Tag Archives: Offbeat India

The coldest place with the warmest hospitality- Pfutsero

More often than always, the stories we carry back from our travel are about the people we meet and less about the places we see. Our definition of whether our trip is good or bad is defined by the way we are made to feel by the people we come across. My experience in Pfutsero too has been one of those, where the warmth of the people made me fall in love with Nagaland. All I knew about Pfutsero was that it is the largest town in Phek district, and it is the highest inhabited place in the state of Nagaland. High altitude also means that it is the coldest place in the entire state. Having very little information available on the internet only meant that the place is still off the radar of mainstream tourism. This is what got me inquisitive and itched me to visit Pfutsero which would give ample scope to explore and experience something so raw and unknown to the outside world.

From the day I arrived at Nagaland, I had started to talk to a lot of people to get information about getting to Pfutseru. With lack of clear information and high cost of travel, I had almost dropped the plan until the end of my 10-day trip in the state. One last try at finding a cheaper transportation landed me in a small grocery store at Kezekie taxi stand in Kohima. My friend and I realised that we were at the right place. The courteous owner of the store guided us with all the required information and got our seats booked in the shared taxi that plies between Kohima and Pfutsero the next morning.

As instructed, we had reached Kezekie by 07.00.am. the following morning to be assured of a seat. But thanks to the traffic, it was 10.30.a.m. by the time we left Kohima. However, there was one ambiguity before leaving for Pfutsero- Our stay wasn’t booked yet. Despite several failed attempts of calling the mini-tourist lodge at Pfutsero, their phone continued to remain switched off. But my friend and I were up for some adventure and decided to travel without a confirmed stay, go there and find one.

Watch the video of my roadtrip to Pfutsero:

Phek district is inhabited by the members of the Chakesang tribes in majority. With the friendliness of the grocery store owner, we had already started to feel the positive vibes of the place we were going to. She had given the contact information of her family who lives in Kezakeno, another village in Phek. She had not just shared the contact info, in fact forced us to stay with her family. We were feeling grateful and partially sorted in the eventuality of not finding a stay at Pfutsero.

There were both good roads and no roads, all adding up to a patchy drive to Pfutsero. Apart from the mountainous roads that seemed charming outside, the people with whom we shared our drive made our trip indeed a memorable one. One of them helped us to contact the tourist lodge and confirmed our stay at Pfutsero even before we reached. I had clearly started to feel overwhelmed with the hospitality of the people in this part of the country where the locals wanted to make all visitors feel at home. Almost everyone whom we got talking to, was excited to invite us over for a meal with them. Finally, it was 02.00.p.m. when we reached Pfutsero and a cup of hot tea was what we relished at our co-passenger’s house before checking-in at the tourist lodge. A colourful garden welcomed us into her wooden house that was perched on the slope of the hill. Its windows opened out into a majestic view of the entire town and overlooked a lake surrounded by green lawn. The dreamy house seemed to be no less than out of a Bollywood flick. We soon bid her a warm goodbye and headed to the tourist lodge, freshened up and proceeded to the target destination, before the sun called it a day!

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View from Glory peak, Pfutsero

Glory peak is the highest point in Pfutsero. A short taxi ride of 3kms through an under-construction road, jaw-dropping view of the surrounding valleys and a climb on a watch tower got us to the top of the town. Mt. Saramati is the highest peak in Nagaland and Mt. Everest needs no introduction. On a clear, bright afternoon, both the mountains can be seen from Glory peak. Since, we had reached there before sunset, the distant mountains were partially hidden by the haze and hence we could get a clear view of only Mt. Saramati. Nevertheless, the 360deg view of verdant hills from the glory peak was something to die for.

For those who have an additional day at hand, a day hike to the frozen lake from the glory peak is highly recommended by the locals. We decided to explore the town a little bit, before it was dark. A hike down the peak was fun as the staircase leading to the town passed through thick forests, strange creepers and colourful butterflies. We spent time exploring the town until sunset. It seemed dusty with poor roads. Apart from a few local snacks, we couldn’t find anything interesting. However, there is one souvenir shop run by an NGO that supports local artisans. One can buy some traditional Chakesang tribal jewellery, textile and food products as souvenirs from here.

The dropping temperature had started to numb our fingers and we decided to head back to the lodge. The lodge is situated on top of a hill and the setting sun looked glorious from the corridor. After wearing my thermals and gloves, I decided to take a stroll around the lodge. It is located adjacent to defence property and that gave me a sense of confidence to venture alone after dark. All the people from the neighbourhood were busy in decorating a nearby church for Christmas. They got me talking to them and eventually I joined them in their chore of setting up the wreaths and light bulbs. It was a fun evening until I decided to head back for the warmth of my room. The lodge was a HUGE property, but we were only two girls staying there that night. Although it was a little scary at the first thought to be the only guests, we were soon occupied in long conversation with the caretaker family of the property living in the same building, later to be joined by the owners. The conversation covered a range of topics and ran into the night. Given the lesser crowd of the cliched tourists, company of comforting hosts and warm conversations, we couldn’t have asked for a safer and a better place to be!

The comfort of the heater, cosy blankets and carpeted floors let us sleep like logs, unaware of the freezing sub-zero temperature outside. We were woken up by the alarm next morning, only to be mind-blown by the view of the rising sun over the clouds from our balcony. We packed up and prepared to leave as that was our last day in Nagaland and we had to make it to Dimapur for the night’s train. Meanwhile, we had booked a personal taxi for our return, since we wanted to explore Kezakeno on our way back.

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Top: Sunset view from Tourist lodge corridor, Pfutsero; Below: Sunrise view from Tourist lodge room, Pfutsero

The first stop was at- Chida lake. Locally called as Lowho, this off-road destination is a favourite hangout among the locals who come here for games like fishing and boating. Some enjoy a trekking trail from glory peak to Chida along the Kapamedzu range as well. There is a Border Security Force camp at Chida and hence, it is also referred as Chida Post at times. Since we had reached very early, we were the only tourists there and the place looked absolutely calm and serene.

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Lowho lake at Chida, Kezakeno

From there, we headed to Lazami village. This tiny village is of very high historical importance as it is the site from where the various Naga tribes are believed to have migrated to different parts of the state. A veteran from the village was excited to narrate the legend of Tsotawo, the spirited stone in the village. We were warmly invited by almost every person in this village into their house. We finally settled down at a little traditional house for breakfast and a large cup of tea. We carried back love in the form of guavas and local walnuts given by our hosts from this village. Seeing so much affection in these hills was a wonderful feeling that cannot be expressed, for which a city soul in me would want to come back again.

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The spirit stone

While continuing our journey from there, we did have a stop at Kami village view point to admire the terraced paddy fields of Lekhromi village, the view looked magnificent under the oblique rays of the early sun.

Making our way through the maddening traffic jam of Kohima is for another story to be written about, some other day! Thus, ended our 2 days of amazement and overwhelming hospitality in the Land of the Chakesang Nagas- Phek district.

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Terraced farms at Lekhromi village, Phek

Summary:

Must eats:
* Pfutsero is famous for its organic farming and terrace cultivation. We bought fruits (some known and some new) from the local shops that we could eat once we were back in our room.
* One would find a lot of bakeries in the town selling local cookies and muffins. Sticky rice cake, banana cake and banana chips are few of the things I recommend.

Getting around:
* Daily shared taxis ply between Kohima and Pfutsero. There are limited seats and the taxis leave immediately when filled. The taxi leaves Pfutsero around 6.00.a.m to Kohima and the same returns to Pfutsero on the same day on a first-cum-first serve basis. So, if one is not early enough to get a seat, he will have to hire a full taxi for him/herself or stay back until the next morning to share it. A one-way shared taxi seat costs 300Rs. Per head and a personal taxi would cost 5-6000rs. irrespective of whether it is a 1 or a 2-way journey.
* Within Pfutsero, most places are at walkable distances. But internal taxis are available for local commute. Talk to one of the shopkeepers in the town and they must be able to help in finding one.

Stay:
* A very well-maintained tourist lodge and a government run mini lodge are available at a very affordable price.
* There are a few homestays available for a more local experience.

Visiting Asia’s first green village- Khonoma

Before planning my visit to Nagaland, I had followed a few bloggers who had posted encaptivating photos of what they called the ‘Greenest village in India’. My friend and I had our stay booked at a homestay in this little-known village and were supposed to head there on the first day of our arrival in Nagaland. It was past noon by the time our shared taxi from Dimapur reached Kohima and the temperature had started to drop. Khonoma village, our destination was 20kms away and we stood on the highway, clueless about how we were supposed to get there. The connectivity through public transportation across Nagaland is something that needs the attention of the authorities. Meanwhile, without being able to find an honest taxi driver among all those who were quoting higher than what I had read about, we had started to feel stranded.

We finally managed to get a taxi and the courteous driver ensured our ride on the roadless path was comfortable and entertaining. On our request, the best Nagamese songs from his playlist were streamed and he made humble efforts to explain the meaning of each song and its relevance in Naga culture. It was a long ride considering that we took over an hour to cover the short distance. In Nagaland, each district is inhabited by a particular Tribe in majority and each village represents a particular clan within the tribe. Every tribe has its own language and surprisingly, each village has its own dialect which another clan might struggle to understand. ‘Khonoma is inhabited by the Kuthotsu clan of the Angami Tribe’, we were told.

Watch the video here:

On reaching Khonoma, we registered our entry at the tourism office from where we took directions to our homestay. As a first impression, it felt like it was just another settlement on the hills, something similar to my hometown. But as I began to walk towards the homestay along the narrow lanes and past the tourism office- a new world started to unfold. The entire village is built on a slope, overlooking the paddy fields. The slope makes it a requirement to climb winding stairs to get from one house to another, from one street to another. As you do this, you will not just pass by umpteen number of morungs but also walk through gardens full of colourful flowers and traditional Angami Naga gates. All this, while you are being mind-blown by the gorgeous view of the never-ending terraced fields of paddy and vegetables. If not the same, I bet this is far better and untouched than the terraced farms of Bali that has flooded the Instagram feeds. The guava trees around every corner of the village and the widely covered creepers of the Chayote squash added a vibrant hue of green to the entire valley. The extremely warm and obliging villagers allowed me to pluck a few guavas that tasted like nectar. Those were definitely the best guavas I had in my life till date. We then walked down the streets to our homestay, a cozy simple house that stood overlooking the terraced fields. Since we had little time before sunset (The sun sets by 04.00.p.m.), we dropped our luggage, freshened up quickly and ventured out to explore the village and make the most of the daylight.

Naga Heritage museum at Khonoma

As we strolled around the lanes, we were intrigued by the several morungs and the traditional Angami houses that we passed by. Morungs are Naga structures that are comparable to Gurukuls of olden days. The elders of the village would pass on their knowledge about life skills and tradition to the younger generations here, usually in the evenings after finishing their day’s chores. Although the Morung system is slowly passing into oblivion in modern days, Khonoma is one of the few places where these structures are conserved in their entirety. Every Morung and house had animal skulls (ranging from one to hundreds in number) hanging around their roofs and walls. We were quite fascinated with the collection that ranged from Mithuns and mountains goats to boars and other cattle. As we stood there, watching a few women who were busy with their job of de-husking paddy with a large pestle and stone, we were greeted by them with warm smiles to have a cup of tea in their house. I instantly accepted their invitation, jumping into the idea of seeing how a traditional Angami Naga house looked like inside.

The different skulls inside a traditional Naga house

Basic mud-smeared walls with knitted bamboo doors and their wooden roofs adorned with hundreds of skulls all around. “These skulls are prized possessions that represent the heroics of our ancestors. The Nagas are primarily hunters and our forefathers saved up the skulls of all their kills. The larger the collection, higher was his societal stature until the government brought a ban on hunting. Given the history of Nagas being head-hunters before the coming of missionaries, don’t be surprised if you bump into human skulls in some of the remote villages elsewhere”, explained a member of that house. Although the other members in that family couldn’t speak English or Hindi, they continued to smile at us for as long as we were there. However, communication is never a problem in Nagaland with almost 90% being proficient in either English or Hindi.

We visited the Naga heritage museum and then walked up to a small hill where the church stands at a vantage point, outside the village entrance, overlooking the entire hill range. From there, we walked back to the village and climbed up a few stairs to reach the highest point of the village. The setting sun let the hills in the background cast their shadow on the undulating green paddy terrace. The view of the range of hills and the entire village from there was a sight to behold for which, we had lost our senses and not to the dropping temperatures that had started to numb our skin 😃 After the sun had called it a day behind the hills, we munched on some local snacks like sticky rice roti, pakora at a café at the village entrance. We grabbed a few packets of Puffed sticky rice and Naga chilli smeared channa from a small shop before heading to the homestay. We hurried up to warm ourselves in the comfort of our homestay’s kitchen where firewood was setup to cook the night’s supper. Sips of hot tea and long conversations with our Angami host and other guests culminated with a delicious Angami meal that comprised of boiled vegetables and steamed rice with vegetable stew- all grown organically in our host’s backyard. The country chicken curry was a bonus for the non-vegetarian in me 😊

The plan for the next morning was to catch the sunrise from the paddy fields by walking along the stream that flowed down the valley. However, the freezing temperature made it impossible for us to get out of our cozy layers of blankets. The plan that had to follow our breakfast was a visit to Dzuleke, a quaint little village located 10kms away. It consists of merely 32 houses and the residents are also from Kuthotsu clan who decided to move out from Khonoma to a more secluded place when the land on the outskirts were open for new settlements. Today, it is supposed to be one of the prettiest villages that is promoted by the state’s tourism board and accessible only by foot or one’s own vehicle. Since a one-way ride was costing us 1500Rs., we dropped our plan of a day trip to Dzuleke.

There is one NST bus (Nagaland State Transport) that connects Khonoma to Kohima every morning. But the state is largely shut on a Sunday and it is an important note to consider if you are planning your travel/stay in Nagaland. After the day got a bit warmer, we packed our bags and headed out in a personal taxi to our next destination- Naga heritage village at Kisama, the main arena of the Hornbill festival.

Meanwhile, some interesting things I found in this village:

  1. Large bird feathers are made into a garland and hung high around the farms. “It is just for decoration purpose”, I was told on asking what it signified.
  2. There a large stone erected which signifies the previous rift between the Nagas and the Indians on the mainland (It is quite an interesting read how the Nagas fought the Indian army)

How the Angami Nagas celebrate the Stone Pulling Ceremony

Stone pulling Ceremony is an annual traditional event held across the Angami villages to commemorate a certain important day. It takes place in one village per year on a rotational basis. So that way, it takes about 5 to 10 years by the time this ceremony reoccurs in a particular village. This event is usually timed around the Hornbill festival as there will be people from across Nagaland and outside visiting Kohima (The region where the Angami tribe is a majority).

Watch the Stone pulling ceremony video here:

The stone referred here is a large monolith that weighs several tons and the size and shape is not fixed. It is at the villagers’ liberty to pick the monolith they want to use for the occasion and can be either quarried from the village itself or bought from somewhere else depending on the resources. The large stone slab is then placed on a sled that is made of tree trunks and pulled using thick entwined vines from the forest. Thousands of Angami Naga men pull the large monolith over a few kilometers to finally errect it upright, engrave the details of the event and mark the day.
This year, the stone pulling ceremony was held at Mima village. It was organised to commemorate the 75th anniversary of christianity in the village. The monolith was symbolized for forgiveness, friendship and peace to the enmities that the village had with various villages before the coming of the gospel to Mima village.

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The various traditional costumes of the Angami Nagas

The typical stone pulling ceremony (Click here to watch the complete video) is solemnised by the pastor from the village’s church with recitals from the Angami bible before the start. It is then followed by firing a round of shots from the muzzle loaded guns in the air. The captain stands on the slab and shouts Angami cheers through a loudspeaker to motivate the pullers. While all the strong and younger men folk of the village join hands to pull the stone, The eldest two men of the clan walk, leading the tribe. The women get dressed in their traditional attire and walk with a khophi (an utility basket woven with bamboo or cane) hung on their back and they stay around as a mark of support to the pullers. A few of these women carry cotton in containers made of dried bottle guard and walk ahead of the pullers as a part of the tradition. And yet, the remaining women go around distributing gruel made of ‘Job’s tears or Chinese pearl barley’ to all the passersby and the participants from their traditional Aluminium pots. It is served in bamboo cups that are carried in the baskets hung around their foreheads. The gruel provides an instant boost of carbohydrates for the toiling men in the hot sun.

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Left: Angami woman carrying bamboo cups; Right: Job stear being carried in traditional aluminum pots

In a Christian majority state, the tribal traditions are still thriving. It was a different experience watching the entire village dressed in their ethnic best and gathering to pull the stone uphill from the starting point to its destination. I somehow drew parallels with the chariot pulling tradition of the Puri Jagannath and several other temples of South India.

Isn’t it true that we all somehow follow the same way of life, only with different names for our faith and the process we follow to achieve it?

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Clockwise from top: 1.The stone pulling, 2.The Angami women and men leading the pullers, 3.The captain on the Stone slab

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 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.

A throwback to the growing up days at Madikeri

After having a travel-ful 2018 with atleast one long travel a month, I have decided to have a more relaxed new year. Hence, I have my theme for travel in 2019 tweaked a bit. I have no major long distance travel goals for the year and would like to settle down exploring the surrounding places at Bangalore and my hometown and spend little more time on writing, something that was overlooked in the past couple of years.

So, to start off the year, my January of 2019 had me traveling to my hometown almost every weekend due to several personal commitments. And, amidst all the mayhem that life had for me at Madikeri, I found time to sit back once in a while and travel down the memory lane. Having born and spending my childhood almost entirely in my hometown, there are scores of undocumented memories associated with almost every corner of this hill town. So, would be the case with thousands of those other kids from the 90’s who lived there at some point too… Don’t we all have memories from our growing up days associated with those small places and things? Often in the rat race, we tend to forget to cherish and be thankful for those golden memories from childhood. Here are five things that I re-lived during my last visit to Madikeri and I’m sure all who grew up in this quaint town will reminisce with me.

1. Government hospital– The year started with doing the dutiful rounds at this hospital with a amily member who was sick. It was the exact place where this big grown up body came into existence; This hospital is the exact place where I was born. While a lot of things have changed about the hospital as it has been upgraded from being a district hospital to a specialty hospital & medical college, yet there are a few things that are still left unchanged. Like the labor ward where I was born for instance…! Two generations of my family members and the whole line-up of models (Brother & all my cousins summing up to a dozen of them😉) were born there and we all look forward to having our future generations born there as well 😛 There I was, traveling back in time to the earliest of memories…

2. Paris Hotel– The internet has spoken enough about the mutton cutlets of the ‘East end hotel’, masala dosas of the ‘Hill top hotel’ or even a meal with a view at the ‘Valley view hotel’. There is yet another hotel that is older than me which is located right in the heart of the town, the M.G.road of Madikeri. Ooops, read it college road! It is now called the ‘New Paris hotel’ after its renovation. I make sure to grab their signature dishes- Palam pori (Banana fritters) and Masala vada every time I’m in town. These popular snacks of kerala are so good that they run out of the shelves in less than a couple of hours of being stacked. Complimenting it with a nice cup of Malabar tea is a mandate for me and I try my luck to find some stock to pack for Bangalore.

3. Kuppu’s beauty parlour: With almost the third generation of professional barbers of this family that I know, I have very fond memories of getting my regular hair-cuts at this gent’s salon. Today when I go back there for a haircut, I feel like ‘Yeah… times have changed. I have graduated from the baby’s seat to a push-back adult’s seat. And the cost has gone up ten-fold, from Rs.10 to Rs.100 for a lady’s hair-style. The shop too has moved from the ground floor 10 seat something to a single seat salon on the first floor. But somethings never change! There is a bunch of loyal customers (Both Men & women) who travel down from other cities/towns to Kuppu’s just for their haircuts. Such is the popularity of his services. But, reducing the salon size was inevitable says Mr.Ganesh, the present owner and main-man at this popular salon. With age, managing such a big place was getting hard and he prefers the next generation to run nuclear business.

4. Basappa theatre and Kaveri Mahal: The lifeline to all the movie buffs of Madikeri, for not just the 90’s kids but several generations, how can we not give credits to these two single screen cinema halls? From playing the latest Kannada movies and English movies once in a while, these were (probably still are!) the favourite haunt for most native residents of Madikeri and the nearby villages who seek some kind of entertainment after the sun goes down in this silent hill-station. I remember standing in long queues to get the tickets when a movie in the local languages (Kodava Thakk or Are Bashe) are showed. Or do you recollect memories of being taken in batches from school to watch a mandatory documentary at these cinema halls? Weren’t those fond memories? When was the last time you watched a documentary in a big screen? When was the last time you watched a feature film in a single screen movie hall? Was it a Gandhi class or a balcony ticket?

5. Madikeri fort– We had days of marching in the Independence day parade at the fort courtyard and standing through the pouring rain until the chief guest was done with his address. What were we thinking while doing a peek-a-boo down, to the former district jail from above the parapet? Were we hoping to see the inmates..? or did we expect to get back some waves and ‘Hai’s from them? May be! Or even for some of those who would climb up the narrow ladder to get a view from the big bell near the court hall.. Does any of these ring a bell???

Which is your favourite memory of growing up in Madikeri? Share them with me…

 

Clockwise from top: 1.Madikeri government hospital; 2.Snacks at Paris hotel; 3.A nameplate outside Kuppu’s salon