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 I

[Trip undertaken in Oct 2012]

We had just come back from a delightful Hampi trip, that first weekend of October and our feet were itching to go explore Karnataka some more. A couple of debates on possible destinations included Valparai, Ooty and its southern sisters Coonoor, Kotagiri, even Kodaikanal (we did go on a trip to Ooty later) among others.
I thought the heat in Hampi had been exhausting and was looking forward to someplace cooler and more refreshing. Chikmagalur had always been at the back of my mind, if for nothing else, because I found the name endearingly funny ever since I was a kid. One image of Ayyanekere lake later, it was clear to me what our destination would be. Anil, my flatmate insisted on fitting in Belur, Halebidu and Shravanabelagola in the itinerary as well. I was strictly against the idea of fitting in too many places on a single trip, but little was I to know how wrong my opinion would prove to be – another endorsement of the fact that, in travel as in life, saying yes and being opening minded never fails to unravel newer, enriching experiences.

We booked a non-ac Qualis for the 5 of us. The plan was to ride through the night on Friday and reach Chikmagalur by early morning. Check in to a hotel; get some sleep, or whatever was left of it, freshen up and get out to take in Bababudangiri Hills, Mullayanagiri and some other sights including possibly, a coffee estate as well as Ayyanakere lake. Belur, halebeedu and Shravanabelagola would have to wait for the next day.

We started off on Friday night, around midnight. Chikmagalur is around 250 km from Bangalore and we’d hoped to check in by 5 am in to our hotel.
Ordinarily, I can never sleep in a vehicle and come out all grumpy after a long ride in which everyone else has snored away to their heart’s content. However that day, the driver, sleepy himself, played some songs all night long that served as the inspiration behind this blog post.

The sun was stirring up the dark blue sky and splashing on it a beautiful dash of orange and vermillion just as we rode past the ‘Welcome to Chikmagalur’ sign. It was a good 6 o’Clock by the time we checked into a very reasonably priced hotel – S K Regency. Thankfully though, all of us were able to catch a power nap as soon as we hit the bed. Up by 8, we freshened up and asked the hotel manager for directions to our places of interest. We had a quick south Indian breakfast and picked up some fruits from the market since you cannot find any eateries once you go up the hills. A few moments later, we had left the small town of Chikmagalur behind and were on our way up the Western Ghats through roads surrounded by coffee plantations, thick vegetation and overhanging trees on both sides.

Chikamagalur Places of Interest
This is the map that the hotel manager gave us. Not to measure, but a very handy one all the same.

Our first stop for the day was Kalhatti falls. Cool water falls cascade just in front of a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva here. You can carefully climb up the rocks (slippery, and you’ll have to leave your footwear behind) and ding your feet in the cool water. It can get a little crowded here, with a lot of the tourists or pilgrims choosing to soak themselves in the waterfalls in front of the temple. With the usual beer bottles, broken pieces of glass and wrappers jutting out from corners of the slipper and rocky stream bed, you’d be well advised to exercise caution here.

We moved on and made our way through the Bhadra tiger reserve to a small hill station known as Kemmanagundi that houses a horticulture park. Pictures from the first day follow:

Flowers at Kemmangundi
At the horticulture park – the bottom one is Chrysanthemum Indicus I think, the white one is of course the common daisy
Kemmangundi
Walk down from the horticulture park and follow the path to the left to reach the view point. Offers excellent views of the valley below.
View point at Kemmangundi
The view point looks out over the beautiful grasslands and shola at Kemmangundi
Viewing area at Kemmangundi
Up close at the view point at Kemmangundi. Like any other tourist spot in India, its walls and pillars are marred by tales of unrequited love and bear the names of the culprits. Amazingly enough, at the horticulture park, for the first time I found somebody had carved out their names on the leaves of a few plants as well
Tree at Kemmangundi
A lonely tree stands out against the sky at the Kemmangundi horticulture park
Shola grassland at Kemmangundi
Grasslands at Kemmangundi, our first view and it was bewitchingly beautiful. There is a path for trekkers to reach the peak that can be seen here and we could make out tiny heads bobbing in the distance on a not-so-apparent trail

We left Kemmangundi around the afternoon and the driver insisted that we go to Bababudangiri hills. The roads in October were in very poor condition even though it had been quite some time since it last rained. We got jostled around in the back of the Qualis on our way to BB hills but boy, was the wait worth it.

Bababudangiri Hills
Presenting the next windows wallpaper! Brought to you by BB hills near Chikmagalur.
Foliage colors at Bababudangiri
Beautiful leaves on one of the trees in the grassland stood out against the blue skies – too hard to resist the temptation of capturing these
Bababudangiri Hills
Our driver too was captivated by the beauty of this place. A little worryingly, sometimes he would take out his cell phone and capture a photo from the window – while driving on this narrow road that had a sheer drop to one side
Grasslands at Bababudangiri hills
Beautiful green grasslands everywhere – apparently, we had visited at the right time. There was no rain, and there was lush greenery everywhere. The hills will turn a shade of brown as spring and later, summer arrives.
Bababudangiri Hills
There was a family picnic – replete with newspapers, mats and picnic baskets – going on where all the vehicles including ours was parked and it was difficult to get a good photo.
So I decided to climb up the nearest hillock to get a better view and this is what I saw from up there. Bliss. They could probably package this photograph and sell it as a cure for sore eyes.
Grasslands at Bababudangiri hills
Another view of the carpeted hills
Bababudangiri hills grasslands
Who can resist another view, lying down on the grass and looking at the blue skies above and the greenery below felt just, so, carefree. Not a worry in the world.

Afternoon had turned in to evening by the time we left BB hills behind and the driver said that Mullyanagiri would turn out to be too far a distance for that evening. We had no choice, so we stopped at a place where he recommended a small trek that was worth exploring.

There were numerous small waterfalls and chutes all though the trek and after freshening up a bit, we climbed up the hill.

Surprisingly, there was a small settlement with numerous snack shops on the hill and a shop owner told us that we could take a jeep from there to some place where there was a temple (I cannot recollect the name). With those jeeps running only every hour or so, we figured we didn’t have enough time, so we settled for some hot mirchi pakoda and tea while enjoying the soft evening light before making our way back down the hill.

Trekking up the hill
Endearingly good sights while on the way down. “Have we reached New Zealand ?”

Unfortunately, we had done little to no research on waterfalls in the vicinity and later discovered we’d left Hebbe falls far behind in Kemmangundi. The driver had no clue how to get there, but he took us to a waterfall called ‘Jarra falls’.

It is a small trek downhill from the road towards Jarra falls and we saw quite a few people coming back up since sunlight was fast fading. By the time we reached Jarra falls, we were the only people left there and it was getting too difficult to photograph the falls in the dim light. 2 of us meanwhile decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up and decided to take an impromptu bath in the falls. Their shivering figures indicated the water was very cold and a while later, we decided to get back to our waiting driver.

Jarra falls
Very cold though the water was, it could not stop 2 gentlemen from enjoying an evening bath.

On the way back, the sun had almost set and 3 of us wanted to take a short cut to cover the remaining distance faster. Since it wasn’t that difficult or long a path, I saw no point and the remaining 2 of us decided to go back via the familiar path. When we reached our vehicle, there was no sign of the other 3 and after a good 10 minutes, I was beginning to get worried as it was completely dark now (There hadn’t been any cellphone signal reception since the time we entered the Ghats). However, they ambled along after a few minutes and sheepishly told us they got ‘lost’ on the short cut. A good laugh later, we headed on our way back to Chikmagalur town for dinner.

A quick dinner later, we were back in our hotel rooms and caught a movie, but I was too tired to resist any more sleep. As in Hampi, I slept like a child that night.

[Continued in Part II here]

A Tibetan settlement in Coorg

What sort of an idiot plans a solo trip when all his batch mates are either going home for the term break or are compelled to spend the last term break with their close (really close) ones  ? Me.

Where is the joy in that, you ask ? Well, you get to take a solo ride in a rickshaw at 0800 on a very chilly morning with a rickshaw driver named Munju, who, dressed in a jacket and monkey cap, takes one look at you because you are dressed just in a t-shirt and shorts and asks you very sincerely, “Sir, aren’t you feeling cold in that ?”, but proceeds to drive you to an elephant camp in the middle of the jungle while narrating stories about how he broke his back years ago, and about wild animals that stray into residences sometimes, about the monasteries in the area and about what will probably be the last visit of the Dalai Lama to Bylakuppe.

Wikipedia mentions Coorg (or Kodagu) as the Scotland of India, but my primary aim was to visit the largest Tibetan settlement in India, situated in Bylakuppe (nearest bus stand is Kushal Nagar) in Coorg district. The story goes that around 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to India from Tibet because of the Chinese invasion, he asked then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru for assistance in the rehabilitation of thousands of Tibetan refugees. Nehru referred the Dalai Lama to S. Nijalingappa, then chief minister of Karnataka, who allotted around 5000 acres in Bylakuppe for the Tibetan refugees fleeing from the oppressive Chinese government. So although the official residence of the Dalai Lama is in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, Bylakuppe while being the permanent residence for most of the Tibetan refugees in India , is also a center for advanced Buddhist studies.

The bus journey from Kozhikode to Coorg takes up an arduous 7 hours, arduous because the roads are really meant for driving tanks. There is a Karnataka state transport bus that starts from Kozhikode bus stand at 2330 every day except Sunday and reaches Kushal Nagar around 0600. From Kushal Nagar, autorickshaws will take you to Namdroling for around Rs. 50. Accommodation can be obtained in and around Kushal Nagar, but undoubtedly one of the best places to stay in, is the Paljor Dhargey Ling guesthouse located just opposite the Namdroling monastery. More information can be obtained here.

I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.

Namdroling Monastery Compound Bylakuppe
The first sight that greets you as you step inside the main gate of Namdroling monastery is an imposing one, but from up close it is awe inspiring.

Namdroling Monastery Compound Bylakuppe

Namdroling Monastery Compound Bylakuppe
Some of the carvings both inside and outside the monastery are an architectural delight. Pay special attention to the roofs of the monasteries.

Lots of pilgrims from India and abroad visit the monasteries. It is however, a bit disrespectful on the part of the domestic tourists (the place is crowded on weekends) who generally make quite a racket in front of the monasteries, posing for photographs et al. Would they do the same in front of their religious places of worship, one wonders.

Tibetan Monastery Bylakuppe

Colorful walls TIbetan Monastery Bylakuppe
A pilgrim observes a moment of solitude and introspection outside one of the monasteries.
Golden Temple Namdroling Monastery Bylakuppe
Inside the golden temple of Namdroling, are three huge idols from left to right: Guru Padmasambhava, Buddha Shakyamuni (or the Buddha), and Buddha Amitayus – all made of copper and plated with gold.
Buddha Namdroling Bylakuppe
The Buddha inside the golden temple, is a magnificent sight.
Prayer wheels Bylakuppe
These wheels are present all along the back walls of the Namdroling monastery, rotating them is said to be the equivalent of saying a prayer.

Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind, are tied in a specific sequence. Wikipedia says that the horizontal prayer flags shown below are called ‘lung ta’ (meaning Wind Horse in Tibetan) and are arranged in a specific sequence of five flags (representing the five elements) from left to right: blue (sky/space), white (air/wind), red (fire), green (water) and yellow (earth).

Prayer Flags Bylakuppe

Inside the monastery grounds, everything seems to be a riot of colours –  the colourful paintings adorning the monastery walls, the monks and pilgrims in their bright robes and the green lawns.Pilgrim outside the Golden Temple Bylakuppe

Pilgrims Golden Temple Bylakuppe

Pilgrims Golden Temple Bylakuppe
Little monk in the Golden Temple compound Bylakuppe
My favorite photograph – the little monk knocking on the doors asking someone to open up.
Monk with his mp3 player Bylakuppe
Modernity meets the ancient religion

I visited Sera Jey monastery in the afternoon and it was totally empty. Most visitors to Bylakuppe just choose to visit Namdroling and ignore the newer monasteries. Sera Jey was totally empty and the caretaker there was kind enough to open the monastery doors for a lone visitor. So it was that I sat totally alone inside the monastery while monks chanted their afternoon prayers in the chambers above in their typical booming, rumbling tone – an extremely surreal experience.

Do make it a point to sit inside the monastery during their prayer times (which begins at around 1400 hours). You are confined to a limited space within the hall to watch the prayers, which usually consist of chanting, cymbals, a huge drum and a long horned wind instrument – all of them coming together to form a prayer that is a very different experience in itself.

Sera Jey Monastery Bylakuppe
Sera Jey Monastery Bylakuppe

The view from outside the doors of Sera Jey is stunning, expect a moment of solitude and peace for yourself in this place as well. Just look at the panorama I shot there.

View from Sera Jey Monastery Bylakuppe

Some more pics from inside the Namdroling monastery grounds.

Palyul monastery replica Bylakuppe
This replica of the Palyul monastery in Tibet stands at the opposite end of the golden temple inside Namdroling. It does succeed in making you wish you could go to Tibet once to see the real monastery.

To sum up, Namdroling is an experience that is not to be missed. It would however, be wise to remember that you are inside a place of worship and meditation. Take extra care to see that you are being respectful of your surroundings and everything would be great

Namdroling Bylakuppe
The Golden Temple Gate !

P. S. Munju, the auto rickshaw guy can be contacted at 9886175362. Bargain a bit and he’ll show you most of the attractions around Kushal Nagar.