Tag Archives: Offbeat things to do in India

A souvenir from Rajahmundry- Ratnam pen

This was a part of our family’s five state road trip covering Chhattisgarh – Odisha – Andhra – Telangana – Karnataka in Dec’20.

They say a pen is mightier than a sword. A good writer can win a great battle. I guess it has been all the more true in the Gen-Z era. Although the pen has been replaced with keypads, the social media warriors have continuously upped the war of words 😛 But for a few old-school goers like me, nothing can replace the joy of holding a pen between the fingers and scribbling on paper. The thought instantly takes me back to the earliest days of life when I graduated from a chalk and slate to a pencil and paper. When we reached middle-school, I was a proud owner of my first pen. Writing with a pen was a symbol of growing up; we flaunted it around with those younger than us in school. “Don’t use a ball-point pen, it will spoil your handwriting”, was an instruction given by a teacher to all of us. Filling ink into the fountain pens was a mandatory part of our daily chores. On days that we either wrote more or forgot to fill inks, we would barter drops of ink with our classmates. Although ball-point pens made their way and stayed in the comp-boxes of my pals by the time we reached high-school, I somehow carried the instructions of my teacher with myself for a little longer. I switched over to a ball-point pen only after I graduated from college. But my love for fountain pens and writing on paper still lives on. This is the long story in short, about my connection with fountain pens.

Rajahmundry is a big city in Andhra Pradesh. It is one of the largest exporters of textiles, rice and horticultural products in India. But ignoring all that, my need for exploring the congested bustling streets of the city was to find a fountain pen. With the help of Google maps, I walked through the narrow lanes of the busy shopping area to locate an old graceful house dating back to pre-independence era and surrounded by tall modern buildings. The house was an elegant traditional structure built and maintained in its original form with clay tiled roof and a large open central courtyard. That morning, I had come there to buy an art piece – ‘The Ratnam Pen’.

Ratnam Pens- Manufacturing and Sales Outlet

‘Ratnam pen works’ is a heritage fountain pen maker who has been one of the earliest in this business when Mahatma Gandhi largely promoted ‘Make in India’ concept through his ‘Swadeshi’ movement. These pens have been used by some of the famous personalities from across the country and the world. Ratnam pens are a delight for every pen collector. A framed paper on the wall is a prized possession of this craftsman. It is the original copy of a handwritten letter by Gandhiji to the owner of this place in appreciation of his contribution towards the swadeshi movement.

A copy of Gandhiji’s letter, a fountain pen case and the lathe machine at Ratnam pens workshop

Apart from being the shelter to the owner’s family, this house of ‘Ratnam pens’ is a workshop where the mightier pens take form. These famous fountain pens are made and sold only here to which people come down from across the globe. Although these pens are unavailable for online purchases, “Anyone interested to buy them or want spares and service for existing products can do so by calling me directly on my phone”, the owner says. I was more than excited to lay my hands on this new addition to my collection of pens. A happy me was then set on continuing my travel towards another noteworthy village nearby- Details on my next post 

This is my humble attempt at promoting domestic tourism and local artisans. I urge my readers to support small businesses by buying locally produced substitutes for imported goods.

What is that one favourite souvenir you have bought from your travels? What are your memories from school? Please do share your thoughts on this post with me. I would love to hear them.

Finding a hidden gem of Wayanad- Aranamala waterfalls

I have discussed with you all why I volunteered to become a ‘Trek leader on weekends’ and how much I enjoy doing it with ‘Plan the Unplanned’ (PTU). With Covid19 lockdowns and safety precautions that followed, break from my weekends with PTU has been longer than I had thought. Although I have been travelling with a closed group of friends and family since few months now, the fear of socializing with a bunch of unknown people had kept me away from PTU. Finally, this January, I decided to get out and lead a group of trekkers. The destination assigned for this weekend was Sultan Bathery in Wayanad district of Kerala. And the task was to find a hidden gem in the Aranamala hills. We were going to hike along a stream to see a waterfall.

Itinerary:
Friday: Leave Bangalore by night
Saturday: Day hike to Aranamala waterfall, Visit sunset-point and night camping at Ambukutti hills
Sunday: Watch sunrise, visit Edakkal caves and explore Wayanad. Return to Bangalore by night.

The Aranmala waterfall trek

The Details:
It is a very hazy memory from the cold dark January morning of sitting inside our bus at the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary’s Sultan Bathery check post. We had arrived much before 06.00.a.m., when the forest gates would open for public entry. Since we were not allowed to make any noise or get out of the bus in the forest area, we all decided to get some sleep until the gates opened. At first, I was woken up by the cries of peacocks that seemed to be somewhere very near to the bus and some distant elephant trumpet. But then, the darkness around and the exhaustion from the previous workday got me back to fall asleep. I was woken up again in a while, by a sound that was very contrasting and disturbing as compared to what I had heard before falling asleep the last time. This time, the loud deafening sounds were of honking buses and trucks that had congregated at the check post. I opened my eyes to see the dawn of the day with a red sun rising over a mist laden green paddy field from my window. The fresh dung just outside the bus gave me a momentary fright at the thought of having had an elephant walk right past us, in the dark. All said and done, the entry formalities at the inter-state border was sorted and we were at a hotel in a bit. We freshened up, had a nice Kerala breakfast and got ready for the long day ahead.

The start of the hike, Thollayiram kandi in the backdrop

After arriving at Meppadi town, we met our local guide and shifted from our minibus to 4WD Jeeps. The initial stretch deceived me in thinking why a 4WD was needed to drive on a properly laid concrete road. Just then, the roads disappeared, and the real ride started… Although I was sitting in the rear end of the vehicle, I preferred not to sit on the seat and chose to hang on to the roof lest have all my joints and bones displaced. The long drive through the thick canopied forest trail culminated at the start point of our hike. We descended through the path that deviated from the main road towards a river. That’s the ‘Thollayiram Kandi’, our guide pointed out at a peak topped by the rolling clouds. “Kandi is a local unit of measurement”, he elaborated as we continued to walk. We walked through cardamom plantations and jumped over a few fallen tree trunks and creeping roots until we reached a stream.

The stream and the hiking trail at Aranamala

From there onwards, the hike was mainly upstream. While enjoying the absolute music of the gurgling waters of the stream, the croaking frogs and the shrilling cicadas, we slipped down a few large rocks and fell into the shallow waters a couple of times. In spite of trying hard not to get our shoes wet, we ended up soaking them up and picking out occasional leeches from our feet. We realized that given our pace of hiking up, we would not be able to return on time with sufficient daylight. Hence from there onwards, our guide made his own path, through the thick forest. He walked ahead by cutting the thick bushes that came across, all by keeping the stream in sight. We did slip and tumble down the steep a couple of times though. But the hanging vines and lianas came to our rescue. And suddenly, our first view of the waterfall emerged. It was beautiful and the water pool looked crystal clear, tempting to step inside. Apart from our group, there was no one else.

The first waterfall enroute

As we got ready to step into the pool, “This is not the main waterfall. We need to walk further ahead”, said our guide. If this waterfall was so calm and beautiful, we wondered how the main waterfall would be like. We were excited! But our excitement sought energy 😛 We had to climb up the same rock, on one end of which the water plunged down. Quite a tricky climb but worth every inch of it! A short walk further from there waaaaasssss the hidden gem that we had come in search of. Now, don’t ask me the name of the waterfall, it is completely off the map and mobile network. So, there is NO way you will find it on google. To make it simple, you can call it the Aranamala waterfall, the waterfall in the Aranamala hills.

The Aranamala waterfalls

That’s all folks, we’re off into the pool to enjoy our dip! But hey, it was not so easy…. The water was bloody cold, and I had cramps in my feet for the first few minutes. I meanwhile enjoyed my free fish-pedicure too, it sort of eased the cramps for me. And then with a dip, I was all set! A waterfall so secluded, a pool so clear and a feeling so divine, I couldn’t have asked for any better to make up for all the travels missed in nearly a year now. After spending some good time under the waterfall and with our soaking wet clothes on, we decided to return. It was already 03.30.p.m and hence decided to take an easy path instead of walking back through the same terrain of forest and the rocks. So, we were taken through a shorter but a beautiful path through cardamom plantation for our descent.

After a nice filling lunch at a campsite enroute, we boarded the jeeps back towards Meppadi. The original itinerary did include a short sunset ride, but the clouds didn’t seem to part for the entire day. From Meppadi, we reached the base of Ambukutti hills for the night. It took us yet another jeep ride to a homestay where we had our chai and conversations. And a fun time around the bonfire until dinner was served.

Post dinner, we carried our tents and sleeping bags up the hill and managed to pitch them atop. The winds were strong, and the rocky ground was tough. With the thick mist blinding all around and the instructions from our guide to not venture away from the tents, all that we could envisage was a deep valley below. The bonus of holding up in the cold until morning, u ask? ‘The view from the tent, of the sun rising above the clouds at 06.00a.m.’ But come morning, we had a surprise awaiting. There was so many clouds until 09.00.a.m that we got a glimpse of the sun for barely a few seconds. We walked up the hill a little further from our campsite, took in some clean air and good views of the range around. We then returned to pack our tents and freshen up for the day. Our breakfast and our ride back to Meppadi was awaiting us at the homestay.

Ambukutti hills as seen from our campsite

That was my story about offbeat Wayanad with ‘Plan the Unplanned’, of leading a group of weekenders and enjoying my weekend, both at the same time.

Other Travel recommendations:
Edakkal caves are located at a walkable distance from the campsite at Ambukutti hills
You can visit Tirunelli temple and Irupu waterfalls by driving through Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Tholpetta) and Nagarhole National park.
Alternately, you can explore Sultan Bathery, visit the ancient Jain temple and Banasura sagar dam that offers a good view of the surrounding hills.

Offbeat Things to do in Vishakhapatnam

My interest in pursuing a career related to the oceans goes a long way back into history. I intended to study oceanography while in school. Then, in spite of studying at an elite college in Bengaluru that offered the army wing of NCC (National Cadet Corps), I wanted to move out to get a ‘B & C’ certification in the Naval wing. After completing my graduation in mechanical engineering, I thought I could do well with a career in a refinery or a shipping harbor or something. A career in ‘Merchant navy’ never had an approval from my family! I did try to get into the ‘Indian Navy’ through the SSB as well. Anyways, all have been futile attempts as life always had other plans for me. But all the above interests have a deep connection with the port city of Visakhapatnam.

Apart from its strategically important port, Vizag had intrigued me as this city is geographically located between a sprawling beachfront and the eastern Ghats. I have been wanting to tick off Vizag, also called as Vishakhapatnam from my ‘to visit list’ from a really long time. Finally, my stint with Vizag materialized in January’2021. This visit is a part of my family’s road trip through Bengaluru– Telangana – Chhattisgarh – Odisha – Andhra Pradesh – Bengaluru.

I had heard a lot of my acquaintances tell me how beautiful this city is. Also, blame it on me for being spoilt by what my home state has offered me in my upbringing. The beaches of karavali, the hills of western Ghats, the coffee plantations of my native district and the sumptuous spread of regional cuisines, similar things were spoken about at Vizag as well. But all the people who had suggested Vizag on my bucket list were the urban tourists who visited this place to either chill by the beachside or relax and rejuvenate at a resort. For those who know me well, I have always enjoyed the exploratory kind of travel. So, I did manage to find such places and things at Vizag to satiate the explorer in me. Here are my favorites:

The INS Kursura submarine museum: This is like “THE” thing that brought me to Vizag at the first place. The experience of the guided tour inside of this de-commissioned submarine is something that is priceless and cannot be quantified with a price of an entry ticket.

INS Kursura- Submarine museum

The TupoLev142M aircraft museum: This is one of its kind of what I have been before. The experience of walking through a real aircraft that once served in the ‘Indian Navy’ is a million-dollar worth if you are someone who has deep interest in the uniforms, technology, and scientific history.

Tupolev 142m at the aircraft museum at Vizag

The cable car ride: Kailasagiri hill is a favorite hangout among the locals. They choose to drive up there, walk around the park and hangout at the eateries there. But for me, this was an interesting place because I reached the top of this hill through a cable-car. For all the people drooling over the Singapore tourism’s photos, Vizag is your nearest bet. Once you reach the peak, another recommendation from me is to take a ride on the toy train that goes around the hill. The 360deg view of the city and its enchanting coastline is indeed worth a visit, while you are in Vizag.

View of the coastline from the Cable car in Kailasagiri

Borra caves: Situated amidst lush greenery, these caves are known to be the widest cave complex in the Indian sub-continent. If possible, time your visit into the caves when a train passes over the land above, you can experience the tremors inside. It is located on the outskirts of Vizag and can be combined as a day trip to Araku valley.

Glimpses of Borra caves

Araku valley: For someone hailing from a place that is called as the ‘Coffee land’ of India (Kodagu district in Karnataka), I found the small patches of the famed ‘Araku valley’ coffee estates overhyped. But still, a meal of ‘bamboo-chicken’ with the valley in the backdrop, a hundred small dotting waterfalls and the beautiful scenery all along the way that made me want to stop for a photo at every turn of the road, all score a definite recommendation from me for a day trip to this valley.

At Araku entrance (From Koraput side)

Sip some kallu by the beach: With its buzzing coastline and palm trees growing in abundance, it is highly likely that you will spot some toddy or Kallu tappers (palm sap collectors) walking past you near the beaches. You can buy the fresh Kallu and enjoy while you are chilling by the beach.

A toddy/ Kallu tapper selling Kallu at one of the shacks

Beach hopping & Ship spotting: Being a major port city on the east coast, it is very likely that you can see some mad-ass big ships that dock at the Tennessee park Beach from across the world. However, there’s ‘MV Maa’, a Bangladeshi cargo ship that’s abandoned after it got beached during the covid-19 lockdown. If you’ve never been so close to a ship before, this is your opportunity to literally walk over, touch and feel a ship. Bonus: News is that if everything goes well, the ship will be converted to a floating restaurant soon 😍

MV Maa- the beached cargo ship of Bangladesh

Have you been to Vishakhapatnam before? What did you like the most?

Art and Crafts of Bastar

Bastar is an area soaked in rich culture. And art is an integral and unique part of this indigenous culture. It is safe to say that Kondagaon district is the art hub where there are entire villages dedicated to each of these handicrafts, with households registered with the ministry of culture & art. Several of these artisans are National award winners and visiting faculty at universities across the world. During my week long stay at Bastar, I managed to find time to visit some of these villages and interact with the artisans.

Blame it on me being an experienced professional in materials, manufacturing and heat-treatment processes, I have this weird fancy for everything that involves these aspects. One would not want to seize a travel opportunity from me when there is an element of art and engineering in it…. On similar lines, is the first part of this post.

The major and famous handicrafts of Bastar can be listed as below:

Wrought iron artefacts: Chhattisgarh is a state blessed with a mineral rich geography. Until a few decades ago, the tribes inhabiting the region used to collect raw iron ore from the naturally available soil or portions of earth, heat it in a furnace and separate the molten iron to make wrought iron. Today, wrought iron is directly purchased from the market. This is then melted and beaten into sheets. The sheets are then formed into various patterns and welded into beautiful artefacts. Although the traditional designs are based on the local tribal culture and represent aspects of daily life in Bastar like animals, hunting, the tribal folk, tribal deities, etc., modern adaptations have been inspired by the Indian epics among many other things. But still, each piece is handmade and unique with no two pieces being exactly the same.

Demonstration of making wrought iron craft by an artisan

Dokra art: Bell-metal is an alloy prepared locally and cast into various patterns through a technique called as ‘lost-wax technique’ of metal casting. Although this technique was primarily used by the indigenous tribes to mold their traditional jewelry back in the time, it has slowly evolved into making idols and other home décor items. These indigenous metal cast items are collectively called as Dokra art.

Dhokra art at various stages of metal casting

Terracotta pottery: A special type of clay is dug from the vast paddy farms and is then crafted into various artefacts. The specialty of the art here in Bastar is that very large and real-life sized objects are crafted completely with clay. After the potter assembles the product piece by piece, he then burns it as a whole unit to give it the required strength and rigidity. Well, there’s an entire village of potters / Terracotta artisans in Kondagaon.

Terracotta art at Bastar’s pottery village

Wooden carvings & Carpentry: With the abundance of forest cover and timber availability, wood craft is a major part of the handicraft culture here. Large tree trunks and roots are given the form of beautiful figurines, animals, etc. by very skilled artisans. This can also be seen in the rich carvings on doors and friezes of various old and traditional structures across the region.

Stone sculpture: With the mineral rich earth of the region, various types of soil and stone are available. Several of these earthy materials are used to make beautiful sculptures.

Mural Paintings: With a somewhat influence of the Patachitra art from the neighboring state of Odisha, the local Gondi artform and several other influences, the indigenous wall and fabric painting has evolved. Beautiful pictures of tribal deities, everyday life etc. can be seen being depicted through these paintings.

Handloom: A small portion of the local tribes are involved in collection of the naturally available cotton and Kosa silk from the forests and weaving them into traditional textiles.

Jewelry: Each of the tribes who inhabit the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh have their own unique pieces of jewelry. Anything that ranges from silver, fabric, plant fiber, shells or animal bones, the locally available materials from the wild are adapted into their culture in the form of traditional jewelry.

The Heritage bridges of Rajahmundry

River Godavari is the longest river in South India that travels over 1000 kilometers. My first glimpse of this beauty was at Rajahmundry, where the ritualistic ‘Godavari Arati’ is offered to this mighty river every evening. The sunset and a boat ride from the Godavari ghat are experiences in themselves. Among the umpteen dams, reservoirs, bridges that are a built across her, the most noteworthy bridges are located in Rajahmundry. Here is a quick look at these heritage structures.

The heritage bridges in Rajahmundry
  1. Old Godavari bridge – This is the oldest of the three major bridges built across Godavari here. It was originally called as ‘Havelock bridge’ since it was named after Sir Arthur Elibank Havelock, the then governor of Madras. This is a Stone masonry & Steel girder bridge whose construction started in 1897 and commissioned in 1900. After completing 100 years, this railway bridge was decommissioned in 1997.
  2. Godavari bridge – Also called as the ‘Kovvur-Rajahmundry bridge’, was commissioned in 1974. This truss bridge has a two-way road deck over a single-track rail deck making it Asia’s second longest railroad bridge with a length of 4.1kms.
  3. Godavari Arch bridge – Commissioned in 1997, this single line railway bridge is the latest of the three major bridges in Rajahmundry and was constructed as a replacement for the Havelock bridge. This concrete- Bowstring-girder bridge is built parallel to the Havelock bridge with a distance of 200mts.
The arch Bridge at Rajamundry

Apart from the above bridges, there is another road bridge that connects Rajahmundry city with the islands of Konaseema. But what makes this bridge special is that it runs parallel to another heritage structure built across the mighty river. Dowleshwaran Barrage is an irrigation structure built in 1850 by a British engineer, Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton. Earlier to the construction of the barrage, the place used to be constantly flooded and unworthy of anything. This 3.5kms long barrage then allowed the floods to pass through and enriched the place making the unused land worthy of cultivation. It was rebuilt in 1970 and renamed as Sir Arthur Cotton Barrage or Godavari Barrage.

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?