A rainy trip to Wayanad

Wayanad is a land covered in clouds. As I near the district, I see dark overbearing clouds looming in the distance. My friend, a Keralite, laughs it off nonchalantly. “Kerela, no? It is obvious…” he tells. Six months in a year it rains here.

It starts pouring soon as we enter the districts, and the jungle suddenly becomes greener, denser. The bus crosses a herd of nearly four dozen deer, resting along a little clearing by the side of the road. My friend tells early mornings, elephants and other animals can be seen on the road itself, which remains closed to vehicles in the night reminiscing a time when he saw an entire herd of elephants, tuskers and calves, out on the road.

As town after town crosses, it is never too far away from a place to visit – the dense forests, the cloud covered peaks, the beautiful greenery or the tea-coffee plantation estates. I choose to stay at the picturesque little town of Vythiri, overlooking the cloud clad Chembra peak. Over the next two days, the peak seems to be a keeping a close watch – I see it from all the places I visit. The other thing that keeps almost constant company is the din of the insects chirping.

Eager to start exploring, I keep my bags and go off to the Pookot lake. Later, I walk back from the view-point at Lakkidi, where the ghat section begins. On clearer days the distant coastal line of Kozhikode is visible. Today, there are just layers of hills and an entire valley covered in green. A handful of shops sell eatables for the tourists and travelers who stop by to enjoy the view. I get tempted to eat raw mango, momentarily dismissing my cold instead of resisting my temptation to bite into the sour fruit. I pay and step out, mango still in hand, while there is somebody gearing to snatch it away. A monkey advances towards me and I retreat to the shop, finish my mango, tuck in my camera safely and hold my umbrella preparing to offer a fight before I step out. Now the monkeys are wary, they do not come close.

Next morning, at the Soochipara falls, the stream swelling with rain water comes gushing and as it falls on the rocks, it breaks into a fine mist. A famous spot, this place is generally crowded with tourists. I am lucky to go there on a weekday early in the morning and enjoy the unspoilt scenery. Our designated guide by the forest department Mr Velappan is a very spirited guy for his age. As I climb down the stone steps, he offers me a helping hand. I hold his hand to I realize he is indeed old, his hands tremble with age and I wonder how he
could help me in case I slip. But his eagerness to help does not allow me to say a no. He suggests me to have my picture taken in various poses and asked me to put on sunglasses. I laugh; it is early in the morning of an overcast day.

After the ascent back to the parking at Soochipara, it is climbing all the way again at Edekkal caves. The name literally means a hanging rock in Malyalam and is derived from a boulder suspended between two walls of a cliff that fell in an earthquake years ago giving the name of the place. The rock shelters at Edekkal contain neolithic rock sculptures dating back to 8000 years ago. The only other place where such rock sculptures have been found is in France.

The journey is beautiful as are the destinations as the road meanders through the cultivated tea and coffee estates. Farm workers busy collecting tea leaves while other enjoying their break with a cup of tea cross us. As Assiner, my jeep driver drives through the scenic hill roads, I keep asking him to stop time and again. It feels a crime to keep my camera away.

At the Banasura dam

The best part of the trip comes as a pleasant surprise at the Karapuzha dam. An abandoned dam till some years ago, work had stopped here under land and political issues. As Assiner drives down the jeep there is not a soul in sight; at some distance two goat kids playfully skitter. There is absolute peace along the waters of the reservoir surrounded by green meadows overlooking the cloud covered Chembra peak. Even the constant chirping of cricket or the cries of birds gives away as the world enjoys a gentle rhythmic lapping of water as it breaks into tiny waves at the edges. Banasura dam, the largest mud dam in India is just as beautiful, but my favourite is already chosen. In between short spells of shower and sun playing hide-and-seek in the clouds, the rain washed peak glisten.

As my near perfect stay nears an end, I contemplate what it would be to live here, surrounded by all the beauty and peace, when I am jostled back to reality. Tomorrow is a strike, something that is not very infrequent in this part of the country. I have to arrange for transport, my bus reservation stands cancelled.

 
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The Midas’ Touch – Bengal

The sun rises, from amidst the tall standing palm trees. There is a mish-mash of trees here, once as the fertile Ganges flowed, it left behind deposits of rich alluvial soil. The land as if touched by Midas – only everything turns green here. There is no patch where there is no vegetation, for where there are no plants, there are countless weeds and grass peeping in, trying to make their place. And in the competition, if the land is soon exhausted, the game is not yet over! They make their place on the trunk of the already standing trees.

As the sun rises up higher, it sparkles from the numerous ponds around. There is an abundance of ponds here, and I have seen no village that does not have a pond. The water is very murky and varies in shades of green to brown. However, these ponds are the lifeline of the people around. It bathes people, washes their clothes and utensils, and even feeds them. In these ponds live a variety of fishes, small and big. No Bengali’s plate is complete without the fish – curried, fried, baked, chutnied, et al. Bengalis can often be heard saying they live to eat, and the fish have managed themselves a revered spot.

I set off with my uncle and younger cousins to watch fishing – while the freezer is still stuffed with a week’s supply of fish. Sunil Da, the elderly helper is swimming around the pond, a cotton gamcha around his waist, net in hand. He throws the net where he sees the water bubbling. As he un-knots the net, he keeps some of his catch and throws back some. Curious, I inquire of his selection procedure. “Some will grow bigger and tastier. The smaller ones that are kept will grow no more, while few others are not allowed to. They will grow up devouring the other fish and prawns”. There is complete knowledge about the fish.

As Sunil Da swims across, throwing his net here and there, a striking blue kingfisher also finds his fare. It swoops down from the branch of a mango tree, overhanging on the pond, and snatches his meal. Then it goes back again to eat and waits for its next catch. It grabs two prawns as we look on.

We return for lunch to the piquant smell of fish being fried in mustard oil. Lunch is an elaborate, 5 course affair with preparations starting well in the morning. And after the heavy lunch, it is time for the afternoon siesta.

As the evening descends, the sun sets quickly, the horizon hidden behind the trees. Light fades from golden-yellow to pinkish red to darkness and the sounds of blowing of conch shells emanates from all the houses welcoming the evening. The prayers are completed and the lamps lit.

While the land sleeps in darkness after its long day, countless fireflies wake up, looking like stars descended from heaven. In the village, boys meet for a session of cards or carom, under a sole hanging bulb, playing well through the night. The sweet melancholic sound of Rabindra Sangeet fills the air as children and elders sit with their harmonica, practicing. And again, it is time for dinner. Meanwhile, a lizard has its fill with the bounty of insects under the light and it chuckles.

Welcoming the monsoon at Badami

On the bus to Badami, a little girl sat across me, on her grandfather’s lap, looking out of the window. The window was too high for her. I smiled at them, and the grandfather coaxed her to come talk to me. She smiled sheepishly and nodded a no. After a little persuasion, she ran up to me, handed me chocolate candies,some of what she was eating, and ran back to hide behind her grandfather. Behind them sat a school girl, in salwar kameez and dupatta with pleated hair, three horizontal lines of Vibhuti running across her forehead. As the bus crossed the small villages, most of the people, children and elders alike, had the same horizontal lines drawn. Later in the day at the Banashankari temple, I saw neat stacks of Vibhuti. It  had been prepared by burning cow dung cakes with some roots.

As the landscape outside changed from villages to farms, I crossed decorated oxen with bejeweled horns and colorful ribbons. And for the ones missing the jewellery, the horns were painted in flamboyant colors to match the color of cart. As the clouds loomed promising of bountiful rains nearby, the farmers were busy preparing for the monsoon, oxen tilling the land. The road passed a bazaar in progress, where men clad in white dhoti and kurta, topped with a Gandhi cap bought and sold cattle and other commodities. An interesting little shop outside sold plain ribbons to more intrinsically woven ox horn decorations.

Badami is a small village at the foot of the hills. Known earlier as Vatapi, the name probably came from the almond color of the hills. Legend has it that the city got its name from the demon brother Vatapi and Ilvala, who used to trick mendicants and kill them, until sage Agatsya came and outsmarted the brothers, thus killing Vatapi and relieving the town of its woes. The man-made lake at the foot of the hills got its name thus ‘Tirtha Agatsya’. Believed once to have healing powers, it is now a place where the women wash clothes.The two hills were named after the demon brothers.

These sandstone rocks at Badami invites climbers from far and wide throughout the year. That is how I had first heard of the place, from a group of climbers. Over the years, natural forces ,and, manmade, alike had carved out caves in these rocks. I sat in one, overlooking the lake cradled between the hills, as a pleasant breeze ruffled my hair.

The sun set and it was soon time for dinner. Difficult to find a better place to eat nearby, I called up my latest acquaintance from the day, an engineering student (Shankar) heading back home, to ask for suggestions. And as a bout of good luck, got invited to his place for breakfast. The morning meal turned out to be an elaborate affair consisting of idli, dosa, puri bhaji and sweet. And while it was enough to last the entire day, his mom invited again for lunch which would have been foolish to turn down. An even grander affair than breakfast, it consisted of a variety of dishes including the Bagalkot specialities of Bajra and Jowar roti which looked more like papad(and was even sold on streets like fried snacks are). The meals, both breakfast and lunch, typically ended with banana. Such a warm welcome in so short an acquaintance! And when it was time to leave, as I touched his parent’s feet, I promised I would come visit them again.

The culture, while so welcoming, has its own unique and sometimes funny aspects of it also. Opposite the Banashankari temple, 5 km from Badami, lay a few days old raft made of the kernel of the banana plant, with a wilted garland on it. Shankar informed that when a child was named, the ceremony consisted of floating the child in the raft from one end of the pond to the other! I tried contemplating the idea, but it didn’t seem very logical to float a baby alone in it. Maybe a boatman accompanied him. 

After Banashankari, Pattadkal looked majestic in the backdrop of dark and heavy clouds, a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site, some 20 odd kilometres from Badami. Famous for its experimentation of temple architecture, it housed 10 major temples belonging to North Indian and Dravidian style of architecture. Etched on the walls of these temples were numerous famous and lesser known stories of Mahabharata, Ramayana, Panchatantra etc.

By the time we came back to Badami, a slight drizzle started. The rain drops created ripples on the Agatsya Tirtha and the washed rocks donned a splendid rich color. A group of young monkeys ,at the base of the cave temples, played catch; while the elder ones watched them. The notice board read ‘Beware of monkeys’, the monkeys did not look in a mood to scare the people, probably, the weather had a pacifying effect on them too!

The rock-cut caves were dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Jain Tirthankaras. It was a marvel how the entire structure was carved out in a single rock and had no joins, way back in the 6th century without any rock cutting equipment. The 18 armed Natraja, the dancing idol of Ganesha, the sitting idol of Anantha Sheshnag are structures unique to Badami. The third cave was the grandest of them all and had traces of rock painting which has weathered away in years.

As the trip came to an end, I sat watching out of the window, dark clouds looming over sugar cane fields. The puncture of the tyres of a vehicle ahead created a traffic jam as other vehicles trying to cut the line added in the confusion. Soon it started pouring, and as the rain drops streaked the bus window, I squinted my eyes, taking in the lovely fields distorted in rains looking no less than a painting!


At the ghats of Narmada

Bhedaghat, on Narmada, is no less than a poetry in itself. One that nature sings. As the clear turquoise blue waters of Narmada flows through the lofty marble cliffs on both the sides, one cannot but fall in love with the serenity and the beauty. The marbles themselves, mixed with volcanic rocks, differ variably in their colors – from pinkish to sparkling white( or Surf Excel white as our boatman calls) to even greyish blue in colour.

On the next morning of my arrival, I set off for the famous boat ride. I had heard of the proclaimed boat ride even before I would come to Bhedaghat. Back in Pachmarhi, as I told the family with whom I shared the jeep safari, the lady beamed at me with sparkle in her eyes, “You’ll love it.” Most of the tourists combine Bhedaghat and Pachmarhi in a single trip, and the family themselves had just come from Bhedaghat.

She wasn’t wrong. The water looked cool and refreshing as I descended down the flights of steps leading to the ghat. Multiple vendors lined them calling to get names written on marble. As I sat in the first boat that ferried that day, and dipped my hands in the water, it felt cool and pleasant, a refuge from the scorching heat of the sun. The boatman was a young jovial guy who was still under training. The entire duration of the boat ride was accompanied by a poem that the boatman recited, as he continued to point out shapes in the marble, recount of movie shoots and joke about abandoning the tourists in the middle of the ride. In fact, the poem and the chirpy nature of the boatman captured us so, that it matched, if not overtook, the beauty of the ride. As an elderly Bengali lady requested the boatman to allow to video shoot the whole thing to take back home, the boatman politely declined, saying that this was their USP. And when the boat ride was almost over, we crossed another boat, with the other boatman shouting the same lines of the sing-a-song description.

A little further from Bhedaghat were the scenic falls of Dhuandhar. As the name suggested, the whole area was ever-engulfed in mist, as the gushing water fells on the rocks. The peaceful and tranquil river had become tumultuous all of a sudden. The water, as it fell, turned a frothy milky white. A cable car took me right above the falls offering a splendid front view even as there were platforms on the edges were so close, that time and again, a gush of wind would carry along the mist and spray it at the overlooking tourists. One such platform was built right over the waters, and as I walked, though knowing that it has carried the weight of thousand tourists, I felt excited and daring.

The major industry there being the marble sculpting industry, the streets were lined with number of shops selling trinkets to  statues of Gods and Goddesses to be worshiped in temples. While the shops near the ghat offered to carve names on marble, the bigger shops had a wide variety and imported marble from as far as Karachi.

No river bank, specially the ones considered holy, can be without its share of temples. Chausath Yoginis (64 female ascetics) temple stood lofty on the banks of Bhedaghat. Built in the 9th-10th century A.D. it was an ode to the 64 yoginis who held command of the 64 forms of art. The particular form of temple, believed to be a part of Tantrism, disappeared more or less over the turn of century. The temple, like numerous other temples, was attacked in the Mughal era, and only 10 idols survived. The temple pujari informed that while there were numerous Shiva temples in the country, devotees came from far and wide to the temple to witness the very rare scene of Shiva and Parvati’s wedding.

My stay at Bhedaghat had come to an end, but I could not get enough of seeing Narmada flow so elegantly. I imagined how dreamy it would be in the boat ride on a moon-lit night, with the moon light reflecting off the white marble rocks. On the brighter side, missing that, only gives me an excuse to visit the beauty of Narmada again!

How to Reach:

Bhedaghat is only 15 kilometres away from Jabalpur. Jabalpur is well-connected to major cities through rail and air. To Bhedaghat, the public transport is not very good. It took me well over 45 minutes. However, if you have to, take the tempo, a larger version of an auto. It’ll save you the waiting time for the bus to fill in ,along with the bother of changing transport.

Where to Stay:

Motel Marble Palace is an excellently located 3 star hotel owned by M P Tourism. While prices are on the higher side, the facilities provided and the lack of better places in the vicinity makes this the obvious choice. The Upper and Lower Circuit houses with the most scenic view in the area are restricted to MPs and ministers, but the guard may let you in. The only catch is you may have to sneak in like a thief after 8 and vacate early morning!

A drive to Divé Aagar

Pune is beautifully located. Surrounded by the famous hill-stations of Mahabaleshwar and Khandala-Lonavla, and the newer Lavasa, and with a number of  dams at Mulshi and Khadakwasla  and forts of Sinhgadh and ShaniwarPeth in it, Pune offers a lot to the travel freaks. However, there are further places to go, when driving through the windy roads of the Western Ghats, crossing through narrow gullies, and numerous fields and tiny villages on the way, is the bigger motive. Divé Aagar gives such a drive a reason.

Divé Aagar lies north of the more famous beaches of Harihareshwar in the Konkan belt. The sand varies from deep ochre to darker-brown-close-to-black. The shore is inhabited by millions of tiny crabs, no more than a few millimeters wide, who while eating their way to make their holes in the sand leave behind brilliant designs. The sizes increase with the affinity to the shore, but they never get bigger than a couple of centimeter.  As we cross, we see a piece of log washed ashore with live goose barnacles.

The shore is easy to miss, after the winding roads to the beach. The road travels parallelly to the shore, while it lies hidden behind the groves of palm and other smaller trees and bushes. The only inkling of a being in the vicinity of the beach, is by the fact that a few vendors sell golas, and a few cars are parked on the otherwise desolate street . The gola may be the most unhygienic of refreshments and drinks, but on a hot day as the ocean wind makes the area humid, nothing refreshes like it does! For the more hygienic option, head down to the shore, where vendors sell coconut water and tangy chats.

The waves are mild and the beach is mostly empty. The beach-stretch is protected by hills on both the sides. Crashing of the waves forms a mild mist throughout the length of the beach. As the waves retreat, they leave behind beautiful patterns in the sand. The stretch is good for a run or enjoying in waters, and if you seek other things to do, head for the camel ride or rent a 4 wheeled scooter for a ride on the beach.

There are a some home-stays and guest houses around, including one run by the MTDC. The restaurant serve traditional Konkan fare. The nearest city is Pune(176) and Mumbai(198), and the drive takes well over 4 hours. But who is complaining when the intention is to get far away from the city life!

Pachmarhi

Day 1

02:00 P.M. : Reach Pachmarhi.

I start in the morning from Bhopal and take a bus to Pipariya, 50 kms from Pachmarhi. Pipariya is the connecting junction to Pachmarhi with the hill station having no railway stations or direct buses to other cities of its own. Jeeps and other taxis, mostly Indica, ply to the colonial hill station through the dense forests of Saputara.

03:00 P.M. : Join a half-day excursion to Dhoopgarh

The best way to travel Pachmadhi is by hiring a safari gypsy. Pachmadhi, though frequented by a large number of tourists over years, most of the tourist spots lie deep in the jungle and do not have pucca roads. These rough-terrain utility vehicles are the most comfortable way to see around while the rolled-up roof offers a complete 360 degrees view of the splendid mountains and jungles.

On the way to Dhoopgarh, see the peak of Nagdwar. Nagdwar is a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. Legend has it that the Lord was once pursued by the demon Bhasmasur who was determined to burn all gods to ashes. The Lord had taken refuge in the cave. When Bhasmasur landed outside this narrow, 100-foot deep cave, Lord Shiva escaped taking the form of a cobra. Today, a naturally-formed idol of a cobra is the presiding deity at Nagdwar, with a small idol of Lord Shiva under it. There are 50 other temples here and can be reached only by trekking. Every year it is frequented by thousands of pilgrims in the season of Nagpanchami, specially from the areas of Vidarbha in Maharashtra.

07:30 P.M. : Return back to the hotel in Pachmarhi and retire for the day

Day 2

06:00 A.M. : Wake up early to the sound of birds and crisp fresh mountain air.

09:00 A.M. : Start for JataShankar.

JataShankar is a naturally formed cave in a deep gorge. The rocks resemble the matted hair(jata) of Shiva, hence the name JataShankar.

10:30 A.M. : Visit the Gupt-Mahadev and Mahadev cave shrines

Both Gupt-Mahadev and Mahadev are shrines of Lord Shiva situated inside caves. While the Mahadev is larger, the Gupt-Mahadev is named so because the entrance is so narrow, it allows only one person to go at a time, making it the “secret” Mahadev temple.

01:00 P.M. : Visit Handi – Koh

The Handi Koh is a view point offering a beautiful sight of the Green Valley. This valley is named Green Valley because of the dense green trees covering it, however, it is spring when I visit. I get a splendid view of a yellow-orange-light green coloured valley. This variety of colours lasts only about 15-20 days.

02:00 P.M. : Visit the Priyadarshini 

 

Priyadarshini

Day 3

09:00 A.M. : Start the safari for the day. Visit Pandav Gufa. 

10:00 A.M. : Visit the Silver falls and Apsara falls.

The pool at the base of the Apsara falls forms a nice swimming area. During colonization, British ladies used to visit the fall to bathe. They looked like Apsara-angels to the locals who named it the Apsara fall. Interestingly, after the shoot of song sequence by Kareena for the movie Ashoka, the fall is also now knows as the Kareena fall

03:00 P.M. : Visit the Bee-fall.

Named so because of its sound like a swarm of bees and the stinging it creates as it falls on the skin, it supplies drinking water to the town of Pachmarhi.

05:30 P.M. : Go to Reechgadh

The Reachgadh gets its name from the touching of two cliffs(gadh-hills) at the top, looking like reaching out to each other. The area forms a rock shelter and has caves inside it.

Day 4

09:00 A.M. : Leave for Pipariya