I had woken up, perhaps in the midst of a dream. An infinite stretch of hyacinth dotted with petite pink flowers seemed to be gently floating towards the horizon. I got off the bed and nipped towards the huge french windows of my homestay, staring into the face of a surreal morning. My gaze followed the endless placid lake, as vast as the sea. The floating hyacinths were for real! I was on the fringes of Vembanad- the undoubted Goddess of Lakes!
Not far from the homestay, a small canal rested under the canopy of coconut trees. Fresh mussels hauled from the canal were being cleaned in small heaps and cooked in an oversized earthen pot with sea salt; ready to hit the market!
I sat over the edge of the fence sipping on strong filter coffee and relishing the steamy breakfast of home-made Appams* and Puttu* in the company of Mr and Mrs. Shahnawaz, the warm and hospitable owners of the cozy ‘Orchid Lakeview’ homestay. I watched the terns, gulls and egrets briskly fishing their morning meal. A group of fishermen sang a wary-cry as they gently rowed their canoes and casted their nets into the waters. Armies of cormorants flew in batches from the southern end of the lake and settled at its centre-supposedly a part of their daily gameplan.
A few abandoned Chinese fishing nets stood on the far side of the lake. While I admired the reflection of a canopy of trees on the still waters, a kingfisher broke the solemn of my surroundings with its metallic shrill. It nose-dived into the waters; perched on a nearby branch and gobbled a fish. The next moment, Vembanad returned to its state of lethargy.
- Puttu : cylindrical rice cakes steamed with coconut. Served with a hot curry prepared with pulses in a pepper and coconut gravy. Aapam : Fluffy pancakes made with a batter of rice powder and coconut milk. Served with almost anything!
- Ensure you stay on the banks of the lake. I strongly recommend Orchid Lake View. Keep no agenda and soak in the magical sunset of Vembanad!
The beauty of Kerala, lies undoubtedly, in its backwaters. While Alleppey reaps all the attention of its tourists, a traveler like me heads in search of a world that lies beyond the shallow layers of tourism. I chose to explore Kumarakom on a simple canoe at mere four hundred bucks! The morning was sultry and undisturbed with not a whiff of air. The channels looked picturesque with small wooden walk-bridges built to cross over and homes that sat under the shade of coconut trees on either sides. Men and women were engrossed in their routine of washing, cooking and bathing the kids. A Santa Clause galloped happily along the pavement of a canal yelling “Merry Christmas!” Yes, it was Christmas time indeed!
My canoe calmly floated on a vast bed of pink and white lotuses in full bloom. Kumarakom was brimming with Jacanas, moorehens, stilts, orioles, water hens, kingfishers, egrets, herons and other birds in abundance! As the canoe was rowed to the banks, I looked back and waved at the thousand pink lotuses that were smiling back at me.
- Kumarakom does not have too many stay options. Tharavadu Heritage is a safe bet. Kumarakom is best explored on a canoe. This way you can also help a local earn a day’s income.
- Best time to visit : Dec thru early Jan. Apt season to witness lotus blooms
- Respect birdlife. Adore from a distance. Do not feed junk.
The good old Alleppey
Leaving behind the chaos and fuss of the jetty, our Shikara set out to sail through the divine backwaters of Alleppey. The mild breeze gave way to some relief from the sultry weather and scorching sun. Sulking on the comfortable seats of the Shikara gave sudden feel of being in the middle of the Dal Lake in Kashmir. The lagoon was so vast, we felt as though we were sailing over an ocean! Hundreds of Shikaras and houseboats of various sizes were cruising in all directions, but we crossed a few of them only once in a while.
The Shikara was pulled to the banks for lunch at a local eatery. Its roof was thatched with dry coconut palms and it was buzzing with tourists. While they waited for their turn to be served, a tamed Brahminy kite kept everyone entertained by perching on their shoulders in turns. Simple but delicious lunch was served on banana leaf. The deep fried Karimeen (pearl spot fish) and Aila (Mackerel) smeared with generous amounts of hot local spices could easily put any five-star cuisine to shame! We continued on our journey into the backwaters with wobbling bellies; the cool wind tossed me in an out of my afternoon slumber.
Kites and fish eagles hovered in search of their prey while gulls and terns skimmed aimlessly. Egrets and herons perched on the labyrinth of hyacinths, tucking their heads beneath the surface sporadically in search of food. An undisturbed universe of ducks thrived on the swamps and fields, quacking their way to glory! The manner in which birdlife thrived fearlessly in the chaos of Alleppey only proves how the natives have treasured and nurtured the harmony of their ecosystem.
After what seemed to be an infinite journey over the placid lagoons, I was convinced as to why any visit to Kerala would be incomplete without soaking in the bliss of the good old Alleppey.
A glimpse of birdlife at Alleppey
Fort Kochi lured me with its rustic charm, pulling me to its streets like a magnet. I wandered the long and cramped alleys where shops bursted with souvenirs, cutlery, armours, chandeliers and unique antiques from the bye-gone eras of the Portuguese, Jewish and the Dutch. Plush price tags dangled around them, but were too irresistible to be missed!
In the vicinity of the famous spice market, stood the Mattancherry Palace aka Dutch Palace in a combination of chrome and brown. The walls were ordinary and roof was crafted from wood. Just next to the Palace, I caught a glimpse of Jewish Synagogue (Chapel), better known as Paradesi Synagogue that it preserved some eye-catching artefacts in gold and porcelain dating back to a time when the Jews reigned over Kochi.
After a quick visit to the Saint Francis church, the burial place of Vasco Da Gama, I head to the Kerala Kathakali Centre for a vis-a-vis with Kerala’s deep-rooted and well-fostered art-forms. While Kalaripayattu, an ancient form of martial art bought chills down my spine with its swift and dangerous moves, Kathakali, the traditional dance form of Kerala, mesmerised me with its vibrant make-up, elaborate costumes and mind-boggling performances! Read more about my blog on Kathakali here: https://gauricosmos.wordpress.com/2017/02/19/the-saga-of-a-dying-legacy-kathakali/
No trip to Kerala could be deemed complete without a visit to its celebrated Chinese fishing nets. Popularly referred to as ‘Cheenavalas’, they are believed to have been introduced in Kochi by a Chinese explorer called Zheng He. The nets are appended to huge wooden structures that have ropes tied with heavy stones suspended to their tips. These fascinating nets can be seen across the Kayals (backwaters) of Kerala but the ones in Fort Kochi are world famous. While a few fishermen kinetically pulled the nets up and lowered them into the sea, an off-the-cuff conversation sparked off. The nets that once used to help catch fish in large numbers were not of great help now. The fishermen repeated the process of manually lowering the bulky nets at least 200 times everyday to catch enough fish to sustain a day’s business. Most of these nets were beyond repair and hence not in use. Each time they sang a war cry to sync their energies to operate the nets, their eyes gleamed and their hearts smiled. I sensed the power of an unspoken hope overpowering the catastrophes of life.
Well, I had one more thing on my bucket list before I could leave. I too, needed a share of the most photographed sights of Kerala- the gorgeous silhouettes of these Cheenavalas! Not many know of the fact that the best photographs are taken not at Kochi, but Vypin, situated on the opposite side of Kochi, accessible by a 10-min ferry ride from the Kochi Jetty. I could have died for what I was able to freeze through my lens!
Roaming in the sultry weather of Kochi was exhaustive. While I desperately looked for a place to rest my tired feet and satiate my craving for sea food, I bumped into an open-air restaurant named “Fort House”, right on the backwaters! Fort House was dimly lit with a touch of elegance. I sat at the corner-most edge of the restaurant, admiring the sight of huge vessels sailing to and fro from the jetty and the pleasant sound of their foghorns, just a few meters away. A candle light dinner, a pint of beer in hand, lip-smacking sea-food, the sound of splashing waves and the cool breeze of the backwaters under a starry sky seemed like the perfect way to wind-up my tete-a-tete with the old Jew Town.
What not to miss at Fort Kochi
Kathakali and Kalaripayattu performances at Kerala Kathakali Centre, Fort Kochi
- Chinese fishing nets at sunset from Vypin
- Delicious Kerala meal served on a banana leaf
- Fish delicacies, especially the Karimeen Polichathu (fried fish with a thick gravy of onion and tomato, cooked in banana leaf is out of the world!)
- Freshly fried Banana, tapioca chips and varieties of authentic Kerala halwa from a local deli.
- Dining experience at the Fort House restaurant
Prelude : A steady flame from a brass lamp illuminated the small, dim-lit amphitheatre with its soothing glow. A lingering fragrance of mildly scented incense sticks filled the room. A gentle symphony of the flute, tabla and sitar played in the background. Three plump men took to the centre of the stage. Holding a small mirror in one hand, and a brush in the other, they began painting their faces in green and orange, emphasising the eyes and brows with thick black outlines.
A fragile man wearing a ‘mundu’* (supposedly, the make-up Master) perched at a corner with a cup filled with thick white paste, some cloth and a pair of scissors. One of the three artists, conceivably the senior, touched the feet of the Master with due respect and then lay in front of him. With utmost concentration, the Master created a beard by applying the white paste (made of rice and water) on to the layers of cloth strips, then carefully secured it to the artist’s jawline. The Master then swiftly manoeuvred his brush to draw delicate outlines and intricate designs to complete the look. The senior artist had dozed off during the task. After about an hour and a half, the session concluded and the faces disappeared back stage.
The Beginning :A large curtain was raised on the podium. Two drummers holding a pair of cane sticks each, secured the Maddalam* and Chenda* around their waists. Kathakali kicked off with the effortless beat of drums. A 60 year old man with his voice as smooth as silk sang verses in core classical ragas with precision. As the tempo gained momentum, the curtains dropped to reveal the main character of the play (in this case, the villain!). He wore a white pleated silk frock that resembled an oversized umbrella around his waist. His bare chest hid underneath a canopy of ornaments and his head wore a huge ‘Kireedam’*. I was amused by the long, conical silver nails that he wore and the bronze ghungroos that danced in his feet. His bright green face gleamed with sweat while those red eyes seemed to be oozing blood. The striking make-up perfectly complimented the elaborate and extravagant costume. The character looked so ravishing, that I could barely pull my eyes off!
The parody: The ‘Kali’ or story, was based on ‘Keechakavadham’ aka ‘Killing of Keechaka’- an excerpt from the legendary ‘Mahabharata’. Story has it that during their exile, the Pandavas had taken refuge in the kingdom of Virata which was ruled by Keechaka. Here, they had to conceal their identities by assuming various roles. Keechaka was attracted by the beauty Panchali who had taken up the role of a chaperon. He continued his advances despite her resistance. Aggravated by his behaviour, Panchali complains to Bheema, her husband; who had assumed the role of a cook at the palace. Acting as per Bheema’s plan, Panchali invites Keechaka for a secret meeting one night. Assuming it to be Panchali sleeping on the bed, he approaches her, only to find himself in the iron-like clutches of Bheema’s arms who finally chokes Keechaka with his tight grip until he falls dead.
The applause : Kathakali had lasted for 90 minutes. With just three characters, it had succeeded in grabbing the nerves of its audience right till the end, metamorphosing into a power-packed dramaturgy of actions, expressions and emotions that changed with every blink of the eye. Panchali had exhibited impeccable feminine shades through her subdued gait and expressions. It was impossible to believe that behind the curtain of her attire, was a man, who with his versatility, could have put any woman to shame! Bheema had done justice to his role with the right balance of love, command and rage. Howveer, Keechaka was the undisputed show-stealer, taking the audience through an unprecedented journey of ego, power, lust, pride, dominance, seduction, failure, pain, surprise and suffering. The demeanor of his gorgeous costume, the agility of his gestures, the ease of his facial movements and his unmatched display of emotions had successfully transported the audience to a by-gone era. My heart had skipped a beat when Keechaka, towards his end, let out a heavy sigh before falling to the ground..
Kathakali is one of the oldest traditional dance forms of Kerala that stands out from the others art forms like Mohiniattam and Theyyam due to its elaborate costumes and makeup. Kathakali split into ‘Katha’ and ‘Kali’ simply means Story Play in Malayalam. The performances revolve around the depiction of short stories and instances from the Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata and other epics. It is believed that traditionally, the prep used to take upto 4 hours but is now reduced considerably. Crushed natural stones, rice, seeds and sandal wood form the base for makeup. Interestingly, the eyes get their color from a tiny, harmless seed inserted into the lids just before the play begins. Kathakali places total emphasis on Bhava /Rasa (expressions of the face and eyes), Mudras (finger and hand gestures), Taalam (beat of the drums ) and Ragam(classical voice notes) that follow high and low intonations depending on the mood and context of the play. The female characters are mostly played by the men themselves and this transformation is amusing to watch! The very essence of Kathakali lies in its vibes and needs to be experienced vis-a-vis. No blog or you-tube video can do justice to it. Though the art centres of Kerala are pulling substantial crowd, the weight of preserving this dying legacy, however, rests on a few shoulders…
Special performance credits :
Keechaka(main character), played by Krishnan Namboodri
Panchali, played by Sujeesh Krao
Bheema, played by Suresh Kumar
Singers : Vijayan/ Sucheendran
Drummers : Haridas, Rajeesh
Where : Kerala Kathakali Centre, Fort Kochi.
What : Kathakali and other dance and martial art performances. Tickets need to be blocked in advance. Contact +91 048-422-15827
When : Everyday 3 pm onwards. Ticket cost : Rs. 350 per head for Kathakali, 250 for Kalaripayattu
Do’s: Meet and greet the crew backstage. Spread the word. Experience an adrenaline rush with Kalaripayattu (traditional martial art form) performance.
Mundu- White dhoti/ lungi
Kireedam : Crown
Maddalam/Chenda : Percussion instruments used on Kathakali. Maddalam is barrel shaped drum played vertically, while Chenda is cylindrical and played horizontally.
Like the ‘Kalpavriksha’ or the wish-granting tree, Pushkar fulfils the desire of every soul that visits it, with a purpose of its own. For some, it might mean soaking in the electrifying energies of a mad-rush mela, for some, a hidden treasure of stories and photographs and for some, a blissful journey in search of purity and spiritualism. Over the years, Pushkar has moulded its deep-rooted traditions and rich cultural legacy to perfectly blend with the contemporary tastes of the tourists that flock here from all corners of the world to witness the phenomenal ‘ Pushkar Mela’.
But there is more to this quaint town than just the Mela. Pushkar for me, turned out to be a melting pot – of smoking faces beneath colourful turbans, of beauty hidden in cramped alleys, of lingering aromas of sinful delicacies, of a serene lake oozing spirituality, of thousand camels and their tireless herdsmen and more. Every element of Pushkar paints a mural of its own universe, yet all of it seems to be connected and making perfect sense!
A little about Pushkar Mela -Pushkar, also known to be one of the oldest cities of India, suddenly bursts with superlative energy during Oct-Nov each year with the largest camel fair in the world! Traders from Rajasthan, Gujarat and other states come to Pushkar to trade their camels and horses during the festival that lasts for 7 to 8 days. The dates and itinerary of the fair gets listed well in advance. The Mela is a herculean affair of crowd, dust, food, stalls, joy rides, tourists, photographers, horses, camels, more camels, confusion and chaos happening all at the same time on an outsized fair-ground. The last day of the fair happens on the banks of the Chandrabhaga River during full moon and is considered the most important of all days. The highlights of the mela are undoubtedly the colourful and artistically decorated camels with intricate designs on their skin crafted by the traders themselves. Pushkar Mela is a phenomenon worth to be witnessed once in a lifetime!
What to do at Pushkar : Landing in a place like Pushkar for the first time and not knowing where to start can be extremely confusing and frustrating! The below snippets intend to make it a wee-bit easy.
- I strongly recommend sparing a day in your itinerary exclusively to screen Pushkar. Walk the 3km main road all the way to the mela to get a hang of it.
- Pay a visit to the rare Brahma temple and Savitri Temple, the latter is situated on a hillock.
- Walk aimlessly in the alleys to explore its quaint and traditional aesthetics.
- Circumvent 52 ghats around the lake and soak in its calmness and serenity. Spend an evening at an adjoining restaurant and cherish the views of the lake from the top.
- Connect with the locals, they are filled with warmth. Strike conversations with the foreign tourists and exchange stories over a pizza! Yeah! you will vouch for the Pizzas served at the cozy ‘La Pizzeria’.
- Relish hot Poha from a street cart and Bhang Lassi at ‘Out of the Blue.’
- Give your taste buds a feast at ‘Halwaai Galli! Hog on creamy lassis, steamy hot Kachoris, succulent dhoklas and the sinful “Rabri Malpuas”.
- Sip Kullad-chai (served in earthen cups) near the Mela ground.
- Try the authentic “Daal Baati” at a local restaurant. Ask for that extra cup of ghee..
- If you can dare to chuck hygiene, try the sweets and savouries from one of the hundred roadside stalls in the Mela, especially the samosas and jalebies
- Ride on a decked-up camel cart to the dunes at sunset where you can also enjoy the Kalbeliya dance.
- Skip hotels and choose a homestay instead! You can get one at as cheap as 250 INR!
- Shop for souvenir like miniature puppets and handmade eco-friendly diaries.
- Smoking-up seems to be common for the tourists and the locals. Don’t get baffled.
- Pushkar is extremely safe for a solo woman traveler. Personal discretion is recommended
From the eyes of a lens :
- Portraits from the Pushkar Mela is something that a photographer would cherish for life!
- The best way to frame Pushkar is to walk endlessly. Look out for decorated camels and carts, smoking and cooking herdsmen, especially at dawn and dusk. Pushkar is great for silhouettes at twilight.
- Walk beyond the mela on the road leading to Savitri temple until you reach a clearing that holds hundreds of camels! If you are lucky, you might get shots of dust blown by running camels! A few good landscapes can also be attempted from this temple located on a small hilltop.
- Roam in the narrow alleys of the village on a lazy afternoon to look at Pushkar from a totally different angle. The traditional houses can make way for some unique frames.
- Nothing great to capture in the mela ground since it serves to entertain a tourist from abroad who finds the concept of a Mela fascinating. Skip it! Actual action lies on the outside!
- Visit during the early days of the Mela. Avoid the last 2 days, as it gets extremely chaotic. Also, most herdsmen and camels leave Pushkar a day before the Chandrabhaga Fair.
- Not to Miss the Halwaai Galli for street and food photography!
- Warning : Most locals ask for money to pose for photos. Strike a deal before clicking. Bargain can start at Rs. 10 or 20 and go up to a whopping 2000! Sadly, I saw most photographers staging poses and action. Id say ‘go candid!
- Club Kumbhalgarh, if time permits. Read here The Speaking Silence.. Kumbhalgarh
I tried to sum up Pushkar in words. Though, at the end, I was convinced that my lens did a better job!
Meanwhile, in narrow alleys of Pushkar, some interesting portraits were waiting to be framed..
Satiating the gastronomic urges..Halwaai galli and street food of Pushkar..
Around Pushkar lake..
The finally, the unmatched silhouettes…
“Khammaghani!”, I helloed to my guide and my host from the Rajsamand Forest Dept, flaunting my newly learnt arcadian Marwari slang. Chitchatting with Govindji and a few other forest guards in the 4*4 jeep sent to our disposal, we passed a scenic stretch of roads, a quaint village and a beautiful pond on the way to the forest rest house that waited anxiously behind the shade of a few gooseberry trees.
I was charmed by the petite rest house of grey stone and red terracotta that had tucked itself on a hillock on the fringes of the western ghats. Dumping our bags, we three women musketeers set out to witness the marvels of the Kumbhalgarh Fort that rested mightily in the lap of Aravalis in the Mewad region of Rajasthan. This sturdy fortress boasts of a 38 km long fort-wall, making it the 2nd largest wall after the Great Wall of China and also the 2nd largest fort of Rajasthan after Chittorgarh. Though the early history of Kumbhalgarh is not accurately known, the present form was built by Rana Kumbha. I couldn’t stop myself from sharing this jaw dropping video of Kumbhalgarh by Incredible India, that actually inspired me to plan my trip! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ysh4f1RoI-M
The beauty of Kumbhalgarh is indescribable. The stone path leading to the main gate is at a gradual elevation. One cannot refrain from stopping every once in a while to admire the fifteen-feet thick fortwall that looks like a huge python circumventing the fort.
Kumbhalgarh has close to 360 temple ruins in its womb and presents astounding views from its top. A few meters off the main Darwaza, I came face to face with the rear side of the herculean palace that is believed to have been the birth place of the famous Maharana Pratap. The picturesque views of the entire mountain range from every window at the uppermost deck of the palace blew me off my feet!
After strolling for a good two hours in the fort in the blazing November sun, I paid a quick visit to the Ganesha temple and the Jain temple at the base, then moved on farther for a panoramic glimpse of the fort. Sitting at back seat of the jeep, I just couldn’t take my eyes off the majestic Kumhbalgarh and its serpentine fortwall which now looked hazy from a distance.
After a surprisingly delicious lunch at a small local restaurant, our journey continued into the serene Wildlife Sanctuary of Kumbhalgarh. The ride through narrow and rugged forest trail of stone and mud in the government-run gypsy was quite a bone breaking one. A few kilometres into the forest, the jeep halted briefly in the profound and comforting stillness, intermittently broken by falling dry leaves.
A canary flycatcher busily caught its prey in the air, perching at intervals. Rays of the setting sun sneaked through the foliage and dust, gently caressing my face. We drove deeper on a gradual descend to the base of the forest , crossing a couple of virgin streams on the way. Where a few wagtails were trying to fetch their meal on the wet soil near a merry brook, I saw footprints of deer, bisons and wild boars-perhaps. A barking dear curiously stared at us and briskly went underbrush. With only the last few minutes of sunlight remaining, we head back to the top. I caught sight of a beautiful male Sambar and a Crested Serpent Eagle just before winding up the ride.
I spent a good one hour that night on the roof of the rest house to devour the silence of the world around me. Not a house or a spec of light was in sight. No blinding city lights and no deafening cacophony of horns and wheels. I gazed at the carpet of million stars and galaxies above me as the silence of the night gently creeped over and put me to sleep. I woke up next morning, just at the break of dawn and climbed briskly to the terrace, shivering under my blanket. The faint sky was changing colors like a dancing goddess gently swaying in her robe of blues and yellows over the universe. The Aravali complemented the sky with its vivid shades of grey. A tiny spec of gold arose and within minutes, spread its thousand arms, lighting up the rolling mountains that stretched all the way into the horizon. I was pulled into this magical transformation of darkness into light with the seductive play of colors.
Kumbhalgarh had broken its silence and spoken to me in ways that were beyond the power of a thousand words.
Things to do: Kumbhalgarh Fort, and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Best time to visit : Nov through Jan
Where to stay : Kumbhalgarh Forest Rest house. Contact Rajsamand Forest Dept. Rahul @ 9414156229
Where to Eat : Upbeat restaurant called Aodhi or sumptuous food at a nameless hotel in the vicinity
What not to miss : Evening light show at Fort, sunrise at forest rest house. If time permits, explore the temple ruins inside the fort area. Guided tour recommended.
Must do’s : Travel responsibly. Do not consume alcohol or play loud music in the forest premises. Carry back any litter. Appreciate what the locals and the guides do for you and express gratitude.