The Cauvery has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. For peasants and the gentry, it is a source of life and livelihood, for pilgrims it is as sacred as the Ganges and for politicians, it is a pivot that might decide the fate of the next election.
For tourists and travelers though, the Cauvery can be a source of great inspiration. For it is born in a spring adjoining a temple, been a witness to kingdoms and civilizations of great importance through the ages, it’s waters irrigate the great rice bowls and crop fields of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
A gently flowing river, I have often wondered what it might be, to trace the Kaveri from it’s origin to it’s end point – accompany all the places it journeys to and learn of the culture, the cuisine, the history and the stories that emerged as it’s present day narrative. All this thought, came from reminiscences of a day we spent on it’s banks not too far ago.
The hill station of Sakleshpur is not blessed with the kind of beauty bestowed on some of its brethren in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. But in July of 2016, that is not what I was gunning for either. July is when the monsoons have well and truly arrived on the Indian subcontinent and Sakleshpur, situated on the foothills of the Western Ghats, witnesses the kind of downpour that gives a whole new meaning to the word, torrential.
As soon as we enter the town, and it is a small town on the Bangalore-Mangalore highway, the shades of green are kicked up a notch. There is still not a single drop to welcome us, although there are remnants of muddied puddles beside the road. On narrow, winding roads surrounded by thick forests, we eat up the miles towards Sinna Dorai’s bungalow. This colonial-era bungalow, painstakingly renovated and quite reminiscent of a bygone era, served as the erstwhile residence of the British managers of the Kadamane (literally translates to the home – mane, in the forest – kaadu) tea estate.
The ancestry is quite evident from the moment you enter your room. J. L. Benson, one of the colonial-era managers, lovingly penned down notes on his experiences on the tea estate that take you back in time to the early days of the tea estate operations.
Then there is the fascinating story of the bear-girl of Sakleshpur, a veritable Mowgli thought to be taken by a man eating leopard but in reality, reared in its infancy by a bear. These and a few other, related books are a staple in every room in the bungalow. Some of the places described in the story of the bear-girl, the hospital for instance, are just a walk down the tea estate. It is an enthralling feeling to see what has hitherto been etched in your imagination, appear in front of your eyes.
Late afternoon, we meet Radhika who manages the estate along with her husband. She expresses her surprise at the errant monsoon this year. Apparently, bright sunshine is a rarity during the monsoon. The previous weekend, the monsoon didn’t even permit guests at the bungalow to step outside. This weekend, there seems to be no such luck. So we take a leisurely stroll through the premises.
The grass on your feet is a heavenly feeling. There is a wonderful fragrance in the air, one whose source I cannot place at all. In the tea estates that we had strolled down to, there is nobody to be seen. We make our way through a rough road, passing by a gurgling stream that creates a small waterfall. Radhika later reminds us not to stroll around by ourselves since wild elephants are not a rarity there. The previous week, an abandoned calf, feral and hurt, stumbled into the tea estates and became aggressive around the caretakers. So we make our way back to the bungalow, not before we spot a snake in the compound wall, for some tea and pakoras, delectable and a fine accompaniment to the ominous dark shadows growing on the horizon.
Soon a fine misty spray falls down, the mildest of downpours if it can be termed that. Indoors, there is a reading room full of books, a fireplace, wall-mounted animal heads and some indoor games. Cicadas and crickets call out the alarm to retire for the night and inside, it does grow a little cold for comfort.
The next morning at around 6, I curiously peer through the curtains and a most ethereal scene presents itself. A thick mist hangs around in the air. The bungalow’s retro-looking path lights are still on and it adds a timelessness to the scene. Not a single sound can be heard, mother nature has silenced all her children for some time between dawn and morning. There is dew on the window panes and the unmistakable smell of wet earth.
I wipe the dew to get a clearer look and even in the impenetrable morning mist, I can still make out the faint sight of a gentleman in a hunting hat and rifle on his shoulder making his way down the tea estate. But perhaps, I am just dreaming. For Kadamane has that effect – it really does take you back in time.
Sakleshpur really comes alive during the monsoons and time spent at the Kadamane estate can be quite an experience, if the thought of witnessing torrential downpours does not stress you out. We were unlucky to miss the rains considering it was a near-drought year in Karnataka, but the delectable food, the stories that permeate from the bungalow’s walls and the estate itself were rejuvenating. There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied – cycling, badminton, tennis, a 4-wheel drive to vantage view points in the hills in the estate . I will leave you with a video of the Sinnadorai’s bungalow shared on their website.
I was reading a Jim Corbett book the other day. One of the pages mentioned Rishikesh in passing and all of a sudden, my brain pulled out a vivid snapshot of an extremely beautiful evening that I had spent in Rishikesh, back in the spring of 2012.
It is a curious matter that out of the countless hours I have spent peering at scenes through my camera’s lens, none come close to the mental images I register while travelling. This blog post is devoted to 2 such snapshots and I will try to describe them to the best of my abilities, without resorting to any photographs.
An evening in Rishikesh
Back in 2012, I had spent a week’s time on the road covering Shimla, Kufri, Kullu, Manali and Dharamsala and had the misfortune of gulping down an old croissant in a bakery in McLeodGanj. The next 2 days were spent trying to calm down a revolting stomach in Amritsar, before I landed up in the religious and cultural center of Rishikesh.
Here, while my stomach calmed down, the infection had not subsided completely. As a result, I was laid up for most of the day cooped up in a tent on the banks of the Ganges, shivering slightly with fever.
I distinctly remember that it was close to sunset then. My friends had cajoled me to step outside the tent for some tea, and break my languidness. As soon as I stepped out, I knew the moment was picture perfect, and somehow, my mind was feeble enough to dissuade my body from stepping back into the tent for my camera.
The sun still had nearly an hour to go down, and it had cast a golden yellow glow all over the surrounding hills. The forests on the hills were lit up spectacularly with this mellow sunlight, with odd patches of the spring foliage colored orange and vermilion providing some relief from the monotony of green.
The sunlight had also brought the otherwise chilly weather down, making it feel warm and salubrious.
In front of me, the Ganges gently babbled her way across hundreds of white rounded stones. There was an odd fish that we could spot in places where the river was shallow. On the opposite bank, there were 2 horses grazing on the sparse green grass. One had a rich lustrous skin, brown in color while the other had pale shade of white, turned slightly creamy due to the sunlight. Sometimes, the white one would gracefully toss its mane aside, without ceasing to graze.
I think I must have sat down on a boulder on the banks for half an hour, trying to implant in my mind, the beauty of everything that lay in front of me. It was a panacea, from the agony of the past few days and a memory of a beautiful moment, that I will carry with me to my grave.
A morning in Sakleshpur
In the monsoons of 2016, we were in Sakleshpur, in a colonial era bungalow surrounded by 7000 acres of tea estate. There, our previous day had been a sharp antithesis to the term monsoon capital, for we didn’t experience anything more than a slight drizzle, compared to the torrential rains that Sakleshpur receives every year.
Our host had told us that the previous 2 weekends had been a blur, with guests not even being able to venture out of their cottages due to the incessant rain.
Therefore, after a sumptuous dinner, we had gone to sleep amidst the cacophony of crickets and other nocturnal inhabitants of the estate.
The next morning, sharply around 6, I had woken up since it had grown deathly silent. I groggily pushed open the doors of our cottage and a veritable fairy tale setting came alive in front of my eyes.
There had been no rain at night, but the absolutely thickest fog I have ever seen in my life, covered miles and miles of estate ground and the forests beyond. I couldn’t see beyond a few yards.
The lights dotting the estate were still lit. The ground was wet and it smelt heavenly, and dew drops hung onto virtually every blade of grass. The fog seemed to be alive, darting in and out of places, revealing tea bushes in one instant and hiding them in the next. There was a slight chill in the air, but one that you wished would never go away.
It was a window of time when the birds had not yet stirred from their nests but the insects had all retired, so the silence was deafening. It felt like mother nature herself had a good night’s sleep and had woken up before everyone else, feeling fresh and wishing every one a hearty good morning.
That morning left an indelible mark in my mind too.
Ironically, I think I will visit these places again someday and try to capture vestiges of these scenes on a camera. Before I grow old and hopefully, before my memory fails me.
My earliest memories of eating out, is going to the Udupi joint in our town and digging into the humble Vada Sambar. Crunchy outside, piping hot inside, dipped in a slightly spicy sambar – it has passed down the years as my go-to snack whenever I step into an Udupi restaurant for breakfast.
And speaking of Udupi restaurants, one of the reasons I traveled the Karnataka coastline was also to taste Udupi’s eponymous cuisine. And we had in Chethan, our friend and also a native of Udupi, the best guide.
Our first stop, was for lunch at the famous Woodlands hotel. We ordered a plate of puri-bhaji, rava idly, and 2 normal ‘thalis’. One thing stood out for me in the thali that arrived; even though most of the items were standard fare, the spices used never dominated the other flavors.
There was a dry ‘subzi’ made of red chana that had just the right mix of roasted coconut shavings, dried red chili and coriander. The result was a perfect amalgamation of the mildly sweet taste of coconut and the slight spiciness of chili.
The ‘Huli’ was another item that merits a mention here. It reminded me of ‘Puli’ (Malayalam for sour and for tamarind). A gravy made of a mixture of grated coconut, tamarind, jaggery, red chillies and cummin; it is a side dish that all of us visitors to Udupi hotels in any land, have tasted numerous times. It was only in Woodlands that I realized how it was supposed to taste like. Once again, the flavors – slight tanginess of tamarind and the masalas seemed to complement each other, perfectly.
We then moved on to Mitra Samaj, an institution that is one of the oldest in Udupi. Situated right on the road leading to the Krishna temple, this one has been covered by multiple travel shows and print media over the years. Touted to be the birth place of the masala dosa as well (supposedly, difficult to believe however), this restaurant is a favorite with the old-timers as well as the tourists.
Formica topped tables are wiped down quickly for the next customer and quick service times are standard here.
There was a general consensus building that maybe we were over eating. Chethan would have none of it however, and he led us right next to the next item on the agenda – cold badam milk to wash everything down.
Dessert couldn’t just be a single dish and so, we moved on to Diana’s, famous for its Gudbud icecream. The original Diana’s has moved to a more upmarket location in the town but still retains a regular flow of students from the nearby Manipal university and other regulars.
Often on the coastline, you come across endearing sights of backwaters surrounded by palm and coconut trees. There is an alternate version of life going on, on these waters that is at once laid back, languid and yet extremely charming. Hands up, if you haven’t sketched some of these scenes in your primary school drawing books.
A chance conversation on Indiamike (a popular forum for travelers visiting the breadth of India) a few years ago made me look curiously at a long thin stretch of beach that I had never heard about earlier. Udyavar, as Google calls it, has a stretch of tarred road that merrily runs along the entire stretch. In between, the sand tries to reclaim the road but we push on nevertheless. It is a long 10 km ride that ends near the naval shipyard at Malpe. So untouched is this one, far away from the crowds that the locals peer curiously at our vehicle as it speeds along.
There are a few locals at the end of the stretch, where a stone barricade has been put up. They were busy catching fish, this being off-season fish fetches a handsome price – even the sea threw some of the fish back on to the land and the crows made a noisy feast of it.
We ended our sojourn in the Karnataka coastline at Mangalore the next day, but visited Kaup beach and its famous light house in between.
One more shot of the lighthouse
The Kapu lighthouse from up close. My friend pronounced it as ‘Kapu’ – thats what it is called in the local dialect.
Monsoon makes its presence evident in the green moss on these rocks
Many a film has been shot here, with the lighthouse adding a fair bit of drama
A view of the beach from the base of the lighthouse
As always, the reward of exploring and traveling lies not in the pictures we take back, but the memories we create and by that yardstick, this trip was no different. Anyone fond of beaches and the sun, should not miss out on the gem that the Karnataka coastline is. Although it might not offer the familiarity of Goa; it might yet be the next backpacker paradise in waiting. And to become that, it possesses unlimited potential.
So strong is the itch of travel that you can literally scratch it sometimes. And for itches that still do not go away, there is always one more destination to cover. The picturesque Karnataka coastline had been on my mind since the past year and a half but for some reason or the other, kept getting ignored. In August this year however, it finally came true. Although we skipped Karwar and Gokarna (Gokarna, well, started it all), we did cover the 180 km stretch from Honnavar to Mangalore. This covers stretches of the Uttara Kannada district (Karwar-Bhatkal), Udupi district and Dakshina Kannada district.
Even in the peak of the monsoon season, I was undaunted by the prospect of rain forcing us indoors during the trip. Heck, deep down, there was even a secret desire to watch the rain gods pummel the coast when they made landfall, just for the thrill of it.
Not too far away from the southern tip of Goa lies the port town of Honnavar. A town steeped in history, it finds mentions in ancient Jain texts as well as 13th century Persian and 16th century Portuguese accounts. Another claim to fame for Honnavar is that it hosted the famous Ibn-Battuta on his travels. Situated only 60 km from the famous Jog Falls, Honnavar serves as an ideal point to explore both the Western Ghats as well as the coastline. It is also where the Sharavathi river finally bids goodbye to the mainland and unites with the Arabian sea.
As with any beach town, the smell of the sea hits you square in the face when you land at Honnavar. It still retains the charms of a small town that hasn’t quite given in to the ways of modern life, which is a very good reason to make a pit-stop here.
The estuary where the Sharavathi meets the sea can be viewed from a vantage point on a hillock. A tarred road takes you to within walking distance of the hillock. Other spots worth exploring include the seemingly popular Apsara Konda beach which also has a charming waterfall in the vicinity by the same name.
Temples in India are one of the best indicators of a crowded tourist spot and Murudeshwar is no exception. More so, because it boasts of a towering Gopuram and a mammoth Shiva statue that is visible even from if you are traveling in a train on the Konkan railway. The story behind how Murudeshwar came to be is conveyed through a series of life-size sculptures situated in a cave underneath the Shiva statue. Wikipedia is as good a place to read about it – here is the link.
Bhatkal and Baindoor
Further down south is the taluka of Bhatkal. We couldn’t stop here as we wanted to reach Udupi before evening. However, Baindoor (more famous for the Kollur Mookambika temple that attracts a lot of devotees) situated at the tip of Bhatkal offers a gem of a spot called Ottinene. Ottinene offers a bird’s eye view of the Baindoor river meeting the sea. It is renowned among the regulars as a wonderful place to enjoy the sunset and is a spot that is not to be missed at any cost.
The Trasi-Maravanthe stretch first caught my eye when I read that it is the only highway of its kind in India. Flanked by the Sowparnika river on the east and the Arabian sea on the west, it offers an enchanting sight for everyone. Trasi-Maravanthe has been featured on a lot of popular magazine articles, travel guides, blogs and even TV shows. As a result, small stalls selling soft drinks and tender coconut have sprung up on the road. These serve as ideal bait for the tourists passing through, even if they are blissfully unaware of the scenery that surrounds them.
If the Arabian sea is angry and even a little violent on one side, the Sowparnika paints a picture of dignity and calm. Its presence has created a few islands along the stretch and the locals still use ferries as a mode of transportation, just as in the old days. Which adds to the charm of it all.
Corporate life can make for an insufferable companion sometimes. Some reminiscing about the Chikmagalur trip led to a bout of deja-vu and a strong inclination to visit the Western ghats again, only, this time the monsoons seemed to be in full force with no signs of relenting. To our luck, sunlight dawned one beautiful day that week and with some pushing by my friends, onward we went one Friday night, to a little known place called Kalasa – a town shadowed by its more famous (but still relatively unknown) companion – a pilgrimage town called Horanadu. Kalasa also serves as the base for people trekking up the Kudremukha range.
From Bangalore, Chikmagalur town itself is reachable by a 5 hour drive. We set out by 11 pm on the usual Friday night and were in Chikmagalur by 4.30 in the morning, even accounting for a pitstop for tea on the way. From Chikmagalur, there are multiple routes to reach Kalasa-Horanadu, we chose the route that passed through Mudigere (not to be confused with Madikeri which lies in Coorg). GSM network reception, hitherto intermittent, was completely unavailable after Mudigere and we had to rely on GPS to press on towards our destination on a moonless, pitch-black night. The roads were so bad after Mudigere that we took almost an hour and a half to cover some 30 odd kilometres. The last 20 kilometeres however, thankfully turned out to be in better condition and we were at our hotel, the Suprabha Residency, by 6.30 in the morning.
With a quick nap substituting the all-nighter (I can never sleep in a cab for some reason), we parted the curtains of our windows at 8.30 in the morning to find the Malnad mountain ranges covered by thick dense forests on all sides, lit up by a glorious yellow morning sun. The scene of the freshly drenched roads and the green countryside added to the sense of tranquility and freshness, but also instilled seeds of doubts about rain threatening to derail our sight-seeing, but luckily, it only drizzled slightly that weekend.
We were out by 10 that morning, on our way to Sringeri, which is some 70 odd kilometres to the north west of Kalasa. The road, in relatively better condition compared to the horrible Mudigere-Kalasa stretch, snakes along, giving company to the insouciant Bhadra river. During the monsoons, the Bhadra swells and irrigates both the banks, covering it in various shades of green and creating mini waterfalls along the way. There are places where you can park your vehicle and walk over banks covered by rounded stones to reach the river. Policemen patrolling the roads, will mostly warn you not to venture too deep as most of the land is forest area and the river currents can be swift and unforgiving.
Pretty soon, the road passed through a village called Samse, whose tea gardens are a big departure from the lush green forests that we’d witnessed all along. We pressed on without stopping and soon enough, saw a signpost that claimed to be the starting point of the trek to Kudremukha. A few miles of winding roads later, we reached a check-post near the border of the Kudremukha forest range. Although trekking is not allowed in the Kudremukha range in the monsoons, the roads leading through the forest range are a delight, and the monsoons lend it a character that is quite completely its own.
Our first stop for the day was the Lakkya dam, which contrary to its name, is not a proper dam; just one built by the now defunct Kudremukha Iron Ore Co. Ltd. (KIOCL) for carrying away sludge from the mining operations. It is deceptively charmingly, very quiet and you can still see the scars left behind by the miners in the form of broken faces of some of the hills nearby. The sludge itself is reddish-black in color and has been known to swallow anything that wades into it, so climbing over the walls is strictly prohibited. There is a limit beyond which visitors are not allowed but we saw a jeep with KIOCL decals, full of visitors being driven by a guard; so it seems that some sort of trip is available that can take you behind the permissible limits.
Sringeri, the famous temple town, is home to the famous Sri Vidyashankara temple. The temple, built during the Vijayanagara reign, seems to reveal carvings that were inspired by the Hoysala school as well. The constructor’s knowledge of astronomy is apparently evident in the placement of the doors and windows of the temple which, during an equinox, afford to the deity – the lord Shiva, a view of the sunrise.
We decided to have lunch or the ‘annadaanam‘ as it is known, in the temple premises itself. This lunch is prepared by the temple priests and is served to everyone, free of cost, every single day. Batches of devotees sit in rows inside a special hall, with designated rows for seating. Once seated, they are served in a huge plate, copious amounts of piping hot rice, sambar, rasam, buttermilk and a sweet ‘payasam‘ made of lentils. We were pleasantly surprised by the taste of the rasam served, it easily beat out the best ones I’ve tasted. What I’ve never seen anywhere else is the fact that the temple also seems to offer meals at night as well.
After lunch, it had started drizzling a little and we drove back, stopping only at the Hanumangundi waterfalls enroute. True to its name, the parking area is inundated with monkeys. A small descent (you’ve got to purchase a ticket first) leads to a raging waterfall that is an absolute delight during the monsoons.
After a tiring first day, we awoke the next day to a slight drizzle and a leisurely breakfast, washed down by hot coffee and were soon on our way back to Chikmagalur town. This time, we didn’t follow the GPS map closely and somehow chanced upon a road that did lead us back to Mudigere – talk about serendipity. We whizzed by coffee plantations and cardamom trees with a slight smell of eucalyptus hanging in the air, while row after row of arecanut trees only allowed us a glimpse of the nearby mountain ranges. In between, the sunlight would play hide and seek with the road, penetrating the canopy of trees while gurgling waterfalls continued merrily on their journey downwards, almost as if they thought the monsoons would last forever.
It was afternoon by the time we reached Chikmagalur town after passing through some truly delightful and twisting roads and the following scenes welcomed us. Paddy fields stretching away in to the distance and hills and looming clouds over the horizon.
After lunch in Chikmagalur, we decided to hit Ayyannakere lake which is some 20 odd kilometers from the town, as it was something that I had missed out on, the last time we hit Chikmagalur. To my surprise, and in a departure from the isolated mental image of the lake I had drawn in my mind, the lake’s banks were being converted into some sort of park with a walkway. The crowds had turned out in such great number that the overflowing lake, standing out in sharp contrast to the rising hills around its periphery, failed to rise to any of our expectations. It did seem as if the best time to visit the lake now would be on weekdays, especially to catch the sunrise or sunset.
We still had some time before sunset and thought we could pay our respects to the Chennakesava temple in Belur once again. This time, we hired a guide (ask for a certain Mr. Anand, very enthusiastic and knowledgeable) and were enlightened about some of the unique aspects of the temple we’d missed out earlier. With the sun descending as soon as the temple tour came to an end, we decided to call an end to what had been, most certainly, a rather welcome break from the dreariness of daily life.