Tag Archives: Temples of South India

A gastronomic walk tour of South Bengaluru

You have probably read my earlier post on exploring the offbeat landmarks of Old Bengaluru. Here is another one. This time, it was a culinary trip of Old Bengaluru to a friend who had flown down to this southern metropolis, from the so-called Northern part of India. I had been asked to take him on a gastronomic tour of my city. For someone who has a penchant for everything old school, I thought Old Bengaluru would be perfect to call it a day. ‘From vintage automobiles, architecture, iconic restaurants serving traditional recipes to by lanes and alleys that narrate their own individual story of the city, this section of Bengaluru has everything that would tickle a bone or two of this mad man’, I thought.

Having largely spent my teenage in North Bengaluru and given my familiarity with the area, Malleswaram was my first choice. However, given the convenience of commutation from my current place of stay, I chose to show him around South Bengaluru. But when one says South Bengaluru, it is a world in itself and the geographical area is large to fit all in one day. Hence, I took time to mark a quick map of restaurants to cover, along with giving a peak into the cultural heart of the city. This part of the metro lays in stark contrast to the Bengaluru, that the millennials from Whitefield and Marathahalli know of.

The obvious choice was a walk tour of Basavanagudi and the Pete area. These are the two most important clusters of true Bengaluru that have held onto the roots, despite the rapid and traumatic transition this city has seen in the last decade in the name of urbanization and modernization. Under the canopy of massive native trees, the aroma of the by-two filter kaapis shared at the numerous Shanti Sagar and darshini food joints, the air here feels different from anywhere else. With almost every street dotted with Classical dance and music schools and happy nonagenarian couples whizzing in their Padminis and Ambassadors, it has a different vibe here. One can find some of the traditional old houses and landmark restaurants only in these localities to really experience old Bengaluru. Each of these iconic eateries have a near century old history and their old school ambience is still intact inside the heritage structures that house them. With a small appetite for food and a big quest for exploration, the portions of food were limited only to the signature dishes of each restaurant, to accommodate more places. So, here is my itinerary of a gastronomic tour of Bangalore of yore.

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The Big bull temple, Basavanagudi

Meet-up point: Basavanagudi is the name of a temple (It translates to ‘Bull- Temple’). Basavanagudi is the name of a locality in South Bangalore, named after the temple. It is an extension of the Pete area, which was specifically created to accommodate the upper class, and more-specifically the Brahmin community. No trip to South Bengaluru is complete without a visit to this landmark temple built by Kempegowda, the founder of Bengaluru. Apart from the Big Bull temple, the Dodda Ganapathi and the Bugle rock (a small watch tower from the Kempegowda era) are a must visit on the same premises. If you time it up well, you can part-take in the annual groundnut fair in the locality. (Read here to know more about the history of the Kadlekai Parishe). After meeting my friend here, we started our gastronomic tour to our first food stop.

Food stop 1 (Breakfast): As synonymous as Dosa is with South India, Vidyarthi Bhavan is with South Bengaluru. Ask anyone for the best Dosa in the city and this place scores on top unanimously. It is a restaurant started initially to cater to the student community of the area which started a new culture of a hangout place for friends in those days. On most days, the queue can extend well up to a kilometer. My friend and I wiped off our plates of their signature Masala dosa for breakfast. (Click here to read further about the history of Vidyarthi Bhavan)

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Vidyarthi bhavan, Basavanagudi

Food stop 2 (Light eats): No foodie who visits Bangalore is satisfied without taking an evening walk on the Eat street at VV-Puram. However, I decided to go here in the morning, in order to avoid the maddening rush. Honey cake and Congress bun at the iconic VB Bakery was what we needed. This is the first Iyengar bakery to be established in Karnataka which has paved a new culture in baking (Read here for more about V.B.Bakery). Avarebele (Val bean) is a favorite ingredient of the Bengalureans, who have a dedicated annual fair to celebrate this pulse (Click here to read further about Avarekai mela). Hence, picking up a packet of avarebele mixture for home from one of the stores there was an obvious choice.

Food stop 3 (11 o clock, coffee): It is an important break time for the employed section of the society. Brahmin’s Coffee bar is a household name for their filter coffee and the delectable chutney served with idly on their very limited menu. This tiny eatery is in a corner of Shankarapuram, which is also famed for the Shankaramatha, a learning center of the advaitha philosophy. We had a quick stopover for a hot cuppa this little place is known for, before heading to Pete. (Read further about Brahmin’s coffee bar here)

Food stop 4 (Lunch): To satiate the hunger pangs, I planned to treat my friend with an authentic Bangalorean affair. With multiple theories surrounding the origin of the military hotel culture, the history of these restaurants dotting across the southern part of Karnataka is unclear. Bangalore is home to some of the best in the state. I don’t think there would be any better meal than ‘Ragi Mudde oota’ savored at a military hotel to get a peek into the local flavor, including the ambience. Hence, we were lunching that afternoon at S.G. Rao’s military hotel, located in the cotton Pete area. A typical military hotel meal includes Kaal soup, Ragi Mudde and Mutton biriyani. (Click here to read further about S.G. Rao’s military hotel)

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S.G.Rao’s military hotel, cottonpete

Food stop 5 (dessert): A meal is complete only with a nice dessert. If there is one sweet meat that is synonymous with Karnataka (Mysore state), it is Mysore pak. Since I couldn’t take my guest to Mysore for that, the closest I could get is at Sri Venkateshwara sweet meat stall located at Bale Pete, a short walk away from cotton Pete. Their Mysore pak and dumroot are the sweets my friend packed for his roommates back in his hometown. (Click here to read about Sri Venkateshwara sweet meat stall).

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Sri Venkateshwara sweet meat stall, Balepete

The Pete walk: An old Bengaluru exploration is nothing without a walk along the narrow snaking lanes of the Pete area, the true business epicenter of both New and Old Bengaluru. This area is segmented into various sections and named according to the commodity sold and the communities that resided there in the yester years. From green groceries, handloom, steel, plastic to precious metal, everything is available in this locality. An early morning walk in the famed flower market is an experience in itself. We limited ourselves to just the mainstream sections while exploring some of the ancient temples, mosques and heritage houses of the Kempegowda era. In the meanwhile, we kept munching on numerous snacks from several popular stalls on our way. Although these eateries are old, the flavors are largely north Indian, owing to the Marwari and Baniya community that reside here in majority.

The heritage structures of the Victoria hospital, Bangalore fort and Tippu Sultan’s summer palace all lay on the side of the road for the history and architecture buffs who have a little more time in hand. But this is all we could fit in our day. Thus, ended a gastronomic tour of South Bengaluru.

I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour with me too… did you? Or did you not? Share your thoughts with me…

There are many other iconic restaurants in Basavanagudi if you have a larger appetite. These are a few other places that you must check out when you are here: The new modern hotel, Mahalakshmi Tiffin room, Janata Tiffin rooms  are a few among many others.

Souvenirs to buy:

  • Coffee filter and freshly roasted coffee powder: The best filter coffee is available only in South Bengaluru, and hence my friend thought this was a more significant thing to buy from here.
  • Channapatna wooden toys: These are GI tagged handicrafts made with organic colors and largely popular in the western market, it comprises a large collection of traditional toys.

A festival to Raid the graveyard- Mayana Kollai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stalls where the body piercings and paintings will be done

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

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Men and kids dressed up like Angalamman

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

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

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

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

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

Traveling to Tirupati? Make it an interesting roadtrip

Well… Heading to seek blessings from Lord Venkateshwara at Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam? I’m not a religious person and I’m someone who seeks variety in my travels… The same route and same destination- I have sometimes felt myself being forced into a pilgrimage sort… No doubt, I have loved my general hike up the stairs to the venkateshwara hill, more for the beautiful views, stopover points like deer park, waterfalls and so many eateries all the way up. I have even tried the not-so-pious option of the quick VIP entry for the darshan. But, over time when the route becomes so predictable, even the journey kinda starts to hit you when everyone is sleeping on family vacations that are occasional and are spent on familiar roads!!! So that’s when I started to explore alternate routes and make family road trips more interesting!

While travelling to Tirupati, the usual route one tends to drive through, is the

Bangalore-KGF-Chittoor-Tirupati highway.

But the nice, straight, adventure less route has sometimes made my brother to doze off at the steering. So, the last time we planned to go, we tried taking a slightly longer but interesting route via

Bangalore-Madanapally-Horsley hills- Talakona- Tirupati.

Although this national highway was a single lane, it was absolutely scenic and had so many elements in the travelling. From barren flatlands to lush green hill stations, rustic countryside huts to erstwhile forts, scattered rocky hills to tempting mango orchards and horticultural farms, the route took us through several hues of the deccan plateau. To make it more interesting, we saw milestones with Karnataka’s Kannada and Andhra’s Telugu on either side of the same road marking the boundary of the two states. For the thought of knowing absolutely no words of the language on the other side of this state border, it felt like I was crossing an international border without a passport 😀

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The border crossing from Karnataka to Andhra Pradesh through papaya farms

So our itinerary was something like this:

  • Start from Bangalore by early morning (To avoid the traffic choc-o-bloc at KR Puram)
  • Reach Horsley hills for a late breakfast or a brunch (before the day trippers, riders and families pour in for lunch)- It is a short ride up but the view up there is worth it.
  • As we descended the hill, the drive further from there was gorgeous forcing us to take several photo stops.
  • Drive up to Talakona, the highest waterfall in Andhra. You can book your meal at the forest run jungle resort there before heading out to indulge yourself in some fun activities or getting drenched in the waterfall depending on the water level there. It is also wiser to leave from there before it is dark as it is a national park area and the wild animals get on the road post sunset (Click here for a detailed post on Talakona).
  • Reach Tirupati and take rest for the night.
  • Plan your darshan of the deity based on your convenience- a quick visit or a hike up to the temple and return to the room to rest.

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The view from Horsley hills

It is quite usual that a lot of people extend their pilgrimage until Srikalahasti. They combine the Vaishnavism faith (Lord Venkateshwara at Tirupati) and Shaivism faith (Lord Shiva at Srikalahasti) in the same trip since both are located not far from each other (More details on Srikalahasti in a separate post).

  • On the way to Kalahasti with a small deviation, is what I figured out was, that there is a 11th century fort at Chandragiri, the erstwhile capital of the Vijayanagar dynasty. It is beautiful and you will not regret the deviation.
  • Reach Kalahasti for the evening prayers and find an accommodation there.

So, are you done with the pilgrimage? Is your family feeling all blessed and happy now?

Good morning! Save your sleep for some other day and Buckle up. For I’m going to take you through a different route as you return home. You can thank me later 😉

  • Drive through eucalyptus and teak groves on a scenic off-road to reach Sullurpeta, Your only place to find decent food before you embark on a long day ahead.
  • Your next destination is 20kms away- thank me later. Drive through a straight dead road, cutting through what is the second largest Salt Lake in India- the Pulicat lake. You will love the drive and the destination.
  • Welcome, you have arrived at SHAR, Sriharikota island. India’s Large Rockets’ launching station (Click here to read my struggle to finally get there!). The space museum located on its premises is open to public with online registration. You can witness a rocket launch too if you time your trip well.
  • Coming back to the drive, on either side of this straight road you see is this never-ending stretch of salt. Depending on what season you are traveling, you will be warmly greeted by bright white dried salt flats or brackish molten salt. Spend some time at the watch tower there and you will not be disappointed by the variety of migratory birds you encounter. The entire area is declared as the Pulicat birds’ sanctuary.

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Top: Lake Pulicat enroute to SHAR in winter; Lake in Summer

Got fuel? Drive another 60 kms. to a tiny fishing hamlet called Pulicat located towards Chennai. The Pulicat lake is situated between two states, Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Flamingoes and Pelicans are a highlight here along with several other migratory birds that flock the swampy lake every season. Get yourself a boat ride with the local fisherman there and he will take you around the swamy waters. Watching the sunset at the beach will be a perfect way to wind up your day!

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The birds at Lake Pulicat

From Pulicat, you can take one of the below three highways to head back home:

  1. Drive through Tada and follow google maps to reach the Chittoor highway. Tada has a waterfall to visit and some decent places to stay overnight. It is a village/ township created for the tribes who were relocated from the Sriharikota island when the space station was established and human settlements had to be cordoned off in that island.
  2. Drive further bit to Chennai and take the highway with a pilgrimage / shopping stop at Kanchipuram (Click here to read about places to visit in Kanchipuram)
  3. Take the Vellore route with a stop at the Vellore fort and the Golden temple of Lakshmi. Yelagiri is a popular hill station among the urbanites and is just a short drive away from Vellore. I will personally not recommend it as I did not find worth in taking the effort to deviate from the highway.

If you wish to choose option 2 or 3 to reach Bangalore, do not forget to stuff yourself with some good Biriyani at Ambur, Bon appetite!

Ok, I know this is quite an elaborate itinerary which I usually don’t write about. But I did so, thinking it might help a lot of you out there who text me asking trip ideas from Bangalore. You can skip the temples if you are looking only for an offbeat drive route and I’m sure you will enjoy it.

Or do you want me to customize the itinerary based on fewer or more days you have at your disposal? Drop in your requests, doubts and comments below. I will be glad to help you 😊

Celebrating a mountain wedding in the Himalayas at Geu

The weather had gotten colder and windier when I woke up that morning at the Nako homestay. The met department had issued an alert for a possible snowfall in the next 48hours. After finishing my breakfast, I decided to head further up the highway. My intention was to drop by a village named Geu, enroute and reach Tabo for the night’s stay. Geu is a small deviation from the highway with no direct connectivity of public transportation. I enquired with a couple of people at Nako for a taxi and I was offered a round trip for Rs.4000. I didn’t want to return and having to pay that amount even for a drop seemed more since I was on a budget trip. I decided to take a chance and go there by myself. I boarded the next public bus until Geu cross and hoped to hitch a ride to Geu or hike up the 8kms road leading to the village. ‘Why so much adventure?’, one may ask curiously. “I wanted to see a mummy in India, the unknown, for which Indians travel to afar countries.” Not many people know that there are about five mummies in India itself, out of which the one I was going to see is of a Buddhist Llama. It is believed to be over 500 years old and has been there in the open without any preservatives.

After alighting at the Geu Cross, I waited at the small bridge for about half an hour, hoping for a ride. As the cold winds were getting harder to stand, I decided to start walking up the trodden road with my backpack. Just then, a pick-up truck came in honking behind me. I put my hand forward signalling them to stop. The driver told me that he was sorry as the seats were filled with more people than what it could accommodate. It seemed to me like they were a large family, all dressed up in their ethnic Kinnauri attire. I told them it was Ok for me if they let me sit in the trailer. “The weather isn’t good outside. You will feel cold.” He politely said out of concern. I told them I’d be fine and hopped on after he nodded an approval.

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The Buddhist shrine atop the hill at Geu

The drive along the next 7kms to Geu was as insane as it could get. The super bumpy road runs parallel to a river in a scenic yet landslide prone barren land. Hence, there is no tarmac and is filled with rocks and gravel all the way. If not the thick layer of thermals and my balaclava, I would look like a zombie doused in south-Indian sambar. I mean, there was a thick layer of dust all over me from head to toe, all thanks to the open trailer and dry winds. It was already noon when I reached Geu. The family with whom I had got a lift until there, invited me to join them for lunch. They had come there to attend the wedding of a family member, they said. It was a small hamlet with about 15 households and no hotels or restaurants. When I turned down their invitation telling I had to head back asap after seeing the mummy, they insisted me to join them in the celebrations and that something can be managed for the night’s stay. I nodded an unsure okay!

Next thing I saw myself doing was being guided into the dining hall with a grand welcome alongside a traditional Kinnauri Band baaja. The meal served mainly comprising of wheat bread, dry fruits and nuts was healthy and simple as per the norms of rest of India where a wedding food is usually heavy on ghee, oil and sweets. The welcome drink too was a subtle namak wali chai, being served from a centrally placed firewood oven in the dining hall. I was force-fed and taken care of as if I were a part of their family (and the village itself). There is always this special thing about the people in the hills, their hospitality would have no match. After the meal, the Bride’s village got ready to welcome the groom to Geu. He belonged to Hurling village. It was an evening of colour, music, dance and fun. I got to experience a tradition which I had never heard of until that evening… Just a couple of hours ago, it was not even in my faintest thoughts that I’d be dancing in the mountains along with the baraatis (the wedding convoy, as it is called in India). What an unbelievable experience!

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The Kinnauri women in their traditional ceremonial costume

After the baraatis were taken inside the house, A few villagers and I walked up the small hill where exists a Buddhist shrine. The mummy is housed in a small room alongside the shrine whose key was taken from one of the caretakers at Geu. When I got there, I was rather surprised to see this mummy comfortably sitting in the open room…. With no preservatives, no wrapped fabric and just a small glass case to keep it away from direct human touch of the visitors, it is still very much intact. Its hair and nails are believed to be still growing. While the locals with me offered their prayers to this mummy Llama, I was watching this INCREDIBLE piece of science and faith!

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The mummy Llama

With the setting sun and dropping temperature, the winds were getting stronger and we all headed back to the house. Each house was filled with so much chit-chatting and laughter going on, around the central fireplace where the guests were munching on the local snacks and hot brews. I was accommodated in a large warm room at the village’s only guesthouse. My stay was sorted for the day and I heaved a sigh of relief for the faint doubt I had until I had a confirmed place to stay.

Very unusual to a regular day in the mountains where all villages sleep early, the celebrations had only begun at 07.00.p.m. to say the least. The evening faded into night and the night became morning… The wedding was an all-night affair. There was food, drinks, dance, songs and so much fun as in any wedding. Everyone had lost sense of the freezing temperatures outside the hall. What was surprising? While there was so much fun and frolic inside the wedding hall, the men in uniform from the Border Security Force continued to perform their duties outside, walking around the village keeping vigil on infiltrators. “The Chinese territory lies just behind this hill”, a localite explained. “We have our kith and kin who are married off there. They are all Kinnauri and share exactly same culture as us. Sadly, they can’t come here to join the festivities because they are Chinese. It is not that we don’t meet, Chup-Chup-ke koi climbs the hill and comes here and goes off there occasionally. That’s why the BSF is here”, he said. It was 02.00.a.m. when I returned to the guest house with a few others to get some sleep before a long day that followed.

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The Kinnauri men in their traditional ceremonial costume

I woke up at sunrise the next morning and got myself ready with my backpack. I had to find transportation and hence wait until someone was heading out of the village. From 07.00.a.m., I was walking up and down the village street because I had to keep burning calories to keep myself warm. The villagers noticed me and insisted me to have breakfast with them. Just as I was washing my plate, I heard a car. The Maruti 800 was already carrying more than its capacity. As I continued to wait, another pickup truck ignited its engine. It too was full. Yet, I found another pickup. The driver said he would go only after all the members came. I said I will wait with him for them to come. A good half an hour and three cups of tea later, the members finally arrived. I was again seated in the trailer with a couple of others on our way out. This time, the cold windy, dusty and bumpy drive was accompanied with some nice warm conversations with the mountain people. We arrived at Hurling; the groom’s house was a short hike up the hill from the main road. The family insisted me to tag along with them for the second day too. “You have seen only half of the ceremonies at the Bride’s village. Now, the convoy with the couple will arrive here to continue the celebrations at the groom’s house. We came early to see that all arrangements are in place before the rest arrive. Please join us.” They insisted. Hurling was halfway to my next destination- Tabo. As tempting as the invitation sounded to experience a complete mountain wedding, the fear of getting stranded in a snowfall made me decide to find a way to reach Tabo asap!

Thus, ended an experience of a lifetime- A wedding in the mountains! There is always magic in these mountains and its people that will keep calling me back again and again!

A Land where Art is Divine- Pathanamthitta

Dense canopy of trees, swaying coconut palms, houseboats cruising through the pristine backwaters, wooden canoes of the locals fishing in narrow canals- Well, does this paint a picture of Gods own country? When opportunity struck, I decided to give the usual things a miss and explore a region that is least spoken about in the tourist circuit. A land where art is considered divine and celebrated in all its form- Pathanamthitta.

First thing I did while approaching Pathanamthitta was lowering all the windows of my car, to breathe in some clean air. With almost two third of the district comprising of forest cover, it is no wonder that Pathanamthitta is the least polluted city in India. The remaining one third is a combination of the city and plantations. We were heading to the homestay we had booked, not very far from the city centre. It was nestled in what the locals call as a residential area that was far from imagination of a city soul. The narrow roads were flanked by rubber, tapioca and banana plantations for most stretch and marsh lands for the rest. Bunches of jackfruits hung down from tall trees among several other tropical trees like litchi, rambutan etc. that had the fruit lover in me all drooling. My stay was at a traditional Kerala house nestled amidst a huge garden. Its wooden portico with clay tiled roof had me fancy struck.

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Enroute to the homestay

Surprisingly for me, Pathanamthitta hosts some of the largest annual religious congregations in the world. The Sabarimala yatra and Maramon convention are next only to the Haj. Giving a pass to the famous backwaters of Kerala, I had driven this far to explore its vibrant and divine culture and art. My plan for the first day was to visit two of the 108 Divyadesams, both located in Pathanamthitta. I had arrived at the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple, particularly for a tour of a foundry that makes the historical ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ (Click to watch the video).

This GI tagged handicraft is culturally important in the state of Kerala. The know-how of making it is endemic to Aranmula and limited to the descendants of only one family who now live around this temple. Unlike the familiar glass mirrors, these are finely polished metal sheets. Watching these men toiling in their workshop to bring an alloy to life, which is integral in all Malayali celebrations was like living a dream for me.

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Left: moulded metal sheet before polishing; Right: Polished & finished mirror

A short drive away from there was my next destination: Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple. With its ancient wooden architecture, this beautiful temple sprawls on a huge area. Here, the prayers are offered five times a day and the last prayer was specifically that interested me the most to visit here. Kathakali is performed inside the temple premises everyday as a form of prayer to put the deity to sleep. I was like a little child in wonderland who lost track of time watching this performance that went late into the night.

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A traditional Kathakali setup at the Kochi international airport

An early morning drive to Gavi or Konni elephant camp is what I was recommended for finding a piece of nature. Charalkunnu, Kakki reservoir, Perunthenaruvi waterfalls are few of the other nearby places that tourists usually visit. But I decided against it all and while away some time exploring the neighbourhood of my homestay before checkout. It was as calm and peaceful as anywhere else. While sipping a cup of Kattan chai, I was reminded of my previous trip to Alleppey. Hundreds of wooden canoes measuring over 100 feet, long enough to be called snake boats, gather from across Kerala to compete for the coveted title. Each boat carries at least hundred oarsmen, all singing the Vanchipattu in chorus. Breathing the heavy air filled with anxiety of the spectators, it was a lifetime experience. Like Alleppey, Aranmula too hosts one of the largest boat races in Kerala. The Aranmula race is held on the last day of Onam as a celebration of Lord Krishna crossing river Pampa.

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The oarsmen ‘”Women” from Alleppey

I had planned my return route to Kochi such that I could cover some of the interesting landmarks along the way. The first stop was at Kalloppara, where an ancient Hindu inscription exists inside a church. I had read about how two faiths co-exist under the same roof that houses a Bhagavati temple and a Mary’s church. But my drive through the streets of a residential area ended at a bridge that connected Kalloppara. It had collapsed during the floods that ravaged Kerala last year. Having three rivers flowing through it, Pathanamthitta was one of the worst affected.

I hit the main road again and headed to Thiruvalla. Since it was dark the previous night, I was there again to have a look at the famed mural paintings on the altar of the Paliakkara Church. The church at Paliakkara and Niranam (my next destination) both have their history dating back to the arrival of St.Thomas in India in 54.A.D. This trip was all about an amalgamation of art and tradition. Be it wildlife, religion, architecture, history, art or culture, I believe Pathanamthitta has something for everyone.

(P.S.: I’m against the idea of taking photos inside any place of worship, as a form of respect to its sanctity. Hence, I do not have any pictures from the interiors of any place of worship)

Fact File:

  • How to reach: The nearest airports are at Kochi and Trivandrum. Kottayam and Alleppey are the nearest Railway stations. KSRTC buses and taxis are available from these places to reach Pathanamthitta by road.
  • Get around: local buses are quite frequent; Taxis can be easily availed.
  • Best time to visit: September to May (Anytime apart from monsoon)
  • Stay: Luxury hotels are sparse. Cheap and Budget hotels are available in plenty considering the pilgrims who come here for Sabarimala yatra. Homestays are available to experience the true essence of Kerala.
  • Must do: Attend a Kathakali performance, visit a mirror foundry, Bathe elephants at Konni.

The Mountains beckon in the Apple valley of India- Kinnaur

I wasn’t sure if solo-traveling would be safe in Chhattisgarh, the campsite wasn’t ready yet for a Gujarat trip, Rajasthan had the election around the corner albeit having the perfect weather, the public transportation system wasn’t convenient in Arunachal, Uttarakhand had unpredictable weather of late, Jammu was done just last year, Dharamshala stretch would be too mainstream, Lakshadweep was too short a trip for the time I had. Maybe I should just settle down with the Sahyadris in Maharashtra or sign up for a fortnight long yoga session at Rishikesh or a Yakshagana course at Mangalore perhaps! I had tele-travelled almost the whole of India to decide where I wanted to go. And then, this happened! Just 4 days before departure, the mountains beckoned and I had finally decided to visit the Kinnaur valley in Himachal Pradesh.

Nothing was clear to me apart from the to & fro flights to Delhi. People around me were busy and my vacations couldn’t wait, lest they be lapsed without pay or without use. Although not very keen on solo travelling, I think that’s how life threw itself upon me when I longed to go to the mountains! The mountains have always been kind to me and have had me meeting them regularly over the last 4 years. I don’t know the reason for this special bond I share with the mountains. May be because I come from a nature worshipping community, that my connection with them is so instant and strong. The mountains had me amidst them yet again. From being a shy kid at ice breaking in public gatherings to having done a complete solo backpacking in an off-season, to meeting and hanging out with strangers and making new friends from travels, my journeys have brought me a long way! The mountains have been kind and have protected me all the way…

Given that I would be alone and I get muscle cramps when the temperature drops, the one thing I had to make sure while planning my trip was to not push myself too hard to see too many places or do anything that could drain me out. Hence, I decided to do it one place at a time, plan my next destination only after reaching a place and move only when I felt like I had sunk in well in the current place. So that said and Kinnaur had me there! After I had reached Himachal, there was absolutely no fear of being a solo-women traveller and no worries over safety concerns at any point of time. The people were amazing who derive their strength from their deep values… From being stopped by random locals on the road and being offered the juiciest apples from the valley to eating local food and getting invited to houses for coffees, from befriending the locals and then to being invited to attend a traditional Kinnauri wedding, from waiting for the day’s only public bus or hitch a ride to having stuck in a place for 3 days without any electricity or transportation due to snowfall, from meditating in the millennium old monastery to confronting a mummified Llama in the mountains, from driving past a valley of green-rock-and-sand onward to having returned through the same valley painted white in snow, from being seen-off by a close friend at the trip start to I seeing-off a stranger at the end of the trip: Whoa! What a journey it was!

So, the route taken by me was: Delhi-Kalka-Shimla- Sangla-Rakchim-Chitkul-Sangla- Reckong Peo-Kalpa- Nako- Geu- Tabo- Rampur- Sarahan- Shimla- Delhi. Some of the key destinations enroute and things I did were:

• The trip started with the ‘Himalayan queen’ train from Delhi and then I connected to the mountain railways from Kalka to Shimla, a part of the UNESCO World heritage. Stopping at several stations enroute, a ride in the loco thugging along the narrow-gauge through in-numerous tunnels and winding pathways in between the green pine laden cliffs and verdant hills was worth an experience.

• The hustle of the desi music blasting at full volume had filled the atmosphere as the HPSRTC bus I boarded at Shimla cruised through thickets of sweet smelling Juniper and deodar. A solo snow laden peak emerged from amidst the green mountains. Call it layers of dew laden and mist covered hills, they sparkled as the sun’s early rays found their way forming several vibrant spectrums as the morning ride gave me the first glimpse of a horizon that had a never-ending line of snow-capped mountains.

• When the bus alighted at Sangla after making its way through steep gradient, blind corners and breath-takingly scary heights of the snaking roads, the sun was calling it a day. It had cast a golden red glow to the entire range of Kinnaur Kailash mountains. I couldn’t have asked for more as I stood there to be welcomed by this magnificent view right in front of the bus stand. The hike up the Kamru fort to catch the golden peaks up close was a cherry on the icing.

• The next day was an exhilarating bus ride through the Sangla valley, overlooked by the Kailash mountains on one side and the beloved untamed Baspa river flowing below. The ride was adventurous with waterfall and river crossing, cliff-hangers, landslides and occasional sightings of mountain goats or yaks. Quick stop-over at Batseri village painted in shades of crimson, chrome to ochre with the trees of apples, apricots and walnuts was a feast to the eyes. A walk down to the river at Rackcham helped me to connect with the Kinnauris with very warm conversations. They offered me a ride through apple orchards and buck wheat farms before meeting the sole Indian tricolour waving at Chitkul, a village bordering China & Tibet.

• The following morning, I started early to Kalpa- a quaint tiny village with old traditional houses amid the Kinnaur apple farms. A solo hike through the suicidal roads to Roughi village turned out to be special when a random dog decided to accompany me all the way. Again, the setting crimson sun cast its magical spell over the manifestations of Shiva and Parvathi seated conveniently in the Kinnaur Kailash mountains overlooking the village. With the chants from the Buddhist monastery next door and swaying prayer flags as I looked out of my window the next morning, I couldn’t ask for a better start for my day.

• That day, I did a bit of shopping and grooving to traditional Kinnauri music with the locals at Reckong Peo, the ‘Gateway to Kinnaur valley’. It was the annual fair where people from all over the state had congregated to buy and sell local Agri-products and handicrafts apart from sipping the local apple brew. Packets of pine-nuts, dried apples and apricots along with the traditional Kinnauri hats were perfect souvenirs to take back before boarding the bus to my next destination.

• This road is when the landscape starts to surprise you. The green canopies make way to steep rocky cliff-hangers. The on-going construction of the Karcham Wangtoo dam only warns you to be aware of shooting stones where landslides are as common as confronting vehicles from the opposite direction on the single-track road. And then, the Rocky mountains disappears suddenly making way for barren landscapes with sand and loose rock laden cliffs. The blue Sutlej river snaked between the valley and the view of the treacherous roads winding around the steep gradient hills was indeed a sight to behold! It was pitch dark and biting cold when I alighted at Nako, to check into a homestay under the clearest star-studded night’s sky.

• Although the weather had gotten more colder, it was one of the finest mornings so far. A walk around the village of Nako, with mud-smeared walls of houses built of wood and clay is one of the highlights of my entire trip. While strolling through those narrow walkways of the village, I felt as if I was exploring a maze. With the early morning vibes of a typical village with cattle roaming around, children walking down to schools, chants and incense from the ancient monastery rising in the dew laden air, it was an altogether different world there. The view of the distant snow-capped mountains and the barren winding landscape around had me spellbound for the rest of the day.

Next destination was Geu, a village that can be reached only if luck be by one’s side. Having no direct connectivity through public transportation, I waited on the highway hoping to hitch a ride to a place that is often cut-off due to landslides. It was wedding bells chiming in this tiny hamlet that day… I was fortunate, to say the least! A large family heading towards Geu not only obliged to offer me a ride in the trailer of their crowded goods carrier, they also invited me to be part of the celebrations. From being treated with the finest Kinnauri delicacies to dancing with the baraathies in a traditional mountain wedding, I could not ask for more. It was an all day and all night affair!

• I woke up in the biting cold next morning to hike up the hill and pay a visit to the mummy of a Buddhist monk, believed to be over a 500yrs old. Strangely, it has been there in open atmosphere without any chemicals and among the only few mummies available in India. Quick breakfast at the wedding house and I was good to head out by hitching another ride until Hurling.

• The weather had gotten worse that day with a forecast of precipitation by day end. As I waited at Hurling for my next ride, the guy making rotis at a hotel offered me a cup of free chai and got me a free drive with his customer to my next destination. With a loaded car and a person with a broken leg hanging out of the rear seat, the people who agreed to drop me were more than sweet to accommodate me in the front seat and they carry my backpack on their lap all the way in the rear seat.

• So then… Tabo happened! This was the place I had been looking forward to all the way. Considered to be one of the holiest places for the Tibetan Buddhists, I sunk into meditation mode for good few hours with the soothing fragrance of the Juniper interiors of this millennium old monastery constructed out of clay. It was BLISS and I can’t explain it further. The millennium old paintings all over its inner walls and roofs, the golden manuscripts were something incredible. Since artificial light sources are believed to damage the organic colours, I eagerly waited for specific time of the day for the sun to light up specific rooms to see this wonder. It is called the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’ for a reason, you see!

• The morning when I woke up, the mountains had moved closer to me with a heavy overnight snowfall. This was a sight to which the heart of a snow-deprived-south-Indian-city girl in me had skipped a beat. I had to extend my stay at this monastery due to heavy snowfall for next 2 days and with no electricity, phone connectivity and no plumbing that worked whatsoever, it was ‘THE” time! Amid all this, I had the rare opportunity to relish the Tabo apples (one of the best in the world) every day of what was being offered to the deity at the monastery.

• Finally, after getting my drive back to Shimla- I had plans to stop by at Rampur Bussahr to see the erstwhile palace and stay at Sarahan, one of the Shakthi peethas in the foothills of the Himalayas. But, the mountains had an altogether different itinerary for me for the last 3 days! So, thus was my sojourn in the Himalayas, the mighty incredible Himalayas!

Since Rohtang pass had closed by end of monsoon, I did only Kinnaur and half Spiti and returned the same way back (Although a little hectic with 3 days required only for travel, on the same route). If you are traveling in the summers, then you can start from Shimla and complete Spiti & Lahaul via Kaza and exit from Manali, thereby not repeating your route.

Summary: With the changing landscape throwing surprises at the wink of an eye, each mile was magic. The valleys were overwhelmingly beautiful! When the mountains beckon, just pack your junk and head out! The destination doesn’t count, the journey is worthwhile!

This article is featured in Deccan Herald’s Travel supplement: ‘DH Travel’ on 25-May-2019

Exploring the backwaters of Karnataka- Thonse

Although the places that I choose to write about may not stand a chance to be compared with the Sundarbans or the Pichavaram forests… None the less- The Arabian sea coast has its own share of beautiful places in terms of its mangrove creeks. And while Kerala is synonymous with its enchanting backwaters, Karnataka too has its fair share of backwater system which is still untouched and yet to be explored… Through my innumerous journeys in this coastal stretch, I don’t remember a time when I did not put my neck out to be tantalized by the view of the backwaters as I passed on those bridges that fall in between Mangalore and Udupi. So, this time I had set aside one weekend exclusively to explore these lesser known places of the west coast and mark myself in those remote places on the map-of-India.

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First things first- Having good connectivity, taking the public transport to reach these places has its own experience, the way I enjoyed my trip. But I strongly recommend having own vehicle to these places given the hassle of waiting for a ride, given the remoteness of the place and the joy of riding through such a beautiful stretch of road be best enjoyed on a two-wheeler only. That said, I had reached Udupi by an overnight bus and stayed at a hotel close to the Krishna temple. I freshened up and headed to the service bus stand located at a walkable distance to the hotel. Click here for more weekend trips from bengaluru

The entire district of Udupi is dotted by innumerous temples and churches and hence, I prefer not to make a mention of them in this post. There is no dearth of local buses to any place within the coastal belt of Karnataka and hence, I relied totally on them for my commutation. All set to explore Thonse, I boarded a bus that passed through Kallianpur village which was once part of the Vijayanagara empire. The ruins of an old laterite fort stands testimony to that era. My first stop was at Kemmannu. A short walk on a meandering road through coconut plantations took me to a serene system of backwater canals connected to river Swarna. A suspension bridge has been laid across the river and set in an idyllic location of mangrove creeks. The oarsman suggested to take a boat ride in the high tides either for sunrise or sunset and that the delta beach would look brilliant at that time. I got a ride in a country boat around several islets in the backwaters of river Swarna that was good opportunity for birding and a pleasant experience of sailing in the lap of nature.
Click here for more weekend trips from bengaluru

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The suspension bridge at Kemmannu

From there, I took a walk back to the main road where the harbored boats beside a broken bridge caught my attention. There was something amusing happening down there at the canals. I felt as if I was unfortunately experiencing a bioluminescent spectacle in daylight. The sight was something I had never seen before. On a closer look, I realized that the canal was filled endlessly with jelly fishes of various colours and sizes. After spending some time there videographing the sight, I boarded the bus to my next destination- Kodi bengre.

This small fishing hamlet is located on a narrow strip of land mass, placed geographically between river Swarna and the Arabian sea. While your heart will surely skip a beat at the first sight of the vastness of the sea at Hoodi beach, a deviation to the right which narrows into the village offers an experiential ride right until the estuary at Bengre beach. The tip of land is a great place for sunset viewing and enjoying the silence with the waves.. The several shacks in the hamlet serves freshly caught sea food served spicy hot which is something not to be missed while you’re there!

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Then, I took a bus to the coast that we had deviated from at Hoodi beach. With a quick ride through country roads flanked with traditional sea facing mansions, we reached Malpe beach. This being a popular tourist place, it was bustling with activities including various water sports. We walked down to the fish market / port area, away from the crowd- and got a good sight of the setting sun. There is a dedicated ferry service from the jetty to the Saint Mary’s Island for those seeking for a day trip which I personally recommend for anyone who is visiting this coastal town. It’s a great place and there is enough information available all over the net to get there… If you are driving your own vehicle, then I recommend you to take the Pithrody route to reach back the Udupi town. This will complete your coastal stretch of Udupi giving you an experience of driving through yet another estuary and delta- that’s formed by river Udyavara and the Arabian sea.

You can compliment your beach trip with a visit to the Krishna temple and the seven Mathas that are associated with the temple administration. Top it up with delectable Udupi chaats and the famous Gadbad ice-cream that saw its origin in this coastal town.