Fire on the Cauvery

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.

Fire on the Cauvery, I termed that evening sky.

Banks of the Cauvery
As the sun sets on the horizon, it tinges the sky red and amber. And it almost seems like the Cauvery is on fire.

Time travel in Sakleshpur

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.

Benson's memoirs from his time at the Kadamane estate
Benson’s memoirs from his time at the Kadamane estate, Sakleshpur

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 quite 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.

Tea estates at Kadamane
A walk around the tea estates at Kadamane, Sakleshpur is not recommended unless accompanied by somebody at the bungalow.

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 remind 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.

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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 timeliness to the setting. Not a single sound is present, mother nature has silenced all her children for some time. There is dew everywhere and with it, the smell of wet earth.

The only thing I can make it, is the sight of a gentleman in a hunting hat and rifle on his shoulder making his way down the tea estate. Or maybe I was just dreaming. Because 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.

Sinnadorai’s Bungalow


 

A mention in the Economic Times Travel

Photograph and excerpt by yours truly, appeared in the Economic Times Panache Travel section – dated Dec 10, 2015.

Small moment of joy. And much pride.

And another small step towards travel journalism.

Here is the link.

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Exploring the Karnataka Coastline – Part II

[Continued from Part I]

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.

Padukone near Maravanthe
Seen here is a ferry making its way across the Sowparnika in Maravanthe while the palm trees look on in an equal mixture of boredom and languidness. By the way, the river bank seen here belongs to a village where a former badminton champion and his actress daughter hail from. The name of the village is Padukone.
Udupi backwaters
Boats idling around, some of these sights took me back to Kozhikode, the scenes are that similar. Numerous scenes like these are visible from bridges all along the national highway as it hugs the coast.
Udupi national highway
The past (the boats) look on as the present mode of travel (the buses) hurry along without a second thought.

Udyavar

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.

Udyavar
Gleeful stretch that had me rubbing my hands when I saw it first. There are not many details to be found about the Pitrody Udyavar stretch, except a solitary blog post or two.
Udyavar beach
Believe it or nor, the 10 km stretch of beach didn’t have more than 10 people on it when we disembarked. A group of egrets flew past, welcoming us to the beach and we made our slow, leisured walk from the point where the road refused to go further.

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.

Sunset at Udyavar beach
The day ended with the sun casting an orange-ish glow as it went down. Hearty reward for a day that ended as well as it began.

We ended our sojourn in the Karnataka coastline at Mangalore the next day, but visited Kaup beach and its famous light house in between.


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. 


Exploring the Karnataka coastline – Part I

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.

Karnataka coastline
NH 17. Keep driving. Stop wherever you want. One of the most picturesque coastal stretches in India, the Karnataka coastline can almost lay claim to the title of most scenic road in India. The beauty of it is that you can find yourself in the middle of an isolated stretch of beach and yet, never be too far away from civilization. This coastline is that unexplored. Which really begs the question, why is it not that famous yet?

Honnavar

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.

Kasarkod beach Honnavar
Sunset at Kasarkod beach (not to be confused with Kasargod down south at the Karnataka-Kerala border). Probably the softest sand I have experienced on the west coast; clean, gently sloping beach and clear waters. Glorious sunset, even if it is co-incidental, is cherry on the cake.

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.

 Murudeshwar

DSC_0183Temples 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.

Maravanthe

Trasi Maravanthe beach
Even on a bright sunny day, the presence of the monsoons is still evident in the greenery that dots the tranquil little beach.

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.

Trasi Maravanthe
The sea poses a constant danger to the coastline and a receding beach has caused state authorities to put up barricades of stone to thwart the erosion. It does take away from the charms of the stretch but if not for this, there wouldn’t have been much beach left.
Trasi Maravanthe
Some places make you experience emotions you never ever felt earlier. This stretch with the shackled Sowparnika and the free Arabian sea, reminds me of a few lines from one of the best films ever:         ” Andy Dufresne: You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific?                                                      Red: No.                                                                                                                                                                      Andy Dufresne: They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory. ”                                                                                                                                        Somehow warms the cockles of your heart, this stretch.

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.

Boating on the Sowparnika river
Gently rocking boats wait for passengers in the Sowparnika. A 45 min – 1 hour motorized boat ride will cost you around 500-650 rupees for the whole boat, regardless of the number of passengers. In my opinion, it is a throwback to a bygone era and a must-do for anyone visiting the coastline for the first time.

Continued in Part II

References:

http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/karavali/1976/toc.htm

What a Jog

Many a time has an enthusiastic tourist made the long journey to Jog falls to end up with something like this.

Jog falls
Jog on August 15th

This was in the peak of the monsoon season, as you can make out from the greenery around. Supposedly, one of the highest waterfalls in India, its moniker ‘Joke falls’ among blogging circles is well-deserved going by this photograph. And to think, the state authorities have created a parking lot, a state tourism hotel, viewing areas to benefit the hordes of tourists. Just wonder whether somebody forgot to turn on the secret waterfall switch.

Honestly though, I have no idea if this is due to the rainfall deficit or the dam built across the Sharavathi river.

Either way, just compare the above photograph with Jog at its mightiest. This photograph was taken during the monsoons as well.

Jog Falls
Pic courtesy: Wikipedia. Copyright: Jog Roarer CC BY-SA 3.0 Sarvagnya

Mighty good, isn’t it ?

Chikmagalur Trip – Part III: Belur and Halebidu

[Continued from Part II here]

The Hoysala empire ruled most of Karnataka and parts of present day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh during a reign which stretched from the late 10th century to the mid 14th century. Wikipedia narrates the origin of the name Hoysala thus:

“Kannada folklore tells a tale of a young man Sala, who saved his Jain guru Sudatta by striking dead a Lion he encountered near the temple of the Goddess Vasantika at Sosevur. The word “strike” literally translates to “hoy” in Hale Kannada (Old Kannada), hence the name “Hoy-sala”. This legend first appeared in the Belur inscription of Vishnuvardhana (1117), but owing to several inconsistencies in the Sala story it remains in the realm of folklore.”

The Hoysala rulers patronized all forms of art and architecture so much so that historical accounts of temples built during their reign run in to the thousands. Unfortunately, only about a 100 or so remain presently, many having given way to destructive raids carried about by invaders under the Sultanate at Delhi. Of the few that remain, the Chennakesava (meaning handsome-Kesava, Kesava is another name for Lord Vishnu) temples at Belur and Somanathapura, the Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebidu are outstanding examples of the Hoysala style of architecture. This particular style is characterized by an ornate exterior that depicts mythological tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in intricate detail in addition to animals, birds and other mythological figures in various poses. Such level of intricacy is possible due to the use of a material called as Soapstone, these are the same stones that are now used as whiskey stones due to their ability to keep the drink chilled for a longer duration, without any dilution as in the case of ice cubes.

Belur

The ride from Chikmagalur to Hassan took almost 2 hours that day and with each passing hour, the stifling heat grew even more uncomfortable inside the Qualis. By the time our driver parked the Qualis under the shade of the compound wall of the Chennakesava temple in the heart of Belur, we were all thirsting for a glass of water. Thankfully, we had some with us but when we stepped outside to cross the road to the temple (you have to leave your footwear outside the temple gates – we chose to leave it in the vehicle), we almost jumped. The culprit was the tarred road that was baking in the mid morning sun.

We didn’t engage a guide for the tour of the temple complex and in my opinion, a guide is highly recommended. However, if you are armed with a book or a podcast, nothing beats exploring the temples and the exquisite carvings on your own. Photographs follow:

Chennakesava temple Belur
First sight of the temple inside the compound. Notice that the roof or ‘Shikhara’ is missing, it is otherwise a consistent feature found in every Hindu temple. In front is the Garuda Sthamba (pillar) that was erected during the reign of the Vijayanagara empire.
Chennakesava temple Belur Ladoos
Enormous ladoos for 50 rupees each. Try finishing off one by yourself.
Chennakesava temple Belur
A closer look at the main entrance, notice the 4 miniature shrines with exquisite shikharas flanking the steps. Now imagine what a grand sight it would have been if the shikhara of the temple had remained intact.
Chennakesava temple Belur
Garuda, the ‘vahana’ or mount of Lord Vishnu, adorns the front of the temple compound
Chennakesava temple Belur
Lord Vishnu carries an umbrella, supposedly to shelter the world. His fifth incarnation, that of Vamana, is depicted as a dwarf carrying an umbrella. I thought this umbrella lying inside the temple made for a very symbolic picture indeed – this photograph was insanely difficult to capture considering my camera’s poor ISO performance and the extremely dark interiors of the temple.
Chennakesava temple Belur
For a price of 20 rupees, these guys will light up the interiors (which are very dark even during the day) so that your cameras can capture the carvings inside the temple as well
Chennakesava temple Belur
The frieze panels consist of elephants that symbolize stability and strength, lions that symbolize power and courage, horses that symbolize speed, flowers that symbolize tenderness and the caring nature of the erstwhile Hoysala rulers. Point to be noted your honor, no two figures are similar.
Chennakesava temple Belur
The star shaped design of the temple, one of the distinguishing features of the Hoysala school of architecture. You can also see cement used in the lathe pillars here to mend the ravages of time and the elements.
Chennakesava temple Belur
Another temple inside the compound
Chennakesava temple Belur
Beautifully carved pillars inside the temple
Chennakesava temple Belur
This is probably the King’s balance, an integral part of a lot of south indian temples where rulers would be weighed in gold, money or precious stones and the same weight would be donated to the temple. The practice continues to this day, devotees are weighed (in fruits if I am correct) in quite a few temples. Behind it is the ‘gravity pillar’ and further behind, the imposing Gopura (or main entrance) that was constructed during the Vijayanagara reign
Chennakesava temple Belur
A vimana of one of the numerous miniature shrines dotting the main temple compound. Each one is itself composed of even smaller vimanas – all of it put together seems to point to the heavens
Chennakesava temple Belur
The Deepotsava stambha or ‘gravity pillar’ that is visible here, also installed during the Vijayanagara reign, is not fixed to the ground, it is standing on its own dead weight, a testament to the skills of the architects from that period
Chennakesava temple Belur
Another panorama of the temple compound. From this perspective, you can guess that I was standing in front of the Pushkarani (the water tank) inside the compound.

We were at the mercy of the sun god by this time and were grateful to find a coconut vendor outside the compound. After dancing for a while on the heated road, a quick gulp of some sweet coconut water (the first of many to come that day) we were on our way to the next destination – Halebidu.

Halebidu

We reached the Hoysaleshwara temple compound by around 12.30 pm which is a damned time to walk barefeet on the stone tiles laid out to reach the temple. Thankfully, there was a lawn which we used as an alternate pathway to the temple. The Hoysaleshwara temple  – dedicated to the Lord Shiva, although emanating from the same school of architecture as the Chennakesava temple at Belur, seemed to bear even more intricate carvings on its exterior.

Hoysaleshwara temple Halebidu
This temple too has the ‘Shikhara’ or roof missing, the Somanathapura temple is the only one among the 3 which has its roof intact. If you imagine this setting without the manicured lawns outside, the experience of being at such an ancient temple situated on the banks of a river is extremely magical.
Hoysaleshwara temple Halebidu
The famous lathe pillars which run from North to South inside the main temple make for an enchanting sight.
Hoysaleshwara temple Halebidu
The north entrance – ‘dwarapalikas’ or guards if I am not mistaken.
Hoysaleshwara temple Halebidu
Observe the frieze panel above the horses and you’ll stumble upon a treasure trove of scenes from the mythological epics – I observed a guide talking to a group of tourists and recognition of particular scenes led to a lot of jaws dropping amid gasps from the delighted crowd
Hoysaleshwara temple Halebidu
86 years of painstaking labour and the amount of detail that has gone into the sculptures is evidently astounding, it is bound to leave you spell bound. If you are a fan of Indian mythology, the hundreds of stories etched in stone will undoubtedly make you go click-happy here
Hoysaleshwara temple Halebidu Nandi
Click on this photo and zoom in, you’ll find graffiti etched on to the Nandi. Even the gods are not spared sometimes, when it comes to a Indian’s desire to save his name and that of his beloved for posterity. It is a good thing that ASI has security guards who shoo away miscreants trying to breach the ropes here, but there is only so much they can do to ward off people from touching the sculptures.

We couldn’t have enough of the Hoysaleshwara temple but it was growing late in the afternoon and we still had to have lunch and visit Shravanabelagola before the evening. Parched throats led to some hunting outside the compound, where a lot of vendors were selling their wares. And then we laid our eyes upon it – the biggest coconuts we’d ever seen. For a measly sum of 15 rupees only. God given boon I thought at first and immediately ordered one. There was a kid along with his dad at the same cart and hearty laughter ensued when the little guy could not finish off even half the water inside his coconut.

Bodies cooled and minds entranced, we made our way to the waiting driver and after stopping for an unsatisfying lunch at a local hotel in Hassan, we set off towards our final destination for the trip – the Jain pilgrim town of Shravanabelagola.

[Continued in Part IV here]