A Tiny Town Called Bangarapet

And it’s Legendary Chaats

The weekend was here, and we did not have any specific plans. There’s nothing much to do in Bangalore, anyway! We didn’t want another day of mindless wandering around Jayanagar and JP Nagar. Though it’s something we had been enjoying of late – traversing the lanes and bylanes underneath the soothing comfort of the large canopies of age-old trees that line many of these streets. Scattered here and there are many parks, all refreshing spots of green.  The old-time houses stand in sharp contrast with the ones renovated to spacious and lovely bungalows. Things that more than often spark interesting conversations, as we watch life happen in the streets of Bangalore. All of these with my good friend R, a proud native of Karnataka, who always comes up with some interesting cultural insights and anecdotes.  

Pic 1: The sun was about to set when we arrived at Bangarapet

It was during these walks that I got introduced to many kinds of authentic Bangalorean food. The result of not being a foodie was that I never had much idea about the varied range of Kannadiga cuisine even after being here for more than a decade. R is a foodie and as a result our casual weekend sprees always lead to discovery of some good eating joints too – roadside as well as fine dining.

And, whenever we savoured chaats, R would invariably say, “I’ll take you to Bangarapet one day”. Bangarapet Chaats are very commonly found in Bangalore. One can spot that banner in almost every lane and street.

So, this Saturday we decided to go to Bangarapet to sample the chaats at their place of origin. I was, however, more interested in exploring the town than its legendary chaats. And no surprises at that! R grew up in a township very close to Bangarapet and even lived in the town for a couple of years during his childhood. Naturally, the place stands very special for him.

Located in Kolar district of Karnataka, Bangarapet is about 90 Km. away from Bangalore. We could have driven down but decided to take a suburban train instead. That got me even more excited! Afterall, we hardly travel in trains these days.

Pic 3: The train was relatively empty when we boarded but soon enough it was jam packed.

Travelling in the crowded suburban train for two hours turned out to be the most interesting experience of the trip. Scores of people commute in this manner everyday and I don’t mean to undermine the trouble they may go through. It could be all good though. At least they don’t have to struggle with traffic jams and all its associated problems. We boarded a Chennai bound train. This was the second time in my life that I was onboard a local train. The first time was about a decade ago when we had traveled to Murshidabad from Kolkata.

Pic 4: Several such colourful flower shops all around the town that make you pause in admiration.

The train was relatively empty when we boarded as it was at the station of origin. As the train started moving and we passed by two other stations in Bangalore, it got fully crowded.

I was comfortably seated at a window seat that gave me the best of views outside and even somewhat shielded me from the jostling crowd. Though I was equally interested in observing people and experiencing all the things that were happening inside the train – incessant chattering, strangers smiling and almost starting a conversation, some even managing video calls with their near and dear ones, hawkers calling out in their typical sing song manner, and so much more. It was like getting transported to childhood days when trains used to be the preferred mode of travel. Now even on those rare train travels you hardly get to experience such small little things.

Pic 5: Simply fell in love with these dilapidated old structures in one of the lanes.
Pic 6: The dilapidated building in its entireity.

We started our Bangarapet sojourn by having a very good chai (tea) at the platform. R claims it’s the best platform chai one can get! And I had to agree, as it was perfect.

Bangarapet is a very small town. It’s quite like the size of a neighbourhood in Bangalore. There are just 4-5 streets and one can easily walk through the entire town in less than an hour. It reminded me of the common Hindi adage of – shuru hone se pehle hi khatam ho jata hai (ends even before it starts).

Nothing distinctive about the town other than the chaat stalls liberally scattered all over in various shapes and sizes. We sampled a wide variety of chaats. Some were good others not so much. However, it’s the hot and spicy water served in small glasses, which is unique about Bangarapet chaats. The water is clear and transparent and can easily pass on as ordinary water till the spice knocks your nostrils so hard that it leaves you baffled for a while. It has the taste of ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, chilies – hot, salty, and tangy all at once!

Pic 7: Thats’s us. A quick selfie before the train got over-crowded.

What are Chaats?

Chaat or chat is the collective name of a spicy and tangy category of roadside savoury snack found in India. This popular mouth-watering snack that originated in the state of Uttar Pradesh is prepared in various combinations. It may contain vegetables of the likes of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, peas, etc. It must contain some kind of crunchy and crispy base or topping or both. Mostly, it will be accompanied by curd and sweet and sour watery dips of various kinds.

A Part of Tagore Remains in Shillong

“Rabindranath lived in this bungalow”, I commented as we passed by the iconic heritage home located about a kilometer from my house. We paused at the large iron gate to read the black granite plaque that had the name ‘Jitbhumi’ engraved on it. “I heard this place has got some new owners”, I continued. “I hope they give this place its due and maintain it as is”. It was then that we noticed Tagore’s bust, just beyond the gate. Now this was something new, I hadn’t seen it before. Clearly, the new owners (a doctor couple) do understand the value of this property. Just then a man, clad in a security guard’s attire, appeared and started walking swiftly towards us. We were all set to be shooed away. Instead, the guard opened the gate and ushered us in. While entry inside the house was not allowed, we were happy to walk and look around the property. So, visitors are allowed in here.

Pic 1: Tagore’s bust at the entrance
Pic 2: Some description

We all know Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore, the legendary poet, who was also a writer, novelist, dramatist, composer, philosopher, social reformer, and painter. The iconic figure of Indian cultural renaissance, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1912 for Gitanjali – a collection of poems, originally written in Bengali and later translated into English.

But, how many of us know that the multitalented personality had a deep connection with Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya!

Tagore visited Shillong not just once, but thrice in 1919, 1923, and 1927. No other hill station has had the privilege of hosting the illustrious poet so many times. Several iconic literary creations emerged from these three visits. The classic master piece romantic novel, Shesher Kobita, for e.g., is set in the backdrop of Shillong, though Tagore wrote it during a trip to South India. Raktakarobi and Shillonger Chiti are the other well-known creations associated with his Shillong visit. Shillonger Chiti is a true representation of how profoundly Tagore’s poetic sense was captivated by the innate natural beauty of Shillong.

In his memoirs, the poet describes the winding road to Shillong as ‘aka – baka – poth’ with eye catching forests on either side. He celebrates the unique aroma of the Pine trees and is charmed by the Rhododendrons of the evergreen Khasi Hills. Shillong’s calmness and tranquillity surrounded by Pine and Deodar trees reflects well in all such Tagore’s work.

Pic 3: The entrance gate

Tagore was already a global celebrity when he first arrived at Shillong. However, it’s a pity that the city did not give the bard his due welcome. Shillong was then the capital of Assam and was under the administration of British Government. It was a time when the political scenario of the country was in a very disturbed state. Tagore had denounced his Knighthood as a protest to the inhumanly cruel Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1918 when the British Army had opened indiscriminate fire killing 400 innocent Indians and leaving several thousand injured. Many people in Shillong probably avoided his company lest they offend the British rulers. It is said that Tagore was upset with the attitude of people but that did not diminish his adoration for Shillong. During his first visit, Tagore stayed for 20 days at a bungalow known as Brookside, which is now owned by the Art and Culture Department of Meghalaya Government.

Pic 4: The Assam type heritage home

It was during his second visit, that Tagore stayed at ‘Jitbhumi’ for two months, which at that time belonged to his niece. He was just back from a year-long trip to Europe and America. It was during his time here that he wrote Raktakarobi (Red Oleanders), a drama reflecting his experience of the largely mechanical and materialistic life in the West. A significant event during this second visit was the celebration of Tagore’s birthday on the 8th of May, 1923.

That ‘Jitbhumi’ owners have retained the bungalow in its original form and preserved many of his precious memories speaks volumes about their admiration and respect towards the renowned poet.

Pic 5: Another view

During his third and final visit in May-June 1927, Tagore stayed at Solomon Villa, later renamed as Sidli House in Upland Road, Laitumkhrah. During this time, he composed the novel Tinpurush, which he later renamed as Yogayog. He penned a few poems too. The letters he wrote to friends and family are also preserved. This heritage house no longer exists.

Besides Tagore, Shillong has also been fortunate to host Swami Vivekananda and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. However, it’s extremely unfortunate that there has been no effort to preserve the heritage homes where people of such stature have stayed. Most are destroyed. It’s a blessing therefore that ‘Jitbhumi’ is owned by people who understand and value the glorious heritage linked to eminent distinguished people, like Tagore.

Disclaimer: The information on Tagore’s Shillong visits is sourced from various news articles in the Internet.

Mattu Beach – A Tropical Paradise

Our auto took a turn and quite unexpectedly we found ourselves on a narrow but perfectly tarred road that was lined with coconut trees on one side and the vast Arabian Sea on the other. Peeping through the coconut trees and scattered all along were quaint little colourful houses painted in red, blue, yellow, pink. It was the long weekend of Independence Day and we were gallivanting around Udupi.

Rajesh, our auto driver, did mention that he was about to take us to a place that we would really like but we hadn’t paid much attention thinking that he hardly knew what would interest us. And, here we were in a state of complete euphoria mesmerized with the scenic and picturesque setting around us. We had grossly underestimated Rajesh’s capability of gauging the interests of tourists riding with him and customising the trips accordingly. His experience and zest in delighting his customers is something he repeatedly proved to us in the next few days.

Sensing our excitement, Rajesh stopped the auto somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It was only when we stepped out that we saw the backwaters beyond the coconut trees. The narrow strip of road was flanked by coconut trees, palm trees, and backwaters on one side and the deep blue sea on the other. Nature has uniquely blessed this place. There were very few people around and it wasn’t the least bit touristy making it the most pleasant place at that moment. There were no hawkers, no shops, no restaurants. The air was filled with the gentle sound of waves splashing into the golden sands, the swishing coconut trees dancing to the tune of the breeze emanating from the sea, and the pleasantly fluttering Indian Flag – it was the day before Independence Day.

Pic 2: What can be more refreshing than strolling on roads like this!
Pic 3: The narrow road flanked by coconut trees and backwaters on one side and the sea on the other.
Pic 4: A view of the backwaters.

The thought that I had never heard about this beach before was astonishing, especially in this digital age of social media. Such a charming beach remains lesser known is a blessing till word spreads and it gets discovered. I just hope the beach remains empty as it is today, which is a possibility so long eateries and hawkers don’t set up shop here. Thoroughly delighted to discover this hidden gem, we had clearly fallen in love with this place. The blissful, pristine, clean, and quiet surroundings exuded the perfect therapeutic feeling of peace and joy. The next few days saw us coming here at least once every single day and spending time in nature’s heavenly solitude.

Just two weeks before I had been to South Goa, which is known for its stunning white sandy beaches, clear blue seas, swaying palm trees, and the amazing sea food. Therefore, it was only natural for me to make a quick comparison of the beaches in South Goa to Mattu Beach. The latter won hands on for reasons more than one. The soulful and serene Mattu Beach is grossly underrated, which is not a bad thing at all, especially for travellers seeking to enjoy nature’s inherent quietude.

Pic 5: The entire stretch of the beach is separated into smaller coves by artificial rock walkways that extend onto the sea.
Pic 6: Clean and simmering golden sands, something that I haven’t seen in any other Indian beach for quite some time.

The 30 Km. long Mattu Beach is also well known for bio luminescence – the sea sparkles at sun down because of the production and emission of light by some bio-luminescent microorganisms. Unfortunately, I got to know of this only after getting back to Bangalore when my friend, unable to get Mattu Beach out of her mind, went into a research mode and started reading up about the place. That was certainly a big miss for us as we never stayed back after sundown. Well, I will certainly visit Mattu Beach once again and bio luminescence will be an additional attraction.

Pic 7: There wasn’t a lot of sun those days and mostly the sky remained overcast, yet we got to witness brilliant play of colours everyday at sunset.

When Staycation Got Hold of Me

Staycation – nah! Not my kind of thing! Why would I spend so much money on a fancy resort or hotel in my own city! Not something I’ll ever do. Or so, I thought.

It must be a year ago or may be two when I heard this word for the first time – STAYCATION, a portmanteau of the words Stay and Vacation. Travel hadn’t opened up fully until then and I would find colleagues off on staycations with their families or friends. When someone explained to me what a staycation entailed, it didn’t appeal much to me. Sure, it worked great for them, especially with their young kids, but it wasn’t for me.

If you surf the Internet, you will find various definitions of staycation. Wikipedia says, it’s about staying at home and participating in leisure activities within day trip distance of your home that doesn’t require overnight accommodation. Merriam Webster says, it’s a vacation spent at home or nearby. Somewhere I also read, it’s a vacation close to your hometown or in your home country rather than travelling abroad. Merriam Webster has even traced the first usage of the word staycation and interestingly, it dates way back to the year 1944. So, the trend of staycation may not be as new as we think it is.

Take a Stay-cation instead of a Va-cation, this year.
— Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 July 1944

[Source: Merriam Webster]

My interpretation of staycation, based on what I see people around me doing, is staying at a hotel or resort in your home city. This felt like a weird concept to me. It was a complete waste of precious holiday time. Must be stemming from my acute love for the outdoors.

I have been told that staycation need not necessarily have to be limited to staying at a hotel or resort with your family and loved ones. It doesn’t have to be just an indoor activity. It could also include short drives and hikes in the surrounding areas. Well, isn’t it just another vacation then? My brain hurts, it’s confusing. Ah! It’s vacation when it’s another city, staycation when it’s the home city. I suppose I got it right. But, did I?

To add to my confusion, the tourism industry is abuzz with terminologies like workcation, homecation, daycation, and what not. While I was comparing, contrasting, and trying to make sense of these post-Covid travel terminologies, I found myself in the midst of a staycation.    

I had to visit Guwahati a couple of times during my extended stay at my home in Shillong. A few of my friends live in Guwahati but more often than not I have to miss meeting them because of competing priorities. There’s one friend though, who never misses to catch up with me each time I pass by Guwahati, even if it is for a few minutes. And, ironically, she happens to be the busiest of them all. This time, both of us had the luxury of a little more time – the afternoon of that day until forenoon, the next day. Incidentally, a common friend also happened to arrive at Guwahati that day. The three of us were meeting after a very long time and we had loads to catch up on. I presumed that we were going to spend most of the time at my friend’s home in Guwahati.

My friend threw up a big surprise by announcing that she had booked a room at a luxury hotel in Guwahati and that’s where we would put up for our time together. And, when three women are together after a very long gap what happens is anybody’s guess – talk nineteen to the dozen – an activity that’s completely in tune with the concept of staycation.

The impromptu staycation planned by my friend turned out to be the best decision. We got to spend such quality time with each other. All three of us were fully absorbed and completely focused on each other. There was no concern for food, no worries about tidying up the place, no diversion with anything or anybody interfering and taking away our time.

My maiden staycation turned out to be a lot of fun and quite an eye-opener too. Now, I can say with some authority that staycation sure has its merits. And, I learnt for the nth time to be open to ideas and not be opinionated or biased towards things that I haven’t experienced yet.

So absorbed we were with ourselves that we had no time for pictures, but here’s two for memory’s sake.

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.

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.

Temple Tales From Belur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Residency – A Surprise Find at Lucknow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic 6: The Treasury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benaras Revisited

CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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