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 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.

An Unexpected Trip to BR Hills

Back in December last year, my cousin came over and stayed with me for little over a month, making the most of the work from home situation. On the very first weekend of her visit, we planned a trip to Mysore. The plan was made such that we would be at Mysore Palace on Sunday evening. The reason being the entire palace is illuminated with about a lakh bulbs and remains that way for 15 min. It’s a spectacular sight and I wanted her to experience the same. (Thanks to the pandemic that didn’t happen, which is another story.)

Our weekend was sorted, we were all geared up to leave Bangalore on Saturday morning, and head straight to Mysore. Late Friday night, a friend called up and his casual recommendation changed our itinerary altogether. We were still going to Mysore but would go to BR Hills as well and spend a night there. Located about 90 Km. from Mysore and 180 Km. from Bangalore, it fitted in quite perfectly.

Pic 1: Stretches of Kans Grass right up to the entry gate of BR Hills made for a blissful experience.

Saturday morning, we left Bangalore at the stipulated time and visited Shivanasamudra. After that we headed for BR Hills or Biligiriranga Hills. Located in the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, at an altitude of 3500 feet above sea level, BR Hills bridges the Eastern and Western Ghats. It houses the BRT wildlife sanctuary, which is an official tiger reserve. BRT is just an abbreviation of Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple wildlife sanctuary. The temple of Biligiri Rangaswamy being the other main attraction of this place. There are hiking and trekking opportunities too, which we didn’t explore this time.

Pic 2: A pond at BRT Wildlife Sanctuary right where the Jeep Safari starts.

The native inhabitants of BR Hills constitute the Soliga tribe. They make a living by selling honey, gooseberry, bamboo and other non-timber forest products. The government has been trying to resettle them with a focus on forest conservation. The Soligas aren’t in agreement and have won a legal battle to continue staying in their homeland. Certainly, they know how to live harmoniously with nature. The battle is far from over though.

Another interesting trivia about BR Hills is that the notorious and dreaded bandit Veerappan, who had terrorized a large part of South India for a very long time, operated out of these jungles till he was killed in October 2004.

Pic 3: The small settlement at BR Hills as seen from the temple.

Driving through a green and soothing stretch of meadows and farmlands, we reached the entry point of BR Hills. The entrance is marked by a forest check post, where we had to provide details of our visit including duration of stay, place of stay, vehicle number, etc. Beyond the gate is a stretch of perfectly tarred narrow winding road with thick forests on either side. Gradually the car climbed up through the road as we remained engrossed in the heavenly marvelous surroundings. A drive of about 30 mins through this paradise, and we arrived at Giridarshini, the homestay we had booked the night before.

It was well past lunch time by the time we had settled down and arrived at the dining hall. Soon after, we proceeded towards Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple.

Pic 4: The home stay was surrounded by coffee estates and various trees of pepper, ginger, etc.

Located on a hilltop, the ancient temple provides a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest down below. The temple was under renovation at that time but that didn’t affect its quaint little charm. The strong wind blowing across threatened to throw us off the edges, and that only added to the temple’s mystical magic.

A huge, handcrafted leather slipper kept reverently just outside the main temple piqued our interest. Asking around yielded no results, thanks to the language barrier. It was only later that we got to know it’s significance. The Soligas believe that the presiding deity of the temple, Lord Ranganatha, wanders through the forest every night wearing that slipper. The slipper apparently wears out every 2 years as a result, and then they present a new pair.

Pic 5: At Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple
Pic 6: The temple presents a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest

We walked down from the hill and spent the rest of the evening exploring the narrow lanes and bylanes, sipping a coffee or a tea from the tiny shops here and there. As darkness fell, we retreated to our homestay. Dinner was over a bonfire that was arranged exclusively for us. The three sisters laughed and giggled talking about the antics and idiosyncrasies of our extended families, making this one of the most memorable times of our being together. “Now, this justifies all the money we’re shelling out!”, quipped my cousin. The homestay charge had seemed a little exorbitant, but the last minute plan had left us with no time to research any further.

Pic 7: Sunset at BR hills on a cold December evening.

Early next morning, we headed towards the sanctuary for a wildlife safari. We jumped onto the Forest Department jeep with a lot of anticipation and excitement. The two hour-long safari was a great disappointment. All we saw was a couple of sambar deer, one or two mongoose, a couple of birds, a wild boar or two, and that was all. We did spot a bison too.

Pic 8: A pond inside the wildlife sanctuary, seen during the safari.

After a while, we just wanted the safari to end. Even though we were driving through the jungle, everything felt dull and monotonous. Our expectation was a little over the top having heard of people spotting elephants and leopards. It certainly wasn’t our day at all.

Pic 9: Very unlike us, but we couldn’t wait for the safari to end.

Back in the homestay, we had a sumptuous breakfast and headed towards Mysore. On the way, we stopped at the magnificent Somnathpur Temple.

Revenge Tourism

Revenge Tourism! What the hell is this? I exclaimed as I heard this term for the first-time last evening.  Apparently, it’s been doing rounds of social media. Having stayed away from Instagram (the only social media I actively pursue) for a while now, naturally I have no clue. Being overly occupied in certain other aspects of life also does its bit in contributing to such ignorance. Quite often, I find myself staggering behind and completely lost about these current trends and other such things brewing out there. Certainly, they aren’t important and hence don’t matter. But people pick up these terminologies and casually use them in everyday conversations. Sometimes, they go a step ahead and make you feel foolish and dumb when you express your unfamiliarity. I couldn’t care less though!

Revenge Tourism, as I understand, means tourism with a vengeance to make up for all the times people couldn’t travel. The phrase feels somewhat negative to me. Are we challenging Mother Nature in some way? – was my immediate thought. Probably, I am being judgmental as I have no idea how this terminology came into being and under what circumstances it might have been coined. Probably I am just envious as I haven’t had the opportunity to participate in Revenge Tourism just yet. However, to travel with a vengeful mindset feels strange and weird, doesn’t it? Afterall, what we think is just as important as what we say and do. Our thoughts matter, they make us who we are. It’s important to be mindful, not just of speech and action, but thought too. I wouldn’t dare to invite Mother Nature’s ire by indulging in any form of activity that might upset her, least of all by making a blatant display of my arrogance.

Revenge Tourism or Reward Tourism or whatever Tourism be it, the most important thing to remember is the entire economic angle around it. Tons of people have their livelihood dependent on tourism. So, let travel happen while making sure that protocols are adhered to and the right amount of balance is maintained.

To me travel still feels like a faraway dream, at least the kind of travel I used to do. Pre-pandemic travel sometimes feels like a thing of another life – a past life. I would go on long trips at least thrice a year and that would be interspersed with smaller trips to nearby places. All of that, feels like a dream now. I shouldn’t be just blaming the pandemic though. Life has changed personally in certain other ways too and it feels like a new phase. I had never given much thought to the fact that travel can be dependent on extraneous factors, many of which aren’t in one’s direct control. Well, life waxes and wanes and all we can do is just flow along.

Now, I hadn’t set out to put down my thoughts around Revenge Tourism today. Neither did I plan to tell my travel sob stories. This post was supposed to be about something else altogether. I wanted to sum up all the things I did between the end of December and beginning of January, which incidentally includes some bit of travel too. Let me just keep that aside for my next post.

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.

Amar – Our Little Genie From Nepal

It was nearly dinner time and we were all set to hit the streets once again. We couldn’t wait to explore all the restaurants and cafes that we had seen earlier. If you have been to Pokhara, in Nepal, you will know exactly what I mean. As we stepped out of our room, I heard my sister say, “I miss Amar!”. Amar had dropped us at Pokhara that afternoon and left for Kathmandu. We had really gotten used to Amar and this statement was repeated multiple times in overt and covert ways over the next 2-3 days, till we left Nepal.

Missing Amar happened out of blue this morning, once again. We wondered if all was okay with him and his family during this global Covid 19 pandemic. We googled to find out how Nepal was coping with the pandemic. Amar’s phone didn’t connect. So, we left a message in his boss’ mobile, who got back letting us know all was good and Amar had left for his village before the outbreak.

Amar Gurung was our trek guide, who guided our Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek last year in October.

IMG_20191006_095544
Pic 1: A selfie somewhere on the way.

ABC Trek has a well-marked trail and the risks of losing your way or getting stranded somewhere with no help is minimal. The tea houses along the way make it even easier as you don’t need to put up in tents. This trek can be easily done by yourself and you don’t need a guide. Also, trekking in Nepal is very organized and the experience is very different from treks in India.

However, I chose to go with a guide for two primary reasons – First and foremost having a local guide means you are exposed to the local culture through fascinating stories and folklore, which you otherwise never get to know. Second, is related to logistics as the guide helps carry the backpack and you can trek with a smaller day bag; takes care of tea house bookings, which can be tough during peak seasons. Also, it’s a way of contributing to the local economy.

IMG_2112
Pic 2: Somewhere in the lush green forests on the way.

There are numerous trekking agencies in Nepal and selecting the right one can be quite a task. I decided to go with Nepal Alternative Treks & Expeditions (P.)Ltd, a trekking agency recommended by fellow blogger, Indranil Chatterjee – do check out his blog Break Shackles. In fact, I did no research and did not even try to look for other options. The reason being, Indranil had trekked ABC the year before along with his 8-year old daughter. His posts fascinated me as trekking with your child in the uncertainties of the Himalayas is no mean feat. Hence, I looked no further. My job became easier.

IMG_20191007_074828
Pic 3: Posing with the the graceful, majestic, and divine Annapurna range.

Through Indranil, I connected with Tej Bahadur and planned my trip. When Tej introduced us to Amar in Kathmandu, we were pleasantly surprised as he looked too polished to be a trek leader. His attire and appearance gave the impression of a regular office-goer than a trek guide. Well, looks can be deceiving and that’s what was happening. Amar was like our little genie, taking care of us and always fulfilling our wishes and desires. Amar’s unparallel hospitality often left us feeling uncomfortable, we aren’t always used to someone being at our disposal. At every step he treated us like his personal guests.

IMG_20191008_091900
Pic 4: A tea break somewhere along the way.

A perfect gentleman, Amar holds a Post Graduate degree in Mathematics from Kathmandu University. He was planning to start working on his PhD soon. That first appearance wasn’t all that deceiving, you see! Amar belongs to the mountains and trekking runs in his genes. It was because of Amar that our ABC Trek experience became so much more enriched and memorable.

And, it is because of Amar that if/when I go trekking in Nepal again, it will be through Nepal Alternative Treks & Expeditions (P.)Ltd.

Benaras – The Funny Sadhus

“Myself Pradeep Sharma, no wife, no children, no mummy, no papa…”, he effusively stated while extending his hand for a quick handshake. “Chaye pee ke jaiye”, he continued “humari taraf se”, pointing towards the tea shop right behind him. (Have a cup of tea, it’s on me). I politely refused, while my sisters giggled right behind me.

This was one of the many sadhus we came across in the ghats of Benaras. The sadhus were of all kinds – some in their own world, some wandering aimlessly, some looking to earn a quick buck, some asking for alms, some irritated and upset, some busy performing pujas and yagnas.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I will narrate two funny encounters.

The Jovial Sadhu

We were passing by Darbhanga Ghat towards Dashashwamedh Ghat when we noticed this man talking to a family of 4-5 people. It appeared like they were seeking a solution to some problem and our man was happily obliging. We paused a few meters away watching him. The ash-smeared skin, the disheveled looks, the unkempt beard, the red dhoti, presented us with the perfect photo opportunity.  By now, we had learnt that if you approach any such person for a photo either they outright refuse to oblige or ask for money in lieu of a photo. But this time it turned out to be different.

IMG_20191226_124442

The man called us and said that we could freely click pictures of him if we wanted, he wouldn’t mind, and that he doesn’t want money in return. Having seen tourists in plenty, he had guessed our intention.  After the family left, he posed for us in various ways. His enthusiasm was hilariously enjoyable.

The next day, we happened to pass by the same area when we saw someone smiling at us. It took us a while to recognize our jovial sadhu as he was wearing a woollen cap and a sweater. Though we said nothing this time, he offered to pose with us. We were busily headed somewhere but he insisted and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We just had to agree to his enthusiasm. In return, he took off his cap and sweater in the cold winter morning and posed in many different ways making sure all three of us had separate pictures with him. It didn’t matter whether we wanted a picture or not.

Happy with his earnest enthusiasm, we offered him a fifty rupee note, which he readily accepted.

The Santa Clause Sadhu

We were standing at the turning of a narrow alley waiting for the doors of a nearby temple to open for the evening. That was when I noticed a plump pot-bellied man with a flowing white beard and a red/orange robe walking towards us through the alley, which was empty until now. I alerted my sister, who was creating a photo series on sadhus. My sister jumped into action forgetting to be discreet.

IMG_20191227_155953 (1)

As expected, the man asked for money the moment he approached the turning where we were standing. We looked away pretending not to listen. At the same time a small boy appeared from the neighbourhood and started teasing him – “Sadhubaba, Sadhubaba, zara Hanuman Chalisa toh padke sunao!”, (Sadhubaba, why don’t you recite the Hanuman Chalissa for us!).  The man laughed boisterously and playfully brandished his stick as if to hit the small boy.

Suddenly the atmosphere became light. Digging into my pocket, I found a ten rupee note that I handed over to him. As if obliged by this gesture, he recommended a weird remedy for some unknown problem. We were supposed to take a peda (an Indian sweet) every Saturday, encircle the same around our heads three times and then feed it to a dog. This antidote to some non-existent problem was hilarious and led to a lot of playful bantering.

UCOA1250

Later in the day, we encountered the same sadhu once again and this time we noticed he looked a lot like Santa Clause. We had to click a few pictures.

Benaras – Entrancing Ghats

Benaras had us engulfed in its quaint and historical charm despite all the negativities and oddities – the chaos, the crowd, the touts. The energy of the Spiritual Capital of India is hard to ignore. We found ourselves embracing and enjoying every bit of it as we blended into the surroundings with utmost ease.

Not surprising though. Every nook and corner has something that would capture your mind, something that you wouldn’t have seen anywhere before, something that’s exciting enough to thoroughly engage you – the seers and the sadhus, each one different from the other; the colourful boats some parked on the ghats, others ferrying scores of people through River Ganges; the curious tourists trying to make sense of the surroundings; the vibrant ghats exuding stories everywhere; the crowded and narrow alleyways with houses, lodges, temples, shops, restaurants, people, cows, dogs, bikes, and what not; the paan shops and the sweet shops; the list is endless.

IMG_5380
Pic 1: Somewhere in Daseshwamedh Ghat just before going on another boat ride.

The three of us had decided unanimously that we wanted to walk the length of the ghats. There are 88 ghats and we were told they cover a distance of about 12 Km. I am not too sure of the distance though.

We walked from Daseshwamedh right up to Assi Ghat, which happens to be the last ghat at one end. Then, we retraced our path and went right up to Panchaganga Ghat towards the other end. Our guess is we would have covered about 70 ghats. We would have continued beyond Panchaganga had we not run out of time. We didn’t want to miss the evening aarti at Daseshwamedh Ghat, though it wasn’t the first time we would be watching it. Also, we walked leisurely aiming to experience the ghats rather than to rush and cover them all.

IMG_5392
Pic 2: The only time we got a glimpse of the Sun in the four days we were there.

Here’s an account of the ghats that touched us a little more than the others:

Daseshwamedh Ghat

This is the oldest ghat and considered to be the most important one. It’s also the busiest and one cannot escape its vibrancy and liveliness. The famous Ganga Aarti (Ganga River worship ceremony) is staged on this ghat every evening. Ironically, this overcrowded busy ghat attracted us the most, all because of its energetic surroundings. Persistent boat owners, flower sellers, pujaris, pilgrims, tourists, sadhus, temples, tiny shops, massage practitioners, touts of all kinds – Daseshwamedh had it all. One can just sit on the steps and spend an entire day simply watching people and their activities.

The Story Behind: Lord Brahma is said to have sacrificed 10 horses at this place. (Medh meaning sacrifice; Das meaning ten; and Aswa meaning horse) 

IMG_5027
Pic 3: The busy Daseshwamedh Ghat.

IMG_5030
Pic 4: Devotees & pilgrims bathe in River Ganga at Daseshwamedh Ghat notwithstanding the cold weather while migratory birds play around.

IMG_5470
Pic 5: Seen at Daseshwamedh Ghat – someone cared enough.

IMG_5468
Pic 6: A pujari all set while waiting for pilgrims at Daseshwamedh Ghat.

Chet Singh Ghat

It is the Chet Singh fort on this ghat that attracted us the most besides the fact that it was a relatively quieter ghat. Nothing much was happening here.

The Story Behind: The name of this ghat is derived from the Palace of Raja Chet Singh, the illegitimate son of Balwant Singh, the first Maharaja of Banaras. This ghat witnessed a fierce battle between the troops of Warren Hastings and Chet Singh in 1781.

IMG_5237
Pic 7: Chet Singh fort at Chet Singh ghat.

IMG_5253
Pic 8: A view of Chet Singh ghat.

Mahanirvani Ghat

The quietude of this ghat is what appealed to us most. The fortified Akhara situated here also made it quite intriguing.

The Story Behind: Named after the Mahanirvani sect of Naga Sadhus, this ghat houses their famous Akhara as well. This Ghat also has four small Shiva Temple, said to have been made by Nepal’s Maharaja.

IMG_5231
Pic 8: The emptiness at Mahanirvani Ghat.

Panchaganga Ghat

We visited this ghat thrice in our attempt to visit Trailanga Swami’s Ashram, which wasn’t happening for some reason or the other. A yogi and mystic, famed for his spiritual powers, Trailanga Swami is one of the 54 foremost saints of India. The great saint, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, referred to him as “The walking Shiva of Varanasi”.

The Story Behind: Panchaganga Ghat (Pancha means five) is supposed to be the meeting point of five rivers – Ganga, Dhutapapa, Kiran, Nadi, Saraswati, and Yamuna – but only Ganga is visible.

IMG_5442
Pic 9: Approaching Panchaganga Ghat, as seen from the boat.

IMG_5438
Pic 10: Panchaganga Ghat that had this nice wall art.

IMG_5444
Pic 11: Somewhere near Panchaganga Ghat

Mainkarnika Ghat

The feeling of heaviness is what we associated with this ghat. This is the burning ghat, where dead bodies are cremated. This ghat is considered to be an auspicious place for Hindu cremation. Pyres burn non-stop here. There were about five pyres burning when we were there. The overpowering smoke rising from the pyres made it difficult to stand here for long.

“Would it be appropriate to call this Death Tourism along the lines of Adventure Tourism or Medical Tourism?” we wondered.

IMG_5309
Pic 12: The burning pyres and their rising smoke.

The huge piles of firewood stacked along the ghat made us depressed, thinking about all the trees that have been chopped off. The three of us agreed in one voice that given a chance, we would like to be cremated in Manikarnika Ghat because of all the mythology associated with it, but in electric pyres.

IMG_5453
Pic 13: Another view of Manikarnika as seen from the boat.

The Story Behind: It is a belief in Hinduism that cremation in Manikarnika Ghat leads to moksha (complete liberation from the cycle of birth and death). There are a couple of legends about this ghat and almost all are associated with Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.

  • One talks about Lord Vishnu digging a pit with his Chakra, the pit gets filled with his perspiration, and Lord Shiva’s earring falls in the pit while watching Lord Vishnu in action. (Mani means jewel in the earring and Karnam means ear).
  • Another talks about Goddess Parvati hiding her earring and asking Lord Shiva to look for it in the hope that the Lord would remain near her forever searching for the lost earring.
  • Yet another, says that Manikarnika is a Shakti Peeth and Sati Devi’s earing had fallen here.
  • Some sources also say that Manikarnik Ghat is named after the Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibhai.
Harishchandra Ghat

This is the only other ghat that is dedicated to cremation rituals. There was a pyre burning in this ghat while another dead body arrived on a bamboo stretcher draped in shining yellow and red sheets of cloth amidst chants of ‘Ram naam satya hai’ (Truth is the name of Lord Rama.)

IMG_5266
Pic 14: The pyre at Harishchandra Ghat.

The Story Behind: Like Manikarnika, bodies cremated here are believed to attain moksha. This ghat is named after the mythical King Harishchandra, who worked at the cremation grounds for the establishment of truth and justice. Rishi Vishwamitra, a sage, asked the king to pay him a ritual fee. The king, known for his generosity gave up his entire kingdom, wealth, and riches but the sage was still not satisfied. Dejected, the king made his way to Kashi. Here he sold his wife and son into slavery and offered himself up for bondage. Years later his wife visited the cremation ground with their son’s dead body who had died from a snake bite. This was supposed to have been the final test for the King. The Gods rewarded him for his honesty, strength, and courage by giving back his throne, kingdom, and son.