Tag Archives: India

Natural wonders of South India – My favourites

India has intrigued the world with its history, geography and culture- each individually dating back to several ages ago. I have been no different from the rest of the world. The LostLander has begun to embrace her landings after getting lost at random places in her incredible country. The more she is exploring her country, the more she has been discovering about its descendance and getting mind blown with new discoveries each time. Author Sanjeev Sanyal writes, “The history of India’s physical geography is older than that of its civilization or even that of the human race. The subcontinent has been a distinct geological entity for millions of years. Therefore, to understand India, we must go back to the very beginning.”

The fact that it is called as a subcontinent is associated to a larger theory of it being separated out of a supercontinent called ‘Rodinia’ and drifting apart from Africa, Antarctica and then Madagascar before it struck with the Asian continent. No, I’m not time traveling that far for now! It was just to put an exclamation to how amazing this country’s geography has evolved to be and what the natural bounty as we called it, has to offer in this beautiful country to an explorer… To take my article forward and with no biases, I divide the geography of this subcontinent into North and the South, just by drawing an imaginary line passing through its center, Seoni in Madhya Pradesh. Here is a humble attempt to take my readers through some of the beautiful destinations I have been to enjoy the natural marvels of Southern India. They are in random order and listed as and when I recollected them. For more details, you need to read my individual posts on them just by clinking on their respective tags!

1. Kurusudai islands: Nestled off the coast of Rameswaram in the Gulf of Mannar, it is the only place in the world where the oldest and the last surviving living fossil is found in the world.

2. The table tops of Maharashtra: Be it the beautifully painted pink valleys of the Khas plateau, valleys of Matheran, Mahabaleshwar or any place thought of for a scenic drive for the Mumbaikars- have all formed out of large volcanic eruptions as the subcontinent merged with Asia. Not just that, these geographical features were strategically used by Shivaji to stop the invasion by the Mughals and hence called the Deccan traps.

3. Limestone caves of Andhra Pradesh:(Click to read article) Belum caves, a part of a larger cave complex in the Erramalai region is the largest and longest cave system that is open to public. Similarly, the Borra caves is the deepest in the country. The speleothem formations are worth a visit which have formed due to continuous flowing of water over a thousand years, easily dating back to the Archaean age.

4. Gandikota: People call it as the ‘Grand Canyon of India. It is a beautiful gorge formed by the Pennar river as it squeezes from between the rock formation that has played witness to several kingdoms in history.

5. Eastern Ghats: Although I use a very generic term that specifies an entire region, they are older and mineral rich than their popular counterparts on the western side. All, again a resultant of several tectonic activities in the event of formation of the Indian mass.

6. Dhanushkodi: This abandoned town has more than just history of a cyclone. The revered ‘RamaSethu’ or the Adam’s bridge was formerly considered to be the largest Tombolo in the world and is believed to have formed due to the drifting of India and the Lankan land masses several thousand years ago..

Well… If all these have been the outcomes of several tectonic activities of the earth over a million years, there are yet several other amazing things that nature has to offer in the Southern peninsula.

7. Have you been to Wayanad in Northern Kerala? There is a heart shaped lake after a good climb up in the western Ghats. It’s the nature’s way of telling ‘I Love You’!

8. Heard of the Barren island? It is the only active volcano in India, with the most recent eruption being in 2017. The sea area around it is considered to be one of the best dive sites in the world!

9. And then there is Baratang islands– It is the only mud volcano in India, situated in the Andaman group of islands.

10. Have you seen the Purple hills? Where do you think the Nilgiri hills in the western Ghats derive their name from? They’re so called because these green verdant hills are painted blue/purple (Neela in Hindi) by the Neelakurinji flowers, something that blooms only once in twelve years. The latest mass-blossoming being in 2018.

11. Cruised through the canals of Kuttanad? Mostly popular among the honeymooners and families alike for its backwaters and houseboats, what many don’t know about this region is that it is the only region in the world where paddy farming is done below sea level.

12. How about a boat ride in the Mangrove forests of the Bay of Bengal? The Sundarbans and Pichavaram forests are the first and the second largest mangrove marshlands in the world. A world heritage site that they are, an extremely important part of the ecology.

13. What happens when a meteor hits the earth? A massive crater is formed giving form to Lonar lake in Maharashtra. This Geo-heritage monument saline soda lake is the only high velocity impact crater lake on earth.

14. Seen the waterfalls of the Deccan plateau? Be it the Chitrakoot falls in Chhattisgarh, Gokak falls in Karnataka, Athirapally in Kerala or Hogeynakal in Tamil Nadu… They’re all so good they can give a good competition to the Niagara!

15. Heard of the Sentinelese tribesmen in the Andaman sea? They’ve long avoided contact with the outside world and their gene pool is believed to be one of the crucial links to early man and the evolution of mankind on the planet.

What India has to offer is abundant! And these are only a few places that I have been to in the southern India. Do you have any recommendations? Have I missed out on anything? I would LOVE to know… Please drop n your suggestions, recommendations, feedback in the comments section below 😊

Click here for places to visit on weekends for bengaluru

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-Rakchim-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 ask 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

The geographical centre of India before partition- Vidarbha

Vidarbha- the region consisting of Nagpur and Amravati derives its name from the epic city of Mahabharata. With several references made in Ramayana and Mahabharatha, it is not just historically important but a mineral rich region in Central India. And a region that offers its own delectable cuisine to its guests.. Vidarbha is extremely important with its strong influence in culture, history and geography.

When opportunity knocks at your door, grab it! That’s what I did.. A friend was getting hitched at Amravati and the nearest airport for me to fly down was at Nagpur. So this time, it was an opportunity to explore the Vidarbha region. But that came with its set of challenges. It is one of the hottest places in India and hence, a self-drive car was hired to ease the travel hassles of local transport. The itinerary was planned such that all major landmarks around Nagpur were covered on a single stretch before hitting the highway for the night’s stay at Amravati.

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The zero milestone of undivided India

Although poorly maintained for all hype around our first stop- It is a must see for anyone visiting Nagpur, the geographical centre of India before partition. The ‘zero’ milestone from where all distances were measured and highways originated in India before Pakistan was formed, stands in a corner of a busy main road. The DeekshaBhoomi meditation centre is around the place where Dr.B.R.Ambedkar is said to have given his first sermon after he converted to Buddhism. The Dragon palace temple, Ramdham Park are some other places within the city if you are in more leisure. The lakes in the city can easily be given a miss. However, some heritage structures like churches, schools and the railway station lend an old-world charm to the city.

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Swaminarayan Mandir

The Swaminarayan temple was a beautiful place and the ‘Adasa Ganesh temple’ that can be done by taking a small deviation before hitting back the same highway. ‘Mansar’ is an archaeologically important site, believed to be of Pravarapura, an erstwhile capital of the Vakataka kingdom that ruled the Vidarbha region. 5kms from there is Ramtek, the holy hill to people of all faiths. ‘Gad Mandir’, an old beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Ram is situated atop a hillock. Solitude is available in abundance here with a great view of the entire area. It is also believed to be a place where the mythological King, Kalidas wrote his epic poem- ‘Meghdoot’ at Ramtek hills. There are several places that are significant among the Jains and Buddhists too that are located in the vicinity. The Ambala Lake with its beautiful structures lining the Ghats at the base of the hills was my favourite place of the trip. Get yourself cooled with some water sports at Khindsi Lake or soak in history at the Nagerdhan fort, the primary capital town of Vakatakas if you have some more time for leisure. It is a further 10kms drive from Ramtek.

And… Don’t miss an opportunity to stay over at ‘Pench National park and do some tiger sighting’ in the land of ‘The Jungle Book’- The story of Mowgli and Bhageera that we have all grown up listening and watching. There are a lot of scenic places around Pench that I can help you with if you are planning to stay over at one of the jungle lodges. We did not have the luxury of time as we had to drive back all the way as our stay was booked at Amravati. The Amravati region is home to several wildlife sanctuaries and temples that can be accommodated if you’re traveling on a luxury of time and an own vehicle, we gave it a miss. Chikaldhara, the highest point of Vidarbha region and the only hill station is located here. For a person like me hailing from the coffee hills, it was quite exciting to know that Amravati is the only coffee growing region of Maharashtra state.

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

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The Varadi food that kept us going!

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

A visit to the Mecca of India- Ajmer

Time has been kind on me yet again bringing me to the right place when the time was right! And this time it was to Ajmer during the holy month of Ramadan. Ajmer-Marwar region was a separate state until it was merged with Rajasthan. At a distance of 130kms by road from Jaipur, it is believed to be the second holiest place in Islam after Mecca. I managed to squeeze in sufficient time from my business trip to venture out in this city and explore most of whatever it has to offer for the traveller in me.

Needless to say that no visit is complete without heading to the Ajmer Sharif Dargah dedicated to the Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. We were fortunate to have contacted one of the trustees of the Dargah who managed our entire visit and made it one of envy for most people who struggle to get past the crowds in other seasons. Also, our visit coincided with the 27th day of the Holy month- revered as the ‘Night of Destiny’ in the Islam faith. The Dargah is located at the base of the Taragarh hill atop of which a fort is situated. The view of the entire hill is so beautiful with a township constructed on the steep slopes overlooking the Dargarh. Photography is prohibited inside the Dargarh premises and hence, I wasn’t able to capture most of the things. It’s a welcome move in some places like these and respect the sanctity of the place. Enough is said and written about this place and I wish to cover about the other things this historic town has to offer.

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Breaking the fast at Ajmer dargah Sharif

We were right there on the premises at the time of breaking the day’s fast. After that, we walked the by lanes around the Dargah to explore the best of Ajmer. Not in terms of places but in terms of its lip-smacking street food. With a lot of Mughalai and Nawabi influence and it being the Ramadan season, the best of the spread was available- Needless to say, it is a haven for food lovers. By the time the last ray of the day’s sun had vanished, we were stuffed until our glottis. If you are a history buff and want to find something to feed your wanderlust, you can take a walk to Adhai-Din-Ka-Jhonpra and the Akbar Palace and museum that are located closer to the Dargah. Soniji-ki-Nasiyan is a nice two-storeyed wooden Jain temple that can be visited enroute to Dargah Sharif. If you are at the luxury of time, a quick ride to quick ride to the Mayo college campus can be ended with some peaceful sunset time spent by the banks of the Ana Sagar Lake. But, for me- something else was awaiting!

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The folk singers performing live in the courtyard of the Taj

I was hosted at the Taj- Ajmer gateway for the night, a world in itself to visit and hang around. The drive from Ajmer city towards it outskirts on Pushkar road, through winding roads with the backdrop of the setting golden sun was a picturesque treat after a tiring day of work and toil. All this seemed like only a grand welcome to the beautiful Taj property that’s nestled in the midst of nowhere in the lap of the Aravalis. The sky was dark, when we arrived at this palatial hotel. The entire driveway was lit with dim sodium lamps from the gate through the lounge. A faint outline of the Aravalli hills standing calmly on the backdrop only enhanced its grandeur. It was a warm welcome as the live Rajasthani folk music with the timbre of the Morchang and Khartal resonated from the courtyard. It was a pleasant check-in when the host personally lead me to the room while explaining the delicately chosen wall murals and paintings as we walked through the elegant corridor. Though I was stuffed with Ajmer’s street food, I did manage to make some space for the delectable dinner that I was hosted at the restaurant. With all items seasoned and cooked to perfection, each dish seemed better than the other. With a refreshing dip in the pool, a day was called!

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Top: The courtyard at night Below: the morning view from my balcony

I looked forward for the morning as much as I did for the previous evening! I had set the alarm for sunrise but was woken up rather early by the calls of dozens of feral peacocks that had come from the forest/hills just behind the pool. I opened my balcony doors and voila! It was a magical morning with peacocks dancing in the courtyard and a modestly calm sun peeping out of shadowy grey clouds with the glorious green Aravalis forming a backdrop… I soaked in this special moment as much as I could from my balcony before I realised that it was time for me to pack-up. Finishing up the morning chores and ending my stay with the Taj with a wonderful breakfast spread, it was time for me to say good bye to this beautiful city of Ajmer and this beautiful Taj property- the Ajmer gateway!

Summary:

Must-do: Make a wish by offering the Chadar or the decorated shawl to the deity/tomb at the Dargah Sharif.
Must eats: while the street food and the never-ending list of non-veg dishes are to die for in the month of Ramadan, Kadi Kachori and Soan-Halwa are an all-season recommendations.
Must buys: variety of prayer caps and incense.

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The Street shopping at Ajmer

Meeting the farmers of the forests at Dandeli

Being one of the first hotspots of the elusive black panthers and a place known as the ‘Rishikesh of the South’ for its river rafting in the waters of River Kali weren’t reasons enough for me to grab-in when opportunity struck! A Solo-trip that was long due, finally happened one weekend. I packed my backpack and hit the road in an overnight bus to reach Dandeli.

Since I was travelling solo, I had booked my trip through the packages offered by the resorts in the buffer zone of Anshi National park and Dandeli Tiger reserve. For a change and a reason, I had opted to stay at 2 different properties during my trip. The first day was at a resort to pamper myself with luxury in the wilderness and the second night was at a homestay to feed the wanderlust and nomad in me with the various activities included in their package. Firstly, I stayed at the ‘Old Magazine House’, a resort run by the Karnataka Forest Department’s Jungle lodges and Resorts wing. It’s a renovated old house where the gelatin stocks were stored (hence the name- Magazine) during the construction of the Supa dam. It is a simple place nestled in the midst of high rise thick canopy of trees. The nature lover in me enjoyed the eerie silence of these elusive woods and calmed my soul by responding to the deep calls of nature.

Click here for more weekend trips from Bengaluru

The highlight of the stay was that of having large number of flying lizards around and an ideal set-up for bird photography in their natural habitat. A hike to the sunset point and coracle ride in the ferocious river Kali was included in the package. With a river seeming deadly with uncountable whirlpools, the coracle ride was sure an experience in itself. I chose to do these activities with them over any other private property because all the permits for treks and adventure activities are legally obtained and conducted under the supervision of authorized personnel from the forest department and hence, a safe bet. I took an evening walk before sunset to the Ganeshgudi Bridge from where flocks of hornbills can be seen flying or mud-bathing in the winters.

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The coracle ride

The next day, after a short bird spotting walk in the woods and finishing it with a neat breakfast, I headed towards my next destination- Dandeli jungle camp located at Pradhani. An offbeat drive of about 2kms from the main road leads to this simple homestay and camp run in the lap of nature amid the woods, that’s filled with rare flora and fauna. Be sure to be greeted by Malabar giant squirrels and sambar deer at your doorstep to say the least. Since it’s a camp, basic but neat amenities can be availed with either rooms or tenting facilities. We were taken to Syntheri rocks, a very beautiful little place located deep in the woods and formed by rich mineral ores that have formed beautiful rock patterns by standing the test of time. An evening walk in the woods just around the property or catching the sunrise from my window were just a few beautiful moments among others.

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Syntheri rocks

Photo courtesy: Gowtham Shastry

The experience I had the next morning is something that I will cherish for long time. As a part of the package, I was asked to be ready by 6.00.a.m. and was taken to the Dandeli timber depot. I was introduced to Ms.Rajani, a high school teacher by profession and an avid nature keeper by passion. She was assigned to take me on a bird watching tour around the depot where over 150 bird species could be spotted on any given day- A true haven for the bird watchers! My enthusiastic guide visits this place every morning and evening which she describes as her day being incomplete without talking to the woods and strengthening her nature connect.

Among several species that she went on showing me around and shedding light on facts about them, the one that opened my eyes to an all new perspective of seeing avian life were the Hornbills. The hornbill is one species that is referred to Lord Ram and Sita for the couple bonding that they share. These birds have a very unique way of finding their mates and if ever happened that one bird dies anytime, the other remains single all life without finding another mate which is unique to hornbills. The reproduction cycle of these birds is once in 5 years and hence, the male bird is extremely protective about the female and the chick. The male bestows his beloved with berries of her choice from faraway places during this period. While it carries around 40-50 berries in its beak to feed its family, a few fruits may fall down during its flight, thus contributing to afforestation- The hornbills are the farmers of the forests in true sense and live a life of awe and inspiration to mankind. Another interesting fact is among the 54 species of hornbill across the world, 9 are found in India. Out of these, the world’s largest species- The great Indian hornbill and world’s smallest- the Malabar Grey hornbill with Malabar pied and Indian Grey, 4 species can be found in Dandeli alone. And I was fortunate to see all 4 of these during my 3 days stay here, an experience that cannot be explained but only be witnessed. Another unique sighting was of the jungle babbler or the ‘seven sister birds’. With enormous untold stories, the tour ended rather quickly as we both lost track of time. I gave her a tight hug for the wonderful ways of teaching her students in school about conservation of natural resources and I bid farewell.

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Dandeli timber depot

After freshening up back at the camp after breakfast, I started my journey back to Bangalore. I took a KSRTC bus from Dandeli to Hubli from where I had booked my train. Whoa! Such a wonderful trip!

Summary:

Must dos:

• Watch the hornbills mud-bathing on the river bank near Ganeshgudi

• Spot flying lizards and the black panthers.

Dandeli Jungle Camp is an offbeat stay which does not have its own webpage or have direction boards to keep commercialization at check. You can get in touch with them if you wish to, through www.dandeli.com

The connectivity of local transport is not reliable. Although, it would be a great idea to have an own vehicle to go around the place, the property that you stay at can arrange it for you and hence, traveling alone shouldn’t be much of a hassle.

What has the spiritual capital taught me at Banaras?

Kashi for the pilgrims, Banaras for the historians and Varanasi for the modern… How it is religiously important, culturally vital, historically notable… There is enough said and done about this city through literature that is available as early as mythology, history and the modern contemporary. If I had to write about the same stuffs here, then this post would be just another summary with my perspective in it. However, I still use this one sentence to re-iterate the common belief: ‘No time is long enough to be at Banaras’.

The immovable faith of the people, the ever crowded streets, delectable street food, the elusive power of the Naga Babas, the hippie culture of the westerners, the rich history, the mythological importance, the intriguing cultural heritage, dance, music, poetry, handloom, education, art, architecture- The list goes on endlessly that holds so much significance. Hence, keeping it all aside, I wish to make a list of what this city offered to teach me-

1. Work is Worship: This old man agreed to pedal us around for a rickshaw tour of the heritage campus of the Banaras Hindu University. The humility in his speech, the five-o’clock shadow in grey on his weather beaten face and the sinewy legs spoke volumes of his wisdom and hard work for this 60+ someone. He has seen those innumerous people come and go to this sacred land. At the end of the tour, he stopped at the Bharat Kala Bhavan museum complex on the university premises. We told him that we wouldn’t need much time there and would be back in half-an-hour. We failed with our words, and the quickest we could come out is after one-and-half hours. There was no sight of this old man for as long as our vision could stretch. The man did not carry a cellphone and we didn’t know his name to enquire with the people around. We had waited for another 30minutes now. We were uncertain whether to wait for some more time or leave without paying his fees. In just then, we heard the tinkle of his cycle bell as it screeched to a halt in front of us with a little girl in the rear seat. He explained, “I was getting late to go pick up the kids from school and drop them home, they would panic or else”. This man did not worry if he lost the money that we owed him, there was something else he considered more important. As we sat on the rear with the little girl on my lap, I was reminded how for this man ‘Work was Worship’. One has to stay committed to what has been assigned.

2. Solo travel helps in self-discovery but having a travel mate provides security: While we finished the Ganga Aarti, savoured some delectable street food and returned to the hostel at around 10.00.p.m. we found that 3 of our roommates were fallen motionless. We checked with them to know what had happened. While one held on to her stomach and started to cry of pain, the other 2 ran to the restrooms… Having barely any strength to talk or stand, one of them managed to say that they had food poisoning. On being requested for help, the men running the hostel conveniently pushed the responsibility of nursing the girls on us. Since 2 of them were burning with high fever, we rushed them to the hospital (supposedly the best in town) for medication. On arrival, the hospital authorities refused to provide first aid without submitting their passport and paying an advance of Rs.30000. Forget being able to talk, these girls barely had any conscious to tell us where they had kept their belongings. And we ourselves being strangers in the place, it wasn’t going to be easy helping those girls. It was well past 12.00.a.m. while we were running around the dark, rainy streets of Varanasi for the required documentations so that the girls could get their first aid ASAP. With the physical condition they were in, with a no-electricity night, cocky/horny street hawkers who were hovering around and adamant auto-rickshaw drivers trying to make quick bucks out of the helpless situation, it would have been rather impossible for the expats hadn’t they found us! While the attitude of the guys running the hostel, the hospital and one of the girls among the patients itself is a story to write about, this whole episode taught me one thing- The importance of having company while travelling or at least having an acquaintance in the place one wishes to travel.

3. Serving food is divine, do it from your heart: There are eateries in every nook and corner of Varanasi that serve authentic cuisines from almost all parts of the world to cater to the international tourists who throng in large numbers. Any food that is offered with a true heart gets its added flavours… We had found our favourite hangout at the Phulwari restaurant, conveniently sharing the premises of the Godowlia Kaali mata temple. With a traditional ornate welcome gate opening into a casual shack like place with basic cushions and bamboo chairs and a mud-smeared kiln for making their wood fried pizzas, it offered a very warm ambience. And having personal attention from the waiter was overwhelming. He made sure we got precisely what we wanted while we were confused running through the long menu. He even went to the extent of getting some herbal drink from the next street to help me with my headache. He offered us with the best thandai of Varanasi, chilled to perfection and served in clay bowls to retain its authentic flavour; delivered at our hostel on the last day of our visit! There is so much more about providing customer service and hospitality- this man was at his best!

4. Do not question the untold: The Ganges is a powerhouse of inspiration. She’s holy, pure, sacred and selfless. While we took a ride along the shores of the holy river, the veteran boat man patiently answered all our questions about the holy city. While umpteen things can be discussed in lines of communalism, history and science, Not to be debated about: the Ganga at Banaras is a lifeline. It’s a way of life. Irrespective of religion, caste and creed, faith is the only thing that has kept the people going here… Every baby born in this land imbibes it in the genes… It’s at times important to understand the significance and let things be. Do not be overwhelmed to exhibit your education by venturing into a zone to only be littled by the magnificence of the faith.

5. There is no escape from the cycle of life and death: While we were sitting on the steps of the Manikarnika Ghat and watching the flames engulf the body of the deceased on the banks of the holy river, a volunteer sat next to us to proffer his knowledge about the significance of every ritual in Hinduism starting from the birth of a person until he bites the dust. He goes on to explain why Hindu culture does not encourage women from performing the last rites. Women being emotionally weak, tend to cry at funerals. This makes it difficult for the soul to break the attachment and leave the body. With soot from the fumes rising from the burning ghat settling all over us, it was a good long 2 hours of narration of the rituals associated with life and afterwards. At the end of which, I was left wondering with a continuously running stream of questions about life and finding its worth. They were thousands of unanswered questions which I hope to go back to the ghats someday, to find all my answers!

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.
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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.