Tag Archives: Offbeat India

A day at the doors of a holy place at Spiti valley- Nako

I missed the morning bus from Reckong Peo and that gave me some time to take part in the annual mela in the district headquarters. I boarded the next bus at noon, from Peo towards my destination for the day- Nako, a small township in the Hangrang Valley, a part of the Spiti valley. The place gets it’s name from a Tibetan word ‘Nego’ which translates to ‘The Door to a holy place’.

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The road from Kinnaur valley, leading to Spiti valley

The transition from Kinnaur valley to Spiti valley was evident in its landscape. The road changed from green to rocky to barren along the way, each being spectacular. The snaking road was accompanied by the crisscrossing Spiti river amid a mind-blowing scenery all along the way. Although I was travelling solo, I felt accompanied through warm conversations with the driver and the conductor of the HRTC bus. They were quite surprised and amused to hear that I was from South India, spoke fluent Hindi, was travelling alone and without a fixed itinerary. The bus was stuck in a couple of roadblocks caused by landslides for almost 3 hours in total and that meant- I arrived late at my destination. From all the online research I had done about the place, I knew that Nako was decently popular on the tourist radar and finding a place to stay wouldn’t be difficult. When finally the bus stopped at the Nako bus-stop at 07.00.p.m., I was in for the BIGGEST surprise of my life!

The bus stop was on the highway. That was the LAST public transport of the day. It was pitch-dark already. All the civilization I had read about, did not seem to exist there. Apart from the bright stars twinkling in the clear sky, the only light I could see was that of a dimly lit lantern hanging in a tiny shop. The conductor looked at me blankly and said- this is Nako. “Talk to the shopkeeper and he might help you to find a place to stay”, he said and signaled the driver to proceed their ride.

“Where am I going to stay tonight? Can I trust the shopkeeper? Do I have any other option apart from approaching the shopkeeper?” A million things were running in my head. I stood there for a moment to let my thoughts settle down first. But before that, the biting cold and the rough winds rushed me to the shop for some warmth. In the dim light, I saw hope. The shop was run by an old man and the wrinkles on his surprised face multiplied when I asked him if I could get a place to stay. He nodded a yes and asked me to wait until he attended his last customer and lowered the shutters of his little grocery store.

He walked me through steel shutters behind his shop, got a bunch of keys from his house and asked me to follow him to the floor above his house. He said he runs a homestay (Somang dhaba, hotel and homestay) during summer. Since I was there during offseason, the room wasn’t used for a long time. The room had a low voltage bulb and had no running hot water. I could stay there for the night if I could manage with whatever was available. He was not going to charge me for it. The room had a decent washroom, carpeted floor, enough blankets and a comfortable looking bed. The thought of saying no to the old man and getting adventurous in pursuit of a better homestay in the cold night did not even pass through my head. This place was more than what I had expected to get. I agreed to stay there and grabbed the room keys from him.

As I unpacked my bag to pull out my thermals, Mr.Somang knocked at my door with a bucket of hot water for me to freshen up and told me that he had informed the small dhaba next door to stay up for me so that I can go have my supper. If there was any other problem, I could knock at his door, Mr.Somang lived with his wife in the ground floor. The dhaba was a tiny shed put-up with sheets, was run by a Nepali family and fed the occasional truck drivers who stopped by for chai and Paratha. I had the same for my supper too. As I answered the family’s curious questions, I sat warming myself around the fireplace in their kitchen for some time before heading back to my room.

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The township as viewed from the Nako helipad

I was in for a surprise when I woke up in the morning. The view from the window transcended me to another world that I had imagined only on Microsoft Window’s wallpaper. Barren, dry arid landscape and distant snowcapped mountains. A lonely road ran uphill, and I had slept in a roadside house that had this magnificent view. I immediately jumped out of my bed, fetched a bucket of hot water from the host’s house, freshened up and got out quickly, to sink in the morning vibes of the place. I took a walk to the nearby helipad from where I could get a 360deg view of the surrounding mountains. That was the first time I was seeing a landscape so arid, so dry, so different and so beautiful.

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The view from Nako helipad

As I walked further, is when I realized that the real civilization of Nako village existed only if I walked further away from the main road. Doing this on a moonless night, in order to find a place to stay would have been next to madness. I was greeted by tiny tots with their heavy backpacks and playfully jumping on their way to school. The sounds of mooing cattle and crowing roosters echoed in the silent streets.

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The sweet smell of incense arising from the monastery had engulfed the ambience as I walked towards a small red structure made of clay and red oxide. Prayer drums on its outside indicated that it was the ancient Buddhist monastery where people seemed to be coming to offer their morning prayers. An interesting structure caught my attention to up in the hills. “That’s the old and the main monastery from the 11th century ”, a passerby answered to my question. But it seemed quite far for a lonely walk, so I decided to keep it for some other day. When I have company, perhaps!

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The Old and the new monasteries at Nako

The further I walked into the village, the more magical it started to seem. The structure of the houses was unique to Nako, from what I had seen all this while. The houses are built at an elevation from the ground with wooden beams holding the dry stones, slate roofs covered with hay and all houses painted with white lime. While I was finding my way to the Nako lake through the muddy lanes, reaching random dead ends and taking blind turns, I felt lost in the maze. Just then, a man appeared in front of me and greeted me with a warm smile. He saw me taking photos on my cellphone and asked me if I minded a selfie with him. Although bad at taking selfies, I did not mind getting myself pictured in that unique looking place.

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The Nako village

He invited me to his house for a cup of chai and not for a second did I think again. I nodded a yes with joy and followed him to his pretty haven whose courtyard overlooked the Nako lake. His wife got excited at the alien visitor in their little abode and got me chai and biscuits along with some hearty conversations. She took me around her home, and I was quite amused at the style in which it was built (almost entirely of clay, stones and hay), a first time for me. Apart from a heartfelt thank you, I did not have anything to give them back for their wonderful hospitality. And neither did they expect anything in return. I bid goodbye and walked down the lane to the lake, a holy place for the villagers.

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The Nako lake / The sacred pond of Nako

Apart from a few grazing horses, I was the only human there that morning. It was the first time I felt like meditating and decided to sit by the waters for some peaceful moments. The Nako lake is considered holy among the Tibetan Buddhists as Lord Padmasambhava is believed to have meditated here. It is no surprise why I was feeling the unusual calmness and serenity at that place.

A few running kids got me back to reality that I had been sitting there for a while by then. I woke up and got back to the homestay to figure out a way to get to my next destination. But that’s going to be another interesting story (Click her to continue reading)….

Travelling down the memory lane- Malgudi days

The unfortunate lockdown that the pandemic has brought has sure got the netizens busy. I’m not a TV person but sitting in a spot for video conferences all day (for work) gets me worked up sometimes. My terrace is too hot to go out in this hot summer month. This has given me some time to indulge in watching some series online. Not to fall into the fancy of the latest trending series, I preferred to catch up on some old classics that were a hit on Doordarshan, back in the days of my childhood. I started with Malgudi days.

While some claim that Agumbe was the ‘Malgudi town’ and there exists a ‘Malgudi house’, nobody really knows where the entire ‘Malgudi days’ serial was shot. However, since most of the episodes were predominantly shot in and around Shimoga, the present-day railway station at Arasalu (near Shimoga) is named as the ‘Malgudi station’ in honor of the famous serial. One of the trains too is named as the ‘Malgudi Express’ by the Southern railways. However, the popular serial telecast in the late 1980s comprised of 39 episodes shot and directed by Late.Shankarnag. Banking in on its popularity, the other 15 episodes were later directed by Kavita Lankesh in 2016. From what established a cult in Indian cinema, I am keen on taking a trip down the streets of Shankar Nag’s Malgudi because that is what I grew up watching.

Based entirely out of Karnataka, the rural setting, the culture and top-of-the-notch actors were totally relatable for me as I watched it. As I continued to watch the episodes, what started to intrigue me were the typical Karnataka style of buildings. I also started to take note that I could recognize some of the buildings and structures featured in the serial. All were not in Shimoga. So that is what motivated me to write this post. I wanted to relate my travel through my home-state Karnataka and map some of the heritage structures that have been featured in the classic ‘Malgudi days’. So, here are my relative screenshots from the serial and the related photos of the landmarks, as it stands today. You too can contribute your findings and let us unravel the mysterious locations of the old-timer 😊

1. Episode name: Oldman of the temple- Mandir ka budda
The episode opens with the author R.K.Narayanan himself telling that Malgudi is a fictitious town. It being located in Southern India is only half truth. The truth is, it is applicable to anyone anywhere across the world. Here, starts my quest to map the locations of Malgudi, spread across the state of Karnataka.
a. Ofcourse, Sheshadri and his friends are seen sitting on a platform of a tree that is present even today, at the town centre of Agumbe.
b. The old dilapidated temple that the Old man- Krishna Bhattar’s spirit lived in the episode is the ‘Thimmarayaswamy temple at Bettadadasanapura’ on the outskirts of Bangalore.

2. Episode (serial) name: Swami and his friends.

a. This is an 8-episode long story and is one of the most iconic part of the series. The ‘Doddamane’ in Agumbe perhaps is what was Swami’s house. We still need to look at several other structures that have been featured in the serial.

b. Although I am unable to locate the structure that housed ‘Albert Mission School’ in the series, I sure know where the School logo ‘Fide Et Labore’ featured in it came from. It was easy for me to point it out as my brother happens to be an alumnus of the 150+ years old ‘St. Joseph’s European High school’. Given the setting of pre-independence days in the serial, it was obvious for a Bangalore based director to be inspired to borrow the school logo from here.

c. Swami’s Friend- Rajam lived in a huge bungalow. This is the Thippagondanahalli IB (Inspection Bungalow)

d. Yes, most part of the series was shot at Agumbe. But when the team had packed up and Director Shankar Nag felt that a few scenes needed a re-take, the entire street of Malgudi was setup at a street adjacent to Yediyur lake in Bangalore.

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Top- The map of Malgudi as conceptualized by Shri.R.K.Narayanan; Below- The present day Arasalu railway station

3. Episode name: A Hero
With some actors replacing the characters of ‘Swami and his friends’, it somewhat is a continuation of the 8-episode series. Though the house indicated as Swami’s house in this episode may not be wholly same as the 8-episode series, it is true that a large part of this episode (The attic of Swami’s house and the riverbank) are common.

4. Episode name: The hoard- Maha Kanjus
This too has been shot in the ‘Doddamane’. The main road facing entrance, the sit-out on either side at the entrance with wooden pillars and doors and the central courtyard indeed are from the ‘Doddamane’ of Agumbe.

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Episode: The Hoard; Location: Doddamane, Agumbe

5. Episode (serial) name: Mithai Wala- The vendor of sweets.
All I have heard is that ‘Malgudi’ itself is a fictional town created for the serial. The name was derived as a combination of two prominent townships of Old Bengaluru: Malleswaram and Basavanagudi. The story of its origin can’t go away from its offspring, right? What has always been popular as the ‘Shooting house in Basavanagudi’ is in fact the house where the Mithai Wala lives in this 8-episode long series.

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Series: The vendor of sweets; Location: The shooting house of Basavanagudi

6. Episode name: Nitya
Nitya, the protagonist is taken to a distant hill-temple where his parents had a prayer to be offered. The entire setting of the hill-temple is the present-day popular trekking destination- Devarayanadurga’ in Tumkur district, on the outskirts of Bangalore.

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Episode: Nitya; Location: Devarayandurga

7. Episode name: The seventh house- Saathvan ghar
This episode has been shot across multiple locations. However, there were a couple of them I could identify.
The scene where the couple and their families go to offer pooja in a temple is Devarayanadurga, same as the one in the episode Nitya.
a. The scene where the couple meet after college has the Town hall building of Mysore in the backdrop.
b. The scene where the protagonist rides to see an astrologer is the temple at Kaiwara. It has largely been renovated as on today. But the Narayanappa temple in the background, the rocky hillock on one side and a motorable road seen in a glimpse indicate it is indeed Kaiwara.

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Episode: The seventh house; Location: Top- , Below- Kaiwara

8. Episode name: Iswaran
a. The college or the senate hall with its Gothic style of architecture featured in the episode is the ‘Central College of Bangalore University’ located in the heart of Bangalore.
b. The Protagonist, Iswaran watches a movie at a cinema. The palace featured in the movie is the ‘Bangalore Palace’.
c. Time and again, Sarayu river has been mentioned in the episode. Given the typical setting of Karnataka and the writer’s hometown of Mysore, the lifeline of this region is river Kaveri. I believe that the river where the protagonist drowns in at Sangama, near Srirangapatna.

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Episode: Iswaran; Location: Top- Central college, Below- Bangalore palace

9. Episode name: The performing child- Abhinetri
Given the fact that it is still one of the iconic lung space of Bengaluru and there runs a toy-train amid a lot of greenery, the train journey featured in the child’s dream is in Cubbon park.

10. Episode name: Roman image- Rome ka Murthi
a. The stone temple that Sheshadri and Professor walk around after climbing up a rocky hillock that overlooks green meadows is the ‘Mantapa’ located at the peak point of Kodachadri.
b. The red structure where professor Bandopadhyay is indicated to be working on a renovation of a Jaipuri palace- is the Shivappa Nayaka’s Palace located near Shimoga.

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Episode: The Roman idol; Location: Top- Kodachadri, Below: Shivappa Nayaka’s palace, Shimoga

11. Episode name: The watchman- Chowkidar
Although the structure and the surroundings seems to be in a dilapidated condition in this episode, it has been largely renovated and restored as on date. The entire episode has been shot in the ‘Thimmaraya swamy temple complex at Bettadadasanapura’ in Bangalore. The large trees in the premises, the temple pond, the entrance stone pillars and the fortress like wall encompassing the temple premises on a rocky hillock are the things that stand testimony to the famous episode.

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Episode: The watchman; Location: Bettadasanapura temple

12. Episode name: A horse and two goats- Muni
Given the rural setting of the protagonist’s house and the fact that he eats Ragi mudde, it is a story from the Mysore region. The place where he goes to graze his goats daily in a eucalyptus grove and the slopy terrain of the hills where the road passes, could it be the road that leads to Chamundi betta? Or could it be Nandi hills? (as guessed by ‘The light baggage)

13. Episode name: Trail of the green blazer – Pocket maar

The temple where the protagonist offers his prayers with a coconut before heading for stealing is the Panchalingeshwara temple at Begur, located in the outskirts of Bangalore. (Information contributed by ‘The Light Baggage‘)

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The Panchalingeshwara temple at Begur

Are there any familiar locations that you could identify in the serial? Let me know..

Here are the remaining episodes 🙂

14. Episode name: Leela’s friend- Siddha

15. Episode name: The missing mail- Dhakia

16. Episode name: Engine trouble- Engine Ki kahani

17. Episode name: Forty-five a month- 45 rupiya

18. Episode name: The career- Ramji Ki Leela

19. Episode (series name)- Naga

20. Episode name: Sweets for angels- Kaali

21. Episode name: A willing slave- Aaya

22. Episode name: Cat within- Paap ka gada

23. Episode name: The gateman’s gift- Govind Singh Ki Bhent

24. Episode name: The edge- Dhara

The truth that Travel influencers will NOT tell you

Being an Influencer is a BIG responsibility. It means, that person has the power to ‘INFLUENCE’ people. It doesn’t matter if you are a nano, micro or a mainstream- fully-fledged influencer, it only means that you have the POWER to influence a certain group of people in a domain of your expertise. So, every person with this power has to be EXTREMELY careful and responsible about what you are going to communicate to your followers because they follow you for the knowledge that they will gain from you in YOUR area of expertise. (Click on the below image to know how social media influencing is used for marketing products & services)

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I am a travel influencer. I write about travelling in INDIA!

So, when I write, I shall be RESPONSIBLE to share what is relevant and falls within my forte ONLY. That said, I’m writing this long post because I am deeply saddened about how travel is taken for granted and how the generation is being WRONGLY misguided by some of the top Travel influencers. So, here are some SERIOUS Stuff that I want to discuss about becoming a travel blogger! Let me break them down into parts…

Part 1: Becoming a Travel blogger

1. Myth: They left their high paying corporate job to travel the world
Fact: A paratrooper or skydiving trainer will take you high up in the air and teach you how to jump or fly. But what he never tells you is that if things go wrong, he will have a backup parachute. Similarly, what these top travel influencers don’t tell you is they are ALL from affluent families who have strong financial backup. If their experiment on the road fails, they always have a family to support them financially and to help them start afresh. Ask me- I have a full-time job and I slog my ass through the entire week to make ends meet and to support my family financially. I save up a portion of my salary to travel and build connections with local people about whom, I can then write.

2. Myth: They sold their house and all the belongings and lead a nomadic life with just two backpacks
Fact: Not every monk will sell his Ferrari! Now that all these nomads without houses are not travelling because of Covid-19, tell me which road are they sleeping on? They are ALL back in India, living in their parents’ houses which probably you hadn’t given a thought prior to this lockdown. So technically, they have a house of THEIR own. They did not have to buy one or spend on renting one because they are not going to be using it while they are travelling. But you perhaps thought it was easy to give up everything and go one day.

3. Myth: They get to travel to all fairy tale places.
Fact: No doubt traveling offers surprises at every step, but what a follower doesn’t see is that MOST of these travel posts are sponsored. Hence, the influencer comes under an obligation to write all things nice about the place where they are getting their payments from. Social media influencing is their “Profession” at the end. They must abide by their sponsors’ terms and condition, no matter how natural their smile in the photo may seem to be like!

Part 2: Becoming an influencer

Creating content and manipulating behavioral patterns of followers using data Analytics: This is the single most important factor that brands ask for while working with an influencer. Their target reach and engagement ratio (You can look up on google to learn more on these terms). Take for example, the below graph of the analytics of my Instagram page. It shows the age group that is MOST responsive to feeds from all TRAVEL bloggers. So, the content created will be considering the psychology of people who fall under this target group. These insights are the basis on which these professionals (Social media influencers) try to manipulate the thoughts of their followers and thus influence them into buying whatever they want to sell (or Tell)! Remember, they are showing you what they are paid to sell.

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Part 3: Indian travel influencers on Social media

1. They are not true experts: Yes, they have gained certain experience over time, but they are glasses that are half empty. For example, here is a screenshot (taken on 11-Apr-20) of my reply to a TOP traveler’s post. The person had posted an animal’s photo and said how (he/she) empathized the spotted deer’s death. I corrected the influencer telling it was a sambar deer. Do you see how well informed they are about their posts? If probably wildlife was your forte, you would perhaps know the difference and know how one of the most commonly seen species of wild animals looked like!
PS: You shouldn’t post something that is not from your field of influencing.

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2. They do selective replies and reposts: They don’t like to acknowledge when they are corrected. They get offended when their mistakes are being pointed out. My message above has never been read (even after 2 months!). But every day, I see them reposting stories and appreciation about them that were in someone’s story. (FYI, story lasts only for 24hrs and all the tags get delivered as messages in the inbox). How possible is it that my message went unnoticed, till date? No, they did see it. They chose to keep it unread. I get replies from influencers who probably have 3-4 times more followers and spend most of their lives without network.
PS: Be just and fair to all followers.

3. India and its’ government have NEVER given them enough: Tell me how often do they travel in India, on a self-sponsored trip? As fancy as their life seems, they have travelled the GLOBE on freebies. Tourism promoters of various countries invite them with free tickets, free stay, free food and everything else that’s nice, for FREE. Which happy person doesn’t speak nice things when they’ve been given a free meal? Another country and its people will SURELY seem better than theirs, because their poor country doesn’t give them freebies to explore it.
PS: Don’t mis-lead your followers about India and its capacities.

4. They care SHIT about Indian economy: I took the ‘Dekho Apna Desh pledge’ to travel to at least 15 places within India. It is my service to MY country to promote tourism and thus aid local economy (Click here to read how traveling local contributes to economy). Can you name at least five among the TOP travel influencers of India who pledged this for INDIA’s economy? I save up my leaves (and a portion of my earnings) every year and manage my exploration of INDIA as much as possible. I want to do my bit to promote domestic tourism by writing about how MUCH more my motherland has to offer, that no one place in the world has.
PS: I don’t take free tickets to travel and I promote local artisans in India, sorry!

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5. They never feel ‘belonged’ in India: The feeling of belongingness should start from “HOME”. As the saying ‘Ghar Ki baat Ghar main hi rehna Hai’ goes, ‘we should not bring our family matters to the streets’. We should rather sit at home and discuss jointly and find a solution. But the people who refused to call their parents’ home as theirs, would never feel belonged to a ‘Motherland’. If you feel there isn’t enough justice, there isn’t enough equality, there isn’t enough security in India, will you give up your Indian passport that bears the emblem of integrity and sovereignty? Nope, I’m sure you flaunt around the passport when you are abroad.
PS: I would never let go of the perks and the attention I get of being called an ‘Indian’ after all!

6. They give a damn about India’s image in the global front: They sit in foreign countries either with a free ticket or have fled India to work for another country. But what they do is, call out on mistakes from their home country’s governance. Can you imagine the amount of negativity this is spreading about your home? They sit in a distant country and instigate their followers to participate in protests for which they won’t be able to come. Why? Because their tickets are not sponsored, know? Rather than picking out mistakes, how often have these people suggested solutions?
PS: If you can’t be a part of the solution, then you are the problem!

With reference to influencers off-late posting about politics, You can’t always pick on ONE person in the government for all the wrong that happens. Do you think the team of technical experts across all domains who are in the advisory team of the government are also half empty glasses like you? Do you think the 100+ million citizen of democratic are dumb to have unanimously elected their representatives? And you are the ONLY intelligent alien here?

It is disheartening to see influencers leaving their field and misusing their powers to call out anti-national slogans (against the ruling government) even in this testing times where the entire country is required to stand as ONE! Oh, come on… to err is human. Small minds discuss people, Average minds discuss events, Great minds discuss ideas! As Gurdas Maan sings in ‘Ki Bannu Duniya da’, the lines ”Par pakki vekh ke kacchi nai dhai di” translates to: Don’t demolish the old foundation for the new and fancy.

As responsible influencers, we must subside picking up negativity. This creates sense of differences. Instead, pick up positive stories and try to unite the people. Both are different ways of approaching the same problem!

Five ways to experience travel during lockdown

Continuing my posts on managing anxiety and keeping up self-morale during the lockdown, here’s some more on self help..

Binge-watching on Netflix, Hotstar or other OTT platforms, reading books, Cooking, meditation are so cliched. Doing these things daily too can get monotonous. Doing something for 21 days can lead to a habit. So, by the end of this lockdown period, we all don’t want to become couch potatoes..

Yes, every Sunday evening of our lockdown period has been made interesting by our Honorable Prime Minister. His tasks have made sure that we all came out to our balconies to get some fresh air and break the monotony. The clapping, clanging of plates, bells and blowing the conches from the confines of our balconies with an aim to Thank the frontline warriors of the Covid-19 Pandemic on 22-Mar-20 was a nice exercise to come out of our couches. Similarly, I’m sure the nation showed its unity and solidarity in hard times by switching off lights and lighting up lamps, candles, torches and flashlights on the evening of 05-Apr-20.

But, what about the other days of being locked down at home? Do your itchy feet rare to travel? And oh, those with little kids must be having the hardest time to keep them indoors. So, if you are looking for an offbeat travel experience to break your routine, while being locked up inside your house, here are five handpicked DIY ideas for you 😊

  1. Have your own bedroom rave party: An endless playlist is available either in your collection or on the OTT platform. Use the apps that also provide disco flashlights. Place your mobile screen between two mirrors that are placed at a distance away, facing each other. Switch off all the lights at home and let your playlist take the center table. Voila, you have your own dance floor! Make some drink or look online for some cocktail ideas with whatever ingredients are available in your kitchen and your party is good to go!
  2. Pitch your own tent or pillow fortress: For those of you who are frequent hikers, chances are that you have your own tent. You can pitch it in your own balcony or terrace and experience the outdoors in your own little campsite. For the others who don’t have a tent, fret not. Remember the ‘Pillow fortresses’ we made as kids? Why not let that kid out of yourselves now? Fold up your beds and stack up you pillows. You can even tie a string across your room and hang down a bedsheet from it. You have your very own DIY tent.
  3. Set-up your travel corner: Re-living old memories by digging up the old photo albums itself can be a great way to time-travel. You can pick up some of your favorite photos and hang-it up with lights in a DIY corner of your house. All you need is some strings and clips to hold your photos in place. You can also draw a huge map and mark the places you have been to and have it in your travel corner. Arranging your collection of souvenirs from your travels around this place too is a great idea.
  4. Star gazing from your balcony or terrace: Now that the skies have cleared, it’s a good activity to hone up your skills of star gazing. There are several apps and websites that can help you in identifying the stars and constellations. It’s a great idea to go out to your balcony and admire the vast expanse of the night’s sky. Who knows, you might even get a glimpse of the ISS (International Space Station) which is believed to be going around the earth- 16 times a day! There is usually one major meteor shower every month. Look up on the dates and catch the shooting stars 🙂
  5. Celebrate a festival: Light up your house as if you would do it for Diwali or for Christmas. Make up a mock festival at home. Festivals have always been a great way to bring in fresh energy and pep up the mood. I’m a sucker for diyas and candle lights and totally in love with the positive vibes it brings with it. No mood for festival décor? Why not cook up a nice meal and have a candle lit dinner?

Sounds fair? Let me know how you are dealing with the lockdown…. What ideas do you have to experience travel without leaving your doorstep?

As the Neelakurinji blossoms, the Nilgiris spectacles

Heard of the blue hills? Does the name ‘Nilgiris’ strike any bell? For those who know less, it is a part of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World heritage site in the southern peninsula of India. The ‘Neel-giris’ literally translates to ‘Blue-Hills’ because these hills get their colour from a particular phenomenon. A particular species of the Strobilanthes kunthiana flowers, locally called the Neela-Kurinji bloom once in twelve years. When in full bloom, the entire hill range looks blue, thus giving the hills their name. The last mass-flowering of the neelakurinji flowers happened in 2018 and I left no leaf unturned to witness this spectacle. There were a couple of hotspots identified by the Kerala forest department where arrangements were made to allow visitors to see the flowers.
My friends and I decided to visit the Eravikulam National park, located close to Munnar. This stretch of the hills was where most of the blossoms were supposed to happen. After finalizing the visit dates in Sept’18, the Delhi friends had booked their flight tickets to fly down and the remaining of us booked our bus tickets from Bangalore to Munnar. I had got all the necessary entry permits from the forest authorities and booked accommodation in Munnar for all of us. All this was done months in advance to have a confirmed entry anticipating the tourist influx for such a spectacle, if we waited until later. We were all set and waiting for the travel to finally happen.

Come July’18, the rain gods had wreaked havoc in the western Ghats. The entire stretch of western Ghats in Karnataka and Kerala had been damaged by the heaviest rains in eight decades. The damage done was massive to geography, property and life along these areas. In the event of things, damage was done even to the neelakurinji plants and the blossoms were feared to be washed out. Once the rain gods had calmed down and the ground situation of floods seemed to have receded, we waited to see if there was any luck in waiting until September. We were in constant touch with a few locals who gave us the updates on the status of the blue hills. Come September and we decided to go ahead with our original plan. We all had finally arrived at Munnar and were heading towards Eravikulam National Park.

Once there, Yes, there were enough plants destroyed. The stronger few, had managed to bear flowers. We walked along the laden path, feeling grateful for at least so many of the plants had survived. Since these plants blossom only once every 12 years, it means that their reproduction cycle is longer than usual. This also means that, most of the Neelakurinji vegetation is lost in the 2018 monsoon and the next flowering cycle of the year 2030 may not happen at a mass-scale as it is usually supposed to happen at all!! Anyway, we enjoyed whatever we were witnessing.

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The Neelakurinji flowers at Eravikulam National park

Also, Neelakurinji is only a sub-species of the larger group of flowers called the Kurinji. The Kurinji flowers come in several colors- white, peach, purple, etc. Here is a collection of the Kurinji flowers from Eravikulam National park that we saw during our visit.

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The various Kurinji flowers at Eravikulam National park

So that said, I was back in my hometown the following week and visited our piece of farmland to check on its status after the monsoon. It used to be a spice plantation that remained unmaintained for a long time before we, siblings ventured into developing it. our farm is a short walk away from the main road. When we arrived there and decided to walk, the entire path was filled with what seemed like some weed that had overgrown during the monsoon. We used a machete to make way for ourselves to walk further. Just a few steps into the area, we were surrounded with pink/ maroon flowers all around us. ‘These weeds had flowered expansively’, we wondered. We took a lot of photos, made way for ourselves, finished our work and returned home. When we discussed about the weeds with the elders in the family, we were surprised to hear that these plants also belonged to the Kurinji family.

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The Kurinji flowers from our farm in Kodagu

Further, an important month in the Kodava and the Tamil calendar is the month of Kakkada or Aadi. In Kodagu, on the 18th day of this month a special dish is prepared using a locally available herb. Its juice is believed to contain 18 medicinal values. It leaves a very deep blue/violet pigment when cooked and consumed only on this day. And what is this plant called? Don’t even guess… Locally called ‘Maddh thoppu’ or ‘Aadi soppu’, it is also a variety of Kurunji.
So, Kodagu primarily has three types of Kurinji; the flowering weed(Maley Kurinji(as in hill), Etth Kurinji(as in cattle) and Maddh Kurinji(as in medicine).
A little bit of googling allowed me learn that there are many sub-species of the Kurinji and each have their own flowering cycles. While some bloom annually, some bloom once in six years and some take a couple of decades. Neelakurinji was just one among them.

Lesson learnt: How often do we tend to ignore the little things from our own backyard? We think these are too trivial to spend time and look for things elsewhere. It is often that people associate that better things come only when money is spent and distances are travelled, but the truth may be that it is something that we have been conveniently ignoring in our own vicinity.
What is your take on this thought?

A festival to Raid the graveyard- Mayana Kollai

Come the night of Mahashivaratri, there will be festivities across the country. People stay up all night and participate in bhajans, pooja offerings, chariot pulling etc. all to keep themselves awake for the night, so that their beloved Lord, Shiva gets good rest after taking care of them all year. But it is the day that follows the revered night, that is the essence to this story of mine. The day that follows Mahashivaratri is when Shakthi, the consort of Shiva and thus, the female power is celebrated across the Northern part of Tamil Nadu. The companionship of Mother Angalamman to Shiva, the graveyard dweller is celebrated with a festival called the ‘Mayana Kollai’. As a friend explains, Mayana Kollai translates to the ‘Raid of the graveyard’ in Tamil. I had planned to witness this festival at one such temple dedicated to Angalamman, closer home, at Kaveripattinam.

The festivities had started as early as the sunrise at the Angalamman temple, with the Goddess being taken on a temple car/ chariot. She is supposed to travel along the streets of the town, to the graveyard by evening from where she returns to the temple by night. All other rituals that are part of this journey of her’s are what make this festival more interesting. It is a festival where the entire town / village participates with no barrier of caste or societal status. The chariot leaves the temple with the idol of Angalamman.

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The diety- Angalamman being taken on a procession on the temple car / chariot

She is greeted by devotees who throw a mixture of salt crystals and black pepper or beans all along her way. She is hailed as a symbol of fertility who is calm throughout the year and takes on her powerful form on this day, once in a year. The villagers get their body pierced with various things near the temple premises and walk across the village to the graveyard, where the piercings are removed. This body paining is what they believe, is a gratitude to the almighty for the wishes that have come true or as a part of a prayer that needs to be fulfilled. The size and things pierced can vary depending on individual’s prayers. While those with tridents pierced around their mouth are a very common sight, the more pious go further to get their torso pierced with hundreds of lemons. Yet, a few pull cars, buses, trucks or large stones with ropes that are hooked through their bare skin.

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Stones being readied to be hooked to the body as a man with a trident pierced to his cheeks walks past

If u peek into one of the many shops (I don’t know if that is the correct noun for such places) around the town, apart from those getting the body piercings, you will find another set of people. Men and children will be getting their faces painted and dressed up in sarees, a representation of Angalamman. With metal arms attached to the backs, elaborate costumes, jewelry and crown worn, Angalamman is impersonated by these people. They hold tridents and dance to the beats of drums across the streets. Several times on their way, they get possessed or get into a state of trance, until they all finally congregate at the graveyard. Animal sacrifice too is a common sight on the streets on this day.

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Stalls where the body piercings and paintings will be done

It is evening by the time the temple car and everyone else reaches the graveyard. That is when the most interesting part of the rituals takes place. The folk impersonating the goddess gather around a random grave and dig it up. The bones from the grave are pulled out and chewed by them. This is called the ‘bone chewing’ ritual or what gives the festival its name: Mayana Kollai or the ‘Raid of the graveyard’.

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Men and kids dressed up like Angalamman

There are several legends and references that explain the significance of this ritual, depending on the region. Here are some of the references I found on the internet.

  1. The significance of the costume (Click here to read further)
  2. The significance of the Bone chewing ritual (Click here to read further)

Post this ritual, the goddess calms down and returns to the temple on the temple car. The festival culminates when the it reaches its home.

While witnessing all this self-violence, I started to deeply think, why this is necessary to please the gods. Although I couldn’t find a convincing conclusion, what I realized is that this form of ritual is not unique to Hinduism alone. It has been largely practiced worldwide, across all major religions. Some of the closest references are:

Whichever faith be it and whatever the belief, the intentions of every person involved is the same. To get closer to god. Aren’t all our beliefs connected?

The coldest place with the warmest hospitality- Pfutsero

This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking in the north eastern state of Nagaland in India, specifically covering Dimapur- Kohima– Phek districts of the state during the Hornbill festival.

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 from Kohima 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 travel to Pfutsero, 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 plied from Kohima to Pfutsero the next morning.

My itinerary to explore Phek district:

Day 1: Leave from Kohima to Pfutsero (shared taxi), visit Glory peak (Frozen lake trek if time permits), explore Pfutsero town (Night’s stay at the tourist lodge)
Day 2: Chida lake/ Lowho, Lazami village (spirited stone), Kami village view point, return to Kohima.

Video of the view from Glory peak

The Details:

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- We hadn’t booked a hotel at Pfutsero for our stay 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.

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 hotel at Pfutsero.

Day 1:

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!

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.

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View from Glory peak, Pfutsero

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 Pfutsero 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!

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

Day 2:

The comfort of the heater, cosy blankets and carpeted floors let us sleep like logs, unaware of the freezing sub-zero Pfutsero 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.

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

Fact file:

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

This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking in the north eastern state of Nagaland in India, specifically covering Dimapur- Kohima- Phek districts of the state during the Hornbill festival.

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.

A village tour of Khonoma

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)

Stone Pulling Ceremony with the Angami Nagas

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).

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.

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.

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?

Bhaderwah- the Mini Kashmir of Jammu

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: 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.

Places to visit in Bhaderwah:

• Day trip to Bhaderwah town covering Vasuki Nag temple, Gupt Ganga temple, Bhaderwah fort, Tilligarh rose garden and Gatha lake resort
• Jai Valley trek
• Sonbain glacier trek
• Kailash Kund terk
• Peer ki pindi (camps of Akbar) trek
• Seoj Dhar Meadow trek
• Day trip to Chattargala Pass
• Day trip to Sarthal valley
• Day trip to Basohli

The Details:

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 Gupt Ganga river bank

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.

The Bhaderwah fort

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.

One of the river and waterfall crossing on the way to Baderwah

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.

This visit to Bhaderwah was a part of our ‘Peace ride’, sponsored by Jammu tourism as a part of the Himalayan expedition to promote tourism in the lesser explored places of Jammu. The route we covered over the week was Jammu-Mansar-Basholi–Sarthal–Baderwah-Kishtwar-Gulabgarh-Sansari-Gulabgarh-Patnitop-Udhampur-Jammu. It has been over a year since this trip has been past and yet remains one of the best so far.