Tag Archives: Traditional houses in India

Five ways to manage anxiety during a lockdown

I know the entire world is going through a deep crisis with the outburst of the CoViD-19. But that does not mean that the world is going to end, right? Anxiety can hit anyone, any time… that too when someone is locked up inside the house for so many days and weeks. While ‘How many days more?’ has a very uncertain answer, until may be a proven vaccine or cure is invented, nobody is certain- is all one can say. It is human to get hit by anxiety about what’s going to happen next. But let us see the positive side: nearly 50% are recovering. Let’s not panic and do self-care by staying indoors.

I’m someone who has always found company amid nature. Any problem, I believe ‘NATURE HEALS’. For all the abuse and exploitation that man has done to the planet, it is wonderful to see how nature is healing herself (Click here to see the video). That’s said, I am a “Cliched” travel freak who grows restless when I stay confined to a place for over a few hours. I’m sure I’m not alone in battling anxiety. The whole idea is to keep myself away from social media, from where I’m getting all forwards causing more anxiety. Here are a few things that I’m doing to keep myself calm as I continue to stay indoors.

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The honey bee-box in my balcony

5. Watch the honeybees toil in my balcony: I have set-up a box for them in my balcony and It is therapeutic to watch them work. It is spring season now and no better way to spend a day than sit and watch nature in her calmest ever. The only noise I can hear is the chirping of the birds and the buzzing of my honeybees.

4. Watch the birds flock to the feed and water bowls: The temperature outside has started to rise slowly. As we continue to stay indoors, the birds and squirrels have started to come outside. They will now start frequenting your balconies, only if you’re kind enough to give them a place to sit and take a dip in a water bowl. You will soon become good friends and begin to enjoy each other’s company. I have a good number of sparrows, red-whiskered bulbuls and squirrels occupying spaces in my balcony.

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The sparrows in my portico

3. Learn birding: As I continue to sit in my balcony and watch the flowers bloom outside, I have started to realize that I live in a place that is no less than a bird sanctuary. At least 40 varieties of birds have been spotted from here and I’m continuing to learn their names, habitat, bird calls and behavioral patterns. Some of them have been photographed and the photo-story is made (Click here to view the photo story)

2. Do up a vertical kitchen garden: While going out should be reduced to as minimum as possible, we can grow our own greengroceries in our balconies. I have converted an old ladder / stand, hung old mugs and tied used plastic cups where I’m growing green-groceries and small flowering plants. Some wet waste from the kitchen too is going into these DIY pots for decomposing. Mustard, tomatoes, brinjal, kothimir, beans etc. are some of the seeds you can easily find in your kitchen without having to worry about buying the seeds separately.

The DIY vertical garden in my balcony

1. Re-kindle a dead hobby: Found stacks of water paint that’s been shelved since school days 😛 most of them have dried up in the bottles. I’m finding new ways to make them useful and kill-my time by doing abstract paintings using abstract techniques. Running out of poster colors? Try organic colors. vermillion, turmeric, indigo, leaf extracts… Don’t’ you think its time to explore something new?

Tell me how are you helping yourself to beat anxiety?

How are you killing boredom at home? Share your ideas…

The Folk musical instruments of Nagaland

It is that traveling exposes one to a multitude of cultures and people. The diverse geography of India is home to some of the most unheard traditions and untold folklores. During my 10 day stint of backpacking in Nagaland, I was introduced to so many of it all, as this little Indian state, tucked in the far North-east is home to more than 17 tribal sects and sub-tribes; each having their own culture, language, traditions and cuisine. Here, is a small list of indigenous musical instruments used in the folk culture of the Nagas.

  • Mrabung: Mrabung is an indigenous musical instrument of the Zeliang Nagas. It is a single stringed instrument that is crafted with a hollow/ cured bottle gourd and a fretless wooden neck of about 12 inches long. It is played with hair string bow (Usually a cluster of horse tail tightly tied together to two ends of a thin wooden stick). This bow is used to strike the chords (like a violin) with one hand and the string along the neck is pressed down with the other hand at appropriate places to get the required tune and legato of the song. It is played during merry making in social gatherings and festivals where men and women congregate. I was narrated with a popular folklore of the Nagas wherein, a singer called Arum played the Mrabung. His music captivated the farmers so much that everyone working on the field left their work undone and sat around Arum listening to his songs. Arum had to be barred from playing any songs further just so the people went back to work on their farms. Click below to see an artisan playing the Mrabung.

  • Atutu: The Atutu is a handcrafted bamboo trumpet used by the Pochury tribes of Meluri. A particular variety of bamboo is used in making the varied components that are fitted together to make this crafted trumpet. It is played to mark special occasions. For example, blowing of this trumpet towards the end of February means to herald and announce the advent of the Nazhu festival. Also, the male members of the tribe play it in their morungs in the evenings throughout the festival. Apart from this, the trumpet sound is used to ward off birds and animals from the rice fields and prevent from crop damage. In earlier days, trumpeting was a way to alert the collective habitat or a village of a possible enemy attack or as a signal of declaration of a war.
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The Atutu: The bamboo trumpet
  • Dholak: This common musical instrument has its own version and avatar in every region of India. Be it weddings or festivals, it is the most common and almost an essential part of any merry making in Indian celebrations. Similarly, each tribe in Nagaland has its own version of the dholaks or the Indian hand drums. Made with an outer casing of wood, laced tightly with cotton strings and the drumming surfaces made with the locally available materials, more often animal hide. Here are samples of the dholaks used by the Garos (Long slender shaped, narrowing at the ends), the Mech Kacharis (fatter and shorter than the Garos) and the Aao tribes (Shorter and fatter than the previous two types and Uniform sized throughout its length) of Nagaland. (Click the below link to watch the ceremonial dances of the Naga tribes with their dholaks)

The coldest place with the warmest hospitality- Pfutsero

More often than always, the stories we carry back from our travel are about the people we meet and less about the places we see. Our definition of whether our trip is good or bad is defined by the way we are made to feel by the people we come across. My experience in Pfutsero too has been one of those, where the warmth of the people made me fall in love with Nagaland. All I knew about Pfutsero was that it is the largest town in Phek district, and it is the highest inhabited place in the state of Nagaland. High altitude also means that it is the coldest place in the entire state. Having very little information available on the internet only meant that the place is still off the radar of mainstream tourism. This is what got me inquisitive and itched me to visit Pfutsero which would give ample scope to explore and experience something so raw and unknown to the outside world.

From the day I arrived at Nagaland, I had started to talk to a lot of people to get information about getting from Kohima to Pfutseru. With lack of clear information and high cost of travel, I had almost dropped the plan until the end of my 10-day trip in the state. One last try at finding a cheaper travel to Pfutsero, landed me in a small grocery store at Kezekie taxi stand in Kohima. My friend and I realised that we were at the right place. The courteous owner of the store guided us with all the required information and got our seats booked in the shared taxi that plied from Kohima to Pfutsero the next morning.

As instructed, we had reached Kezekie by 07.00.am. the following morning to be assured of a seat. But thanks to the traffic, it was 10.30.a.m. by the time we left Kohima. However, there was one ambiguity before leaving for Pfutsero- We hadn’t booked a hotel at Pfutsero for our stay yet. Despite several failed attempts of calling the mini-tourist lodge at Pfutsero, their phone continued to remain switched off. But my friend and I were up for some adventure and decided to travel without a confirmed stay, go there and find one.

Watch the video of my roadtrip to Pfutsero:

Phek district is inhabited by the members of the Chakesang tribes in majority. With the friendliness of the grocery store owner, we had already started to feel the positive vibes of the place we were going to. She had given the contact information of her family who lives in Kezakeno, another village in Phek. She had not just shared the contact info, in fact forced us to stay with her family. We were feeling grateful and partially sorted in the eventuality of not finding a hotel at Pfutsero.

There were both good roads and no roads, all adding up to a patchy drive to Pfutsero. Apart from the mountainous roads that seemed charming outside, the people with whom we shared our drive made our trip indeed a memorable one. One of them helped us to contact the tourist lodge and confirmed our stay at Pfutsero even before we reached. I had clearly started to feel overwhelmed with the hospitality of the people in this part of the country where the locals wanted to make all visitors feel at home. Almost everyone whom we got talking to, was excited to invite us over for a meal with them. Finally, it was 02.00.p.m. when we reached Pfutsero and a cup of hot tea was what we relished at our co-passenger’s house before checking-in at the tourist lodge. A colourful garden welcomed us into her wooden house that was perched on the slope of the hill. Its windows opened out into a majestic view of the entire town and overlooked a lake surrounded by green lawn. The dreamy house seemed to be no less than out of a Bollywood flick. We soon bid her a warm goodbye and headed to the tourist lodge, freshened up and proceeded to the target destination, before the sun called it a day!

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View from Glory peak, Pfutsero

Glory peak is the highest point in Pfutsero. A short taxi ride of 3kms through an under-construction road, jaw-dropping view of the surrounding valleys and a climb on a watch tower got us to the top of the town. Mt. Saramati is the highest peak in Nagaland and Mt. Everest needs no introduction. On a clear, bright afternoon, both the mountains can be seen from Glory peak. Since, we had reached there before sunset, the distant mountains were partially hidden by the haze and hence we could get a clear view of only Mt. Saramati. Nevertheless, the 360deg view of verdant hills from the glory peak was something to die for.

For those who have an additional day at hand, a day hike to the frozen lake from the glory peak is highly recommended by the locals. We decided to explore the town a little bit, before it was dark. A hike down the peak was fun as the staircase leading to the town passed through thick forests, strange creepers and colourful butterflies. We spent time exploring the town until sunset. It seemed dusty with poor roads. Apart from a few local snacks, we couldn’t find anything interesting. However, there is one souvenir shop run by an NGO that supports local artisans. One can buy some traditional Chakesang tribal jewellery, textile and food products as souvenirs from here.

The dropping Pfutsero temperature had started to numb our fingers and we decided to head back to the lodge. The lodge is situated on top of a hill and the setting sun looked glorious from the corridor. After wearing my thermals and gloves, I decided to take a stroll around the lodge. It is located adjacent to defence property and that gave me a sense of confidence to venture alone after dark. All the people from the neighbourhood were busy in decorating a nearby church for Christmas. They got me talking to them and eventually I joined them in their chore of setting up the wreaths and light bulbs. It was a fun evening until I decided to head back for the warmth of my room. The lodge was a HUGE property, but we were only two girls staying there that night. Although it was a little scary at the first thought to be the only guests, we were soon occupied in long conversation with the caretaker family of the property living in the same building, later to be joined by the owners. The conversation covered a range of topics and ran into the night. Given the lesser crowd of the cliched tourists, company of comforting hosts and warm conversations, we couldn’t have asked for a safer and a better place to be!

The comfort of the heater, cosy blankets and carpeted floors let us sleep like logs, unaware of the freaded freezing sub-zero Pfutsero temperature outside. We were woken up by the alarm next morning, only to be mind-blown by the view of the rising sun over the clouds from our balcony. We packed up and prepared to leave as that was our last day in Nagaland and we had to make it to Dimapur for the night’s train. Meanwhile, we had booked a personal taxi for our return, since we wanted to explore Kezakeno on our way back.

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

The first stop was at- Chida lake. Locally called as Lowho, this off-road destination is a favourite hangout among the locals who come here for games like fishing and boating. Some enjoy a trekking trail from glory peak to Chida along the Kapamedzu range as well. There is a Border Security Force camp at Chida and hence, it is also referred as Chida Post at times. Since we had reached very early, we were the only tourists there and the place looked absolutely calm and serene.

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Lowho lake at Chida, Kezakeno

From there, we headed to Lazami village. This tiny village is of very high historical importance as it is the site from where the various Naga tribes are believed to have migrated to different parts of the state. A veteran from the village was excited to narrate the legend of Tsotawo, the spirited stone in the village. We were warmly invited by almost every person in this village into their house. We finally settled down at a little traditional house for breakfast and a large cup of tea. We carried back love in the form of guavas and local walnuts given by our hosts from this village. Seeing so much affection in these hills was a wonderful feeling that cannot be expressed, for which a city soul in me would want to come back again.

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The spirit stone

While continuing our journey from there, we did have a stop at Kami village view point to admire the terraced paddy fields of Lekhromi village, the view looked magnificent under the oblique rays of the early sun.

Making our way through the maddening traffic jam of Kohima is for another story to be written about, some other day! Thus, ended our 2 days of amazement and overwhelming hospitality in the Land of the Chakesang Nagas- Phek district.

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Terraced farms at Lekhromi village, Phek

Summary:

Must eats:
* Pfutsero is famous for its organic farming and terrace cultivation. We bought fruits (some known and some new) from the local shops that we could eat once we were back in our room.
* One would find a lot of bakeries in the town selling local cookies and muffins. Sticky rice cake, banana cake and banana chips are few of the things I recommend.

Getting around:
* Daily shared taxis ply between Kohima and Pfutsero. There are limited seats and the taxis leave immediately when filled. The taxi leaves Pfutsero around 6.00.a.m to Kohima and the same returns to Pfutsero on the same day on a first-cum-first serve basis. So, if one is not early enough to get a seat, he will have to hire a full taxi for him/herself or stay back until the next morning to share it. A one-way shared taxi seat costs 300Rs. Per head and a personal taxi would cost 5-6000rs. irrespective of whether it is a 1 or a 2-way journey.
* Within Pfutsero, most places are at walkable distances. But internal taxis are available for local commute. Talk to one of the shopkeepers in the town and they must be able to help in finding one.

Stay:
* A very well-maintained tourist lodge and a government run mini lodge are available at a very affordable price.
* There are a few homestays available for a more local experience.

Visiting Asia’s first green village- Khonoma

Before planning my visit to Nagaland, I had followed a few bloggers who had posted encaptivating photos of what they called the ‘Greenest village in India’. My friend and I had our stay booked at a homestay in this little-known village and were supposed to head there on the first day of our arrival in Nagaland. It was past noon by the time our shared taxi from Dimapur reached Kohima and the temperature had started to drop. Khonoma village, our destination was 20kms away and we stood on the highway, clueless about how we were supposed to get there. The connectivity through public transportation across Nagaland is something that needs the attention of the authorities. Meanwhile, without being able to find an honest taxi driver among all those who were quoting higher than what I had read about, we had started to feel stranded.

We finally managed to get a taxi and the courteous driver ensured our ride on the roadless path was comfortable and entertaining. On our request, the best Nagamese songs from his playlist were streamed and he made humble efforts to explain the meaning of each song and its relevance in Naga culture. It was a long ride considering that we took over an hour to cover the short distance. In Nagaland, each district is inhabited by a particular Tribe in majority and each village represents a particular clan within the tribe. Every tribe has its own language and surprisingly, each village has its own dialect which another clan might struggle to understand. ‘Khonoma is inhabited by the Kuthotsu clan of the Angami Tribe’, we were told.

Watch the video here:

On reaching Khonoma, we registered our entry at the tourism office from where we took directions to our homestay. As a first impression, it felt like it was just another settlement on the hills, something similar to my hometown. But as I began to walk towards the homestay along the narrow lanes and past the tourism office- a new world started to unfold. The entire village is built on a slope, overlooking the paddy fields. The slope makes it a requirement to climb winding stairs to get from one house to another, from one street to another. As you do this, you will not just pass by umpteen number of morungs but also walk through gardens full of colourful flowers and traditional Angami Naga gates. All this, while you are being mind-blown by the gorgeous view of the never-ending terraced fields of paddy and vegetables. If not the same, I bet this is far better and untouched than the terraced farms of Bali that has flooded the Instagram feeds. The guava trees around every corner of the village and the widely covered creepers of the Chayote squash added a vibrant hue of green to the entire valley. The extremely warm and obliging villagers allowed me to pluck a few guavas that tasted like nectar. Those were definitely the best guavas I had in my life till date. We then walked down the streets to our homestay, a cozy simple house that stood overlooking the terraced fields. Since we had little time before sunset (The sun sets by 04.00.p.m.), we dropped our luggage, freshened up quickly and ventured out to explore the village and make the most of the daylight.

Naga Heritage museum at Khonoma

As we strolled around the lanes, we were intrigued by the several morungs and the traditional Angami houses that we passed by. Morungs are Naga structures that are comparable to Gurukuls of olden days. The elders of the village would pass on their knowledge about life skills and tradition to the younger generations here, usually in the evenings after finishing their day’s chores. Although the Morung system is slowly passing into oblivion in modern days, Khonoma is one of the few places where these structures are conserved in their entirety. Every Morung and house had animal skulls (ranging from one to hundreds in number) hanging around their roofs and walls. We were quite fascinated with the collection that ranged from Mithuns and mountains goats to boars and other cattle. As we stood there, watching a few women who were busy with their job of de-husking paddy with a large pestle and stone, we were greeted by them with warm smiles to have a cup of tea in their house. I instantly accepted their invitation, jumping into the idea of seeing how a traditional Angami Naga house looked like inside.

The different skulls inside a traditional Naga house

Basic mud-smeared walls with knitted bamboo doors and their wooden roofs adorned with hundreds of skulls all around. “These skulls are prized possessions that represent the heroics of our ancestors. The Nagas are primarily hunters and our forefathers saved up the skulls of all their kills. The larger the collection, higher was his societal stature until the government brought a ban on hunting. Given the history of Nagas being head-hunters before the coming of missionaries, don’t be surprised if you bump into human skulls in some of the remote villages elsewhere”, explained a member of that house. Although the other members in that family couldn’t speak English or Hindi, they continued to smile at us for as long as we were there. However, communication is never a problem in Nagaland with almost 90% being proficient in either English or Hindi.

We visited the Naga heritage museum and then walked up to a small hill where the church stands at a vantage point, outside the village entrance, overlooking the entire hill range. From there, we walked back to the village and climbed up a few stairs to reach the highest point of the village. The setting sun let the hills in the background cast their shadow on the undulating green paddy terrace. The view of the range of hills and the entire village from there was a sight to behold for which, we had lost our senses and not to the dropping temperatures that had started to numb our skin 😃 After the sun had called it a day behind the hills, we munched on some local snacks like sticky rice roti, pakora at a café at the village entrance. We grabbed a few packets of Puffed sticky rice and Naga chilli smeared channa from a small shop before heading to the homestay. We hurried up to warm ourselves in the comfort of our homestay’s kitchen where firewood was setup to cook the night’s supper. Sips of hot tea and long conversations with our Angami host and other guests culminated with a delicious Angami meal that comprised of boiled vegetables and steamed rice with vegetable stew- all grown organically in our host’s backyard. The country chicken curry was a bonus for the non-vegetarian in me 😊

The plan for the next morning was to catch the sunrise from the paddy fields by walking along the stream that flowed down the valley. However, the freezing temperature made it impossible for us to get out of our cozy layers of blankets. The plan that had to follow our breakfast was a visit to Dzuleke, a quaint little village located 10kms away. It consists of merely 32 houses and the residents are also from Kuthotsu clan who decided to move out from Khonoma to a more secluded place when the land on the outskirts were open for new settlements. Today, it is supposed to be one of the prettiest villages that is promoted by the state’s tourism board and accessible only by foot or one’s own vehicle. Since a one-way ride was costing us 1500Rs., we dropped our plan of a day trip to Dzuleke.

There is one NST bus (Nagaland State Transport) that connects Khonoma to Kohima every morning. But the state is largely shut on a Sunday and it is an important note to consider if you are planning your travel/stay in Nagaland. After the day got a bit warmer, we packed our bags and headed out in a personal taxi to our next destination- Naga heritage village at Kisama, the main arena of the Hornbill festival.

Meanwhile, some interesting things I found in this village:

  1. Large bird feathers are made into a garland and hung high around the farms. “It is just for decoration purpose”, I was told on asking what it signified.
  2. There a large stone erected which signifies the previous rift between the Nagas and the Indians on the mainland (It is quite an interesting read how the Nagas fought the Indian army)

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.

Boat Race finals (22)
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.

Exploring the land of palatial mansions and piquant cuisine- Chettinad

Educated, affluent, entrepreneurial are some characteristics that describe the native community of Chettinad- the Chettiars. The region comprises of 73 villages and spans over 2 districts of Shivagangai and Pudukottai.. Given only a weekend’s time in hand- we had to make an itinerary and list down the villages to cover. But one thing was clear, this time the stay would not be pre-booked and we would look out for some generous localite to offer us a patch of floor space to lay our sleeping bags- In one of the mansions if we get lucky 😉 Our backpacking trip started at the end of an overnight bus journey to Karaikudi. The hotel staff obliged by charging only half the price when we informed them that we will be checking out after freshening up. The day started on a high with a delicious south-Indian breakfast with aromatic ghee roast masala dosa and idiappams served with coconut milk sweetened to perfection. A piping hot cuppa filter coffee topped it up.

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We worked out the mode of our commutation with a very friendly waiter at the hotel and figured out that hiring an auto was the best way if we had to get to the remote villages and unexplored lanes of Chettinad. The local bus or even a self-driven car wouldn’t be of much help as it needed someone familiar with the streets to wade through and the summer would just add up to our woes. We struck a good deal with an auto guy who would show us around and help us do a bit of mansion hopping. As per plan of visiting all temples ASAP(as they would all close by 11.00.a.m.) we were firstly ferried to Ariyakudi Perumal temple whose history mentions it as an alternative Tirupathi. Unfortunately, when we arrived- the temple remained shut due to the demise of the priest that morning. After spending sometime photographing random things around the temple, we headed to- ‘Ayiram jannal or the mansion with a 1000 windows’. We were disappointed for not being allowed inside as the people still live in this house. Our stint with Karaikudi somehow did not seem to have started well… Then was our road to Devakottai. It was a bumpy auto ride with the stiff tarmac withered off at several places with lot of dust entering our ears, eyes and nose. Enroute, we visited the Meenakshi-Sundareshwara temple where the assembly of 108 idols of lord Ganesha was the highlight. He is seen in rare avatars and seated on vahanas that are usually considered as the others’.

Up next, we stopped at the Koviloor Shiva temple. A beautiful little temple set in a very pleasant location and surrounded with mansions got us busy clicking photos. Excitement was at its peak when our entry into the first stately house happened. It was a strong structure built of granite blocks facing the temple. One part of it has been converted into a museum of antiques that were used by the Chettiars, one part has been converted to a government office while another part is used by some self-help groups for basket weaving, coconut de-husking etc. A few localites had gathered for the afternoon prayers in the two temples housed inside the mansion -one dedicated to Shiva & Parvathi each which had served as personal prayer rooms for the family in the yester years., We envied the people who lived there a century ago thinking of how peacefully they could decorate their own temple with flowers and lamps and celebrate the festivals without the interference of random people in their way of offering prayers. We weren’t keen on visiting the Kamban Manimandapam & Kaviarasu Kannadasan Mani Mandapam (memorials built for the famous Tamil poets) and hence gave it a miss.

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The Mansion filled streets of Devakottai

After a short ride, we stopped at Nagara Shivan temple where a sumptuous lunch was served that kept us full for the rest of the day. Our driver was very accommodative and knew what exactly we were interested in and stopped at several mansions letting us admire and awe at the vast and artistic dwelling places. He even spoke to a dozen of house owners to permit us inside their houses as this would help our studies (We never mentioned we were architecture students though!!) A couple of mansion owners were kind enough to entertain strangers like us to have a look at their magnificent mansions. There was one such incident where the proud caretakers gave us a guided tour of the entire house and we were even greeted by a colony of bats flying past our heads when one of the most unused parts of that mansion was opened. We climbed up the guano filled wooden stairs leading to an attic where hundreds of bats roosted. We ducked down as we further walked across a wooden bridge opening out into the terrace to be treated with an amazing view of the overstretching lanes of Devakottai filled with mansions. While we were permitted inside a couple more mansions, we got shooed away at the gate by several others. A short ride away on our way back to Karaikudi, we stopped at the 2 acres wide pond of the Kandadevi temple- the largest in Chettinad. Our driver showed us the Alagappa University & the Annavar memorial before he dropped us at the bus stand to board our bus to our next destination.

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The Inner courtyard of one of the mansions in Devakottai

The bus snaked through the narrow lanes and we craned our necks out of the window to stare at a few bungalows along the road at Pallathur before we finally alighted at ‘THE’ destination of our tour- Kaanadukathan. Although we had listed down the must-see things, we felt clueless on how to start. The place looked like any other village in India and we wondered where had all the stately houses that we had come all the way for gone. We followed our instinct and decided to walk till that road’s end to find some hotel for our night’s stay. We heaved a sigh of relief when we came across ‘Visalam heritage hotel’ cuz we at least got to know where to head in the worst case for the night. After walking further down the street, we were psyched out for a minute when our eyes caught the ‘Sight of the day’!! An ever ending stretch of road flanked by the Palatial- country homes on both side… We surely were in for a treated-Shock!! AMAZING!! The facades of these villas had fine sculptures of their family deities and the heavy wooden doors at the main entrances were decorated with artistic friezes. This village in particular is not very tourist friendly and most of the original owners have locked the huge bungalows are living elsewhere for various reasons. A few residents have however been kind to the keen travelers by permitting entry to their princely manors. One such place is the CVRM house… Well maintained antique cupboards, piano, swings etc. are kept to retain the grandeur of this house where once lived a large and an affluent family. While we were still admiring the grand interiors, what happened next was something beyond imagination for us. A lady had noticed the uncertainty in our faces while Madhu and I were discussing about our stay and asked us where we were put up. When we told her that we were looking for a place, she instantaneously offered us to stay at her place if we did not mind. Of course, it is quite ghastly to think about staying at a stranger’s house in the years where we hear of unhappy events, but there was some innocence in her personality that really did not bother us to doubt. We both nodded a yes in unison. A short stroll by the road’s end and a large gate opened into a typical Chettiar house. Very small compared to the mansions that have mesmerized us all day, but it was a home to people with really BIG hearts. We were served multi-grain-homemade-delicious-malt on our arrival and a nice dinner after we had freshened up… This greeting itself will take up an entire post if I had to write about it… The narrow colonnade verandah opened into a central courtyard that opened into the sky. We were engulfed by a sleep filled with solace right there on the ground with just a humble mat beneath and a glitzy starry night’s sky that stayed clear all through… A stay that was only a dream come true..!!

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The CVRM house

We started early in the morning cuz we had to do the temples and the walking before the sun showed up with his ruthlessness. We took a rickshaw and we visited Soorakudi, Kundrakudi Murugan temple, Pillayarpatti Vinayaka temple and Vairavanpatti temples. These are beautiful temples from the Pandyan era that are a win for history buffs in quest of places least touched by the maddening tourists. A pious traveler may also consider visiting Iraniyur, Tirupattur, Velankudi, Kottaiyur, Kandanur, Mathur temples covering all the 9 clan temples around the region. After having lunch served by donors at Vairavanpatti, we headed towards Athangudi. We visited the ‘Periyaveedu’, a house named aptly -the Athangudi palace. The roofs, the floors, the walls- they make your jaws drop in awe at their splendor and grandeur. Although, we were charged an entry fee, we weren’t allowed to stay there beyond 15minutes by the caretakers. COME-ON… you really need time to observe the details and intricacies of such a place. We somehow managed to pull off about half-an-hour but their attitude pissed us off… Our driver drove us off from there to our next destination. Sorry, I forgot to mention- The cranking lever of the auto-rickshaw had come off and was kept under our feet and the brake pads had worn out till their last dust. That meant, we had to push start the auto each time we stopped and the driver had to jump out of the slow moving rickshaw each time to stop it. Especially under the blazing sun and some annoying caretakers like the one mentioned above, you get a few additional horsepower to move your vehicle 😛

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The finally decorated central courtyard of the Aathangudi palace

That said, we visited Aathangudi palace tiles factory & wood art restoration centre where we met the men who create beauty out of lifeless soil and wood. It was a hard hunt for us to find a good hotel that served us authentic Chettinad food that our gustatory cells were craving for which was finally satiated with a lip-smacking array of culinary delight. A quick trip to the Chettinad railway station proved to be more of a pain than of fun when at the end of an exhausting ride, we got to know that the special waiting room will be opened only on special occasions for the members of the Raja’s family.

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We got dropped back as we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the somnolent streets of Kaanadukathan by foot. We shopped for the Kandangi handloom saris from one of the local weaving centres. We then walked across to be awestruck by the largest mansion I have ever seen- the Chettinad Raja’s palace, a sprawling edifice extending over an entire lane on all four sides. After trying our luck, we got saddened by the fact that we couldn’t gain entry into this palace that is still being resided at. Our adventure continued until dusk and when the light was perfect for some nice photos of this ‘heritage’ village. Along with the setting sun, we set ourselves for the return journey. We had to reach Trichy on time to catch our bus back to Bangalore..

To sum-up, the trip has taught us a BIG lesson. All who live in a mansion ain’t rich, All the rich are not humble, to be humble, you need no qualification.

Must-do:

  • Take a walk in the Muneeshwaran Koil street or the antique market in Karaikudi
  • Shop for a colourful palm basket- The local handicraft that has gained a GI tag
  • Treat your palette with Chettinad cuisine (I definitely mean Non-Veg)
  • Take a bicycle / walk tour around the streets of Kaanadukathan

This post has been featured on BlogAdda’s ‘Spicy Saturday’s Picks’ column.

Journey to the edge of India- Kanyakumari

Abstract: This was a family backpacking trip on a long weekend. The target destination was the southernmost tip of mainland India- Kanyakumari. We took a train on both ways. Hence, we had planned our route in such a way that we didn’t repeat the trail and could explore new places on both ways. Here’s a glimpse of the itinerary before I narrate the details:

Overnight train: Bangalore to Nagercoil by the ‘Nagercoil Express’
Day 1: The green stretch of Nagercoil comprising Padmanabhapuram palace, Udayagiri fort, Mathur aqueduct, Thiruvatturu Adi Perumal temple, enter the east coast and drive to Kanyakumari for sunset
Day 2: Catch the sunrise at Kanyakumari, a ferry ride to Vivekananda Rock, Vatakottai fort, Suchindran temple and board the night train at Nagercoil.

The details:
How can the thought of standing on the edge of land be expressed? As a kid, I always wondered how we stood steadily on a round globe… My curiosity grew further, when I was handed a world map for the first time. On it, the round globe looked flat. And on the world that looked flat on a map, India took the center position. And when carefully observed, I noticed that there is nothing below India but only water. On a closer look of the Indian sub-continent, Kanyakumari pops out in the edge, as the southern-most tip of the Indian mainland. Then I made a wish- ‘to make a journey to that end of land’…

Our overnight train journey was very pleasant through the route that was lush green and beautiful, even in the peak of summer. As the train entered Tirunelveli district, the landscape took a different look. Thousands and thousands of windmills seemed like they were strewn around, until the horizon. Our train slowly chugged past the hills only to later reach its destination- ‘Nagercoil junction’, the next morning.

Day 1:
We freshened up at the station and hired a taxi for the rest of the day. I managed to explain our itinerary to the driver with my broken Tamil and he managed to understand the jist: ‘To cover all the places listed down and ensure we make it to the Sunset point at Kanyakumari in time..!!’ That said, our sightseeing started in the order given below:

  1. The Nagaraja temple– The temple that gives its name to the city.
  2. We spent a good couple of hours photographing the BEAUTIFUL Padmanabhapuram palace in Thuckalay. It is by far, one of the beautiful palaces in South India. You don’t regret paying the entry fees as there is so much effort that has gone into the maintenance of this wooden palace. A surprising fact I discovered was that, although this palace is located in the state of Tamil-Nadu, it is maintained and controlled completely by the Kerala Government.
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The wooden facade of the Padmanabhapuram palace

3. Next was the Udayagiri fort. It wasn’t a great place as a traveler, but maybe a paradise for the bird watchers. It is converted into a mini zoo and houses the memorial of Commander De Lannoy- of the Dutch east India company.

4. The hanging trough / aqueduct at Mathur– The longest in Asia, is set amid a very beautiful surrounding of lush green cashew, coconut and rubber plantations.

5. Adi Perumal temple at Thiruvatturu- adorned with intricate sculptures (of the Cheras period probably). It was strange to know that the people of the Muslim community do not and cannot live in a radius of 6kms around this temple due to a curse by one of the rulers in history. Tippu Sultan had tried to steal the main idol with the help of the Nawab of Arcot. Also, this is probably the only temple where a grave of a ruler is seen next to the main idol of the temple.

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Mathoor aqueduct

6. Jadeshwara temple and Mariamman temple are at a walkable distance from Perumal temple. It is here, Lord Vishnu had come to seek support of his sister- Parvathi to convince Goddess Lakshmi when the latter suspected Vishnu of being involved in an extra-marital affair while he had gone hunting in realty.. Strange legends!!

7. Chittaral jain temple at Vellomcode- is a part of the rocky hills. It is small but a nice place for the history buffs and the pilgrims alike.

8. Thiraparappu Mahadeva temple– This place was a turn off with very less to NO water in the waterfalls and being overly crowded with tourists(NOT pilgrims!!). I suppose it will be worth the while only if it is monsoon and when the river flows with all its might down the gorge forming the beautiful waterfalls and the temple at the backdrop.

9. Pechiparai dam– We gave this one a miss anticipating disappointment with no water in the dam.

For this trip, the drive was the highlight and not the places visited. The main road would have traffic and that would waste our time. Trying to ensure that we could cover all the places, our driver took us through the remote roads of Nagercoil. These narrow and winding roads flanked by coconut trees on either sides were probably least exploited by a normal tourist and hence we could have a feel of the rustic part of an otherwise pilgrim city. The cool and pleasant weather was another surprise. What was more surprising was that the weather in Nagercoil supported the spices plantations, in an otherwise hot and humid climate that Tamil Nadu is recognized with.

It was the southern-most part of the western coast of India, that we were planning to drive through, to reach the end of land. Suddenly, the weather changed and the dark clouds hovered over us. As we were approaching the seashore, the clouds broke hell. As we watched the rain batter, we had lost an hour doing nothing. This meant that if we had to arrive at the Sunset point on time, we could only drive through without stopping anywhere. We drove past the Thengapattinam beach, Colachel port (it has a victory pillar to commemorate the victory of the Travancore king over the Dutch army), Mandaikadu temple, Muttom beach, Tekkurichi beach, Sanguthurai beach, Sothavilai beach and Manarkudi. When we finally reach our destination, what awaited us was sheer disappointment. There were clouds, clouds and more clouds..!!! We spent some time with the waves and headed to the hotel in the city where we had booked our stay.

Day 2:
We saw ourselves seated amid thousands of people who had gathered there for the same reason as us. The famous ‘SUNRISE of Kanyakumari’. We watched the sea change its colour from pitch black to different hues of the spectrum until dawn’s break. But, again our woes with badluck continued on day 2 as well. A nebule of cloud sat adamantly blocking the rising sun.. adding much to all our disappointment from the previous evening.

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The post sunrise visuals of the Vivekananda rock

We visited the ‘Kanyakumari Amman temple’ and the confluence point of the three oceans along with the other touristy places in the city (There is enough written about the places to see in the internet- I don’t want to repeat the same stuff again!) The wait in the queue that was at least 3 furlongs, under the hot sun was a big turn off. My expectations of finding the calm I was told about across the waters (Read it- the Vivekananda Rock) was let down by the galling tourists who had thronged there in thousands on that weekend. We left Kanyakumari in the afternoon, all disheartened by the way things turned out on a much anticipated trip.

We did a quick visit to Vatakottai fort- a small but a calm place away from the vexing crowd. We then stopped at Suchindran temple that stood grand with its majestic tower, but remained closed when we arrived there. We spent some time sitting by the temple pond and feeding the fishes with puffed rice.. And we finally left back to Nagercoil to board our evening train back to Namma Bengaluru.

Summary:
Kanyakumari, being the edge of land is more of an emotion that every Indian grows up listening to. So, this is one of those places in every Indian’s bucket list. Mine was an ideal itinerary covering a lot of places. But the rain gods didn’t seem to be in our favour. But I would like to mention the highlights that SHOULD go into the list of anyone visiting Kanyakumari:

  • When you go to this particular spot at Kanyakumari- You can feel the waves touching your feet from 3 directions- left, right and center.. quite literally..!! That’s when you sense that you are standing in the end of land where the three seas meet- The Bay of Bengal, The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The feeling can only be experienced and not expressed.
  • The ruby nose stud adorned by the chief deity- Goddess Parvathi is believed to be shining so bright that history has it that many ships had been misguided due to its light. And that’s also the reason why the sea facing door on the eastern side of the temple is always kept closed, except for a few special occasions.
  • Lot of shopping… Shell crafts..!!