A Beautiful Afternoon at Orchid Resort

We woke up to a relatively bright Saturday morning. It had been raining with almost no respite for the past few weeks. Hence, a morning that wasn’t cloudy or rainy was a celebration by itself. This Saturday was special for another reason too – it was J’s birthday. My presence on her special day was a rare occurrence, which surely added a little more to its significance. The plan for the day was simple, we would just spend it together along with A1 and A2. The three of them are my core group of friends at Shillong, the ones who fortunately or unfortunately settled down in Shillong. The rest of us left the city and the state of Meghalaya, mostly forced to do so due to lack of jobs and other opportunities for the non-tribal populace of the state.  

Pic 1: Somewhere at the resort

All four of us are outdoor people and love to go on long drives around the outskirts of the city. Such long drives frequently happen when I’m in town and they constitute some of my most treasured memories of visiting Shillong. The best part is that the three of them would sing all through the drive. Their lovely melodious voices would fill the air creating a dreamlike environment that’s difficult to describe. We hardly had the need to play music from the car’s music system. I haven’t written a single post on those drives yet. The reason being I feel words can do no justice to the feelings and emotions of those drives.

This time we haven’t had the chance to go on a drive yet. Besides, the weather playing spoilsport, A2 has broken her wrist. All our drives usually happen in A2’s car with her being behind the wheels.

Pic 2: From the restaurant when it was pouring outside.

The plan for this Saturday was to visit a place called Mawkasiang, which isn’t very far from the city. I was delighted as this was towards North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences (NEIGRMS) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM-Shillong), an area that I hadn’t been to yet. It’s apparently known as New Shillong. I knew the drive would be good but had little idea about the exact destination my friends had in mind. I didn’t bother to find out and let them take the lead.

Pic 3: Several such gazebos lay scattered across the resort

We met up at a pre-determined location in the city a little before noon, hired a local taxi, and headed out. A few minutes into the drive, we found ourselves passing through a series of uphill and downhill on a road that surprisingly had more greenery than concrete. We passed by NEIGRMS, crossed a signboard indicating that IIM was nearby, and also a dome-shaped construction that reminded me of Capitol Hill. That’s the new Meghalaya Assembly building under construction, said someone.

Soon, after a drive of just 30 mins from the city, we arrived at Mawkasiang. We took a turn beside Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) and in less than 5 minutes arrived at a huge gate, manned by a security guard. As, we entered after completing the formalities, I noticed we were at Orchid Resort.  “Aare, it’s Orchid!”, I exclaimed. Orchid is too familiar a name for me. It’s a chain of restaurants and resorts belonging to Meghalaya Tourism Department. The most popular one being Orchid Lake Resort, located beside Umiam Lake, on way from Guwahati to Shillong. I have frequented that place countless number of times. Haven’t been there for a few years now, but I’m sure it still exists.

Pic 4: The canopy walk through the metallic bridge surrounded by jungles of Pinus khasiana, the indigenous Pines of Khasi Hills.
Pic 5: Another picture of the canopy walk.

About 20 Km. from Shillong city, Orchid Resort at Mawkasiang is easily accessible. Situated on 27 acres of land surrounded by luxuriant Pine Forests, it is relatively new. There is a restaurant and several wooden cottages or log cabins for those who plan to stay. Quad bikes and bicycles were parked outside the restaurant, surely guests can rent them. There’s a long canopy walk through a metallic bridge flanked by lush green jungles of Pines. This, for me, was the highlight of the resort. The young Pine needles almost brushed against us while we walked across. Tiny young green Pine cones peeped through the branches as did the mature large brown ones, each one vying for undivided attention. It was indeed a refreshing feeling.

Pic 6: One of the log cabins at the resort
Pic 7: Some more log cabins where one can plan a stay.

We spent about half a day at the resort, walking around, enjoying the brief spell of heavy showers, having lunch at the restaurant, and of course, chattering endlessly all through. The starters and desert were great, the main course was average. The resort provided the perfect ambience for us to relish every moment of being together, as we celebrated J’s birthday.

Before ending this post, I must mention that this is the first time I am writing about visiting a resort. The nature-lover in me can never align to the idea of having an enjoyable time at an artificial and manicured environment. Yet, that’s just what I did today. While this place did manage to impress me, I also realized that I was perhaps upholding a negative cognitive bias about resort outings. Hopefully that’s broken today.

Pic 8: Cheers to friendships that must have been made in heaven

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.

Temple Tales From Halebidu

We didn’t realise how hungry we were until we sat down for lunch that afternoon. It was well past lunch hours by all standards, and we were famished but nobody was complaining. The extraordinary Belur Temple had captured our senses and we had lost all sense of time. After a hearty South-Indian meal, we proceeded towards Halebidu, our next destination for the day. Visiting these magnificent temples was part of our impromptu road-trip to Hassan district of Karnataka.

Click here to read about Belur
Click here to read about the road-trip
Pic 1: The Dwarapalas or the guardians of the temple flanking the doorway.
Pic 2: A view of the outer wall built on a star-shaped platform, typical of Hoysala Temples.

Halebidu (also spelt as Halebeedu) is a short drive away from Belur, located at just 16 Km. The drive though short was lovely as it passed through villages with green fields lined with coconut trees. The well-paved road was perfect for our post-lunch drive. We were headed to Hoysaleswara Temple, which is the most important place to visit at Halebidu. Hoysala Palace and Kedareswara temple are the other places of significance at Halebidu, which we would not be able to cover as we were already running late.

In ancient times, Halebidu was known as Dwarasamudra, which is also the name of the huge man-made lake situated beside the temple. King Vishnuvardhana of the Hoysala Dynasty had established Dwarasamudra as the capital city of Hoysala Dynasty. Before that Belur used to be the capital.

Pic 3: The profusely carved outer wall showcasing Gods and Goddesses, warriors, musicians, mythical animals, and so on.
Pic 4: A closer look into some of the splendid intricate carvings on the outer wall

Hoysaleswara Temple was built during the reign of King Vishnuvardhana in the 12th century, over a period of 30 years. It was built before Belur Temple. Built of soapstone and without the use of any binding material, the architecture of both the temples is similar. The truly ornate and rich sculptural details both on the outside as well as inside is beyond imagination. Both the temples are beyond comparison and each one better than the other.

Both the temples are functional. While Belur Temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Hoysaleswara Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It has two Shiva Lingas – Hoysaleswara and Santaleswara. The former is dedicated to King Vishnuvardhana and the latter to his Queen, Shantala Devi. The soothing calmness of the temple interior was elevating, and I found myself transfixed for a while staring at the Shiva Linga right in front of me.

Pic 5: One of the two deities, the Shiva Lingas. This one is Santaleswara. Photography of the more grand Hoysaleswara is not allowed.
Pic 6: One of the many sculptures on the outer wall of Lord Shiva with his consort Goddess Parvati.

The intricately detailed outer façade of the temple is spectacular, with unique sculptures that run all along the outer wall. Imagery from the epics of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita adorn the outer walls with highly ornate temple doorways. The Gods, Goddesses, sages, musicians, animals and birds tell tales depicting the life of Hoysala times.

It’s baffling to think about the diligence and patience of the artisans and sculptors of the bygone era. Today it’s unfathomable to imagine the creation of such exquisite architectural marvel, that too working through 30 long years dedicating one’s entire life to a single piece of art.

There are several sculptures of Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati on the outer wall, each one different from the other. A large dancing image of Lord Ganesha is situated at one of the two temple entrances. Two Nandimantapas, each with a huge Nandi richly decorated with carved out stone ornaments are positioned right opposite the two Shiva Lingas.

Pic 7: One of the two Nandimantapas housing Nandi, Lord Shiva’s sacred bull.

I’ve mentioned this before and will not hesitate to say once again that the magnificence of Hoysala temples is something to be felt and experienced. It appeals to the senses and words fall short to describe their grandeur.

Click here to read about Somnathpur Temple (one of the three famous Hoysala Temples)

Long Drive, Vibrant Nature, and Chatty People

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic 4: Somewhere in the highway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spiritual City of Tiruvannamalai

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

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

Pic 1: Arunachala Hill

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

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

Girivalam around Arunachala Hill

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

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

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

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

Hurried Visit to Arunachaleswar Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.