My odyssey through Banaras

I stepped out of my rickshaw, baffled! Banaras was just like any other tertiary Indian city – dusty, chaotic and unorganised. Vehicles ran in all possible directions, honking uncontrollably; surpassing my decibel limits. While walking down the ultra-lean gallees leading to my hostel, I stopped every once in a while to admire the rustic charm of the oldest living cities in the world! ‘Bunkedup Hostel’ seemed more like an extension of a small, dilapidated temple, not in use any longer. The reception was cramped, stuffy and dimly lit. Uncomfortably steep stairs led me to my bunk on the third floor, which stared into the brick coloured Shikhar of the temple that gleamed subtly in the half-moon night of mid-September.

I woke up with a jerk to a ‘thud-thud’ sound on my window next morning. A curious monkey peeped through the tainted glass and made desperate attempts to slide the pane, but eventually gave up. I gulped on hot poha and chai served by the hostel, savouring my first views of Banaras from its rooftop. A bright and glazing sun had risen over the divine Ganges who flowed calmly beyond the intricate crochet of buildings and temples that lined its banks endlessly. Flocks of pigeons and parrots roamed carelessly under a vast blue sky.

A morning in the gallies

People rightly say that the true essence of Banaras lies in its gallies and ghats. Vishwanath Galli was a mesh of brightly coloured houses with simple, yet eye-catching murals of birds and flowers on the walls. Aromas of sweet-meats, deep-fried kachoris, freshly churned malai, flowers and scented agarbattis mixed with the intermittent whiff of freshly spat cow dung manifested the streets. Devotees thronged in serpentine queues for a darshan of the divine Kashi Vishwanath temple- the epitome of devotion for thousands of Hindus from all walks of life. Not very far away, Godowlia market bustled with vegetable and fruit carts and vendors selling colourful toys and cheap merchandise. Shops exhibited the best of their bright Banarasi sarees for sale and the eateries displayed piles of mithais and namkeens, too tempting to resist.

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A brightly painted house with murals on the wall

Banaras runs on Chai !

I stopped at one of the many tea stalls that stood at a ‘Nukkad’ (local word for corner) serving Chai in a ‘Kullad‘ (earthen pot). The bliss of refreshing milk tea infused with freshly pounded ginger combined with the subtle, lingering fragrance of earth in every sip can be compared to no other! Random conversations stirred up with other chai-sippers around. No wonder, why Chai is an inseparable part of Banaras, just like the rest of India. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to refer to Chai as a daily ritual or a religion that binds the nation and its people together!

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Observing lane rules in Banaras

Getting lost in Banaras is normal and at times, its quite entertaining to rediscover yourself at the very place you left behind a few minutes ago! I figured out a few basic rules here and obediently bided by them..

1. You wait and let the cow pass first.

2. You squeeze yourself and pass at the same time as the cow, but you let its tail whack you a bit.

3. Honking is a universally accepted language to ask you to get off the way.

4. Stepping on dung is no big deal, it gets washed off easily, unlike chewing gum.

5. You can ask for guidance multiple times, even if you look like you are an absolute dumbass, you will be helped!

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Observing lane rules

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The trance of the Ganga-Aarti

I dragged myself at 4 am in an unconvinced state of mind to witness the early morning Aarti on Assi Ghat. Pandits dressed in bright red and orange dhotis arranged themselves on a raised wooden platform. Blowing a unanimous rhythm with their Shankhs (shells), the blissful Aarti began. The chants of the hymns blended with the metallic sounds of a huge bronze gong that was beaten at regular interludes. Huge brass lamps were swayed in the air leaving trails of soothing smoke and golden light. The sky mutated into electric blue as the universe gradually transformed from darkness to light. I stood between heaven and the Ganges, feeling blessed and euphoric with a sudden rush of gratitude.

The evening Aarti at Dashaswa Ghat carries the same aura, but its more vibrant and lively. I personally preferred the serenity of the Aarti at dawn on the banks of Assi though. All said and done, the divine Aartis on the banks of the Ganges is an experience one cannot afford to miss. (Aarti is a form of worship in India comprising of chanting of hymns and show of lamps)

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Morning Aarti at Assi Ghat

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Evening Aarti on Dashaswamedh Ghat

A date with the ghats

Upon a morning boat ride from Assi to Manikarnika, I caught a glimpse of the oldest living city waking up to the first rays of the sun that touched the calm waters of the Ganges before spreading it arms on its banks. The ghats seemed to disappear into the haze and the fog on the tail end, adding a touch of mystery to the vistas. Getting down at Scindia ghat, I walked backwards all the way up to Assi, exploring the many facets of life on the ghats. Kids taking a plunge into the Ganga, washermen beating and drying clothes, devotees praying for their ancestors, pilgrims gently nudging small paper plates with diyas and flowers into the holy river, priests and sadhus performing their religious duties, pyres burning at a distance are just a few of the many stories that unfold on these ghats by the minute.

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A serene dawn unfolds on the banks the holy Ganga. 

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A boat ride from Assi to Scindia is the best way to explore life on the Ghats of Banaras

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Life on the ghats

The ghats of Banaras are the very crux of its existence. Ghats are basically the riverfront steps leading to Ganga; the city has 88 of them. Each ghat has its own significance and is named after a legend. While almost all ghats are used for Poojas, two of them are exclusively used for cremation. A few must-visit ghats are:

  • Assi : For the divine Ganga Aarti at the break of dawn
  • Dashaswamedh: For the evening Aarti at the banks
  • Manikarnika and Harishchandra : for cremation
  • Chet Singh for its impressive fort-type structure
  • Ahilya, Munshi, Ganga Mahal, Maanmandir and Darbhanga Ghats – for eye-catching edifices
  • Tulsi – to witness action at the Akhada
  • Scindiya  – for its half drowned Shiva temple
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View from Chet Singh Ghat

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A family of 37 men performing “Pinda-daan” (ritual for deceased members of the family) on one of the ghats

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Washing is a common chore 

The journey beyond death 

While in the rest of India, its taboo for women to witness a cremation; here in Banaras, it’s not. There are no cries or whines but a sense of Moksha (relief) on the ghats of Manikarnika and Harishchandra, where pyres burn from dawn to dusk. It is a deep rooted belief that people who are cremated here get relieved from the cycle of life and death. Every day, bodies from all over India arrive here for their last rites. They are first submersed in the holy Ganges as a mark of purification before they traverse their path to attain Moksha.

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Moksh at Manikarnika, the burning ghat

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Birds eye view of the burning ghat

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An Aghori at Harishchandra ghat with a burning pyre in the background

The unsung Akhada 

Not many know of the hidden treasures and historical significance of Banaras. At Tulsi ghat, I witnessed one of India’s most ancient sport- Kushti or Wrestling in action. Kushti is played by wrestlers called Pehelwans, in a cube shaped mud-floor called Akhada. The mud has a mix of neem, ghee, turmeric and other antioxidants and is rubbed lavishly by the Pehelwans during and after every session. Siyaramji, a 60-year old Kushti champion has been training Pehelwans for over 25 years with high levels of enthusiasm and vigour. Tulsi ghat was also home to the legendary poet, Tulsidas who wrote “Ramcharitramanas”. The pale blue colored house in which he stayed stands next to the Akhada and is still intact and preserved. A professor I met at the Akhada shared some interesting insights about the rich history of Varanasi, but  the most prominent one I can remember is that under the camouflage of wrestling in this Akhada,  locals and revolutionaries used to plan secret missions and train young men to revolt against the British during their Raj.

                                               Action at the Akhada at Tulsa Ghat

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The didgeridoo man 

‘Interestingly weird’ is how I could define my brief interaction with Mithoo, the mysterious man who plays a mysterious instrument in one of the unnamed streets. Long, cylindrical funnels ranging from 2 feet to 10 feet in various colors and shapes were stacked inside a small rectangular room. Mithoo spoke in a philosophical lingo I couldn’t relate to. He then took out a 4 feet long didgeridoo, placed the narrow side of it to his mouth and played it with circular breathing and continuous lip vibrations that lasted for over a minute. The sounds from the didgeridoo were deep and cosmic-like with brilliant quivers, far from anything I had ever heard before. He charged a small fee for his performance. Strangely, he returned it, asking us to use it to feed the hungry dogs of Banaras. After I came back, I read a blog about Mithoo which said that once a week, he pulls out whatever money he can manage, prepares huge vessels of curd rice and feeds the hungry dogs and this he has been doing for years!  People perceive Mithoo as crazy (just like I had initially), since his actions and words cannot be comprehended by many. I was moved by his unconditional love for nature and its creations. Because we all live in a perceived world and perceptions are always truth-defying, people like Mithoo get buried under it. The secret lies in having an open heart and mind to identify and absorb the infinite forms of beauty that surround us.

The three monks at Sarnath 

Thirteen kilometres away, the small town of Sarnath welcomed me with its tranquility. With Vietnamese, Srilankan, Chinese and Japanese monasteries, Sarnath is a great option to spend some time away from the mad rush and frenzy of Varanasi. While wandering through the Stupa ruinsI met 3 young monks in their saffron robes. In the fading light of the day, their faces glowed gently and when they spoke, words fell like soft ocean pearls. Amidst small, humble conversations and smiles, I embraced their simple world overflowing with love, compassion and selflessness. The 3 monks at Sarnath became an inseparable aspect of my memories of Banaras.

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A monk in devotion

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The largest Stupa at Sarnath is believed to have incorporated the ashes of Buddha in it.

My gastronomical journey

From pooris to kachoris, from chats to litti chokhas, from lassis to bhang thandais, from kesar jalebees to rabdi kulfis, Banaras is an extravaganza for a foodie! My taste buds went through an exotic journey of flavours, only leaving me craving for more..

At ‘Baati Chokha’ restaurant, I got my hands on the authentic Litti Chokha, a recipe unique to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.  Litti or Baati is a wheat ball stuffed with “Sattu”– a mixture of ground pulses. It is then baked over coal or cow dung and then tossed in lavish portions of ghee and served with daal and chokha. Chokha is a side dish made of smoked and mashed aubergine and potatoes garnished with the distinct sourness of lime and a pungent dash of mustard oil. Something worth trying while in Banaras.

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A full fledged meal of rice, chokha, daal, Litti, Raita, Onions, curd and pickle(anticlockwise)

Trippin’ on the mighty Bhang and pan

Bhang has its mention in Hindu mythology as the drink of Lord Shiva himself. Consumable proportion of crushed cannabis is added to a milk-based shake called Thandaai. Since no trip to Banaras is complete without tasting the good old Bhang, I decided to relish it too. The taste of Thandaai was mind-bowing and the post-bhang tripping experience -even better! The rest of the night was spent in bouts of senseless laughing and repetitive actions amidst mild hallucinations 🙂

“O Khaike pan Banaras walaa” flashed into my head while I munched on the delicious Banarasi pan at one of the nukkad pan shop. A twist that makes the Banarasi pan stand out is the Supari. Unlike hard suparis available in the rest of the country, the one used  here is tender since it gets soaked in water overnight. The crunchy pan blends with the Kattha, Supari and Gulkand perfectly to give a blast of irresistible flavours with every chew!

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Sinful Kachories dancing in oil

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Pure ghee in the making

A spiritual rendezvous

Millions have believed in the healing powers of the sacred Ganga for generations and she is referred to as Ganga Maiyya-the mother. Having said that a quick dip in the Ganges is inevitable! I spent some time on the Dashaswamedh ghat, listening to the divine evening Aarti. The eternal Maiyya kindled an urge in me to place a diya on her waves and like a goddess, she gently sailed it away into infinity.

Banaras or Varanasi or Kashi – by whatever name one may choose to call it, is an experience which needs to be lived to be believed.

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 Banaras in a nut shell

  • When to visit: Best time is during Dev Diwali in November. Avoid summer and Sept-Oct due to high humidity levels.
  • What not to miss: Early morning Aarti at Assi Ghat, evening Aarti at Dashaswamedh ghat, morning boat ride from Assi to Scindia Ghat, walking in the narrow alleys and strolling by the ghats from Scindia to Assi, Sarnath, Kashi Vishwanath temple, Vishwanath Galli, Godowlia market, Akhada at Tulsi ghat.
  • Interesting ghats: Assi, Dashaswamedh, Munshi, Tulsi, Chet Singh, Maan Mandir, Darbhanga, Manikarnika, Harishchandra, Scindia, Ganga Mahal.
  • Where and what to eat:
    • Kashi Chat Bhandar- Tamatar chat, palak chat, kulfi and gulab jamuns are their must try.
    • Rabdi Lassi at Dudhsagar a little ahead of Kashi Chat
    • Kachoris, Poori sabzi, Kullad Chai and Malai Lassi at any thela in Vishwanath Galli
    • Baati Chokha Restaurant at Puran Das road
    • A small nameless thela opp. Imperial college in Tulsi Ghat sells delicious methi poori and kesar jalebi for as less as INR 15.
    • Bhang thandaai from Kashi Vishwanath thandaai ghar
    • Parwal ki mithai is unique to Varanasi if your taste buds can handle it.
    • Mutton cutlets and roti from Kalam ki Dukaan, and Lallu ki Biryani at Kasaibada, near Dashaswamedh.
    • Banarasi pan at any of the hundreds of stalls at every corner.

                           A few memoirs from my Odyssey of the oldest living city.

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The cicadas camouflaged on the areca palms had begun their ever-soothing orchestras with regular interludes. A small patch of infant ginger shoots grew besides a thirty-acre coffee estate; the offshoots bore raw coffee beans in shades of green and pale brown. Heart shaped leaves of pepper had entwined the slender silver oak trees spread far and in between. A serpentine road paved with stones and tar glided through the wet forest like a slithering snake. Raindrops gently trickled on dry leaves, waterfalls gushed out of small channels and milky streams flowed ruggedly deep in the canopy of the deciduous forests. Monsoon had created a rhapsody with the sound of the waters and songs of the birds. We embraced every moment of our drive through the incredibly scenic Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary situated in the Chikmaglur district of Karnataka.

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First glimpse of Bhadra

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Driving through the lush deciduous Bhadra

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A camouflaged Cicada

The last light of the day was fading away. I admired the panoramic vistas of the mountains and passing grey clouds from the courtyard of the Redwood Homestay, nestled somewhere in the remote interiors of Bhadra. A loud but pleasant shrill of a peacock calling out from the woods woke me up from the mild slumber I had drifted into. I sat in the verandah sipping a cup of piping hot ginger tea when a busy spider caught my attention. It was building a king size mansion from the sloping terracotta roof all the way down to the fence, oscillating tirelessly. It occurred to me that most of us are like the little spider- spending our lives in spinning dreams and then toiling back and forth to accomplish them! Wouldn’t it be nicer to be a butterfly instead- stopping every once in a while to savour the sweet nectar of simple pleasures available in abundance around us? It turned out that the quietude of Bhadra had awakened the philosopher in me!

After relishing the simple yet delicious home-made supper served by the extremely warm hearted couple, Prafula and Sathish, I stepped out in the chilly breeze for a quick stroll in the courtyard. Pitch darkness had engulfed Bhadra. Except for a small bulb that lit another homestay at a distance, I could see nothing! Bhadra was as gorgeous by the moonless night as it was by the day. When I returned, the spider had finally retired in his dream house. I followed suit, tucking myself under the cozy blanket on this gloomy and chilly night of mid-august.

Retro : The first day of our trip had been disappointing. Our plans to visit the tallest peaks of Karnataka- Mullayangiri and Baba Budangiri had been strangled under the  perpetual queue of vehicles on the narrow one-way that waited impatiently and honked frantically. We decided to retreat midway and while doing so, caught sight of a hairline road creeping on a secluded mountain range on the opposite end, with no trace of motors or mortals.

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View of the remote road leading to the base of Bhadra from the route leading to Bababudan.

With much reluctance we had decided to explore it. Driving through a gradual decent, we passed through dense and virgin stretches of Muthodi and Bhadra forests. We sighted treepies, racket tailed drongos, orange thrushes, minivets and barbets apart from other common birds. However, animal sighting was nil apart from a barking dear, a few langurs and fresh droppings of a large carnivorous animal. After a quick stopover for a simple lunch at Muthodi Forest Camp, we had driven further in search of a tranquil place to spend the night. Unfortunately, even the most ‘off-the-map’ homestays were running full. With no network connectivity but guidance from a few locals, several attempts of to and fro on the rubble road and crossing the jungle safari tracks, we had finally  located the quaint Redwood homestay by late noon. It had been a spontaneous decision but a chance worth taken!

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Driving towards Mullayangiri

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Not too much had changed the next morning on our re-attempt to visit the peaks, just that the crowd had become a bit sober. Mullayangiri, otherwise known for its alluring sunrise, was a complete show-down due to drizzle and thick clouds.

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Showdown at Mullayangiri. Sunrise wrapped in clouds.

26 kms away, Baba Budan Giri waited to blow us away with its enigmatic, canvas-like landscapes! We drove endlessly on the gravel road till the topmost drivable view point. One needs to trek on a mud trail to proceed further towards the peak for astounding views of Chikmagalur and beyond.

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First views of grasslands of Baba Budangiri

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A scenic capture at Baba Budan

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Mud trail leading to the peaks

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The astounding Baba Budangiri peaks

Purple, white, yellow and pink flowers bloomed over the thick carpet of grass spread all over the rolling hills and steep valleys. A small pond rested peacefully at a corner, trembling every now and then in the whiff of unrestricted winds.

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A small pond just before Manikyadhara falls.

An overrated Manikyadhara Falls sat at the far-end corner of Baba Budan, surrounded with filth, stench and tons of people waiting for their turn to bath under it. There is a small tomb next to the falls, perhaps of Baba Budan. With no agenda at hand, we basked on the mat of grass, soaking up the fresh early morning sun. I closed my eyes and traversed over the mammoth rolling peaks and emerald forests on the wings of a butterfly before I could return to building dreams like the little spider that I had met on the verandah of Redwood..

Snippets :

  1. The spectacular peaks are best enjoyed through trekking. Alternatively, one can drive to the peaks.
  2. Bhadra-Muthodi belt is great for birding in Feb-Apr. Govt runs jungle safaris. Muthodi forest camp can be an option for stay .
  3. Places to cover – Baba Budangiri, Mullayangiri, Kemmanagundi, Hebbe Falls, Bhadra and Muthodi Wildlife sanctuaries. Pay a quick visit to Shettihalli Church ruins in Hassan while heading to Chikmaglur from Bangalore.
  4. Recommended seasons – Sept to Feb
  5. Where to stay : Plenty of homestays and resorts available. Advance booking recommended. I stayed at Redwood Homestay, Bhadra. Loved the location, food and hospitality. Contact Sathish KM on 9449941116.
  6. Avoid weekends and long holidays.
  7. What to eat :  Malnad style food at homestays, freshly brewed Chikmagalur coffee.

 

Ghoomo Karnatak!

Karnataka is an oasis of spectacular coast lines, lush forests, breath taking mountain ranges, gushing waterfalls and a plethora of temples and heritage sites. Though I’ve traveled the length and breadth of this picturesque state over the last few years, my odyssey still continues. There are paths still left to be  traversed and places still waiting to be explored. In the meanwhile, here is my one-stop blog of 24 destinations in Karnataka to tease your travel bone. Read on!

1. Hampi : Hampi tops my list as the undisputed pride of Karnataka. This UNESCO  heritage site embraces a world in itself! Whilst wandering in its ruins, Hampi takes you back to its rich past, giving you a taste of the glorious Vijayanagara dynasty that once flourished here. Distance from Bangalore : 350 kms

Click here for an exhaustive guide on Hampi: http://gauricosmos.com/2015/10/11/hypnotism-at-hampi

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Not to miss:

  • Vittala Temple and its famous stone chariot.
  • Virupaksha Temple with its never ending Gopuram or Tower.
  • Mahanavmi Dibba, Hazara Rama temple, Achyutaraya Temple, Krishna Bazar and Pushkarni
  • Sunrise from the top of Mathanga & Anjaneya hills. Sunset at Hemkuta Hill.
  • Get to the other side of Hampi and explore Anegundi and Sanapur Lake.
  • Gorge on the yummiest food at Mango tree at Hampi Bazar.
  • Wildlife enthusiasts can visit the Daroji Bear Sanctuary nearby.

2. Pattadakkal-Aihole-Badami : One can only stare blank-faced at the cluster of monuments at Pattadakkal that exude the essence of the Chalukya epoch. A guided tour is strongly recommended to indulge in this timeless creation of history. Just 22 kms ahead, lies Badami, with its man made caves in almond coloured sandstone rocks. Walking up the steps to the top of the caves is tiresome, but the striking bird’s eye view of the Agastya Lake and the Bhootnath temple down below is worth it. The last cave at the top has magnificent and intrinsic carvings of Buddha along with other deities. The Jain temples or Basadis of Aihole are interesting enough. Distance from Bangalore : 440 kms.

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3. Agumbe, also know as the Cherrapunji of South, is famous for its alluring sunsets. I personally recommend visiting Agumbe during monsoons, when the immaculate rainforest comes to life. Agumbe is home to a variety of snakes including the King Cobra, rare species of frogs and insects. The best way to explore Agumbe is by venturing deep into the forests with an experienced local guide. The thousand leeches encountered during this trek would be a permanent cure for something I term as “Leech-o-phobia!” Distance from Bangalore : 360 kms.

Read here : http://gauricosmos.com/2017/04/02/agumbe-a-tryst-with-a-thousand-leeches-2

Not to miss:

  • Kavaledurg fort : Beautiful fort at an elevation with impressive architecture and  temple ruins.
  • Doddamane Heritage home – ‘Malgudi days’ the legendary TV series of the 80’s was shot in this home which is over a hundred years old. Advance booking required if you plan to stay here.
  • Rainforest research station : One may spot a viper discreetly slumbering under a a thatched roof.
  • Waterfalls : Agumbe has pristine waterfalls in its womb – Sirimane, Jogigundi, Barkana, Onke Abbi to name a few.
  • Visit Sringeri temple.

4. Hoggenakkal : Revive the song “Choti Si Asha” from the movie Roja. The breathtaking gorge with lamp-lit coracles gliding through it at twilight was filmed here. One part of Hogenakkal falls in Tamilnadu and thus, is accessible through two routes. Jump into a coracle for a ride through stunning cliffs and get right under base of one of the many waterfalls. Head to the watch tower for some picturesque views of the gorge. Catch a glimpse of fishermen casting their nets into the river by the edge of the rocks. Distance from Bangalore : 130 kms.

Read more here: https://gauricosmos.com/2015/07/06/the-hogenakkal-trance/

Not to miss:

  • Coracle ride and view from the watch tower
  • Try Obattu (Roti stuffed with dal and jaggery filling) from a local eatery.

5. Jog Falls: Who doesn’t know about the 2nd highest waterfall of India! This herculean fall is located in Shimoga district of Uttara Kannada. River Sharavati plunges from a whopping 830 feet, splitting into four waterfalls, namely, Raja, Rani, Rocket and Roarer- collectively called as Jog falls. The falls look ferocious in monsoons. During other seasons, one can trek to the base by climbing down 1500-odd rock steps for a different perspective of the falls. Distance from Bangalore : 426 kms.

Jog base

6. Banavasi : Not far away from Jog, is the ancient town on Banavasi. The Madhukeshwara temple; the landmark of Banavasi, still preserves its primeval charm. A huge Nandi proudly sits at the entrance of the temple. Banavasi is skirted by forests and the serene Varada river flowing behind it. Distance from Bangalore : 413 kms.

7. Bandipur-Masinagudi-Nagarhole-Kabini belt : This forest zone is undoubtedly the most admired and preferred escape for Bangaloreans. The long stretch of silk smooth road right from Masina all the way upto Wayanad passes though dense Nilgiri forests. The biosphere is rich for endemic animals and birds. Sighting of elephants, deer  and bison are very common and if you are lucky, you may spot a leopard too! Sadly, the monopoly of  Jungle Lodges and Resorts(JLR) makes accommodation an expensive affair, however, Masinagudi has some rugged options in the forest fringes. A jungle safari or a long drive on this stretch is something that cannot be missed while exploring Karnataka. Distance from Bangalore : 230 kms onwards

8. Kokkere Bellur : I had never seen such a dense population of Painted Storks and Pelicans until I landed in Kokkere Belur. The place is so synonymous with storks, that it got its name from them! Kokkere, is a small village in Maddur taluk of Mandya district.  Surprisingly, there is no sanctuary here. The villagers have been protecting and helping the breeding of these migratory birds since decades as they believe that these birds are the augury of good luck to them. Visit between November to March to witness the colonies of storks, pelicans, herons, ibis, egrets and cormorants in thousands! Distance from Bangalore : 90 kms.

Not to miss :

  • Drool over the famous Maddur Vade, a deep fired crispy vada garnished with onions and curry leaves.
  • Visit during the breeding season from November to Feb.

9. Jayamangali : Thankfully, there are few secret destinations around Bangalore that are still hidden from the eyes of tourists. One among them is Jayamangali- a grassland that encompasses a black buck sanctuary. Staying inside the sanctuary in the forest rest house provides a brilliant opportunity to witness these shy, endangered deer species. The sanctuary is also a home for bird like the blue-faced Malkoha and grey hornbills apart from other varieties of birds like hoopoes, drongos, minivets, bee-eaters etc. Jayamangali also has endless grape orchards and a few wineries too. Distance from Bangalore : 100 kms.

10. Mysore is the crown of Karnataka due to the renowned Mysore Palace- a hallmark of the Woodiyar dynasty. Tourists flock to the palace for a grand cultural show during the Dassera festival. But there is more to Mysore than just this.  Delicacies like ‘Mysore Pak’ and ‘Mysore Dosa’ were born here. Visit the peaceful St. Philomena’s Church or head to the Mysore zoo or Ranganathitu Bird Sanctuary for a tete-a-tete with migratory water birds. Distance from Bangalore : 156 kms.

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11. Ranganathitu : Just 20 kms away from Mysuru, lies the Ranganathithu Bird Sanctuary. Like Kokkere Bellur, this sanctuary also buzzes with a population of migratory birds – Pelicans, Storks, Spoonbills and others, but is far more commercialised compared to the former. With a good variety of Kingfishers, terns and other bush birds, its a haven for birders. Guided boat tours are available throughout the day and crocodile spotting is guaranteed! Distance from Bangalore : 150 kms.

Not to miss :

  • Nesting season of the migratory birds from June through November
  • Pay a visit to the Srirangapatnam temple.

12. Explore the coastal belt of Uttara Kannada, adorned with a spectacular shoreline of azure waters and white sands. Fortunately, the entire coastline is open for exploration all the way upto Karwar as none of these beaches are commercialised except for one or two. Gobble on sinful seafood while hopping from one beach to another and tick off your ultimate beach trip! Marvanthe, St. Mary’s Island, Tannir Bavi, Ottinene, Kaup and Kumta are a few must-visit beaches. The trip can extend upto Goa- a Shangri-La for any beach bum! Distance from Bangalore : 360 km

13. Chikmagalur is any Bangalorean’s favourite weekend getaway. You can choose  to  either laze in a cozy homestay in the midst of a coffee estate or trek to the breathtaking hills of Mullayangiri, Baba-Budangiri, Kodachadri or Kemmangundi. Alternatively you can drive on the rolling mountains of Kudremukh or explore the lush, deciduous Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary.  The beauty of Chikmagalur becomes indescribable in the monsoons! Distance from Bangalore : 255 km.

Read here for detailed itinerary: https://gauricosmos.com/2017/08/20/exploring-the-other-side-of-chikmagalur/

14. Coorg  or Kodagu is also called as “A poor man’s Ooty”. This is where Namma Bengaluru techies run to chill over a long weekend! Coorg, alike Chikmagalur, is well-known for its coffee plantations apart from its non-vegetarian Coorgi food. Coorg also has some scenic waterfalls like Abbey, Iruppu and Chelaveri. A visit to Talacauvery- the origin of the river Kaveri and trekking Thadiandamol peak are the top things to do while in Coorg. Distance from Bangalore : 243 kms.

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Not to miss :

  • Dubare Elephant Camp
  • Stumptous Coorgi delicacies.

15. Ramanagara : Who does not know of the acclaimed movie “Sholay”! But not many know that most of the scenes of Gabbar’s hideout in the rocky terrains of the so-called Chambal where actually shot here in Ramanagara. Well, there’s more to this place than just this. It is home for a few endemic species of Vultures which are on the brink of extinction. Ramanagara also has a few interesting trekking routes that pass through the naked rocks and boulders. Distance from Bangalore : 55 kms.

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Not to miss :

  • Purchasing wooden toys from Chennapatna near Ramanagara.

16. Bheemeshwari : An experience to be enjoyed on the banks of the river Kaveri is fishing. Bheemeshwari fishing camp satiates this urge. Since it is tucked into dense forests, Bheemeshwari also provides for good opportunities for trekking, cycling, birding and camping. A good amount of nature camps have spurted in the vicinity apart from JLR(Jungle Lodges and Resorts). Distance from Bangalore : 100 kms.

Not to miss :

  • Dubare Elephant Camp
  • Early morning birding at Galibore

17. Barachukki and Gaganachukki Falls : These two untamed and powerful falls are located in the Mandya district of Karnataka. The falls are a result of the Sivanasamudra islands splitting the river Kaveri. The falls flow with extreme vigour in monsoons and can be admired only from the viewpoint. Distance from Bangalore : 400 kms.

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18. Kodachadri : Trek through lush green paddy fields to the pristine mountain peaks nestled into the dense Shola forests of the western ghats. The trek route becomes challenging and tough in the monsoons but is enjoyable. Nagara Fort at the base of Kodachadri is worth a visit. The virgin Hindlumane waterfalls situated deep into the forests can be encountered during the trek. A small temple situated at the peak of Kodachadri is believed to have been the place where Adi Shankaracharya once meditated. A must-do during monsoons. Distance from Bangalore : 440 kms.

Not to miss :

  • Hindulmane falls monsoon trek

19. Biligiri Rangana Hills : Head here when you hear the mountains calling! The range is the confluence of Eastern and Western ghats with narrow winding roads passing through dense scrubs. The dense foliage is  home to a wide variety of birds like woodpeckers, thrushes, tree -pies, larks and other bush birds- a paradise for any birder. One may bump into a barking deer, a wild pig or an elephant during an open canter safari operated by the Government. Visit the famous Ranganaswamy temple atop the BR hills. Distance from Bangalore : 186 kms.

20. Shravan Belegol: Witness the 58-feet mammoth monolithic statue of Gomateshwara or Bahubali built on the top of a hillock. The feet of the statue has inscriptions in the ancient Devanagari script. There are quite a few “Basadi” or temples in the vicinity, given a glimpse of Jainism in Karnataka. If you are lucky, you might just be greeted by a Jackal wandering in the fields! A few lakes around this place also provide ample opportunities for birding. Distance from Bangalore : 157 kms.

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21. Halebid : Just 80 kms away from Shravan Belegol,  an astounding experience awaits you.  A visit to Halebid- the by-gone capital of Hoysala, is a memorable journey through the brilliant Hoysala architecture.  The intrinsic sculpture on the walls of the temples with depiction of Hindu Mythology is sure to leave you flabbergasted! A huge monolithic Nandi at the entrance of the temple is eye-catching. Distance from Bangalore : 150 kms.

22. Talakkadu and Somnathpura : Talakadu is a temple town on the sandy banks of Kaveri, with some interesting mythological stories floating around it. It is believed that once a rich town, Talakkadu was buried under the sands due to the curse of a queen. Though the temples have been excavated, many of these still lie submerged under the dunes.

Somnathapura is another masterpieces of the Hoysala architecture. The aesthetic Channakeshava temple with intricate and complex sculptures and carvings is epic. Distance from Bangalore : 150 km

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24. Shettihalli : 20 kms away from Hassan, a 100 year old ruined gothic church stands proudly near the Hemavathi dam. Anyone interested in photography needs to travel here twice- once to see the church in its full vigour and once to see its beauty when it gets submerged into the backwaters of the dam in the monsoon. Shettihalli also surprises you with its marigold fields en-route to the church. Distance from Bangalore : 200 kms

23. Bijapur : Get dumbstruck by the geometrical wonder, Gol Gumbaz, one of the many monuments and sites  of Bijapur- the city that was built under the strong influence of the Mughal dynasty. The tomb or ‘Gumbaz’ is strategically built in such a way that it disappears out of sight when seen from a particular angle and distance. In the central chamber inside the monument, the slightest of sound echoes seven times! Approximately 140 kms ahead of Bijapur, lies the magnificent and sturdy fort of Naldurg lined with impressive canons and ruins that speak of a glorious era. Distance from Bangalore : 520 kms.

Bon Voyage!

 

 

I should have trusted the unpredictable weather forecast for once. The torrential rains that lashed all day had transformed into a mad thunderstorm by night. I lay staring at the ceiling fan above my head, trying hard to be oblivious to the commotion outside. It was 11.30 pm; I looked outside the window of my room, only to find a street buzzing with honking vehicles and desperate devotees trying to seek shelter from the rain. My trip was heading towards a disaster..

The arrival :

We had arrived at Pamban the day before, to witness an engineering marvel- the Pamban Bridge. The 2 km long meter gauge rail bridge and the road bridge built over the Park Strait run parallel to each other, connecting Pamban Islands to the mainlands of Tamilnadu. The rail bridge that was built in 1914 has a separable central section that opens up to let huge vessels pass under. This hundred year old  was proclaimed as India’s oldest and longest sea bridge, until the Worli sea link bridge of Mumbai took over the title a few years ago. We waited in the fast rains and blowing winds just to get a glimpse of a train passing over the turquoise blue Park Strait that shivered underneath.

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Separable central section of the rail bridge, Pamban

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Turquoise waters of the Palk Strait

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A passenger train passes over Palk Strait

Rameswaram

Upon reaching Rameswaram, we barged into “Sri Kashi Mutt” that offered a simple and affordable stay, adjacent to the famous Ramanathaswamy Temple. The mammoth corridor lined with stone pillars bearing beckoning sculptures of humans, animals and demons is the the longest temple corridor in the world! The temple still preserves its ancient aesthetics to a considerable extent, but the current dark and humid  atmosphere within may be unappealing to the impious. Walking through it is an experience one cannot miss while in Rameswaram. Sadly, photography is prohibited.

Kunthakal

We dropped the plans to visit Dhanushkodi due to the cloudburst. Instead, we hired an auto and headed to Kunthukal, 14 kms off Rameswaram. The memorial of Swami Vivekanada stood in solace at one corner of the beach. It is said that the great monk had set his foot here when he  first arrived in India. A little further, a small path opened up to a vast and stunning beach that welcomed us with open arms! We wandered on the endless shoreline of white sands that complimented the emerald blue sea. We reached a point beyond which the sea curved inwards, forming an estuary cutting us from shore that continued on the other side. With not a soul around, Kunthakal seemed to be a perfect get away from the chaos of Rameswaram. Grey clouds that had gathered towards the horizon moved hastily towards us. Drenching in thick droplets of rain we returned to where our auto waited, enjoying every moment of our idiocy.

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Kunthakal Beach, 14 kms ahead of Rameswaram

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Solitude at Kunthakal

A tumbler of steamy hot filter coffee was a relief from the drench when we returned to Rameswaram. Most of the crowd that had visited the temple on account of ‘Adi Amavasya’ had retired post their holy dip in the sacred ‘Teerthams’, but had left Rameswaram in a pitiful state. Heaps of perishable plates and leftovers of the ‘prasadam’ recklessly thrown on the streets were being feasted on by dogs and cows amidst heavy showers that continued through the night..

The fateful morning

We woke up before dawn and walked to the bus stop in light drizzle, unsure if the first bus had already departed. A jeep agreed to drop us at Dhanushkodi after a few minutes of hard bargaining. We were just in time to catch the sunrise until the jeep ran out of fuel and wobbled to a stop, a little ahead.  Following a few unsuccessful attempts to restart the jeep, we alighted in the middle of nowhere. It was a panicky situation to be stranded on a secluded road in pitch darkness with not a vehicle in sight! My throat felt parched. A faint strip of light shone below the thick layer of dark clouds at the horizon. Sunrise was exactly half an hour away and we had to cover 4kms! While we walked with hurried steps, a minibus stopped by and dropped us at the entry point of Dhanushkodi where a new drama awaited us.

As per the blogs that I had read, I was supposed to take a jeep from the Dhanushkodi stop, but to my dismay, I couldn’t find any vehicle  apart from a few tempo travellers. My frustration mounted when the locals told me that the plying of jeeps was stopped last year. The tempo traveler refused to accept anything less than INR 2500 to drop us to the ruins just about 3 kms away. Alternatively, he needed 16 people for pooling. There was no way to find 16 people at this odd hour! Just then, I saw a gang of ten boys and girls who instantly agreed to join. Two couples showed up from somewhere and in the next minute, our tempo was riding through the bumpy sands! My plan of witnessing the sunrise at land’s end had gone for a toss though. The tempo halted inside Dhaushkodi village. I tried to ‘fix’ the driver by paying him some extra bucks to take us all the way to land’s end. I put my best persuasive skills at work, but the driver did not budge. Seemed that the government had imposed a strict ban on vehicles from going beyond the point where we alighted. My face dropped. After fighting all odds and coming this far, there was no way I was going back! 

The catastrophic past of the Ghost Town

Dhanushkodi lies in the south-eastern tip of Tamilnadu, just 18 kms away from Srilanka. Dhanushkodi is known for its disastrous past. On the unfortunate night of 22nd December 1964, a heavy cyclone destroyed the entire town, taking around 1800 lives. It washed away an entire passenger train with around 100 people who were travelling to Dhanushkodi that night, killing everyone on board. The town that comprised of a railway track, houses, a post office, a school, a hospital, port offices and a church was completely dilapidated but was never restored as the government declared Dhanushkodi unfit for civilisation. Barring the spooky ruins and a few fishermen families, Dhanushkodi is totally deserted and hence is referred to as Ghost Town.

The miracle

I head to one of the shacks and settled for a plate of Idli with some tea, looking at the church that stood on the other side of a wide road with wishful eyes. Suddenly, a faint shaft of light touched the cross on the top of the church! While I ran to the other end of the road with my camera, sunlight ripped the clouds and illuminated the church and its surroundings. The white sand and the wet tar road shimmered. The skies had cleared and the clouds had now amassed miles behind the church. I stood in disbelief trying to comprehend the miracle which was beyond my thinking capabilities!

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Sunlight rips the cloud and illuminates the ruins

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Storm clouds accumulate at the far end

I was disappointed to know from the locals that the adventurous 4-km sand bed was converted into a 200-feet wide tar road six months ago. Well, the last lap was supposed to be the crux of my trip! We decided to walk the road, if not the sand. Just as we started, a huge stone-carrier truck passed by. We got dropped 2 kms before the end point!

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The super smooth tar road with Indian Ocean to the right and the Bay of Bengal to the left

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Storm clouds steer off the sky making way for some drama up there..

The sun was hitting hard and sweat dripped under our clothes as we plodded on the jet black, super-smooth roadway that was complimented by white sands on either sides. Huge boulders were being placed by mammoth trucks on the sand bed to keep the ocean at bay. A stupendous view of 2 oceans running parallel to each other made my jaws to drop! To my left was the silent Bay of Bengal, to my right was the roaring Indian Ocean and in front of me, was the Ram Sethu point. The topography blew me off my feet!

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The calm Bay of Bengal on the left side of the road to Adam’s bridge

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The rough Indian Ocean on the right side of the road to Adam’s bridge

Ram Sethu 

As per Ramayana, legend has it that upon Lord Rama’s instructions, the Vanar Sena (Monkey Clan) built a bridge from this point all the way upto Lanka to rescue Sita from the evil clutches of Ravana. It is believed that the boulders had “Rama” inscribed on them and thus floated on the sea, creating a floating bridge. Interestingly, the facts mentioned in Ramayana about the location of the bridge exactly matches its current geograhical position! Temple records say that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it broke in a cyclone in AD 1480.

Walking 2 kms in the scorching sun was indeed tough, but the views were worth the effort. The tar road which was around 2 feet higher than the land ended with 2 slits at either ends. From here, one can walk down the stairs onto the sand bed that merges into the ocean a few meters away. I ran from the right side to the left and let the cool waters of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal kiss my feet in turns. Miles away, hundreds of river terns sat on a thin stretch of sand, fishing generously in the deep blue sea. The feeling of being surrounded by nothing but two limitless oceans is indescribable. The uninhibited landscape of Dhanushkodi was spectacular beyond imagination.

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Th colony of terns over a lean stretch of sand in the sea

The Spectacular views from Ram Sethu_B8A6627

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After basking in the euphoria for an hour, it was time to return. The sun burnt our backs while the road created mirages ahead of us. We hitch-hiked with a family in their car half way through and returned to Rameswaram.

We had enough time left in hand before we could head back to Madurai to board our night train to Bangalore. So Kushi beach was next on cards. Seeing unusual crowd on the beach, we fled.  Instead, we randomly decided to tread along the coast line in the shade of casuarina trees to destination ‘nowhere’.  After 3 kms, we hit Pirappan Valasai, a beautiful virgin beach hidden miles away from the eyes of hungry tourists. We exited on a small path that was lined with beetle nut and palm trees on both sides. From a distance, the contrast created by the blue sea and the lush green trees looked gorgeous.

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A sea eagle with a catch at Pirappan Valasai beach

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Self timer pic at Pirappan Valasai

Dhanushkodi had been one heck of a trip that started off with a series of disasters but eventually mutated into a prodigy. It had taught me a valuable lesson. The best of planing can be overturned by the forces of the universe, whether travel or life. But miracles do happen if you believe in them!

Birdlife at a glance

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Snippets :

How to reach : Train to Madurai. Bus from Madurai to Rameswaram. Jeep /Bus/Hitchhiking to Dhanushkodi

Best time : December-January. Checking weather forecast is mandatory as this is a cyclone prone area.

Where to Stay : Rameswaram has lodges and Mutts in plenty

What to eat : Simple veg food on banana leaf. Filter coffee

What else to do : Visit Ramanathaswamy temple and Pamban bridge. Stroll on Kunthakal beach. Walk through the coast line from Kushi beach to Pirappan Valasai or beyond!

What to carry : loads of sunscreen and full hand cotton clothes. Its gets extremely hot due to  proximity to the equator.

 

My cuppa @ 1730 feet!

The jeep arrived at 4 am at our homestay in the quaint village of Suryanelli. Shivering under our jackets, we embarked on our ride towards Kolukkumalai on a chilly December morning under the canopy of a pitch dark sky that glittered with diamonds. After about two kms of driving on tar road, our vehicle took to first gear. A few jeeps ahead of us tossed, jerked and swayed and within seconds, we followed suit. I could feel every bone of my body shaking while the jeep ran on the rough terrain of gravel and stones as big as rugby balls! We finally made it to the top of Kolukkumalai at 5 am.The bone breaking ride had taken us an hour to cover a distance of 6 kms! With numb and shivering hands, we set up our equipments and patiently waited for the spectacle to begin. The sky brightened a bit, casting shades of purple and indigo.

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_B8A5601-2Towards my left was a tall cone-shaped mountain, almost barren but green. Lush tea estates spiralled all the way down to the base from where we had started. Conical hills in shades of dark blue and grey rolled into the horizon. A small peck of yellow light appeared from behind the hills and matured into a sparkling ball of bright gold. A magical sunrise was born in the lap of Kolukkumalai, illuminating every part of the hills that shivered in the unrestricted winds blowing from the east. The utopia had left me flabbergasted!

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Watch the fast forward video of the epic dawn of Kolukkumalai @ https://youtu.be/UQXvzDQINh8 

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Picturesque conical hills of Kolukkumalai

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On our bumpy ride back down, I indulged in the stunning beauty of the tea plantations that basked in the fresh morning glow underneath a spotless blue sky. A visit to the 100-year old ‘Kolukkumalai tea factory’ which boasts of being the highest organic tea factory in the world was welcoming! The factory still withholds its British charm with its tin walls, wooden flooring, primeval machines and age-old techniques. I was overwhelmed to see and smell the many varieties of tea, from dark green to light green to white, whilst learning about the entire tea processing cycle.

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World’s 100 year old highest tea factory@ 1730 feet.

Standing amidst lush tea gardens, I sipped on my steamy hot cuppa brewed right out of the estate at 1730 feet blowing trails of steam into the chilly air of Kolukkumalai.

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A date with the Sholas of Anamudi

I conveniently missed the diversion, a few kilometres ahead of Munnar; leading to a half-hour detour. When I asked for directions to reach Anamudi, the locals looked at me with blank eyes, as  if they had bumped into an alien asking for a route to destination ‘Mars’. It was 5 pm when we finally took the mud road leading to Anamudi Shola Log House. My intellectual google map told me that I was just 13 kms away from it. Just when I heaved a sigh of relief, it started drizzling. Within minutes, the chaos of Munnar fell behind and I found myself driving on a marooned and narrow road cutting through a dense forest. Not sure of whether I was heading in the right direction, I reached out to make a call, only to realise that it has lost coverage. I decided to follow my gut and my offline GPS which was still telling me to continue. Light was rapidly fading and the trail got leaner. All sorts of situations and strategies began cooking in my head. What if I encountered a tusker on the way? Well the only way out would be to drive in reverse gear all the way to the outskirts, but then wouldn’t it be stupid to try such stunts in the dark? What if the tusker was in a  bad mood or in a lighter one perhaps, either ways, what if it decides to just knock or stomp my car a wee-bit? My throat felt parched but who had the time to stop! After a blind turn, I unanticipatedly hit the forest gate and instantly gave out a sigh of relief. I had almost forgotten to breathe! Adjacent to the gate, stood a small forest office. Vibrant wildflowers lined its fence. The last light had faded out that I could see was from the candle that burned inside the office. Our log house was just 200 meters away, but walking the distance in pitch darkness and in the middle of a jungle was unnerving. One of the helpers accompanied us to the rest house. The log hut made of wood was so cozy and neat that I instantly fell in love with it! The backdoor opened up to the washroom located outside the hut; the only thing separating it from the primeval forest was a 3-feet wall! Our hungry tummies called for something yummy and nothing could beat the packets of Maggi that I had coincidently picked up on the way. Getting to the kitchen meant walking back to the forest office; the thought sent chills down my spine. Nevertheless, we swayed our torches in all directions to ensure no green eyes were hideously staring at us! We gulped the delicious Maggi over stories narrated by the forest guards that revolved around leopard and tigers that they had spotted some two weeks ago. While returning to the log house, I happened to casually look up. It was a moonless night. My gaze followed the million stars twinkling above my head. I could also faintly spot the milky way. I stood in absolute darkness; stupefied by the infinity of the cosmos and my insignificant iota of existence! After a simple supper of rice and dal, I sneaked under the cozy blanket and dozed off in the pleasant opera of crickets.

I woke up to a chilly morning. Anamudi was enveloped in a thick layer of mist and passing clouds. I stepped out to follow the intermittent and alternate calls of birds I had never heard before. I spotted a Scimitar Babbler and a Kerala Laughing Thrush in the woods from a distance; the mist made it impossible for me to go any further. A few langurs stared at me from the top of a fig tree. A pair of Oriental white-eyes chirped merrily while playing a hide and seek in the thicket of bushes.

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Drizzles at the lush green Anamudi Shola forests

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I returned to the patio holding a steaming cup of tea. The sky had cleared and the clouds floated over the valley like cotton balls. A wet sun rose over the misty mountains of Anamudi and diffused itself though the woods, caressing every corner of the pristine Shola forest with its gentle radiance.

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Sunrise from Anamudi Log hut. Cotton candy clouds floating in the Valley

Kerala Chronicles -Part I. Floating Paradises Vembanad-Kumarakom-Alleppey

Kerala Chronicles Part II My tete-a-tete with the Jew Town

Kerala Chronicles – Part III The saga of a dying legacy

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