Tag Archives: Offbeat things to do in India

Visiting a Gotul- A Bastar experience

For someone visiting Chhattisgarh, experiencing the tribal culture and enjoying the rawness of the natural landscape in Bastar would undeniably be the priority. If you are lucky, then you might get the opportunity to visit a tribal Ghotul. A Ghotul is a structure that accommodates people. It is either an open arena with earthen floors, without walls and with roofs laid with wood and hay or it is a completely closed structure built with earthen walls decorated with various murals. ‘But what is so ho about it?’, one may ask.

The Muriya girls with a Ghotul in the backdrop

The primary purpose of a Ghotul is what makes it important in the regional culture of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. It is a socializing club for the unmarried youth of the Muriya and the Gond tribes which also in some parts, serve as a dormitory for the registered members. Young boys and girls register themselves with a Ghotul of a particular village or area when they hit adolescence and the functioning of this traditional club is presided over by a head boy and a head girl from the respective tribe. Here, every evening, the members gather and learn the essentials of taking up a new life ahead of them. Reaching adolescence means that they are become eligible to get married and take upon the responsibilities of running a family. So, they are taught all the required life skills like managing a house and a family, folk traditions, music, cooking, religion, cleanliness, discipline, sympathy and everything else. The whole idea is to pass on and contain the traditions within the tribe.

The celebration dance by the Muriya tribes for hunting a game

This also promotes inter-tribe or inter-Ghotul weddings so that a member of a particular tribe doesn’t leave the community and the strength of the community is sustained. While pre-marital sex is considered as a taboo elsewhere in India, this culture encourages the youth to indulge in sexual activities to find the most compatible life partner. It is said that if a member of a Ghotul gets pregnant and doesn’t know who the father of the baby is, the village will adopt the baby and nurtures it as everyone’s own child.

Due to the rich ideology of conservation of the culture, people from across the globe come to study and understand the functioning of these Ghotuls. The Muriyas indulge in celebration of the little things from their daily lives. For example, after a successful hunt in the wild, a birth in the community, a betrothal, etc. They have about 12-15 different types of dances that they perform to celebrate these everyday joys. There are rituals and a sequential procedure on how the members need to conduct themselves in the course of visiting a Ghotul like getting ready, dressing up, assembly and starting the evening at the Ghotul.

I got an opportunity to visit one such Ghotul and here is a video of a dance they performed for us.

the Muriyas celebrating a game hunt at a Ghotul

As a small introduction to the video above: In this dance, you can see two hunters dancing around and in between the other members, while musicians are standing in the middle and playing the traditional instruments. There are also a couple of men wearing head gears that look like chital / spotted-deer which indicates that this celebration is after a game was shot-down by the hunters and brought to the Ghotul for a feast.

What are your thoughts and views about the Ghotul system? Share them with me through the comments below.

A roadtrip into the Naxal heartland- Bastar

There were many iterations in the initial plan and the destination was changed multiple times, but my family and I finally decided to visit and explore Bastar. Holistically, Bastar is a region spread across multiple states and was primarily ruled by the Kakatiya dynasty. But with changing administrations and new state formations, the Bastar region is now split into seven districts in the state of Chhattisgarh with Bastar itself being the name of a district. The region is one of the richest in India in terms of tribal culture and reserves of natural resources. Taking Covid safety precautions into consideration, we decided to drive our own vehicle instead of taking a flight or public transportation to avoid coming in touch with random people.

When people in our immediate acquaintance got to know about our choice of destination, a few thought that we were crazy. And then, a few concluded that we had lost it when we told them that we were doing a road trip right through the red-corridor area. But it was a combination of inquisitiveness, curiosity, adventure and assurance of safety from a local friend that finally got my family and myself on a road trip to what is infamously called the Naxal heartland- Bastar. To add a little bit of spark to this wild road trip, was our new ‘Flame-red’ colored car that was delivered to us just a couple of days ago. We did not have a number plate on it and were going to cross five state borders with a ‘Temporary Registration’ sticker.

With all that background, let us discuss the crux of every traveler’s doubt- Is Bastar safe for travelers?

First things first, about Bastar-

  • The public transportation or connectivity in the Bastar region is almost non-existent. So, if you are a budget traveler or a backpacker, then this trip will not work out for you. Hire a self-drive vehicle either from Raipur or Vishakhapatnam (The nearest major cities with airports) or get one from home.
  • For stay at this point in time, there are ‘zero’ places listed on Airbnb. Limited hotels are available only at Jagadalpur which you can make your center point of travel. Alternatively, there are some resorts run by the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board (CTB) scattered in good locations across the region that you can manage to find online or through local contacts.
Entering Sukma, forest area begins

The Details of our visit to Bastar.

We started this trip from Hyderabad on the morning of Christmas-2020. As our journey proceeded from the plains towards the forests, the changing terrain was an indication that the red-color (of the red-corridor map) was getting more significant. We strictly adhered to two conditions laid by our friend/ local guide who was based out of Bastar. One, to stay connected from the time we started from Hyderabad and update him frequently (based on the mobile network). Two, do not drive after sunset. We had planned the entire route and our halts in consultation with him. With Kothagudem, we had officially entered the ancient ‘Dandakaranya forest’ region, the modern ‘Naxal heartland’. Only difference is Ravana had kidnapped Sita from the region back then, one could possibly be kidnapped or shot at by a Maoist in modern day. The day’s drive was mostly un-exciting with a good wide National highway passing through Sal tree forests alternating with cotton fields till Badrachalam, where we stayed for that night.

The following day, when we took a deviation towards Konta at Chatti junction is when we started to notice the actual change in terrain and demography. Civilizations suddenly disappeared and the roads became emptier. For most stretch it was just us, driving either through thick forested areas or large open grasslands. No man-made concrete structures, whatsoever. Even if it felt like we reached a tribal settlement after driving for a few kilometers, the settlement was limited to just one or two huts with their set of cattle and poultry. It was a little eerie to think of, but that did not stop us from halting our car and taking a few photographs.

A cattle shed in a village around Konta

After reaching Konta (The Andhra-Chhattisgarh state border) is when we started to sense the heavy air around us. Every village that came thereafter was spread across 1 to 2 kilometers along the highway. And every village had a CRPF camp with an armored MPV (Mine Protected Vehicle) at their gates, ready to be driven out at any given point. All camps had hero stones erected near the gates with names of the martyrs from the respective camps who had died during service. We were heading towards Sukma, possibly the brightest red spot one would find on the map. With extremely unreliable mobile connectivity to reach out to our guide, we had started to reconsider if we had made the right decision to take the road less travelled! Anyway, there was no way we could undo our plans since we were already there now. Instead, we decided to go ahead by thinking about the adventure and excitement that may come ahead to us.

Meanwhile, I got a message delivered on my phone from our guide. It had the contact name and number of a volunteer (Person X) based out of Sukma. We were told to meet Person X and have a cup of tea with him at Sukma before continuing our journey towards Jagadalpur. After reaching the Sukma bus stand, we called Person X and waited for him to arrive. In a bit, a young boy came to us on a bike and asked us to follow him. Even before we could complete our words of enquiring his name, he said: “Haan, haan, follow my bike” and we trailed him through narrow residential lanes to a big mansion. Another man (Person Y) welcomed us warmly and we were kind of overwhelmed and at the same time, wondering whom and why we had to meet someone in Sukma.

Person Y asked us, “Weren’t you supposed to be a big group of people?”

“No, it was just our family travelling”, we clarified.

“But Person Z told me that five of you will be arriving here for the meeting”, he said.

“Person Z? But we were supposed to meet Person X!”, we told him with a perplexed look on our faces.

We realized that there was some confusion. We were at a wrong place… in Sukma! I immediately called up Person X and told him about the situation. I then handed over my phone to Person Y and we were fortunate that both X & Y knew each other. Both of them were local leaders and represented the same political party. X came to Y’s house and it followed with some chai served to us. Our basic introduction and conversation were limited to local politics, our journey so far and our trip to Chhattisgarh. About half an hour later and as discussed with our guide from Bastar, we decided to continue our journey further.

A short while later, when we were ascending the Ghats, a bunch of CRPF men who were on their random patrol stopped us and enquired the details of our trip. Without much drama, they let us go after knowing that we were random tourists, heading to Jagadalpur from Bangalore.

Somewhere near Konta

Our guide arrived at Dorba with his family and escorted our car for the rest of the day. We reached Jagadalpur for the night’s stay. Over the next few days of our stay in Chhattisgarh, we explored several settlements and hamlets located in areas where no roads exist. Through our extensive drive through vast expanses of paddy fields and coal, iron and other mineral rich mountainous and forest terrain, we got a better sense of geography and geo-politics of the area.

So, come to the point! Was it safe?

I would like to explain this with multiple incidents and my viewpoints. PLEASE NOTE that these opinions are purely based on my personal experience. This may differ for each person visiting there.

  1. As per our guide, our visit to the local’s house in Sukma was to acquaint us with a localite in that region so that, if we were being tracked by someone, they would know that we were harmless tourists and not associated with any other intention. But my viewpoint is that, apart from Sukma, we explored the districts of Dantewada, Bastar, Kondagaon, Kanker, Narayanpur, Gariaband and Dhamtari during the course of our stay in this region. All considered to be core areas of Naxalism/ LWE in the state. We drove our number less car with a ‘KA-TR’ sticker all around –> Not a single day did anyone stop us, ask us or threaten us. It felt like we were travelling in any other Hindi speaking place in India.
  2. When we entered the villages, we had a local person accompanying us almost always. We were told that a lot of villagers worked as informants to the Naxals. (starting from children as young as 8-10 years to grown adults, across gender). So, if a localite familiar in a particular village that we were visiting accompanied us, we would be safe –> My viewpoint on this is, when we moved to the interior parts, the villagers could speak only the local dialects of either Halbi or Gondi. Why that, when we visited the Gotul on one of the days, I even understood a portion of a conversation between two villagers standing next to me. They were discussing that I was a foreigner, who had come there to see their dance. Like really? I look so INDIAN in color, features, dress and in every other sense. Even then, the exposure of these tribals to the world outside their villages is so limited that any visitor would look alien. In such a scenario, communication would’ve been a task for us if we wanted to understand their culture better. A translator helped us to bridge the gap in communication.
  3. We were told that the Naxalites come out after sunset and bother the villagers for rice and other needs. We had heard of stories of how people/visitors/ guests were kidnapped from houses at night. We met so many villagers from various tribes, visited their houses and ate their food. They were excited to host us and shy to talk to urbanites. Never at any point did I feel like we were going to be harmed. We even stayed for a night at Dantewada and most other nights at Kondagaon. The villagers didn’t seem to talk about anything to me like kidnap or murder.
  4. There are several tribal communities that are still primitive in their culture and do not come out in contact of normal civilization. Barter still exists in this part of the world. Permits are required for entry of many villages, especially for those visiting the Abujmadh area. To think of, it is unfortunate that inspite of conscious efforts by governments to empower the tribes, it is still falling short.
  5. Somewhere near Kanker, we were by ourselves on a night journey towards Raipur. While we were told that the highways were safe, there is one point where we were asked to stop and wait for about 2 hours. With us, there were hundreds of other vehicles also who had stopped and spent the hours getting a nap during the waiting time. Daily, the ITBP policemen do combing in this area. Inspite of several positive experiences like those above, things like these present the intensity of the underlying danger and threat.

By having all these presumptions, it cannot be ruled out that naxalism is REAL. And it is in abundance in these areas. The underlying thought cannot be ignored that I must have gotten lucky!

Bastar district, Chattisgarh

My verdict on safety for travelers:

I went to Chhattisgarh and returned safe. Every place across the WORLD has its own threat, but in different ways. When you are in Rome, be a Roman. So, whichever place you choose to travel, keep the local customs and sentiments in mind. If possible, get in touch with a localite and take them into confidence. Travel to build connections and build connections to travel.

Travel, stay safe and enjoy your journey!

Making the journey count- to Kodachadri

For the weekend hikers, the ‘K’ in Karnataka represents the must-do three ‘K’ peaks in the state: Kumara Parvata, Kudremukha and Kodachadri. I was heading to the last of the three, for the second time. The first time I went to Kodachadri was over a decade ago, as a part of an industrial tour from college 😀 This time, I was leading a group of weekenders who had signed up for the trek with PTU- ‘Plan the Unplanned’.

The standard itinerary with PTU:
Day 1: Depart from Bangalore (Leave HSR layout) by 08.00.p.m.
Day 2: Reach homestay by 06.00.a.m., freshen up and start the hike by 09.00.a.m.; Return to the homestay by evening
Day 3: Visit Nagara fort enroute home, reach Bengaluru by evening.

The story of my weekend:
A total of 16 people including two trek leaders were supposed to board the bus at various pickup points across Bangalore. While HSR layout was the first pickup point, the last and the biggest bunch of people were supposed to board at Mekhri circle. When the driver cranked the engine to leave HSR, the last member boarding the bus noticed that a rear tyre had a flat. So, it needed to be changed and the punctured tyre required to be fixed before proceeding for the long journey. After about an hour, the stepney was replaced and the bus arrived at the second stop.

People boarded and the Bus… did not start. This time, the battery had drained, completely! A mechanic arrived in a while and told that it could not be topped up and needed a replacement. Well, it was another good couple of hours until the bus finally left…. With an assurance from the ‘travels company’ assuring that there won’t be any more breakdowns.

Meanwhile, I had taken an autorickshaw to reach Mekhri circle to hold up all the people who had arrived there. The co-leader managed the people who had already boarded the PTU bus. Most of them being first timers on their solo travel, their growing anxiety with the extending delay in the tour was quite a challenge to clarify all their doubts and questions. It was 00.30.a.m. by the time the bus finally arrived at Mekhri circle instead of the scheduled 09.30.p.m. We quickly wrapped up the initial welcome and introduction that usually takes a while on normal trips. Everyone needed some sleep before climbing up the Kodachadri trail.

It was approximately 01.30~02.00. a.m. and the bus had reached somewhere around Sira town. Then suddenly, everyone in the bus woke up for a LOUUUD thud noise. The driver stopped the bus. I walked to his cabin and got down with the driver with a torch light to check what the issue was. The driver found a broken bolt under the bus, near the engine room. The radiator had started to leak profusely, and the engine belt had ripped off. The driver informed me that there was no way that the bus could move. Trying to find a mechanic in the middle of the night would only be futile. The options we had was to find one back in Nelamangala (this would take a good few hours) or wait in the bus until morning, find a mechanic in Sira, find spares, get the bus fixed and then proceed. Proceed further to Kodachadri or return to Bangalore. In either case, Saturday would be gone. We pushed the bus to the side of the highway and decided to take time to figure out the next POA (Plan of Action).

Hidlumane falls

I called up the PTU organizers and informed them of the situation. We were fortunate to find a chaiwala (petty Angadi), the ONLY place with light and people movement in the drop-dead night. The people in the bus got down and occupied themselves with their dose of mid-night chai and smokes until we figured out an alternative. None of them would settle for a full refund and wanted PTU to ensure that they got what they had signed up for.

It was a weekend. It wasn’t going to be easy to find an alternate bus or a TT (Tempo Traveler). While my co-lead was waving at every other bus that came on the highway (both KSRTC and private buses) to check if there were empty seats, I was calling up every random travel company listed on google and checking for availability of buses. Either they were all booked for the weekend or people would just abuse me for waking them up in the middle of the night and hang up. To add to it, I was the ONLY person in the entire bus who could speak Kannada. So yeah, I literally had to manage the show and all the translations, communications and co-ordinations.
Finally, one KSRTC bus stopped! They had sufficient seats to accommodate all of us as well. But we had a new challenge. The travellers with us had ganged up and would not agree to board a red bus (Karnataka Sarige bus). All requests to convince seemed futile and we let go off the KSRTC bus. After a total of about an hour, the chaiwala managed to find us a localite who had agreed to come with us for a per kilometer charge that was double the normal price. PTU organizers agreed. The TT arrived. Next challenge? It was a 12-seater TT, we were 16 in total. We, the leaders convinced ourselves to sit on the floor of the ramp between the two rows of seats and another 2 travelers volunteered to fill the already crammed space. Ensuring that everyone else got a comfortable space, the journey continued. Fortunately, we had no more surprises and we reached the homestay by 09.30.a.m.

That’s how we rolled, in our TT (Faces intentionally blurred)

We took time to freshen up, have breakfast, get the forest permits for the trek and finally started our ascend by 11.00.a.m. All went fine, by god’s grace. This was my first PROPER trek in Kodachadri, the previous one was another adventure worth a read. We climbed up the Hidlumane waterfall, arrived at a local house enroute to have a surprise Majjige (buttermilk) stop, crossed paddy fields, areca and banana plantations, Mookambika temple and finally arrived at the peak marked by the Shankaracharya Mantapa. The landscape and the entire path were unrecognizable for me from what I had seen on my previous visit. It was now exploited and overdone by tourists. There were a few hikers who felt exhausted and wanted to give-up halfway. But as a trek leader, it was my personal obligation to ensure that EVERYONE completed what they had signed up for and no one stayed back without some safe company. Finally, everyone made it to the peak, and it was now mission accomplished. Well, only partially!

The real deal was in the descend. We had a 4×4 ride awaiting us for our return. It is one that is BEYOND explanation and you only hold on to the roof bars hoping that you don’t have a few broken bones or dislocated joints by the time it ends. There is NO road, only a slide down a ditchy/bumpy gradient path. This 4×4 jeep ride alone supports the livelihood of several people around the area. Hence, the localites aren’t letting a road happen even if the government wants to develop this important site of tourism (we were told so by one of them). So, if this ride is considered as an adventure and a source of employment, then you can imagine how memorable this experience must be, right?

The view after reaching the keep trail

Well, in spite of all the delays and breakdowns, it gave me a sense of achievement by the end of the day for having met the itinerary. Though we paid late exit fine at the gates, this was a PTU experience in its true sense. More adventures to come, until then- Keep tripping…. Plan the Unplanned!

A personal chronology of Deepawali celebration

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

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

The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram

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

Sunset at Majuli

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

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

Sunset view from Sangla bus stand

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

The sunset from Varkala cliff on Deepavali 2019

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

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

Celebrating the festival of Love and lights at Varkala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My visit to the Golden island

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

The sunset from Varkala cliff on Deepavali 2019

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

My sea view dinner table at Varkala

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

Kappil beach

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

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

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

Tiger Census Part 2- The Aftermath

If you have not yet read my story of chasing a tiger trail, Please do! Because this story is the continuation of it. To give you a jist of Part 1: I was on a search mission to find tigers as part of a nationwide ‘Tiger Census’ activity. Another two of my friends too, had been allotted the same National park as me and hence, they were with me for company after the daily beat rounds and at the campsite. While at it, I was chased by wild elephants on three consecutive days, I climbed a tree, I got entangled between creepers and escaped a near miss casualty as I ran for life in the unknown territories of the elusive jungle. But even as a single tiger wasn’t spotted at the end of all the adventure, I was leaving the forest with a sense of accomplishment. But well.. the forest didn’t want to leave me, I guess! It followed me, home.. All the way to Bangalore.

Coming to the point, the forests had started to stick to me since one day before our departure from the forest. That evening, we were sitting at the portico of the guard’s kitchen and looking at the hundred lights glowing at a distance. They were the eyes of a hundred spotted deers glowing in moonlight, that congregate around the forest guest house every evening. We had gotten used to them during our stay, by now. It was nearing a week since we were living and walking in their habitat and we hadn’t been lucky to catch a glimpse of the Big-cat yet. Hence at times, my friends and I hoped that those eyes were of the tiger. While engrossed in our conversation, I had not realised that I had been subconsciously scratching various parts of my body. On noticing this, my friend asked me why I looked so uncomfortable.

Only after that, I realized that I had scratches and marks of my nails on almost every inch of my hands and legs. The irritation had gotten to the extent that my hands had to now reach into my shirt and trousers. I wondered if there was an allergic reaction due to some caterpillar or some plants that I had unknowingly touched. I borrowed a small bowl of oil from the kitchen and went inside our shelter to smear it all over (That’s the first self-medication / home remedy I use whenever I have an allergic reaction in my skin). But this time, it seemed to be getting worse. I had large rashes popping up on almost every inch of my skin. My body had turned red. Apart from a tribal family of Chikkanna who lived across the kitchen door and the cook himself, there was really no one else in the forest for my aid anyway. I assumed that I would be alright by morning and went to sleep that night.

The next morning was our last possible opportunity in the forest, to catch a glimpse of the striped beast. With all anxiety and excitement, I had woken up forgetting about the allergy. Anyway, even that day ended with a fruitless search for the big cat with no sighting. By late afternoon, my friends and I started our drive back, towards Bangalore. Half way through, I came to my real senses. My body was itching bad and it was itching everywhere. I was scratching my body uncontrollably. Initially, my friends found it weird and cracked crazy jokes at me. I too enjoyed their sense of humour and laughed along with them. There was a point when I was literally crying. Crying for two reasons: One, because the jokes were SO funny and I was laughing; two, because I couldn’t stop scratching myself so hard. It was insane. Only I knew what I was going through!

But why only Me..? God must have taken pity at my plight. The other friend in the car too slowly started to scratch herself. By the time we crossed Mysore, both of us were scratching ourselves. It was unbearably itchy! That’s when my friends realised the seriousness of the situation. For most of the road, we prayed that we reached home asap and got a good shower, hoping that would help us to get fresh and feel alright. But as we entered Bangalore borders, we saw the first clinic in our entire drive. we got desperate to do something about our situation and went inside this clinic at Kengeri Upanagara. The doctor took note of the backstory and injected both of us with anti-allergen shots. He assured us that we would be alright by next morning.

We reached our respective homes, took the best shower we had seen in the last 1 week, freshened up, applied some known home remedies and went to bed. The next day, the day after that, the week after that passed. Although the redness in the body had gone, the itching hadn’t stopped. At times, I felt like the itching had subsided. But yet again, I felt that it didn’t subside and I was getting used to it. I had scars all over my body due to the incessant scratching. Fifteen days later, my dad felt irritated at what I was going through and took me to a physician. He gave me a prescription with 4 different types of tablets and assured us that I would be alright within the next three days.

Three days exceeded a fortnight since the that visit to the doctor. It had been more than a month in total since I returned from the Tiger census and I was still scratching my body. That’s when my mom suggested me to go to a dermatology specialist at the KIMS hospital (Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences). I was ready to do ANYTHING, to get myself DONE with this. It had started to get embarrassing to go to office and public places by now. I had started to feel like people around me were distancing themselves because this seemed like a dirty habit to them!

I went inside the doctor’s cabin. He asked me what the problem was. No backstory, I only showed my hand and said that I had similar rashes all over my body. Straight to the point, he asked me: “Did you go to any beach?”. “No, I had been to a forest for a trek.”, I replied. He nodded (god knows what and why!) He handed over a prescription with tablets for two days and an ointment. Without really any hope if it would work this time around atleast, I walked out with yet another list of medicine in my hand.

I went home and popped the first pill from the latest prescription. It took me half an hour, THAT’S ALL….. I was relieved of all the mind-blowing (like LITERALLY!) struggle I was going through, since over a month. The itching STOPPED… like to ZERO! Like CRAZY…… Why hadn’t I gone to this doctor earlier!!! Why oh, WHY?? Anyway, I completed my medicine course and the ointment helped me to lighten the scars on my skin over the next 1 month. I suggested the same medicine to my friend as well and she too recovered.

Well apparently, My friend and I were bitten by tiny mites that live in the forests. These mites enter the blood stream through the skin and lay eggs inside the dermis. The doctor at KIMS got this absolutely right and hence, we were cured of our embarrassing situation.

Lesson: Always go to a doctor who is specialized in the related subject unless and until you are unaware of what is the source of the problem.

Hiking to a massive natural arch- Bheemanakindi

With a closed group of family and friends, about 10 of us planned this weekend trek to this lesser known hill, a little away from Bangalore. We started from Bangalore at 05.00.a.m. with an intention to finish the hike back down before the sun goes up. It was dawn by the time we drove towards Kanakapura and reached a village called Kanchanahalli, in Malavalli Taluk of Ramanagara district. The Kaccha road thereafter till the base of the hike, passes through fine landscape and traditional village of ‘Mysore Karnataka’ region. The hill is a part of the ‘Kabbala Forest reserve’ area. The early morning rays added extra charm to the cloud kissed peak of the ‘BheemanaKindi hill’ at the distant end and the fog covered coconut groves and vibrant green farms on either side of the road. What else? Picture this: A dozen peacocks dancing in the middle of the road! Well, a pleasant welcome; I must say 😊

The Drive and trek to Bheemanakindi

We finally arrived at the base of the hill, parked our cars and started the ascend. It starts at a small godown sort of a structure from where, is a well laid out stone path through the forest, right till the destination. Well, let me clarify that unlike most of the common treks around the city that promise you a breathtaking view after a good climb, this one has a MASSIVE stone arch at the end. With this large arch, goes the legend from Ramayana. ‘Bheema’ hit the large rocky monolith with his ‘Gadhe’ and thus resulted this Natural arch, locally called as ‘Kindi’. The smaller pieces scattered are believed to be the ones which appear to have been arranged one on-top-of the other in the adjoining smaller hillocks by the consecutive civilizations, over a period of time.

The difficulty level of the climb is moderate, but the gradient is steep. Since I hadn’t eaten anything since the previous afternoon, acidity was taking a toll on me. I was feeling nauseous and tired and trailing everyone on this trek. (That’s also the reason I didn’t take many photos of our ascent and the video attached below includes more visuals from the descent). I somehow made it to the top, all worthwhile the effort. A small temple dedicated to Nandi sits in a corner underneath the massive rock arch overlooking the dense forest cover below. Apart from a few squawking peacocks and chirping birds, we thought we were the earliest mammals to arrive there. But not until we saw some freshly laid elephant poop at the peak…!

A portion of the Stone arch and temple at Bheemanakindi

I had some biscuits and relaxed there for a bit until I felt fine. From a few known localites, we had heard that there exists a perennial pond somewhere close by. We walked behind the boulders that overlooks the millet farms beneath. We climbed up the hill further and we ventured out in pursuit of the pond. Mind you, the trek path ends at the temple and we were venturing out beyond, into the forest (Do not try this adventure). The sloppy path didn’t have a proper trail and we followed each other and stayed together so that we wouldn’t get lost. We walked further, a few broken trees (Bamboo, Indian Gooseberry, hog-plums etc.) perhaps warned us from going further, the pachyderms had just crossed the path. From there, we arrived at a small opening in the green cover- a large boulder. As the mist had engulfed the entire view, we sat there for a while hoping for it to clear out and get some good view of the valley below. But no luck and we decided to walk back.

Our stomachs were grumbling for food by the time we reached back to the base by 10.00.a.m. One of the members in our group had a relative in Kanchanahalli and hence, we were invited for brunch at their house. We drove to their house, passing through my FAVOURITE views of Karnataka: The rural hamlets of ‘Mysore Karnataka’ region. Traditional houses with wide porticos on raised platforms, red-oxide floors, clay tiled roofs supported by wooden pillars are a delight, I tell you!! Sometimes, cattle sheds on one side and a bicycle on the porch too is a common sight, so very typical to this region and so warm and old world. I have always gaped at those tiny streets in awe. So, today was my first opportunity to see the interiors of one such house, all that I had only seen in Kannada movies till date. Picture this: they are locally called ‘Thotti mane’ and the central living room has a central area which opens to the sky. Talk about natural ventilation and lighting, it has been part of our ancestral architecture from time immemorial. It also serves as an area to wash our feet and hands when we enter home, before we touch anything else. (Connect it with self-sanitizing during Covid times, after you come home from outside??)

A street at Kanchanahalli, overlooking the Bheemanakindi hill

Well, a pleasant happy day for me and a nice, happy, simple, warm meal for the tummy 😊 We head back to the city…. Hoping for another warm weekend to arrive soon….

From three directions to one destination- Ragihalli Betta

This post is of my family’s random “target destination-less” drive during the Covid unlock period. We set out in three different directions on three separate weekends but reached a place from where we got the view of the same hill, every time. By the shape of the solo hill, we would know that it was the ‘Ragihalli Betta’, located on the fringes of Bannerghatta National park. So, here are the details.

Direction 1: Kanakapura road; Destination explored: Gullahatti Kaval; View: Ragihalli Betta
The aimless drive culminated at a beautiful spot at the backwaters of the Muninagara reservoir in a village called as Gullahatti Kaval (Click here to read the detailed post). The route was mainly through millet and Banana farms dotted by small hamlets.

The road leading to Yogavana Betta, from Kanakapura road

Direction 2: Bannerghatta road; Destination explored: Koratagere Doddi; View: Ragihalli Betta
An offroading drive through Ragihalli state forest, stream crossing, forest trail and then culminating at a viewpoint- was a very welcome drive (Click here to read the detailed post).

View from Yogavana Betta

Direction 3: Mysore road; Destination explored: Yogavana Betta; View: Ragihalli Betta
After passing through small hamlets, an art school and a road with a foresty canopy leading to an ashram called as ‘Yogavana Betta’. We skipped the ashram visit and walked up the hill and climbed up a meditation hall, apparently called ‘Anubhav Mantapa’ to get a 360deg view of the surrounding. One of the views from atop was the Ragihalli Betta. Apart from a casual walk in the green neighborhood, there was nothing specific to do here. But it is a DEFINITE recommendation for those seeking a good ‘Sunset View’ point. Watch the below video of this place and the view surrounding this place.

Yogavana Betta

The two greatest Indian epics- The Conclusion

Where do the two largest Indian epics end?

I remember how Indians went frenzy to watch the movie- ‘Bahubali 2: The conclusion’, a story that is something purely fictitious. But, ever bothered to know what the ending of the two greatest stories of Indian mythology is like? What happens to the protagonists in Ramayana and Mahabharata? No, they don’t end at wars. There’s more to it and I’m pretty sure most of you wouldn’t know.

I was lucky that my travels took me to these places that are often spoken less about. Tucked away from the mainstream tourist circuit, these places were a sort of discoveries for me that happened only because I travelled. Read further to know more.

1. Ramayana- The conclusion
Ayodhya and SriLanka are two places that comes to our mind instantly when we think of the epic Ramayana. The climax of the story has Lord Rama bringing back his wife Sita safely, after waging a war against the demon King Ravana. They then return to Ayodhya where preparations are on for Lord Rama’s coronation as the King. But sooner, he realizes that the purpose of his incarnation on earth was completed and he had to return to his abode- Vaikuntha. The story concludes in Lord Rama undertaking his Jal-Samadhi by walking and drowning in river Sarayu. This place is marked by the modern day ‘Guptar Ghat’ at Ayodhya.

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Our “The AYODHYA view”

2. Mahabharata- The conclusion
Kurukshetra, in the modern state of Haryana is one place that we immediately associate with epic of Mahabharata. Of course, the climax has the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas at this place. But the primary protagonist of the epic- Lord Krishna sees his end in the modern state of Gujarat. He finds his way back to vaikunta after serving the purpose of his avatar on earth. As he readies himself to leave earth, he sits under a tree in meditation at Bhalka theerth also known as Golok Dham. Krishna’s feet are shot at by a hunter named Jara, mistaking it to be that of a wild animal. Krishna who is fatally wounded then walks into the river Hiran, where he drowns for life. This spot is marked by a marble replica of a pair of feet on the banks of the river, near Somnath.

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The replica of Krishnas Footprint at Golokdham

An ancient Fort city of Gujarat- Junagadh

Visiting the Saurashtran region of India was a last-minute inclusion in the itinerary of our trip which was otherwise planned only to ‘The Rann of Kutch’. It was noon by the time my friend and I arrived at Junagadh, by a train from Ahmedabad. After checking into a hotel at a walkable distance from the station and freshening up, we relished a sumptuous ‘Gujarati Thali’ at a nearby restaurant. After a while, we set out to explore this historical city of Junagadh, a place lesser known on a typical backpacker’s circuit.

With a short autorickshaw ride, we reached the entrance of the Uparkot fort. This place is what gives its name to the city. ‘Juna-Gadh’ in local language means ‘Ancient Fort’. This fort dates to 3rd century BC, to the Mauryan Era. It must have been a massive structure back then. With several dynasties ruling this region over time, there are many historical remnants of structures that were eventually added. However, all are in bad shape now. The Buddhist cave, the Jumma Masjid, the tomb of Nuri Shah, the Naghan Kuvo stepwell are among the few that have stood in time. But Adi-Kadi Vav and Nawabi lake are the structures that I found interesting among all. Adi-Kadi Vav is a stepwell facing the Girnar hills, to which we had to descend a flight of stairs to reach water (mind you! The water is extremely dirty with all the trash). Whereas the Nawabi lake is an artificial pond that required an ascend of a spiraling staircase where the reflection of the Girnar hills looked beautiful in its water. This spot also had a dozen peacocks walking around the pond. Our walk tour ended in a couple of hours and we decided to walk back to the town.

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Adi-Kadi Vav rockcut stepwell at Uparkot fort

This gave us ample opportunity to photograph the rustic, old world and yet vibrant streets of the old city. Almost every corner of the lanes and its doors seemed like they had stories to narrate. As planned, we arrived at ‘Mahabat ka Maqbara’ at sunset time. These twin tombs of the past rulers are very beautiful, and it is only enhanced by the shades of the setting sun. We were very particular to photograph this place at the golden hour and were happy souls towards the day’s end for capturing those amazing silhouettes.

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The twin tombs at Mahabat ka Maqbara

After a long walk further in the quest to explore the market area of the old city, we kind of came to realize that we were lost in the cramped streets of a place that seemed like Namma Bengaluru’s Pete area. Google maps was of very little help so much so that we reached the same spot after walking around in multiple directions. Finally, we hopped into an autorickshaw to get us to the hotel, not minding the short walkable distance that was indicated by Google. We wanted to get some rest as our night was going to be long. We set the alarm to wake up by 10.00.p.m. so that we could start to hike by 11.00.p.m.

However, I slept a wee bit longer and had been shaken up neither by the alarm nor by the panic-stricken friend’s endless calls from outside my closed room doors. When I woke up from deep slumber, it was 01.00.am and my friend was almost in the verge of fainting to know that I was not responding inside a closed room 😀 We then got an auto ride to the base of the Girnar hills, the climb of 10,000 stairs had to be done before sunrise. The plan was to ascend at night, catch the sunrise from the peak and descend back before the harsh sun rose up during the day. Post breakfast, we would leave for our next destination. We were already running behind schedule.

We commenced our hike and there was barely anyone else with us. The winds were very strong and the rustle of the trees as we passed through the initial stretch of forest was creepy in the moonless night. The Girnar hills is believed to be older than the Himalayas and a pilgrimage site for people across faiths. Several structures like emperor Ashoka’s rock edict, Jain temples, ancient inscriptions etc. are things that kindle the history buffs if they are not interested in the pilgrimage including the Jain tonks or several other temples from across time in history. However, after climbing about 5,000 stairs, my legs were tired and couldn’t catch up with my friend’s pace. I could have completed it though, only at a slower pace. But, we wouldn’t have been able to make it back in time if we had to catch a morning bus to our next destination. Fearing which, I decided to sit back and let my friend go ahead and complete the hike. However, he was not okay with the idea to let me sit alone all night (it was bloody dark and windy with NO ONE around) and decided to head back to the hotel with me. So, the descent of 5000 odd stairs on our way back wasn’t easy either. I was unprepared for this long hike and I guess it was a wise decision for me not to continue the ascent. It would’ve taken a real toll on my legs and the rest of the trip would’ve been screwed up. But what makes this a memorable trip is the fact that this was the first EVER hike that I gave up halfway, without completing.

Then, we telephoned the same rickshaw guy to give us a ride back to the hotel. It was a short but a nice ride. The proximity of the Gir National park had herds of Nilghais, boars and other wild animals on the highway that we were travelling on. A stay in the ‘Gir National Park’ is a dream for another day. Perhaps when I have more days in my itinerary and more money in my wallet. Maybe that time, I will have more stamina to reach the peak of Girnar too. But for now, we were reaching our hotel for some more sleep.

Goodbye, see you at Somnath.