The colossal ‘Haveli’ with its 365 windows had gathered moss and blackened with time. With white paint peeling off from everywhere, it looked eerie as it stood at the corner of an empty crossroad. The owner, a wealthy businessman had shifted to South India for better prospects, leaving the Haveli to die a silent death. Ironically, little did he realise that the true worth of what he was neglecting was far beyond all the wealth that he possessed. And the ones who do, can only admire and shake their heads in hopelessness. 

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Siddhpur, about 30 kilometres away from Patan in Gujarat, looked like any other normal town,  until I reached Vohrawad, where the atmosphere changed from chaos to muteness with the blink of an eye. It was not just the Haveli, but the entire colony of Vohrawad that stood abandoned!

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My mind raced with questions, but there was no one around to answers them. Around four or five lanes ran parallel to the Haveli intersecting the main street at right angles. Every lane had an unending string of houses on both sides built in a typical Victorian architecture with intricate floral designs on the walls and doors and were painted in contrasting but subdued shades of yellows, greens, blues and pinks.  Each  houses shared  a common wall with the one next to it.  The houses were so identical, that, if not for the color, one could never distinguish one from the other! Every house had a distinguished stamp-like emblem with artistic freestyle drawing of the owner’s initials inscribed on the front wall.

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There was one thing unanimous to the entire framework though- they were all EMPTY! Barring a few, the rest were secured with huge locks. With pigeon and bat droppings on the stairs and porches, cobwebs and rust on the grills and windows, it was evident that the owners rarely visited. As I walked through the alleys, I could imagine the houses and streets come alive and scream through the deafening silence. Just then, the loud chit-chat of a group of Bohri women clad in bright Burkhas pierced through, as they walked past me and disappeared into a house a few blocks ahead.

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I finally bumped into a man, somewhere in his late fifties, inspecting a teal colored house that was being renovated. “These houses belong to the Bohra community and every house is at-least hundred years old, some even older. The Bohris gradually left Vohrawad and their ancestral homes behind and migrated to major cities around India for better business prospects and a better way of life. Only a few families have remained. Most of them visit once a year or so to inspect their houses and return. But let me tell you, nobody will ever sell their houses, unless hell breaks loose on them”, he explained with pride. I took the opportunity to quickly sneak into the interiors of the house that was being refurbished. It was dingy inside with crumbling walls. Under all the cement and debris, I could see the exquisite mosaic patterns of the floor tiles. The hall had antique wooden furniture and a long wall-mounted mirror with wooden frame. Steep wooden stairs led to the second and third floors which had spacious bedrooms and balconies. As I made my way up, it was like entering a time machine which pulled me into the era before independence. I did not dare to take the final set of fragile iron steps that led to the terrace in the fear that it could collapse any moment! As I returned through the creepy and dark hallway back to the main door, I felt like I had hopped in and outside two antithetical worlds in a snap!

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The market place of Vohrawad was brimming with people and vehicles. It was in stark contrast to the lifeless lanes that I had left behind minutes ago. I met a man by the name Taha Madraswala and his father who were kind enough to stitch the missing pieces of the puzzle.

The Solanki Kings, during their rule, had rented out the acquired land to the Bohras at a nominal rent but with a condition that all the houses built in the community should have the same height and structure. There is a possibility that all these houses were built almost at the same time, but colored differently for easy identification. Bohras were primarily a Muslim trading community that traded mostly with European countries and hence the European influence is evidently visible in the architecture. Though built lavishly, there was a major flaw in their construct with respect to drainage and sanitation. Interestingly, the ancestral houses are now owned by the families, but the ownership of the land is vested with the government!

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The present state of Vohrawad is rather depressing -crumbling walls, collapsing pillars, leaking roofs and broken drain pipes. Vohrawad was a place with no grandeur, no royal palaces, no striking landscapes and no cultural extravaganza. But it will remain etched in my memory for nothing else but sheer nothingness.

Kashmir Great Lakes was my introduction to Alpine treks. The KGL trek as it is called, takes you on a 7-day journey through 75 kilometres of jaw-dropping landscapes. From mountains to ridges, from meadows to pine forests, from streams to waterfalls, this one has it all!  And while you are trek, you uncover six spectacular, virgin, ice-fed lakes, one after the other, that would take your breath away! By the end of the trek, it is impossible to tell which one was the prettiest!

Day 0: Sonmarg base camp, 9100 ft : An hour after we left the dusty town of Kangan behind, the striking views of the Himalayan foothills with tall alpine trees came into sight. We got dropped off at Sonmarg, where our brightly colored tents sat adorably on the banks of the sparkling and freezing ‘Nallah Sindh‘. Sipping on my steamy Kahwah*,  I watched a Water Redstart make quick plummets into the river to fetch its evening meal. At the far end, the impressive Thajiwas Glacier rose calmly with fluffy white clouds drifting over it.

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Base camp by the Sindh river with Thajiwas Glacier in the background.

Day 1 : Sonmarg to Nichnai via Shekdur (7800 to 11500 ft, 11kms, 8 hours): We were a small batch of six, led by a 57-year old, age-defying guide, Gulam Mohammed, aka Gulam Chacha. The trek commenced with a gradual elevation on a mountain ridge across the Sindh. As we kept going higher, it presented a bird’s eye view of the charming Sonmarg valley that was waking up to a hazy, silvery morning. The construction of a massive tunnel connecting Sonmarg to Leh was in full swing down below. Beyond Shekdur, the landscape gradually changed from Maple and Bhoj trees to valleys and verdant meadows scattered with brooks and streams and continued all the way up to Nichnai pass. We reached Nichnai around 3 pm. Our campsite lazed next to a calm rivulet flowing amid two wide valleys. The Thajiwas glacier was visible even from Nichnai. Herds of sheep bleated and halted curiously by our camp as they made their way down. As night fell, temperatures dropped and Nichnai got enveloped in clouds and drizzle, but made way for a spotless sky and a dazzling weather next morning!

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Sonmarg valley and the tunnel under construction(right)

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Stark change in landscape beyond Shekdur

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Herds of sheep grazing at Nichnai

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An inquisitive sheep at Nichnai camp. Unexpected rain-clouds begin to gather in the background.

Day 2 : Nichnai to Vishansar Lake (11500 to 13500 to 12000 ft, 12 kms, 7 hrs): The day started with a moderate climb to 13500 feet, then a short descend followed by a long hike on the green pastures that bloomed with petite wildflowers and shrubs. Herds of sheep were in plentiful. From late June through September, snow from the valleys of Kashmir recede, giving way to lush green meadows. This is when the nomadic tribes called ‘Gujjars’ inhabit these valleys with hordes of sheep and cattle; pitching temporary homes as they tread along. With the advent of winter from October onwards, the  weather turns harsh and hostile, thus forcing the Gujjars to retreat to the lower plains  or migrate to the nearby villages for livelihood.

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A Gujjar

Vishansar : After an incessant walk, we reached the massive campsite at Vishansar by late noon. Vishansar lake lies hidden between mountain ranges of varying heights. I walked alongside a brook and passed a boulder patch where I stopped to say hello to a pair of nosy marmots (large squirrels) that squeaked loudly as they watched me over from their burrows. A gentle climb of around a hundred feet bought me to the edge of an imposing Vishansar. Magenta colored Celosia flowers lined its turquoise waters that shimmered under the evening sun. I spent an hour by the lakeside. Nightfall sprinkled diamond dust over the pitch-dark sky. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I was able to see every visible star of the universe this day and every day here on till the last day in the lap of Kashmir.

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Pink Celosias around Vishansar lake are hard to miss!

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The shimmering waters of Vishansar

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Relaxing on the bank besides a flower.

Day 3 : Vishansar to Gadsar via Kishansar and Gadsar pass (12000 to 13750 ft, 14 kms, 10 hrs): With Vishansar as the base, we were to scale the towering mountain adjacent to the lofty and naked Kishansar peak, which was about 3/4th of its altitude. A long zig-zag path running from the base to the top of the mountain had an endless trail of horses and ant-like humans in fluorescent clothes drifting on it, inch by inch. The steep ascend of almost 2.5 hours was gruelling and the thin oxygen levels made it even more cumbersome. Half way through the climb, I halted to gawk at the majestic Kishansar lake lying at the base of Kishansar peak. It’s still emerald waters reflected the greenish-blue mountains like a mirror. For an ardent nature lover, Kishansar can end up giving goosebumps.

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Kishansar lake with its magical reflections.

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Kishansar in full view

Even before I could completely soak up what I had just seen, I was already staring at the unbelievable vistas of both Vishansar and Kishansar stacked above one another at a vertical distance of about 500 feet. Standing at the uppermost point of the trail, I  realised that I had overcome the most difficult climb of the trek, but somehow, it felt utterly insignificant next to what lay in front of me..

 

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The spectacular view of Vishansar (bottom) and Kishansar lakes as seen from the top of the ridge

Gadsar Lake: An extended walk continued for a few more kilometers through the grassfields, until the pristine Gadsar lake appeared to my left down a slope. It was at a considerable distance from the trail, but I could still hear the sound of the waterfall that was pouring into it. A glacier ran down from the tall peaks surrounding the lake. Yellow and purple flowers had blossomed everywhere. There was an abandoned military camp tucked away at one corner. Camping was prohibited around Gadsar by the military (thankfully). By the end of my trek through the Great Lakes of Kashmir, I was convinced that Gadsar was undoubtedly the prettiest of all!

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Yellow flowers on the Gadsar pass

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The heavenly Gadsar

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At the Gadsar base camp

Day 4 : Gadsar to Satsar (13750 to 12000 ft, 9 kms, 6 hours) :Gadsar to Satsar was smooth mostly running through plains and boulders. Sat(seven) sar(lakes), as the name goes, is apparently a collection of seven lakes, however, I could locate only a handful. We reached the campsite by lunch and the rest of the day was spent in recuperating.

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The carpet of yellow blooms near Satsar

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Reflections at Satsar

Day 5 : Satsar to Gangbal Twin lakes (12000 to 11500ft, 11 kms, 7 hours): I had unknowingly paced up and exerted myself on the moderate ascend on huge boulders. In the bargain, I suffered mild AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) half way through the trek. Ghulam Chacha mentioned that the pollens released from the yellow flowers had done the trick and not the AMS. Whatever be the reason,  I literally crawled my way up to the last pitstop for Gangbal with a pounding headache, disorientation and fatigue.

When I finally made it to the top, I saw two emerald lakes, Nundkol and Gangbal split by a hefty mountain range with a giant blob of white cloud floating above. It took me a few seconds to convince myself that I wasn’t hallucinating due to my AMS!

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The twin lakes of Nundkol(left) and Gangbal as seen from the highest trekking point

A steep descend hereon led us straight into the Gangbal base camp by late noon. The  mighty Harmukh with its snow-clad peaks and glaciers stood behind the lakes. (The locals worship Harmukh as the protector from venomous insects, snakes, evil and natural calamities). Gangbal was a 10-minute walk away from Nundkol. Gangbal was enormous; the biggest of the lakes witnessed during the entire trek. But it was motionless and extremely quiet, so much so that I could hear the occasional bloop-bloop of fish swimming by its bank. A waterfall splurged out of Gangbal and later joined the stream that gushed out of Nundkol and flowed besides our campsite. At twilight, the sun rays pierced through the clouds and played an opera of shadows and light from behind Harmukh. Night called for some freshly caught trout fish smoked on a bonfire under the sparkling constellations. What a terrific day it had been!

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Nundkol

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A waterfall splurges off Gangbal

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The still side of Gangbal

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The play of light at Gangbal campsite. Harmukh in the background

Day 6 : Gangbal. Rest. A crisp, sunny day with cool breeze and nothing to do! I learnt the  true meaning of the Italian phrase – ‘Dolce far niente’ which means ‘pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness.’ or simply put ‘the joy of doing nothing!

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A horse takes its time out too!

Day 7 : Gangbal to Naranag (11500 to 7450 ft, 15 kms, 7 hours) : It had been a spectacular journey so far, but the real test was now! After crossing the fragile wooden footbridge, we encountered one last but steep zig-zag incline running parallel to a deep valley. To its right, was a lofty mountain range behind which, lay the famous Gurez Valley with parts of it in PoK (Pak occupied Kashmir). To the left, stood the mighty Harmukh. From here on right till the base of Naranag, the trek comprised only of moderate to steep descends for five long hours. The trail passed through spectacular pine forests on both sides with the sweet woody scent of pine lingering throughout! The walk down was an absolute killer on my knees and toes and the ultimate test of my patience.

I let out a long sigh of relief when I finally saw the tinned roofs of the houses of Naranag from a distance. A broad smile flashed through the sweat and tan. I had indeed lived every minute of the prettiest trek of India!

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Romancing the alpines on my way down to Naranag

                                                   About Kashmir Great Lakes Trek 

Kashmir Great lakes or KGL is considered as one of the prettiest treks of India. In 7 days and 75 kms, you uncover 6 spectacular and untouched lakes that lie hidden in the mountains and valleys of Kashmir.
Route : Sonmarg-Nichnai-Vishansar-Kishansar-Gadsar-Satsar-Gangbal-Naranag
Level : Moderate-Difficult. I wouldn’t recommend it for first timers or aged people unless you have an unmatched stamina. Guided trek recommended. I went with Renok Adventures.
Stay : All seven days in tents
Base : Srinagar
Must needed : Good trekking shoes (not sneakers), walking stick, sunscreen, warm clothes in layers, medical kit. rehydration is important. Watch out for AMS symptoms
*Kahwah : Traditional Kashmiri milk-less tea comprising of green Kashmiri tea, saffron, cardamom, sugar and almond chips. A must try 

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Chechi, chaaay veno?’ (Sister, would you like some tea?), asked the make-up man enthusiastically, as he offered me half a tumbler of tea. I sat inside the ten-feet wide make-up room; basically just a thatched shed, and watched him paint the face of a performer who had slid off into a slumber and snored gently. Another man sitting outside, plaited lovely garlands and jewellery from delicate palm fronds. All of this seemed familiar, since it was only a month ago that I had visited Thalassery for my first Theyyam where I had seen the fiesta of 39 Kuttichatans. And here I was, back in Kerala for more, but this time, in a rustic village called Kanhileri, to experience the most resplendent of all Theyyams, namely, the ‘Muchilott Bhagavathi’.

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It had taken me two weeks of unsuccessful attempts to get through to someone locally who could help, until, finally, I chanced upon my host, Mr. Krishnakumar, who was kind enough to make room for a perfect stranger in his home. I got dropped off by an auto in the wee hours of a humid April morning. I woke up to a generous platter of puttu*, appams*, kadala-curry* and bananas, served by his affectionate mother for breakfast. A bath in the cool water pulled up from the well attached to the bathroom was instantly refreshing. I was immensely moved by the family’s hospitality; I later understood that I was the first tourist to have ever visited Kanhileri!

Kanhileri was quiet and peaceful, with a handful of houses amid tall arcadia and rubber trees and a mountain in the backdrop.  The Kaav* was a stone-throw away from Krishnakumar’s home. I could hear the beat of the Chenddas* and the clangs of the Illathalams* from a distance. The Kaav was a small block, yet impressive with a tapering terracotta roof (typical of a temple in rural Kerala). A row of ethnic brass lamps hung from its rim that was decorated with strings of vibrant yellow and orange marigold flowers. Food was being cooked adjacent to the temple in huge aluminium vessels, to be served as Prasadam* at lunch. In contrast to most temples in India that strictly serve only pure vegetarian food to its devotees, this one had a non-vegetarian dish in the making. I sat under the huge blue tarpaulin canopy, sweating profusely as I juggled between gobbling on piping hot Sambar* and rice and chit-chatting with curious women eager to know everything about me. Within no time, I felt like being part of one large family. There is no place else where one could connect more easily than our own countryside, despite the worst of communication barriers!

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A quick introduction to TheyyamTheyyam is a traditional form of worship, unique to the coastal (Malabar) region of Kerala. It’s origin can be traced back to the 13th century or perhaps, even earlier. Manakadan Veliya Gurukkal, the Aashrit (dependent) of the King, Kolathiri Raja, is believed to be the first tutor of Theyyam. Theyyam is a family run tradition and is passed on from one generation to the other. The performers are males who take up the roles of female deities too. The dances start with slow movements and gradually pace up with the rhythm. As the act progresses, the performers reach a state of trance. The dancers are considered to be immortal and divine incarnations of the deity they enact. At the end of each Theyyam, devotees seek their blessings and advices on their fortunes. Read more details here When ‘Gods’ Descend…

In my narration below, I have addressed the performers as “she” wherever the character played is female, to bring out the true essence of the Theyyam.

Puliyoor Kannan (Male)

By evening, Theyyam commenced with the Puliyoor Kannan, who came dressed in a wild cat-like attire. His face was painted red while his eye-sockets had a thick outline of jet black. His chest and stomach were bare and painted yellow and he wore a large crown. As he danced with interrogative expressions, children gathered around him, nudging, teasing and screaming their heart out in his ears. Each time this happened, he tried to animatedly scare them away. However, as the cadence gained speed, the Puliyoor Kannan moved into trance, and was now encouraging the kids to scream louder and louder. To a normal person, this would have been enough to tear the eardrums apart! But the Kannan seemed to be unaffected by the hullabaloo and continued dancing till the beats continued..

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Puliyoor Kannan

This was followed by Karanavar (Male), who resembled a king with a dense fake beard extended from one ear to ear. He was soon accompanied by another Karnavar. A series of Vellattams* continued through the night, however, since most of the names sounded similar to what I had seen in Thalassery, I decided to skip them. 

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Karanavar with a false beard extending from ear to ear

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Narayil Bhagavathi (Female)

An overcast morning with intermittent showers provided momentary relief from the unbearable humidity. A bonfire with logs was lit up in front of the Kaav. The Narayil Bhagavati paraded in poise, holding an iron machete and a brass shield. She wore a metal upper-body resembling a bare-chested woman with a huge yellow snake painted around each bosom. The skirt made of stripped palm fronds had Mashaals* affixed to the front which were lit up as the Bhagavathi swirled and danced in a frenzy around the bonfire. After a while, she was taken to the rear of the Kaav where she slit the neck of a live hen (the act of Bali) and drank its blood. I watched from a distance as I just couldn’t gather enough guts to see the act up-close. This bird was later used in the meal as ‘prasadam’ for the day.

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Narayil Bhagavathi

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Kannangott Bhagavathi (Female)

As the bonfire reduced to charcoal, a pair of Kannangott Bhagavathis arrived. I noticed that size and innateness of the head gear kept increasing with each Theyyam. The performers stooped low and spun with acceleration so as to blow ash from the bonfire Basically, the headgear acted as a fan, sending out clouds of ash in the air, rendering the Theyyam quite dramatic to watch! 

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The Kannangott Bhagavati spins with speed and blows a cloud of fine charcoal dust in the air

Vishnumoorthy (Male)

Vishnumoorthy was a stunt man whose skirt was secured to his chest rather than his waist, making his arms rest almost parallel to his chest at right angles. (Read through the tale behind this Theyyam in my previous blog). When ‘Gods’ Descend…

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Vishnumoorthy has his skirt tied to his chest.

Muchilott Bhagavathi (Female)

By late noon, devotees were getting anxious to witness the last but the most spectacular  Theyyam. I was asked to hurry to the backside of the Kaav where the goddess, hidden behind a white curtain held by a few priests, swayed gently to the slow-paced thump of the Chendda and the metallic timbre of the Illathalam. When the curtain finally dropped, I saw the first glimpse of the divine Muchilott Bhagavathi, soaked in crimson from head to toe. Opaque metallic eyes and a set of demon-like teeth shimmered through a fragile veil of delicate Ixora flowers that were strung carefully from her massive crown. Her box-shaped rectangular skirt and jewellery were equally humungous and elaborate. An exceptional personification of God infused with visual grandeur and powerful auras blew me off my feet! My eyes couldn’t look away from her charisma as I stood in front of her, weightless and speechless..

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The stunning glimpse of the Muchilott Bhagavati with shimmering eyes and teeth behind the veil of Ixora flowers.

The Bhagavati took Pradakhsinaas* of the Kaav and sought blessings of the deity. With two fire torches in hand, she danced eternally under the blue tarpaulin to the drumming of the Chenddas and the pitter-patter of the heavy rain. She was then escorted to the temple well where she saw her reflection in the water for a quick second. The eye shield that was scalding due to the heat from the fire torch, was carefully detached. I could see steam coming off when cold water was dabbed on her eyes with a piece of cloth. The Bhagavati had danced relentlessly for hours, carrying along her costume that weighed no less than thirty kgs. The Theyyam concluded with devotees thronging to seek blessings of the incarnate ‘Muchilott Bhagavathi’.

The wait had paid off. And I had one more brilliant story to take back home from ‘God’s own country!’

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The eyes are patted with water after the eye shield is removed. The steam is clearly visible

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The stunning grandeur of the goddess is nothing less than a phenomenon!

Tell tales around Muchilott Bhagavathi

Of the many interesting stories behind the inception of Muchilott Bhagavati, one of it claims that the goddess emerged from the sweat of Lord Shiva while he performed the Taandav* The rather interesting one revolves around the young and knowledgeable Brahmin girl, named Bhagavathi in a village called Muchilott, who had an unbeatable understanding of the Vedas*. The Gurus of the village tried hard to win over arguments with her, but failed. When they realised that they stood no chance of outsmarting her, they laid a trap by asking her two questions. ‘What was the most excruciating pain and what was the greatest pleasure in the world’. The innocent Bhagavati, out of here acute Vedic mastery, replied that it was labour pain and erotic pleasure. Alleging that an unmarried girl could not have this wisdom without experiencing it, the Gurus successfully expelled her from Muchilott on the grounds that she was not a virgin. Struck with grief, Bhagavathi immolated herself in fire. She insisted a young boy carrying a pot of oil to pour it on her despite his strong resistance. When the boy reached home, his pot was automatically refilled with oil and when he went to the well, he saw the refection of the same girl in its water. Soon after, Lord Shiva sent her back to earth with godly powers and that’s how she was resurrected as Sri Muchilott Bhagavati, the goddess of knowledge and  prosperity. When the villagers came to know of her reincarnation, they built a temple near the same well in Muchilott. (I presume that the act of the Bhagavathi seeing her reflection in the well during the Theyyam originated from this)

Synonyms:

*Prasadam– a devotional offering made to a god, typically consisting of food that is later shared among devotees.
*Puttu (steamed rice cake)  appams( steamed rice pancake, an equivalent of dosa)  and kadala-curry (gravy made of  black chickpeas usually served with puttu and appams). This is the most common breakfast in Kerala.
*Chenddas and Ilathalams – Traditional musical instruments of Kerala
*Kaav – temple
*Prasadam – religious offering, normally consumed by worshippers after worship
*Sambar- A tangy, thick soup like gravy made with Daal and vegetables, prepared in South India.
*Vellattam- Day 2 of worship with longer duration of dance performance. While day 1 comprises of vocal admiration and minimal dance-Natathira Orthottam. Main performances happen on day 3, namely Theyyam
*Mashaals – fire torches
*Pradakhsinaas- circumambulation
*Taandav-the dance of death, associated with Lord Shiva
*Vedas- Ancient manuscripts of Hinduism

Snippets 

Theyyam, one of the most ancient and traditional form of worship, is unique to the Malabar region of Kerala. As it seeps into coastal Karnataka, it manifests itself as ‘Bhootakola’. Theyyam, I am told, is considered to be a form of Upasna or the attainment of God itself! There are close to 300 forms of Theyyams, that happen across North Kerala between December and April. Every Theyyam is unique in its own way since each has a story behind it. Having said that,  Muchilott Bhagavati is the grandest in my opinion. 

I have complied the below list of temples where you could see the Muchilott Bhagavathi. The dates given here might shift a bit, year on year. All of these are typical villages and some might not have ever seen a tourist before, like in my case. You are suggested to google up info and make your own plan. I prefer it that way than to team up with a tour agency who gives everything to you on a platter.

For Kanhileri, you may reach out to Mr. Krishnakumar. Write in to me for further info and I will be glad to assist you!

Kannur Malur Vengakandi Muchilot Bhagavathy Temple Feb 19-21
Kannur Mattannur Kallur Muchilot Bhagavathy Temple Feb 21-23
Mattannur Chavasseri Mannora Mahadalam Muchilottu Kavu Temple- Feb 1-4
Thaliparamba Chuzhali Muchilottu Bhagavathy Temple Jan5-8
Mattannur Kodolipram Muchilottu Bhagavathy Temple Mar 1-3
Kannur Panoor Kootteri Muchilot Bhagavathy Kavu Temple Feb 13-16
Iritty Punnad Muchilottu Bhagavathy Temple Feb 19-21
Kannur Kizhunna Sree Muchilot Bhagavathy Jan 29-31
Kuthuparambu Kottayampoyyil Kolavu Muchilottu Kavu Jan 23-27
Mattannur Kummanam Puthiyaparambath Muchillottu Kavu Dec 28-30
Mattannur Kavumbadi Pulimbilakkandi Muchilottu Kavu Feb 10-12
Peravur Thondiyil Muchilottu Bhagavathy Kshethram Mar 20-22
Kannur Kuthuparambu Pathiriyad Muchilottu Bhagavathy Kavu Dec 20-22
Kannur Kuttiattur Kulangara Puthiyakavu Muchilottu Kavu Dec 20-23
Kannur Sreekandapuram Parippayi Muchilot Bhagavathy Mar 3-6
Kannur Kuveri Sree Muchilot Bhagavathy- once in 12 years 
Mattannur Malur Kanhileri Pothiyalkandi Padinhatta Muchilottu Kavu-Mar 17-19
Kannur Koodali Muchilot Bhagavathy Kavu-Feb 13-15
Kannur Valapattanam Muchilottu kavu-Jan 25-29
Kalliasseri Anchampeedika Vattakkeel Muchilottu Kavu- Feb 7-10
Payyannur Thayineri Muchilottu Perumkaliyattam Feb 6-9
Kannur Maruthayi Muchilottu Bhagavathy kavu- Mar 23-25
Kannur Madai Sree Muchilot Bhagavathy Kavu- feb 6-9
Kannur Vengara Sree Muchilot Bhagavathy Kavu – Jan
Mattannur Nellyadu Vattoli Muchilottu bhagavaathy kshethram –Dec 2-4
Kannur Vaikkalasseri Raamath Puthiyakavu Muchilot Bhagavathy Kavu- Mar 7
Chokli Nidumbram Sree Muchilot Bhagavathy Kavu- Jan 22-24
Kannur Pallikkunnu Kunnav Sree Muchilot Bhagavathy- Jan 7-10
Mettadi Muchilot Bhagavathy Temple –Jan 1-3
Kasargod Thrikaripur Sree Muchilot Bhagavathy – feb 6-9
Kannur Anjarakkandy Kunnirikka Muchilottu Bhagavathy Kavu- Nov 30-2
Kasargod Palakunnu Tirur Karipody Muchilot Bhagavathy Kavu 10 -15 yrs 
Kannur Thaliparamba Keezhattur Muchilottu Bhagavathy Kavu-dec 2-5
Cherukunnu Kavinisseri Muchilottu Bhagavathy Kavu- dec 7-10
Kannur Karivellur Sree Muchilot Bhagavathy Kavu- Jan 7-12
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My life right now : At 36, when most women of my age are busy planning kids and buying homes, I am happily planning my next travel destination! The social stigma around how ones life needs to be bracketed into doing the same stuff that everyone else around you is doing has only pushed me farther away to seek a life that lies beyond the stereotypical.

Where it all began : My tryst with travel started when I was in college. I was an occasional trekker then. Soon after I started working in 2004, I booked myself for a safari at Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The agony of going for the trip with a Nokia N73 phone is unforgettable. Kanha had kindled an instant liking and interest towards wildlife and birds. When I returned, I bought myself a Bikram Grewal bird book, a binocular and a Nikon point-and-shoot camera from the little savings that I had. I developed a keen interest for birds and just like most hobby-photographers, I could not pull myself back from the addiction. I migrated to an entry-level DSLR with a basic telephoto lens and self-learned photography. When I realised that my equipment had limitations and so did my patience, I decided to deviate from wildlife photography, thus suppressing my desire of owning a good tele-photo lens. For better.

My love for photography : As my travels continued, I started exploring other genres of photography that did not necessarily need expensive gear and that is where my passion for travel photography took off. I began to develop a fascination for culture, color, people streets and landscape. Few good things about travel photography are the spontaneity, the vibrance, the element of surprise and YOUR perspective of looking at things. Though I consider myself as anti-social, the more I traveled, I realised that interacting with unknown people came easily to me. After a few years of dragging on with my basic DSLR, I began renting cameras and lenses for my trips until after my Mathura trip,  when I purchased my canon 7d mark ii. Photography has become an inseparable part of me since!

My tryst with writing : My trip to the breath-taking gorge at Gandikota, Andhra Pradesh in 2015 was so remarkable, that I felt like penning down all that I had experienced. My first blog happened! Little did I know then, that a baby step I had taken, would instigate me to to take up travel blogging. With constant appreciation from friends and family, I started penning down each of my escapades religiously! Within a span of 3 years, I ended up having a decent collection of write-ups. Now, my travels revolve around my thirst for stories, though most of the times, stories just happen and I do not really have to go searching for one!

My dilemma and how I overcame it : Most of the travelers I follow, have left home and live location-independent. I was fascinated by their stories, their world and their courage to take a plunge into the unknown. So much so, that I had bouts of urgency to follow their path. Each time I tried to decide in my head, something kept pulling me back. Somewhere in my head, I wasn’t really sure if that is what I was seeking. Is necessary that you travel like a maniac nomad just because you want to prove to yourself that you are a traveler? No, not at all. An urge to return to the comfort of my home after a long travel, does not mean that I am not a traveler in true sense! And thus I chose to be a  sporadic traveler..

How and where I travel : Luxurious travel for me is alien, moreso, I do not exist in the world of idiotic selfies! I am a rugged and budget traveler. My preferences are mostly home-stays and hostels. The best was to give back to the society as a traveler is when you promote responsible tourism and thus, I prefer going local. I am a foodie as much as I am a traveler! Though most of my travel is around culture and places, my preference would be to drift away into solitude on a mountain or sit over the edge of an ocean, dreaming and watching a sunset.

How travel changed me: Being amid mountains and seas, has taught me to look down and beyond my minuscule problems into the infinite world of vastness and happiness. It has given me knowledge that lies beyond the four walls of my office. It has taught me to be patient and flexible. I now know the importance of giving back to society and to nature. Travel has made me overcome my fears of going solo. Above, everything else, it has taught me to offload pride and live humbly.

My way forward: A coffee table book with my travel stories and pictures when I turn 50 is brewing in my head. I want to be an inspiration for all those women who want to travel but cannot refrain from their current responsibilities.

My message to you : Be a Traveler. Wander limitless. Be Mad. Explore and Inspire!

 

Prelude:

The forest inspection bungalow sat in quietude amid jackfruit, mango and mahogany trees. Insects hovered around in plenty; encircling under the tube-light and crawling on the walls and the white marble floor. I stepped out on the porch and sauntered around with my cup of piping-hot instant coffee. The air was still and sultry, yet pleasant. Thattekad, illuminated by a pale moon looked both lovely and creepy at the same time. Under the flash of our swaying torchlights, we walked to the other side of the road into the sanctuary towards Girish’s homestay.

Girish and the Malabar Gliding frogs: 

After reading a few blogs that spoke highly about his birding expertise I had cherry-picked Girish from the handful of guides at Thattekkad. Girish’s family comprised of his wife, two kids, his mother Sudha and his 90 year old grand-mom. A lawyer by profession, he was a cheerful man in his forties. Thattekad being his birthplace, he had developed a keen interest in birding since childhood. Sudha, a soft spoken and energetic lady, was a bird enthusiast too! Interesting conversations unfolded around Thattekad and its ecosystem. Girish’s home, painted in electric blue, nestled cozily in the forest canopy.  An army of Malabar frogs dwelling in his courtyard had taken me by complete surprise! With their smooth and vivid green body, yellow feet and bulgy yellow eyes, they looked like characters out of a fairy tale. Gliding frogs are tree frogs that can make gliding jumps of upto 12 meters, approximately 100 times their length. This rare specie is found only in the Western Ghats.

IMG_20180427_212828-1malabar gliding frog 1

Malabar Gliding frog-Mobile click

Urulathanni : 

Seven kilometres away from the main sanctuary, Urulathanni was waking up to a cloudy and drizzly morning. Such a weather in the mid of May was both unexpected and disappointing. To our luck, it cleared off sooner than anticipated. Traversing through teak and rubber plantations, we reached a flat rocky patch, ahead of which, a moderately elevated climb led us to a clearing that presented a panoramic view of the forest and the mountains surrounding Thattekad. A small tribal hut stood towards one end. Girish mentioned that the hut was in the elephant and leopard crossing zone, but the small tribal family of four along with their dog, were well adapted to the lurking dangers. We glanced around and realised that this stretch was bustling  with flower-peckers, minivets, starlings, hill mynas, parakeets, sunbirds, drongos, hornbills and others flew in plenty. The sun was up and the birds we active already. Girish sped like a superfast train, spotting and identifying birds by their flight and calls, while I struggled to keep up with his pace. The hyper-activeness of the birds and the considerable distance from them made focusing almost impossible. I toggled frustratingly between mounting my beast-like lens on the tripod and hand-holding it. As the morning sun became harsher, humidity started taking a toll. I hadn’t clicked a single good image, except that of a giant butterfly and a bug! Eventually, when the heat became unbearable, we started to descend into the lower terrain. It had been a frustrating and ugly start!

_B8A2269-1giant butterfly

The Srilanka Frogmouth

‘I can’t see them’ I uttered in an anxious, but hushed voice. ‘Go closer, be careful not to touch or shake the branch though’, instructed Girish. I inched further towards the bunch of dried leaves of a slim tree that stood amid hundred other identical trees. I noticed a withered leaf gently ruffle for a  split-second. I found the pair of Srilaka Frogmouths roosting on a fragile branch; one of which had acted like a dead leaf dangling in the wind! They duo was glued to each other, absolutely motionless and so perfectly camouflaged, that if not for Girish, I would have never been able to locate them, even at such close proximity. Srilanka Frogmouth is one of the tougher birds to spot due to its plumage that resembles dried leaves. More so, these are nocturnal and usually perch at the same spot for long hours with slight or no movement. Its elongated eyes, wide bill with moustache and frog-like face renders it both beautiful and weird-looking at the same time! We encountered more frogmouths at considerable distances from each other later on the trail. It wasn’t surprising that we bumped into all of them at the exact same spots over the next couple of days.

_B8A2371-1Srilanka frogmouth side close up_

Srilanka Frogmouth stretches its neck when alert

_B8A2327-1Srilanka frogmouth pair 3

Srilanka Frogmouth pair- the female is rufous and the male is slightly grey in color.

The mysterious hooter and the Jerdon’s Nightjar

Noon was well-spent near a placid lake which had a colony of bee-eaters and swallows As the sun began to set, we were back into the forests to hunt down the Jerdon’s Nightjar. However, our attention was diverted to a loud and mystical ‘wooooh-woooh-wooooh’ that echoed from a distance. “I think its a Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, but I am not sure!”, Girish exclaimed overwhelmingly. We hastened through the bushes and thorny shrubs, in the direction of the hooting. Each time we felt like we were getting closer, the owl would pause for a few minutes and then hoot again, but farther away. This hide and seek continued for sometime, until we eventually gave up! It was high time we headed back for the nightjar. Girish brought us back to a small expanse, not too far away from the road. He started playing the nightjar’s call on his phone repeatedly. Drawing our attention towards two bare branches of a bush nearby, he confidently implied, “It would fly around here anytime now and sit on either of these branches for a few seconds; be ready”. And as though Girish had some premonition, a beautiful Jerdon’s Nightjar perched exactly on the branch that Girish had pointed out. Its plumage was in shades of black, brown and white and it had deep black eyes. It sat for less than thirty seconds before disappearing into the woods. This was too good to be real!

_B8A2613-1jerdons nightjar

Jerdon’s Nightjar. Pic Credits : Mihir Vilekar

Tracking down the Trogons

A faint and short ‘eaw eaw’ lead us offtrack and down a gentle slope to the base of the jungle with a brook running through it. Here, the ground was moist and laden with leeches. Albeit my efforts and repeated pleas from my husband, I just couldn’t pull my attention off the blood suckers and in the bargain, we lost track of the Trogon. I looked down to pull away from the cursing look on his face, only to find that three leeches had already crawled up my left foot, despite all the drama I had put up. We continued walking off-road for a few meters and connected to the-mud trail in no time. My face lit up as we chanced upon a beautiful pair of pruning Trogons just 10 feet away! The male was handsome, with a bright crimson front, black head and white color. The female had a chrome yellow chest while the head and collar were brown. Malabar Trogons are resident birds of the Western Ghats. Due to their shy nature, they are usually found in thick canopies. Even with  such striking colors, they blend well with their surroundings since their backs are camouflaged! For me, these were no less than the birds of paradise.

Malabar trogon male front

A vibrant male Malabar Trogon

Hornbill Best

A Malabar Grey Hornbill with its juvenile

Salim Ali bird trail

On the last day, we explored the Salim Ali trail inside the Thattekad sanctuary with Sudha. Apart from a jungle owlet, a few malabar parakeets we did not sight anything much. A stunt watch tower inside the forest threw some scenic views. Further ahead, we reached a pond skirted with dense growth of bamboo beyond which the trail opened up into a long and narrow path with thicket of tall trees on either sides. Drongos and woodpeckers wandered in abundance. A pair of white-bellied treepies with never-ending tails, looked majestic when they flew from tree to tree.  These again, can only be found in Western Ghats. 

White bellied treepie 2

White Bellied Treepie. Pic credit : Mihir Vilekar

With the last bird on my wish-list ticked off, it was time to leave. An unexpected overcast took over Thattekad, vanquishing the intolerable airlessness with soothing whiffs of cool winds. We drove past the area where had head the enigmatic hoots the previous evening. From deep within the woods, the uncanny ‘wooooooh-woooooh-woooooh’ echoed, piercing the silence of the jungle. The mysterious owl though, had made up its mind to maintain its inconspicuousness.

drongo cuckoo

The rare, Drone Cuckoo

Greater racket tailed drongo

Greater Racket tailed Drone

_MG_0178-2-1orange headed thrush

Orange-headed thrush

Malabar giant squirrel

Malabar Giant Squirrel

About Thattekad: Thattekad is a dense evergreen forest situated approximately 65 kms to the east of Cochin in Kerala. More commonly referred to as The Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, it is considered to have the richest bird habitat in the peninsular region of India with close to 280 reported species(resident and migratory). In the local dialect, Thattekad translates into ‘Thatte- plate’ and ‘Kad-forest’. The topography of Thattekad comprises of flat rocks and hence the name. Also, the pristine Periyar river branches into and cuts through the sanctuary. Few rare birds endemic to western ghats can be found here. Urulathanni is the richest in terms of bird species and population, in my personal opinion.

Best time to Visit : Oct through March. To skip the crowd of birdwatchers, one may visit in April, though most migrant birds return from Thattekad by then but resident birds can be sighted in plenty.

How to reach :

By Air : The nearest airport is Cochin. Private taxis could be booked to reach Thattekad.

By Rail : Aluva is the closest station. Hire a private taxis or take a bus hereon

By bus : Overnight bus from Bangalore to Koothuparamba- local bus to Kothamanagalam- local bus to Thattekad.

Where to stay : You can choose to stay in Girish’s homestay. If you are on a budget, try the Forest Inspection bungalow. In both cases, advance booking is strongly recommended. Alternatively, one can stay in Kothamangalam. For Forest IB contact Mani @ 8547603174

Where to eat : the nearest eatery joint is 3 kms away. Thattekad is mostly rural, hence no big hotels in the vicinity. Kothamangalam is a slightly bigger town, 12 kms away.

Guide info : Girish @ 9847034520.

Essentials : A good telephoto lens above 500mm, tripod, binoculars, sunscreen, light, camouflaging clothes, cap, 2 litres of water, umbrella ( it may rain post March), leech socks (if visiting pre/post monsoons)

_B8A2142-1Periyar sunset 3

A serene sunset on river Periyar that cuts through Thattekad

My list of identified and photographed birds species at Thattekad: 66. For a pictorial tour, click here : Birds of Thattekad

  1. Srilanka Frogmouth -male and female
  2. Malabar Trogon Male- male and female
  3. Jerdon’s Nightjar
  4. White-bellied Treepie
  5. Malabar Grey Hornbill
  6. Rufous Treepie
  7. Vernal Hanging Parakeet
  8. Malabar Parakeet
  9. Red Whiskered Bulbul
  10. Red Vented Bulbul
  11. Yellow Browed Bulbul
  12. Flame Throated Bulbul
  13. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
  14. Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo
  15. Black Drongo
  16. Drongo Cuckoo
  17. Streak-throated Woodpecker
  18. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker
  19. Lesser Yellow Naped Woodpecker
  20. Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker
  21. Heart-spotted Woodpecker
  22. Bar-winged Flycatcher
  23. White-bellied Blue Flycatcher
  24. Little Cormorant
  25. Little Egret
  26. Great Egret
  27. Darter
  28. River Tern
  29. Spot-billed Pelican
  30. Cotton Pygmy Goose
  31. Bronze-winged Jacana
  32. Lesser Whistling Ducks
  33. Coppersmith barbet
  34. Grey Shrike
  35. Bay backed shrike
  36. Wood Shrike
  37. Asian fairy Bluebird-male and female
  38. Black Hooded Oriole
  39. Oriental Magpie Robin
  40. Hill Myna
  41. Orange Headed Thrush
  42. Spotted Dove
  43. Yellow-footed Green Pigeon
  44. Imperial Green Pigeon
  45. Pompadour Green Pigeon
  46. Blyth’s Starling
  47. Brahminy Starling
  48. Jungle Babbler
  49. Common Kingfisher
  50. Pied Kingfisher
  51. Stork-billed Kingfisher
  52. White throated Kingfisher
  53. Minivet- male and female
  54. Green Bee-Eater
  55. Chestnut Headed Bee-Eater
  56. Blue Cheeked Bee-Eater
  57. Grey Tit
  58. Red-Rumped Swallow
  59. Flowerpecker
  60. Indian Nutthatch
  61. Jungle Owlet
  62. Sunbirds
  63. Indian Coucal
  64. Jungle Fowl
  65. Red-wattled Lapwing
  66. Hoopoe

 

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