Long Drive, Vibrant Nature, and Chatty People

This is nature’s special prize of encouragement for waking up this early on a cold foggy morning. That’s what I told my friend who was reluctant to get out of bed and whose eyes now sparkled with amazement observing the activities of our common object of interest – the confident little green spider.

It warmed our hearts to watch the tiny spider busily clean her web with such dedicated patience and loving care. Dew drops scattered all over the silver strands was an immediate threat to her proud artistic home. She walked delicately, strand to strand, through her lacework home, meticulously picking up every single dew drop with her mouth and spiting that out. We had never seen something like this before. It was phenomenal and will certainly count as one of the best things we’ve seen in our lives.

Pic 1: An elegant lacework home designed with artistic precision.
Pic 2: Spider webs were everywhere, some of them right on our path and barely visible in the morning light. We had to be extra cautious so as to not walk through them. These pictures were clicked only after the sun came out.

My friend and I had sneaked out at dawn to take a walk right through the coffee plantation. We were at Sakleshpur and had put up at this coffee estate for the night. My cousin sister and brother-in-law, who were with us too, were still asleep. They were visiting me in Bangalore, and we had stepped out for an impromptu roadtrip along the countryside. We chose Sakleshpur to halt for the night.

Pic 3: Coffee beans being dried in the sun (L) and fresh on the plant (R).

Tucked away in the Hassan district of Karnataka, Sakleshpur is a small hill station whose slopes remain covered with tea, coffee, and spice plantations. Just 220 Km. from Bangalore Sakleshpur, with its rolling green hills coupled with its peace and quiet, provides the perfect balm to a tired mind. There are several resorts and hiking trails making it quite a sought-after weekend destination from Bangalore. Most resorts are isolated surrounded by sprawling coffee estates. As a result, the place doesn’t feel crowded at all. The best part for us was that we were the only guests at our resort. Among the various hiking trails of Sakleshpur, the Railway Trek is most famous. However, during this trip we hadn’t planned for hikes and treks.

Pic 4: Somewhere in the highway.

It was a bright and sunny December morning as we comfortably drove through the smooth roads of NH 75 highway. We had some amazing Mangalorean breakfast at a roadside pitstop, stopped for clicking pictures wherever we felt like, and just enjoyed the drive. As we left the highway and passed through villages, it was the charming traditional houses with Mangalore tiled roofs that stole our hearts and engaged us all through.

On the way, we spent some time at the ruins of the famous Shettilhali Rosary Church, located in a village by the same name – Shettilhali. The church was built by French missionaries in the 1860s and was abandoned in the 1960s after a dam was built on the Hemavati River. Known as the Floating Church, it is a stunning example of Gothic-style architecture. As the water level rises in the dam, the church gets submerged underwater and once again emerges when the water recedes post monsoon. That’s the speciality of this dilapidated church, one that gives it an eerie charm.

It was winters, a time when the church supposedly stands on land. However, we got lucky. Due to heavy rains this year, the church was partially submerged in water. It was almost noon and the blue waters surrounding the church glittered and sparkled. It looked hauntingly beautiful!

Pic 6: The abandoned Shettilhali Rosary Church on the blue waters of Hemavati River.
Pic 7: The partially submerged Shettilhali Rosary Church up close.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at our resort after having roamed around the quaint little market area of Sakleshpur. Soon it was evening, the sun had started moving towards the horizon. We walked up to a particular spot in the resort, which the resort owner claimed as the best place to watch the setting sun. Once we were up there my friend spotted a sprawling green grassy meadow somewhere in the distant. He insisted that would be a better sunset spot. So off we went! My sister and brother-in-law decided to stay back. We gladly left them behind, hoping that they could enjoy some uninterrupted romantic sunset moments.

The meadow was stunningly beautiful. Tall grasses swayed in the mild wind while the sky got busy unfolding its own drama with all shades of yellows, reds, and oranges. Overlooking the meadow lay a deep valley, beyond which soared a tree covered hill that was as broad as it was tall. It was only shades of green as far as the eyes could see. It was the perfect setting for a quiet peaceful evening.

Sadly, I don't have any pictures of the beautiful meadow. My friend's phone broke down, which had all the pictures.
Pic 8: A not-so-great picture of the beautiful sunset.

Darkness had fallen by the time we left the meadow and walked back to the resort. We spent the rest of the evening talking, laughing, and sharing our life stories around a bonfire that kept us warm with our favourite music playing in the background. Dinner was quite filling with several items laid out on the table. Our conversations continued well beyond dinner and before we realized it was already late. About time we retired for the night. We needed a few hours of rest. An exciting day, packed with other plans awaited us.

Pic 8: One for my precious people – the energetic and fun loving group.

The next day, we visited the ancient exquisitely sculptured temples of Belur and Heleebidu. On the way, we also stopped by the star-shaped Manjarabad Fort that was built by Tipu Sultan, which is also located in Sakleshpur. The fort can be accessed after a climb of 150 steps. As we were pressed for time, my friend and I rushed up and hurriedly checked out the fort. My sister and brother-in-law thought they’d rather skip the fort than rush through it. Moreover, dashing up through the steps wasn’t something they wanted to try.

I sure have to visit Sakleshpur once again with more time in hand with the hikes and the treks waiting to be explored.

The Spiritual City of Tiruvannamalai

It was nearly 9.00 PM when we arrived. After asking a passerby for direction, the driver of our car took a turn, and we entered a narrow lane. I felt an instant sense of calm. Thinking that my mind was being unnecessarily dramatic, I ignored the feeling. I could have been under some cognitive bias, but the feeling was intense. I had to blurt it out to my sister, sitting right next to me. It surprised me quite a bit when she acknowledged my feeling stating that she felt the same.

Through the car window, we could see a hill reaching out to the night sky. It appeared really close, as if we could stretch our hands and touch it. That has to be the sacred Arunachala, we thought. And, so it was!

Pic 1: Arunachala Hill

We had just reached Tiruvannamalai, located in the state of Tamil Nadu, after covering a distance of about 215 Km. from Bangalore. It was the last day of the year 2020 and this wasn’t a planned trip, though Tiruvannamalai has been in our travel list for a while now. Our only intention of wanting to visit this place was Sri Ramana Maharish’s Ashram. The ancient temple town, however, gave us much more.

Here are some highlights of our Tiruvannamalai trip on the weekend that ushered the year 2022.

Girivalam around Arunachala Hill

The holy city of Tiruvannamalai is located at the foothills of Arunachala Hill. Considered to be sacred and revered by Hindus in South India, the hill is also known as Annamalai, Arunagiri, Arunachalam, Arunai, Sonagiri, and Sonachalam. At a height of about 3000ft., located in Eastern Ghats, the hill with five peaks is believed to be the living manifestation of Lord Shiva.

Girivalam or circumambulation around the hill barefoot for a 14 Km. distance is common practice by devotees. We had no idea about this ritual but decided to participate when we learnt about it (you can read the details here).

Pic 2: Girivalam on the paved road around Arunachala Hill.

Recently, I also learnt about Karthigai Deepam, a special festival performed on the tenth day of the month of Kartik (November–December). On this day an enormous pot filled with gallons of ghee mixed with camphor is placed on the highest of Arunachala’s five peaks. Devotees light a fire precisely at 6.00 PM creating a giant flame, the glow of which is visible from miles around.

Hurried Visit to Arunachaleswar Temple

Early morning at 4.30 AM on New Year we found ourselves at Arunachaleswar Temple, also known as Annamalaiyar Temple. Thinking that the temple would be crowded, we had kept it as an optional visit. Our purpose was Girivalam, the starting point of which was the temple. Also, we did not know the significance of this age-old temple at that point of time.

The temple appeared quite empty and so we decided to pay our obeisance. Once inside, it was quite the opposite and we found ourselves stuck in a queue that took up a little more than two hours. The bigger concern, however, was that most people were not wearing masks.

Pic 3: A part of the large water tank at the temple.
Pic 4: Some hurriedly clicked pictures inside the temple.

Dating back to 9th century, the temple spreads across an area of 25 acres. It was built by the Chola Dynasty and expanded during the Vijayanagar period. The presiding deity is Lord Shiva, known as Arunachaleswar or Annamalaiyar and Goddess Parvati, known as Unnamalai Amman. The temple has several other deities as well.

There are four Gopurams (towered gateways, typical of temples in South India), the eastern one or Raja Gopuram being the tallest at a height of 217 ft. with 11 stories. Several pillared halls and a large tank are the other highlights of the temple. However, with our time constraint, we couldn’t explore much.

Pic 5: Raja Gopuram, the largest of the four gopurams located in the East.
Peace at Sri Ramanashram

Having read about Ramana Maharishi in several spiritual books, we were very keen to visit his ashram, and that was our primary objective of visiting Tiruvannamalai. Known as Sri Ramanasramam, this is where the saint had lived for more than three decades. The ashram is situated at the foot of Arunachala Hill and it houses his samadhi as well. We spent a couple of hours at the ashram on both the days, meditating in peace, soaking in the hymns and chants, and visiting the ashram bookstore.

Pic 6: Entrance gate of Sri Ramanashram
Pic 7: The main complex at Ramanashram.
Pic 6: A section of Ramanashram.

We were also very keen to hike up Arunachala Hill to visit Virupaksha cave and Skandasramam, where Ramana Maharishi had spent a significant time meditating. Somewhere up the hill one can also get a great view of the huge Arunachaleswarar Temple complex in its entirety. A misinformation led us to think that both these places were temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Hiking up the hill would have most certainly been the highlight of my trip, but we missed. I just have to go again!

Pic 7: Pictures from inside Ramanashram
Pic 8: A Peacock happily lives in the ashram complex.
Special Mentions

There are several other ashrams and temples at Tiruvannamalai. Besides Sri Ramanasramam, we visited Yogi Ramsuratkumar Ashram and Sri Seshadri Swamigal Ashram.

This post on Tiruvannamalai will, however, remain incomplete without mentioning our lunch at Prasad’s Home Kitchen. It constitutes pure satvik vegetarian food cooked in Mr. Prasad’s home. There is no menu, and you eat what he cooks on a given day. You sit on the marbled floor and place the plate on a plastic stool. There are no table, no chairs, no frills, no fancy, minimalism at its very best.  At Rs. 120.00 per plate, I can easily say it’s the best vegetarian food I have had in a long, long time. Being a regular traveler, I can vouch for that! Oh yes, after the meal you wash and clean your own plates too. If you’re at Tiruvannamalai, you wouldn’t want to miss this experience.

Pic 9: The heavenly vegetarian and homely food at Prasad’s Home Kitchen.

The Grace of ‘Girivalam’

The first day of 2022…

“Are you planning Girivalam on the first day of 2022?”, enquired my friend when I told him that my sister and I were considering a visit to Tiruvannamalai on the New Year weekend. I had never heard about Girivalam before. Not surprising as I come from East India, so what if I have lived in Bangalore for more than a decade now. I am not aware of all the traditions and customs of South India. And, though I am deeply spiritual, I am not as much religious. My sister and I were just thinking of visiting Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram or Ramanashram, which we have been wanting to do for a while now.

Pic 1: There were several ponds along the Girivalam path, this is one of those.

Tiruvannamalai is an ancient temple town in Tamil Nadu situated at the foot of Arunachala Hill, a low rocky hill rising to a height of about 3000 feet. Believed to be the living manifestation of Lord Shiva, Arunachala has been mentioned in several ancient texts including the Puranas. Besides Arunachala, the temple town is famous for Annamalaiyar Temple and Ramanashram. There are several other ashrams and temples as well.

When we set out for Tiruvannamalai, our main interest was Ramanashram. However, now that I have completed Girivalam, it feels as significant as my experience at the ashram.

Pic 2: A huge Banyan Tree somewhere along the Girivalam route.

Girivalam (for the uninitiated, like me) is the age-old practice of circumambulation around the sacred Arunachala. In Tamil, ‘giri’ means mountain and ‘valam’ means to circle. It involves a walk of about 14 Km. around the sacred hill. A visit to Tiruvannamalai is considered incomplete without Girivalam. My sister and I decided to go for it. I enjoy walking anyway. The usual practice is to perform Girivalam on full moon nights, but it can be done anytime. Practically, the hot weather conditions of Tamil Nadu would make it quite difficult to perform Girivalam during the day. Ideally the walk is done barefoot.

It was Winter Season and first day of the year 2022. We embarked upon Girivalam around 6.30 AM, after paying our obeisance at the Annamalaiyar Temple, also known as Arunachalesvara Temple. The cool January day was even cooler with a light breeze and sporadic light showers. The weather was clearly on our side, a blessing from Arunachala.  

Pic 3: The tree-lined Girivalam Road. There’s a broad sidewalk too but in most places it remains occupied by Sadhus leaving people to walk on the road itself.

We started walking on the asphalt road that surrounds the hill, like most people do. There’s a way through the wilderness too at the base of the hill, but it cannot be done unless you’re with someone who knows the way. A large part of the road is through tree-lined roads with forests on either side. A part of it passes through the highway too. Some sections of the road is also flanked by surrounding villages. All through the road vehicles ply continuously, which isn’t a pleasant experience, but you don’t need to be worried about being run down as the drivers are cognizant of all the Girivalam walkers.

A large section of the path does have a broad paved sidewalk, which makes it easier to walk. Dozens of temples line the route. The most prominent of them are the eight lingams or asthalingams, that pilgrims stop by on the way. Each lingam signifies different directions of the earth. They are as Indralingam, Agnilingam, Yamalingam, Niruthilingam, Varunalingam, Vayulingam, Kuberlingam and Esanyalingam.

Pic 4: A visual map of the Girivalam route, present at regular intervals, provides guidance to the devotees and walkers.

There were several people walking that day, but it wasn’t crowded. Nevertheless, we made sure we had our N-95 masks on all through the way. I believe the crowd would swell on full moon nights or during specific festivals. Walking barefoot wasn’t an easy task, given that we aren’t used to it. The gravel and other particles on the road prick your soles and your feet invariably starts paining. After a certain distance, the pain in my sister’s feet heightened and she was unable to take another step. We bought a pair of thick socks from a shop that was just opening its shutters. The socks provided much needed relief and she was able to continue with the walk.

Pic 5: The sacred Arunachala partially hidden in the clouds.

The majestic and divine view of Arunachala from various angles kept us going. We walked at our own pace, slow and steady. After a while, the pain in the feet didn’t bother us anymore and we started to enjoy the walk. We stopped once at a temple where a local family was offering food to the pilgrims. It was fresh and hot home cooked food. Nothing could have been a better breakfast than this. The second time we paused was halfway through, craving for a cup of tea to recharge and refresh. After walking for 4.5 hours, we were back at the temple entrance, where we had started walking, completing our circumambulation around Arunachala.

Pic 6: Several such colourful temples and ashrams can be seen all through the Girivalam route.

Arunachala is captivating to say the least and it grows on you. Back at Bangalore, the visuals of the hill from the various angles keep flashing in my memory. I am certain that I will go back. And, in case I decide to perform Girivalam again, I’ll make sure it’s on a full moon night. Some experiences are extraordinary that have no logical explanation and Girivalam is certainly one of those.

Someone at Tiruvannamalai told us that Arunachala is like a magnet. If you come here once, you come here several times. Guess he was right!

Reminiscing 2021

The Year That Was

It’s difficult to believe that we are at the last day of 2021 and here I am writing my usual year end post. It feels like we blinked, and all the 365 days of this year got over. Though I must admit that this is exactly how it feels every single year.

The first thing that comes to mind as I reflect upon the year that’s gone by is that my writing and blogging effort has been below average. That doesn’t make me feel good at all. Well, let me take a pause and focus on things that makes me feel good instead.

  1. The year 2021 had started off with an unplanned trip to Horsley Hills, which happened on the very first day of the year.  Horsley Hills is located in Andhra Pradesh and is a great place for a day trip or a short weekend trip.
  2. Amidst all the things that kept me busy, I maintained my focus on health and well-being. Thankfully there hasn’t been any lag on that front. I continued with my routine yoga, meditation, and jogging sessions. In fact, I believe that I have gained greater focus and concentration during my daily meditations. I have also doubled my meditation time.
  3. The highlight of this year, however, has to be my trip to Varanasi and Lucknow. It has been a memorable trip for reasons more than one. Most importantly, I took my father’s remains to Varanasi to immerse in River Ganga. He always wanted to visit the holy city, but it eluded him and he could never make it. Hence, we decided to immerse his ashes there. A very special friend accompanied me, making it a very special trip. The entire event, right from planning to execution, happened in a way like it was pre-ordained. We spent 5 beautiful days in Varanasi. We also visited Lucknow, where we stayed for 3 days.
  4. I did three local hikes exploring ruined forts in and around Bangalore – Hutridurga, Gudibande, and Gummanayaka. No Himalayas this year, which I do miss. Sometimes in the corner of my heart I feel there may not be many more Himalayan treks for me, but I’ll let time decide on that.
  5. Circumstances led to my cousin and brother-in-law visiting me twice this year in Bangalore. They happen to be my favourite relatives. Both the visits were related to medical reasons, but we did end up having a lot of fun too. We even made a short family trip to Mysore. I cannot be grateful enough for having spent such quality family time.
  6. I have always wanted to drive around in the outskirts of Bangalore but neither do I own a car nor do I know how to drive. So, I always land up hiring a chauffeur-driven car. This time my long-standing wish was fulfilled when we went on a on a roadtrip to Sakleshpur with my brother-in-law and my friend taking turns behind the wheels. During this trip, we also visited the famous Belur and Halebidu Temples.
  7. This year has blessed me with the opportunity to teach a few underprivileged kids, something I have wanted to do for a very long time. The four kids have enriched my life in ways more than one. I look forward to my time with them and it’s a lot of fun.

That’s quite a list and it does make me feel quite elated right now. However, life is not just roses and here are a few things that haven’t been so pleasant this year.

  1. I could not visit my Shillong home this year and neither could I attend my father’s first year death anniversary. All thanks to how non-tribals (especially Bengalis) are alienated in Meghalaya and made to feel like outsiders in their own home. I will not go into the details as I don’t want to, and the rest of my countrymen cannot relate to it. But all of this has seriously injured the immense love I had for my hometown, the city of my birth, and where I spent all my growing up years.
  2. The beginning of this year found me seriously ill, all because of a wrong treatment that I can easily attribute to the pandemic. I became well eventually but landed up with a permanent damage on two of my front teeth.
  3. My WordPress activity has come down drastically and I need to make amends sooner than later. I can blame this on nothing but myself. Blogging has given me so much, most importantly connected me to such wonderful people, and I don’t want to take that for granted ever.

Though New Year is just another day like every other day but let’s hold on the belief that we’re ushering in something new, which gives us hope and something to look forward to. A warm hug and goodbye to 2021. As I step into 2022, I pray to the Almighty is to guide my steps to be able to comprehend myself a little better so that I can make those positive changes towards becoming a better a version of myself.

Temple Tales From Belur

I used to hear people rave about the marvelous architecture of the Hoysala Temples of Somnathpur, Belur, and Halebidu. The nature-lover in me didn’t pay much heed to all that until I visited Somnathpur last year. The stunning architectural brilliance of the Chennakesava Temple was beyond all my imagination. My mind was all set to explore the Belur and Halebidu temples. It was last week that I could finally visit these two places.

Pic 1: Exquisite carvings of Gods and Goddesses on the temple exterior.

My cousin sister and brother-in-law were visiting me in Bangalore when we went on an impromptu road-trip to Sakleshpur. On the way back we planned to visit the twin towns of Belur and Halebidu, as all these places are within a few kilometers of each other. Located in the Hassan district of Karnataka, the twin towns are nestled on the banks of River Yagachi. Famous for their 12th century temples, Belur and Halebidu are approximately 200 Km away from Bangalore making them perfect destinations for day trips from the city.

Pic 2: This sculpture, one on either side of the main doorway depicts Sala, the founder of Hoysala dynasty, slaying a tiger.

It’s a common experience that a place loses its appeal when a lot is talked about it. The hype created around it falls flat when you actually experience it for yourself. I would have kept my expectations low had I not seen the Somnathpur Temple. I was certain though that Belur and Halebidu Temples wouldn’t disappoint. And, so it was! They stood up to their reputation and exceeded my expectations by several measures. I wouldn’t hesitate to claim that these are among the most impressive temples in India.

I will restrict this post to Belur and write about Halebidu separately.

Pic 3: Notice the three rows of elephants, lions and horses at the base. There are 642 elephants and no two elephants are the same.

Often referred to as Belur Temple, the actual name of the temple is Chennakeshava Temple. ‘Chennakesava’, literally means ‘handsome Kesava’, Kesava being another name for Lord Vishnu. Built in 1117 A.D., it took 103 years and over three generations to complete the temple. The temple is well-preserved and is considered to be the best of the 92 Hoysala temples in Karnataka. It is a functional temple with the main deity being Lord Vijayanarayana, one of the many avatars of Lord Vishnu.

Pic 4: A carving of Narasimha, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who was the family God of Hoysala Dynasty.

The elegant sculptures on the temple walls and ceilings are a true testimony to the unimaginable ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Hoysala Dynasty. Such creativity is unthinkable in today’s era. One almost starts questioning the pride and arrogance we display over our technological advancements and the human progress we believe we have made. Each and every stone has stories weaved through the detailed and intricate carvings. Words can never do justice to the sheer mastery of the artisans who transformed these ordinary stones into architectural marvels.

The artwork at Belur Temple is divided into two sections. The first half is social while the second half is religious or spiritual. It’s important to avail the services of a Guide to understand the details of the various artwork and we did that for a fee of Rs.450.

Pic 5: The temple Gopuram in the background, which was constructed later.

Typical of the Hoysala architecture, the temple is hoisted on a star-shaped platform. Built of soapstone, no binding material has been used to construct the temple and the stones are sort of assembled and locked into one another.

The outer walls are lined with sculptures depicting stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Upanishads. The base is carved into a row of 642 elephants. No two elephants are the same and each carving is perfect to the smallest detail. Elephants symbolize stability. Above this is a row of lions and then a row of horses. The former symbolizes courage and the latter strength. (Pic 3 and Pic 6).

Pic 6: The intricate detailing on every slab of stone is mindboggling.

There are 40 carvings of celestial nymphs or Madanikas in the exterior, each displaying various Bharatnatyam postures. These carvings are supposedly inspired by Shantala Devi, the Queen of Vishnuvardhana, who was an exemplary Bharatnatyam dancer. The unfathomable imagination of the artisans who created these Madanikas are sure to take your breath away and each one is associated with a unique story of its own. The elaborate artworks of these Madanikas makes you feel like they can just pop into life at any moment. An interesting feature that stands out is that certain sculptors have left behind their signatures engraved in the stone.

Pic 7: Some of the Madanikas. The one at the center is the most famous and is known as ‘Darpana Sundari’
Pic 8: The Madanikas again from a different angle. There are 40 of them.

Overlooking the various entrances of the temple are ornamental horizontal works of art, one where Lord Vishnu is depicted as Narasimha, another where Lord Vishnu is with his consort Goddess Lakshmi. Inside the temple are 48 pillars, each one is unique in its carvings and design. The Narasimha Pillar is worth mentioning and can be easily spotted with the vermillion marks all over it. Back in the years, this pillar could be rotated due to the presence of ball bearings on the top.

Pic 9: The pillars inside the temple. There are 48 of them, each with a unique design. On the extreme right is Narasimha Pillar, which used to rotate earlier. This pillar is also treated as a deity.

In the temple courtyard is the Mahasthamba or the Gravity Pillar. This is a 42 feet pillar, built out of a single stone and stands without a base being held in place just by the force of gravity. Also, in the temple courtyard is a big tank known as Vishnu Samudra, the water of which is perhaps used for temple rituals. Small turtles and fishes swim around happily live in this tank. Sadly, I do not have pictures of the tank and Gravity Pillar. I just didn’t click. [Most of these pics are not clicked by me, credit to my bro-in-law]

It’s impossible to capture the details of the temple through the limitations of words and vocabulary. This architectural marvel appeals to the senses, something that and can only be experienced.

Pic 10: One of the other temple entrances that remain closed now.
How did we get here?
We rented a self-drive car and drove from Bangalore to Sakleshpur. On the way back from Sakleshpur, we followed Google Maps to direct us to Belur.

The Residency – A Surprise Find at Lucknow

I quite enjoy cycle rickshaw rides as opposed to my friend and travel companion, who thinks it’s not right to let a frail man (most of the rickshaw pullers are frail) lug our combined weight. We’re contributing to his livelihood, is what I think. The slow pace of a cycle rickshaw is a great way to get a feel of the busy streets of any Indian City.

We were in Lucknow and just strolling around in the Hazratganj Market area, with no particular agenda in mind. A random conversation with a shopkeeper when he mentioned some park by Gomti River that we should visit. He meant Gomti Riverfront Park, which we realized much later. But, at that time we misunderstood and conveyed something to our rickshaw puller, who dropped us at Shaheed Smarak Park.

Pic 1: The Shaheed Smarak, built as a tribute to soldiers who lost their lives in the First War of Independence against the East India Company in 1857.

When we made the payment, the rickshaw puller told us that instead of this place, we might want to walk a few meters in the road opposite and go to another park. He claimed we would really like it. And that’s how we landed up at The Residency. Maintained by ASI (Archeological Survey of India), it is also known as the British Residency and constitutes a cluster of ruined buildings in one enclosure.

Pic 2: A brief about The Residency at the entrance.

The Residency is associated with Seige of Lucknow that had happened in the 1857 rebellion, The Sepoy Mutiny or The First War of Independence against the British Empire. It’s ironical though that the Residency was built by Nawab Asaf Ud-Daulah in the 1700s to house the British Resident General, who was a representative in his court. Spread across an area of 33 acre, it was the largest inhabited British colony in the Awadh region and several British officials lived here.

Pic 3: The Baillie Guard Gate, which still serves as the main entry gate to the complex.
Pic 4: The Main Building, used to be three-storeyed, was the residence of Sir Henry Lawrence. Atop now flutters the Tricolour. Notice the marks of canon balls that is clearer in the featured photo.

The shattered walls bearing gaping holes of cannon shots inside this residential complex are tell-tale signs of the siege. There are detailed descriptions outside most of the structures that give a sneak peek into what had happened during that time. One of the buildings is converted into museum that includes items like, inscriptions, old photographs, paintings, actual letters, guns, swords, cannons, and a model of the Residency.

Pic 5: The Memorial Museum with two large cannons in front.

Apart from the museum, here are some of the other ruined structures that we saw:

Baillie Guard Gate: Constructed by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan to give the First Resident, Colonel John Baillie a special Guard of Honour.

The Treasury: Severely damaged two-storyed structure that was used to manufacture and store cartridges.

Pic 6: The Treasury

Bhojshala or Banquet Hall: Built by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan to welcome British expatriates and distinguished guests, its grandeur with high ceilings, elaborate hallways, and intricate carvings will draw your attention instantly. At the entrance stood a fountain on a grand marble floor, a clear indication of the opulent gatherings of those times.

Pic 7: The Bhojshala or Banquet Hall. I have no idea why I didn’t click pictures of the inside, including the fountain and the kitchen!

Doctor Fayrer’s House: Dr. Fayrer was the chief surgeon of The Residency. This structure was used as a hospital to treat the injured and also a safe house to shield the women and children during the siege. (I couldn’t find a picture of this one, looks like I didn’t click one.)

The Main Building: A three-storeyed structure that served as the residence of Sir Henry Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of Awadh. On top of this building now flutters the tricolor Indian flag. In front of this building is the huge memorial cross, dedicated to Sir Henry Lawrence.

Pic 8: The huge memorial cross, dedicated to Sir Henry Lawrence.

Beyond the above, there are several other structures in the complex that we could not visit due to lack of time. The complex closes at 5 PM and we were asked to leave. The place can easily take up half a day if you want to explore it well.

Back at the hotel that night, we did a little more research to learn about the structures we had missed. Among them, three of them stood out. Begum Kothi, Mosque and Imambara, and the Church and Cemetery. Begum Kothi belonged to Vilayati Begum, a foreigner married to Nawab Naseeruddin Haider. After the death of Vilayati Begum, the Mosque and Imambara were built by her sister as a memory. The ruined church was used as a food-storage house during the siege. The surrounding graveyard is said to have graves of 2000 men, women and children, including that of Sir Henry Lawrence.

Thankful to our rickshaw puller. Had it not been for him, we wouldn’t have known about The Residency.

Benaras Revisited

CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT

Life is unpredictable. Don’t we all know that! Yet we land up spending a lot of energy seeking permanence and familiarity. Consciously aware of the fleeting impermanence of everything around us, we still have this innate tendency to cling on to our pasts. In fact, it’s the unpredictability of life that makes it exciting and beautiful. What a monotone life would otherwise have been!

The world around us does its bit of continually reminding us of the fact that nothing lasts forever. We are just unable to internalize it. Last week, I spent five days at Benaras when River Ganges ascertained that I resonate with this thought of change being the only constant.

Pic 1: A section of Darbhanga Ghat clicked in 2019.
Pic 2: The same Darbhanga Ghat in 2021 (clicked on the third day when the water had receded a bit)

This was my second visit to the Spiritual Capital of India. The purpose of my visit this time was particularly special too. It was in 2019 that I had first visited the holy city, just before the pandemic.

The wonderful experience of the city had been etched in my memory forever. It was Christmas time in the month of December. There was no Sun and the days were very cold. The weather was least of our concern though. The long walks through the ghats, maneuvering through the confusing galis (narrow lanes and by-lanes) particularly around Bangali Tola, soaking in the divinity of the evening aarti, observing the crowd and contemplating on our perception of their quirkiness, gorging on the best of the street food, and the best chai in the world, are things that still bring a warm glow to my heart.  

Pic 3: A section of Panchganga Ghat clicked in 2019.
Pic 4: The same Panchganga Ghat in 2021. (clicked on the third day when the water had receded a bit)

With that mental picture in my mind, I found myself swiftly alighting the steps of Dasheshwamedh Ghat. I couldn’t wait to walk through the ghats (centuries old riverside stops). R, my photographer friend, was my travel companion in this trip and this was his first visit to the city. I had already talked enough and more about my previous Benaras experience. The anticipation building up in the past few days was at its peak now, and I couldn’t wait for R to experience it all. But why do things appear to be a little different this time? The ghat seemed to be smaller and more congested than how I had seen it. I tried to look around and walked towards one corner of the ghat in the hope of hopping over to the next ghat, but I couldn’t find a way.

Soon enough the story unfolded. River Ganga was overflowing due to water released from two dams in Allahabad, all because of a cloudburst up North. The ghats were inundated and large portions remained submerged. As a result, there was no connectivity between the ghats. One could access the different ghats only through the road. The essence of Benaras was totally lost and I am not exaggerating. If you have experienced walking through the ghats in Benaras, you’d exactly understand what I mean.

Pic 5: Just before Panchganga Ghat clicked in 2019
Pic 6: The same structure just before Panchganga Ghat in 2021. (clicked on the third day when the water had receded a bit)

I was distraught and visibly upset. As I reasoned with myself, I wondered how could I think that the ghats would always remain just how I had first seen them! Water levels in a river is always subject to change. What made me think that I would experience it just the same way. I could do nothing but accept the present situation and go with the flow. This encounter was certainly going to be different. And, sure enough the enriched experience this time was only because it wasn’t the same as the last time.

As they say – live in the present instead of dwelling in the past because only the present exists. But do we really learn!

Chasing Ruins – Gummanayaka Fort

“You guys carry on, I’ll wait here.” I was certain I would slip on the mammoth rock that appeared as smooth as butter and seemed quite steeply inclined too. My shoes didn’t have a good grip and I was taking no chances. Moreover, stepping onto the rock from where I stood would be another task altogether, given my rather short height and consequently short legs. S and A were, however, not leaving me behind at any cost. I relented only after a lot of assurances and some bit of cajoling too. All of this turned out to be unnecessary when we discovered on the way back that there were well laid out steps all the way to the top. The steps remained hidden because of the tall bushes that had grown all around.

Pic 1: Entrance through the first gate leads to a second one, beyond which is a temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. The temple seemed to have been recently renovated.

Earlier that day, we were at Gudibande Fort. Thereafter, an impromptu decision found us heading straight to Bagepalli in the hope of exploring Gummanayaka Fort. We had no plans of visiting this place. In fact, we didn’t even know that it existed. It was purely by chance that a friend happened to notice it on Google Maps the day before and had casually mentioned it to me. The pictures looked impressive and when I mentioned it to S and A, they readily agreed. Quick research on the spot and we learnt that we needed to go to a village named Gummanayakana Palya.

Pic 2: Hints of Indo-Islamic architecture in the ruined structures. This was in the open area just outside the temple complex. Scattered ruins lay around all over this area.
Pic 3: We climbed up the structure in Pic 2 through a narrow cemented staircase.

The drive towards the village was characterized by large stretches of wilderness on either side of a well tarred road. Empty lands covered by green shrubs, dotted with boulders of various shapes, and tiny hillocks greeted us most of the way. For most of the road there was no settlement at all. After a long stretch, some signs of civilization started appearing. We were about 10 Km. away from the village when we had to take a left turn into a smaller road. Right there, was a tiny tea shop where we learnt that there would be no shops beyond this point. It was well beyond lunch time by then. On enquiry, we got to know of a place in the immediate vicinity where a lady sells Rice-RasamSambar. We decided to pack the food and at a shockingly cheap price of just Rs.110 for three plates. And, it was piping hot! Oh, she gave us some curd too.

Pic 4: Somewhere at the base of the hill in the open area outside the temple.
Pic 5: Ruins lay all around.

Soon, we arrived at the village. The quaint village had just a few huts and it looked charmingly tiny. We curbed our interest to explore the village in the larger interest of exploring the fort. It had started to drizzle by then. The fort was standing majestically right in front of us, but we couldn’t locate the entry point. Not knowing the local language only added to our difficulty. It took us a little while before we figured out the entrance. The entrance gate took us by surprise. It was truly impressive compared to the other two forts we had recently explored. This was the third ruined fort we were visiting in the outskirts of Bangalore over two consecutive weekends. It had started with Hutridurga just the previous week.

Just beyond the entry gate was a temple that had a huge carving of Hanumanji on a stone wall. Beyond this temple was an empty area that has ruins scattered all around. The fort could be seen on top of a hillock that we would have to climb. The soft drizzle had intensified, and it had started to rain. We continued walking towards the base of the hill in the hope that the fort could provide shelter from the rain, if required. The ruined structures all around beckoned us but that had to wait, and we would explore them on our way back.

Pic 6: Large boulders lay precariously as if ready to slide down on the slightest nudge. The first picture is a part of the mammoth rock.

The rains stopped by the time we reached near the mammoth rock. There was another temple up here at the base of the mammoth rock. Here we found a nice little comer to sit down and have our lunch of Rice-RasamSambar. Surprisingly, it was still warm. The delightsome ambrosial feeling cannot be replicated even in the best of restaurants, which goes without saying though!

A had already started climbing and exploring the butter-smooth mammoth rock while S and I were finishing off our food. We could see the walls of the fort towards the upper edge of this huge rock. Once I started climbing up, I realized that the rock wasn’t as smooth as it looked and the roughness made for quite an easy climb. I had panicked unnecessarily. However, I did cling on to A all the way up. It was nothing more than a mental block.

Pic 7: The largest of the five lakes we saw from the top. We could see that the lake was easily accessible from the road nearby but we ran out of time to go and explore it.
Pic 8: A portion of the fort wall from the top and another one of the five lakes we saw from the top.

As we reached up, we found ourselves on a sort of a plateau formed by the top of the mammoth rock, supported by other huge rocks. The ample open space provided the perfect place to sit and laze around. And, we did just that in the accompaniment of mildly strong winds, a cloudy sky, and gorgeous views. There was nobody other than the three of us. What more could we ask for! We could see five lakes below. At least one of them was quite large. We ran out of time and promised to come back and explore the lake and the village another day.

Gummanayaka Fort surpassed our expectations in ways more than one. We definitely have to go back another time with more time in hand.

Chasing Ruins – Gudibande Fort

It was nearly two months that S was here, but we were yet to meet up. Both of us were occupied with something or the other and we could never make it. This weekend we were determined to make it happen. I had met S during the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, where we had shared a tent together. It was an instant connect. Subsequently, she even visited my home in Shillong. S is quite an inspirational woman. She left her high-profile corporate job to follow her dreams and went on to set up her own homestay at Manali. It’s quite a story and guess I should write about it. Meanwhile check out her fabulous homestay, Firdaws. I haven’t been there yet, but the Instagram pictures are drool-worthy!

We decided to do go for a hike together instead of the usual meeting at a café or in our homes. I just suggested Gudibande Fort and that was it. A joined us too. A and I had just been to Hutridurga the previous weekend.

About 100 Km away from Bangalore, Gudibande is a small town located in Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka. It’s very close to Andhra Pradesh border. On a hilltop of this town is located the 17th century fort that was built by Byre Gowda, a local chieftain of the Vijayanagar Empire. An interesting trivia that we learnt from the Internet is that Byre Gowda was a Robinhood of sorts, who was a messiah for the poor but a terror for the wealthy.

Pic 1: Ruins of the fort wall seen halfway through the climb.

It was a pleasant early morning drive as the car sped through the highway. Seated on the front seat of the car, A was relaying all kinds of information about the fort that he was reading up on his phone. Among other things, the Internet also said that the fort was closed due to the pandemic. We were already on our way and this information was conveniently ignored by all of us.

Soon the car took a turn and we found ourselves passing through winding village roads flanked by lush green fields, dotted by tiny boulder-strewn hillocks in the horizon. Large sections of these fields were dominated by tomato plantations. Certain sections had marigold plantations and the carpets of yellows and oranges were a sight a behold!

Pic 2: Bhairasagara lake filled to the brim. The colour of the water emphasizes the season of monsoon. The conical hillock seen towards the right is where the fort is located.

Soon we arrived at the large Bhairasagara lake. Located just a few kilometers ahead of the Gudibande fort, this lake was part of our itinerary. It being monsoon, the lake was teeming with water. At places, it felt like the water would overflow onto the road at any time. The hillock with the fort stood prominently and distinguishably in the background. After spending a little while by the lake, we decided to proceed towards the fort. The huge expanse of water deserved some dedicated time and we thought we would do that on our way back. Eventually, that never happened as we changed our plans went exploring another fort instead.

Pic 3: Bhairasagara lake as seen from the top. Google says it resembles the map of India. We didn’t quite find that resemblance from any angle though.

Soon we found ourselves at the base of a conical hill, on top of which sits the Gudibande fort. We could see a flight of broad cemented stairs going up, but it was barricaded by a red and white tape that ran across the breadth of the very first stair. A person sitting on a chair under a tree, who appeared like a guard seemed to be monitoring the place. So, the Google Map information was right afterall!

This was not a happy situation after having come all the way. As we wondered what to do, we found a couple of families coming down the stairs. This was our moment, we walked up to the guard-like person and asked if we could go up. He flatly refused. After requesting for a while, he allowed us charging a small sum (read bribe). Yes, we plead guilty!

Pic 4: We passed through a couple of such doorways. I forgot to keep a count, probably three or four.

It was a very easy walk up to the top and we made it in about 45 minutes. Most of the way we climbed through steps, some concrete, some just rocks, some carved out in the boulders. We passed through a couple of ruined doorways and through underpasses created by large boulders that touch on their vertices but widen at the bottom to create narrow passageways.

Pic 5: One with my inspirational wonder-woman!
Pic 6: We crossed several such large boulders that touch on their vertices but widen at the bottom creating a narrow passageway. Notice the indents on the rock right beside the stairs, those would have been used to climb up earlier.

The weather was perfect with a patchy sky covered in floating clouds and no rain or sun. We met a few people who were going down and wondered if they had bribed the guard-like person too.

On reaching the top we realized that we had the entire ruins to ourselves. There was nobody other than us and that certainly was a privilege. We spent a good hour at the top accompanied by the light breeze and the gorgeous views of the plains below. S and I were meeting after a long time and had a lot to catch up on. We found a comfortable place at the edge of the fort wall overlooking the Bhairasagara lake down below, while A went about exploring the ruins all around.  

Pic 7: Just before the entrance of the fort.

Besides the ruins, there is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva on top, which is believed to be one of the 108 Jyotirlingas that Lord Rama established in various parts of India. A filled us in with this and other information that he collected from Google while exploring the ruins.

Apparently, the fort edifice comprises of seven gateways though we saw only three. Ruined temples, caves sliced deep into the hillocks, and many secret passages that might have served as escape routes for the soldiers constituted the other highlights. Also, there are/were 19 rock ponds that could have been some form of water harvesting system. Again, we saw only a few. Byre Gowda seems to have been quite a visionary as he ruled this place only for three years and managed to leave behind this impressive legacy.

Pic 8: A flight of stairs carved out on the rock just after entering the fort.

A was back, not just with his freshly gained Google information, but with a bunch of dry twigs that he collected while exploring the fort. Those twigs will add glamour to his newly designed living room. S and I were in the middle of an exuberant conversation, but we had to pause. It was time to leave.

Pic 9: That’s where S and I spent our time chatting away.

Chasing Ruins – Hutridurga

“Look at all the people here!”, I directed my comment to R as A chuckled away. The place wasn’t crowded but we encountered several groups of people all through the way. Two days back when we were planning this R was reluctant to give me the name of the place saying that I would just blog about it and make a less frequented place popular. Well, R had forgotten that there aren’t many hidden places anymore.

Pic 1: That’s Uttari Betta or Hutridurga. Look at the refreshing greenery, all thanks to the monsoon.

Bored with the monotony of being home, I had reached out to two of my friends and we decided to go on a day hike in the outskirts of Bangalore. It’s been raining almost everyday in Bangalore. Keeping that in mind we wanted to go somewhere nearby. R recommended Uttari Betta and that was it.

Pic 2: A proper road leads up to the base of the hill but we parked the car well ahead and decided to walk.

Uttari Betta, also known as Hutridurga, is a fortified hill about 70 Km. away from Bangalore. Situated at an altitude of 3708 feet above the sea level it overlooks several villages all around. The village located at the immediate foot of the hill is known as Santhepet while It derives its name from Hutri, a village about 3 Km away from the hill. Hutridurga is one of the Nava Durgas (nine fortified hills) that was built by Kempegowda, who founded Bengaluru in the 16th Century. Later Tipu Sultan used this fort as his military bastion against the British.

Pic 3: It was a lovely day, the ever-changing cloud patterns making it all the more beautiful.
Pic 4: Remnants of the fort remain scattered at various places.

We left Bangalore early and drove through a scenic stretch of road with Savandurga looking out on us most of the way, sometimes from the right side and sometimes from the end of the road. Though we woke up to a rainy Saturday, the weather had become perfect and remained that way for the rest of the day.

Upon reaching our destination, we were welcomed by an arched gateway that welcomed us to Hutridurga Trek. It appeared like a Karnataka Tourism board. We alighted from the car and pretty soon realized that wasn’t the starting point. A little bit of asking around and we found our way to the actual start point, which was a good 2 Km drive away.

Pic 5: A quick pose with ‘A’. There are several doorways all along the hike, this was right at the start.
Pic 6: ‘R’ and I steal a moment at the top of the hill.

It was a very easy hike to the top. In many places there were steps craved out on the rocky surface, making it even simpler though robbing off its natural appeal altogether. Probably done for the villagers who hike up to the temple situated on top.  As we started the walk, I was surprised to see two families with little boys and girls coming down. While it was nice to see adventurous parents, I wondered if I would have done the same. I don’t think I would have quite dared, especially with the pandemic being far from over. The worst part was nobody was masked. And that was true for most of the groups we encountered all along. The only masked people were us.

Pic 7: In many places ‘R’ and ‘A’ created their own route, rather than follow the trail. I couldn’t master the courage to follow them though!
Pic 8: Some good candid shots. Byproduct of hiking with a professional photographer, which happens to be ‘R’.

The total distance of the hike is about 5 Km. up and down. We took our own sweet time to climb up, stopping or sitting wherever we felt like. Ruins of the fort lay scattered all around. We passed through a couple of enchanting stone doorways, some of which had interesting engravings. There were six doorways in all. Most of the times R and A would steer away from the actual path and find their own routes. On one such occasion R got badly stuck in a precarious position from where neither could he climb up nor climb down, making me more than a little nervous. It took him sometime before he could figure a way out.

Pic 9: The temple at the top. In front of the temple is a clear pool of water known as ‘Dodda Donne’, which means big spring. Painted on a rock beside the pool is a large sign that reads ‘Danger’ leading us to assume that the pool must be deep.

The views from the top are just as stunning as one would expect. The cloud patterns on the sky on that day made it even more beautiful. Savandurga was standing out and was clearly visible from the top. The temple on top is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The three of us spent some wonderful time soaking in nature’s splendour while munching on the sandwiches and fruits I had carried for us. It was a good break after a very long time.