Tag Archives: Offbeat Diwali

A personal chronology of Deepawali celebration

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

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

The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram

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

Sunset at Majuli

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

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

Sunset view from Sangla bus stand

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

The sunset from Varkala cliff on Deepavali 2019

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

The view of the farm, from our ancestral home in Kodagu

Celebrating the festival of Love and lights at Varkala

Solo tripping during Deepavali has somehow been a ritual that has caught on to me since 2015. In 2019, I was out in Kerala. I was going to spend three days at a place considered somewhat to be a hippie destination. Train tickets were sold out and hence, I boarded an evening bus from Bengaluru. After a long journey, I alighted at Kollam on the following morning, from where I got a passenger train ride to my destination: Varkala Sivagiri.

The itinerary for three days is as follows:
Day 1: Janardhan Swamy temple visit, Lazing and hippying around the cliff and the Varkala Promenade
Day 2: Golden island, Sivagiri Mutt, Ajengo Fort, Varkala Light house and Munroe island
Day 3: Kappil beach

The Story:
It was a pleasant train journey along a scenic route. I had a nice Kerala breakfast at a restaurant across the railway station and then followed google maps to the hostel that I had booked online. I did not mind the long walk to the hostel that was located close to the famous ‘Cliff point’. I always consider walking as an opportunity to explore the streets and get acquainted with any place that I visit. After checking in at the hostel and freshening up, I headed out to visit the ancient Janardhan Swamy temple. After offering my prayers, I walked back to spend the rest of the day at the beach.

While I was walking along the beach and silently enjoying the romance of my feet with the waves, I noticed a woman (in her sixties, which she later mentioned during our conversation) walking on the beach too. With a smile on her face, she was enjoying her lone time. But at the same time, she seemed to be struggling with something. I felt as if she wanted to mingle with the people around there, she wanted to get herself photographed, but something was holding her back. I smiled at her and she smiled in return. I offered to take her photo and she was glad. Eventually as I spoke to her, I realized that she wanted to socialize with the locals but was struggling with the language. She was French and couldn’t speak neither the local language nor English.

As I spoke slowly, she translated it on her phone and communicated back with me through the mobile phone translator. we had become good friends by the next hour. She mentioned to me that she was in India to help herself with the loss of her husband and was accompanied by a friend who had traveled all the way only to be by her side. She was in Varkala since a month and was staying at her cousin’s house who was married to a localite. She was learning Yoga and aromatherapy and was keen on buying good incense sticks from India. She walked me along the entire beach and showed me around the marketplace. She then sought my help to negotiate with a local vendor to buy her a ‘Hapi pan’, a musical instrument that she had been eyeing since the past month that she had been living there.

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

I managed to get it for her at almost half the price that he had quoted to this ‘Foreigner’ and I can’t explain how happy she was with her new possession. She then walked me down the cliff, laid down her shawl on the ground and sat me down. She started to play her musical instrument and it was a sight to see the sparkle of happiness in her eyes. Sometimes, these little things of bringing joy in others’ life means EVERYTHING!

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

Post sunset, she walked me till my hostel and bid goodbye with a REALLY tight hug! She said she was extremely glad that she had met me and asked me to join her at the Yoga classes on the following morning if I had time. “The morning recitation of the Shlokas by the beach is my favorite time of the day” she said. I informed her of my plans of exploring other places around Varkala and that I wouldn’t be able to meet her. I gave her my phone number to get in touch if she needed any help and we both parted.

It was a night of celebration at the hostel. The hostel had people from various corners of India and the world and were all dressed up in traditional Indian wear. The premises were decorated with diyas and rangolis. It was a special Diwali, for sure 😊

My visit to the Golden island

The following morning, I hired an auto rickshaw and did a quick visit to the Sivagiri Mutt and the fort before heading towards Ponnumthuruttu. Fondly called as the Golden Island, it is a protected forest area reachable only by boat. It has a few ancient temples and it reminds me much in line of ‘Devarakaadu’ or sacred groves in my hometown. It was indeed a pleasant ride. Apart from the auto driver and the boatman, I was the only other person in the boat, in the island and hence had the blissful time with nature. Although I had plans of taking a boat ride in the nearby Munroe island at Sunset, I later decided to stay back in Varkala itself. By evening, I returned to the cliff again at sunset time. Believe me when I say, the BEST Diwali of my life was in that day’s evening sky. It was a riot of colours.

The sunset from Varkala cliff on Deepavali 2019

After the sun sank into the horizon completely, I decided to treat myself with some nice sea food. It is one of those strange moments when you are made to feel at home in an unknown land. As I was strolling along the promenade, undecisive of which restaurant to go, I heard someone say: “Akkayya, ninga Kodagu-l elli?” in a male voice. In my mother tongue, that translates to: “Sister, which part of Kodagu do you belong to?” I was astonished and surprised for a moment. We got talking and he said he belonged to a native tribe from Kodagu, settled in Varkala. He had been working at a restaurant there since several years. On being asked how he recognized me to be a Kodavati, he pointed out at my unique Kodava facial features. That was SOMETHING for me to hear now! He volunteered to choose the lobsters and the crab for me from the aquarium, got me a beach-facing-candle-lit table and served the best sea platter I had tasted in a while. It is one of those overwhelming evenings of my life. All time for myself on a Solo-date-dinner night and still made to feel at home by a random person.

My sea view dinner table at Varkala

The next morning, I headed to the beach to grab some English breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised when my French friend and her friend, both arrived at the same restaurant. We three conversed on a multitude of topics and spent good long time together. While the two of them later dispersed, I stayed back at the restaurant waiting for a friend who was riding down from Kochi to meet me. On his arrival, I walked up to settle my restaurant bill at the counter. The cashier said: “No madam, your bill is already settled.” I was amused and told him that I had been eating until now and hadn’t left my table. So, he informed me that a foreigner lady had paid for my orders. There I was, in yet another overwhelming situation. My French friend had paid for my share of the bill too.

Kappil beach

My friend and I then commenced our ride towards Kappil beach, situated on the outskirts of Varkala. It is one of the finest beach side roads I have been to. Somehow, I drew parallels with Maravanthe beach in coastal Karnataka. But moving away from the highway, my friend took me to some deep hidden jewel of locations. I guess it would be fair to call this as my 4th best part of the same trip. Some amazing places can be explored only by hanging out with the locals. He is a Malayali and knowing the offbeat locations enable me to experience one of the craziest bike rides of my life. We drove several kilometers LITERALLY along the edge of the world; like the EDGE! Even if the moist soil under our wheel slipped or the rider went slightly off balance, we both would’ve gone along with the sea, beyond the cliff. All this, while riding through poor visibility due to wild shrubs that were standing taller than us. And then, the shrubs opened into yet another beautiful sunset.

Upon return to Varkala, I picked up some incense sticks with essential oils and dropped them off as souvenirs to my French friend at the Yoga center (A surprise that she would receive only the following morning, after I was gone). Then, I did a quick check out from the hostel and boarded the night train back to Bengaluru. The train route is for yet another post, someday!

My Deepawali of 2019 was all about spreading love and feeling loved. How often have you got lucky and overwhelmed with warm experiences during travel? And how often has it been multiple times on the same trip?

Land of dinosaurs, ghost lights and human civilization- Dholavira

How does it feel to wake up one day and find yourself to be walking in the pages of history? Having studied all my life about how great a country we live in, where every grain of soil is soaked in rich history- To me, it seemed like I was driving out there in fantasy land. Among the many theories associated with ‘How my country got its name’, it is likely that the place I was heading too has its tales related distantly. India, the land in which the Indus river flows. This region is where the largest recorded human civilization took place in the face of the earth, over 5000 years ago- the Indus valley civilization. With over 1800 sites of Bronze age identified worldwide, I was going to Dholavira, the grandest of all the sites. As if it wasn’t reason enough for me to get excited, this region is an island formed by one of the largest salt marshes in the world, the Rann of Kutch! In the midst of it, exists a fossil site that dates back to the age of dinosaurs!

Just a whiz after Rapat village on the mainland, the ‘Khadir Bet’ island appears rather suddenly! I’m quite sure that anyone who is going there for the first time, cannot proceed without stopping here to just sync the coordination between their eyes and the brain! All you see will be a home straight black road, piercing right through the horizon, flanked by an endless stretch of white that confuses the mind to figure out how the blue sky and the brown land disappeared! As in our case, it was noon and the blazing sun was right atop making it difficult for us to open our eyes to see while the glistening white sand looked same as the colour of the sky. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my sight and thoughts had lost coordination for a few minutes before I spotted some puddles of coloured water here and there, in an otherwise clear white desert of salt. These puddles are nothing but salt water from this inland sea marsh that is yet to evaporate and the colouration is due to factors like the effect of temperature and the concentration of the mineral content in them. My friend and I sat there in thoughtlessness for a while until it struck us that we had a long day ahead!

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The colourful puddles of salt water

After stopping by for a Kutchi meal with ‘Bajra ki Rotla’ (Millet roti) with gud (Jaggery) and side dishes that were local delicacies, we passed through several small hamlets to reach our first destination. We were bereaved the luxury of time so that we could explore these individual hamlets. Each one of these settlements represent a different tribal group with their own identity of food, culture, costume, art and even the way their Bhungas (Huts) are designed. I would have loved to spend time walking through them all and learning some bits of techniques to sew the famed Kutchi embroidery too. Anyway, let us talk about the nicer things we did with whatever time we had. So, one-and-half-hour was indeed scarce, to walk through history when a guide took us around the site of Dholavira explaining us about the early, mature and the late Harappas. It can run into pages if I write about the details and hence, I cut a long post short at the end of my walk at the north gate. That’s where a 10-letter signboard is mysteriously laid. These are the only letters discovered from the inscriptions of that era and are still beyond the ability of modern man to be deciphered.

Above: One of the remains of a bronze age Bhunga at Dholavira; Bottom: an wooden board marked with the 10mystic letters at the North gate

It was a 10kms drive further towards the Indo-Pak border area to walk in to yet another era. It was a jump back in time from the bronze age to the era when dinosaurs walked around on this planet. The trees of the time can be found here which resemble huge boulders now in their fossilized form. A short walk down from there lead us to the salt desert and that’s when a sense of massiveness of this earth hit me. A tiny dot on the planet that I am, I felt surrounded by an endless stretch of white. Only at a farther end appeared a small hill, ‘Kala Dungar’- the highest point in the Rann.

We had contacted a private resort in the region who had arranged for an off-road drive, into the Banni grasslands. A 45minutes bumpy drive on the dusty road cutting through the desert was an experience in itself, while being driven to a place that is known to be the only surviving habitat of the Cheetah in India. We were lucky to see a lot of native residents of this reserved forest including herds of Asiatic Wild Ass, Chinkara, blackbucks, Nilghais, wild boars and even a desert fox. Short grass and bushy trees were a different feature in a landscape that was surrounded by barrenness of the salt flats. These grasslands are also famed for the mysterious phenomenon of light called as the ‘Chir Batti’ or the ghost lights. These moving lights occur at night and are believed to misguide people into the vast marshland if they are followed. Although still a mystery, these lights could be components of methane in combination with other colouring elements, easily flammable in the presence of small amounts of heat and oxygen, if needs a scientific approach to answer.

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A herd of Asiatic Wild Ass grazing at the Banni grassland

With the setting sun, came down the temperature as well. With ourselves being covered in white dry dust from head to toe and no thermals with us, the return was a chilling cold drive sitting in the open back of the four-wheeler. But that was the last thing that bothered us, as we watched the golden sun melt into molten red lava merging with white desert before being engulfed into the darkness of the night. Needless to say, watching the setting sun there was ethereal!

Staying back in Dholavira and watching the night pass over the desert and break into dawn is highly recommended. However, we were short of time and had to return to Bhuj the same night. The night’s drive back through the causeway was no less than amazing. We were just 2 days away from the full moon’s night and the moon was almost full (:P). While the rising moon reflected on the salt crystals infront of me, the clear dark sky away from the moon made way for the twinkling stars. So, that was an experience of a lifetime to watch the glittering salt below me on one side of the road and the glittering stars above me on the other side of the road. As our mouths began to chatter with the cold of the night, it was a silent good bye to this mysterious island of Khadir Bhet!

Summary: It is beyond my abilities to put together ‘one word’ to describe a place that has pieces of everything from all ages of evolution of not just humans, but this planet itself. It is a place that has the power to gives you a sense of emptiness of your existence and teach the magnitude of life. Go there, experience it!

Celebrating Diwali in the island of Satras- Majuli

A good photo can tell a story… But a camera can never capture what the real eyes see…

The above expression explains my feeling when my drive to Majuli started. We drove to Neemati Ghat from where we had to get onto a ferry along with our car onboard… Although the ferry sailed away from the banks, we saw ourselves approaching the same bank within 15mins after a detour. A person who had alighted at Neemati Ghat had created a ruckus for having lost his bag of crackers in the ferry. Oh yes… Diwali with no fireworks?? After all the drama, our ferry took sail on its final trip of the day… It was approximately an hour’s journey across the mighty Brahmaputra towards Kamalabari ghat on the other end that had conveniently faded into the horizon.

We were sailing in the middle of the widest of the Indian rivers which seemed no less than a sea… In no time, it was sunset in the sky!! We saw the gold of daylight changing into molten red merging with the darkness of the sea to call it a day! Each fraction of a second was a spectacle to the eye while the universe around us was changing into hues of red. And at the distant horizon, the dark sky was being lit up with fireworks as if the world’s largest river island was set for our grand welcome. With last drop of the set-sun, our ferry touched the Majuli island at Kamalabari Ghat. The welcome was more than what we had imagined while in the waters… The streetlights in the entire island were switched off and it was like time travel to the history books of ancient days when all towns and villages used to be lit by lamps with oil soaked wicks… All villages, all streets, all houses & shops, every courtyard and like every damned place in the island was lit up with diyas of Diwali reminding us the exact purpose of the festival- Celebration of the grand return of Lord Ram, Sita & Lakshman at Ayodhya..!! The distinct rural ambience with lamp lit bamboo huts reflecting in the swamp waters just added to the amusement we had.

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Lamps being lit at one of the huts at the Missing village

After getting directions from our homestay owner, we drove through stretches of Gurmur only to be guided with lamps that marked the boundary between the road and the bamboo forests on a moon-less night… A neatly done-up bamboo cottage was awaiting our arrival in that bamboo island… After freshening up in our cottage, we took a stroll in that magical village in search of some local food for dinner. We had to satiate our hunger at a small but pleasant hotel with a simple Assamese Thali.

The rest of the night was spent star gazing in a clear moon-less sky outside our bamboo hut, with moist dew-kissed grass underneath and sipping apong- the local rice-beer… Right there, I found what I wanted from my trip- A piece of peaceful life… It was BLISS..!!

Day 2: The next morning, we woke up leisurely and took a stroll around the village enjoying the rustic countryside… As it was start of the winter, we witnessed several endemic & endangered bird species including migratory birds that had come to nest in this extensive wetland. After breakfast, we decided to explore the cultural diversity offered by the island. Although I would any day choose to cycle around this vast district, my friend wanted to drive around instead and so we did… Majuli has always been the cultural headquarters of Assam. It is known for its ancient monasteries which have been practicing various forms of art for over 500yrs now. These monasteries are called Satras. There were over 660 Satras in the island which has reduced to a handful of practicing schools now. We were hence keen on exploring a few of them. The drive around the bamboo groves alternately opened up to the swamp waters of the island making the drive very enjoyable. And every household had a loom placed outside under the shade of the hut with several women folk weaving the famous textile of Majuli. Several others were busy with the preparations for ‘RaasLeela’ the biggest cultural festival of the island flocked with people from across the world due for a few weeks ahead.

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The bamboo huts/ houses in the Mising village

Firstly, we visited the ‘Natun Samaguri Satra’- known for mask making. The humble person Mr. Hem Goswami was patiently explaining the process of mask making to every visitor who dropped by. Since, the preparations were on for RaasLeela, most of the masks available were those of characters from Ramayana. We were amused with the way Mr. Goswami got into the skin of the character of the mask that he wore each time. Be it the aggression of King Vali or the gracefulness of seditious Mohini- He adorned them all with ease… We then drove across the island to ‘Uttar Kamalabari Satra’- famous for the origin of Sattriya dance, ‘Kamalabari Satra’ known for boat making and ‘Aouniati Satra- the largest among all and ‘Dakhinpat Satra’- The oldest of all Satras in Assam. The monks or Bramhacharis as they are called were all occupied in the practice of hymns for the Raas night!

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The masks at the Samaguri satra

The island is inhabited by the Mising, Deori & Sonowal Kachari tribes in separate villages in this bamboo district. And hence, the indigenous culture of the tribal folk is another attraction in addition to all the cultural and bio-diversity that the island has to offer. After all this exploration of the island district, we headed towards Dhunaguri Ghat from where a 3hour drive would get us to the gates of Arunachal Pradesh. Firstly, we need to cross a small swamp with a ferry which is available at any point in time, so one needs to just hop in and get rowed across. There is a bamboo bridge being constructed by the local tribes parallely which I think is eligible to be called world’s longest bamboo bridge. The amount of engineering and effort the locals have been putting in is noteworthy. Next was a short drive through the tribal settlements to catch another ferry that runs on a fixed time. But, this drive was again like an emotional farewell to us by this beautiful island… The oblique rays of the setting sun laid a golden tone for the entire backdrop. With the bamboo huts onto our right, the view to our left was a visual treat! Grey waters of the Brahmaputra, green paddy fields, blue Himalayas at a distance with the golden sunset- all in one sight looked like layers of colours and terrain merging into one another forming as if a dream was frozen on canvas.

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The ferry and the under construction bamboo bridge at Dhunaguri ghat

We waited at the banks for a long time and captured various silhouettes in the backdrop of a dreamy sunset until our ferry arrived. We boarded our car onto the launch and bid a final goodbye to the beautiful island and its people…

Summary:
Majuli is THE place for a traveler who wants to break through some offbeat destination with multiple touch points- Cultural, traditional, geographical, eco and biological diversity all at one place!

Must do:
• Take a cycle tour exploring the Satras around the island.
• Attend the annual cultural festival- RaasLeela in 3rd week of November.