Saturday, April 28, 2018

Munroe Island - An unruffled backwater getaway!



Munroe Island is an unspoilt backwater getaway in Kerala located about 25km away from Kollam. The island derived its name from Colonel John Munro, a resident of the former Princely State of Travancore.  It is believed that he had contributed to formation of the integrated canal system. The narrow waterways are adorned with diverse flora & fauna. Coir making, prawn cultivation, toddy extraction, canoe tourism, fishing and coconut farming are the major source of income for the natives. This region witnesses the confluence of Ashtamudi and Kallada rivers. The best way to experience the serene ambiance & laid back lifestyle of Munroe island is to go for a canoe ride. The best time to visit is early morning or before the sunset. There are train services available from Kollam to Munrothuruthu station at fixed hours. 

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Matheran - A Mysterious Hill Town


If you live in Mumbai, you have ample options for quick weekend getaways. One such destination is Matheran, a small hill station located in the Raigad district. So what's special here? If you're coming from a buzzing city, probably you would be craving for silence and tranquility! Here, people ride horses like they ride vehicles. You read it right! When you reach Matheran, you are literally far from all pandemonium of the city for it's an automobile-free zone. Matheran has a light rail system which starts from Neral. You could hitch a ride in a toy train that chugs all the way up hill. Or if you fancy sitting on a horse that'll be even more fun! Two days are just enough to explore this hill town. 


On a weekend, we drove from Mumbai to Neral and took the hair pin route up to reach Dasturi Naka. Now this is where the business of horse hiring begins. Local men surrounded us like we are celebrities. After a round of bargaining we fixed a deal for Rs.800 for two horses although it seemed expensive. Later, we felt that this price is well deserved. As we pulled along the hilly route, we watched in bewilderment how these animals carried our healthy bodies and managed to walk steady. It was probably a place where horses outnumbered humans. You look around to see horses in different skin tones each with names stitched on their saddles. So we could identify them with names like Raja, Pinky, Veeru and so on. 

The experience itself was overwhelming and a bit sad too. We didn't want to give more burden to our horses but it took almost 45 minutes to reach Hotel Paramount. In between we were even given a stick to beat the poor creature. We denied it upfront. I kept thinking of the struggle they are made to experience everyday, are they even being fed properly? The thought about how people moved around here without vehicles really surprised me. For each & every need they have to rely on the horses or hand carts pulled by men. Once or twice we saw a team of small horses (almost like ponies) running in a quick pace. Later we learnt that they are used to carry merchandise up hill. 


As the horses galloped, we watched dust swirling up in the air. The paths are unpaved and consists of red laterite soil. Exploring the view points in Matheran means you have to trek minimum 3 to 4 kilometers or hire horses to take you around. It's ideal to wear trekking shoes because while walking your feet will get covered with red earth. We preferred to walk to one or two spots and did not move around much. The hotel where we stayed was pretty decent with a small swimming pool and outdoor games. 


On the way we spotted a few giant bungalows that looked abandoned & timeworn. A particular house amazed me with a display of large white fancy human statues planted on the garden premises. The place looked like a scene straight out of some mysterious English movie. 


We headed to the sunset point in the evening. It was  a good 45 minutes walk through the jungle. Monkeys were everywhere snatching food packets and water bottles from tourists. Poor creatures craved to get a drop of water to wet their tongue in the scorching heat. The views weren't that splendid as I had expected. Or probably the best season here is post monsoon when the hills are all green & scenic. 


Charlotte lake is the main water source for Matheran. We hiked along this route and found an extremely serene temple adorned with long glass windows. Later I read that, it was a temple for the village deity. We sat there for a long time breathing in the scent of agarbathi and feeling the pleasant chill on the floor. The temple had a positive aura and we were happy to have absorbed it fully. 

Pisharnath Mahadev Temple 

One of the shops outside invited me with its attractive gola corner. I scanned the menu quickly and ordered a Kacchi Kairi (Raw mango flavour). A delightful blend of sweet & sour - Licked the delicacy till the last drop! 

We explored the local market for a while at night and found that footwear is the major item sold here. The next day we decided to take the train down hill. We had to wait for an hour in the queue to get the tickets. The train was small and could accommodate only limited number of passengers. We got down at the station named Aman Lodge and headed back to our car. While returning back home, I was still preoccupied by the thoughts of life in Matheran. The way people led a normal life here with all the modern day conveniences without the help of motor vehicles is praiseworthy.  Over the years, a township was developed out of nothing and today the natives continue to make a living with great hard work and will power. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Hampi Beckons - A Travel Movie

Glimpses of Hampi


The rustic village vibe and peppy spirit of Hippie island captivates you like crazy. Forget the world outside and travel back in history walking with the souls who lived ages ago. Stories of legendary Kings unfold as you navigate through the ancient ruins that display sheer brilliance. Here it's like flipping through the pages of Ramayana, for this is the land of Ram, Laxman & Hanuman. You become part of a deep seated heritage & culture that stood the test of time. You don't get tired of climbing rocky hills for they present magnificent views of the sprawling empire in 360 degree mode. Lush green paddy fields will gently put your overworked mind at ease - life takes a slower pace here. This land of ruins is where you could just sit back & contemplate on life. 

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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Into the Wilderness - The Meesapulimala Summit



It was the last weekend of September when we, a group of 20 women started off from Kochi to the base camp in Munnar. As I threw my 50L backpack to the luggage boot of our bus, I made sure that all the snack packets were in my hand. Lizz enthusiastically took head counts and made phone calls to the ladies who were waiting en-route. We stopped for lunch in Munnar town. Seeing the many shops that sold home-made chocolates, I quickly bought some stuff to gift my son when I return back home. Post lunch, I managed to get everyone into a frame to click the first selfie. The age group was a mix of middle aged women and those who are in their twenties.

The big bunch got split and soon we were in three jeeps off-roading along the winding roads uphill. We watched tea estates and scenic mountains like a fast slide-show. The bumpy ride got us tired (if only we knew what awaited us the next day!) and we exchanged looks wondering how long is this journey! So, we reached the base camp by around 4 PM. The camp invited us with a beautiful garden with plenty of blooms and a chill weather. And the best part - no network coverage. :) 

Rows of camping tents were pitched over the hilly side adjacent to the main building. The warden informed that one tent could accommodate two persons and that's when me and Swenzy decided to be tent-mates. The moment I stepped into the tent with a rolled sleeping bag in hand, I realized this is going to be a crazy venture!

Base camp tents


The black tea served with biscuits felt like just the right thing to have in that nippy weather. The shrill noise of cicadas took me to that lost-in-the-woods state of mind. 

By this time, we already got introduced to leeches - a constant till the end of journey. Before night fall we had to conclude usage of  washroom facilities as there were no lights there. 

As darkness creeped in, we gathered near a camp fire for dinner. Songs were sung, laughs were shared until we got a reminder from Lizz to get back to the tents. 

The morning which we looked up to with much eagerness and anticipation had finally arrived. Icy cold water ran through the taps as we attempted to brush. Breakfast was a splendid spread of Puttu+Kadala curry, Boiled bananas, Bread Omlettes, and Apples. We got our packed lunch and water bottles from the camp staff. Cheerful & excited faces were seen all around me. It started to drizzle - the rain coats that we carried were real saviors. Two guides were to escort us during the expedition.


Into the woods

We started off to the woods walking in line like school children taken for an excursion. I tried to capture a picture of water droplets dripping from pine tree needles. We started the ascent and soon we were far from each other trying to catch up with the pace. Tall eucalyptus trees & leafy ferns looked splendid covered in a blanket of morning fog. We took frequent breaks whenever needed - sometimes to catch a breath, sip some water or to click a picture!



There was a brief halt near Rhodomansion where there is restroom facility. It is an 8kms trek from this point to Meesapulimala peak. We were to cross eight hills to finish the summit. The real feel of adventure gradually unfolded as we crossed pine forests, meadows and waterfalls. I collected pine fruits to keep as memoirs of this journey. The trekking route was sometimes so narrow that we had to be watchful not to slip. At once I was lost alone in that world - I paused to admire the beauty of wild flowers & listened to the gurgling of a waterfall hidden in fog. I looked ahead - the girls were gone. I hurried through the wilderness feeling like a character in fantasy movie. Everything was so Real yet so Unreal for me! Yes, it was that part of the earth which I always missed & yearned to see.


Water Falls & Wild Flowers

We moved to higher altitudes where the air was so fresh & crisp. That's when I asked our guide about a plant like stuff which clung to the tree barks. He said they are Lichens which grow only in places where there is pure oxygen.


Lichens

Along the way we kept pulling away leeches from our shoes by putting salt. Boots or knee length socks - they somehow got inside & sucked out our blood. I got kind of accustomed to these organisms. A stream of fresh water flowed along our way & we couldn't resist drinking a mouthful. Hunger pangs had slowly hit everyone but we decided to move until we found a nice place to gather. Little did we know the plan of nature - a sudden drizzle began in no time leaving our bodies numb with cold. However we sat and made attempts to have the packed rotis. Time was ticking and we had to reach the peak by noon so that we can return before it's dark. The last climb was the steepest of all - a real challenge to test our abilities and will power. Many of the ladies felt like they were about to crash but yes if you have the mind you can do anything.



Once again I was away from the pack, all alone in the mountains. As I walked along the narrow path, the grasses  played a melody & danced in tune with the heavy wind. The sun & the clouds displayed a bewitching sight that I watched in awe. The grass meadows glittered like gold as sunlight pierced in. For a moment this lasted and then it's gone. This hide & seek game was just beyond words can describe that it made me stop & pray for a few moments. I stood there somewhere near the Meesapulimala peak thanking God for all the beautiful things I could see & feel - remembering the track "these are the few of my favourite things".

By the time we reached the peak, thick fog had played the trick & we could see nothing around. 10 minutes of contemplation & breathing fresh air sitting on top of that mighty mountain is all that we got. Despite falls and out of breath moments we all made it. We conquered the peak and stood at an altitude of 8661 feet touching the clouds. How true is the quote - It's the journey that matters not the destination!

The descent felt like an endless loop where we all looked emotionless like zombies. It took almost 9 hours for us complete the trek. Seriously what an experience it was - truly moments that will last a lifetime! Women who scream at the sight of a worm - that day we had leeches in our shoes all the way. Back home we never stepped in the backyard fearing that our feet will get dirty, here we walked nonchalantly along muddy marshlands. Although we never let a raindrop fall on our heads, that day we got drenched for hours during the trek. This journey was about how much you can do, how much you will withstand when you are out there in the wild. So why wait, go explore the unexplored.





Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Iconic Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram



A visit to this holy Shiva temple located in Chidambaram not only invokes a higher level of spirituality but also urge the visitor to admire the scientific factors considered to build the entire structure. Shiva exists here in the form of a cosmic dancer called Nataraja. The word Chidambaram is derived from the two words ‘Chit’ meaning ‘consciousness’ and ‘ambaram’ meaning ‘sky’ (akasha) and signifies the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate state one should attempt to attain.

Pancha Bhoota Sthalas are the five temples in South India dedicated to Lord Shiva representing the five natural elements namely earth, water, fire, air and ether (sky). The Lord is worshiped in his manifestation as Sky or Akasha in the famous Thillai Nataraja temple located in Chidambaram. Here, the deity of Shiva is in the form of Nataraja (Lord of dance) performing the Thandava, the cosmic dance form. 

The significance of the Nataraja pose can be explained as follows: the demon under the Lord's feet signifies that ignorance is destroyed, the raised hand depicts that he is savior of life, fire in the rear left hand represents destruction of evil, the raised foot represents salvation, the drum in the hand signifies birth of life and the ring behind depicts the cosmos. It is said that the center point of earth's magnetic equator lies at the foot of this Nataraja shrine.


Temple entrance

The original construction of the temple is believed to be during the early Chola period i.e during the 900 A.D.  Several renovations of the temple structure has taken place in the following years. The temple is located in the heart of the town occupying about 40 acres of land with four gopurams (towers) facing all the 4 directions. Each gopuram has seven storeys with around 50 carved sculptures. 


One of the 4 Gopurams

There are five sabhas in the temple namely - the Kanakasabha, Chit sabha, Nritya sabha, Rajya sabha and Deva sabha. The daily rituals are being performed in the kanakasabha where the deity is situated. The sacred sanctum sanctorum or the kanakasabha is adorned by gold plated roof. The Lord is represented in three forms in the kanakasabha:
1. the anthropomorphic form as the Nataraja or the Sakala tirumeni
2. the semi form i.e the semi-anthropomorphic form as the crystal Linga or the sakala nishkala thirumeni
3. the formless or the Nishkala thirumeni which is an empty space

The Chit sabha is located behind the kanakasabha and this is where the Lord is worshiped without a form. It is believed that next to the Nataraja deity, a black screen is hung and behind this priests and sages having divine vision can see two golden vilwa leaves depicting Lord Shiva and his consort Parvathi. The curtain is removed only during special rituals/poojas. By the term Chidambara rahasya it means that in-order to realize one's inner self a person should remove the curtain of 'Maya' from his mind.

The Nritya sabha or the Natya sabha is believed to be the place where Lord Shiva had danced along with Kali to prove his Supremacy. It has about 56 pillars exhibiting 108 poses of the Bharathanatyam dance form. The Rajya sabha (hall of 1000 pillars) is believed to symbolize the yogic chakra of 1000 petaled lotus and it is the venue for victory celebrations and other ceremonies. The Deva sabha houses the Pancha moorthis Ganesha, Somaskanda, Sivananda nayaki, Muruga and Chandikeswarar. 

Another specialty of the temple is that, in a nearby mandapa named Chitrakoota Lord Vishnu is also enshrined in the reclining yoga nidra pose on the serpent Adishesha. Hence if a person stands on a small lotus sculpture on the floor infront of Vishnu he can also get a view of Nataraja on the right side.

Below are the interesting scientific facts about the interior architecture:

The roof of of the Ponnambalam or Kanaka sabha has been laid with 21600 tiles with inscriptions SIVAYANAMA representing 21600 breaths of a person in a day, the roof has 64 beams denoting 64 forms of art, it held by many cross beams representing the innumerable blood vessels, the golden tiles are fixed with 72000 nails representing the number of nadis (nerves) in the human body, at the top of Chit sabha nine kalasas (sacred pots made of copper) can be found depcting the 9 forms of energy, the roof of Chit sabha is supported by 4 pillars symbolizing 4 vedas, the artha mandapam which has 6 pillars denotes the 6 sastras, and the mandapa next to it has 18 pillars denoting 18 puranas. From Kanaka sabha there are 5 steps leading to Chit sabha which signifies the Panchakshara mantra of Shiva (Na Ma Si Va Ya).

The history of Chidambaram temple starts with the arrival of Lord Shiva to the Thillai (a species of mangrove trees) forest which was spread around the temple location (currently limited to Pichavaram wetlands). Inside the temple sculptures of thillai trees can be seen. A group of saints resided in the Thillai forest believed that God can be controlled by certain rituals and prayers. Lord Shiva arrived in the forest in the form of Pitchandanar, asking for alms accompanied by his consort, Mohini (a female form of Vishnu). Shiva in this form exhibited extraordinary beauty and radiance. Soon the wives of rishis/sages were enamored by the handsome mendicant and his consort. The sages got angry on seeing this and they performed poojas to invoke serpents on Shiva. Lord Shiva lifted the serpents and donned them as ornaments on his hair, neck and waist. The enraged sages invoked a ferocious tiger from the holy fire and targeted it towards the couple. Lord Shiva skinned the tiger with his nails and wore the skin around his waist as a garment. Further the sages sent a powerful demon of arrogance and ignorance named Muyalakan. It is believed that Lord stepped on the demon to immobilize him and started performing the Ananda Thandavam (the dance of bliss) to disclose his true form. The sages surrendered themselves and admitted that Lord himself is the Supreme power.

A short history about the Ananda thandava is as follows:
Adisesha, the serpent on whom Lord Vishnu lies yearned to see the Ananda thandava. Vishnu blessed him and asked to take the form of a saint named Patanjali. Patanjali reached the Thillai forest along with another saint Vyagrapathar (Pulikaalmuni) having the feet and eyesight of a tiger. It is said that Shiva displayed his dance as Nataraja to these two saints. 

The temple is maintained by a group of Shaivaite brahmins called Dikshitars who also perform rituals. It is believed that Patanjali brought these people from Kailas to perform the daily rituals. The rituals were collated from the Vedas and established by Patanjali. 

Pichavaram Mangroves

Mangrove roots

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Jaipur to Jodhpur - The Backpacking way!

                   

A visit to the land of palaces had always been in mind since many years. I had calculated one week time to explore Rajasthan. The plan was to take the Mumbai-Jaipur express and start off. However on the way I got down at Sawai Madhopur to visit Ranthambore national park.  From there, booked a train to Jaipur starting at around 7:00pm. The food options at Sawai Madhopur station premises was pathetic. If visiting, it is better that you carry preserved food items or enough snacks to fill your tummy. 
Jaipur city seemed to be as crowded as Mumbai. The auto walas will take you to the desired location, be ready to pay the fare they ask. The night stay was arranged at Moustache hostel (if arriving post check in time, kindly inform your hotel staff over phone, so that they keep the room blocked for you). I had to wait for sometime to check-in before going up to the roof top restaurant to have dinner. The food was tasty and satisfactory. The ambiance is good especially for solo travelers and foreigners. There is a pretty decent lounge near the reception to sit back and read/play. 

The Moustache hostel lounge
The good thing about auto walas in Rajasthan is that they offer to take you around the city the first time they meet you at the station/bus stand. I didn't deny the offer as I was a first timer there. The next day morning I started city tour in the following order - 

1. Albert Hall museum (diverse collection of exhibits, located in the heart of the city, there is a zoo nearby if you have children you may visit that too). There is a CCD and restroom facilities in the premises.

Albert Hall
Inside Albert Hall museum
I just saw Hawa mahal on the way in auto and chose not to go inside.
Battery operated rickshaws in Jaipur
Views of Pink city
2. Jaipur City Palace

You can take your cameras inside after paying the camera fee along with the entry fee. The palace is well maintained, most of its interiors is like a museum for visitors. The royal family still resides on one side of the palace. You can finish exploring the place in an hour and move onto Jantar Mantar which is situated just across the road.
City palace views
Palace courtyards
                     

                         

3. Jantar Mantar

It is advisable to hire a guide here in order to understand the significance of the scientific instruments/structures. There are 5 Jantar Mantars in India constructed under the leadership of Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 18th century. The world's largest stone sundial is situated in Jaipur Jantar Mantar.
Jantar Mantar
Stopped to have lunch at a small roadside hotel on the way to Amber fort.

4. Amber fort (11km from the city)

Visiting hours: 8am - 6pm
Plan your visit to Amber fort in the evening so that you don't get burnt in the sun. Ideally I would suggest not to opt for elephant ride up the hill, instead walk and enjoy the hike. Why harm the poor animals and also you can save a 1000 bucks. Inside the fort you will get guides who will charge you a 100 or 150 Rs which is worth it. My guide took me around and explained the various parts of the interiors and their historical importance. Many Bollywood films like Jodha Akbar and Bajirao Mastani has been shot in this fort. There is a temple of Kuldevata (household deity) inside the fort where the Royal family continues to pay visit. It was almost 6.30/7 pm when I finished seeing the fort. Suddenly the lights lit up and the whole place looked so amazing in the orange glow. This is another advantage if you visit the fort in the evening. I met the auto wala and proceeded towards the Bapu bazar (market) planning to do some shopping. However the shopping didn't happen as it was a Sunday, holiday for all local markets.

Amer fort view at entrance
                         

Mahota lake and garden in front of Amer fort

Ganesh pol
Passages
Infront of sheesh mahal
Mughal style garden
Lights switched on at dusk
I skipped Choki Dhani (a Rajasthani village resort) as someone suggested it is expensive and a bit far off the city. Thus, I winded up touring the Pink city.

Next day early morning, I caught the 06:00 am train to Jodhpur (approximately 4-5 hrs journey, booked tickets in advance). The train was jam packed with passengers. The only food option in the train was bread-cutlet sold by local vendors.

Jodhpur, 11:30 am: I got into an auto heading to Kesar Heritage home stay near clock tower. The room was well done in a true heritage manner and had a small balcony which had only views of next buildings.
The room at Kesar Heritage
Rooftop, Kesar Heritage
There was a rooftop restaurant with a view of the majestic Mehrangarh fort. Outside, the alleys were dirty and poorly maintained, garbage and faeces all along the way. Honestly, Jodhpur was nothing like I had imagined.

Post lunch, I decided to explore the fort. Later, realized that it was a bad decision as the fort entry closes at 5:00PM sharp. An auto guy ditched and left me half way saying that the road is under renovation and took Rs.100 from me. From there I had to catch a share auto up the hill. As I reached just in time, the entry ticket was provided but I had to hurry because the guards kept on telling it was time to close the gates. I took some photographs in a hurry and spent ten minutes on top of the fort near the temple watching the sunset. Although its named as blue city, only some portion of the city is painted blue. The Umaid bhavan palace where the Jodhpur Royal family resides, was clearly visible at a far distance from the fort.
On the way back to the homestay, I hired an auto for about Rs.200. He agreed to take me for sightseeing the next day for Rs.600. (Tip: if you are a solo female, make sure you reach back the city before dusk as the premises will be quite deserted after 6:00PM).

On day 2 morning, I decided to explore a good hotel for breakfast. Unexpectedly, during that random walk, I found this awesome theme hotel named Nirvana. The ambiance was mind blowing and the Poori bhaji was just exceptional. This hotel also have a splendid rooftop restaurant arrangement with a great view of the fort. Please check http://www.nirvana-home.com/ for route and pictures. The restaurant downstairs was designed with colorful wall paintings from Ramayana. The staff was very friendly too.

The beautiful courtyard, Nirvana hotel
Wall paintings, Nirvana hotel Jodhpur
 After breakfast I met the auto guy and started city tour in the following order:

1. Jaswant Thada (very close the fort, hardly need half an hour to finish this) - the cenotaph built by Maharaja Sardar Singh. It serves as the cremation ground for Royal family of Marwar.

Jaswant thada
                        

                    

2. Mandore Garden (8km from the city, takes an hour and a half to complete) - a collection of temples and memorials. There is a Ravan temple here since the place is believed to be the native place of Raavan's wife Mandodari.

                    

                    
Mandore garden temples
3. Umaid bhavan palace - Nothing fancy about this place, just a museum on one side of the palace and some exhibits of vintage cars. Hardly takes 1 hour to finish.
 
Enroute the palace
                     

The entrance for Royal family
Antique clock collection at Umaid bhawan palace
The polo team of Jodhpur Raja seen on the street
I don't advice you to do much shopping in Jodhpur as everything is overpriced.

You must try a Rajasthani thali during the trip which includes Bajra roti, Ghatte (chickpea flour) ki sabzi, Ker saangri (made using a desert plant), Sev tamatar sabzi , Dal baati churma, chaas (buttermilk), rice, Kadhi, etc

I continued to the next destination Udaipur in an overnight sleeper bus.