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Ladakh: Of snow fights and sand dunes

Continued from here

The next morning we proceeded to Nubra valley via one of the world’s highest motorable road at 17,582 ft of elevation- the Khardungla Pass. It is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier that is guarded by our armed forces.

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The scene is quite breathtaking out here, and not just due to the lack of oxygen! The mountains still had significant snow cover in September much to the delight of the subset of the group for which it was their first experience of snow.IMG_1960

There is an absolute riot if prayer flags at this point perhaps in the hope that those prayers will protect the passers-by and those who stand guard. IMG_1971Further ahead and Skarma very kindly stopped to let us have a go at a snow fight. IMG_3536This was a terribly one-sided battle with all of us on one side with our snowballs getting powdered even before we threw them and him, the mountain dude on the other side aiming at us with lethal precision and robust snow missiles! With hands freezing and getting even more out of breath with laughter, we left the place swearing to get back at him on our way back.

A little ahead for all of us, we experienced our very first snow-fall- a trip with happy firsts makes it all seem worth it! We stopped for lunch at a place called New Punjab restaurant, and it was like many other places run by just a couple. However, they had something we hadn’t seen on any menu in Ladakh before – Chitranna (Lemon rice). IMG_3550Something that’s quintessentially Karnataka. Much amused we enquired with the owner and he said he had just learnt it online. We enjoyed all the other dishes too. When he came after we were done, he enquired about the dish and himself said that we may not have liked it because it missed one key ingredient- curry leaves. Finding yummy chitranna with peanuts when travelling the Himalayas was enough of a delicious miracle for us, expecting curry leaves was too much even for his level of dedication to try to cook it for us! Adding to the ambience was their cute daughter who spent the time playing peekaboo with us and the friendly dogs around who chilled out in the sun during the few hours of relative warmth.

 

Some of our views ahead were unreal- one could actually not tell if a photo had been inverted or not with the mountains getting replicated on the water better than a copier every could. IMG_1977Just a few meters before we reached the top to Deskit Gompa, a tire of our car decided to get punctured! Much to Skarma’s amusement, with everyone pitching in, we were done with the tyre change in just a few minutes. The 32-meter statue of the Maitreya Buddha in vivid colours is visible well before you reach the place in stark contrast to the surroundings in neutral hues. IMG_2028The monastery is one of the oldest and largest in the Nubra valley and while monasteries are almost always atop craggy hills, it still never fails to make you wonder how they were even constructed there.IMG_1984

 

We moved on from the statue and then climbed up the steps of the white-walled monastery. IMG_2052IMG_2064And despite its beauty, what was truly wondrous to me was a little kitten that came directly to me and like one’s supposed to, we proceeded to pet it for the rest of our time there. IMG_2090We spent some time in the prayer halls and temples within the monastery and slowly made our way back.IMG_2081

 

We soon reached the Hunder Sand dunes where we crossed a narrow stretch of the Shyok river and landed in probably the only place on our trip that had a significant number of people all in one location. What’s impossible to miss are the rows of Bactrian camels available to be ridden on. Incidentally, all of us in the group decided to skip that, and instead decided to do something that was even more fun, sliding down sand dunes and watching the evening change colours with the setting sun!IMG_3591IMG_2131IMG_2152

 

We stayed the night at a hotel Sten-Del which had excellent service and food- if you needed more incentive it even had Mani Ratnam stay there during the making of one of his movies. So well, that was our celebrity connection for this trip. But we didn’t really need it, after all, we had seen snowfall and sand dunes in the desert- all in one day- I wonder how many other places could boast of that!

We headed back to Leh the next day stopping for yet another round of snow-fights at Khardungla, however, I’m sorry to report that we were badly defeated yet again. IMG_3623Ah well , we’ll deal with Skarma when he comes to visit us in the warm plains on our own home ground – maybe in a dosa-eating contest, another battle for another time.IMG_3633

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>10 day trip

Ladakh: Of unwavering focus and Bollywood in the mountains

Continued from here

The next day was yet another long drive, this time to the lovely Pangong lake. It was supposed to be warmer in comparison to Tsomoriri so we were thrilled to be on our way.

 

But there was more to the journey, as our first stop was the Thiksey monastery. It is possibly the most recognisable monastery in Leh with several layers of simple buildings cascading down a rocky hill. IMG_1638 Just a few stairs up passing by prayer wheels and monks’ living quarters, we reached the courtyard and entered the temple on one side of it. The temple was unlike any we had seen before. It had a very large statue of Maitreya Buddha 15 meters tall where you could see only the shoulder upward and the rest seemed to emerge out of the floor from a storey below to grace us with its presence. The idol had an intricate crown with each section having one diety with its own details bordered with more patterns. It was housed inside a hall with paintings of the stories of Budhha in vivid colours. The wooden pillars held up an equally colourful ceiling.

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The colors and the stories even just on the crown!

A hall with stupas and rows of idols of various forms of Budhha was on the other side of the courtyard. IMG_1508The predominantly red and white walls of the courtyard and the paintings there presented a brilliant contrast to the beautiful skies in blue.IMG_1546

 

A short climb up and one would reach the prayer hall but not before seeing the scene that had become for me the most enduring image of Buddhism for me from the movie Samsara. Monks in a circle cheerfully and meticulously working on a mandala- a labyrinthine pattern inside a circular outline made with chalk using a huge wooden geometric compass and slender brushes dipping into clay to define the contours. On the other side was a single monk mixing colours into small heaps of sand to be used later to fill in the pattern.

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The effort had just begun

They’d spend a whole day or more painstakingly poring over this work and at the end calmly destroy it and scatter the sand- a sign of the impermanence of things and a lesson in not being attached to material things.

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The monk making up the colored sand with paint

 

The assembly hall itself had at its very end statues of Buddha with the Bodhisattvas- Manjushri and Maitreya.IMG_1577Inside the assembly hall is when I first noticed the small sculptures made of barley and butter that would be made as offerings to the deity – it was a tradition unique to Tibetan Buddhism.

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Sculptures made of barley and butter

 

On the other side of the assembly hall is the Tara temple, this form of Tara was the Prasanna Tara and even though it was mostly covered, to my eyes, she had the fierce beauty that made the Goddess Kali so mesmerizing. She had 16 arms with an assortment of weapons and a necklace of bloodied heads. We weren’t completely sure why the idol and the ones beside it were partially covered but it was quite a contrast to the other temple with its bare ceilings with wooden logs and yet managing to keep you fascinated at its raw imagery.

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The view from the top of the temple is that of the Zanskar Mountain ranges all around and the villages below. We chose to take a different way down and even passed by several stupas with varying degree of decorations.IMG_1629

 

With the bare mountains providing steady company we headed on along the roads snaking over them. IMG_1664The Border roads organisation makes sure you stay entertained with puns and funny quotes giving us respite from the endless roads. We continued to be fascinated by how close the clouds were to form perfect shadows on the mountainside.

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Have you been so high that the clouds are your 

umbrellasWe stopped for lunch at an eatery run by a couple, the highlight being their toddler who calmly stayed the whole time in a chair, brushing away most people and blessing a few of us with her endearing giggles.

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The center of our attention

Pangong felt starkly different to Tsomoriri, there were scooters and butt-seats(??) made popular by the movie “3 Idiots” for people to take pictures in.

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Oh Bollywood!

There were quite a lot of people here but it didn’t feel too crowded either. It is at a height of 14,000 ft. To put that in perspective- Bangalore is at an elevation of 2953 ft. of  The water in perfect blue seemed to compete with the colour of the sky. IMG_1718We even had a few birds making their way along its surface. IMG_1725The water, the prayer flags, the mountains of the Changchenmo range and the stacked stones will be a snapshot of the Pangong lake that will stay on with us. R and G took the most lovely pictures in the Ladakhi costume as an apt souvenir from the location. Skarma, our driver, was right to huddle us to the water instead of letting us check-in to the hotel, because quickly, without warning, the sun-set and it was instantly too cold, windy and dark for pictures or to stay by the water.

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The next morning, we woke up early to experience the lake just by ourselves, the crowds had either left for their journey on ahead or not woken up as yet. Just the water, wind and us let us finally find the peaceful oasis that is the Pangong lake.IMG_1771 Before we left, Skarma took us to another viewpoint to the Pangong lake, this time with no other people around and a spot of lavender coloured blossoms. It was the perfect location to watch the gentle ripples and practice skipping stones on the water. We sat by the lovely blue water this time the sunlight a little kinder to us , enjoying our time there before bidding farewell to yet another memorable scene at Ladakh.

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On our way back we were lucky to see the most darling creature- the Himalayan Marmot- a cuddly plump ball of fur that looks even more endearing due to its serious look, fine whiskers, tiny ears, rounded paws and a disproportionately long tail. We were lucky to have a couple of them come out of their shared burrows, however, we wished they were a bit more wary of people because people honestly don’t deserve to see them. There were people getting unnecessarily close to them, shouting and even some utter idiots throwing stones towards them to get them to come nearer-I could only yell at such people but in times like this, one really wishes to do more. It is even more disturbing when such people have children with them who will then mimic their parent’s ghastly behaviour.

But well, we had to move on ahead and not let that ruin our time in a beautiful place. We went on along our journey and reached Sindhu ghat– we’d give it a miss if we knew that it was only a point by the river and there were several before it that were much more scenic.

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Once back in Leh we had the evening to ourselves and decided to make the best of it with a walk around the town. We started off with different types of warm tea while petting the friendly mountain dogs and then headed to the Leh market. The market like in most towns is the hub of social life. IMG_1941We have everything from souvenirs for tourists, silver jewellery to fresh peaches and apricots, but what really got our attention was a chalkboard with a dish that called out to us like no other- Pani Puri! We were so thrilled to have that sweet, spicy and sour favourite that we re-visited the place every evening that we were at Leh. We’d recommend exploring the bylanes of the Leh market- every turn had something interesting to see.IMG_1959

Up next : Ladakh : Of sand dunes and snow fights

>10 day trip

Ladakh – Of mountain lakes and star filled skies

Continued from here

Day 2 and whether we were ready or not, we were off to the coldest place on our itinerary- the Tsomoriri lake. Like the Ganga accompanied us all through our trip in Uttarakhand, here it was the Indus. Since we’re a bit closer to the point of origin, however, the visible difference between the 2 rivers is quite vast. The Ganga is a no-nonsense powerhouse of potential destruction in no uncertain terms and quite intimidating while the gentle flow of the Indus makes you want to sit by it and have a picnic all day long.

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The tame Indus providing us company amidst the arid landscape

Note: the restrooms were extremely bad on the way, so do give your driver advance notice to stop in smaller villages along the way for possibly better facilities.

 

Our first stop on the way was at Chumathang at the hot springs there. The plus is that it is a hot spring with very small areas of it bubbling and sputtering up to the surface, the negative is that it’s not the cleanest place around since the locals use the water for their daily needs. IMG_1110However, it is by the banks of the Indus so we sat a while and watched the mountains and the water gurgling by.

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After lunch there, we were lucky enough to spot a herd of mountain goats calmly grazing and perched on the narrow cliffs like it was no-big-deal at all.

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The journey is long and arduous especially for our spines- even in a comfortable SUV, we found ourselves with aching backs by the end of the day. However, the good news is that the roads are in a bad state only because they are making them wider, so maybe by the time you get to it, it’ll be a breeze. IMG_1164And there it was, our very first view of the perfect oasis amongst the arid mountains and the sands. IMG_1173Kyagar Tso, a saline water lake in the Rupshu valley,  much smaller than Tsomoriri but we instantly fell in love with it. Since we visited Ladakh at the fag end of the season, there was nobody else around. There were a few wild horses grazing nonchalantly, a cold wind, the golden grassland, the ubiquitous mountains, the perfect sky and us. IMG_1195Though small, possibly since it seemed like a reward at the end of a long journey or because of the isolated place that almost seemed like one we had discovered ourselves, this was my favourite among the lakes we’d see on this trip. We spent some time dancing completely out of step and soaking in the surroundings but just because of the cold were soon driven back to the relative comfort of our car.

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We went on ahead to the point of our long journey-the Tsomoriri lake. We first checked in to our comfy tents It gets very cold as soon as the sun sets around here, so our driver, Skarma huddled us on to a viewpoint for a more clear view of the beautiful water.IMG_1273 The place is windy, very windy which means the cold is also amplified as much. However, it felt incredibly unspoilt because there were absolutely no other tourists.IMG_1301 We sat by a stacked pile of stones watching the unmoving water, a huge herd of furry goats with their shepherd, the cerulean blue skies with picture perfect clouds and the unchanging part of the scenery throughout- the rugged mountains.IMG_3442.jpg

 

After a while, we drove back to the safety of our tents only to come out into the biting cold on our way to dinner. Just a glance upward and there it was, a sky like no other, an incredible number of stars blinking down at us from the inky darkness. If not for the cold we’d have been content spending the night watching them.

 

But spend the night awake we did, with the low air density and the cold, despite our comfortable tents, all of us had trouble sleeping. Nevertheless, we were kept entertained by the sounds around- the howling mountain dogs, the braying donkeys and the wind howling like galloping horses just outside our tents all night- if we ever needed a soundtrack – there it was.IMG_1318

 

The next morning after a stroll around the area trying to absorb as much of the scene as we could, we headed back to Leh this time stopping at a scene we’d passed by- my first view of autumn colors in India- the flaming reds, the brilliant yellows and the unapologetic oranges bursting through the green color that was meekly receding to the background. IMG_1367More company of the gurgling Indus and we reached what now felt like home, the town of Leh.IMG_1355

Up next : Ladakh: Of unwavering focus and Bollywood in the mountains

 

>10 day trip

Ladakh : Of surprises and warm wishes in cold places

The morning we were about to land in Leh, the first view our sleepy eyes had was that of the sunlight piercing through the background of the sky. An ocean of clouds later we saw the place we were to land, just in between endless layers of brown hills providing a stark contrast against the white of the aircraft.After landing at the small airport of Leh amidst sandy, rocky mountains and a few hours of rest to acclimatize, we headed to our first stop for the day- the Hall of Fame, a museum maintained by the Indian army in memory of the soldiers. There are different areas within the museum dedicated to artefacts from the war- weapons, documents, clothing. Especially heart-rending are the letters from Pakistani and Indian soldiers to their families and tales of awardees of the nationals highest awards for gallantry.IMG_0885While it’s intended to instil a sense of pride and patriotism, all I felt was despondency at the sheer futility of war and the tragedy of lost lives of extremely young men in such a violent manner. Specifically, a quote by the Dalai Lama that I saw at a monastery later put the thought well in brief “Since armies are legal, we feel that war is acceptable….” (You can read more here if it interests you.)

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After that sobering beginning, we somewhat aptly next headed to a place of peace- A shrine called Gurudwara Shri Patthar Sahib. The name “Patthar/stone” comes from a legend that Shri Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism had once visited Leh during a missionary tour and a demon who terrorised the people attempted to harm him by rolling over a boulder towards the Guru. However, the boulder melted on touching him and left his imprint on it instead. When the demon further attempted to kick the stone towards him, his foot got embedded in it and he finally asked for forgiveness and turned around his life in the service of humanity. A boulder supposedly with the imprint of the Guru is placed inside the monastery for people to worship.

 

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A nondescript exterior to the Gurudwara that is a calm oasis in the cold weather nonetheless

 

The Gurudwara itself like most other gurudwaras we’ve been to is a simple structure outside. While it is pure torture for someone not used to the cold to take off the shoes and step into the running water to clean one’s feet before entering the space, it is quite heartening to have the delicious prasad once you’re done with your visit. We spent a little time there in silence and made our way back to go ahead to what is arguably the most popular image of Ladakh in Facebook- the Magnetic Hill.

 

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Are you convinced it’s actually downhill?

 

However, there is no real magnetic hill but an optical illusion of going uphill when in reality we are going downhill. The reason for this is that our view of uphill/downhill is due to the horizon being a baseline for us to deduce it and in this area the specific layout of the hills obstructing the horizon causes us to see the slope as we do. Nevertheless, it’s a fun activity for folks to stop vehicles and let them seem to move uphill on its own. The group decided to make the best of the pit stop with me happily playing with a beautiful pup that decided to let me, and Anand and another friend decided to try ATVs for the first time on the rugged terrain.

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An entertaining time later, we made a short stop at the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers. One can see the colours of the rivers deep blue and green merge into each other at this point. In the right season, one could also choose to go rafting here (supposedly the highest rafting location) amidst the imposing hills and the chilly water.

 

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The Zanskar and the Indus- merging into one

 

 

Lunch was due and we were ravenous and so after some more winding roads, we reached the Alchi Kitchen restaurant. It is actually a beautiful home kitchen by run an older lady and 3 younger ones.IMG_0954.jpg Incidentally just as we ordered, we had an impromptu performance by a gentleman on guitar of a beautiful Elvis Presley number even joined in the end in a jugalbandi of sorts by another gentleman in a mesmerizing classical raaga. Perfectly delighted and with smiles even wider than before we continued our hilarious conversations while Anand busied himself taking pictures of the cooking – or so I thought. Much to my complete surprise, what should I see but Anand and A (another friend) coming in with a home-made cake from the ladies there and wishes for my birthday painstakingly written on it with tiny beads of…wait for it….mouth-freshener!

IMG_3085.jpgNeedless to say, I had the best birthday cake cutting celebration ever! Friends, music, laughter and your name in minty fresh tiny granules- one really can’t ask for much more from life. We enjoyed our food leisurely (we’d recommend the mok mok/dumplings and the apricot walnut saffron tea) exchanging rip-roaring wedding stories and doubling up in laughter. Some shopping from the stalls on the way later, walking through an alley, we got to the Alchi Gompa.IMG_0993

 

Now all monasteries we’d seen along the way were on hilltops and this was an exception being on relatively plain land.

 

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The deceptively simple exteriors

 

The 3 storied Sumrstek temple had idols of Maitreyi Budhha, Avalokiteshwara and Manjushri- the 3 forms representing Compassion, Hope and Wisdom respectively. The wooden pillars and structure of the temple for some reason reminded me instantly of the wadas in Pune.IMG_1026Even the clothes of the idols have stories from Buddhist lore drawn on them. The towering idols in the small chambers of the shrine make them somehow even more imposing than otherwise.IMG_3095

One shrine Lotsa- meaning translator- referring to the founder of the shrine Rinchen Zhangpo who is referred to as the Great Translator.

The shrine for Manjushri even had different chambers, 4 statues of Manjushri facing in each direction and a larger statue in another chamber.

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The circular design on the wall (visible on the right) are actually individual handpainted images of the Buddha

 

The huge clay idols in each one are carved with remarkable detail with adornments and with celestial beings of all shapes and sizes, goddesses, fierce divinities, some even showering garlands. What takes your breath away even more than the remarkable idols are the vivid frescoes on the wall- some had endless rows of hand-painted images of the Buddha, while others had intricate mandalas in brilliant colours.

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Never enough prayer wheels

 

 

We walked around the monastery for a view of the Indus and headed back to the cab when what should we hear but the mewing of a silly kitten stuck atop an apple tree. Some significant jumping and rescuing later we made our way back. IMG_1075.jpgWe decided to distribute the cake to the cab drivers who had all parked there waiting for their tourists to return. To my surprise, they broke out into singing a happy birthday and then insisted on a picture with us!IMG_3110.jpgAnd that’s exactly how dear folks, a perfect birthday gets a cherry on top.IMG_1001

 

Up next : Ladakh – Of mountain lakes and star filled skies

 

3 day trip

Shimoga – Of dreamy palaces and green wonderlands

For our next stop, we headed to the Kavaledurga fort. This time the right one. We sensibly went with ponchos and shoes meant for the heavy rains that accompanied us.

Note: Please do so because we saw most tourists soaked to the skin despite their jackets and umbrellas, the latter is especially pointless since the steps are very slippery and you really better have both hands free in case you fall.It’s not a long trek, just a slippery one- so take your time and walk with care.

The trek starts in a not-so-typical fashion- by walking through a pretty rice field. IMG_2313.jpgA bit of a trek uphill through the dreamy fort walls and you’d reach a temple in the midst of the hills. The outside of the fort itself looks very fairy-tale-like- actually more like the prettiest scenes from Game of Thrones.IMG_2372.jpg

The moss-covered surfaces and the greenery bursting out of the corners of the rocks with the gentle drizzle lending an idyllic look to the whole scene. We walked in silence absorbing the sights at each turn.IMG_2388.jpg

Each layer of the fort has an entryway flanked by guard rooms where you could almost imagine sentries from another time. IMG_2441The first big structure you’d see in the fort is of the Kashi Vishwanatha temple with 2 stone pillars prominently in front of it and the dense forest behind.

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A little ahead and a short climb up later, there exists a huge rock on which you will see a small shrine named as “Shikhareshwara Temple”, despite it being even more slippery a bunch of folks including us gave it a go to climb up the black patches of the rock.IMG_2512.jpg

Most people return from here since the path is covered with grass and not obviously laid out, especially in the monsoons.IMG_2540.jpg

Moving on ahead towards the summit, if you don’t miss the opening through the shrubbery you’d see a few steps leading to the pond. Further on, and you’d come to the most dramatic structure in the fort- the palace in ruins. IMG_2564.jpgSince the base and the pillars are still present, one can experience strolling through the interconnected rooms around a spacious quadrangle at the centre of it all. IMG_2561.jpgWhile this is quite a scene, the highlight for me was the stunning pond behind this. The T-Shaped pond that one can reach via steps was full of water in a natural blue-green shade, even having tiny fish swimming in its embrace. IMG_2592.jpgIt’s quite an enchanting spot surrounded by the overlooking hills with every spot covered with a huge variety of flora in every size.

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Feeling blissfully lost in the perfectly picturesque wilderness

We very reluctantly left the place since it was getting darker.IMG_2610.jpg

The next morning after breakfast we went to the 12th-century Rameshwara temple which was a small non-ornate temple with beautifully rounded pillars in glossy black.IMG_1835It is surrounded by a well-maintained garden frequented by butterflies. IMG_1832Yet again, the yard behind the temple is the most scenic since it’s at the confluence of the tributaries Tunga and Bhadra.IMG_1871

On our way back we made a stop at the Chennagiri fort. This is a fort with 2 layers of walls and a moat. IMG_1939.jpgA small Ranganatha Swamy temple at an elevation and several bastions and a couple of watchtowers. IMG_1891The fort has a small stepped pond too enclosed within its stone walls. IMG_1961From atop the fort, you’d get a 360-degree view of the surrounding village, fields, plains and even the hills in the distance.IMG_2761.jpg

We picked up a friend who had packed lunch and sweets for us too and headed of to the Muruga Rajendra Mutt Park in Chitradurga for a green spot to have our lunch. This is run and owned by a religious organization but is very much just space for the locals to spend a day out with the kids. It is a theme park except that it seems like they couldn’t decide on one theme and decided to do them all. IMG_2002You start off with life-size dinosaurs, funny cutouts to take ones pics, evolution of mankind and civilization, religious figures, poets in Kannada from the ancient times with snapshots of their lives, social messages on alcoholism and other evils, and even a small zoo which was admittedly better maintained than some others we had seen. IMG_2087It’s the perfect place to wander around and do nothing while keeping kids busy with each new display.IMG_2053

And that right there was the end of yet another trip- that had everything from breathtaking scenes from the bygone era to confusing ones from the current one!

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A variant of the banana plant on the Kavaledurga fort
3 day trip

Shimoga : Monsoon magic

Leaving on a Friday morning, we drove past bright green fields bursting with vegetables and paddy and impossibly symmetric rows of arecanut palms. IMG_1614.jpgThe water bodies were full thanks to the bountiful rains that ensured we made, even more pit stops, to admire them than on our usual trips whether it was to sit by a calm pond or stop by a bridge to watch and listen to the gushing water flow under it. IMG_1620.jpgEven the tree lined roads are scenic in the most alluring way. IMG_1617.jpgWe noticed saris used for bordering the fields at many points on our way and were intrigued by them.  IMG_1630.jpgAnd thus, we reached Shimoga just in time for lunch one fine August day. We decided to start off with the Kavaledurga fort. On the way we gave a lift to a very old lady who wanted to reach the nearby village to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi with her family. She solved the puzzle of the saris and explained to us that they were used to keep pigs away from the fields!

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Our eyes were devouring the greenery like there was no tomorrow

Note: Maps shows 2 locations mapped to Kavaledurga fort, take the one that says Kavaledurga fort in Kavaledurga not the one mapped to Shimoga.

After the explanation above, it’s needless to say we reached the wrong one first.

With a sigh, we headed to the next spot- Mandagadde Bird Sanctuary. Now bird sanctuaries are notorious for not having any birds during most of our visits except during winter when they are seen in plenty. So with very low expectations, we headed that way, and just before seeing the board towards it I let out a gasp! IMG_1677.jpgThe scene was splendid…trees amidst the water with every branch filled with egrets and cormorants. As it turned out we had landed on the right season for this view. We spent some time with the other people who had stopped by, watching the noisy young ones being fed by the older birds, birds swooping into the water for their meals or just chilling in the sunlight.IMG_1675.jpg

Note: It is not a huge area but just a viewpoint from the road itself so while you could spend time watching the beauties like we did, do not expect a large area to walk within. It is very easy to miss since it’s a small board by the side and the viewpoint is behind a moss-covered structure by the road. Nevertheless, it’s a view that’ll make your heart happy.

The next nearest place was the Sakrebylu Elephant camp and the Gajanur dam of which the former was closed.

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Gajanur dam

To be honest, the dam is really not the highlight. What’s truly surreal is the sight of its stunning backwaters.IMG_1707.jpg Tree trunks stripped of their leaves upright in the calm river, and twigs in all directions perfectly reflected in the water make for a haunting scene you’d never want to leave. The Gajanur dam itself is a pit stop to watch the water and eat some delicious hot corn on the cob with a mild drizzle for company.

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The haunting backwaters

Since it was a long weekend and the whole of Bangalore had landed in Shimoga, we only found a shady looking lodge by the highway that turned out to be cleaner, significantly cheaper and better equipped than many others we’d stayed in. Shimoga is truly an excellent place if you’re travelling on a budget- especially for the stay. Just leave your popular sites (that all showed “sold out”)and head to the not-so-popular sites to find places to check out yourself before making the payment.

The next morning we headed straight to the most time-sensitive of the places- Sakrebylu Elephant camp, but not before passing by more fields in brilliant greens that do not require photo editing software.

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Talk about prime location for a home
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I forget what these birds are called- they seem to have a disproportionately tiny red hat atop their heads

Note: Its hours of operation are 8:30 Am – 11:30 AM. Do reach as early as you can to make the most of watching the pachyderms.

Amidst the backwaters, it’s a delightful spot to watch the elephants being bathed while they play in the water.

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The elephants simply revel in the pampering they receive during their baths

We picked a baby elephant to watch who was an adorable bundle of clumsiness – what with him unsuccessfully trying to pull out some grass with his plump trunk. Even standing in the drizzle was completely worth it to witness his antics.

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Our little star

Note: They do have boat rides, elephant rides, being allowed to bathe elephants at a charge but all of them are suspended during the rains. So do not promise your kids any of these like a parent had unfortunately done, much to the annoyance of his child who immediately threw a tantrum! I’d rather go during this time though, since otherwise like we saw in the Dubare sanctuary, the close interactions with humans only leads to more pain for the elephants.

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From there we went to Sri Siddi Vinayaka Temple, Chibbalgudde. From appearances outside and even within the temple, it’s quite non-descript. IMG_1772.jpgHowever, most of its beauty lies just behind the temple that faces the beautiful river Tunga bursting at her seam. The river was full and rushing ahead even drowning out the seats on the bank for people to sit and watch the river go by. However in summer, one could feed the fish that crowd at the steps of the temple, being used to devotees feeding them. It is also officially a matsyadhama /fish sanctuary with notices not to harm the fish in the water. It’s a spot that manages to feel vast and yet like a secret hideout at the same time. If you’ve a keen eye, you will also see a variety of birds in the area.IMG_1775.jpg

Up next : Shimoga- Of ruined palaces and green wonderlands

 

 

2 day trip

Alleppy : And the snake boat race!

Kerala is always a treat to visit- and this time we had to visit for what is probably the most popular event there – The snake boat race. We decided to take a day more and see Alleppy while we were at it.

We drove from Thrissur on the morning of the race since it was recommended to reach early. We dropped him to the boat pick up point for the race attendees and headed back to the hotel to watch the event from the comfort of our rooms on TV!

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The place is loud- the commentary like any sports event is fast paced and keeps you at the edge of your seat- if you understand the language. The best part of the event for me is actually the energetic singing in tandem with the rowing – however, that is mostly drowned out by the sounds of the crowds cheering their favourite local team and the commentary on the loudspeakers.

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IMG_1096.jpgEither way, you can’t be unmoved by the sheer strength, skill and beauty of watching a 100 men/women rowing in unison on a narrow boat across those placid waters bordered by the boisterous crowds and the waving coconut palms – both seeming to cheer their every gasp for air.

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Tips for the snake boat race attendees:

  • Carry water and food. There is none at the event.
  • Tickets vary from Rs. 200 – Rs. 3000. While the pricier tickets get you a better view point it doesn’t necessarily guarantee comfort unless you are booking a whole house boat which is a couple of thousands per person over the ticket price.
  • The higher priced ticket options will have chairs but in the excitement of the crowds, sitting is simply a suggestion and you’ll have whole crowds up on their feet almost the whole time.
  • If you think you can take the effort of standing/sitting on the ground for long, go early to the event – the finals this time started at 2:30 but Anand got there at 11 AM on the advice of the locals. There are qualifying races and those with smaller boats before the final event- those are fun to watch too and you’d be relegated to the back of the crowd if you aren’t early.
  • Take someone to speak to or take along a book to read since there is a time gap between races where you will be left doing nothing unless you’re into people watching.IMG_1204.jpg

Meanwhile, we happened to walk around the hotel area for lunch and completely by chance had a meal at what was the best restaurant in Alleppy according to many sites. A hearty meal later uncle and aunt continued to watch the race while I chose to catch up on my sleep. After that nap, we picked up Anand. Incidentally, a jewellery store had arranged for local artists to have a performance of the Chenda Melam that is quite foot tapping and maybe some nodding along if you like strong beats.

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Tip: If you want a hint of the local culture, the best time to visit Kerala is around Onam – the date of this festival varies every year since it depends on the Malayalam calendar month Chingam. It is however around Aug-Sept. Ask your local contacts for the smaller scale local boat races, the poorams (temple festivals), the puli kali (dances in tiger outfits), kottu (the traditional drum beats), Kummati Kali (dances with masks).

A couple of minutes there and we then went to the Alappuzha beach. The long flyover getting constructed right next to the beach (currently the nearest vehicle parking is just below it), seems like quite an aberration of concrete monstrosity just next to what is usually a peaceful spot for people to spend an evening. Nevertheless, there it was.

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The Alappuzha beach is crowded but it’s also a long beach so if you’re not into jumping into the water alongside the huge groups you can always walk by the water watching people and kites dotting the sky in the backdrop of the gently falling shades of the evening skies.

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Note: Food in Allapuzha was amongst the least expensive and most satisfying we’ve had in our south Indian trips. Try the local food and you will not be disappointed. You cannot go wrong with appam, puttu or idiyappam for breakfast.

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Puttu made within a coconut shell

The next morning we first dropped into a temple that we’d noticed just behind our hotel. It happened to be a several centuries old Sree Lakshmi Narasimhaswamy Temple. IMG_2040.jpgIt has quite a dramatic legend associated with it that says a devotee who was denied the temple offerings came upon sculptors who turned into the idols of Gods that were then installed in this temple.

Its walls were covered with frescoes of different deities and heavenly figures.

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The place is surrounded by structures with beautifully tiled tall roofs that make up both the temple offices and some residences.

The most unique aspect of the space I found was that this was the first time we had seen a dovecote in a Hindu temple. The only other South Indian place in recent memory that had one was the Dariya Daulat Bagh in Srirangapatna

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Note: Many temples in Kerala have a dress code. The safest thing to wear would be a sari or a long skirt for women and a mundu or similar garment for men. The next best thing would be a salwar for women and long trousers for men- still not ok in some temples. Men will sometimes be required to take off their shirts before entering the temple. This one allowed us in but not very near the deity, some will not allow entrance into the temple itself if you don’t adhere to the dress code.

Alleppey is one of those places in Kerala where taking a house boat is definitely something one could try. We, however, had to reach Thrissur by the end of the day and so instead opted for a smaller boat like the Shikara in Kashmir except on the Vembanad lake. This was the same lake where the Snake boat race was held the previous day so Anand got an opportunity to give us an idea of where different arrangements had been made. This also happens to be the longest lake in India.

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We spent only 2 hours on our boat but one could easily spend a day revelling in the sheer luxury of doing nothing. IMG_1470The backwaters of Kerala are the perfect place to be to disconnect.The eyes easily relax on seeing the placid waters, the lovely purple flowers blooming amidst the seaweeds, the cormorants easily diving into the water to catch their fishy meals, the boats in different sizes lined along the waterside and the locals going about their day.

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Just by the backwaters are the Kuttanad rice fields you’d be able to see from your boat. It’s one of the very few places in the world where farming is carried out 4-10 ft below sea level. Our boatman informed us that the biggest expense is just pumping out water from the fields back into the backwaters. However, the land is otherwise very fertile and requires relatively lesser effort for cultivation. The farmers’ ability to undertake Biosaline farming in such situations has led to the area being declared a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.

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Note: Costs vary for different boat sizes, the number of passengers and durations. The only way to know for sure is to ask around. We paid Rs.1000 for 4 people for a 2-hour ride because we weren’t in the mood for bargaining and signed up the first boatman who approached us.

After our ride, we drove to our next stop –  Pathiramanal Island. Anything with “island” in its name can’t help but sound intriguing add to it a name that means “Sands of the night” and your interest is piqued for sure. Our earlier boatman, however, warned us we’d probably not enjoy it as much as foreigners do.

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The island is known for mangroves, aquatic creatures and migratory birds. The birds are expected to be seen more often during summer or they just weren’t around because of the small but noisy tourist groups that had landed on the small island. Someone with at least a cursory knowledge of plant and bird species would definitely enjoy the island. Even to the untrained eye, there are a large variety of plants not very commonly seen elsewhere.IMG_2077

To someone living in the rural areas of Kerala, we would, however, find the greenery commonplace since our backyards look somewhat similar albeit with different plants! Despite being surrounded by the cool water, it is quite sultry inside the island since the thick vegetation doesn’t let much breeze in. On the flip side, it is quite a delight to step out into the spaces at the edge of the island towards the water for a welcome gust of cool air.

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Note: One has to take a boat to the island that cost us Rs.500 (there are only a couple of boats around) though it was a short ride and there are no boards on standard rates. So one can only hope you’re being charged a fair price.The boatman, however, will let you stay on the island as long as you need to and you could call him once done to pick you back. We spend around 40 mins on the island just walking around.

We went over to the Marari beach next though it was mid-day and therefore not the best time. This is significantly less crowded than the Allapuzha beach and the more ideal of them to relax and enjoy the water. Anand spent 20 minutes trying to feed a crow off of his hands but the crow persevered in just waiting from afar and we had more of a journey ahead of us. We enjoyed the beach for a while longer and moved on.

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Our next stop was the Periyar river. Following the map dutifully we reached an absolute dead end. The river was something one would see as one passes over the numerous bridges on the route. However, we were hoping for a space to sit by the water and enjoy its beauty. All we got was a shady deserted building and walking through the shrubs around it a peep at one edge of the river. Ah well, not all adventures are meant to be. So that was that.

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