Shrouded in Mist

A Drive Through East Khasi Hills To Pynursla

The car moved at a slow pace and it literally felt like we were riding through the clouds. The mist was so thick that we could barely see even 10m. ahead of us. “I hope you’ve switched on the fog light”, I heard my sister’s anxious voice while nephew and I were more concerned about our rumbling stomachs. We had a light breakfast earlier in the day and now it was well beyond lunch time. The thick mist made it impossible to know what lay on either side of the road. Our plans of having lunch at one of the roadside small eateries, locally known as Kong’s Shop, seemed like a far cry. My brother-in-law, who was at the wheels, had to meticulously concentrate on the road and maneuver the continuous turns. One wrong move and the car could easily topple down into the deep valley, which wasn’t visible at all but very much existed.

Pic 1: The clouds moving through the valley, clicked on the way back when the mist had cleared for a little while.

We had left Shillong a few hours earlier with the aim to drive around the countryside. It had been raining heavily for the past few days, right from the day I arrived here on the 3rd of May. Heavy rains lashed the city this morning too. However, for the first time the rains had stopped and the day seemed brighter though the sun continued to remain elusive. We headed towards Pynursla completely forgetting the fact that this part of Meghalaya always remains shrouded in mist during this time of the year. As we started the drive, all I could visualize was the perfectly tarred winding roads with pine-covered hills on one side and the deep valley with various shades of green on the other. Just as I had seen it at other times.

Pic 2: Umtynger River somewhere just after leaving Shillong. The muddy water is an indication of the heavy rainfall.

Pynursla town is a quiet small hamlet located in East Khasi Hills about 53 Km. away from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. This region is not very popular among tourists and that makes it a great destination for the locals. It’s enroute to Dawki and Mawlynnong, places that are thronged by tourists. The drive from Shillong to Pynursla is simply stunning because of the lush green landscape. I had seen a few resorts in this region the last time I had visited, some of which were under construction. Perhaps some people do come here afterall, but certainly most wouldn’t stop here.

Initially, the experience of being enveloped in the thick mist gave us the thrills. The ecstatic feeling of moving through clouds, surrounded by the thick curtain of white, and with near zero visibility was indeed exciting. Soon it gave way to unease as we were missing out the scenery of the landscape that we had in mind. We kept thinking it would reduce and the mist would fade away. But it continued in the same state and the entire route remained whitewashed.

Pic 3: When the mist had cleared for a little while on our way back.
Pic 4: The beautiful road that could be clearly seen just once while on our way back.
Pic 5: Somewhere a small waterfall and the associated landslide.

Driving very slowly and carefully, we arrived at Pynursla town only by late afternoon. It was 3.30 PM by then. Our stomachs were revolting and the first thing we did was to put it at ease by grabbing some lunch at a small local restaurant. Concerned about the mist on the way, we could take no chance of hanging around in the quaint little town.

It was market-day and the town wore a colourful look. With a lot of self-restrained, we controlled the urge of walking around and left for Shillong immediately. Our hopes of getting some views on the way back was once again strangulated by the thick stubborn mist that simply refused to go away. This time we noticed signs of landslides that would have happened in the recent past. At one of the bends, we noticed the clouds moving very fast and the green valley was revealed in parts. That was our moment! Of course, we had to stop the car, step out, and soak in the surroundings. But it hardly lasted just a few minutes.

Do not miss this video, it’s a small one created by nephew on that day’s drive.

We reached Shillong safe and sound, just before darkness descended. I heard my mind quietly hoping to go for a drive in the same route on a bright and sunny day before I take leave from Shillong.  

Leaving you with two images of the same route clicked three years ago on a clear day.

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.

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.

Karnataka’s Twin Waterfalls

I stood there staring at the gushing cascading waters, aggressively bouncing off the craggy moss-covered rock cliff. It always feels happy to be near a waterfall and this was no different. The white shafts of water complemented by the surrounding greenery of various shades did their job of lifting my spirits and boosting my energy. But my mind was agitated. It kept slipping into the past as scenes from the last time I was here fleeted before my eyes like a motion picture.

I was at the exact same spot a decade ago when I had just shifted to Bangalore.

The waterfall is just the same, but the surroundings look quite different – the usual story of manipulating the natural surroundings to make it more touristy. Such ugly human interventions always disturb the nature lover in me. Today, however, my mind was consumed with other thoughts – the memories of my last visit here. I was here with my parents (dad). Life’s changes are just too fast. And, the decade ago visit feels like it happened just yesterday.

Pic 1: This was clicked during my previous visit. The serene pool formed at the bottom of a waterfall always seems to me like the water needs a quick rest before carrying on.

We were at Barachukki Falls – one of the two waterfall that are collectively known as Shivanasamudra. The other one is Gaganachukki Falls. Shivanasamudra, literally translating as Shiva’s Sea, is formed by the dropping waters of River Cauvery as it makes its way through the Deccan Plateau. The river splits into two branches resulting into the two perennial waterfalls of Barachukki and Gaganachukki. While Barachukki is the eastern branch of the waterfall, Gaganachukki forms the western branch. In between lies the island town of Shivanasamudra that marks the boundary of Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district and Mandya district.

Pic 2: The segmented cluster of Barachukki that spreads broadly across the cliff.

Located 140 kms away from Bangalore, Shivanasamudra has another claim to fame. It boasts of the second hydro-electric power station set up in colonial India in 1902. The power from this station was primarily used to run the Kolar Gold Fields during the gold rush of the early 1900s. [The first hydro-electric power station in India was set up at Darjeeling. These two were among the first ones in Asia.]

The twin waterfalls of Barachukki and Gaganachukki are separated by 10 Km. and can be covered just by a drive of 15-20 minutes. The twin waterfalls do not have much resemblance to each other, and they stand out significantly in their look and feel. The only similarity, I thought was the topography of their surroundings.

Pic 3: The horsetail parallel gushing and vivacious streams of Gaganchukki.

Barachukki gushes down fulsome and enthusiastically in all directions. It constitutes a cluster of segmented waterfalls that spreads broadly across the cliff, falling from a height of 69m. The multiple side-by-side waterfall is a consequence of the water dividing into several channels before dropping off the ledge. Gaganachukki is a steep waterfall that thunders down from a height of 98m. with an incredibly fierce velocity. It consists of two large parallel streams, quite aptly referred to as horsetails that cascade down through the rocky bed.

We were there in the month of December, 2020. It being the season of winter, the quantity of water was less in both the falls.

Barachukki Falls also has a flight of about 200 concrete steps, well-guarded with railings, to reach the bottom of the falls. During our visit, this was temporarily closed. It was pandemic times, so not surprising. During my previous visit, I had also seen people taking coracle rides right up to the falls. This time there were none. There is no way to reach the bottom of Gaganachukki and it would be dangerous to do so, given the sheer force of this falls.

Pic 4: L – A decade ago with my parents. R – This time with my sisters.

Temple Tales from Somnathpur

It took us a while to get into the temple premises. The temple is a protected monument and maintained by Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Tickets for entry to such places now require scanning an ASI QR code. Our phone network happened to be unusually slow causing some unnecessary delay, testing our patience, and sufficiently frustrating us.

As I entered through the doorway after reading the description displayed at the entryway, my jaws literally dropped. The magnificence of the temple caught me off-guard. I knew about this temple but hadn’t expected such stunning architectural brilliance. “How did I never happen to come here before!”, I couldn’t help wondering, having stayed in Bangalore for more than a decade now. This reaction was triggered off just at the very first glance. As we walked around exploring the temple, every corner only left us even more astonished.

Pic 1: The mantapa on entering through the doorway adorned with lathe turned pillars, which happens to be a typical feature of Hoysala architecture.

The 13th century Keshava Temple, also known as Chennakesava Temple, is located in a small town called Somnathpur in the Mandya district of Karnataka. It is at a distance of about 140 Km. from Bangalore and just about 35 Km. away from Mysore. Situated in the banks of River Cauvery, the temple was built by Somanatha, a celebrated army commander of the Hoysala Dynasty. He established the town of Somnathpur, which he named after himself.

The temples built during the rule of the Hoysalas are unique in their intricate sculptures and great story telling. The temples of Belur and Halebidu are said to be the best ambassadors of Hoysala architecture. I haven’t been there yet but have heard a lot about their spectacular grandeur. I had no idea that Somnathpur Temple belonged to the same league and was another masterpiece of Hoysala architecture.

Pic 2: The Western and Southern Shikharas. Notice the star-shaped elevated platform on which stands the temple.

The temple is carved from soapstone and is dedicated to Lord Krishna in the three forms of Keshava, Janardhana, and Venugopala. The main temple is at the center of a courtyard, built on an elevated star-shaped platform which, I learnt is one of the unique aspects of Hoysala temples. Surrounding the courtyard is a pillared corridor that has several chambers all along. Perhaps they would have housed deities at that time, they are empty now.

Pic 3: The pillared corridor that surrounds the courtyard.
Pic 4: The pillared corridor from another angle. Notice the chambers all along.

The temple wall on the exterior has intricate carvings and sculptures depicting stories from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, and also Bhagavata Purana. The exquisite attention to detail that has clearly gone into these carvings was mystifying to say the least. The dancing Goddess Lakshmi, the angry Lord Ganesha, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the four headed Lord Brahma, the intricate Mahisashura Mardini – just to name a few. The meticulous carvings also depict battles, folklore, music, dance, and much more. The stories in carvings are in a clockwise direction, thoughtfully designed as it is the same as the direction of a pradakshina or circumambulation.

Pic 5: The fascinating and exquisitely detailed sculptures on the exterior wall.
Pic 6: The magnificence of these sculptures are a delight to the eyes.

After spending a decent amount of time walking around the temple admiring the detailed carvings, we stepped inside. The inside of the temple is just as fascinating. The magnificent ceiling with all the intricate ornate carvings and miniature sculptures is simply amazing. A guide, who was with another group, explained that the ceiling constitutes of 16 finely carved symmetrical squares, some of which are depictions of the Lotus flower at different stages of development. The main idol of Keshava is situated on the sanctum sanctorum while Janardhana and Venugopala  are on either side. According to ASI, the original Keshava idol went missing and has been replaced. The idols of Janardhana and Venugopala are damaged.

The temple is not functional and is not used as a place of worship anymore, the idols being broken and desecrated by invaders of that age and time. It stands as a monument today bearing testimony to the superior craftmanship of the artists and sculptors of the bygone Hoysala era.

Pic 7: The extraordinary craftsmanship is like a poetry unfolding.
Pic 8: One can spend hours examining the details that have gone into these carvings.

I am a nature person and usually get disengaged very easily with things that are lifeless. Museums and places of architectural significance as not quite for me. That explains why I overlooked visiting this place earlier. However, when it comes to such intricate artwork it’s a different story altogether. My mind weaves stories thinking about the artisans, their unparalleled creativity, the lives of people at that time – the royalty, the commoners, their festivals, their triumphs and hardships, and so on and so forth. It’s mind-boggling and fascinating.

Now, I can’t wait to explore the Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebidu. Had it not been for the pandemic, I would have long been on my way. Smitten by Somnathpur Keshava Temple, I was curious to know about the other Hoysala temples in the state of Karnataka. I learnt that there are 137 Hoysala temples of significant value in the state. Quite a number that is, isn’t it!

Padmanabhapuram Palace

The Most Charming Palace I have Seen so far….

“Seems like some kind of natural air-conditioning in here!”, exclaimed my sister. It indeed felt cool inside. Surely, it’s got something to do with the way this place was constructed ages ago.

We were at Padmanabhapuram Palace, located about 30 Km. away from Kanyakumari at a place, known as Thuckalay. Built in the 16th century, this palace is situated in the state of Tamil Nadu, however, it remains under the administration of the Government of Kerala. The wooden palace, in its typical Kerala architectural style, is a masterpiece that left us completely spellbound. Once again, all thanks to fellow blogger Sugan for having recommended this place.

The pillared entrance with intricate wooden carvings.
The main entrance leads to the reception area. Notice the marvelous wooden carvings and terracotta tiled roof.

The unusualness of the palace is what charmed us the most. It was very different from all the palaces I have seen so far. It lacked the glam and glitter that one would expect of a palace but was majestic in its simplicity and intricacies. Some highlights from the palace are, elaborately detailed rosewood and teak wood carvings, exquisitely carved wooden columns, huge earthen urns, jackfruit tree columns, multi-colored windowpanes of various patterns, spacious hallways, ornately carved wooden ceilings, and so on.

There were different artistic representations of the Lotus flower, the favourite flower of the royalty (and also of Lord Padmanabhaswamy). The floors of the palace wore a unique look. It was glossy, smooth and of shining black colour. This is apparently the result of a unique combination of egg shells, lime, coconut, charcoal, river sand, and jaggery that was used in the raw material.

The Mantrasala – Here the King held important meetings with his ministers. Notice the elaborately designed ceiling.

Padmanabhapuram was the capital city of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, the rulers of which were dedicated to Lord Padmanabhaswamy (another name of Lord Vishnu) and considered themselves to be servants of the Lord.

The Covid protocols were very strict here. We had to buy gloves from the shops outside, which were selling only woolen gloves. That was no fun on a hot and sultry afternoon, with a temperature of nearly 30 degree centigrade. The palace was crowded with tourists, but all were locals. We stood out in how we looked and the clothes we wore, leading to us being mobbed by a gang of local people. The gang of 20-25 people followed us everywhere and wanted pictures with us every now and then. They meant no harm and we did indulge them initially but after a point their intrusion managed to irritate us enough and more.

Here’s a visual tour of some sections of the palace.

Ottupura (Dining Hall) – A description board here says that over 2000 people were served free meals in this grand dining hall on a daily basis.
These are huge Chinese jars that were used to store pickles for the daily feasts.
The Dance Hall. Notice the shining black flooring, which is the result of a combination of egg shells, lime, coconut, charcoal, river sand, and jaggery.
The palace temple. It was closed at that time so we couldn’t enter.
Curved shuttered wooden windows
Left: The Royal Bed, made of 67 different medicinal wood. Right: One of the Royal Toilets.
Here’s a picture of the people who followed us everywhere wanting to click pictures with us every now and then. And, here are only some of those from the large gang. The gang even made one of my sisters pull her mask down for a proper photo.

Kyllang Rock – Got to Go Again!

Lum Kyllang and Lum Symper are brothers who fell out with each other and fought with such animosity that they have parted ways forever. No ordinary sibling rivalry this is! The two brothers here are hills and not humans. [I have outlined the local folklore at the end.]

BIL (brother-in-law) and I were once again on a long drive in the countryside when we had an opportunity to meet with Lum Kyllang. It was the first day of the year 2018. A bright and sunny January day ushered in additional joy and cheer to our New Year celebrations. This was rare as the month of January is usually associated with gloomy weather in the cold winter of Meghalaya. BIL, the happy man, was happier today – not because of the weather but because his wife (my cousin sister) had joined us too.

IMG_0356
Pic 1: The bright and sunny day was a huge mood lifter – what better way to start the new year!

We headed from Shillong towards West Khasi Hills district to go to Mairang. Shillong is in East Khasi Hills district. The sparkling tarred road was an absolute pleasure to drive and BIL was enjoying every bit of it. It was a newly inaugurated National Highway connecting Shillong-Nongstoin-Tura. Our intention was nothing more than a long drive by the countryside – indeed our way of celebrating the new year.

IMG_0359
Pic 2: The perfectly tarred road was a driver’s delight!

We passed through undulating winding roads amidst green hills dotted with Pine Trees, brown meadows of dried grass, villages with pretty houses of tin roofs, lace curtains, and playful children. Somewhere during the drive, one of us mentioned Kyllang Rock, which is also located in Mairang. We had heard stories about the peculiarity and uniqueness of Kyllang Rock but had never visited it and this drive presented us with the perfect opportunity.

We enquired for directions from a local tea shop and got to know that Kyllang Rock is locally known as Lum Kyllang. Based on our enquiry, we diverted onto a broken road from the National Highway. The narrow dusty road was lined with Pine forests on either side. As we approached, after a drive of about 20 mins, the massive dome shaped single rock of granite was clearly visible from a distance. With a girth of more than 1000 ft., the monolithic Kyllang Rock stands tall at a height of 5400 ft. above sea level. It is situated 12 Km. from Mairang and about 78 Km. from Shillong.

IMG_0366
Pic 5: As we first set our eyes on Lum Kyllang 

Kyllang Rock is several million years old and it is believed to have a magnetic field. It is believed that the magnetic field makes it easy to climb and once on top nobody falls off despite the very strong winds. The dense forest around the rock is home to age-old red Rhododendron trees and Oak trees. I had all plans of climbing up to the top as friends had told me about the breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape from the top and also that the climb was fairly easy.

IMG_0371
Pic 6: The narrow lane that leads upto the rock.

IMG_0373
Pic 7: Do you see the tiny dots on top of the rock? Those are people up there.

However, I had to rest my plans of climbing up the rock as the place was immensely crowded with local people from the surrounding villages. Villagers revere the rock and were here to pay their obeisance on the occasion of new year.

I sure have to go back again to feel the massiveness of Lum Kyllang and experience the power of its magnetic field.

Local Folklore

Khasi folklore has it that Lum Kyllang in Mairang (West Khasi Hills) and Lum Symper in Weiloi (East Khasi Hills) are brothers. Kyllang was a mischievous God known for his mood swings. Symper was a calm God and always disapproved Kyllang’s violent and destructive ways. Kyllang did not like Symper’s interference and this led to a battle between the two brothers. Symper won the battle as he was blessed to have boulders while Kyllang had only sand. After the battle, Symper stayed in the same location in East Khasi Hills and Kyllang moved to Mairang in West Khasi Hills.

Another folklore talks about a man, his wife and child, who due to certain circumstances got transformed into one whole rock.