Tabo: About a life untouched

An eight hour journey, on the world’s most dangerous roads, can be both tiring and exhilarating. But the views of the craggy peaks whooshing past the window, the spectacle of a turquoise ribbon of river cutting through the valley, hundreds of falls and streams merging into the river, and the bends taking you from one slice of paradise to the other, are a prize worth the madness of being on the world’s deadliest roads. And while the bus past these, nicely framed picture perfect frames, my mind weaved a story of a land of Buddhist Gompas doubling up as landmarks, prayer flags fluttering, mummies sitting still in monasteries, azure blue skies and stars dancing in galaxies at night, and above all the cultural mysteries it has held over time. I wanted to know how local people live their life here, holding natural and mystical mysteries for centuries. A land that wasn’t open for people till 1970s, a land tucked between the Himalayas and the Tibet, a land that has been called ‘world within a world’ by Mark Twain; I wondered how that land would be.

The village of Tabo as seen from the cave monastery
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Kalpa: A cultural osmosis

Below flows the roaring Satluj river, snaking its way through the valley, above stands the mighty Kinnaur Kailash as a royal guard, and tucked between these two forces of nature, is the small hamlet of Kalpa. No sooner the bus brakes mooned, wheels screeched, and I got down and framed the first frame of this tucked away paradise, than I fell for its idyllic setting. No doubt the petrifying valleys and heart-warming culture had been a calling of many a travelers. A short, inviting walk through the main road, is enough to warm your heart. Studded with wooden houses, and apple orchards on sides, and uncountable smiles to greet you, Kalpa seems a village taken out of Nora Roberts novel.

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Never thought a village so small that it can fit in one wide frame of camera lens, can have so many eternal bounties to offer

The first image from the village, that is bound to find a special corner in your heart, is of the Shivling peak (Kinnaur kailash) that rises over 20,000 feet. The peak stands as a royal guard to the village. This idyllic setting of the village, makes one feel that one is sitting in the lap of the holy mountains. Continue reading

The secret miracles of Landour

Sunlight glinted on the hill-tops, and valleys were half dark and half lighted. Trees yawned as morning hue woke them from their slumber. The still breeze carried an indescribable purity and sweetness, laden with an aroma from the virgin forests. At a distance was this comfortable looking little town extending uphill and eastward. A steep four-five kilometers drive from Mussourie brought us to Landour, a British raj relic, a town, draped by an old fashioned aura, numerous colonial-era bungalows with slanting roofs, brick arches and stone walls, and silence that was interrupted only by the gusts of invigorating cold breezes. We glided over the shining track, going past the little houses with red thatched roofs and backyard, waving to the welcoming villagers who were off to collect the firewood, school kids and the typical heavily built, bush bearded, leather-jacketed Harley Davidson guys to reach the smiling Landour.

Landour_on Gol Chakkar

Life seemed to be taking a deep breath in the town; the natural beauty topped with reds and greens of roofs, extending a colonial reminiscence. We were passing through narrow roads that could barely fit two cars at a time. The driver was delicately maneuvering the car through these needle hole sized turns. Occasionally I had my head peering out of the car window to sap in the pure, cool breeze. There hung a certain, zeal in the breeze, flowing in gay abandon, like a harbinger of good times.

Taking another turn through Landour’s old bridle path, passing interesting sights and the famous St. Paul’s Church, with the endless stretches of pines and willows and the mountain sun filtering through the threshold of trees to accompany us; we reached one of the landmarks of the town, Rokeby Manor, our haunt for the next three days. And the property was everything that could have been expected; colonial touch taking you back to the era of 1840s when it was built, lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls and wooden floors, and cutely tucked gardens overlooking the valley. Continue reading

Pushkar: kaleidoscope of emotions

Pushkar hung in my thoughts like a dream. After having seen several of my plans for Pushkar get cancelled, this time I tried some serious nudging on myself; to be there at the sacred moment of Pushkar camel fair. The very idea of camels and traders journeying across the vast deserts of Rajasthan in a time immemorial fashion to meet, socialize, and trade, found an inkling in me. Pushkar is a complete teleportation from the urbane life to a rustic one, from economy that survives on cars to one where camels form an integral part. The romantic image of camels loping across the desert in Rajasthan, enthused me to plan the plan I had waited for so long.

Pushkar has a magnetism of its own – it’s very unlike the way one imagines Rajasthan. Fair or not, it will never cease to sweep you off your feet. The town celebrates the riddles of life, throughout the year. Pushkar made me rejig the concept of time; moments into Pushkar and a feeling that everything has been stalled, got me. The antiquity of the town is inspiring. The everyday world of Pushkar does more than inspire and encourage well-being, it makes the sordid routine seem novel.

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Pushkar Ghat

I was in Pushkar, at the annual camel fair, indisputably, the best time of the year to be in. Everywhere I turned, I could hear music, see a riot of colours, feel the exuberance of the fair and sense Pushkar’s ability to engage with tourists pouring from world over; and then there was the rustic hue, atmospheric shots of herders and their camels, trekking past the deserts. Calling the Pushkar fair just magnetic, would be an understatement. It is far more than that, it takes you out of your cocoon, into a world unknown and untraversed. One eyeful of Pushkar, and the reason that made it a favorite among foreign tourists, becomes discernible. Pushkar is everything most Indian cities are not; it’s sleepy, calm, inviting and engaging; a tell-tale of a town that has thrown off its provinciality.

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Hot air baloon is a new addition in Pushkar Fair

Pushkar Fair

In the autumn, as the moon starts its journey for the brightest night of the year, tribes from all over Rajasthan, stream out of their ethnic lands, arid landscapes, stubbly fields, thickets, scrubs, and deserts; trudging with their beasts, draped in multi-colored turbans, travelling with rivulets of kaleidoscopic caravans. The women of the tribes, come draped in their gypsy bright skirts swaying in autumn winds like daffodils, sporting bright silver and bronze jewelry rivaling the smoldering sun and big, arresting bindi on forehead; engrossed in little chats. And at certain distance are scattered groups of travelers, some from different corners of the country and more from abroad, lost in the little riddles and proses of this town.

Pushkair fair brings them all together.

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Scene from Pushkar mela

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Pushkar, the Brahma’s land

Pushkar, is a legendary town, stretched around the three sacred lakes, and legends say Lord Brahma, the Creator of the Hindu Trinity, while flying over this land, had dropped three petals from the lotus he carried. The three petals became the three lakes of Pushkar. Some say the creator landed on this auspicious land and performed a holy ritual. Others take the tale a little further and claim that Lord Brahma married a tribal girl in Pushkar. Ever since, people gather in thousands, at this holy place to bathe and worship on the anniversary of the Creator’s sacrifice.

Regardless of legendary tales, Pushkar has grown, both as a colourful animal fair and an international tourist destination. While traders throng here to trade cattle, sheep, camels and thoroughbred horses; for tourists, it’s an escape from their world with an added flavor of good deal of craft shopping and café hopping.

A colony of backpackers

The moment our car breast the hill, magic unfolded. It was early morning, wind carried the chill of the night and the sun was in a sleepy state. In the distance the three lakes glinted like jewels, and a little further, through dust and haze, campfires twinkled. We maneuvered our way through the narrow alleys, the morning markets, the hubbub of a touristy town, making our way towards the hotel. And as we drove, a part of us mingled with the razzmatazz of the place. It seemed like a shifting kaleidoscope of emotions, trying to find a balance somewhere between the serenity of the place and the ordered chaos of the fair. The central area of the fair was crowded with visitors thronging the shops and eateries, while the herders and traders took the plains, focusing on their business.

The colonization of backpackers have made this a model town: a place created by and for the tourists, with multicuisine eateries, chic cafes, schools of yoga, massage, Indian music and dance, shops selling herbal cosmetics, perfumes and the inexplicable clothing that characterizes the backpacker diaspora. And it’s all there, shops feasting with colourful textiles, silver jewelry and crafts, town lost in backpacker’s thoughtless party reverie, locals engrossed in their daily chores playfully mixed with spiritual detours, houses with open courtyards with murals to keep you on a click frenzy mode, nomads exhibiting their ravishing dreadlocks and loincloths, and a gastronomic culture that has evolved due to mixing of myriad of cultures and aspirations. The rooftops of medieval buildings with exquisite jharokhas have been turned into cafes, offering new vignettes of the lake with its ghats, the sprawl of temples and the town around the sacred lake. Some ancient courtyards have been turned into meditation centers. It’s suggested to keep enough time on hand to pencil in such moments, after all everything in Pushkar moves at its own leisurely pace. From temple to temple, take your time to discover the cultural and spiritual nuances of the place.

I often ditched the fair to be by the lake, often joined by a group of backpackers with their musical instruments. These are not rare moments, this is routine in Pushkar. And be it any moment, there’s always a spirit of gay abandon, hanging in Pushkar.

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Pushkar has evolved as an offbeat and ethnic shoppers paradise

The divine in Pushkar

In the evenings, as the sun slips into the valleys, the lake comes alive with the flickering of the lamps during the scenic aarti. The Pushkar fair ends on a full moon night, and thankfully, I was there, to bear witness to his heavenly spectacle. The ambience with lights twinkling in the twilight was ethereal. Drumbeats, clash of symbols and chiming of bells herald the aarti on the final day i.e. on Purnima (full moon). Lamps are lit and placed all-round the Ghat. This was probably the first time, I was coming in terms with the spirituality of Pushkar. I had seen its jamboree, its gay abandon, the way it has engaged with all cultures and left a part of it in them, and the way it has shaped itself to be a hot tourist destination, but this was different. This was Pushkar, the way it has been for all these centuries, when the travellers had not arrived and it still carries that air.

What else to do

Apart from all the spiritual, culinary, musical, and shopping adventure, you can hire a bike and go to Ratnagiri Hill for sublime sunset views over the lake. Do a one-and-a-half-hour hike up to Savitri Devi Temple. Most times of the year, the skies are fabulous canvasses of delight.

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Indian Ocean band performing in Pushkar Fair

Rajputana revisited at Nagaur

This wasn’t a well-planned tour; last minute tickets, itinerary gone through in haste, no pre-research done and entire plan charted out on way to the railway station. My first impression of Nagaur, as I landed the next morning, was that of a quaint town. I took a corner in that humble station and rolled my eyes to detail out every corner, to assure me that I was still in this century. ‘The town looks ancient’ I said to myself, coming out of the station. This was Nagaur, in the arid northwest of India’s largest state, Rajasthan. Bordering the Thar desert, most of the cityscape has been painted royal yellow with a magnificent Fort standing in the middle of the city; the city walls echoing the tales from time immemorial and the fort speaking of tales of glory and valour.

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Landscape view of the Nagaur Fort

I was soon drawn into a history lesson by my chauffeur as we drove to the hotel. A major draw for anyone seeking an immersion in courtly history, Nagaur grew from a strategic trade point to the centre of Rajputana power in its hey days. Naguar lived under the influence of conquerors from vastly different cultures. Over time it gained a distinct Rajput-Mughal architectural design as gardens, temples and fountains were added. Passing through the town is like passing through an age frozen and wrapped in time. The city seems as unmoved by changing times. The 4th century Ahichhatragarh Fort, standing in the middle of the city, was originally built by the Nagavanshi clan (hence the name that means ‘Fort of the Hooded Cobra’!) and rebuilt in the 12th century by the Ghaznis to include palaces and mosques. The Nagaur Fort epitomizes the city more than anything else. Continue reading

A Fort with many stories: Chittorgarh

Stories abound in this fort. Wrapped in history, Chittorgarh Fort has been a textbook lesson on valour, honor, sacrifice and never to fade aura of romance. Haunting silence of the innumerable historic episodes, that found a setting here, still echo in the ruins. Every corner seems to have a story to tell. “You must have heard the story of Queen Padmini” said my driver with a toothless smile, as we whizzed past the lanes of this living fort. Chittorgarh, has been a part of history lessons, taken as an epitome of Rajput valor and pride. One of the oldest surviving forts of India, it was actually built by the Mauryas. Over centuries, it changed many hands, seen many battles, but its grandeur only increased with time. Even though it stands in decay today, it gives you a feeling of awe and magnificence of ages and periods of history, these buildings have seen.

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Rana Kumbha Palace, though in ruins, still evokes myriad emotions in travelers.

Chittorgarh was once a fortified city and the capital of Mewar Rajputana (Southern part of Rajasthan), before falling into hands of Khiljis, then ruled by Gehlot and Sisodia dynasties from 7th Century AD until captured by Emperor Akbar. Today this stunning fort is a UNESCO world heritage site. This was my second visit to Chittorgarh, infact Chittorgarh was my introduction to Rajasthan, when I had combined it with Bundi. As I entered the gate (Pol), frames from my first visit, flashed before me. In a minute, Chittorgarh turned into a bouquet of emotions for me. Continue reading

Yogyakarta: Into the heart of Indonesia

Buddhist temple Borobodur, a UNESCO Heritage site in Yogyakarta

An ancient city and the last remaining Sultanate of Indonesia, YogyaKarta has long nurtured the Javanese connection with the outer world and has been a cradle of art and culture. Old ways of life exist in Yogyakarta, side by side with bustling modernity and the city decorates itself with the symbols of traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. From all night shadow puppetry, the age old extraordinary Buddhist temples of BoroBodur and the equally impressive Hindu ones of Prambanan, socially aware graffiti on the wall to the beautifully styled Batik designs; Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s second most visited spot, is a cultural palette on display.

The city comes as a huge relief from the urbane madness of Jakarta, narrow roads lined with trees, old buildings wearing a colonial touch, shops styled as pagodas, slow life, frequent smiles by strangers, alleys lined with themed restaurants, art cafes often buzzing with some performances, random music bands performing on streets and endless boards advertising batik designing lessons; Yogyakarta gives you a feeling of being in a different era.

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Prambanan Temple, one of UNESCO Heritage sites in Yogyakarta (pic as appeared in HuffPost)

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On a Golden Chariot

Suddenly, noise fills the air. A band of dancers and drummers had assembled, and no sooner did we get off the bus than they started beating the drums. After a moment’s hesitation, I breathed in the luxury of the moment. Train journeys are inspiring as they whisk you past landscapes that exist in real and in your mind. I was on the Golden Chariot, a luxury train in South India that runs across the state of Karnataka and ends its journey in Goa. The name of the train conjures up romantic images of historical tales, bejeweled scimitars and ornate thrones. History and heritage are its mainstay, but there are moments in the ‘wild’ in the tiger territory of Nagarhole Park and a relaxed time on a Goan beach with glistening white sands.

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Stitching back the past at Badami

A centuries old town at the mouth of a river, nestled between two rocky hills giving you the impression of a wildwest, lakes on other three sides and reputed for its rock cut temples, Badami can take you back ages. I marvelled at the dramatic landscape of the region, as we made way through it. Red sandstone cliffs, with deep fissures, rugged mountainous profile, dusty roads and the mud walled houses splashed with ochre dust; all seeming like a leaf taken from Wadi Rum.

Badami had been the capital of the Chalukyan rulers, a dynasty that ruled over Deccan for almost 200 years between the sixth and the eighth centuries. Chalukyans were great patrons of art and architecture and during their rule architecture took a transition from rock art to free standing structural architecture.

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Cave temples overlook the Adil Shahi Mosque: Religions had always coexisted

Deity secrets

The first look of the Badami caves reminded me of a miniature and a rustier version of Petra. The lowest cave is dedicated to Lord Shiva, evident from the eighteen armed figure of a dancing god Natraj, at the entry point. Not an inch of space has been left untouched in the cave, murals, artistic columns, bejewelled deities, bracketed figures, angels and mythological tales on the pillars and roof make it an architectural wonder. And wonder all of this is monolithic, hewn deeply in the cliff. Up the steps, overlooking the greenish water body, Agastya Lake, are cave temples, consecrated to Lord Vishnu, depicted in his myriad forms. A sculpture sees him seated on a cosmic serpent, while other in his man-lion incarnation and yet a third depicts him raising his leg, a depiction of his yet another incarnation. The supporting beams have beam chain inscriptions, adorned with floral designs and sculptures of angels in close embrace on angles. The last cave is devoted to Jain Tirthankaras, gracefully sculptured, a tall sculpture of Mahavira on the ends and tales and philosophies carved on the walls. One glimpse and these caves seem an eclectic mix of art and spirituality.

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Shiva cave temple

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Jain Temple

We made our move to our next stop, Pattadakal, where ancient temples built in divergent styles waited for us. This coming together of North and South Indian architectural styles is probably due to the geographical position of Badami in the centre of the Deccan plateau.

Road to Pattadakal

Everytime I have been to an ASI protected heritage site, I’ve wished ASI had done a better job with signage and storytelling. Badami comes as a surprise –proper signage and historical accounts, immaculate paperbacks on Badami (including ones of George Mitchell) at the counters and guides who can take you beyond the temple architecture to literature, philosophy and culture as it evolved in the Chalukyan dynasty over a millennium ago.  Standing there, in an incredibly dense complex of ancient buildings, is very close to a feeling of walking through a frozen landscape of bizarre red mountains. An ancient complex, a group of eight temples, carrying a hint of Southern and Northern style of temple architecture, taking you back centuries into a world of mythology, rituals and philosophies some too incredible to even believe they ever existed.

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Mosaic of ancient temples in Pattadakal (notice the distinct designs of the spires in the temples)

Standing on ceremony

As stories embrace you, you wink at the wit of builders and philosophers, smile at the brilliance of design of sculptures and dexterity palpable on every wall of these temples. Pattadakal stands out among its contemporaries and even from other historical structures, for its sheer sophistication.

On a bend of the River Malaprabha, some 22 kms from Badami, the village of Pattadakal served as a ceremonial site for the Chalukya rulers. The Chalukyan style is a unique synthesis of Nagara (northern) and Dravidian (southern) styles which was later adopted by the Hoysalas rulers, further down in south Karnataka. The hall interiors of the temples are divided into multiple aisles by rows of columns, will walls covered with carvings showing hindu mythological tales. The central aisle leads to a central chamber accommodating Lord Shiva lingam, with richly ornamented sculptures of guards on either sides of the chamber. Only Virupaksha temple is still used for worship. The profusion of carvings on the outer wall of Virupaksha is tantamount to a visual encyclopedia of Hindu mythology. All you need is someone to tell these stories.

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Mallikarjun temple in Pattadakal

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Sands of time

The demarcation between the Nagara style of architecture and Dravida style of architecture is very conspicuous in the shape of the spires or shikhara. In nagara style, the tower is shaped as a pyramid soaring upwards towards the heavens and in dravidan style the towers are stepped and richly carved. All eight temples show different styles of architectures; the use of many novel features like aisles, curvilinear spires, roofs with receding tiers, porch suggest that the temples were built as manuscripts to be replicated from. The imposing Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples, alike in design, built by twin sister queens of King Vikramaditya II to honour his return from a battle, are graceful examples of timeless architecture of that era. Both the temples sport an enormous gateway, numerous inscriptions on the walls, beaded columns, spell-binding frescos, ornate motifs, rings of elephants and horses at angles to mark the king’s victory, richly carved roofs with floral and animal designs and abundant murals from the epics. No doubt the architect was given the title ‘Tribhuvanacharya’ (the master of three worlds).

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Interiors of Mallikarjun temple

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Sculpture on the wall of Virupaksha temple

I took a step, looked around, once more eyeful of these stone temples, standing like red sandstone mountains, set against the backdrop of azure blue sky, river flowing on one side; everything frozen, centuries pass by as you ponder, amused by this sheer poetry in stone.

Fast facts

Badami is well connected with major cities like Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bangalore via railway network. To stay, there are budget lodges available in Badami city or consider Karnataka Tourism hotel Chalukya for a decent stay.

Pattadakal is approximately 25 kms from the main district, one can either take a local bus (usually crowded) or hire private taxi. Some shared autos also ply on the route but the frequency of these is a matter of concern. Badami caves are approximately 6 kms from the main city and shared autos and buses ply on the route.

Way into the woods II: Dandeli

Well let’s be true to self, one might return without any sighting in Kali Tiger Reserve. The dense foliage and the heavy undergrowth keep the treasure well hidden. But driving through this lush-green forest leaves you well satiated. Though spotting one would always be an icing on the cake, I would feel content hearing the sounds of existence of these indomitable animals against domineering jungle.

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Safari in Kali Tiger Reserve

Endless knee down moments on an endless road to the forest, cold infused air and strained neck as it reacted to the sounds, the safari started with enough action to pack with. Watching the Sun, still draped in its soft orange hue in the vast expanse of dark green mountains, is a moment to go down the memory lane. There was no hint of human intervention in this stretch – all left to nature, a unique floral mosaic. Yes, there were activities; there were sounds, but all too hidden. But being in such a dense forest is itself indefinable. And amidst the cries of Chitals and the growls of Banette Macaque, coming from distance, you almost hear the jungle speaking amongst itself and with you. It is a desired sojourn from the hustle-bustle of life.

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A pair of munia spotted on our way

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The safari was for two hours in the morning. The mist laden air hadn’t shed its chill; the morning mist had lowered visibility, which was anyway restricted. While the famed Nagarhole and Bandipur of the south are known for rolling grasslands, which bolsters the chances of sightings, North Karnataka is dense, dark but equally and differently enchanting.

As we drove, my discussions about the Black Panther started with naturalist Prabhakaran. I had some ground idea about Black Leopard being nothing more than leopards with high melanin pigmentation. If you look closely, you can spot the rosettes markings (of leopards and something that separates leopards from jaguars). The black pigmentation provides a good camouflage in the dense forests of KTR. But I had a flurry of questions and he answered me patiently. So the take-away learning – inter-breeding between the normal and the pigmented leopards is common, hence a lot of inter-mingling of genes, which increases chances of survival of the species in wild. The sightings of this elusive creature are rare and prized, but they are increasingly increasing, which is a healthy trend and these sightings are happening from all over Karnataka now, more in denser habitats like KTR. This genetic aberration which proves a boon in dense forests of Kali, would be bane in open habitations like Nagarhole, where normal pigmentation will be preferred.

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The drive was far from tame as it ribboned through dense to denser forests. And just when we had started to lose hope, we heard a rustle from behind the bushes; the vehicle slowed and then came to a halt. The expert ears stretched, eyes traveled in all directions, five pairs of eyes and ears, all in action to locate the source of sound. Pin drop silence. The sheer adrenaline rush in us had come alive. The forest hushed and then erupted in sound, the birds had come to action, we grinned with delight. “For birds this is like a riot” Prabhakaran added with a hint of both caution and excitement in his voice.

“Some large predator around” I whispered. A slight, assuring nod.

Birds have a whole set of acoustic stuff that is just associated with predators. My first thought went to a leopard as it’s more potent to harm birds than wild dogs or even tiger. Studies have shown that animals recognize alarm signals of other species. Some can even eavesdrop on one another across class. The predator could still be far and disinterested, unlikely in our situation, where we had heard some movement. And then Prabhakaran pointed at one end, there was certain movement behind the bushes, the rustle of leaves loud and clear. It was something as black and sly as shadow moving – a black leopard or a sloth bear. No idea, it didn’t come out. It had probably sensed us and changed its directions. We could hear it moving and a squawk of birds, sending out a warning call. We kept looking in that direction for a minute or two, our gaze held, as if it we were chasing a dream. So close, we consoled ourselves; we smiled at our fortune or misfortune depends on how you perceive this encounter. But sure, even if for a second, we all wanted to get held by the hypnotic charm of the enigma, black leopard.

“Any words, Prabhakaran?” I gleefully asked.

“Consider yourself lucky, you are going back with a story to tell” he smiled.

But deep I knew the story remains incomplete till the time I record a sighting.

Fast Facts:

Kali adventure camp by Jungle Lodges resorts is all about organic rush for untamed terrains – gorges, wild rivers, deep, dense jungles, frothing wild waters and tranquil evenings. Situated on the banks of River Kali, this JLR property inspires you to form a connection with raw nature. The camp is a perfect spot for white water rafting on River Kali. Other activities include Kayaking, Coracle Ride, Bird Watching, Nature Walk, Wild Safari, Sightseeing activities etc. Tariff ranges from INR 4,000 to 5,500 for twin sharing.

Old Magazine House is a favourite among birders, a place to be, to catch breath and evade the urbane madness to be among the winged denizens. Apart from birding, trekking, rafting and kayaking are on the to-do list here. Being on one solitary detour from the main road, deep in a jungle, Old Magazine house lends you the ‘never had before’ experience. Tariff is nominal at INR 2,120 (inclusive of the package).

(Read my experience of birding in Dandeli here)

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Jungle Lodges and Resorts camp in Kali

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Chocolate pansy clicked on our way back

Way into the woods – Dandeli

It was pitch dark and I had come out in the open and followed the eerie glow of the lights from the other side of the River Kali, to get to the river. The water gleamed under the spell of the full moon. There was a sound of rustling leaves as if something was lurking behind the trees in the dark, a startling heart-stopping sound and then queer silence. My mind started making wild guesses – a civet, crocodile, some nocturnal bird or Malabar flying squirrel. Such moments are ephemeral and the transience of these moments makes them worth packing with you, a token of nostalgia that is destined to grow more memorable with repetition. I was in Kali adventure camp of Jungle lodges and resorts, next to Kali River in Dandeli and such moments were warranted.

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A pair of grey hornbill spotted near timber area, Dandeli town

Even arriving to the camp, covering a tiring journey of hours through the forests, from Yellapur, has had its own picks – deers and a pair of civets had been a tick and some unrecognizable jungle sound had been captured. Though located in the Dandeli town, which hosts the largest paper mill in Karnataka, wildlife is never too far from this resort and my first intimation has been ‘There are crocodiles in the river’. Ah! So safari starts with coracle rides, quite a humble way for wildlife spotting. You must have understood, it was difficult holding me. And being allowed as an invader to enjoy the sounds of the jungle in the gathering of the night was both soothing and inspiring.

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The next day I woke up early to the sound of a whistle, a similar sound which had woken me in Sharavathi camp in Jog falls. I knew the sound; it was a Malabar whistling thrush. The day was on and we set off for our bird watching session near the Dandeli Timber depot. A little quaint to know, but a splendid place to spot some rare and beautiful birds, including three species of Hornbill – Malabar greater Hornbill, Indian Grey Hornbill and Malabar Grey Hornbill. My guide Vinayak told me that Common Indian and Malabar Hornbills differ in the shape of their beaks. Vinayak identified birds just by listening to their calls, I wasn’t bad too and proved my mettle as a fast learning birder by finding coppersmith barbets and the grey fronted green pigeon (both endemic to Western Ghats). And I was soon caught in the play as I lurked around mysteriously, trying to avoid noise, chasing the Golden breasted wood-pecker for one nice shot. The Hornbills proved better hosts and the plum faced parakeets, as playful as expected. Wood-pecker proved too nimble for me. The early morning sunshine was painting the forest in its golden light, piercing through vines and high canopy, it created magical panoply. As I looked around to catch this beautiful panorama, adroitly painted, my ears picked a familiar, teetering sound. I knew it, having met years ago; it was time for our second meeting. My limbs followed my ears. It was Shekharu – the giant Malabar squirrel, high on the canopy, just the ears and the bushy tail visible, turning for mili-seconds to give a fleeting glance. So familiar and so exhilarating.

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Green bee eater spotted near Kali river, Dandeli

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The white canvas of Rann

Surreal and seemingly eternal, strangely mesmeric, lifeless, ghostly stretches of white salt pan with an odd musicality, making a peculiar connection with the onlookers. I was at Rann of Kutch and could feel the salt as big as marbles from childhood memories, crunch under my feet. It was all white and barren, as far as eyes could trace, without any markers. The silence was inviting and I was finding myself getting lost in this white wilderness. I looked at the full moon, looking as inviting as a big pie kept within your reach. The white sand shone as it reflected the gleam of the full moon, inviting certain poetry in mind.

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Rann of Kutch (from Gujarat Tourism advertisement)

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Come winters and the salt marshes of Rann of Kutch turn into a white salt desert and then burst into myriad colours of bedecked camels, brightly coloured tents and shimmering costumes and lights, as Rann Utsav sets in for three months from November to mid February. Vibrant bazaars are set up, local music resonates in the air, colours of multi-cultural Gujarat finds resonance with the white wilderness and magical nights and the rather desolate Rann becomes all about sounds, smells and sights. A riot of colours gets sprinkled in barren white land. Continue reading

Hampi: The Empire strikes back

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Be at Hampi for these coloured evenings

There are two sides of Hampi. One for the new age carefree tourists seeking tranquillity, crammed in a side which is strangely defended, where new world sets in, of open roof restaurants, budget hotels, funny fags and smokey sticks. Initiate a conversation with anyone there and a quaint picture of Hampi is portrayed, one that of a laidback and soothing town, away from urbane madness, a place no short of novel experiences, of endless trekking, night-outs on boulders, scooter renting and biking on sun-baked roads leading from nowhere to nowhere, boulder rappelling and almost everything you ever had noted in your list of ‘to-do once in life’. A new age hippie backpacker’s paradise, Hampi lives upto your expectations.

And then there is this second side, which lives in its own mystic, narrating the confusing stories, telling tales of things forgotten and no more itched in most history books. I was on the other side; the side of stories, forgotten past, temple ruins standing as gruesome reminders of history and mythology; the side marked with charming eccentricity.

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Gates to the forgotten Vijayanagar empire

Sitting upon the Mathunga hill on a large expanse of flat rock, I looked down on Hampi. A splendid view of ochre coloured boulders, the mighty Tungabhadra snaking its way through them, life living its course on coracles as they sailed from one end of the river to the other, oases of green palms and plantations on the sides, little lost temples clinging to the hillside and the mystique and splendor of the impressive Virupaksha temple piercing the azure blue sky. The boulders are enormous, mysteriously held in their respective position, defying gravity as if some magical spell has kept them from falling. They stretch for miles and hold many secrets of the great empire of Vijayanagar that flourished here. Everything seems frozen, the history, the mystique, the culture that refused to die, the carvings that lived all war, the hundreds of temples nestling themselves away from prying eyes and also the people, who came here as tourists and merged with the silence of the place.

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Virupaksha temple from Hemkunta hill

They say Hampi is like an unfulfilled dream; serene, splendid and some laid back, where you can lounge about restaurants overlooking the river, where marijuana is in abundance, and where you can be yourself for days, weeks or even months.

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The king’s platform in Hampi’s royal enclosures

We trekked down to the Achyutaraya Temple and wandered silently among the ruins. It’s a place to sit, contemplate, think and reflect on whatever you want to. Only a handful of tourists venture here and those who do chose not to spend a lot of time. Take moments to get an eyeful of the crumbling walls, walk down the old Bazaar outside the temple, it conjures up images of the forlorn era, when merchants would shout their wares from the stalls. Now it’s deserted, but never fails to invoke images of those long gone days. But during its heyday in the 1400s, Abdur Razzak, a Persian ambassador to the kingdom, wrote: “Each class of men belonging to each profession has shops contiguous the one to the other; the jewelers sell publicly in the bazaars pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds.”

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Remains of the King’s palace

As I walked, I grew more knowledgeable of the intricate religious and historical sides of Hampi. From a distance, the behemoth red granite boulders, shadowing the town, looked like an overgrown childhood collection of marbles. It had gone dark and we tried to take in as much as visual treat as we could, dodging spiky cacti, and unscathed of the numerous stories of bear and leopard, my guide Rajesh had laden me with. A small flame flickered inside a temple, sandwiched between the large boulders, one of the many temples strewn around. This one showed signs of life and our only source as we walked along the Tungabhadra River, spell bound by the majestic silhouette of boulders and derelict structures on them, as they shone in full moon light.

I broke for the day, but Hampi still hung on me. I lived the munificence of the Vijaynagar kingdom every minute, in the award winning design of the Orange County Resort.

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The elephant stables at royal enclosure. Notice the Indo-Islamic design in domes and arches.

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The lotus Mahal, another piece of Indo-Islamic fusion with feminine arches and lotus marked crown

The next day we set off for the royal enclosures, walking among the ramparts of what once used to be the fort walls, halls and irrigation channels, under the baking sun. A maze of platforms, little passes, hidden chambers, broken pedestals, water channels leading to step-well and ruins that could have once been a temple; everything takes you back ages. My guide Rajesh pointed at another set of ruins that was once the mighty ruler Krishna Deva Rai’s palace. “What triggered Hampi’s destruction?” I asked.

“The Bahamani kingdom, which included sultanate of Bidar, Birar, Raichur, Gulbarga and Golkonda came together and attacked Hampi. After defeating Hampi, when they didn’t find much treasure, they burned the entire city down” he answered.

I strode towards the Queen’s bath, an immaculate, now empty pool where the royal ladies once used to bath. There was a deep trench ringing the building. “The king filled it with crocodiles so that no one could watch the queen in her bath” explained Rajesh. Ah! so no peeping inside.

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Queen’s royal bath, the buildings with a touch of Islamic designs are more intact, probably for the same reason

A little further are more intact buildings, the lotus palace, the royal stable and guards place, buildings with conspicuous eclectic mix of Indo-Islamic design in their architecture and probably the most plausible reason for these buildings to be spared the destruction. We strayed further to more ruins, along an out of the way path, to take rest under one of those impossibly balanced rocks, which in the real world shouldn’t have been standing, but then this was Hampi, a chapter taken out of a fancy tale. The wind roared again. I have seen many desolate places, but there is a certain peculiarity here, an unparalleled charm, something that grows and stays inside you. It was my second time to Hampi, but I still feel unsatiated, I feel some corners are still to be discovered, the grandeur requires some more eyeing.

The four O’ clock sun had started to shade the landscape redder, the wind blew hard as it swept the barren landscape, shadows were thrown longer. We made our way to the Vitthala Viman temple. The Sun chariot in the center, stood as indication of the flourishing past, this city had seen. The ornate pillars of the Kalyan mandap, had scriptures of a mythological animal Yali, with a body of a horse, head of a lion with a trunk of an elephant indicating qualities of agility, responsiveness, power and geniality as leadership traits that every ruler should have. The outer walls have eloquent carvings of Hindu spiritual tales, King’s administrative systems, social orders and carvings depicting Hindu beliefs and philosophy, indicating that temple in those days doubled up as a center of social learning. Frankly I was taken in by the Sun chariot in the temple. Looking at it and the grand spectacle that was before me, words of Nicole Conti, the first European to see the Vijayanagara Empire when he arrived in 1420, rung in my ears “I never saw a place like this”. I wondered where was Hampi in my history books, for which British Historian Robert Swell wrote in his book Hampi: the forgotten empire “a city with which for richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare;”. I read Alexander, Marathas, Guptas, Cholas but was the Vijaynagar empire missed. I could recollect a slight mention of Krishna Deva Raya, but looking at this marvel, I knew I hadn’t read enough. This discovery was both humbling and exhilarating. One look spared at the bazaar, a common thing outside any temple, and we moved on. As my guide told, temples were the centers of the city and it was usual to have market place around temples. Thus, the city was broadly divided into a royal complex, the sacred or market complex and the residential complex which housed the citizens.

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Vitthala Viman Temple – British Historian Robert Swell wrote in his book Hampi: the forgotten empire “a city with which for richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare;”

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I was completely taken in by the Sun Chariot in the Vitthala Viman Temple

The story of Hampi is fascinating. Harihara Raya, in 1336, decided to make this place his capital when he saw a wild hare chasing away his hunting dog. He was so amazed with the ferocity of this soil that produced a hare which could quiver his dog into submission that he decided to build his empire here. For almost 200 years Hampi continued to grow, attracting trade from all across the globe. Krishna Deva Raya’s reign was the Golden period for Hampi, when it prospered and grew into a powerful empire mustering million-man armies, and housing 500,000 people, second only to Beijing then. Trade relations were established with traders from far-off Portugal, Russia and Italy, as well as Mongols, Persians and Arabs. The pillars on the monolithic Ganesh temple, prove a great learning point for trade related aspects of the empire. The wealth of the empire invited enemies and in 1565 an alliance of Muslim invaders known as the Deccan Sultans laid waste to the empire. The city was destroyed, citizens slaughtered, temples razed, monuments trounced; all for whole five months. Swell writes “Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city.” But even all this carnage couldn’t erase the grandeur of Hampi. It still lives in its scattered empty monuments.

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With its randomness Hampi is an incredible place for photography

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Some more randomness thrown in – five Shiva lingas denote five elements of nature

Hampi draws you. Every corner is full of stories. I learnt as I moved, the interlocks in the pillars of the temples, the marks in the large granite pieces where wood was fixed and then watered and expansion of the moist wood resulted in mechanical weathering of granite which were later shaped, the three shiv-lingas on rocks indicating the three power centers of Hindu philosophy and the five shiv-lingas, indicating the five elements, the small temples built by traders, the numerous pillars as we reached the Virupaksha temple, everything had a tale to learn from. From a distance, Virupaksha temple, looked like some lost Mayan or Egyptian wonder, pyramidal cone with intricate carvings, open sanctorum area, frescos and ornate pillars; an absolute wonder. And right outside the temple is its living treasure, Lakshmi, the town’s holy elephant, who taps a blessing on your head, once offered a coin. I stood in delighted awe as I glanced on the intricate work on the pillars and the roof in the temple. Rajesh told me the meaning of each painting on the roof, some pertaining to social order and some to religion. I listened patiently.

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Getting blessed by Laxmi, at Virupaksha Temple

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The interiors of Virupaksha temple

Hundreds of years have passed and the ruins can still take you back to that forgone era, as if everything is alive. It’s a feeling that nothing has changed, just frozen, wrapped in time in the nursery of nature. It’s like all the fighting stopped yesterday. As you wander through the royal enclosures, you get the feeling that all the art, the smell of Vijayanagar cuisine, the rhythm in orchestrated steps of the courtesans, the clink of coins, the subtle fragrance of sandalwood in the air, rustle of silk, the beating of drums as Krishna Deva Raya enters his palace, the festivity of the bazaars, grandeur of the hundreds of temples which lie wasted today, the tap of horses’ steps, elephants trumpets in the stable, the playful laps in the bigger than Olympic sized pools, the giggles of royal ladies as they play – are all hidden beneath the surface, ready to sprint back to life, if you wish to read it. This is the grand stage of Hampi – immortal.

(Hampi has a huge connection with the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’. According to Ramayana, this place was Kishkingdha, the birthplace of monkey God Hanuman. Even the Matunga hill has its story. Legends say that once an ascetic Matunga was meditating in the hills when Bali (King of Kishkingdha) came to the hill looking for a demon. This angered the ascetic and he condemned him that he would die if he ever stepped on the hill again. When the two brothers, Sugriva and Bali fell off each other, Sugriva took refuge in the Matunga hill to keep himself safe from Bali. Lord Ram met the monkey king and his army in the Matunga hills.)

To go – Hampi is in North Karnataka, 6-7 hours journey from both Bangalore and Hyderabad. The nearest railway and bus station is Hospet (10 kms from Hampi).

To stay – For budget travelers, scores of stays available. For Luxury seeking travelers, visit Orange County resorts.

Ahobilam Temple: Trek in the Nallamala Range

The idea behind a trip to Ahobilam, was out of the blue, out of some casual talk, idle browsing on internet, and then sealed by Andhra Pradesh tourism. And some moments of reading travelogues with accounts of trek experiences, gave us the required brain waves to extend the Kurnnol trip and take a long detour to cover Ahobilam. The road trip to Ahobilam, wasn’t very appealing, the roads were desolate, but with a rustic hue.

Let me accept here, I am not a great temple-goer person. I study temples, there architecture, the finesse in their design, the rich carvings on the pillars, the entire character. The art and design put on display, turns these temples into an age old chronicler for me. I love the touch and feel of the old rocks, the ever-lasting gleam on the sculptures, the floral designs following some geometric manner and the endless tales narrated to on-lookers through carvings; appeal to me.

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Upper Ahobilam temple

Before planning to Ahobilam, I had almost no idea of what was in display for me. I was inspired of the trek to the Upper Ahobilam temples. Ahobilam has two main temples – Diguva (Lower) Ahobilam, located at the foothills of the Nallamala range, housing the Prahalada Varadha Temple and Eguva (Upper Ahobilam) located in the hills on an 8 km ghat road and houses the Ahobila Narasimha temple. There are 8 other temples for Lord Narasimha and two other spots associated with the Hindu Mythology – the entire set forms part of the Ahobilam trek. While 4 of the temples are accessible on road, for the other 5, one needs to trek a total distance of 32 kilometres.

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Lower Ahobilam temple

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My ‘earthly’ experience: Kurnool escapade

It was more like an urge – to take the open road, the uncharted ways, to make no itinerary and make headway off to somewhere, halt at the first stop and explore, either ride into the sunset or melt with it. These were my first thoughts when I started my course of journey in the Eastern Ghats – starting with Kurnool, often referred to as the Gateway to Rayalseema – a province with a rich and varied history, a place of hot passions, of violent factionist loyalties, a land that was once the stronghold of Krishna Deva Raya and was once a cultural pot of the Vijayanagar empire.

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The imposing Buddha statue at Belum caves

I started my day with Belum caves. I have to say, I liked the place almost instantly. Surrounded by hillocks (which I mistakenly took for caves), impossibly calm and serene surroundings, the desolate roads, fragmented habitation, an unusual chill in the morning breeze and an imposing Buddha Statue before the caves, my brain kept registering the unusual charms of the place. The caves were explored some 130 years back and came to AP Tourism’s notice in 1980s. This is an underground cave, some 3.5 km long with an underground river. Well the caves are well maintained – they are well maintained and illuminated, timings are maintained, no food item is allowed inside and guide service is mandatory to look after the naughty types. The entrance is a circular pit and right away, one descends and then moves into a spacious chamber with a circular opening overhead. I craned my neck to see a deep blue sky at the rim of the crater! That was our last glimpse of the sky for a while.

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Belum caves

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