Spiti Valley – A Road Trip To NoWhereLand

Picking up from where I had ended the part 1 of the Himachal trip.. We had just completed the trek, had crossed the Hampta Pass a day earlier, and had reached Chattru. If we’d have gone for a standard trek package, we’d have ended our trek here and next step would be to head back to Manali. Some trek packages now extend the trip by a day and that’s what our arrangement was.. to drive till Chandratal from Chattru, camp there overnight with the Cub camper trailers and then return back to Manali the next day.

Errr, but we didn’t want to brakes so soon, hoping that now that we’re officially in Spiti Valley and just a few hours of drive away from Kaza, why not extend our stay for a day. We didn’t know this at the time of booking but the group that had originally booked with Ronnie had planned to extend the trip further to Spiti Valley. These guys had already reserved a cab that had come to pick us for the roadtrip, sweet! These customization are only possible when you book with a local guide, for the organized players wouldn’t be able to accommodate any changes in their packed schedule. The big groups have back to back batches of trekking groups crossing the pass, remember we’re doing one of the most famous treks in Himalayas! If you haven’t heard of Spiti Valley, then a trip is highly recommended, for you’d find yourself on roads like these!

While planning the trip, this possible extension to Spiti Valley had really stressed me out and I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to pull it off. If you’d ask me now, there wasn’t much we could have done to plan it out better, if you’re going to a place as remote as Spiti, expect things to not go as smoothly as planning a roadtrip to Goa. There was a lot of uncertainty about whether the road from Manali to Kaza had opened for the season or not. Unfortunately there is no reliable source, public or private, that publishes status of that road and the route is prone to landslides, thus there is always a risk associated with this trip.

Our original plan was to board the bus heading towards Kaza from Batal, if we’d reach Batal before the bus. The back-up plan was to stay back at Batal and find a shared taxi that had space for us. Worst case scenario, we’d have to stay the night and wait for the bus that’d be passing Batal next morning as there is just a single bus that leaves for Kaza from Manali in a day. I had made several phone calls to get confirmation on operations of the public bus service that runs from Manali to Kaza but I got so many conflicting replies that I had put it off to be figured at Manali bus stand itself. In hindisght, I was being really optimistic about our chances of finding some means of reaching Kaza from Chandratal. I’d recommend not to rely on finding something mid-way, finding a bus or a taxi from Manali wouldn’t be a challenge however.

So after this rather detailed note on how we figured out our travel logistics, time to move over to the journey itself. Our plan for the first day was to first drive to Batal, book the tents there for night stay. We opted to stay here rather than trying our luck at Chandratal as the few tents there are in high demand and it’d be hard to stay there unless you’ve booked weeks in advance. Then on the subsequent day, we’d start from Batal to reach Kaza by noon. This gave us a good day and a half window to explore the villages of Spiti, whichever ones are in vicinity of Kaza, the capital city where we’d be staying at night. If you’re wondering why we took so much pain to visit a few villages, it’s because of their remote locations! Look at one such village below and imagine the hike to the farms at the bottom of the valley, how does it compare with the choked roads in cities you take for your work commute.. pretty much!

This place deserves a separate trip for you need atleast a week to cover everything this place has to offer. We rushed there because of this being an extension of our main trip but this isn’t a place to go for just a check-in. So, what we did was a short trip, which a lot of people do when they don’t have 10 days to spare and/or are traveling from Manali. But, the best way to cover this region is to get on a motorbike (or a car if you find a bike too risky) and reach Shimla. The real trip starts from there, you’d be crossing Kinnaur and Spiti districts of Himachal to end the trip at Manali. I’ve mapped both the trip in the map below. If you haven’t used MyMaps by Google, you’d be able to see the menu, which allows you to turn on and off the layers on the map, by clicking the slider on top left. I’ve also mapped the 2 side trips that we did, I’m sure there are more that one can do, especially when you’re traveling from Shimla and have more time on hand.

&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;br /&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;&amp;amp;amp;lt;br /&amp;amp;amp;gt;&amp;lt;br /&amp;gt;<br />

$(‘.myIframe’).css(‘height’, $(window).height()+’px’);

So, as per our plan, we started off for Batal after the lunch at Chattru but only to realize after a while that we’d only be driving on namesake roads. The roads till Batal are really rocky riverbeds that have now dried up except for occasional streams that still were flowing at times through the road to join the bigger Chandra river. A few other times, the streams were the roads! Yes, at times, we were literally going upstream for a few hundred meters, nothing too dangerous, just adventurous! I wasn’t clicking these pictures because the road was super bumpy for any sort of camera setting and we didn’t have enough time to stop for shooting other cars.

Batal, much like Chattru, is not really a village but more like a settlement besides another bridge on the Chandra river. However, the one thing that stood out for me was the Dhabha there run by an elderly couple, lovingly called Chacha Chachi and even the dhabha is more popularly called Chacha Chachi Dhabha. They have an interesting story to say the least. They have been running the eating joint for decades at prices that beat your expectations, given the hostility of the environment there. They are not money-minded people and you’d always feel warmth in their tents and in their hearts. But more interestingly, so far they’ve rescued more than a hundred travelers who at multiple occasions got stuck in the heavy snow there. In 2013, they were recognized by the Himachal Government for their bravery and service to the people.

Soon after, we reached the sublime lake hidden in the mountains – Chandratal. The spot has become really popular off late and and a lot of permanent camps have been setup for the incoming tourists. However the government is growing strict with these developments and now the tents are pitched at about 3km before the lake. You’d still be able to drive for 2 more kms and the lake then remains less than a km of hike away. But from what I heard, the government would soon close the road beyond the camps and the only option to reach the lake would be to hike from the camps. Everyone had been waiting for this leg of the trip and no one seemed to mind the short hike to the lake. Below is the first view we got of the lake!

Also, it was rather windy that day and the dry wind would cut through your skin, but still sunny enough to burn your skin. Spiti valley is known for its extreme weather. Also, this lake is at the elevation of 4300m, higher than the pass we had crossed. Thus I could feel the high altitude acting. I was feeling a bit funny in my head and my nose never stopped dripping there. But that didn’t stop me or even others in getting clicked against the lake!

I had planned to click the iconic shot to get the reflections of the mountains in the lake, but because of the wind, the water had turned wavy and I guess i’ll have to come back for the shot that inspired me to get here..

Although I would have loved to stay longer at the lake, explore the surrounding hills, we had to return back to Batal where we were sleeping that night. The night stay was fun, especially after 3 nights of camping in tents where I couldn’t really fit. We started next day with paranthas at the dhabha and bid farewell to Ronnie who was returning to Manali. He had gone beyond the call of duty to make sure our stay at Batal was comfortable and was inclined to come back for Pin Parvati trek with his group, once I am fit and ready for it.

To reach Kaza, we had to cross the Kunzum Pass, which is a motorable pass at an elevation of 4500m. The namesake cafe in Delhi has contributed to the popularity of this pass as this is the gateway to Spiti when you’re travelling from Manali. You’d find a small temple at the top and is customary to halt here. We did too, even when we were returning 2 days later.

We’d be entering the heart of the Spiti Valley from here onwards and I had some ideas of the views from the hours of browsing on internet. I got the below shot from the moving taxi and we later drove on the same road! Imagine the shots you can create if you have the luxury to stop at each turn!

Kaza is the capital city of the Spiti district and given the recent love for the region, a mad rush has gripped the city to open new hotels to accommodate the growing number of tourists. We had to scout for rooms through the city and found some arrangement at a place called Winter White. I’d recommend booking for hotels in advance there since your phones won’t be working and it can get a bit tiring to knock on hotel doors asking for rooms in the peak summer season. We never reached a vantage point to click a similar photo of the city, but imagine Kaza to be another such village, only much bigger.

This post is not just about the journey, we do arrive somewhere, haha! We only had a about 3 hrs of sunshine left for the day and decided to split our side trip into 2 parts, visit Key monastery and Kibber village today and figure out the rest of the places the next day, which ones were still up for discussion!

Although we visited Kibber village first but I’ll talk about it with other villages we visited the next day, let’s have a look at the Key Monastery first. If you knew about Spiti Valley from internet, then you’d surely know about the landmark that is Key Monastery. It is the largest in the valley and sits atop a hill in the shadow of rocky mountains overlooking the Spiti River. I had clicked the shot below from the other side of the river.

You might better recall it from the ever famous shot below, you too can click it from a vantage point, somewhere on the rocky mountains you see behind the monastry. You’d see a trail that leads to that spot, go for it if you have the time and courage! But you’d have to shoot it early in the morning as the sun sets across the river and you’d get a backlit shot with flares if you’d try your luck post noon.

I still got a few good shots though, looking at the valley from the monastery. Unfortunately the monastery was closed and we could just roam around the main prayer halls, trying to understand as much as we could about this foreign land in the limited time for which we were there.

We spent the following evening at the Himalayan Cafe, which seemed to be the most popular eating joint at the Kaza market. I personally liked the food and the hip ambiance they had managed to create. By now we had spent close to a week without phone connectivity and the only little internet that Kaza gets is through BSNL tower in the city. The WiFi connectivity is rather poor and keeps everyone on the leash by connecting intermittently every few minutes. Ashamed to admit it but that’s what we all were busy doing that evening post dinner, hoping to connect back with life back home.

If you’d look at the map I had posted above, the side trip from Kaza took us to nearby villages which offer a glimpse into the life of people who live disconnected from world hidden in the remotest corners of the country. The roads to these villages remain closed during the winters and the only source of income for these people is the little farming they manage to do at relatively flat stretches of lands close to their homes. We had covered Kibber the previous day and next day we drove on the closed loop that brought us to 4 more villages – Langcha, Hikkim, Komik and Demul, listed in same order we reached these places, starting and ending our trip at Kaza. Each of these places were memorable in their own ways –

  • Langcha is known for fossils, yes! Evidently the region was full of marine life, some millions of years ago. You can trek ahead of the village to hunt them down yourself or you’d surely encounter kids, at the village, who’d be selling them in all shapes and price ranges. It’s a great place for hunting.
  • Hikkim has the honour of having the highest post-office in the world. You’d see a lot of people visiting the place getting themselves clicked against the Indian Post Office building there and sending out postcards to friends, which take upto 20 days to deliver.
  • Komik was once the highest motorable village in the world, there is a sign that still says so, but if you’d try researching this on internet, you’d see this claim doesn’t hold true anymore.
  • Demul doesn’t have an unique feature that puts it in the spotlight but it was the remotest place we had been to. I found it to be the most serene, with just a bunch of neatly packed white houses nestled in the lap of nature.

We drove through picturesque valleys on roads that rarely I really enjoyed clicking most of these shots, especially the landscape panoramas! It’s always tricky to decide how many photos to include, where to crop to balance the trade-off between the wide-angle view, what you really are seeing and the aspect ratio of final image, the curvature of horizons. The kids here seemed hardened by the extreme weather of Spiti, the one selling the fossils could negotiate really well!

Another thing that I’d like to mention is the we were lucky to locate a couple of what seemed like wild deers, called Bharal in Hindi, and for some odd reason, Blue Sheep in English. They usually graze away from villages during summers, and come down to villages only during winters. Snow Leapords prey on these wild folks, thus, if you want to spot these big cats, then it’d be a good idea to plan a photography trip to Kaza during winters. Even if you don’t spot a leapord, you’d have booked a trip for the wonderland, so it’s definitely a good deal!

Everyone seemed happy with the day, it was relaxed and easy paced. Even though we drove through bumpy roads, nobody was complaining about it on our return journey to Kaza and kept bringing up the stories and memories we had created earlier in the day. We had a rather filling dinner at the hotel, and even some Old Monk we had managed to source from the wine shop at the market, tee hee! ūüėÄ

The whole of next day was spent in coming back to the cities where we had to re-join our daily lives. The drive to Manali from Kaza is 12 hrs long and we just had a couple of hours of stop there before we boarded our bus for Delhi, a back breaking 16 hrs journey. I remember not doing much on the ride back. I had loaded up the phone with netflix shows and new music but I guess I just wanted a clear mind, much like the Spiti roads that had brought us to the lovely villages. One thing that I did do was review all the photos, here is the full album for with more shots that didn’t make it to this post.

Well, this was my super trip! Do share your Spiti stories as well and if you haven’t been there, I hope this post could be of some help to you..

Hampta Pass Trek

I just came from a 10 day long trip and I’m feeling quite happy about it! Usually it’s the new place, new experience that’s major booster for post-trip happiness but not in this one. I backpacked solo after almost an year and had my camera with me, not just in the bag, but around my neck! and I felt connected with my old self. Well, it does sound cliched, but that’s how I feel after my trip where I trekked through Hampta pass from Kullu Valley to Spiti Valley and then spent a couple of days at the villages in the valley. Why this trip was good for me? Because I was doing a few things for the first time such as camping in a glacier bed and then there were things which I used to love but hadn’t done in a while, stitching panoramas for creating a photo-story of my trip.

It was a pleasant surprise that¬†though I hadn’t had the chance to work on my photography in last couple of years but now when this trip allowed me the chance, I was able to produce good results like the old days. It got easier after a few shots and I felt the compositions, aperture and shutter speed combinations coming back.¬†Since I’m all excited about writing this travelogue, I even spent last 10 minutes in figuring out the right instrumental playlist that should go on while I write it out, I’ve decided to split it into 2 parts – the trek and the roadtrip..

So, moving over to the trek, Hampta Pass is still one of the popular Himalayan treks that a lot of interested folks would know about. If you haven’t done any trek before and are simply googling for “Himalayan Treks”, this trek is probably going to feature in 8 of the 10 links you’d see in the results page. I would recommend it as a perfect introductory high altitude trek, taking my personal threshold for high altitude as 4000m. Call it fresh spark of interest, but I did spend a few days reading about the other high altitude passes that a non-pro trekker can scale in India and a bunch of new groups that have come up recently to address the increased demand, and plan to do a post on this separately.

The tricky part of these treks is the timing, the same trek can vary in its difficulty levels depending on the season and how many people have crossed the pass before you. The earlier you go in the season, the fewer the crossings would be, the fresher the trails and harder the journey as you might be cutting through the snow slopes at some points. We crossed the pass on 22nd June 2017 and probably 50-100 others would have crossed it before us. It is always recommended to research this information about any potential treks you will be on, I got my information from¬†EffortlessOutdoors.com, and planned accordingly. Thus in terms of the gradient of difficulty that the trek offers, I’d rate it at 7/10.. 10 for the first person who would have crossed the pass in May last week and rating 1 for the person who’d cross it in September last week after a couple of thousand people would have crossed it already.

I had done a few single day hikes before this and had been to 3000+ m elevation before, so I was not a complete newbie. But if you haven’t had any experience with such treks, I’d recommend some of the easier options to get yourself started. Nilgiris offer really good hikes through dense forests, I’ve hiked a couple of peaks at Coorg – Thadiandamol and Nishani Motte. There are number of similar hike options in Sayadari as well, thus Bangalore and Mumbai have a good community of hikers apart from Delhi. Finally from Delhi, you can go for easier treks such as Triund, Prashar Lake, Nag Tibba, Hanuman Chatti, etc. Just close to Manali is Bhrigu lake and that too is a popular trekking route that’s somewhere between the easy ones I mentioned and the Hampta Pass trek.

A lot of the groups you’d join would have people who wouldn’t have prepared for the trip and would then return mid-way. Most of the groups you’d be joining would also recommend you to get your body in an active mode 2-3 weeks before the trek. I personally did commit to a fitness routine, and I saw people who didn’t either struggling or returning mid because they got too tired too soon. It is easy to bypass the training and there are chances that you might still be able to finish the trek, but if you do find it tough in middle of the trek, then it is not just your problem, it becomes a problem for the other group members as well. ¬†It does take a bit of an effort to reach to views like below

Alright, let me now walk you through the trek, don’t want to make this a 1 hr read as well..

I had booked the trek through an online trekking group – MountainMonks, but later figured that their group was formed only through a partnership with another group that was being led by a local guide, who went by the name Ronnie. I was initially a little hesitant as the last time I had come for a bike tour of Spiti Valley, I didn’t like the planning of the trip as there too we didn’t have a big enough group and our organizer had decided to join with another group. I ultimately did not continue that trip and returned from Rohtang Pass. I didn’t want this trip to end up similarly. I had already cancelled a trip to Hampta Pass because the pass wasn’t yet open due to the heavy snow we had last year. So, this was really my last chance, if this trip wouldn’t have happened, I would have not tried a 4th time!

But nothing of this sort happened, after spending a day at Manali to acclaimatise and get well-rested, the journey started! The trek usually starts from Prini Village, and if you’re joining a group, drive to the village from the main city center is usually part of the package. But we then learnt that the trail only starts from Jobra, and a road has been laid down from Prini village till Jobra. But not all vehicles get the permission to drive on that road, thus depending on your group’s status, preference of the members and the authority’s stance, you’d start walking from Prini or from Jobra. There is a hydro-electric plant based on the river stream in vicinity that is really the cause of these driving restrictions.

There was a small bridge over a Rani nalla, a gushing glacier stream, that for me was symbolic of the start of the trek for us.

We had a small hike planned for the day as we were joining another group which would’ve started after a couple of hours after our departure from Manali and thus wanted to cover only as much distance as they could’ve covered before it gets dark. We had already lost phone signals by now and the only signs of settlement were the shop tents that we used to pass. Crossing one such shop in the pic below –

The plan earlier was to camp at Chika, a popular spot which even has some tents camped throughout the season. But we ended up camping a little before besides the river stream, which in hindsight was a good call as when we passed Chika the next day, I liked that spot better than where the tents are usually pitched.¬†It also was a good spot for getting some good landscape shots, here are some –

The only other tent we could see at the spot was that of a shepherd whose flock was grazing on the central below, with smoke rising up from the tent of the shepherds –

Our tents too are visible in the pic above, just right of the shepherd’s tent but a bit distant. The pic below will give you a better idea of where we were if you can find the same trees as below in the pic above!

Soon, we had another group pitching tent close to us and in no time, they started preparing dinner. The smoke below in the pic is their kitchen firewood. 

We learnt that the group wasn’t any usual group. It was just a lone crazy Canadian who was trekking along with 2 Nepali sherpas. They were attempting to cross the Hampta pass just like us, but it wasn’t even close to where they were ending their trek! They planned to keep walking till Chandratal from where the trek ends and then attempt to cross the Baralachala Pass to exit on the Manali-Leh highway and then probably walk till Leh! That’s one crazy plan! You can locate Hampta pass at the bottom and Baralachala at the top of the map below.

Zooming in on Hampta Pass, our first camp would’ve been just before Chika, before the Hampta Nala (or Rani Nala as it is alternatively called) begins to turn rightwards. The 2 yellow spots beyond Chika would be our other 2 camping spots – Balu ka Gera before the pass and Shea Goru beyond it. The trek ends at Chattru, beyond which the journey becomes a road-trip and I’ll cover that in the next post.

The campsite was nestled between a gentle hill, that you earlier saw from the shepherd’s perspective and a big steep rocky mountain with a river stream flowing between them. The terrain had a steep gradient in terms of vegetation. I distinctively remember the bright pink and yellow flowers close to the stream.

 

Take a guess what would have formed the background for my pic below.. It was a fallen tree! The tree trunk was  breaking down into chunks and decomposing!

 

We must have reached the camp site by 4pm, so had enough time to capture these shots. There wasn’t much of a sunset, just a few golden minutes..

Here is another view of our tents with river stream in the frame as well..

We then closed the first day post dinner and fire-side chat with the new set of people everyone was with. Usual chat to get to know each other and build some rapport. The days are simple in mountains, there isn’t much of an agenda beyond sunset. The group gets to have dinner around sunset and then because this was still the first day, people weren’t tired, otherwise everyone sleeps off by 8pm to get as much as rest as possible.

I woke up in between 5-6 AM next morning but since we only were planning to march ahead by 9 AM, I had a couple of hours to kill. So, I decided to walk upto the shepherds whose sheeps were all packed close to their tent. I got some good close-up shots of there and I learnt event the shepherds were going till Chandratal, although at a much slower pace to allow their flock to keep grazing on the grass on the way.

Much like the previous day, our trek today started with crossing a river stream and we then kept walking uphill, to its source, never leaving its banks out of our sights.

But as you can probably realize from the photo as well, it wasn’t really sunny for 9 AM. Infact we would have barely walked for 30 mins, and it started to drizzle which only got heavier as we walked up the hills. We were soon completely drenched as I realized that my rainproof jacket and lower weren’t adequate for the overbearing rain pouring over us! Not sure sure if it was because of the rain, but our group had almost split in 2 groups – few of us were much ahead than the rest of the group. We were trekking with Sanju from the trekking team and the trek leader was accompanying the rest of the group since they were 7 of them, while we were just a group of 2. There was no time to take out the camera there and we just kept walking, climbing up the boulders and at times had to cross a few waterfalls.

We walked in the downpour for about 3 hours and the much needed relief we got was when we reached Jwara where a small tea shop had pitched a permanent tent. We decided to wait out for the rest of the group there. The host was really gracious and served everyone hot tea and biscuits. He even let everyone warm up near the kerosene stove. It was noon by now and for a brief moment, the rain had stopped as it was really windy up here, compared with where were 3 hours ago. The landscape had changed as well, no more plants, only grass cover. We could even see patches of snow alongside the trail.

The trail ahead of us brought us to another stream that we had to cross. We kept hearing about this nallah¬†the previous day that we had to cross before noon as the waterflow rises post noon. We reached the spot around 1pm, not too bad considering we had hiked in excessive rain all this while. There was no bridge over this stream, we had to cross it by foot and it’s hard to come up with words to describe the sensation you’d feel in your feet once you’re out of it from the other end. Imagine it to be like getting bitten by a thousand red ants but all you can do it wait for the sensation to get over! And it does get better only in matter of minutes, so nothing deadly. Our porters seemed so indifferent to their feet, so, I too decided to quickly tie back my shoes and get restarted. The views on the way didn’t disappoint, so we kept moving forward without any loss in enthusiasm.

The landscape kept changing as we moved further, as you’d expect. It wasn”t surprising anymore to see small waterfalls emerging out the mountains. It was still raining but it seemed safe to get the camera out.

We kept moving further and the gap between the groups emerged again and it was apparent by now that we two were just walked faster than the other group. Thus, most of the times you’d be walking quitely on these treks, not really chatting and laughing like you’d in a city walk. We had reached our campsite for the day, Balu ka Gera, by around 5 PM and you can notice the difference in the topography of the 2 campsites, as we gained 900+m elevation.

I had the heart and will to help setup the camps yesterday but I was just watching from sidelines today as the porters sprung into action soon after they reached the campsite and by the time others arrived, all the camps were up. It was also pretty windy up at the campsite, so we were feeling really cold in our wet clothes, but as soon as we got into the dry ones, we were feeling much better. The rest of the day went by quickly. Our trek leader had promised us that he’d be cooking¬†Shakshuka¬†for dinner. It’s an Israeli, or rather middle-eastern dish that he had learnt as he had led numerous Israeli groups over similar treks in the past. Everyone loved the dish, and the pasta was a bonus that really made the day for us! We couldn’t have asked for better hospitality at that spot! The white tent in the bottom right corner was the kitchen tent and the next few tents were ours. We had company for the day as few other trekkers had pitched their tents at the same spot, including the crazy Canadian!

Similar to the previous day, I got up a bit early as compared with others and had some time to explore and scout for good vantage points for morning sunrise shots.

The one thing that intrigued me in the peaks that were visible from the campsite was a particular setup of stones on the top, visible in the photo above as well, which resembled a temple. Interestingly it was also the first one to shine as sun rose above the horizon. It seemed hard to believe all this was just a coincidence!

Soon, it was time for us to get started for the day, we got some really bright sunlight in the morning and it had reached our tents by 7 AM. Everyone took this opportunity to dry off the clothes that had got wet in rain. It’s hard to predict weather up there and soon the sunlight was gone as made way forward and the landscape again started to change. We had now reached a point where the green grasslands were transitioning into dry mountains which seemed to have a snow cover round the year.

But that also meant that it was getting harder to climb further. Although we were facing some troubles in keeping pace yesterday, which we had assumed was because of the rain, the delay today wasn’t looking very encouraging. We had to cross the pass today and we would soon be leaving behind rocky ground for glaciers. This transition was beyond the point of return and not everyone in the group seemed fit for it. Our trek lead Ronnie, pointing towards the pass below, switched gears and donned the tough guy hat, and took the hard call of suggesting the unfit members of the group to return back from this point.

Sanju, from the trekking team was tasked with the responsibility to lead the group that was returning back along with 2 other porters as we’d need fewer supplies now onwards. Our group was initially of 9, but only 4 of us continued from here onwards along with Ronnie and 2 other porters. It is to avoid situations like these, one must come prepared for such trips!

To make up for the lost time, we paced onwards and soon reached the precise spot for Balu ka Gera. Balu is a local word for sand and Gera represents a hill or a deposit in a way. Thus, the spot we reached was kinda glacial pool that out of nowhere had a sandy beach surrounding it. It wasn’t really an expansive lake, more like the glacial origin of the river stream that we’d be tracing upstream all this while, on a relatively flat stretch of land, thus the flow wasn’t as gushing as we had seen downhill previously. We had no interest in getting ourselves wet again so we navigated our way through the rocks on the slope of the mountain towards our left, with the river stream towards our right as in the photo below. The pass is visible as the bright snow patch just left of the big mountain in the center.

We kept moving forwards and soon reached the point where we had to start walking on the glacial snow, but instead of walking uphill, we were cutting through it, with the hill top on the left of us and the what was previously the river stream, and now seamed just thick layers of snow, towards the right.

I initially struggled to get a grip on the snow as I had never walked in such situation before but it isn’t as tough as I had imagined it to be. My biggest fear was that if I slip, I’d reach the bottom of the slope and there is even a chance that the sheet of snow cracks from my weight. So, I was walking with my concentration on just the next step and even though I didn’t fall but my best guess is that even if you do, you’d stop much before on the slope.

We had started with good weather but soon something unexpected happened, as we kept climbing, it started to snow! It initially started out as light drizzle but it soon converted into a mix of hail and snow. You can see folks bringing out their wet kits for the climb further.

This was also the transition point where we left the grasslands for snow patches and then soon after had to cover the rest of the trek over what seemed like a glacier because we were no longer walking at the edges! That’s me going for the climb and you can see Ronnie, towards the right edge, considerably ahead of me, comfortably walking over the snow patch!

The way to the top can be divided into 3 glacial ridges, of which 1st is the shortest but since it’s the first you’d find it a bit tough, 2nd is the easiest but the longest and the 3rd one has the steepest climb but being in walking distance to the top, you’d never want to give up there! The photo below was clicked just after we finished the 2nd ridge. The pass is visible on the left as a stretch of relatively flat spread in between the 2 peaks.

I did well on the 2nd ridge and had gained some confidence thus marched forward towards the pass and soon enough we were on the top. All this while we were the only ones, we did not meet even a single soul after we had left the campsite at Balu ka Gera. The first person we met was on the top, a porter who carrying mules for another group which had just crossed the pass. He updated us that we might be the 5th or the 6th group to cross the pass! But later after returning and speaking with a guy who had crossed the pass on 13th June, I learnt that we might have been the 15th or so group. Many brave men had already done it in the week before we were there!

Below is the shot from the top of the pass! The shot was clicked from the saddle point, and though my description might sound so vanilla right now, but the quiet excitement and satisfaction of reaching the top is something special, be it anywhere!

We took a symbolic break and offloaded our bags at the top to celebrate the moment. Funfact is that the memory card that had shots of me in the frame got lost somewhere, so you’d have to just imagine on these trails! The range that you see in the bottom right is where we were headed. For us, this was the entrance to the Spiti Valley. Here is a first look of the valley clicked during our descent.

I learnt that the wide valley is actually a glacier and it was the biggest we had seen thus far! I further learnt that we’d be camping somewhere down there. We were a bit relieved to learn that the camping site was not as dry and glacial as we had imagined. We camped on the foot of the slope of the mountain you see below, the camps are visible in the pic when you’d zoom in the original. We had finally reached Shea Goru!

You already know by now what happens once we reach the camps – we eat and then talk for a while and go to sleep to get as much as rest we can for the upcoming day. The next day wasn’t as tough as it was all downhill till Chatrru and we were blessed with really bright sunshine, enough that I had changed to shorts and just a tshirt.

Spiti Valley was looking as I had imagined and the vast expanse of mountains turned darker in shades as we looked further. We must have reached Chattru by noon and met the jeeps which had come from Manali with the group members who had returned back the previous day. Not everyone was extending the trip to Spiti, so the group that was originally of 9 and had shortened to 4, now swelled to 6. We greeted and congratulated each other on the symbolic end of the trek.

Now when I am writing back about the trek, I can confidently say that I’d like to have Ronnie and his crew for my next trek as well. I personally really enjoyed his company and hospitality which would have been missing in the trek organized by bigger & more professional groups. I’d recommend you to check his availability whenever you’re planning a similar trek in the region. He is available at +91 8219826730

Chattru isn’t even a village, just a bunch of tents pitched closed to a bridge on the Chandra river. But it didn’t matter to us, we went ahead and ordered Rajma Chawal for our lunch at the Dhabha there, that was enough to bring a smile on our face! ūüôā

The next half of the post will become the part 2, which I would post soon enough, I’d go edit some more photos till then! If you want to have a better look at the photos posted here, you should check out the full album. The 180 degree panoramas especially end up too small for the screen, but in the album you’d be able to zoom-in and you’d see much more details! Plus, the photos which aren’t here. Always happy to hear from you guys and if you’ve done this trek as well, do share your links in comments!

UPDATE – the part 2 of the post is now live – Spiti Valley – Road Trip to NoWhereLand

 

Revisiting Tamil Nadu – North of Kaveri

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to be back in Tamil Nadu and visit places which I couldn’t cover in my earlier trips – part one¬†and part two! I loved this trip as each city I had been to was really old and writing about the trip afterwards became a lesson in history. I started writing this post with a blank slate and have atleast 20 tabs open in the browser already!

Although, you’d consistently be amazed by the history of Tamil Nadu,¬†things are not so exciting for everyone. Apart from Chennai and maybe Coimbatore (haven’t been there) no other city is westernized enough to have an active nightlife. So, a lot of young people tend to give these spots a miss. Yes, I too realized that I sound like a grumpy old man. But the truth is that I saw very few people from north when I was at these places.

Anyhow, back to the post.. So, what’s the significance of the title – North of Kaveri – well, that’s what I covered in this trip! People from north India tend to club the whole south as one region, but like how you’d expect, the reality is much more complex. There wasn’t even a single Tamil nation for most of the history. Kaveri river often was the frontier of kingdoms which either ruled either north or south of the river. Pallava kings ruled from north of Kaveri and in this trip, I visited their erstwhile capital – Kanchipuram and one of their major port cities – Mahabalipuram. Apart from these 2 ancient cities, I spent a almost a week in Chennai as well, but there isn’t much difference between any metro city nowadays, so I’d stick with the grand Pallava cities.

So, continuing with the format of the travel posts I do, before we talk about the Pallava cities and buildings, let’s talk about the Pallava dynasty to get some perspective. The funny thing about Pallavas is that they didn’t have Tamil origins, so they are not really kept at the same pedestal in history books as the Tamil trinity of Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas. Pallavas served as feudatories under Satavahana dynasty (modern day Andhra region) and upon their fall, gained independent control over the region north of Kaveri river. Also during this time, Pandyas were the major kingdom below the Kaveri. The timeline of this change in power is kind of vague but we can go with wikipedia which mentions 3rd century CE. Although Pallavas and Pandyas were fighting against each other for territorial gains, they did come together for a brief period of time in around 6th century CE when they both got kicked out of power by Kalprabhas, who by the way were kind of weird and no one really talks about that time in history. But as soon as they were back in power, they again started fighting each other. So, in a way, politics here wasn’t very different from the rest of the world. So, back in power , Pallavas spent a lot of time fighting kingdoms in other regions especially Chaukyas, modern day Karnataka, though the fight wasn’t over Kaveri river water distribution back then. But ultimately their region was taken over by Cholas, a local power that had been expanding after it had overturned Pandyas in Madurai in about 9th century CE. Nobody ruled without disruptions in south, so Pallavas had got dethroned multiple times in between their 600+ years of rule, but let’s not get into those details!

The map below is really important not just for its political significance but also for the smaller cities it shows. We’ll come back to this map in a while.

 

I started out on a saturday morning from Chennai with a rough plan to cover Kanchipuram by lunch, and Mahabalipuram by evening and end the day back in Chennai. Although friends from Chennai suggested to cover only 1 city per day, I was able to cover both quite comfortably. If you are a light touch visitor, I’d recommend doing it my way otherwise days would really move slow for you. I traveled in local buses and it would be convenient enough for you to do the same as the frequencies are pretty good and you wouldn’t have to depend a lot on asking locals for directions.

So, as I got down at¬†Kanchipuram, I booked an auto for the day. The auto driver agreed to take me to the 3 main temples I could’ve visited in the time I had before noon. All temples in Kanchipuram get closed by noon and re-open only at 4pm. I had been running late and managed to reach Kanchipuram only at 10am. Thus I agreed to his plan. Our first stop was Kanchi Kamakshi, a sister temple to the grander Madurai Meenakshi temple. You’d find this temple really clean and well-maintained. It also appears to be the most famous temple in the city, it even has a fully functional website!

Madurai Meenakshi’s sister Kanchi Kamakshi ūüėÄ

A post shared by anubhav tyagi (@exeperience) on

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js

I wasn’t carrying my camera on this trip, so all my photos were clicked from the OnePlus2 that I have and the best shots are up on Instagram, so I’ve decided to embed those same shots in this post. I’m really happy with Instagram, thus if this works well, I’d start embeding instagram photos here instead of uploading photos for all future posts. I have a good feeling about this transition!

But what continues is Disha sketching for her blog and even though she didn’t join me for this trip, but happily sketched based on my photos! Below is Disha’s rendition of the gopurams of Kanchipuram.

Honestly my main motivation to come to Kanchipuram was to see the Kailashnath temple, but that was the last temple on our list. The next stop was at Ekambareswarar Temple. I didn’t know much about this temple and was expecting a regular visit like the previous one but I was delighted to be here! The temple complex was huge and the south gate had the tallest Gaopuram of the city!

Really liked this temple!

A post shared by anubhav tyagi (@exeperience) on

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js

The best part was the inner halls which were lined with Pillars and the natural light gave really good shots. I was fighting the battery % and had rationed 10-15% for each monument, thus I took limited photos, and was really missing having my camera then.

Best shot from today’s collection! #kanchipuram #tamilnadu #historynerd

A post shared by anubhav tyagi (@exeperience) on

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js

You could see how old the temple was from the wear and tear of the statues in the halls and pillars. But still this place has the old charm that was missing at Kanchi Kamakshi. It felt like I was back in Trichy. Another interesting story about the temple is that a mango tree within the temple compound is said to be 3500 years old and gets 4 different varieties of mangoes in 4 different seasons. Well, I saw the tree but didn’t think it was the best idea to debate the authenticity of the belief within the temple. People seemed really strong believers, so I happily moved on to the next destination, the one I had been planning for months!

A post shared by anubhav tyagi (@exeperience) on

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js

Our last stop was at Kailasanathar temple, which is much older and for me atleast much more famous than the previous temples we had visited. Kailasanathar is arguably the oldest structural temple we can find in whole of India which isn’t in ruins, hasn’t been rebuilt and is still used for its intended purpose. It was built in the last few years of the 7th century. Off the trip, but on a related note, I was just now wondering why there are no 2000 year old buildings intact in India. The only building from that era that I can think of is the Sanchi Stupa, or maybe a rock cut cave temples at Ajanta. Infact on a quick broader search,¬†I couldn’t find really old buildings in whole of Asia. In comparison, Europe and Middle East seem to have done better to preserve their architectural heritage. It doesn’t add up since China and India both were technically and culturally advanced than Europe in ancient times, thus they are more likely to have better durable building material. China and India must’ve also built great structures in the same time period as Parthenon and Colosseum, but they don’t exist anymore.

I don’t have answers to these questions and after spending a good one hour on this, I am still clueless. So, it’s best to get back to where we were – the grand temple which inspired generations!

The grand view of the Kailash Temple!

A post shared by anubhav tyagi (@exeperience) on

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js

It’s not just the main shikhara¬†which would grab your attention, but look closely below, even the side walls are carved intricately and you can easily spend a good hour walking leisurely in the courtyard.¬†The structure contains 58 small shrines which are dedicated to various forms of Shiva. These are built into niches on the inner face of the high compound wall of the circumambulatory passage.

A post shared by anubhav tyagi (@exeperience) on

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js

And now is the time to go back to map we saw earlier. The real reason I was waiting to come to this place was because I had seen this temple previously already! How? This temple exists at not one but three places in India! Confused? Well, I was just amazed to know this and I’m sure you will be as well! Remember how Chalukyas of Karnataka and Pallavas of Tamil Nadu used to be enemies? Well, in one decisive battle, when Chalukyas defeated the Pallavas, they captured Kanchi and established their rule over the city. I can imagine that the Chalukyas got inspired from this Pallava temple and built a replica of it in their temple city Pattadakal. That’s how Virupaksha temple was made. But that’s not it, later the Chalukyas were succeeded by Rashtrakutas and they found inspiration in this Virupaksha temple when they decided to extend the rock cut caves at Ellora. Thus, the Kailashnath temple at Ellora, which is now the most famous of the 3 copies of the Kailasnath temples, was based on a temple built 1000+ yrs away 50+ yrs earlier.

Disha’s sketch from my photo –

While you’re at Kanchipuram, you should also check out the local Kanjivaram saree collection. There are multiple government approved textile stores where you don’t have to worry about the quality of the silk. I ended up buying one as well, still waiting for the final reactions on it, more on that later.¬†It was now time for me to head to Mahabalipuram for the second leg of the trip. If you’re not able to get a direct bus to Mahabalipuram, then instead of waiting for one, I’d suggest you take a bus going Chengalpattu and you’d get a connecting bus from there, atleast that’s what I did.

Mahabalipuram was the ancient port city of Pallavas who ruled from Kanchipuram. In a way, think of the relation between these 2 cities as that between Delhi and Mumbai. Kanchipuram was the traditional landlocked capital city and Mahabalipuram was the cosmopolitan commercial center based on the sea-side.

As soon as I got down from the bus, I was swarmed by Auto-rikshaw drivers for the city tour package, pretty much like at Kanchipuram. I was also tired by now and it was really hot, thus didn’t feel like walking the city. But at the end of the tour, I did realize had the sun been not so harsh, walking around the city could’ve been a good option.

Our first stop was the Panch Rathas, which is a collection of 5 temples hewn out of a single massive rock. More than the religious value of these temples, it seems like an architectural challenge given to the local artists by the king. We then moved over to the next site which seemed like an archeology park next to a lighthouse. The temples here were similar to the Ratha temples and I did spend a good 30 mins walking through the complex. The rocks here were not hewn from outside but instead from inside to make cave temples within them.

These caves reminded me of the Chalukya caves in Badami

A post shared by anubhav tyagi (@exeperience) on

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js

I couldn’t get a lot of photos as I was low on battery and wanted to save for the Shore temple. Thus, I hurried through the rest of the places, walked by the rock reliefs which go by the name of Arjuna’s penance. It is difficult to make out what’s happening in the first go but the I just overheard a couple of guides and it seemed like a good story but I was not patient enough to listen to the whole thing as it could’ve well been made up.

Well, as you would have realized I covered a lot of these monuments in a bit of hurry. I guess if I would’ve come here on a fresh day, then perhaps, I would’ve been more interested. Nonetheless, I moved over to the Shore Temple and that’s a grand site. Only big kings who’ve established strong hold over the regions for a considerable time can afford to build such monuments. Thus this temple is one of the reasons why Mahabalipuram would always be remembered when someone talks about Pallavas.¬†It is even believed that there were six more temples just like the Shore temple in the past and the city was called the city of the seven pagodas. ASI even explored the sea around the coast and they’ve found man-made structures made out of stones upto a few kilometres from the coastline. I am guessing the city must’ve been much bigger in 8th century and the coastline has receded over the years due to rising sea-levels.

What a grand site to build, kind of earlier version of Somnath temple!

A post shared by anubhav tyagi (@exeperience) on

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js

And here is Disha’s version –

Well this one is not exactly framed on my photo. I tried but but couldn’t find a spot to click a photo like this. It’s an advantage for artists to take liberty of removing all the background noise, stones, trees and sketching a surreal shot ūüėÄ

It was almost end of the trip by this time and I was little hungry as well since I had skipped lunch. I was initially planning to go over to the famous restaurant in the city – Moonrakers for some local seafood but my driver advised me to take the next available bus to Chennai from the highway as there was a halt in service due to local protests. I didn’t want the otherwise happy day to end dramatically, and hopped onto the bus that brought me back to Chennai by 7.30 PM. I got down next to the Sangeetha’s in Guindy and that was my dinner, couldn’t get any more convenient than this. But when you’re going over to Mahabalipuram, I’d recommend you to checkout moonrakers after exploring the monuments!

 

A lazy layover in Gujarat

I was in Gujarat last month for almost a week, the sole purpose was not travel, feels strange to travel to a far-off place and travel not being the top agenda, right? But we had enough time on hand, that we decided to cover a few places and the lazy layover became a fun leisure trip! I was actually accompanying parents as we all were helping my sister shift to Gandhinagar, where she has taken up admission in IIT-Gadnhinagar. I was lucky that parents had agreed to backpack in my style and we ended up covering a lot in the 3 days we had for traveling. Although, getting drenched in every 2 hours is not a great feeling but monsoons being off-peak season for tourists, we never had to wait in queues anywhere! I would still call it a win! Below is the itinerary you too can follow for a 3 day trip to Gujarat in the monsoons –

Here is how the trip was scheduled along with info on places we had covered in the respective cities –

Unlike other trips, this one was more focused on selfies and groupies clicked at the monuments, so, I wouldn’t go in details about the places we’d visited, but i am sure if you’re interested, you’ll find a lot in the above links! I would leave you with the gallery of the photos I managed to click, a lot of these ones coming from my lumia, which actually did a decent job. Can you spot the difference in quality without zooming-in? I can’t and that does make me happy!

Coorg

A lot of people know Coorg as a popular hill station on the Karnataka/Kerala border that is a perfect weekend getaway, but it¬†is one such place that just can’t be covered in a single trip. I am finally writing this post after my third trip in the region with the hope that I now can say I’ve seen enough to truly describe the place ¬†and tell you what all can you plan for when you’re coming over to the Scotland of India.

Coorg as such is the name of the district where Kodagu people historically were concentrated (and still are to a great extent), and when you are going to Coorg, you’re¬†essentially going to one of the many towns or landmarks that fall in this region. A lot of these popular spots are not closeby and hence my proposition that you just can’t cover the whole of Coorg in a weekend. Let me quickly tell you about the 3 weekend trips I had gone for –

  1. Trek to Thadiyandamol Peak + evening at Madikeri
  2. Hike to Nishani Motte
  3. Cycle ride to Irpu Falls

I would love to come back to Coorg whenever possible next as I can name a few more really famous spots that I couldn’t visit in my trips above. It was in Coorg that I re-connected with nature as a lot of my previous trips were focused on heritage, history and architecture which often, let’s just say, are not exactly located in nature’s lap. After climbing the peak of Thadiyandamol, I got interested in traveling not just for the destination but for adventure of the journey which then made me come back to Coorg for more!

Before I move on to the details of my trips, let me share the map that I think highlights most of the important sights in Coorg –

coorg

Madikeri is the capital city of the district and is where you’ll be dropped if you’re taking a bus to Coorg. When compared with the true destinations within Coorg, Madikeri doesn’t have a lot to offer except for a vantage¬†point besides a fort that belonged to the kings that ruled the area previously, but then when you’re planning to go back, you’ll have to come back here for the bus that will take you home unless of course you’re traveling privately. Closeby attractions include an elephant camp and a Tibetan monastery. Of all the hobbyists, trekkers would love Coorg the most for it has some of the most famous peaks of Western Ghats. Interestingly the 4 most popular hikes are very evenly distributed in the 4 corners of the the district, thus asking for 4 separate visits just for these climbs. These 4 peaks include Pushpagiri towards the north end, Nishani Motte towards the west, Thadiyandamol towards the south and Brahmagiri at the eastern edge of the district. After the hike is done, I would recommend visiting one of the closely located waterfalls for they are present everywhere, but I wouldn’t rank the experience as exceptional; the most famous ones are Irpu falls, Abbi and Chelavara falls. I haven’t mentioned the temples, but there are some famous ones in the area but more from the perspective of religion rather than architecture or history, so depending on your interests and expectations, this experience may differ. If you didn’t find anything worthwhile above, here is something that might convince you.. the whole region is dotted with coffee plantations, thus the views from the road while traveling are always very pleasant! So, whether you’re pedaling your bike, riding on the motorbike or simply driving your car, you must visit the place once! Let me move over to the trips..

Thadiyandamol is the highest peak in Coorg at an elevation of 1750 meters. Reaching Thadiyandamol can be a little tricky if you’re not traveling with a group. I was accompanied by Disha for this trip as we had decided to explore Coorg over the Independence day weekend of 2014 after reading such good words about the place. We had booked our bus tickets to and from Madikeri and had planned to spend a day chilling at the capital city after the hike. To get to the base of the peak, we took a local bus headed towards the¬†Kakkabe village. We had to wait a lot for our bus as not knowing the local language led to some confusion over the bus timings. Running late but nonetheless on the right way, we got down at the Yavakapady bus stop at around 11 AM and had to take the road that went left and spiralled upwards. This information is not clearly present on web but I found that this blog can be trusted for most the treks that are listed on it. Also, after a bit of google search, I found a trail map shared here¬†which I found helpful especially when we needed to take the left turn from the main road.¬†We were lucky that we found a jeep that was coming down that path after dropping someone at the base, as the driver agreed to drive back till the base taking us along for a nominal charge. Time was not on our side as we didn’t get the bus to Kakkabe on time from Madikeri, thus we chose this option, otherwise, you can easily walk up to the¬†base which is around ~5 km away from the main road like these kids in the below pic.

exeperience-7322

There is a small retreat and parking area at the base of the peak and there is a clear path that leads to the peak. We didn’t spend any time at the base and started walking as soon as we got off the jeep. The path at the outset seemed like regular path just that the surface wasn’t tarmac anymore but soon it got narrower and the bushes around us made way for trees that were shadowing the path. At a point, the tree shade suddenly ended as we took a turn that brought us at the edge of the hill we were on. Below is the shot of the peaks that were now suddenly visible to us, leaving us guessing if the peak that we saw in front was Thadiyandamol or were we to go further ahead?!

exeperience-7209

August is a goo time to visit Coorg as the shade we had all along the way, the day being a cloudy one with occasional drizzle, helped to keep us hydrated. Otherwise with limited water resources, one needs to carry a lot for the return journey. I realized this problem at Nishani Motte because I had to cover a part of the descent without water in my bottle. Thadiyandamol is an easy trek even for beginners as we pretty much kept walking along the trails we could see and the weekend being a long one, we often passed people who were returning from the peak. After getting a little ahead of the mid way where one can pitch tents, we decided to take a break for pictures. At that moment, clouds were literally at same level as ours and we could see them getting cut across peaks and then flowing over them to join back as a bunch.

exeperience-7262

After this point, we couldn’t click a lot because there was very little visibility for the camera but the views right up till the peak were simply a delight for the eyes. I don’t think I can capture those moments of thrill when you step over a leg of the journey to reach the momentary peak only to find out that this isn’t the final peak and you have to keep going. For me, it kept happening as after each small hill i climbed, I could see another one in front where the trails continued! It was both exciting and fussy that everytime we thought we had accomplished the peak, we could see a new one in front.

Although Disha couldn’t have sketched while hiking but here is something she drew later..

43

Below is a shot f the peak, or atleast we thought so when I took the picture, it appears almost as if we’ve reached the peak but no! we still had more peaks to cover and the iteresting part was that we even had to pass through a dense jungle. These jungles can be very thick and can slow you down if, say, you encounter thorny bushes covering your path.¬†exeperience-7214

Disha’s version of the peak is definitely more artistic than a literal photograph..

46

After more than 4 hours of climbing up towards the peak, we finally reached a spot where going forward seemed more downhill than upwards and that’s how we knew that we had reached the peak finally! We met another group of trekkers who were resting at the peak. We shared our cookies with them in exchange of some water and the group soon opened up to us ¬†and invited us to join them while descending.¬†It was a good decision to join the group as they had a jeep waiting for them, just above the base. It was already getting dark and we had lost time to go back to Madikeri on the same day. The driver of the ¬†jeep went by the name of Ajit and was very well accustomed to the road conditions thus we reached back to a closeby homestay in no time. While taking off the shoes at the homestay to check for leech bites, I clearly remember that I felt the trek had opened up ¬†a new channel and I knew that soon I’d go for more treks.

Next day was spent in reaching back Madikeri and then exploring the town. The second day of the trip wasn’t as exciting as the first and tired as we were, wanted to get back to Bangalore soon after we had started roaming the streets of Madikeri. The only point worth visiting was the Raja’s seat to get a birds’ eye view of the ridges and forest that envelope the town.

exeperience-7343

In hindsight, doing treks with a group is much more easy as the group always would have some experienced folks who would know the path well. You would appreciate this company a lot when you’re stuck in middle of no where and nobody to ask directions from , just left to take a call based on your maps and intuition. There are many groups in Bangalore that go for such treks, the 2 most popular groups are the Bangalore Mountaineering Club and the Bangalore Trekking Club.

Thus, the next time I was in Coorg, it was for a hike to Nishani Motte that BMC had planned in Jan’15. As their site describes it,¬†Nishani motte is a relatively unknown peak in the talacauvery/ branhmagiri range. This stretch forms the border between Kannur / Kasargod districts in Kerala and Kodagu district in Karnataka. This time I was accompanied by an old friend, Samarth, who had registered for the trek as well. Nonetheless I have no issues with traveling along with a group of strangers as I’ve never had a bad experience with Bangalore folks.

The usual schedule for the 2-day group treks is to leave from Bangalore on friday night, reach the base on Saturday morning, go for the trek, reach back by the evening and then head back for Bangalore on Sunday after staying back on Saturday night at a pre-decided homestay. This plan was followed in our case as well and we infact had left for Bangalore much earlier, just after our dinner on Saturday night, thus allowing us to spend the Sunday evening in Bangalore at will.

Since we had already passed the monsoon season, the trek was rather uncomfortable as the weather wasn’t very welcoming. January is supposed to be winter time but we were sweating soon after we had started walking up from the base. Thus, I would recommend to always come in the monsoon season as you can atleast escape dehydration. But to our relief we soon encountered a waterfall which proved to be a welcoming relief and everyone agreed on taking a small break there before moving ahead.

exeperience-9180

The thing about treks with groups is that you need to match the speed with everyone. At times I was in front and had to wait for others to catchup and other times I had to hurry up when others were waiting for me ahead. But this trek, unlike Thadiyandamol, wasn’t a straight route that one can can navigate with intuition, thus, doing it without a group can be very difficult. I plan to buy a GPS device next so that I can mark the trail and publish it online with the blogposts, might help you if you ever decide to make a solo trip. I just got to know that there is an mobile app already that does this using the phone’s GPS.

Coming back to the forest we were in, the route this time had more shades of yellow instead of the overwhelming green one would notice in monsoon time. But still, the sights were definitely worth the effort and we kept crossing the ridges without breaks. The ranges that are visible in the background of the picture below is where we were headed. I was of the opinion those hills were our destination but then when we reached there, the BMC group leader told us that we had reached only halfway!

exeperience-9228-2

The one good thing about winter treks is that the visibility is much better and when we were at the top, we could see ranges as far as 50kms away from where we were. This luxury however came with the realization that there wouldn’t be clouds through the hills no matter if we stay here all night. Both the wet and dry trek experience are unique to themselves and without giving into which one I should be coming back for, I kept walking like everyone else.

exeperience-9305

After this point, the group somehow got segregated into smaller groups and our BMC guide went in a different direction assuring us that he’ll meet us at the next hill. There was another group along with us with a local guide who knew the ways better than all of us including the BMC guide. We reached the next hill and were waiting for our guide to return but he was nowhere to be found. It soon became an irritating situation as some of us wanted to continue with the other group hoping that our BMC guide would find us on the way while others wanted to wait for the BMC guide at the hill itself. I didn’t feel comfortable with staying at a hill top in middle of nowhere hoping the guide would return as he said instead of joining the group which knew the way forward. This was my first hike with BMC and it’s not correct to form impressions based on exceptional events but I felt that our guide acted irresponsibly by not communicating properly over the course of action and a lot of confusion ensued when the group was at a hill top not sure of whether to stay or move ahead without the guide. The view from the hilltop was of ridges cutting the subsequent range till as far as one could see but it didn’t do much to decrease the tension..

exeperience-9268

All this while, we were trying to reach our BMC guide but expecting the phone network to be as good as in the cities was a mistake on our part. After waiting for a while when there was no clear decision in the group, I decided to chase the other group while they were still in sight, some members of our group followed me while others decided to stay back and wait for the guide. After pacing for a while and hoping that there wasn’t a fork in the way ahead, I finally caught up and asked the group to stop for a while to let the folks who were behind me to reach us as well. By this time we had descended into a thick forest and after hours of sweating under direct sunlight, we were in shade of the trees for the first time in the day.

exeperience-9320

The BMC guide also reached where we were but then led us to a different path away from where the other group was headed. When I asked him why exactly had he abandoned us with no clear communication on how we should’ve hiked further ahead without him, he said that he was taking some measurements for a map that he is preparing for the region. There was no point arguing about what he should’ve done and we should’ve done, we simply hiked through the forest towards the peak and rejoined the folks who had decided to stay back for the guide. We soon reached the peak but we were really tired by this time as we had paced all throughout our way while crossing the forest to make up for the lost time. Thus, by the time we started our descent, we were out of water and were desperately waiting for the next source but we only found water when we had reached the very base of the hill. Thus, I would say that the confusion created by the guide’s disappearance and water getting over in mid of the descent made the second half of the trip a little challenging but not exactly for the right reasons. Also, I learnt that when traveling with strangers, convincing the group over a single decision can be a challenging task but still I wouldn’t recommend trekking alone until you have gained some experience and are confident of your navigation skills. Below is the last pic from the trek, clicked at the base ¬†just after we had found a house whose owner helped us by allowing us to fill water from ¬†his garden.

exeperience-9324

After a good dinner at the homestay where we BMC had arranged the accommodation, we left for Bangalore and I had now climbed 2 of the 4 famous peaks of Coorg. The remaining 2 peaks – Brahmagiri and Pushpagiri are to be conquered sometime in future. Brahmagiri peak lies in a wildlife sanctuary therefore one needs permissions of the local forest officials before trekking and I could never get these permissions on time. Pushpagiri peak also known as Kumar Parvatha is said to be the most challenging peak to conquer in Karnataka, thus I always wanted to go with a group instead of taking on this challenge alone but these plans never could materialize.

If you’re not a big fan of trekking then worry not! Coorg has more to offer! I had taken up cycling in mid of 2014 and have been commuting to/from office on cycle ever since. I loved it and began riding on weekends as well. This was followed by further longer rides that I went for with cycling groups in the city. Thus, by the time I saw this event notification I had now achieved the comfort level of cycling upto 50kms in a stretch. A cycling group in the city called CAM – cycling and more – was organizing a moonlight cycling event and it struck me as something new that I hadn’t done before!

CAM MC

A lot of other work related things were going on in the background but I decided to go ahead and register for the event for I needed to clear my head. It was also my overnight cycling ride, so I was excited about it and it turned out to be really good! Like all weekend rides, we left on Friday night but instead of sleeping till morning, we got down from the bus when we reached Gonikoppa at around 3 AM and started cycling towards our homestay at Nalkeri!

I did not bring along my DSLR for this trip, so my Lumia had got promoted from backup camera to the main one for this trip. However, this was one trip that was not meant for capturing photos, the main thrill of this trip was in feeling the wind on your face when you’d be cycling downhill or be able to see the horizon when you’ve overcome the uphill track. Thus, I didn’t stop at most of the places to click, I just wanted to keep cycling!

This also was a trip where I had finally had managed to find a strava client for windows phones, thus allowing me to track my rides and upload them on the website for embedding them on the blog! Below is the route we had followed from Gonikoppa, it ends at our homestay at Nalkeri. Our journey was to be made in 3 legs and this being the part which was done completely in moonlight, was the most exciting part!

Steaming idlis and rice was served for breakfast along with the special Coorgi coffee after we reached the homestay. I had enough to guarantee a nice nap till lunch. The lunch matched breakfast in terms of taste but I ate only a little as we had to start our ride soon after. We had planned to go towards a nearby river through the coffee and tea estates. The path a good mix of uphill and downhill patches and we were able to cover this distance earlier than our own expectations.

exeperience--3

This leg of the journey was very picturesque as there were only fresh green leaves all round us. Just be able to breathe the fresh air was a refreshing feeling in itself. Not sure if somebody from the group was requesting for more or not, but as we were on our way back, it started pouring heavily and we were all soaking wet by the time we reached back the homestay. It was all fun, the only sad part being that there were no spare shoes, so I knew I’d have wet feet throughout the rest of the journey.

The dinner on the saturday night was followed by long conversations and everyone was sharing their travel stories. Peaceful sleep followed the heavy dinner and the sunday morning plan was to ride till Irpu falls and then return back for lunch. Irpu falls is right at the edge of the Brahmagiri wildlife sanctuary and we were really close to the Brahmagiri peak from here.

exeperience--4

I wish I had the option of hiking upto the peak but it had to be done some other time. We reached back by lunch time and then it was time to head back to bangalore. Below is how we covered this last leg timewise. Hope these logs would be of some help when you’re here!

exeperience-21

All said n done, I take back only fond memories from Coorg and would love to be back here for the remaining treks. Coorgi way of life is tempting and you would love to be with them, have their food and listen to their stories!

Malaysia – Truly Asia

Malaysia is a popular tourist destination, on to-do lists of a lot of travelers, and I got my chance to cross off this item from my list last month when I learnt that I had to travel to Singapore for work. I was lucky to have managed to squeeze in some time for Malaysia before the work trip.. Lucky not only because I was able to get a break from work just before traveling for work again but also because my passport with both the visas came just a day before my travel date, although this was with a lot of follow-up and unwanted added headache in the 2 weeks before the trip. Going by the textbook definition of leaving no stone unturned, I did have to try almost everything I could’ve to get my Singapore and Malaysia visas ready in about 10 days I had before the travel date. But in the end, it was a good call to put up¬†the fight, as it allowed ¬†me to explore the 3 cities of Malaysia without added airfare! Although I had to take Malaysian airlines instead of Singapore airlines and by comparison that’s like exchanging your business class air tickets with a bus ticket for a window seat just to be able to see the view on the way! but it still was a good deal!

exeperience-7566

So after I got myself the deal of 5 days / 4 nights to explore Malaysia (not bad at all, I know!) I decided to divide my time in amongst the 3 cities of Peninsular Malaysia – Kualalumpur, Penang and Malacca. A friend from office was also accompanying me on the trip. If you’d look at the map of Malaysia below.. the small state of Penang, with its capital as Georgetown is really up in the north, KL (I can’t keep writing Kualalumpur, so it’d be KL from here on..) is somewhere in middle and Malacca towards south. Thus, in 5 days, I was able to cover the almost 1000 km stretch of west coast of western Malaysia.. well, not the complete stretch, but there isn’t much left to see once you’ve done these 3 cities. Other major attractions on western peninsular part of Malaysia that I can think of –

  • Lankawi – an archipelago of 99 islands known for its beaches, rainforest, mountains, mangrove estuaries and unique nature
  • Ipoh –¬†capital of Perak with historic colonial old town
  • Johr Bahru –¬†capital of Johor, and the gateway to Singapore
  • Cameroon Highlands –¬† famous for its tea plantations

800px-Malaysia_regions_map

It really depends on how much time and appetite you have to explore. What I could cover in my trip was only the west coast region of the western peninsula. The east coast region of the western peninsula is not as culturally diverse as the west coast, thus not so popular with tourists as well. The Malaysian part of Borneo island has dense tropical forests all over and thus is the go-to destination for nature-lovers. The states of Sarawak and Sabah are known to have really pristine beaches and coral reefs and forests rich in flora and fauna. Also, Mount Kinabalu, highest peak in South East Asia, is a famous hiking spot to add to the list.Like any other traveler, the first step for me to explore any new travel destination is to look it up on wikitravel¬†and then on tripadvisor. This is what I would recommend to you as well before you plan your trip to Malaysia. But let’s come back to KL where my Malaysian airlines flight is about to land in a short while and let’s begin our trip..

My¬†planned itinerary was ¬†–

  • Day 1 – Arrive at KL – Explore the city – Overnight bus to¬†Penang
  • Day 2 – Arrive at Penang – Roam in-n-around Georgetown – Stay at hotel
  • Day 3 – Explore the city – Overnight bus to Malacca
  • Day 4 – Arrive at Malacca – Explore the city – Stay at hotel
  • Day 5 – Bus to KL – Explore the city – Leave for Singapore

and I had almost over prepared myself through reading material on Penang and Malacca because they were smaller cities, had the UNESCO World Heritage City tag, thereby more touristy than KL, thus I didn’t want to miss a thing. On the other hand, I had always kept KL as a filler time between other important things hoping it wouldn’t be a problem findings things to do in a big city like KL. But it wasn’t so, and a lot of time starting from the landing itself was wasted in figuring out what to do now.. Lesson learnt – always have an agenda ready before you step down from your flight, otherwise you’d waste time in making it at your vacation spot.

To reach the city center from the airport, the easiest way is to take the express metro to TBS (Terminal Bersepadu Selatan) station, which is a transport hub to get further link for inter and intra city travel. The train ticket costs you 35 ringgit but there are also shuttle buses that run frequently at much lower price (10 ringgit) from the terminal 2 (Air Asia Terminal) of the airport. As I had read on the TBS website, we found locker facility at TBS at nominal price Р30 ringgit Рthus, with the big bags locked away, we got some breakfast and then moved over to the local train terminal of TBS.

Kltransit

The first stop for us was Bukit Bintang,¬†which is part of the Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle, spans over 3 roads, namely Jalan Bukit Bintang, Jalan Imbi and Jalan Sultan Ismail. It houses various cafes, dining outlets and shopping complexes. I am a person who is intrested in eating brunches and was keen in finding Top Brunch Spots just like the ones I found on my trip to New York. We still ended up roaming around the lanes around this central city area for almost the entire day but now when I think about it, the area didn’t look very different from any other urban agglomerate.. there were tall buildings around, traffic on the roads, metro running above and malls with similar brands that dote other such metro cities around the globe. Probably the thing that was different was the language on the signboards – Malay, which honestly seems funny to me, It almost seems like a cross between Phonetic English and Hindi.

exeperience-7522

In between the roaming around and shopping, we had lunch at a small chinese shop at Jalan Alor. The street comes to life only after sunset and people usually flock the hawkers after shopping. We had ordered for chicken curry, rice and another chicken dish which was served dry. Also, I figured Guinness was quite popular in this area along with Tiger in local and Heineken in international choices. Check out the lunch below –

10727781_321977077986239_1911482323_n

It was difficult to find tickets for the observation deck of the Petronas towers, so we decided to come back for it on our way back from Malacca, but we simply couldn’t get tickets on either of the days! must be quite a view from the top we were wondering! Our dejected souls took refuge in one of the cafes around the twin towers and from there we decided to move on to our next popular destination in the city – Chinatown. The name of the street that you have to search for is Jalan Petaling. You can either walk from the Petronas towers towards Jalan Ampang and then further towards here or you can simply take a metro ending at the Pasar Seni station.

exeperience-7578 (1)

The market has lots to offer if you’re looking for ripoffs of designer handbags, wallets, bags, watches, shoes and other such low cost accessories. Actually, you don’t need to go through the entire market, each shop has exactly same stuff, probably bought in bulk by the owners together. After a bit of looking around, we went for dinner as we were really tired by then. This was end of day and it was a bit disappointing for me as KL had nothing different to offer as a city. Had we¬†been staying at a hotel in the city, we could’ve enjoyed the nightlife but we had to catch our bus to Penang, thus after dinner, we headed back to TBS station.

exeperience-7582

I had already booked all the intercity bus tickets and hotels before traveling. It really helped by allowing us to come just in time before departure time without any worries. You can book bus tickets on¬†busonlineticket.com¬†or¬†easybook.com¬†and hotels can be booked on¬†agoda.com. The bus from KL to Penang costed us just 35 ringgit at the time of booking from India but after boarding we realized that it had just 4 passengers, but still they did not cancel or reschedule the pre-booked tickets, so it indeed is a safe option to book everything in advance. The bus journey wasn’t very comfortable but we couldn’t have asked for more. Although if it is possible to book the train, I’d recommend to go for it instead of the bus.¬†I couldn’t go for the train as the bookings hadn’t opened by the time I had to submit my visa application at the Malaysia consulate in India, thus I booked bus tickets to give them as supporting document in my application.

exeperience-7654

We reached Penang early morning at around 5.30 AM. We had to wait till 6 as that’s when the local buses start plying from the city bus stop to heart of Georgetown, where our hotel was. We were staying at a hotel on Lebuh Ah Quee, which is just next to the famous Armenian street in Georgetown. After a quick break to freshen up and change clothes, we went ahead with the day’s proceedings. I had booked a tour with the Metro Bike Tours¬†about whom I had found on tripadvisor.¬†It¬†is a unique, eco-friendly bicycle tour company in Penang that provides quality bike rentals and tours. We took their all-in-one tour which took us around the UNESCO world heritage sites, had a breakfast break in the morning and ended at a lunch break. Our guide Jeffrey took good interest in showing his city around and I personally had a good time, partly because of the fact that I was exploring Penang on a cycle and then I also realized it would’ve been difficult getting all the details that Jeffrey had given us at our stops.

exeperience-7595

Our first stop was the Clan Jetties, called so because when chinese migrants from South China were setting up homes in Penang, they did so in associations of their clans, family relatives in a way, along the shores of Penang. Actually not even shores, they were literally built in the sea using stilts because these chinese migrants couldn’t get space on actual land further ahead. On further inspection, we noticed that some of the stilts were actually stacked paint buckets containing cement instead of paints. Jeffrey told us that this was from the repair work by poor fishermen who couldn’t afford anything better. It was interesting to see the establishments from hundreds of years that started as basic houses had evolved into complex societies. Btw, here I am exploring Penang in full glory! ūüôā

cycling in Penang

Moving forward, we saw the famous street art by Lithuanian born artist¬†Ernest Zacharevic. Many similar projects had cropped up from what Ernest had done years ago and later we saw street art of similar scale in Malacca as well. The most famous art piece is the one with 2 kids (painted) on a bicycle (actual). You simply can’t leave Penang before getting yourself clicked against this wall. Below is my photo –

exeperience-7598

We kept crossing more artwork after the tour ended. The original artwork by Ernest is really famous over the internet, thus instantly recognizable but you’ll keep bumping into some form of artwork all over the city.. Sharing another such project by Ernest below –

exeperience-7636

exeperience-7684

We had breakfast following this at Little India, I wasn’t excited at all about eating Sambhar Vada for breakfast when I already have it everyday in India, but I guess there was some kind of deal between Metro and the restaurant, so, we had to eat at this place itself as part of our deal. Anyhow, after the meal, we left for one of the famous local Chinese temple, which again was connected to the clans that were formed by Chinese migrants – Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple.

exeperience-7609

A bastion of Taoism in Penang, the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple was built by Chinese immigrants in about 1850 AD. The temple is dedicated to¬†Twa Peh Kong or sometimes written as ‘Tua Pek Kong’ (God of Prosperity and Morality). The temple was symbolic of the values of the community and rituals conducted were very similar to what was practiced in the Fujian Province where most of them originated from. Interestingly, the temple was also the headquarters of a Chinese secret society that would conduct various rites and ceremonies in front of the deity. It houses four affiliated societies namely Tong Kheng Sean, Poh Hoe Seah, Cheng Hoe Seah and Hokkien Kongsi. Today, Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple stands as a permanent reminder of the progress achieved by the Penang Chinese Hokkien community.

exeperience-7629

One of the many unique features of the architecture is the roof. This temple is the only one in Malaysia that has a `Kuan Kong’ figurine perched regally on its roof (seen in the photo above). The deity is synonymous with Chinese secret societies because it represents loyalty.¬†Another unique feature is the temple‚Äôs bungalow-like layout ‚Äď an architectural rarity as most prayer pavilions back then were on the ground floor of smaller single storey buildings.

exeperience-7621

Jeffrey told us about these secret societies, a noted feature of all the clans. The Kean Teik Tong society, from the temple above, was one of the two parties that was involved in the Penang Riots of 1867, together with the Ghee Hin Secret Society, in an open warfare along the streets of Penang that resulted in the banning of secret societies. Infact there exists a street called Cannon street because a large gaping void that was created in the temple wall (at the location) by the artillery that was fired during the riots. We moved on from the temple but did return for Khoo Kongsi, the more famous temple, the next day. Another historic building that is famous with tourists is¬†Penang Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion House, photo below. But we didn’t know that the entry is only restricted to specific times.

exeperience-7705

The tour moved on to other popular spots in Penang most of which are listed on¬†tripadvisor, so it’s a good idea to just cover this list.. But we had a booked a separate food tour, again booked from tripadvisor, as well for the evening and although it was a bit high priced at 160 ringgit but I personally liked all that we tasted and had a really good time. This is when I don’t classify myself as a foodie.. It’s true that Penang is touted as the street food capital of not just Malaysia but whole of Asia.

You can find a really comprehensive list of mouth-watering Penang offerings here. I couldn’t click good pictures of the dishes because the lighting wasn’t always perfect in the night time and also I was busy enjoying the food, thus using the photos from other blogs. The dishes¬†that I loved ¬†the most were –

 This ended our first day at Penang and in retrospect was the best day of the trip! I still long to have a bowl of asam laksa of Penang! Next day was spent in going up the Penang hill and Kek Lok Si temple near Ayer Itam, which is little away from the Georgetown part of Penang. But before that, there was one last spot to be covered in Georgetown, the Khoo Kongsi temple, which is an iconic Penang attraction.

One interesting thing that we had just missed (unknowingly though) was the evening show where Khoo Kongsi turns on all its lights at its courtyard to accommodate interesting Chinese arts and cultural performances. This happens on the last saturday of each month, the schedule can be found here. If you can accommodate for this show, then do consider it as Jeffrey had told us that we missed something really special!

exeperience-7781

The main worship was done in the traditional red and golden colors, similar to the chinese temples we had seen earlier. It was actually too much for my eyes to capture, the details were too fine and complicated. Somehow this felt similar to how temples in India too have complex design patterns as religious ornamentation to please the gods. I could only observe the whole facade in parts but below is how it looked..

exeperience-7798

However the interesting part for me were the side walls which had the¬†36 celestial guardians, 18 on each side of the wall. These are commonly found in the Southern Fujian temples. Leading them is the ‚Äúmessage carrier‚ÄĚ who rides on a horse. The celestial guardians are of both sexes and are in mandarin or military attire. They ride on different animals such as the dragon, the lion and other rare creatures, and each of them is armed with a unique weapon. They are rich, interesting pictorial representations of folklores and art. Below is the left wall of the temple.

exeperience-7793

There were many more murals in the temple, and the basement section has now been converted into a museum. I found this to be a very interesting introduction to the chinese culture and architecture and took notes on the aspects which I need to read-up after reaching back home. Here is something interesting I found later on the temple architecture, if you’re interested. Ok, let’s move out of Georgetown, can’t spend another full day here!

There are regular buses available from Weld Quay (Jetty Terminal) to Ayer Itam at very reasonable prices. Penang hill being the highest point of the island has a good vantage point to look around. There exists a railway track to go up and come down, it’ll cost you 30 ringgit if you’re an international visitor, thus it’s best to go for it instead of hiking up as it would also be very hot and humid there and you’d be sweating the whole time.

Below are the panoramas I managed to stitch from the vantage point atop the hill. The first shot is of UNESCO world heritage site at Georgetown, the tallest structure that stands out is the iconic Komtar building, the tallest building in Penang. Also visible is the mainland Malaysia..

exeperience-7857

Below is a zoomed version of the thin strip of sea between the mainland Malaysia and the Penang Island.

exeperience-7839

 Also, visible in the picture below is another iconic structure of Penang Рthe bridge that connects the island to the mainland. It is 12 km long but now they have a new one opening soon which is 23 km long and is located closer to the airport.

exeperience-7893

Next stop after lunch was the Kek Lok Si temple, but I personally did not like the temple so much and the decision to go for it might not have been the best in hindsight as it left us very little time for Batu Ferringhi part of the island. Nonetheless, here is what the temple had for us –

exeperience-7990

Also, this temple was not a Taoist temple as we saw earlier, instead this was a Buddhist Pagoda. Most famous ones of this class of temples are in Myanmar and Thailand. A prayer was in progress when we were visiting, as seen below.

exeperience-7996

We couldn’t find a direct bus from Ayer Itam to Batu Ferringhi, thus we first had to return to Komtar and then change to a bus for Batu Ferringhi. It was already dark by then and the skies started pouring down suddenly which slowed down the traffic further. Thus, all we could do at Batu Ferringhi was have dinner and then take the bus back to Georgetown for our bus to Malacca. It was almost as if this leg of the trip was cursed because we realized that to get to our bus, we had to reach the bus station which is on mainland and there was no bus which was going to cross the bridge as it was too late in the night. We thought of taking the ferry ¬†then and after wasting few more crucial minutes, we realized that there was no way that we could’ve reached on time with the super-slow (also ultra cheap) ferry service. After left with no resolve, we had to take a last minute taxi which charged us 60 ringgit, it was too much considering the fact that the intercity bus seats we were rushing to catch costed us 70 ringgit for 2 seats. But still, we managed to reach the bus station just in time and were safely enroute¬†to¬†Malacca.

 Malacca was the oldest of the 3 cities we were visiting. In medieval times, it also served as the capital region for the Malay peninsula and was also the city from where the present day nation declared its independence. How it all began? You can read it here. But if you would look at a city map, it can be seen as laid around the Dutch administrative center, thus the 3 Imperial powers, Portuguese followed by Dutch followed by English, had influenced Malacca to a great extent.

Although the red square is the prime attraction spot in Malaysia, we went for an excursion through the markets looking for food. We did reach the cluster of Dutch and Portuguese buildings after roaming around for a while. Below is the roundabout at the red square..

exeperience-8045

The red buildings at this spot were originally white when they came up during the Dutch reign but then the British painted them red and the color hasn’t changed since then. We also visited the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia,¬†Cheng Hoon Teng. Below is a shot of the interiors of the temple, following the¬†3¬†Doctrinal Systems of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

exeperience-8015

 After a bit more of roaming around, we went for lunch and then I went ahead to explore the cityside. While speeding across the city roads, at a point, out of nowhere, I found myself caught in middle of a Buddhist festival procession, so, I had to stop for pictures!

exeperience-8148

exeperience-8153

I tried asking people about what was happening but somehow the locals weren’t able to understand me, they didn’t seem to speak much of English. I gave up on my questioning¬†and joined the procession which was making its way towards the city center. Coincidentally, the day we were in Malaysia, was also the day when the Prime Minister of Malaysia was in the city to celebrate the Indian festival of Diwali! I hadn’t done much at Diwali back at home and here I was in a different country celebrating Diwali with the country’s head! ūüėÄ The rickshaws in Malacca also seemed jubilant with the homely atmosphere of Diwali celebrations but I got to know that this was a regular affair for them!

exeperience-8190

Below is a panorama of the celebration setup besides the Al Famosa

exeperience-8207

While returning towards our hotel, we took a ride of the Malacca river, think it was for 15 ringgit per person, but without any commentary it just seemed like a boat ride with strangers where everyone in the front, like me, was trying to not to get splashed and everyone in the back was busy taking selfies! Anyhow, we took the path¬†that brought us to the hotel through the famous Jonker street market, but there wasn’t much interest left for shopping by then and there wasn’t anything special. I learnt that you just need to go for one of the street markets in Malaysia, it can be anywhere, rest wouldn’t be very different. I didn’t bother taking pictures because I had no energy left but there are many good blogposts like this one and this one to give you a peeking glance of the street.

4 days of non-stop travel had worn¬†us out by now and we needed to take out our reserve energy to be able to make full use of the last remaining day in KL. We took the morning bus to KL and reached¬†TBS from where we took the metro to city center. we had again used the same locker facility for the heavy luggage. Our aim for the day was to go up the Petronas Towers but even this time the luck wasn’t in our favor as we couldn’t get the 80 ringgit tickets, it was a housefull and we had return with sad faces once more. But I was determined to make best possible use of the day and we walked upto the KL Menara as that place also has an observation deck that’s equally good and is available at cheaper price of 49 ringgit. Below is how the city of Kualalumpur looks from above..

exeperience-8266

It was a pretty kickass view and is a must thing-to-do when you’re in KL. We spent the rest of the day at Bukit Bintang roaming around and after some lunch, we left for the airport to move ahead to Singapore which in itself was an amazing trip beyond my expectations! I had gone there to attend an official training and met other folks from China, Japan and Singapore who had joined the company in the same time-frame as me, a really good bunch! I personally formed really good memories from the trip¬†and guess Singapore managed to contribute more than Malaysia in this regard. I’ll try to come up with another post on the Singapore adventures, can’t let this post cross the 5000 word mark! but hope you enjoyed it and helpful for your own Malaysia trip plan. By the way, to¬†my good surprise, I saw Diwali decorations even in Singapore¬†in full swing!

exeperience-8318

This was the first completely self-funded and planned international backpacking trip for me and I think I am ready to travel solo across the world! This blog is where I’d be capturing everything, so stay tuned.. you’ve made a right call by subscribing to this blog, it would soon have more such stories!

Exploring North Karnataka ‚Äď Part 2 ‚Äď Pattadakal, Aihole, Badami

After exploring Bijapur ¬†the whole day, the train journey came as a relief, but by the time we reached Badami, it was already dark and because it was raining as well, the roads had become difficult to navigate, there was mud and water all around, so we were really wishing that we could’ve¬†taken the bus which was departing from Bijapur a little earlier. Anyhow, we reached the main city, which was annoyingly was very far from the railway station, and got ourselves a hotel for the night. Badami is not even a city, it is just a small town¬†but in¬†its golden days, close to¬†1500 years ago, it was the capital city for not just Karnataka but almost whole of¬†of Andhra, Telangana and Maharashtra as well.

Badami-chalukya-empire-map.svg

The Chalukya dynasty was established by Pulakesi¬†I in 543 AD overthrowing the Kadambas, this happened around the time of the fall of the Gupta empire in the north.¬†In the beginning they were really focused at north Karnataka, with Ganga dynasty ruling over the south Karnataka, but later their rule spread over most . Another thing to note is the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been fighting each other from centuries.. Pallavas, who ruled from Kanchipuram, and Chalukyas have had multiple battles and power exchanges with each side occupying other’s capital city for some period of time. Chalukyas¬†were finally overthrown by a local clan called Rashtrakutas but descendants of Chalukyas returned to power but split into Eastern (Andhra) and Western (Karnataka) kingdoms which were not really closely related to each other by then. Below is an aerial view of the city and the caves temples –

exeperience-6203

The other two places¬†that you obviously can see in the title of the post but haven’t been mentioned so far were really temple towns more than administrative centers. Aihole and Pattadakal, had, in combination,¬†more than 100 temples, a lot of them done¬†in experimental styles. Thus, these sites were really the cradle of Indian temple architecture. These sites also had a unique advantage of being in center of the country, thus having equal influence from North and South India.¬†Let’s visit the places in order we visited them – Pattadakal followed by Aihole on day 1 and Badami caves on day 2.

Out of the 9 surviving temples at¬†Pattadakal, 4 are in Nagara style (North Indian), 4 are in Dravidian style (South Indian) and 1 is in mixed style. It is very rare to find such a variety of structures next to each other, consciously built by same builders, who indeed were patrons¬†of temple architecture in India. And that’s why this place was¬†listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These different styles can be seen in the photo below, you see¬†Mallikarjuna Temple (1st from right) in Dravidian style, followed by Kashivisvanatha Temple (2nd from right) which is in Nagara style and, Sangameshvara Temple (3rd from right) lies next to it and it is done in Dravidian style and then finally you have the¬†Galganatha temple¬†(4th from right) which is in Nagara style. Such contrasting brilliance!

exeperience-5715

But the biggest temple at Pattadakal, Virupaksha Temple, is¬†missing from the photo above. The temple was¬†built by Queen Lokamahadevi in 745 to commemorate her husband’s victory (Vikramaditya II) over the Pallavas of Kanchi. It is said that when¬†Vikramaditya II visited the Kailasanathar temple¬†at Kanchi, after he had¬†conquered¬†the city, he was so impressed by the architecture that he decided to build a similar temple in his kingdom as well. Virupaksha temple was thus modelled after the¬†Kailasanathar temple of¬†Kanchi. Further to this, when Rashtrakutas took over this region from Chalukyas and saw the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, they were really inspired to create their own version of it and that’s how they decided to build Kailash temple at Ellora.

exeperience-5704

Virupaksha temple is the one on right and on the left is the¬†Mallikarjuna Temple, which was also issued¬†in around same timeframe by the younger queen of the king¬†Vikramaditya II , for the same feat i.e. defeating Pallavas, and that’s why the temple is almost a smaller copy of the Virupaksha temple. Both these temples are classic Dravidian style temples with their pyramidal towers (Shikhara).

The other temple that I really liked was the¬†Galganatha temple with its slanting rooftops on the sides and the tall Nagar style Shikhara, picture below –

exeperience-5652

 

After exploring for a good 2 hours, it was time to move on to the next destination for the day – Aihole which predates Pattadakal in temple building. It really was the place where Chalukyan architects and engineers experimented a lot. The whole landscape of the town is dotted with boulders and temples!

Reaching Aihole is not easy unless you have your own cars, public transport is hard to find and the frequency is not so good. It is best to rent an auto rickshaw for a return journey from Pattadakal and that’s what we did. Let’s talk about the temples now,,, the most famous temple at Aihole is undoubtedly the Durga temple because of its unique shape of that of a horseshoe, picture below –

exeperience-5766

 

The temples at Aihole were really very old and a lot of them were in deplorable conditions, but it was good to see the conservation work though. We did not stay long and moved out to see the other sight that had caught our attention – a rock cut temple, called Ravanaphadi.

exeperience-5796

The sanctum has a vestibule with a triple entrance and has carved pillars as seen in photo above. The walls and sides of the temple are covered with large figures including dancing Shiva. Below is the statue of half-man and half-woman avatar of Shiva-Parvati, found on one of the walls inside.

exeperience-5786

 

It was time to return back after visiting a few more sites at Aihole. We did not take any chances as it would be really unfortunate to miss our ride back home and get stuck in the lonely town of Aihole. We returned back by evening before it was dark and then had a peaceful end to the day with dinner at a local restaurant.

Next day was meant for Badami, we were ready with fresh energy next morning and reached the site of the cave temples quickly after breakfast.

The rock-cut Badami Cave Temples were sculpted mostly between the 6th and 8th centuries. The four cave temples represent the secular nature of the rulers then, with tolerance and a religious following that inclines towards Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. cave 1 is devoted to Shiva, and Caves 2 and 3 are dedicated to Vishnu, whereas cave 4 displays reliefs of Jain Tirthankaras.

The caves and the associated temples are set around the Agastya lake, the landscape adds to the beauty of the place. I personally loved the cave temples more than the temples of Aihole and even Pattadakal. Let’s have a look at the 4 caves..

exeperience-5817

What you see above is the sculpture of Nataraja, from cave 1, with his 9 arms on each side creating the 81 combinations of Bharatnatyam pose. Below are some shots from caves 2 and 3 –

Right from the¬†entrance of the cave, you can imagine how skillfully the caves have been carved out the solid granite stone. What you see below is the entrance of cave 3 –

exeperience-5909

The caves had a common feature of having ornate sculptures on the side walls and the main shrine at the end in center.¬†Most of the side sculptures in cave 2 and 3 were different incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu, as seen in the 4¬†pics below (2 side walls X 2 caves = 4 sculptures) –

exeperience-5926

exeperience-5927

exeperience-5953

exeperience-5851

And if you’re wondering how big these caves really are, here is a shot from inside the caves, showing its many pillars in both length and breadth. Infact before the restoration work for these caves started some 50 years back, there were villagers who had pitched tents in these caves and were using them for shelters, that’s how huge they are!

exeperience-s

Cave 4 had Jain tirthankaras all over the cave, mostly from the Hinayana ¬†period, here is a shot, the only good one i could manage in such low lights inside the caves –

exeperience-5990

Here is a view of the city from inside the caves, with one of the side sculptures, but you really have to be there to witness the grand beauty of the caves. I for one, was thoroughly impressed by them!

exeperience-5854

Across the lake, there are 2 temples called the Shivalaya temples, lower and upper Shivalaya temples. We climbed up the hills for the temples, but the real surprise that was waiting for us was the view of the city from the edge of the hills. That’s where I had taken the first photo of this post. Below is the view of the hills from the cave temples –

exeperience-5866

The small structure that you see on top of the hill in the middle, is really the temple in photo below –

exeperience-6210

I would also suggest you to visit the¬†Archaeological Museum of Badami, one of the installations that I clearly remember is a big tree map of the languages in India, and there were many more like a sculpture of the fertility goddess. After the museum, we had some sugarcane juice to prepare for the last excursion of the trip – Bhootnath temple! even I was astonished to see there is an actual place by that name, here is how it looks –

exeperience-6045

exeperience-6110s

I really wanted to go further from there to climb up the hills behind the temple to get a better view, ahead of the hills in the picture above, but it was getting dark and we ended up returning to the city for dinner. So, after spending some memorable time in Badami, we bade a goodbye to this sleepy town and headed back to Bangalore.

Exploring North Karnataka – Part 1 – Bijapur

The Deccan produced some of the greatest Dynasties in Indian History like the Satavahana dynasty, Vakataka dynasty, Chalukya dynasty, Rashtrakuta dynasty, Western Chalukya Empire, Vijayanagara Empire and Maratha Empire. What is missing from this list is the Bahmani Sultanate which too emerged and became obsolete in the deccan soil. It is partly true to say Bahmani Sultanate was a deccan sultanate because the campaigns it started, battles it fought took place here and partly untrue because the rulers were muslim sultans from the outside world, only the subjects were Indians.

It was the hot month of April when I decided to explore the 4 close-by cities in the deccan region. There were many threads that connected these erstwhile capitals of kingdoms to the places I already had been namely Hampi and Aurangabad. I would connect these dots as I progress with each of the cities. For now I can say the trip post is divided into 2 parts РBijapur being capital of the Bijapur Sultanate was to been in a different light as compared to the other 3 cities which were part of the Chalukya period, Badami being the capital city.

This time my friend Anshul had joined me for the trip, he still is unsure of how and why he agreed for the trip as he couldn’t connect to the place but still it was good for me to have him around! Although he was cursing me the whole time for making him walk so much on a weekend! ūüėÄ It was a 3 day trip which started from Bijapur followed by Pattadakal and Aihole on day 2 and finally Badami on day 3. Let’s move on to the history update! The part on history update has become something that I personally really like as it really helps in connecting with a heritage place. There is no sense in clicking pictures for instagram unless you know the background to it, hope you guys are finding it useful.. Let me start with Bijapur as that’s the place we visited first, I’ll come to Chalukyan history in part 2 of this post!

In the 14th century the Muslim Bahmani Sultanate and the smaller Sultanate of Khandesh ruled much of the northern Deccan, while the southern part was controlled by the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire. The Bahmani Sultanate disintegrated in the late 15th century, breaking up into the Sultanates of Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur (the Adil Shahi Dynasty) and Golconda (the Qutb Shahi Dynasty).

In 1510 the Portuguese conquered Goa from Bijapur. In the late 16th century, Berar was absorbed by Ahmadnagar. In 1601 Khandesh was absorbed by the Mughal Empire. By 1619 Vijayanagara had lost much territory to Golconda and Bijapur; Bidar was absorbed by Bijapur. Ahmadnagar was absorbed by the Mughal Empire in 1636. In 1565, a decisive battle took place between the united forces of the Sultanate and Vijayanagara empire which ended up against the Vijayanagara empire, but finally by 1646, Vijayanagara disintegrated; it was succeeded by the Sultanate of Mysore and the Nayak kingdoms of Tanjore and Madurai and a separate kingdom of Mysore.¬†The military campaigns of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb into southern India failed to establish lasting Mughal rule, but succeeded in terminating the Sultanates of Bijapur (1686) and Golconda (1687). The timeline is roughly depicted in the maps below –

deccansulthist

There is a lot more to talk about, but without going into further details, let’s have a look at the city of Bijapur, which emerged as the biggest and richest¬†one in the Sultanate. The city as such existed before the Adil Shahi dynasty, infact the foundations were laid centuries ago by the¬†Kalyani Chalukyas (descents of the Badami Chalukyas, from the city of Badami, where we’d be going next) and was known as Vijayapura (City of victory). The city changed hands and became part of the Khilji Sultanate during the second part of the 13th Century. In 1347, the Bahmanis of Gulbarga took over the sultanate from the Khiljis only to be split into 5 states, known as the Deccan Sultanates, with the Adil Shahi taking control over Bijapur. But yes, it would be right to say that the city of Bijapur owes much of its greatness to Yusuf Adil Shah, the founder of the independent state of Bijapur.

Today, when you come from a metropolitan city, Bijapur would seem like a distant town that is ages behind, the roads are narrow and littered with cow dung and plastic wrappers. It’s not the best idea to explore the city on foot, your best option¬†is to just cover all the monuments you can without dehydrating yourself¬†in¬†the summer heat. This was one trip where we were running for water after almost every monument visit.

The first place that we went to after getting down from the bus stop were the Jod Gumbaz. Hemispherical domes really dominate the skyline of the city, and emerged as the typical architectural style to be conceived by the Adil Shahi dynasty. Jod Gumbaz are 2 twin structures and it was as if they had been constructed just to perfect the art of making Gumbaz as otherwise, there wasn’t much to see around the¬†2¬†buildings.

exeperience-5411

exeperience-

We moved forward, still on foot, towards the main road and after a few turns, through the internal roads, we happened to be near the famous cannon at Bijapur РMalik-e-Maidan (The Monarch of the Plains). It is the largest medieval cannon in the world. It is said that after igniting the cannon, the gunner would remain underwater in a tank of water on the platform to avoid the deafening explosion.

exeperience-5423

The cannon is placed on a raised platform which once was the part of the outer walls of the city. Now these walls have been brought down at many places to extend the roads. In the picture below, the green patch you see is a post on the city walls where the cannon is kept. Ahead of it used to be the moat but the modern city spread over its walls like grass grows over old buildings.

exeperience-5409

 

Bijapur thus has this unique situation where the old fort walls and the modern signboards can be seen together as if history has been augmented over the reality.

exeperience-5419

 

We asked around to figure out where our next destination should be and we were told that¬†Ibrahim Rauza is closeby. It infact is outside of the old city walls, thus when it was constructed it would have been far away from the city, but now lies as part of it. Ibrahim Rauza (A.D. 1626-A.D. 1627), a mausoleum was built on the orders of Ibrahim Adil Shah II. It is an important building which for its “technical accuracy, and skilled artistry.¬†It consists of two buildings, a tomb and a mosque. The tomb considered as the most ornate building in Bijapur, consists of a square chamber, surrounded by a double row of arches forming two open colonnades.

exeperience-5506

It is also said that the rauza served as an inspiration for Taj Mahal in Agra, and the main entrance doorway served as the inspiration for Char Minar at Hyderabad.

exeperience-5438

 

Another interesting thing that our guide told us was that there exists a maze below the foundations of the building which was to serve as the escape route for the Royal family incase of an attack. What you see as the pattern on the door which leads to the tombs, below right, is actually a map to this maze!

 

exeperience-5504

We learnt quite a few interesting things about architecture as well from our guide. A mausoleum is called a rauza and not a maqbara when the husband dies before the wife. This is what happened with Ibrahim Adil Shah II, he died before his wife and it was his wife who got the building completed and was then later buried besides him. Also, this being one of the earlier grand scale buildings to be built by Muslim kings, it shows how Indo-Islamic architecture was shaping up during that time. The domes although present only in Islamic architecture, not in Indian, were actually built in shape of a Kalash (metal water pots used in Hindu temples during prayers) kept over a lotus flower. This style grew with time and all the domes from here onwards were built in the same fashion. This is clearly visible in the small dome over a tower in the picture below –

exeperience-5440

Gol Gumbaz too is built in the same fashion, just much bigger! That’s where we were headed next, we took a bus as Ibrahim Rauza and Gol Gumbaz are at 2 ends of the city and infact had to further walk a lot from where the bus dropped us.

Gol Gumbaz¬†is the largest dome ever built in India, next in size only to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is the¬†mausoleum of Mohammed Adil Shah, the greatest king that ruled Bijapur. He was successful in maintaining good relations with the Mughals in the north, Shah Jahan at his time, and the Sultanate was at its zenith under his rule.

One thing that really struck me was that the side towers of the building looked very similar to the bell tower present in Tanjore from the last trip.

exeperience-5598

 

Eight intersecting arches created by two rotated squares that create interlocking pendentives and squinches support the dome, seen in the picture below. It is said that because of its unique design to allow the sound to echo within its walls, one can hear reverbations upto 7 times!

exeperience-5540

 

The museum besides the main building gives you a really good background on the Sultanate. You can see the family tree, coins, weapons, painting styles and other artifacts that belong to the medieval ages. You also get really nice views of the city from the top of the dome, here is the Jami masjid as seen from the Gumbaz, amongst the other buildings that have cropped up in the city –

exeperience-5589

 

We went to other smaller places as well, but a lot of them were in really bad situation, with dilapidated walls, paint chipping off and stagnant water that must’ve been harboring insects with potential diseases. Bijapur definitely is in need of some serious conservation¬†work, otherwise I don’t see how the heritage buildings would survive another century of this paralysed existence in modern world.

We were now ready to move on to our next destination – Badami, and to our surprise, there was a train that was leaving for Badami in the evening from Bijapur. WE boarded the train and off we were! The journey continues in the 2nd part of this post…

 

 

3 Tamil cities in 3 days – Day 2 and 3

It took me some time, around 2 months, to work on the second leg of the post on the trip to 3 Tamil Nadu cities in 3 days. Infact I have traveled to a few places in this while and was confused whether to complete the backlog or to post about the new trips, but here I am writing about the day 2 & 3 of the trip to Tamil Nadu, as promised. The earlier post touched upon the history of Tamil Nadu which paved the way to the written, clicked and sketched material on the 3 cities I and Disha had visited – Trichy ‚Äď> Madurai ‚Äď> Tanjore.¬†Here is the link to the post on day 1 of the trip – 3 Tamil cities in 3 days ‚Äď Day 1. Alright then..¬†the last post ended with we preparing to leave for Madurai from Trichy, let’s pickup from there..

The city of Madurai was first described by Megasthenes, the Greek Ambassador to India, in the 3rd century BC. The 2500 year old city has seen rulers come and go… starting with the Pandyas and then followed by Cholas, to the Mughal invaders who demolished the original Meenakshi temple, to the Nayaks who restored Madurai to its former glory. Meenakshi temple is the vivid and living landmark architectural marvel that defines not just the city of Madurai but the whole of the South India.

The temple is the geographic and ritual center of the ancient city of Madurai. There is one large tower, Gopuram, on each of North, West and South directions while the East has two towers. Apart from these there are four smaller towers inside the campus enclosed by the bigger towers. The famous southern tower, rises to over 170 ft (52 m) and was built in 1559.

madurai map

Legend has it that the reigning deity Meenakshi was born out of holy fire as an answer to the prayers of King Malayadwaja and his wife Kanchanamalai.¬†She was born with three breasts ‚Äď a reminder that she was divine ‚Äď and it was foretold that the third breast would disappear when she met her Lord. She was named ‚ÄėTaadathagai‚Äô, but was called ‚ÄėMeenakshi‚Äô ‚Äď the one with the fish-shaped eyes. As the only child, she was loved and pampered, but also taught all the arts she would need to rule the land. She learnt to wield weapons just as well as she did the needle, and in time, took over the reins of her kingdom. While her father had ruled the land well, content with all he had, she was ambitious, and chose to extend her reign over the whole of the subcontinent. She led her army past the Deccan Peninsula to the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas, where she eventually met her divine consort ‚Äď lord Shiva. It took but one glance, and her third breast melted away, showing her that it was indeed he who was her match. The temple was said to be constructed commemorating their marriage at Madurai.

It was really difficult getting the whole of gopuram in a single shot, mostly because there is little space outside the compound walls of the temple. There is just a road that separates the grand temple and the town market. What you have is not a architectural monument that people come to visit as tourists, it’s a living temple where a lot of people come to worship and not to observe its architectural/cultural beauty. The southern gate, the largest one, with the outer compound wall can be seen in the photo below.

exeperience-4871s

Here is an attempt at capturing one of the inner (smaller) gopurams –

5f9c05d2ad2b11e3a52e12d4973c56e9_8

I personally think that the temple has too much designed¬†in a little space. It is as if the whole universe has been depicted on the walls and towers. There is not an square inch of empty space anywhere. A little relaxed design would’ve come out better. Below¬†is a shot that captures the details of the sculptures on the gopuram towers. It is really difficult to decide where to cut your shot, because one would definitely end up cutting some of the body parts at the edges. Hope you can live without knowing¬†whom the 16 hand demon is trying to kill.. (bottom of the frame)

exeperience-4854

While I was fussing about not getting good shots, Disha came up with this, she obviously didn’t have the space constraints I was facing –

exeperience-1017

The temples have a common ending at the top of the tower, the creature that you see on the top, with huge eyes, is actually a lion/tiger. This is a common motif that I noticed in Hoysala and Vijaynagar architecture as well.

exeperience-4874

Once you get inside, you’d see an entire city that lives inside the temple, there are markets and museums but most importantly many more¬†temples apart from the main shrines of Meenakshi and Sundareswara. I particularly loved the circular designs that were hand-painted all over the temple.

df42360ead2a11e3a2a20a8087799929_8

I wasn’t allowed to click inside the temple, but once you are in the main chamber, the first thing you see is the shimmering Garuda Stambha. The stambha is gold plated rod that protrudes out of the temple ceiling and has a flag tied to it at its top end. The rod¬†reflects the sunlight, all through the day, that manages to enter through the square block hole. It was almost like a divine intervention to see the light being reflected in every direction inside the temple hall through the pillar. It definitely makes a lasting image¬†in your mind and invites¬†you to explore the temple..

There was one particular point where the sunlight was entering the temple in a very unique fashion, almost as if it was being guided along the way.. Disha couldn’t leave the place without sketching it, here is what she drew –

exeperience-1018

The queues in the temple to see the main shrine were expectedly long and seemed never-ending. We did not bother even enquiring the expected time to darshan, just offered our wishes from outside and went ahead to get some lunch. After lunch, it was time to head towards the other famous building at Madurai – Thirumalai Nayak Palace

Thirumalai Nayak ruled Madurai between A.D 1623 and 1659. He was the most notable of the thirteen Madurai Nayak rulers in the 17th century. The palace that we visited was the one he had commissioned during his rule – AD 1636 to be precise. The place would remind you of Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, but it was done much before that style was brought in by Britishers in India. The building was done by an Italian architect who rightfully mixed European styles in Indian design which by then was taking a lot of influence from the Islamic architectural style. Thus the end result was a very contemporary building that would have been called a modern marvel in its time.

exeperience-5047

One thing that is easily noticeable is that the interior is richly decorated whilst the exterior is treated in a more austere style. The palace was divided into two major parts, namely Swarga Vilasam (Celestial Pavilion) and Ranga Vilasam. The royal residence, theatre, shrine, apartments, armory, palanquin place, royal bandstand, quarters, pond and garden were situated in these two portions. This however is just quarter of the original palace.

exeperience-4915s

 

Here is a shot of the ceiling patterns inside on of the halls. The palace is definitely a must-see was truth be told, I liked it more than the temple, as it had a real story behind it.

exeperience-4926

 

 

Anyhow, there wasn’t much to do in Madurai after this and we took our own sweet time while covering the 2 buildings, thus it was time to head out. But before leaving, I decided to have to much hyped summer drink of Madurai – Jigarthanda. Jigar is the hindi word for liver and thanda means cool, thus the drink apparently cools down your liver! It is basically a milk based kulfi with lots of dry fruits and fruit jellies, some which I personally couldn’t even identify while they were being poured in my glass. Do try it while you are there, you’d easily find a shop at every second turn in the city.

13286466793_8e84d6b71a_z

 

Alright, it was time to head to the next destination – Thanjavur, Being about 60 km east of Trichy – our starting point, Thanjavur is close to 200 km from Madurai. Thus, we lost close to 3 hours of daytime in travel, but it didn’t harm us because we learnt that the Thanjavur temple was still open at 8¬†PM.

We checked-in a hotel and quickly went back to the temple to see it in the full-moon light of Holi. Here is the shot, i was missing my tripod though..

exeperience-5069

 

Thanjavur was the capital of Chola empire, and the rulers of this city were infact defeated by the rulers of Madurai, where we had just come from. But rulers of Madurai has earlier been defeated by Cholas in the past, so it was just history balancing itself as we learnt in the first leg of this 2-part post.

We returned to the city, had thanjavur special dosa for dinner and then went back to the hotel. Next morning, it was time to explore the city of cholas. we started with the Maratha Palace as it was at walking distance from the hotel.

The marathas at the time of their rule were as good as any other foreign invading army, the only thing that set them apart was the fact that they were Hindus by religion. The Thanjavur Maratha palace was originally constructed by the rulers of Thanjavur Nayak kingdom. After the fall of the Thanjavur Nayak kingdom, it served as the official residence of the Thanjavur Maratha. When most of the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom was annexed to the British Empire in 1799, the Thanjavur Marathas continued to hold sway over the palace and the surrounding fort.

exeperience-5158

What you see above is the top structure of the palace called Sarjah Mahadi, which served as the residential part, while the halls on the ground floor served for general assemblies and town halls. Below is the shot of the hall with a statue of an important king of Thanjavur Marathas РSerofji II, who ruled Thanjavur from 1798 until his death in 1832.

exeperience-5142

 

The building although seemed like just another historical building that was past its prime and would vanish into nothingness, it sure did have some interesting elements like the lotus like dome structure of this particular room in the photo below. It is a squinch dome that is used in such stepped dome applications. Another crazy thing that we saw there that couldn’t have been expected was an original skeleton of a whale! The board there said there was no other space to keep it, so it was either to be dumped or kept in the palace!

exeperience-5163

 

But surely, the most picturesque building there was the bell tower with its many symmetrical arches, photo below

exeperience-5170

 

We were one of the few travelers there, and it showed that this place was just an add-on to the Brihadeeswara Temple. So, without further delay, we went ahead to the main attraction. Below is the entrance to the temple –

exeperience-5173

 

The temple just completed 1000 years in 2010, thus you can imagine why it is called ‘The Great Chola Temple’.¬†The Brihadeshwarar Temple was built to be the royal temple to display the emperor’s vision of his power and his relationship to the universal order. The temple was the site of the major royal ceremonies such as anointing the emperor and linking him with its deity, Shiva, and the daily rituals of the deities were mirrored by those of the king.

exeperience-5303

When the Brihadeeswara temple was completed in 1003 CE, it was the tallest temple in India by an order of magnitude of 10. A thousand years later, standing at 216 feet, it is still the tallest temple in India.

exeperience-1021

Surrounding the temple, there was a pillared corridor that had numerous paintings from the Chola period and the Nayak period. The chola frescos are as important as the ones in Ajanta. But because of being in open air, they are now getting damaged, a lot of them already have. A lot of Nayak paintings were actually done over the Chola paintings as it is quite possible that the Chola paintings had already started chipping off by then. There were good 500 years between the 2 time periods.

exeperience-5274

exeperience-5309

The temple was built at a fair clip, completed in mere 7 years, amounting to moving and placing almost 50 tons of rock each and every day, not to forget carving and aligning it. The huge kalasam or Vimanam (top portion of the shrine) is believed to weigh 80 tonnes of single stone block and was raised to its present height by dragging on an inclined plane of 6 km using elephants. Imagine that!

While I was clicking, Disha came up with these –

exeperience-1019

exeperience-1020

The outer wall of the upper storey is carved with 81 dance karanas ‚Äď postures of Bharathanatyam, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu. The starting school of this dance is said to be this very temple. Try n see if you can locate them in the picture below. Another unique thing here is that the Gopurams, the entrance towers, are smaller than Shikhara, the main structure. This is not a regular feature in dravidian temples. Anyhow, forget all this and enjoy the beauty of the Shikhara of the temple, its intricate carving done on hard granite!

exeperience-5236

After exploring the temple for good 2 hours, we still had a lot of time at our disposal.¬†I had read about the town of Kumbakonam for it was the focal point to visit the Navagrah temples – the temples of the 9 planets! Even though we knew that there wasn’t enough time to cover everything, we still went ahead to see what we would find there.

navagrah

Kumbakonam is a small temple city and it sure is an old one. You could find a temple, big or small, after every 200 m! The temples ranged from being as small as a room to as big as a few acres in area. We decided to remain in the city because the time we reached the city, around 3 PM, every temple was closed. We were told that they would re-open only by 4.30 PM. We ended up having a long lunch and still had to wait for temples, as the gates finally opened by 5 PM.

I was looking up the places we should be going by then on my phone. One interesting thing that I noticed was that this town seemed to be so overflowing with religion that it had Shiva and Vishnu temples in vicinity of each other. So far, I had only noticed that cities were inclined towards Vishnu or Shiva. Trichy had Vishnu temple, Madurai and Tanjore had Shiva temples. We decided to go 2 temples, the biggest Shiva temple – Nageswaran Temple and the biggest Vishnu temple – Sarangapani Temple, and this would be the end of it.

First we visited the Nageswaran Temple, it was a small temple but it sure was old and big in terms of land area it covered. The complex extended to include living quarters and there was another temples besides the shiva temple which was in the shape of a chariot. What struck me the most were these idols that were sculpted on the temple walls. They seemed to be much older than the main temple, again supporting the fact that the temples were made in parts as the funds were sanctioned by the kings. There was also a group of students there, possibly architects who were trying to translate the writings on the walls of the temple in order to preserve them.

exeperience-5328

Next destination came in quickly, we reached the Sarangpani temple, which was also the biggest temple of the town. The gopuram in the blue hour just around the sunset¬†was a delight to click. Here are the shots –

exeperience-5338

 

Although this Gopuram was also equally adorned as the the ones in Madurai, this one seemed more serene and less puzzling to the eye.

exeperience-5350

 

Yet if you sit in front of it, exploring each of the sculptures, you could easily spend an hour without noticing it.

exeperience-5360

After all this travel and hunting temples one by one,  it was time to end the journey and head back to Bangalore. I had a good time, so did Disha, hope you too feel the same. Thanks for reading the 2 long posts!