its enchanting backwaters, Karnataka too has its fair share of backwater system which is still untouched and yet to be explored… Through my innumerous journeys in this coastal stretch, I don’t remember a time when I did not put my neck out to be tantalized by the view of the backwaters as I passed on those bridges that fall in between Mangalore and Udupi. So, this time I had set aside one weekend exclusively to explore these lesser known places of the west coast and mark myself in those remote places on the map-of-India.

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First things first- Having good connectivity, taking the public transport to reach these places has its own experience, the way I enjoyed my trip. But I strongly recommend having own vehicle to these places given the hassle of waiting for a ride, given the remoteness of the place and the joy of riding through such a beautiful stretch of road be best enjoyed on a two-wheeler only. That said, I had reached Udupi by an overnight bus and stayed at a hotel close to the Krishna temple. I freshened up and headed to the service bus stand located at a walkable distance to the hotel. Click here for more weekend trips from bengaluru

The entire district of Udupi is dotted by innumerous temples and churches and hence, I prefer not to make a mention of them in this post. There is no dearth of local buses to any place within the coastal belt of Karnataka and hence, I relied totally on them for my commutation. All set to explore Thonse, I boarded a bus that passed through Kallianpur village which was once part of the Vijayanagara empire. The ruins of an old laterite fort stands testimony to that era. My first stop was at Kemmannu. A short walk on a meandering road through coconut plantations took me to a serene system of backwater canals connected to river Swarna. A suspension bridge has been laid across the river and set in an idyllic location of mangrove creeks. The oarsman suggested to take a boat ride in the high tides either for sunrise or sunset and that the delta beach would look brilliant at that time. I got a ride in a country boat around several islets in the backwaters of river Swarna that was good opportunity for birding and a pleasant experience of sailing in the lap of nature.
Click here for more weekend trips from bengaluru

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The suspension bridge at Kemmannu

From there, I took a walk back to the main road where the harbored boats beside a broken bridge caught my attention. There was something amusing happening down there at the canals. I felt as if I was unfortunately experiencing a bioluminescent spectacle in daylight. The sight was something I had never seen before. On a closer look, I realized that the canal was filled endlessly with jelly fishes of various colours and sizes. After spending some time there videographing the sight, I boarded the bus to my next destination- Kodi bengre.

This small fishing hamlet is located on a narrow strip of land mass, placed geographically between river Swarna and the Arabian sea. While your heart will surely skip a beat at the first sight of the vastness of the sea at Hoodi beach, a deviation to the right which narrows into the village offers an experiential ride right until the estuary at Bengre beach. The tip of land is a great place for sunset viewing and enjoying the silence with the waves.. The several shacks in the hamlet serves freshly caught sea food served spicy hot which is something not to be missed while you’re there!

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Then, I took a bus to the coast that we had deviated from at Hoodi beach. With a quick ride through country roads flanked with traditional sea facing mansions, we reached Malpe beach. This being a popular tourist place, it was bustling with activities including various water sports. We walked down to the fish market / port area, away from the crowd- and got a good sight of the setting sun. There is a dedicated ferry service from the jetty to the Saint Mary’s Island for those seeking for a day trip which I personally recommend for anyone who is visiting this coastal town. It’s a great place and there is enough information available all over the net to get there… If you are driving your own vehicle, then I recommend you to take the Pithrody route to reach back the Udupi town. This will complete your coastal stretch of Udupi giving you an experience of driving through yet another estuary and delta- that’s formed by river Udyavara and the Arabian sea.

You can compliment your beach trip with a visit to the Krishna temple and the seven Mathas that are associated with the temple administration. Top it up with delectable Udupi chaats and the famous Gadbad ice-cream that saw its origin in this coastal town.

Riding in the land of miniature paintings- Basohli

If you thought Jammu was all about shrines and temples, wait a minute, you are not alone. Even I did not know about all the beautiful places that exist within a driveable distance from the city. Our ride as a part of ‘the Peace ride‘ sponsored by Jammu tourism and Himalayan expedition to unseen places in Jammu has taken us to so many beautiful places that are off the tourist map, totally untouched and waiting to be explored.

On a warm Saturday morning, we started from Jammu on a well asphalted highway cutting through the Surinsar-Mansar wildlife sanctuary towards Basohli. Needless to say, the route is blessed with natural bounty with the road flanked by wooded hills all the way. We did a quick stopover at the twin lakes from where the sanctuary gets it same. The Surinsar lake and Mansar lake are serene patches of nature which play an important role among the Hindu pilgrims as it is associated with mythology. It is believed that the arrow shot by Arjuna pierced the earth at Surinsar and came out at Mansar spouting water, what are now the two bunyanesque lakes. If you have nothing to do, then you can forget your watches by just sitting on the banks and feeding the squillion fishes there. These lakes are also known for the Indian flapshell turtles that are found in abundance.

At Mansar lake

After freshening up at the TRC guest house, we headed to the the Atal bridge built across river Ravi. This happens to be the first cable suspension bridge in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. We got an eyefull of the setting sun from there and got some good silhoute photos of the fishermen busy with their last catch on their vessels drifting past us from under the bridge. The view of the surrounding lush green hills and several islets in the backwaters of the Ranjit Sagar Dam was a feast for the eyes with a golden backdrop. On a summer evening, it is highly recommended that you spend some time at the dam backwaters, what is fondly refered as the RSD beach by the localites. With swaying palm trees along the sandbars of the river bed, it is a very picturesque place surrounded by the lashing waves of the dam’s backwaters.

Our bike at the Atal bridge

Although we had plans of reaching the Chanchala mata mandir to catch the sunrise next morning, we were woken up rather early by the roaring thunder and the rattle of our window glasses. It was pouring cats and dogs and we watched the dawn break into a bright day while sitting by the window side. There seemed no signs of the rain gods taking a break and hence, we decided to head out in the rains… While we seeked for directions from the public, we realised that this town was home to over a dozen temples dedicated to Durga Mata. With a wild guess, we hit the accelerator towards one that was located atop a hillock. Oh Man! The view from up there was stunning… The temple had a 360deg view of the dam water and the hills. We could see the bridge along with several ruins of the old town dotting the view here and there. With the rocky valley at a distance, the entire Basohli town was visible from up there treating our eyes on a perfect morning!! With such a view around, the silver lightning in the dark grey sky, we couldn’t ask for a better start for the day…We were drenched to the bone but coudn’t get enough of the view. We somehow dragged ourselves back to our bikes lest be a reason for the delay of all other fellow travellers back in the guest house.

The view of Basohli town from Chanchala mata temple

We were already running late and had nothing left for breakfast, we satiated our stomachs with fruit juices and coffee. When the rain gods seemed to calm down a bit, we called it a wrap for the wonderful time spent in this historical town of Basohli. The journey continued, to yet another beautiful place waiting to be explored, waiting to be talked about to the world outside. Click here to know about my “FAVOURITE” place in India- Sarthal.

City of eternal bliss- Chidambaram

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.

Click here to find more offbeat travel ideas for your weekends

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..!!

The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram
The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram

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.

The Bharatanatyam postures sculpted on the walls of the west-tower of the temple
The Bharatanatyam postures sculpted on the walls of the west-tower of the temple

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.

One of the temple gopurams and the holy Sivaganga tank
One of the temple gopurams and the holy Sivaganga tank

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.. 😛

Summary:

  • My wish of covering the five main Shiva temples- Checked
  • Find a place that I swear by not to return back- Checked