Tag Archives: tradition

Tracing the abode of celestial congregation- Kollur

While I was flipping through the old photos of my college days, I was taken back in time to this so-called ‘Industrial trip’. This class trip consisted of trekking, pilgrimage, beaching and lastly, not to forget our industrial visit (If time permitted!).  Basically, it was less of industries and more of tripping. So here goes the first part of the so called ‘Not-so-Industrial-Trip’.

Although I had walked for miles to reach places during my school days, this was my first ‘Official’ trek! A trek in the ‘Kodachadri hills’ in Malnad region of the western ghats.. After a real long bus journey, we alighted at the Nittoor forest checkpost late in the evening. We got the permission from the forest officials for the night’s camping ahead at the old forest guesthouse. We parked our bus there and got into the 4WD jeeps that were waiting for us since early evening. There is NO road from Nittor to the guest house, it’s only a muddy pathway. And in monsoon, it makes way for a deep trench kinda massive slush pool. This stretch can be covered by various modes based on each person’s interest. You can walk up or drive or ride.. The more adventurous people choose the latter; cycling comes with the greatest challenge with every inch posing the risk of getting stuck in the slush or having a flat.. We chose the safest- The Jeep ride. But, driving through such terrain calls for great skill of steering control, lest have at least 7-8 people thrown off-road. That said, it was a crazy drive up the hill until we reached the guesthouse in the darkness of 10~11.00.p.m.

We could barely stand because of the strong winds, so one can imagine our next task of pitching tents.. We called off the idea of camping under the moonlight as we struggled to hold the tents firmly in our hands due to the wind. That’s when we had to camp indoors 😛 We had only a roof above us and no mats or sleeping bags.. So that’s why we pitched the tents inside the guesthouse hall for the rest of the night.

We woke up early next morning and started our trek up the Kodachadri hill.. Our trek consisted two target activities- one was to reach the Stone mantap for sunrise and the second was to take a shower in the Hidlumane waterfall.  We did not hire a guide as the organisers claimed their familiarity with the route. The sight all the way till the mantap was beautiful and the sunrise and the Arabian Sea at the distant horizon just added up to the sight! The climb was great with an eyeful of the valley that was in all bloom with colourful flowers of the wild. After, a brief walk further up, we reached the Mantapa. This place is claimed to be the spot where Shankaracharya is said to have spent few days at. After spending some time in the plains and the peak of the hill, we got set for the decent.

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The Kodachadri hills- Overlooking the Arabian sea

The decent was towards the waterfall. With the decent, we slipped, jumped down, clung onto wild creepers in the event of finding our way to the waterfall amidst the thicket of the forest. Somewhere, we had already started to realize that we were lost in the forest. The thumb rule of finding the way out of a forest is to follow a flowing water body. The organisers followed the sound of flowing water and we followed them. We stopped by a small cave like structure en route, where someone had installed an idol of Lord Ganesha and offered some flowers. We prayed for our safe exit out of the forest and continued with our pursuit of the waterfall. So we finally reached at the source of the flowing water Sure it was a waterfall.. But ain’t the mighty one we thought of. It was a stream that was directed to a storage tank by the localites and the tank was overflowing forming a waterfall!! Neither the organisers nor the others knew how to react and felt happy that we had found some pure water where we could fill our water bottles and ease ourselves out of the tiring trek that had been so far! And the decent continued along the stream cuz we were sure the tank was there for a purpose and the pipe attached would lead us back to base point. There is a small temple dedicated to Mookambika Devi here, which is believed to be the original temple that is tagged to the legend of Shankaracharya’s installation of the idol. We reached the priest’s house near the temple at the base where we had a simple-tasty breakfast. After packing our stuffs from the camp, it was time to head to our next destination Kollur.

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A view of the Arabian sea from the Kodachadri peak

People who prefer to trek further, can cover the Agnitheertham waterfalls en route to Kollur Mookambika temple. But, having had enough in the quest for a waterfall, we decided to take the bus route. The bumpy drive continued until we reached Kollur, the small temple town known for the Mookambika temple, one of the Shakti peethas. This temple is said to have been developed by the Keladi rulers later in time so that pilgrims don’t have to trek up the overlooking Kodachadri hills to worship the goddess. Another legend has it that Lord Shiva appeared before Sage Kola and agreed to be present there in the form of Linga with his consort Devi. Along with Shiva and Parvathi, all other gods and goddesses are believed to be residing in a non-form in the Linga. Hence, Kollur is referred as ‘an abode of the entire celestial congregation’. We took a little time to offer our prayers and admire this beautiful little temple built in the typical Kerala style of architecture. Post that, we proceeded to the forest guest house where we had booked our stay.

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The forest guesthouse

The guest house is located in a serene location in the middle of the ‘Mookambika wildlife sanctuary’ and on the banks of river Sowparnika. With banks I mean, just a couple of steps lie in between the guesthouse and the river. This river is frequented by spotted deers & leopards to drink water. And we were told that just the previous morning, a tiger was spotted on the same steps that we were standing on at that time! The river flowed gracefully with the crystal clear water and the school of fishes enjoying their swim in between the tree roots that grew beneath. It was a SPECIAL place to go back again indeed! We cherished every moment of our stay there while being in harmony with nature in its purest form.

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The Idol of Mookambika being taken out as a part of the daily ritual

Soon, the dawn broke the next morning awakening us to another day reminding us of our journey to the next destination- Bhadravathi. It was the last day of our tour and that meant we had to do the most important part of this trip Our Industrial visit! That’s another story altogether..

An abode of the trio- Art, cuture and history at Kanchipuram

The first thing that hits your mind when you hear this city’s name is the style that defines gorgeous, elegance, classic, royalty- The Kanjeevaram or the Kanchi silk sarees. But what goes rather un-noticed is the fact that Kanchipuram is also called a ‘City of temples’. Although the city was an erstwhile capital of the Pallavas, the influence of Pandyas, Cholas, Hoysalas and Vijayanagaras can be observed significantly in the artistic structures constructed across Kanchipuram. The city is known to be a land of 108 ancient temples all of which are unique in its art, architecture and history. Obviously, one day wouldn’t be sufficient if I had to visit each of these temples and hence, had to choose the top 10 based on mythological importance and ease of commutation given that I’m mostly a public transport dependent creature.

Mom and I were greeted with drizzling rain at the Kanchipuram bus terminus at the end of an overnight journey. We hired an autorickshaw for the entire day’s transportation around the city. Our auto driver Mr.Ravi took us to a travellers’ dormitory where we freshened up quickly so that we could reach the Kanchi Kamakshiamman temple before sunrise. This is one of the three Shakthi peethas of India and the prayers in the entire city’s temples starts only after prayers are offered here. Unlike the other temples, here an elephant and a cow are allowed inside the sanctorum to offer the first pooja to the goddess. We felt the positive energy filling us up enough to keep us going atleast for the next week ahead. Before I proceed with this write-up, please note that the City of Kanchi can be broadly classified into three- Shiva Kanchi-the holy land of the Shaivaites, the Vishnu Kanchi- the holy land of the Vaishnavaites and the Jaina Kanchi- the holy land of the Jains.

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The entrance of Shri Kaamakshiamman temple

Next up was a quick visit to Adi Kanchi temple. A relatively smaller of the 3 main temples dedicated to Parvathi in Kanchi. But, this place is considered a must if one is on a pilgrimage in Kanchipuram. Adjacent to the Adi Kanchi temple is the Kumarakottam- Murugan Swami temple where the Bramha is said to have been imprisoned by Murugan and later released after Shiva’s interference. The temple is known for the idol in the Soma Skanda posture.

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Shri Adi Kanchi- Kaali amman temple

From there, it was a holy visit to the biggest temple in the city- Ekambareshwara temple. I’d need a separate post altogether to write about the significance of this temple alone. First and foremost reason for this temple being in my itinerary is the fact that this is one of the Panchabhuta sthalas of Shiva’s manifestations. The linga here is made up of sand and hence represents Prithvi or the Earth element. This majestic temple complex houses a very sacred mango tree at its centre whose 4 branches are believed to represent 4 vedas which gives its name to the temple. Each branch bears mangoes of four different tastes(sweet, sour, bitter and spicy) in the 4 seasons. Ofcourse, I found what I was looking for. The special souvenir from Kanchi- a priceless green leaf that withered off from this holy tree right there as if the tree was communicating with me.. I was quick to pick it up and wrap it carefully to be kept in my handbag.

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Under the sacred mango tree @ Ekambareshwara temple

Next was the Varadaraja Perumal temple. We had to stand in a really long queue to get a glimpse of the main deity seated atop the elephant hill.. As if this wasn’t enough, another long queue to get to touch the sculptures of lizards that is believed to have been installed by lord Indra after he was released of the curse by goddess Saraswati. It is believed that people who have touched the 2 lizard idols in Kanchi (Golden lizard representing the sun and the silver lizard representing the moon) will be relieved of all sins that are associated with lizards. Another specialty of this temple is the fact that the wooden idol of lord Vishnu is kept deep down inside a 3 tiered well that in turn is in between a large pond at the temple entrance. The idol is taken out only once in 40 years for pooja offerings. I would recommend you to hire a guide at this complex so that you can get a better insight into the intricacies of the ornate pillars adorning a 100 pillared hall. You can find sculptures of vivid yogic postures, representation of usage of arms and ammunitions in ancient battles, musical pillars etc. which explains the rich heritage of Indian art, history and science.

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An ornate mural adorning the outer wall of the Sanctum at Varadaraja Perumal temple

Thus, with Kamkshiamman temple, Ekambareshwar temple and the Varadaraja Perumal temple, we had completed the mumurthivasam- or the abode of the trio in Kanchipuram.

Just a few meters away from here is the Ulagalandar- Chola temple. Here, Vishnu is celebrated in his Trivikrama pose or the Vamana Avatar. The main idol is a massive 30+ feet tall and the devotees can see only the legs of the Vamana moorthi. The temple itself is small but an important one for pilgrims on the Divyadesams circuit.

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The entrance tower of Ulagalandar Vishnu temple

Further from here, is the Kacchappa Eshwarar temple,  where Vishnu is seen in his Kuruma avatar or the Tortoise form, worshipping Lord Shiva. We did a quick stopover at Vaikunta Perumal temple or the Tiruparameshwara Vinnagaram, another among the 108 divyadesams. The temple houses lord Vishnu in 3 different postures- sitting, lying and standing. The corridors are decorated with fine carvings from Ramayana and Mahabhartha and fine stone pillars around the sanctorum.

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All the action @ the Kacchappa Eshwarar temple

The Kailasanathar- Pallava temple needs a special mention. It is slightly on the outskirts and hence away from the regular tourists / pilgrims circuit. It is an entire complex of intricate artwork sculpted on limestone. Although a board claims it to be a protected monument, most of the statues have eroded owing to poor maintenance. Yet, this place has a very powerful force to draw art lovers and travelers looking for an offbeat experience. One really needs to spend lot of time here to appreciate the intricacies with which legends and mythological episodes have been carved out. Don’t miss to spot the statue of laughing Parvathi and Shiva performing the thandava here.

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The limestone walls of the Kailasanathar temple

There is also the Vijayaraghava Perumal temple at about 7kms from the city center. It is one of the 108 divyadesams of Rama where he is believed to have performed the funeral rites of Jatayu- The vulture friend. Since the vulture(Pul) was burried in a pit(Kuli), this place is also called Thiruputkuli.

Not only Hinduism, the city is an important place for the Jains too.. Last in the day’s itinerary of temple tour was Trilokyanatha & Chandraprabha twin temples dedicated to lord Mahaveer at Tirupparuthikkundram. It has inscriptions belonging to Pallavas, Cholas and the Vijayanagara periods. The place houses beautiful paintings of these periods but lies in utter neglect. The place is frequented by fewer tourists and more vandals, gamblers and hawkers.

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The Kanchi Kudil – museum

Being in the city of silk handlooms and not shopping for sarees doesn’t not go down well.. and So.. Off we were… Our driver took us through the narrow bylanes of Kanchi to some of the finest weavers and their handloom workshops.. Enroute, we passed through ‘Kanchi Kudil’- an old house that has now been converted to a museum that exhibits the rich tamilian tradition. Coming back to Sarees… A spectrum of colours, heavy brocades, golden zaris , heavy pattu sarees… we were spoilt for choices… We thanked our driver Mr.Ravi heartily for taking us around the city and bearing with us so patiently as we hopped from one shop to another. We picked up some beautiful sarees in silk and cotton and returned back by an evening bus to Bangalore. Thus ended an eventful weekend…. 🙂

For a person familiar with the city’s name, his knowledge is mostly restricted only to the silk sarees. My visualisation of Kancheevaram has changed forever after this trip. For me, the abode of the trio is as an abode of art, culture and history. Sculptures, architecture, handloom, classical dance, music and all those traditional art forms of Kanchi puts up the city high up on centers of history and heritage on the map of India.

City of eternal bliss- Chidambaram

The people on the east coast are the God’s chosen ones to have a grand celebration of festivals.. Tsunami for Christmas.. Cyclones for Diwali..!! All does not go quite well for these innocent people. Almost entire city of Chennai is drowning due to the record breaking incessant rains.. and other districts along the eastern coast have suffered even worse losses.. People including patients, infants, veterans are suffering the worst among all- Travel is not a parking your butt and firing to glory setup like in Safaris. You need to move yourself to places to experience and explore. I realized this better on my recent trip along the eastern shoreline of India.

It was a bright sunny day when we started from Kumbakonam. But, like I have already mentioned in my previous post, It had been raining incessantly over the last couple of days. The original plan was to take a bus to Cuddalore town from Kumbakonam from where we would head to Pichavaram mangroves. However, by travelling to Gangaikondacholapuram, we had already covered half way to Chidambaram(Through a different route) and so we decided to continue on the same route and then take a bus to Pichavaram.

Our parents had been trying to contact us to ensure our safety and not to venture near the sea coast. We were informed that a deep depression alert had been called by the Met. Dept. in Chennai, Cuddalore and Pondicherry owing to Cyclone-Roanu in the Bay of Bengal. When we checked the news online, we got to know about the weather conditions, but since the day was bright, we did not take our Met. Quite seriously and decided to take a chance by continuing with the plan. From GK cross, we got a bus to Mannarkudi from where we were supposed to take another one. However, the conductor told us that the road was blocked the previous night due to a tree that was uprooted. Although cleared, he wasn’t sure if the route was worthy for us to go. Without really understanding the seriousness of his advice, we boarded an overly priced private bus which ferried us to Chidambaram. Our road was flanked by the Kollidam until most stretch. The river looked beautiful as the sun rays sneaking from amid the thick clouds reflected on the brown waters while she was flowing in full spate leading into the Grand Anicut which was filled till its max.limit. From there on, started an eye-opening travel saga..

Little distance ahead, we saw that the river and the road met at their corners at most turns. Gradually, the river overflowed crossing the road at some places. Our bus crossed the river at these junctions. And gradually, the water level increased covering the road for stretches in kilometers. Our driver was a real super star- who could figure out exactly where the road lied in the ground where water was above the tyre height. A slight slip in the road meant fatal where the entire bus with about 25-30 passengers could get washed away by the strong currents of the spiteful river. I had only seen such things in the news.. Now I was right there, witnessing the scene first hand: Stretches of villages laid submerged ahead. We could see the utensils floating around while the water was filled above waist level. At some places, the thatched roofs and the hay huts had given way.. Hundreds of hapless people were standing by the roadside staring at the void that the rain had created in their lives. It was a heart rendering sight. However, our driver remained focused and drove us across to reach the safe harbor at Chidambaram in just a while. If a night’s rain could wreak so much havoc, I DON’T want to imagine the condition of Tamil Nadu (especially, such remote villages) when a month’s rain poured down in just a day..!!

The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram
The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram

It was around 03.00.p.m. and we alighted right infront of the Thillai Nataraja temple at Chidambaram which remained closed until 04.00.p.m. Hence, we decided to drop the luggage at the hotel that was booked online and look out for some food since we hadn’t eaten since morning except for a pack of biscuits. When we were shown our room- we were a little perplexed. The bedsheets looked extremely old, torn and dirty. I checked the bathroom which was a bigger turn off. The toilet floor was covered with a thick layer of algae, slush and mud that had accumulated over years and unwashed ever since it was set-up. The flush lever was broken, the taps rusted and unhygienic bucket & mug. My brother and I looked at each other’s face- and both knew what was running in each other’s mind. We were feeling so suffocated inside that room and opened a window to get some air.. And there, a nasty breeze smelling heavily of booze hit our noses.. I said, “Let us keep our bags here and go around the town to find another hotel, come back and check-out”. However, my brother was apprehensive about leaving our bags there too.. But, he nodded an OK upon insisting. We were too tired to walk around with our bags all over since we were extremely hungry. We started to walk down the stairs and as if the injury wasn’t enough- I happened to step on a large mess of barf, thrown up by some drunkard on the stairs and slip down a couple of steps. I have done innumerable budget travel and THAT was the WORST EVER experience..!!

I maintained my calm but my brother gave up.. He started to pester me to go back to Bangalore. I said, “Let me first wash my feet in some clean place and visit the temple which must have opened by now; find some food and then decide.” Somewhere in my mind, I still wanted to complete my trip. But, yet wasn’t sure.

The temple is an architectural marvel, having contributions from various dynasties of the south that patronized art. Each and every stone, pillar, strut, beam and tile has either a scientific or religious significance. This temple is spread over 40acres and has 9 gateways representing 9 orifices of a human body. We entered through the west tower which is the inspiration for the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam where all the 108 postures have been carved on. The 109th posture is reserved for the Sanctum where Shiva is represented in a dancing posture.  Prayers are offered 6 times in a day and we had rightly reached there for the 4th one at 05.00.p.m. We witnessed the holy ritual of curtain parting and got a wonderful darshan of the Shiva in his three forms- The ‘Form’ as the anthropomorphic Nataraja in his Ananda Thandava posture-The posture of eternal bliss, the ‘Semi-form’ of crystalised Linga and the ‘Form-less’ as empty space representing the element ether/Akasha identified by a garland of 51 Bilwa leaves of gold adorning the empty space behind the curtain.

The Bharatanatyam postures sculpted on the walls of the west-tower of the temple
The Bharatanatyam postures sculpted on the walls of the west-tower of the temple

Legend has it that Shiva realized that he was losing a dancing competition to his wife Parvathi and scared of facing defeat to a women, performed the Oorthava thandava knowing the weakness of a women. This posture required Parvathi to lift her leg above her head level and so shied away from doing it in public. Having been frustrated with this attitude of Shiva, she decided to leave him. The furious avatar of Parvathi is worshipped at the Thillai Kaliamman kovil on the city outskirts where she is said to have been calmed down by lord Bramha and asked to stay. That is ALL there to see in Chidambaram.

Pichavaram, the second largest mangrove forest in the world lies 20kms away from this city. The thillai trees that grow here is the one that gives its first name to the Nataraja temple. It is believed that Shiva got his attire of tiger skin-moon on matt hair and serpent around his neck while he was travelling through these Thillai forests. But, due to the continued weather alert, we decided to forego the plan to continue the trip further. Then, we walked the WHOLE of Chidambaram town, and it was JUST CLOSED for Deepawali- with NO RESTAURANTS..!! The entire town was SOO DIRTY with garbage littered around everywhere.. We found only ONE supermarket open in the entire place and we got a cup of sweet corn to sate our tired souls. We decided to LEAVE the city the same night and NEVER return back. We booked our return tickets and checked out from the hotel.

One of the temple gopurams and the holy Sivaganga tank
One of the temple gopurams and the holy Sivaganga tank

Our city woes did not end there.. We had 3 hours more to kill and were told we’d find a decent restaurant near the bus stand. And so, we found this AC luxury restaurant- ‘Vandayar- Southern Spice’ serving only fried rice when we reached there at 07.00.p.m. After repeating our order thrice (for the only dish available) and 2hrs of waiting while some VIP guests were attended to with a feast of all the dishes on the menu, we walked out of the restaurant in frustration. As we walked out, there was power cut. In a dark and dingy bus-stand, we spotted the only stall that served tea and some biscuits. The little candle light was just enough for him to reach out to things in the kiosk. We were essentially scared of stamping some more muck that could’ve been laid in the path. And, then google worked- Pointing to another hotel- Saradharam right across the road. We were served tasty food quite fast and we returned to the bus stand. We were delighted with yet another surprise that our bus was delayed by 2 hrs!!! As we waited there in the dark platform of the bust stand, some drunk men started throwing glass bottles at the crowd there. Luckily no-one was injured but the downpour of bottles and splatter of glass pieces continued for a while.

Though we boarded the bus at 10.00.p.m. and caught up some sleep.. Only to be woken up at sunrise after the bus broke down. Although we were given an alternate bus in a while, we were quite anxious until we reached home with the rain that kept pounding continuously ever since the time we boarded the bus at Chidambaram. YES.. We reached home safely in the morning and the story had a HAPPY ending.. 😛

Summary:

My wish of covering the five main Shiva temples- Checked

Find a place that I swear by not to return back- Checked

Backwaters and boat races at Allapuzha

We alighted at Ernakulam railway station at the end of an overnight train journey, from where- another hour’s journey in a local train took us to our destination- Allapuzha or fondly called Alleppey. We were there to experience the festivities of ‘Vallamkali- The Olympics of Kuttanad’. It was the 2nd Friday of August 2012 – A day before the Biiigg sporting event of South India- “The Nehru trophy boat race”. This is an annual event held in the Vembanad lake- the longest lake in India spanning several districts of Kerala. The lake that’s known by different names in different parts of Kerala is refered to as the Punnamada Lake in the Kuttanad regional. It was noon by the time we checked into our hotel room. We freshened up and set out to explore the backwater villages of Alleppey.. We hired a ‘Shikhara- the boat which motored us through the narrow stretches of the canals. We cruised on the backwaters, passing through villages- where womenfolk were washing clothes, men were fishing, while few kids on some stretch were diving into the waters for a swim. We enjoyed our ride as we picked up some fresh lobsters and pomfret at the local market alongway and got them cooked in the local style at a fisherman’s house.

The Shikara cruise in the narrow canals of Alleppey
The Shikara cruise in the narrow canals of Alleppey

Further, we were oared across to the end of the canal which opened into the wide Vembanad lake where all the teams were practising  and the venue was getting set for the ‘Big’ event. The energy and enthusiasm was no less than the main event itself. Though we wanted to stay there till sunset, the government deadline for cruising in the waters forced us to return to the jetty before 06.00.p.m.

On returning to the mainland, we meandered through the lanes of Alleppey town searching for a heavenly dose of piping hot Kerala chai and palam-pori (Banana fritters). We passed across the once famous- now non-functional coir industries of Alleppey as we searched our way to the beach where we spent the remaining time until dark.

A stationed shikara enroute to the Alleppey beach
A stationed shikara enroute to the Alleppey beach

The town usually sleeps to silence after 7.00.p.m. in any part of Kerala state. But, we were there to make the most of the little time we had with us and not wanting to waste it sitting in the cosy of the hotel room. We happened to see a hoarding of a concert happening at a stadium and headed there hoping to capture some nice photos of the Theyyam show. We did enjoy theyyam.. But we were in for a surprise when we decided to stay for a little longer- we were smitten by something else.. MUSIC..!! A MIND-BLOWING show by the violin maestro- Balabaskaran and team.. We were LOST in dreamland..!!

The next morning, we had to reach the racing venue as early as 08.00.a.m. to get a seat. One by one, the snake boats arrived for assembly. Locally called as the Chundan Vallam (Beaked boats), these 100~120 feet long wooden canoes carry 90- 110 rowers and move like snakes through the channels. These boats are the world’s biggest water vessel used for sports . And soon.. The event started. Races took place in different categories with even the women rowers. All through the event, only one thing echoed in the atmosphere- Vanchipattu or the Boat song. Every single soul in the arena was singing songs of cheer.

The oarsmen '"Women"
The oarsmen ‘”Women”

We still had time to explore the town and so boarded a bus to Champakulam. As we passed through the waterlogged villages of Kuttand, we were reminded that the region we were passing is the ‘granary of Kerala’ or the rice bowl of Kerala and is one of the few places in the world where farming is done below sea level.

Soon, we reached the St. Mary Forane Church. Since it was a Sunday, we were lucky to take part in the mass. This waterside church, built in 427A.D. is a testimony for time with its finely maintained beautiful mural paintings. From there, we took a boat to reach the other end of the river: the place of the oldest market known as Kalloorkkadu angadi.

Champakulam St. Marys church
Champakulam St. Marys church

If not the race, we’d have some more time to explore Karumadi Thodu and Ambalapuzha Sree Krishna temple. The former is famous for the black granite idol of lord Buddha and the latter being known for the ‘Palpayasam’ or the milk porridge offered as prasad to the diety.

We then walked to the Latin church in the town from whose terrace, the entire town of Alleppey can be viewed during visiting hours. What particularly captured our attention was the cemetery where all members of a family were buried in the same pit. Hundreds of such graves laid within the church premises.

The premises of the Latin Church
The premises of the Latin Church

We then left for our lodge to check out as our return train was scheduled for the night. If at all, we had half a day’s time extra- We’d definitely make it to the church located at Kokkothamangalam- one of the seven churches founded by St.Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. And we’d want to visit the Ayyappan temple, in Mukkal vattam near Muhamma that’s known for the Kalari from which Lord Ayyappa learnt his martial arts. The hermitage where Ayyappan lived during the training period has been preserved in its original form by successive generations of the Cheerappanchira family.

Anyway.. We had to leave the place with a heart soaked and mind filled with beautiful memories of sailing afloat on a boat in the backwaters of the beautiful country of God and hope to return soon.

A mind numbing experience of winter in Ladakh

What was supposed to be an once in a lifetime experience of trekking on a frozen river- ‘The chadar trek’, rather turned out to be a wonderful experience in its own way.. Thanks to a landslide on the Zanskar, a natural dam had been formed stocking up water for over 5 kms. If incase this natural dam collapsed due to the built up pressure, the stored water would wash away the nearby areas causing flash floods. Hence, citing safety reasons, the goverment had issued ‘section 144 – Shoot at sight’ to anyone attempting to go anywhere close to the river.

We decided to break away from the trek organiser and explore Ladakh on our own.. Oh yeah, before I forget to mention- None of our phones were working(No connectivity via phone or internet)- Thanks to all our pre-paid connections. Only postpaid connections work in this part of the country due to security reasons (given its proximity to disputed border areas). Thus started our lifetime experience of the mind-numbing winters in Ladakh.

Day 1: It was noon by the time our early morning flight took off from Delhi airport, thanks to bad weather conditions. Just 20minutes after take off, a small but prominent layer of cloud seemed to appear at the horizon.. But within no time, we realised that we were approaching the Himalayas. In just few minutes, the GPS indicated Shimla on the map in the TV infront of our seats. A never-ending stretch of deep gorges, ravines, formed the beautiful landscape below. Few minutes further up.. Yes..!!! we couldn’t contain our excitement of flying over the snow covered mighty Himalayan peaks, we were jumping for a spot at the windows taking turns.. It was the first time we were seeing snow! Click click click…. The cameras went on and on… It was as if we were in an enclosure which was floating up in heaven.. It was absolute FEAST to the senses.. all the way… till touch down🙂

You are flying over the Himalayas...
You are flying over the Himalayas…

Inspite of the glaring bright sun, it was 6 below zero degrees when our flight landed at Leh- one of the highest airstrips in the world. We took a cab to the hotel that we were informed by the trek organiser.

The day went by just making an alternative plan for the trek that could not happen. Also, it was necessary to get acclimatized to a scary combo of High altitude + low temperature(It went upto -25deg on some days of our trip). So we just had to stay bummed to our rooms(without heaters..!!) and warmup ourselves 😛 We shopped for a lot of thermals in Leh market (we got cheap & good quality stuff..)

Day 2: It was the last day of the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery– Enroute we visited the ‘Hall of fame‘- the war museum. We happened to be there at the right time when an Indian airforce carrier was about to land. With the Sham valley & other mountain ranges all around the airstrip, it called for the exact photo that had inspired me to visit Ladakh more than a year ago.. We later headed to the monastery where the day long festivities and mask dance was going on.. We walked up the stairs to the holy abode of Kali(which is open for public viewing only during Gustor festival) before we comforted ourselves by finding a seat amid the chaotic crowd that had assembled. After the event, we did a bit of souvenir shopping at the mela that was put up and a lot of binging on Ladakhi food. We took a cab to Shanti Stupa which is best for sunset viewing. After the sun was down, we took the stairs down which we were told was a shortcut to reach Leh town by foot.

Mask dance at the Gustor festival - the annual fair at the Spituk monastary
Mask dance at the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery

Day 3: Drive through Changla pass(the 3rd highest pass in the world) at a nerve freezing temperature: Get a quick grab of food at Karu town. Here one needs to get the Inner Line Permit to proceed towards Pangong Tso- the controversial border between India & China. The lake was partially frozen- where we could drive over most part of it and experience the chadar partially 😛 If one has an extra day, they could head to Tso Moriri, a salt water lake and camp there overnight before returning to Leh. But, we took back the same route so we could cover the Shey Palace, Thikse monastery & got a glimpse of the Rancho school of the ‘3 Idiots’ fame. Hemis monastery- the wealthiest monastery in India remained unreachable by road since it was winter.

A milestone at the Pangong tso
A milestone at the Pangong tso

Day 4: It was a lonng day.. A wonderful drive on a roadless route which seemed to have been carved all out of ice and sprinkled with snow.. A small slip of tyre could get deadly as beautiful as the valley seemed to appear. We couldn’t ask for more when it began to snow just when we alighted at the end of the highest motorable road in the world- the Khardungla pass. Continue on the road that leads to the cold desert of Ladakh- The Nubra valley. With minimal vegetation, and sand dunes all around, you should not be missing out the ride on the Bactrian camels which are endemic to this region and is a critically endangered species. Visit the Diskit monastary- where a 32 feet statue of Maitreya Buddha looks upon Pakistan. Towards the end of the valley is the Siachen glacier- the highest battleground in the world and the glacier forms the source to the biggest irrigation system in the world-The Indus. Catch a good night’s sleep at a traditional homestay there and experience authentic Ladakhi hospitality.

View from a monastary
View from a monastery

Day 5: Start early cuz the day will be short with too many places to cover on a single stretch from Leh. We took the Kargil road- a drive through Sham valley. First stop was at Nimmoo where we filled our fasting tummies. The next quick stopover was at Pattar Sahib Gurudwara. The straight stretch of road looked as if it was peircing right through the horizon. We were driving through the magnetic hill. The road which is believed to have defied gravity where a car with ignition off and neutral gear moves uphill- against gravity..!! We were not quite convinced with our experience though, which made us agree to the scientific explanation of it being an optical illusion. We arrived at Chilling- The confluence of the Indus and Zanskar. The partially frozen stretch was intimidating to walk over.. But we were warned by a cop not to go near the banks.. all thanks to section 144 😛

The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar
The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar

We continued our journey through rustic Ladakhi villages, monasteries dotting the distant hillocks, frozen waterfalls, bare poplar trees, narrow truss bridges, army barracks, hot water springs, ice hockey fields, etc. We came across wild deers, yaks, pashmina sheep, wild horses and other fauna endemic to this high altitude region.. Likir monastery was beautiful with the Buddha statue smiling in between the snow clad mountains all around. Our last destination was Lamayuru monastery– The start point for many treks in this region.

Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of a few more hours and safe conditions at the border to go further upto the Kargil border. We wanted to drive back through Drass valley- The coldest inhabited place in India and the second coldest in the world. Again, If I had an additional day in hand, I would have loved to get an inner line permit to spend a day at DhaHanu valley: home to the endangered community of the Dard people. I would love to go back ASAP atleast to document their customs, traditions, photograph their intricate jewellery and costumes before their numbers further deplete. Had I been blessed with a couple more days, I would want to do the Markha valley trek andand experience the tribal life in its raw & purest form.. And spot a snow leopard in its natural habitat at the Hemis national park- the largest national park in India and the highest national park in the world.

During winters, most of the town is shut for the season. The few places that are up, open after 11.00.a.m and close by 5~6.p.m. We missed out on some fine shopping of souvenirs, local handicrafts and dry fruits.. Probably, some form of connectivity of phone or internet could have helped us to cover more places and organise our trip in possibly a better way.. But, NO REGRETS..!! We’ve still done what most people don’t dare to- Experience the bitter winter of Ladakh. That’s all the time we had for.. We had to pack our bags with a super heavy heart to carry back home..

Day 6: It was a rare phenomenon that we had woken up with that day, early at 6.a.m. It was snowing in Leh. There usually is no snowfall at Leh town… But that day I guess the town had started to miss us… the sky was crying heavily.. We reached the airport by 07.30.a.m. The security measures are very stringent for those leaving Leh which easily needs about 2hrs. 2 rounds of passengers’ frisking and 2 rounds of baggage screening. And then, you have to individually identify your baggage until which it will not be loaded to the flight..!! Quite a strenuous task for the security personnel… While it is considered as a fun trip for the touristy people like us.. It’s a salute to the bravehearts : The Indian army.. Who bare all odds like extreme climatic conditions and unpredictable threats to their lives, strive day and night to ensure that we are safe.. The flight took off over the mountainthat said ‘Touch the sky with glory’.. in the true sense…

I will come back ASAP for more..

Julley Leh..!!

A confluence of south Indian architectural styles- Thiruchirapally

After a long day exploring Tanjavur.. We boarded an evening bus to Tiruchirapalli (earlier called Trichy). We checked into a lodge infront of the central bus stand. Had a sumptuous meal and retired early..

Day 3:
We got ready early next morning and boarded a local bus to Srirangam- the abode of Sri Antya Ranganatha Swamy. This is the Tamilian counterpart of AdiRanga at Srirangapatna and MadhyaRanga in Shivanasamudra, All 3 being island towns formed by river Kaveri. This is an important place of worship to the vaishnavites sect of Brahmins or the followers of Lord Vishnu. The majority population in the town is the Iyengar Brahmins. Nevertheless, we got a glimpse of the historic idol of Sri Ranganatha sleeping on a serpent. But, pilgrimage aside, we were there to enjoy the architectural marvels of the city. The main temple itself is atleast 2-3 hrs of tour for the legs. To start of with, The main Gopuram or the outermost temple tower is the largest in the world and the latest among the towers in the temple complex. With a spread of 156acres, the temple complex itself is the largest functional one in the world.

The Antya Ranganathar swamy temple at Srirangam
The Antya Ranganathar swamy temple at Srirangam

The temple consists 7 rounds of walls before you reach the sanctum sanctorum. Each wall was added by the then rulers who reigned in this town including the Pandyas, Cholas, Hoysalas, Vijayanagara, Pallavas and the others. The art specific to each of these eras can be noticed in the complex. After entering the main complex, a ticket of Rs.10 per head took us through narrow stairs leading to the roof of temple. This is called the temple view point since you can spot all the 21 temple gopurams from this single place, lest you would get lost in the vastness of the complex. There is also a 1000 pillar hall which was once used to host dance events, now remained locked. We admired the fine sculptures on these pillars through the bars of the closed gates and continued our walk further.

We walked towards the rear door of the temple towards the river bank. It was more of a run than a walk as we were barefoot and the asphalt road and the sand was already heated up even at 10.a.m. Hailing from a place where the holy river originates, it was a pity to watch the river bed laying TOTALLY dry in this place. But, after talking to the localites, I cheered up a bit as they were looking forward for a good monsoon in the coming month, where the river would flow almost in spate (Even submerging the very place that I was standing at). We came back to the temple again where my mom was waiting, had some fresh fruit juice in one of the stalls outside, wore our footwear and took a walk around the temple. Oh yeah..!! It was BURNING hot and I was pretty sure I’d go back home as a grilled chicken after this walk, but then, we wanted to make the most of the visit because we never knew when we would be visiting again.

Big houses, with very small entrance, compactly built next to each other, allowing no or very less ventilation inside was the trademark style of Srirangam. These streets take pride in being home to one of the highly educated community of the country.

From there, we boarded a bus to Thiruvannaikaval. Though the population mainly comprises the Iyengars(the Vishnu followers), the then rulers have also built temples for the Iyers or the Shaivites(the followers of Shiva). This temple is as beautiful as the Ranganatha temple, however, the history behind the latter has made it more prominent. Though many people visiting this city give a miss to this temple, it should be noted that this is one among the five temples built for Shiva representing the five elements of life and this one represents water or Jala Linga. One of the residents in the complex noticed our interest in exploration and suggested us to visit the Amma or Parvathi temple housed right behind the Shiva temple.

The entrance to Thiruvannaikaval Shiva temple
The entrance to Thiruvannaikaval Shiva temple

From there, we headed to a hotel for a nice south Indian thali. After a filling meal, we headed back to Trichy. We visited the St. Lourde’s church in the city. We did a bit of shopping in the bylanes and the Trichy market around the Teppakulam(Temple tank) before we started to ascend the Rock Fort.

St. Lourde's church
St. Lourde’s church

This single projection of land in an otherwise low/Flat Trichy town dates back to the pre-historic era. It is beyond words to describe how in those days, could someone create such beautiful structures out of a hard monolith. What appears to be just a random protrusion of earth from outside, is infact a haven for the art lovers in the inside. There are stairs, numerous temples, artistic pillars and idols carved out of the same rock all the way up. There is a Ganesha temple at the summit from where one can enjoy the view of the entire Trichy town, the Kaveri river flowing around Srirangam, The temple gopuram, the rail lines traveling in and outside the city. The fun was doubled by the cool but strong winds that blew taking away all the tiredness from our minds.

The view of river Kaveri from the summit of Rockfort
The view of Srirangam from the summit of Rockfort

After a while, we decided to descend down.. But we realised that a door that remained closed during our ascend was now wide open. There were some beautiful paintings peaking out of the door intimidating us to go see what was there. We stepped inside and it was amusement that followed. It was a vast hall carved out inside the same rock with beautifully sculptured pillars and amazing paintings adorning the walls. A poojari noticed our interest and started explaining each painting and the story it depicted. It was amazing.. He then told us to hurry up inside another door.. There, the maha Mangalaarthi (Sorry I don’t know the technical word for the last pooja of the day.!!) for Parvathi amman was just about to begin. Just as we reached there, they unveiled the curtains for us to get an eyeful of the beautifully decorated goddess. We sipped the holy water and again we were asked to rush through another door, cross a narrow chamber leading to the Shiva temple. The deity was getting ready for the final pooja of the day..Pooja is offered only thrice a day, During sunrise, at noon and before sunset. And we were lucky for being there for the last one. They removed the curtains and I could see my mom in tears. It was a very huge idol being bathed in the pancha-Amruthas. Then, he was neatly dressed in dhoti, decorated with fresh flowers and the pooja culminating with Arathi. The curtains were back signalling us that the god would go to sleep for the day.. We felt truly BLESSED..!! We witnessed an event that was so unexpected. We thanked the Poojari and took leave to descend the stairs leading to the market below.

Again, the presence and strong hold of almost all major south Indian dynasties is felt here with the designs present exquisitely in the art form here..

At the exit of the Cave temple / Rockfort
At the exit of the Cave temple / Rockfort

A final destination to our tour: Evening chai at GR restaurant. It is housed in an old building in the heart of the city(enroute to Rockfort). The valliappam is a must try here. The interiors of the hotel is commendable which has rock pillars, structures & collectibles that reminds one of the grandeur of temple architecture that this region is renowned for. It was a grand ending to our 3 day trip with a cup of piping hot filter coffee..!!

There are many lesser known temples around Trichy and equally artistic which takes up another full day.. But that all the time we had with us.. So, I shall come back soon..

A secular pilgrimage along the Coramandel coast..

Destination 1- Poompuhar

The name reminds one of the arts and crafts of Tamil Nadu while Cauvery emporium strikes a similar bell back home at Karnataka. The link for both the names is common.. While the latter relates to Tala-Cauvery, the birthplace of river Cauvery at Karnataka; the former marks the end of the same river at Tamil Nadu. Both being a holy place for the Hindus of South India.

We were welcomed by a stretch of fishermen selling salted/seasoned & dried fish at the shore of this historic beach. There is an sculpture art museum towards the right at the entrance. To the left is Ilanji Mandran, a bathing place said to have had mysterious powers of curing health ailments during the Cholas. A kilometer’s walk along the roaring sea leads us to the river mouth. One can actually see a spectacle- Cauvery (a female) running towards the sea (the man) quite literally. The rapid river rushing towards the calm sea who is lashing her back to the land with his waves side by side. A dip at this juncture is believed to be holy (is what I have grown up listening to, being from a community that worships nature). This place is also called Kaveripoompattinam as called by the Cholas and is a place of importance to the archaeologists. There is nothing much to do otherwise (The Kethu & Budha sthalams among the Navagraha temples are closeby- I will save them for another article). We boarded a bus to our next destination- Tharangambadi. Then from there, to Karaikal Beach.

The Ilanji Mandran at Poompuhar
The Ilanji Mandran at Poompuhar

Destination 2- Nagore

The little town of Nagore is known for the Hazrat Syed Shahul Hameed Dargah of the Islam faith. We were welcomed warmly by the priests there who helped us with the procedures of offering our prayers. Going by history, this dargah stands as a symbol of peaceful co-existence between the Hindus & the Muslims as people from all faiths come here for worship. There are 5 minarets out of which the tallest one was built by the Marathas of Tanjavur for being cured of his ailment by the miracles of Shahul Hameed. The sacred tank within the premises looked dirty however. From there, we headed to the last destination of the day..

One of the 5 minarets at the Nagore dargah
One of the 5 minarets at the Nagore dargah

Destination 3: Velankanni

It was sunset time when we arrived at the Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Good Health. We walked through the lines of stalls bustling with activities, pilgrims, tourists, hotels and other urchins to reach the sea shore. It is an utterly crowded pilgrim centre all through the year where the crowd takes you forward.. We walked back to the Basilica of the Arokya Matha as she is fondly called to offer our prayers. The history dates back to 3 events occurring from 16th century onwards where mother Mary appeared to a milk vendor, a buttermilk vendor and the Portuguese sailors who survived a severe sea storm. There is Matha Kulam / the holy pond and 2 chapels built at the respective places of the above occurrences.

We took a brief walk at the donations library where all the gold, silver & other expensive offerings made by the devotees are kept for exhibits.

The shrine of Our Lady of Good Health at Velankanni
The shrine of Our Lady of Good Health at Velankanni

With that, a tiring, yet a pleasant journey in quest of god ended in a peaceful slumber at a Church run lodge….

Feeling blessed…!!! sllzzzzzzzzz………