Mumbai Matinee

It always feels a bit discomforting to get back on a chair and type out this letter to self about past experiences and thoughts. Let’s just accept that this blog isn’t really the kind that gets updated with a predictable frequency and I am going to partly blame the phone-driven social media for me not able to find time for it. Held hostage by AI driven feeds of seemingly infinite potential, in past few months my literary contribution on the personal front got limited to occasionally posting photos on instagram and retweeting thoughts that I wanted to share but had already been captured succinctly. Writing blog posts in comparison seems like a mega project, something that needs not only unwavering devotion but also cosmic blessings for me to be able to publish a post end to end within a weekend.

But no, really it has been me! Often I’ve thought, if part of the purpose of the blog is for me to document my past experiences and thoughts, why can’t I just remember them. The assuring feeling that I’d remember is the strongest just past the event, hence the reluctance to not document it. What a naive thought, you should be wondering, well, I agree with you, now I do.. The other purpose of sharing my opinions, travels and stories remains. But I must prioritise learning over reflecting, so whenever I am taking a break from the blog, it’s safe to assume that I’m learning something new. In this case, it was the city of Mumbai.

I shifted to Mumbai, from Gurgaon, in August 2017. This time from a small company setup to a big one. Now, if I go back on my own timeline, I did write about my decision of shifting from Bangalore to Gurgaon. where I mentioned why I quit my MNC job and shifted to product operations, in an e-commerce setting. Then why the shift again? And this is a question that I got asked often as I was building my new network here at workplace, it had almost become a way for me to introduce myself. The short version is that I realized to make any sort of impact on the world, I had to narrow down to an industry, choosing a function was not enough. More so for me, as my functional preference sits at the intersection of operations, digital product management and business intelligence.

While e-commerce seemed like an obvious choice when I jumped into it, I realized that it is more of a channel of customer interface than an industry in itself. The product being sold through the channel, was the one which defined the industry. This is how I chose transaction banking as an industry, for its nodal position in financial relationships between service providers ( commercial banks, paymnt banks, NBFCs and other fintech startups) and the end customers (retail consumers, merchants and corporates). Could I have deduced this logically before I actually interacted with interviewers on the other side of the phone, no way! So much for careful data analysis and pre-determined paths!

I got an offer to join-in as a product manager for CMS products within the Transaction Banking ecosystem at Axis Bank. Given how the industry is at an inflection point of digitization, it seemed like a good first step for me in the right direction. I packed my bags and started out for Mumbai.

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today looks like a good day to be out in the morning!

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I had a very bad impression of the city when I had visited previously, mainly because of the density of the old areas, piles of garbage on street curbs, stinking alleys and the shabby state of buildings. Little of  that has changed in the last 5 years, and while these things still bother me, I’ve also found reasons to love the city.

I’ll list some of these things below but before you proceed, I also want to take the opportunity to introduce the revamped page taxonomy. If you look at the menu, you’d see 3 headers – lists, travelogues and hobby network. I’ve decided to publish some of the content on these pages instead of posting about them in posts like this one. It keeps the geek in me happy to use the latest apps available in the market and in a way, have this blog as a place where it all comes together. You should start with my Mumbai Travelogue where I’d be pinning all the places I’ve been to so far, from my base in Mumbai. I’ve done similar maps from my previous bases in Pilani, Bangalore and Gurgaon. Back to why I don’t hate mumbai as much then..

Option to walk/run by the sea, feeling the breeze, has to be #1 reason! My home is at walking distance from the worli seaface, and I often go there for my morning runs.

But whenever I am able to get up in really early on weekends, I head out for the hills away from the coast, for rides! I usually board the local train from the closest station at 5 minutes from home and in 2 hrs I can get away from the city. It took awhile to find the good routes and I did stop once it got a bit too hot, but I am looking forward to hitting back on those roads in the monsoons!

 

The hills are not just for cycling, there are numerous hike one can go for in these hills. I went for a couple as well, just after the rains ended, which is the best time to visit.

 

The way Mumbai is different from Bangalore and Delhi is that it is much more commercial and dense. The business areas in the southern part of the city, where I live, were in previous era the spots where most of the textile mills were located. Changing economics paved way for financial institutions and other offices to take up the mantle of leading employers but the worker force didn’t just leave with the mills. Here and here are 2 insightful posts that you can read on this topic. Those families evolved with time and there is a distinct sense of entrepreneurship and dhandha mindset which you wouldn’t see in the native citizens of other major cities such as Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata, etc. So, although I am not very appreciative of the pace of gentrification, one can only wait for bureaucracy and economics to sync. My hope is our newer cities, by the time they grow as old as Mumbai and Kolkata, hopefully would have figured out a smoother transition plan.

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old n new, all the same..

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Nonetheless, the way old and new buildings have come to be in Mumbai, the sight is deplorable yet amusing. If you like cityscapes, you should check out shots taken by Sanjog Mhatre, an urban architectural photographer who specializes in such rooftop shots.

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Ahuja Towers (250 metres/820 ft, 53 floors) by @ahujaconstructions , Sheth Beaumonde towers (150 metres /492 ft, 35 floors) by @ashwinshethgroupltd in Prabhadevi overlooking the Mahim Bay. The strip of land visible beyond Mahim bay is the Mumbai suburban district. One can see areas as faraway as Bandra, the Versova beach, Juhu, Santacruz-Khar-Vile Parle, Andheri, Goregaon, extending as faraway as Malad. I love how the Auris Serenity towers at Malad West by @shethcreators are still visible from such a faraway distance (Lower Parel) (spot the twin towers in the exact middle of the suburban skyline). Also visible at the edge of the suburban skyline are Omkar Altamonte, Malad east by @omkar_realtors . . . Towering Goals-©2018. . . #_soimumbai  #instagram  #mymumbai  #yngkillers  #itz_mumbai  #depthobsessed #soi  #ig_color  #beautifuldestinations  #artofvisuals  #agameoftones  #heatercentral  #way2ill #realestate  #urbanaisle  #cityunit  #visualambassadors #urbanandstreet  #illgrammers #theimaged  #moodygrams  #milliondollarvisuals  #fatalframes  #dslrofficial  #citykillerz  #discoverychannel  #canonusa  #lonelyplanetindia  #theuncommonbox #mumbaibizarre

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My vantage points and shots are much more humble in comparison

 

Moving on, even though the noise gets to me at times, but I love the celebrations here, be it Ganpati or Durga Pooja or just a local wedding. Each city has a culture of celebrations, especially the bigger festivals, but the community driven ground level celebrations here are unlike what I’ve seen in Bangalore and Delhi.

 

And it’s not just limited to strangers celebrating on the road, there are more thematic performances, live music events, stand up gigs, theatre shows, marathon races to participate in. Weekends and nightlife can be fun here if you want it to be! The people have been friendly as well so far. But I doubt that’s a city specific trait since most of us are migrants and I guess the lives of people in plush apartments doesn’t really change much with the city. There are more things to talk about but I didn’t start with a list of top 10 items in mind, so I’ll just end this one here..

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Morning cuteness 😁

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Oh, and because I’m writing after this long while, I must cover my trips in my next posts before I forget about them. I’ll start with the tour of Madhya Pradesh, the extended trip that I made just before relocating. Part of it was exploring the famous spots along with parents and post that I did a 4 day cycling tour in the hills of Satpura! So, come back next weekend for that story..

Classical Indian Dance – A Contemporary Evening

I recently got the chance to attend a dance concert at IIC, Delhi. Inspired by the rains, the concert was themed on the monsoons and was titled – Varsha Ritu, the Rainy Season. The event was split in 2 days, each day hosting 2 dance performances of 1 hour each, in between 6PM and 8PM. The first day had a Kathak Duet followed by a Bharatanatyam Solo Recital. The second day started with a Odissi Solo and the concert ended with a Kuchipudi Duet Recital. The seats in the auditorium might look old at first sight,  but the place is grand! You’d realize it when you’d sit down and face the ceiling!

I wouldn’t call myself as even a serious enthusiast but I absolutely love clicking at these events. As a kid, I never had much exposure to these dances and the only encounter I can recall is the one odd SPIC MACAY concert we had at school, some 12 years ago! Without any introduction to the art or the music, I didn’t like it much, and most of us in the audience were waiting to get done with this forced attendance. I attribute my interest in the classical dance forms to BITS, where we had this wonderful club of enthusiasts – Ragamalika. I wasn’t surprised when I learnt that most of the members were from South India, atleast during my time. I fondly remember clicking the dance performances at the concerts organized during my time there and that’s how I got introduced to this art form! The limited audience at these events allowed me to roam around freely, looking for good vantage points. I could see my learning from BITS days, still helping me in Delhi to get the good shots and get them fast.. Sharing some of the my good shots from the 4 performances with links to the full album –

Kathak – https://goo.gl/photos/ogyQQ3rXH5E6zGqC8

Bharatnatyam – https://goo.gl/photos/pBzrYrAfwd7XoKiJ8

Odissi – https://goo.gl/photos/3Uj8TKsSDavfnD6d9

Kuchipudi – https://goo.gl/photos/AGuZYWhMDzcotmEs5

 

While I was editing the photos, a realization that kept coming up was that even though I had shot the dance poses, I didn’t understand much of the concert. Extending the same thought brought up the question how many of us kids, who aren’t getting trained in these art forms, can really understand and appreciate these concerts. Side Note – Not sure if I can still call myself and the demographic I represent as kids, but we’re still learning the ways of the world, so I’ll go on with it, haha!

The language used in these dance concerts are no longer spoken by common people. The musical instruments and the tunes are very different from what we hear on TV and Radio. The dance steps look pretty but are tough to enact without years of training. Also, most of the dance forms are limited to just 2 themes – Love and Devotion. The enactments are from mythical and classical literature, usually the kinds of stories we have heard about but not witness in our daily lives anymore. Thus, these concerts can be a great source of sensory stimuli and entertainment but it is hard to take away much from these concerts.

I spent some time reading on this on internet and chatting with Disha, and discovered the contemporary dancers of these dance forms. One such Bharatnatyam dancer – Aranyani Bhargav has written on this theme here where she argues that although the dance forms are fixated on certain themes, but the enacted scenes such as waiting for a lover convey emotions that transcend the boundaries of generations. Elsewhere, she spoke of how Bharatnatyam and other dances have been re-inventing over time and the current form that we see is already a modern version of the original dances from temples.

Disha, btw is a Kathak dancer herself and has written and sketched about the classical dances on her blog. Her dance sketches also featured on the urbansketchers blog, so she is definitely one person you’d love to talk to on this topic! Lifting 2 sketches from her blog, first one is Kathak and the next one is Bharatnatyam..

Aditi Mangaldas is the name that Disha recommended as the pioneer in India for contemporary dance based on Kathak. Aditi has taken Kathak as the base, but her contemporary dance form embodies a very unique style, as i understood after reading about her and watching clips of the performances. While this contemporary art form is definitely a visual treat for the audience, I think it has separated itself creatively from its classical roots. What I was looking for was what changes can be brought within the existing context to make the dances more relatable to the audience.

Rajendra Gangani, another exponent of Kathak, rightly puts it in his interview that western and indian classical should not fuse, he said, because they work on totally different concepts. “while our art is spiritual and invokes god (we always start with a guru pranam) their aim is to entertain,” he explained. Pandit Birju Maharaj is one of the few from the classical dance community that have achieved mainstream fame, and he has choreographed some of the recent popular Kathak songs in Bollywood. He calls for more classical songs in movies as a way to promote the arts, but I think it has to be followed by more work in the smaller performances that happen at local auditoriums to get common folks interested.

I might not be trained in these art forms, but have been in the audience enough to have an outside-in perspective. In my opinion, classical dances performances happening today can be bucketed into 2 types – either the dancers are enacting a scene from a mythical story or they are playing out a medley of visually appealing abstract dance moves. To pull these dance styles back into mainstream, we’d have to focus our energies on the 2 styles individually, essentially forking the dance and developing the 2 branches as 2 individual art forms.

During enactments of mythical stories, the dance loses its relevance if the audience is not able to connect with the story. Since the stories are sung as poems written in archaic languages, it often becomes a recital of mantras for the audience. Thus, I would love to see performances where the recitals are in modern day languages and if possible about stories that are not just limited to religion and mythology, but of current world issues. I would also like to be introduced to the stories before the start of the performance. Additionally, I’d say the supporting explanation should continue besides the stage. This can be done using subtitles on a projected screen, at the least; or with the technology we have now, I would be delighted if these aids come in the form of an AR layer visible to those in audience through their glasses, think of a hybrid between VR and 3D glasses. If you’re willing to think a bit more creatively, think of the additional layers one can apply with AR! Those who are interested in the technique and finesse of the movements can switch on a layer that allows them to see the angles and swift hand gestures more sharply. Those who want to connect more deeply with the narrative would be able to see visual elements on stage related to the current words. Imagine the poem is talking about the moon and you’re actually able to see an effect of the moonlight from the roof, which suddenly changes to visuals of flowers on the stage as the recital progresses.

The performance in the video below does a good job in introducing the act and the characters, that’s the level of handholding people need when their only connection with these dances are through the concerts they attend and the off hand videos on internet.

Now coming over to the other form, where the emphasis is not on the narrative but rather on the swift movements creating a grand visual treat for the audience. During such performances, the rhythm in the music plays a much more important role compared with music that is needed in the drama version of the dance, thus allowing for the musicians to experiment and play out faster beats to match the pace of the modern day music compositions. Platforms like IndianRaga have come up in the recent past that are leading this front. Below is one such production from their studio that I loved!

Interestingly, now with youtube as an open platform and ease of creating videos at home, lots of people have started experimenting with popular tunes which can act as the background score for the dance, at times played out with the classical instruments. These fusion pieces although don’t often get the approval from the purists, but I’m sure the younger kids are loving them, the views on these videos suggest so! Also, a bulk of these videos are getting uploaded by Indian dancers in the US, so a culture of classical performance arts is brewing up there!

What I am suggesting isn’t something new that others before me couldn’t have imagined, but I just see so much potential and hopefully good things will follow. I’m not sure how I can contribute as of now, but I’d love to stay connected with this world. If nothing else, I’d get more oppurtunities to click these stage events, for me that still is my first love!

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! 🙂

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

 

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 –

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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.

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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?!

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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.

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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..

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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..

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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..

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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 –> Madurai –> Tanjore. Here is the link to the post on day 1 of the trip – 3 Tamil cities in 3 days – 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.

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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 – a reminder that she was divine – and it was foretold that the third breast would disappear when she met her Lord. She was named ‘Taadathagai’, but was called ‘Meenakshi’ – 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 – 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.

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

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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)

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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 –

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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.

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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.

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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 –

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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..

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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.

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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 – Serofji II, who ruled Thanjavur from 1798 until his death in 1832.

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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!

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

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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 –

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 –

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The outer wall of the upper storey is carved with 81 dance karanas – 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!

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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.

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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.

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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 –

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

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

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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!

3 Tamil cities in 3 days – Day 1

North and South India can be totally different cultures and it shows in celebration of festivals. Coming from the north,  Holi and Diwali are the biggest 2 festivals for me, but here in south, we pretty much don’t celebrate both. Instead, there are other festivals, some of which I had not even heard about before shifting to Bangalore.

Similar was the case for this year’s Holi. A lot of offices were open and one didn’t feel anything different about the day. I actually shouldn’t be complaining so much as I was in a good enough state to have the day off from office and even better so because it was a Monday, so I had a 3 day weekend at my disposal. I had my friend, Disha,  take the day off from her office to join me for yet another trip and this time we decided to cover Tamil Nadu. Since we had 3 days and no agenda as such, we decided to cover the maximum distance we could. After much debate and reading up of blogs, we decided to cover the following 3 cities in our 3 day trip – Trichy –> Madurai –> Tanjore. Other close contenders were Rameshwaram, Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram but we had just 3 days, no more. It turned out to be a good decision as we were able to extend the trip on day 3 (from Tanjore) to another closeby city – Kumbakonam.

After much reading and re-reading of the history of South India, I finally have some sense of the many dynasties that ruled the area and in which timeframes. Speaking about the places that we visited, the earliest recordable mentions of the cities of Trichy and Madurai date back to around 3rd century BC. Let’s get the needed perspective before we move onto architecture and the places we visited –

Tamil Nadu had always been ruled by multiple dynasties at any point in time. The smaller southern part was the stronghold of Pandyans. The bigger northern part was earlier in control of Cholas till around 2nd century AD and then in the control of Pallavas, who ruled both Tamil and Telugu areas. The frontier between these north and south Tamil territories was Kaveri river. Cholas were driven into a complete oblivion only to return to power in 9th century AD and but this time they gained control over not just the Pallava territory but also the Pandyan territory. However in 13th century, Pandyans returned to power, overthrew the Cholas and regained not just their territory but also the Chola territory.

But interestingly, by the 13the century, Hindus were not the only ones fighting for power. Around this time, whole of India was being raided by Muslim Sultanates of the west and the rule of the great Indian dynasties faded away. The Vijaynagar kings of Karnataka however took lead in re-establishing a Hindu empire and the areas previously under the Cholas and Pandyas came under the rule of the Vijaynagar empire. The Vijaynagar empire was defeated at the hands of Deccan Sultanates and the control shifted back in Muslim hands but not completely as some of the areas were being ruled by Nayak kings, who previously were feudatory to Vijaynagar empire. To take back the control of the land under Hindu kings, this time, Maharashtra took lead as Marathas captured large part of South India back in their hands. Interestingly, they themselves had started out as feudatory to the Deccan Sultanates. But by now European powers, mainly English and French had entered the scene to gain control over the area. Britishers defeated Marathas and resisted French to took over the areas of South India. Finally, only in 1947, the area came back under the Indian rule. This is probably the smallest history lesson one can get on Tamil Nadu, hope it did some good and not just confused you further!

Speaking of cities, Trichy was the capital of early Cholas, but when Pallavas took control of the region, the capital remained at Pallava stronghold of Kanchipuram. Madurai had always been the capital for Pandyas. Cholas after re-emerging in 9th century established Kumbakonam as the capital for a brief time. The capitals kept shifting with kings but Tanjore was the one which is most famous. Beyond this, the region never had strong local rulers, and was ruled by foreign powers mostly from central India which later paved way for Britishers who clubbed the Southern territories under Madras Presidency.

Ok, now let’s start the journey.. The trip, as I said, was for 3 days and we covered the cities in following order   –    Trichy on Saturday –> Madurai on Sunday –> Tanjore and Kumbakonam on Monday. In total, we visited 8 sites, 2 per city, which covering individually would’ve been a stretch but when I look back, I think we did pretty good. I had initially thought of posting about the whole trip in a single mega-post but then it would’ve been too much of scrolling of the mouse, so I’ve decided the post into 2 parts – Day 1 and Day 2 & 3. The places we covered are listed below –

Trichy –

  1. Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam island
  2. Jambukeswarar Temple at Thiruvanaikaval

Madurai –

  1. Meenakshi Amman Temple
  2. Thirumalai Nayak Palace

Tanjore –

  1. Brihadeeswara Temple
  2. Maratha Palace

Kumbakonam

  1. Nageswaran Temple
  2. Sarangapani Temple

Let’s cover the cities one by one… Trichy is well connected to Bangalore (and other big cities nearby) and one can easily find overnight buses that reach Trichy in early morning. Trichy  is an old city, well atleast when you’re coming from Bangalore. It’s best to stay close to rock fort area. There are regular buses from bus stop to the monument. Well, there are only a few sites to look out for, so you’d know the names and location by the time you’re done with your planning. So, we booked a hotel which was close to the main attractions at the city and covered all three sites on the first day itself as expected.

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, the biggest operational Hindu temple in the world! Here is the list of the 10 biggest Hindu temples, incase you were wondering.. The temple is spread across 150+ acres of area and has a whole city inside its walls. Well, it’s no simple temple structure, there are 7 concentric walls that surround the shrine and in between each wall, you’ll find people living their daily lives. There are shops and even lodges to stay in between the first (outermost) wall and the second wall. Each of the walls have huge entrances gateways – Gopuram. This is no ordinary temple, it’s a temple city! There are 21 gopurams among which the outermost – Rajagopuram is the largest one. The 72m high 13-tiered Rajagopuram was built in 1987 and dominates the landscape for miles around, while the remaining 20 gopurams were built between the 14th and 17th centuries. Below are the pictures of the Rajagopuram..

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A closer look at the straight lined patterns, both me and Disha found this gopuram to be better than the overly complex gopurams at Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.

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Below is Disha’s sketch of one of the internal Gopurams highlighting its chaotic structural design

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And here is Disha’s rendition of the Gopuram’s elevation

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After crossing the first gate, one can see that there is a complete city inside. The gate that you see in  the photo below is not the main gate but the one after that..

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There is an interesting story that I came across while I was reading up on the place. This blog said that it is believed that after Rama defeated Ravana, he made Ravana’s brother Vibhishana as the King of Lanka. Rama was having this little sculpture of Ranganatha (Lord Vishnu) which he gave to Vibhishana before bidding adieu to him. He was instructed never to keep the idol on ground on the way and to keep it down only when he reaches Lanka. On his way to Lanka, while passing through Trichy, he gave the idol to a local shepherd boy for a few moments when he went for some chores. The boy couldn’t bear its weight for long and he kept it down. On coming back, Vibhishana could not remove it from the ground. This sculpture got permanently fixated here and this place where Ranganatha resides became Srirangam. Upon prayers, Lord Vishnu appeared before him and said that He’s prefer to stay here, however his glance would be towards Lanka, That’s why this is a south facing temple. Another interesting thing that I found out at Trichy was that the below symbol, used by Iyengars, is the symbol for Vishnu, not sure if this is followed up in north!

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Here are some more shots of the people and places inside the temple..

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Here is the sketch that Disha was working on while I was clicking the photos..

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Sagar manthan (legend of the churning of the sea to get the immortality potion) depicted in the gopuram below..

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We obviously couldn’t cover all the shrines inside the temple complex just because there was too much to cover. Also, neither of us was here to pray, we were more interested in the architecture and exploring the history and culture of the place, so we skipped places wherever we found long queues. After exploring Srirangam for good 3-4 hours, we took a local bus to Thiruvanaikovil to visit the Jambukeswarar Temple. This temple is famous for being one of the 5 sacred elemental temples of Shiva. Below is the gopuram of the temple..

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Below is what Disha was doing when I clicking the temple, sketching the Rath

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All these elemental temples are located in South India with four of these temples at Tamil Nadu and one at Andhra Pradesh. The five elements are believed to be enshrined in the five lingams and each of the lingams representing Shiva in the temple have five different names based on the elements they represent. In the temple at Thiruvanaikovil, Shiva is said to have manifested himself in the form of water (Appu Lingam). The other four manifestations are Prithivi Lingam (representing land) at Ekambareswarar Temple, Akasa Lingam (representing sky) at Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram, Agni Lingam (representing fire) at Annamalaiyar Temple and Vayu Lingam (representing air) at Srikalahasti Temple. Below are some shots from the water temple..

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One odd thing about these temples is that none of them had a regular floor plan since they were constructed in parts and over long time by many different kings belonging to different empires. So the floor plan ends up looking like that of a maze rather than a big worship hall. There would be rooms that lead to a section of the temple as big as the ones you’d have just covered. There are many extensions to the original enclosure of the shrine. Each sections would then have its own nitty gritties such as ceiling patterns, curtains, architectural motifs, Shivalingas. Below is the photo of  a row of Shivlings at the edge of one of the walls of the temple.

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Another famed landmark in Trichy is the 83 m high rock which is the only outcrop in the otherwise flat land of the city. The most amazing fact about the rock is that it is said to be one of the oldest in the world – approximately 3,800 million years, which makes it older than the Himalayas. There are a couple of small temples situated on the top of the temple but I had read that the temple were not really architectural wonder and we decided not to go up the 500+ stair steps. Also, I was not very impressed by the city of Trichy as such and had not much hopes left that the rock fort temple could turn the situation around. But still there were a lot of good things as well, like this painting that was present on the ceiling of one of the temples inside the bigger temple completes at Thiruvanaikovil.

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We returned back to the hotel by evening, rested for a while and then went out for dinner. The whole city it seems is located in the vicinity of the rock fort and we decided not to explore further at night. We had dinner at one of the local restaurants and called it a night. We had to get good enough rest as well because we were to leave early morning next day for Madurai. This brings us to the end of Day 1 of the trip. As I mentioned earlier as well, I’m splitting the trip post into 2 parts – 1st post that had the elaborate introduction and then the exploits from the city of Trichy! Following this post is the post on adventures of Day 2 & 3. See you at Madurai!

Ajanta Ellora Caves

I had made a trip to Ajanta Ellora Caves in February. It turned out to be a fun trip as I was joined by a few other friends from Mumbai and Pune. And because, I was meeting all these friends from college and school after a long time, I decided to extend the weekend and took a 3 day leave from office to do make it a proper trip and not just a touch-n-go experience. This is how my 4 days were distributed –

  • Day 1 – Bangalore –> Mumbai –> Aurangabad
  • Day 2 – Aurangabad –> Ellora –> Aurangabad
  • Day 3 – Aurangabad –> Ajanta –> Aurangabad –> Pune
  • Day 4 – Pune –> Bangalore

It was a bit of a stretch as we almost covered 2500 km on road in these 5 days, which included 4 overnight journeys in buses. But it was fun, more so because of the group! and on the lines of the last trip to Belur and Halebidu, this time as well, the sketches were done by Disha. This was our second trip together and I think she really compliments my photography with her sketches.

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So, starting with Mumbai.. well, I don’t like the city! Every friend living there has said to me that one has to live in Mumbai to love it, maybe that’s true.. because from all my one day visits, I’ve never felt that I can like the city and this trip was no exception. I spent a lazy afternoon in Bandra where I was catching up with friends and then later headed to Andheri to board the bus to Aurangabad. It was a unique group that we had formed because there was not even a single person in the group who knew everybody! I was the one who knew most of the people, all but one, and there were people who knew just one more friend, with whom they had tagged along. So the last couple of hours went into making sure that nobody would miss the bus, and although we had a last minute hiccup with one guy, everyone managed to be in the bus when it was time to leave.

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Here’s a tip, if you’re traveling between 2 big cities, then pick a sleeper because if you’re not traveling on the highway, sleeper buses can really break your back! If you’re not sure of the roads, it’s always safer to take the reclining seats. Anyhow, we reached Aurangabad next morning. We booked a hotel, checked into our rooms without much delay and freshened up to explore the city of Aurangabad.

A quick history recap for region surrounding Aurangabad – The first settlement in the area can be traced backed to 2nd century BCE when the Satavahana rulers established their capital in Pratishtanapura, today known as Paithan. It was around this time that the viharas (monasteries) were carved out of caves in what is now Ajanta, and the stunning cave paintings were made, to be lost and rediscovered in the early 19th century. The carvings in the Ellora caves track the changing fortunes of three major religions Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism between the 5th and the 10th century CE. The Yadava kings established their capital in Devagiri (also spelt Deogiri) and built a fort that stands to this day. The fort was reputed to be impregnable, but Ala-ud-din Khilji of Delhi captured it by laying siege on it and renamed it to Daulatabad. Malik Kafur, his general consolidated his hold on the region. As the Delhi Sultanate was captured by Mohammad bin Tughluq, the fort passed to him. Aurangabad then fell to the local Muslim rulers of Deccan who revolted against the Delhi Sultan. The city of Aurangabad was founded by Malik Ambar, the Prime Minister of one of these rulers, though the name of the city then was Fatehpura. The region kept changing hands till the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan consolidated his hold and appointed his son Aurangzeb as the governor. Aurangzeb established his base here and thus the city got renamed to his name and the name hasn’t changed since.

We decided to look around in the city first, but Aurangabad has only a few places that are worth visiting. The first stop for us was Panchakki, which is a 17th century water mill. There is a picturesque garden here that houses several beautiful fish tanks and it plays abode to the memorial of a Sufi Saint. Our guide told us that the saint was a Russian vagabond who got famous by the name of Hazrat Baba Shah Musafir. He came to the city in earlier part of 18th century and helped the locals in making this water mill, and that’s why his grave was revered and was worshiped as a shrine. I wouldn’t recommend stoping at this spot, there is nothing that you’d miss..

After a disappointing start to the trip, we were hoping for some better luck with Bibi ka Maqbara, our next destination. For those of you who do not know about the monument, it is a replica of Taj Mahal built by Aurangzeb’s son, in tribute to his mother, Begum Rabia Durani. By this time, Mughals had established such a strong presence in Deccan, that going back in the north would’ve seemed odd. But then gong by this logic, we should’ve had more Mughal monuments in the region, and somehow Bibi ka Maqbara is the only one that we’ll come across in the Deccan region. The building itself is evident of the declining power of Mughals.. the building started in marble but then due to budget constraints was completed in brick and plaster, which infact was made by grinding sea shells. This is partly because the Mughal treasury at this point in time was majorly used for winning the wars against the Deccan states and thus architecture slipped down in priority list. This also can be attributed to the emperor’s outlook, Aurangzeb was a very pious Muslim who lived a simple life. He was not in the favor of spending the taxpayer’s money on building personal monuments and never built anything comparable to his elders. His own grave lies in a small town near Aurangabad – Khuldabad. It lies is sharp contrast to the previous Mughal rulers.

Mughals started their journey from Uzbekistan and reached the peak of their rule when they were ruling from Aurangabad. If you look up the two regions on a map, it speaks a lot about how much they traveled in search of power.  On the other hand, there is no region that the Mughals could’ve called their own, everything they ruled over at any point in time was what they had won from someone else and then lost it to someone else.

bibi ka maqbara

bibi ka maqbara

We headed to Ellora caves and left Aurangabad behind, but made a stop in between for lunch. The 12 Buddhist (caves 1–12), 17 Hindu (caves 13–29) and 5 Jain (caves 30–34) caves, built in proximity, demonstrate the religious harmony prevalent during this period of Indian history. We couldn’t cover all the caves as we had to cover the Daulatabad fort before the day would’ve ended. But we did see most of the famous structures and caves, starting with the Jain caves, in this group, the cave#32 is the biggest one, shown below in the photos and sketches.

Ellora

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If you’ve got further interest in the architecture of the caves, you should visit this site prepared as a part of a documentation project, it has floor plans and elevation pictures to study all the caves in details.

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ellora

After seeing the Jain caves, we moved forward to the Hindu caves. the most famous structure at Ellora is the Kailasnath Temple, which is a Hindu temple. It shows Shiva and Parvati at their Himalayan abode – Mount Kailash. The most amazing thing about it is that it was carved from the rock of the mountain. It was not built. They had to take out some 220,000 tonnes of rock to create a “trench” around it, leaving a massive centre rock, which they then carved into the shape of a giant chariot that is also a temple. The whole thing is covered in sculptures depicting many scenes, such as the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the descent of river Ganga, and Ravana shaking Mount Kailash. Also, one can see leftover of plaster and paint in corners of the temple, thus, it suggests that the temple used to be painted at its prime. It is said that the temple was painted white so as the resemble the Mount Kailash itself. Strangely for a Shiva temple, most of the deities at the left of the entrance are Shaivaite (followers of Shiva) while on the right hand side the deities are Vaishnavaites (followers of Vishnu). Below are shots and sketches of the Kailashnath temple, cave#16. 

ellora

ellora

The Kailashnath temple is a splendid achievement of Rashtrakuta Karnataka architecture. It is also evident from the fact that the construction went for 200 years! Imagine a generation of workers just devoted to completing this temple. This project was started in around 760 AD by Krishna I of the Rashtrakuta dynasty that ruled in present day Karnataka and Maharashtra state. His rule had also spread to southern India, hence this temple was excavated in the prevailing style. Its builders modelled it on the lines of the Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal, built by the Chalukyas.  The Virupaksha temple was built by Lokamahadevi, the consort of Vikramaditya to commemorate his three victories over the Pallavas and occupation of Kanchi. This was perhaps built in about first half of the 8th century. It is said that the Virupaksha temple itself was modelled after the Kailashnath temple of Kanchi, which was built from 685-705AD by a Rajasimha ruler of the Pallava Dynasty.  The Kailashnath temple of Kanchi also inspired the Chola king, Rajaraja to build the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur. With so many threads inter-sewing the history of India, it is hard not to visit all these places and understand the finer details of the architecture and the empires themselves..

ellora

ellora

ellora

 After spending a good amount of time at Ellora, it was time to move on to our next destination – Daulatabad Fort. It is said to be an impregnable fort and the only time in history it was captured was by the army of Ala-ud-din Khilji in A.D. 1296. Prior to this attack, the place was called Devgiri. Muhammad-bin-Tughluq succeeded the Khiljis at Delhi and he renamed Deogiri as Daulatabad and seeing its impregnable fort, shifted the capital from Delhi in A.D. 1328. This led to serious repercussions as the city couldn’t support the water needs of all the people who had migrated with the king and he had to again transfer the capital back to Delhi within 2 years of shifting. Till this day, this decision of shifting capitals with the entire population is seen as a foolish decision and is mocked upon.

daulatabad

daulatabad

There is a distinct structure that stands out while entering the fort – Chand Minar which is a tower 210 ft (64 m). high and 70 ft (21 m). in circumference at the base. It was originally covered with beautiful Persian glazed tiles. It was erected in 1445 by Ala-ud-din Bahmani to commemorate his capture of the fort.

daulatabad

daulatabad

The walk to the top of the fort is really tiring but you shouldn’t miss it. The view from the top is really good and the fort itself is very well made, you don’t get to see such a good defence system. We came across moats, bridges, tunnels, very narrow pitch dark staircases with traps and bats! The part I enjoyed the most was the dark passages that lead to the citadel. Built to confuse the invaders, the passages have many devious routes through which they’ll eventually be trapped or better still, killed either by falling off the cliff or into hot oil! These passages are collectively called Andheri.

daulatabad   daulatabad

But we were really tired by the end of our descent. There wasn’t anything left to see as well apart from Ajanta caves. So, we decided to take a snack break and had some sugarcane juice, trust me, it’s the best drink when you need some instant energy. After gaining back our strength, we headed back to the city for dinner. It was time for a big feast after such an eventful day! We went to Karim’s which is a famous non-veg restaurant chain in India. Needless to say, everyone was really hungry and hogged upon everything that we were served. There wasn’t much left to be done that day and soon we returned back to the hotel and slept off.

The first couple of hours of next morning went into checking out of the hotel. After the initial hiatus, we started our journey to the Ajanta caves, which are located at a distance of 100 km from Aurangabad. I believe Ajanta caves proved to be the most distinctive part of the trip as nobody had seen such a wonder before and I’m sure there are only a very few places in the world which can leave you in such awe. The Ajanta caves are cut into the side of a cliff that is on the south side of a U-shaped gorge on the small river Waghora (or Wagura), and although they are now along and above a modern pathway running across the cliff they were originally reached by individual stairs or ladders from the side of the river 35 to 110 feet below. From a distance, the Ajanta Caves appear like a series of gaping holes drilled into the centuries old Sahyadri hills, but once you enter the caves, you can see the remains of fresco paintings from 3rd century India. Some of these paintings survived 1800 years, just this fact makes Ajanta a must visit location.

Ajanta

ajanta

Lonely Planet explains the painting techniques – First, the rough-stone surfaces were primed with a 6- to 7-centimeter coating of paste made from clay, cow dung and animal hair, strengthened with vegetable fiber. Next, a finer layer of smooth white lime was applied. Before this was dry, the artists quickly sketched the outlines of their pictures using red cinnabar. The pigments, all derived from natural water-soluble substances (kaolin chalk for white, lamp soot for black, glauconite for green, ochre for yellow and imported lapis lazuli for blue), were thickened with glue and added only after the undercoat was completely dry. Finally, after they had been left to dry, the murals were painstakingly polished with a smooth stone to bring out their natural sheen. The artists’ only sources of light were oil-lamps and sunshine reflected into the caves by metal mirrors and pools of water (the external courtyards were flooded expressly for this purpose). Ironically, many of them were not even Buddhists but Hindus employed by the royal courts of the day. Nevertheless, their extraordinary mastery of line, perspective and shading, which endows Ajanta’s paintings with their characteristic other-worldly light, resulted in one of the great technical landmarks in Indian Buddhist art history. Below is the shot of one of the walls of a Vihara, the paintings are still very clear and sharp however, the bottom half has all been chipped off from all the rubble that got collected in 1000 years of abandonment.

ajanta

The earliest group of caves were made during the period 100 BCE to 100 CE, probably under the patronage of the Satavahana dynasty (230 BCE – c. 220 CE) who ruled the region. Some time after the Satavahana period caves were made, the site was abandoned for a considerable period until the mid-5th century, probably because the region had turned mainly Hindu. most of the work in second phase took place over the very brief period from 460 to 480 CE, during the reign of Emperor Harishena of the Vakataka dynasty. But the caves were abandoned, yet again, after the fall of Harishena, in about 480 CE. They were then gradually abandoned and forgotten until their rediscovery in 19th century, a considerable gap!

ajanta

The distinctive feature in Buddhist architecture is that there are 2 kinds of monuments with very different purpose and architecture style. A chaitya is similar to the concept of church, where the shrine is a Stupa and they are primarily built for the purpose of praying. Viharas on the other hand are like monasteries and they usually have many living quarters and a big central room for discussions and general gathering. Chaityas are usually elongated with the shrine at one of the ends of the room.The two sides have multiple pillars to provide support and ornamental carvings and decoration. Viharas are simpler in structural design and detail work as well when compared to Chaityas. However, when it comes to Ajanta caves, the Viharas have much more detailed paintings and stone carvings as compared to the Chaityas.  The first picture below shows a Chaitya and the second one is of the central hall in a Viahara. In the rhird picture below, you can see the floor plan of the Chaityas and Viharas.

ajanta

ajanta

ajanta

We spent good 4-5 hours in exploring most of the caves and were overwhelmed with the experience. There wasn’t much left for the day as well. We went back to Aurangabad, had our dinner and boarded the bus to Pune. The following day in Pune was meant to chill with friends and not for further exploration. So, going by our plan, that’s what we did and after a good day which included a buffet lunch of non-veg delicacies and a movie followed by drinks, we boarded the bus to Bangalore. The final back breaking journey brought us to the end of the trip and tired from the long travel, I spent the next day sleeping and getting my back straight again! Hope this post helps you in travel planning if you’re planning to visit the caves.

Hampi

I had decided long back that since I had not been traveling much after shifting to Bangalore, I wouldn’t be going home for Diwali but instead would be traveling. So, after looking up on internet on the places nearby, I chose Hampi, an ancient city which at its peak was one of the biggest in the world. It also is a popular destination for bouldering and rock climbing because of its rugged topology and natural granite rocks that lay scattered around the archaeological ruins. 

Hampi was the capital city of the medieval Vijaynagar Empire which ruled large parts of South India from 1336 to 1646 AD. In around 1500 Vijaynagar had 500,000 inhabitants, probably making it the second largest city in the world after Peking-Beijing and twice the size of Paris back then. The ruins are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also, it is believed that Hampi in its earlier avatar of thousands of years ago (roughly at around 4,000 B.C.) was the city of Kishkinda. As many of you would know, Sugriva and his brother Bali (the monkey men in Ramayan) were the rulers of this city. Hanuman is also believed to have been born at this place itself. Today, Hampi is  majorly a tourist attraction. Jindal Steel has a steel plant nearby and the area around Hospet and Bellary is now growing as an industrial hub.

Vijaynagar Dynasty rules over India for 3 centuries. It is a history full of wars with Bahamani and other muslim rulers of northern Deccan, collectively said as Deccan sultanates.

India Map

The Vijaynagar empire saw 4 different dynasties in power – Sangama Dynasty, Saluva Dynasty, Tuluva Dynasty and Aravidu Dynasty. The most famous king whom you might have heard about – Krishna Deva Raya belonged to the Tuluva Dynasty. I won’t go into further details but if interested in knowing more, you would find this blogpost useful. In the years after 1565, after Vijaynagar empire lost a decisive battle at Talikota against the Deccan Sultanates, the Vijayanagara kingdom was reduced to a heap of uninhabitable ruins and the region was subjected to repeated invasions. It was re-discovered only in 1850-60s when the area came under the Madras Presidency of the British control. Alexander Greenlaw, a photographer and soldier of the British East India Company, whose 60 or so waxed-paper negatives from 1856 have miraculously survived was one of the few who contributed a lot to the revival of fate of Hampi. These masterpieces of early photography show the site before any clearing work took place. Even today, all the photos taken by ASI try to mimic the angles and vantages used by Alexander.

Before I start talking about all the monuments, here is a quick picture break.. that’s me at the iconic stone chariot at the Vittala temple. It’s probably the best sculpture you’ll come across at Hampi or anywhere else for that matter. You should definitely get yourself this postcard shot from Hampi!

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The best way to reach Hampi from Bangalore is via the train – Hampi Express (price close to Ra 1000, tickets can be booked at IRCTC). Hampi is close to 400km from Bangalore city and the train covers the distance overnight from both the directions. However, the train gets filled really fast during peak tourist seasons. So if you are not able to reserve train tickets, you can opt for a Sleeper bus (price close to Rs 1000, tickets are available on redBus) which is the next best thing, only drawback being that you’ll have to endure Indian roads, there’s no escaping that on a bus!

The tourist season peaks at around October-November because of Diwali holidays and then at December end because of New Year vacations. If you’re interested in some adventure along with history, then Christmas week would be the best time as that’s when a lot of rock climbers, most of them from outside India, come down to Hampi to have a ball!

Now, let me walk you through the places you’d encounter at Hampi. Here is the best map I could find online, make sure you get a high res copy of this on your phone (click on the map to get it) while you’re traveling. There are too many places to cover and you can easily loose track of what else is to be covered unless you know them by name/location.

Hampi Map

Quite evidently the ruins have been classified into 2 groups – Royal Center and Sacred Center. Also, there are a few sites on the other side of the river – they are mostly related associated with Ramayan and were already there before the Vijaynagar era. I infact didn’t cover these sites across the river as I was told there wasn’t much to seek apart from the historical significance of the place.

I took the Hampi Express to Hospet (closest station to Hampi – about 13km away). So, I arrived at Hampi on Sunday morning and left for Bangalore on Monday night. I couldn’t get a confirmed ticket for the train, so I took the bus and reached Bangalore on Tuesday morning. It seemed like the right amount of time to cover all the places without having to rush through. I spent the sunday night, which also was the night of Diwali, at a hotel in Hospet. You can also get good hotels in Hampi itself, it would probably save you some time in travel from Hospet to Hampi and back.

So, back to Sunday morning.. I took a bus from Hospet to Hampi from the Hospet Bus Station, the frequency is pretty good and the fair is just Rs 13 whereas you’d have to pay close to Rs 300 for an Auto (tuk-tuk). Upon reaching Hampi Bus-Stop, thr first thing you’ll encounter is the Auto Drivers. I found taking an auto to be the best option as they also are government approved guides for the place and being locals, they know the place well. They have a fixed package to cover all the sites and you can spend an entire day on it. It was around 11 AM by the time I was getting the auto and after negotiating for about 5 minutes, I got a deal to cover whatever we can till sunset for Rs 600 which I think was good enough because the driver was doubling up as our guide.

We started our journey with Hemkuta hill, which though isn’t shown on the map, but it’s right at the Bus stand. The first monument we covered was the temple of Kadalekalu Ganesh. The Ganesh shrine there is shaped like an unsplit Bengal gram seed. Below is the view of the Hemkuta hill, you’d come across several smaller temples like the one in the picture scattered across the hill slopes of the hill. Also, this is the place where you should be at sunset, so you’d see me coming back to this place at sunset.

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Our next stop was Krishna Temple which was built by the emperor Krishnadevaraya after military campaigns in Odisha. The carvings had intricate patterns and a part of the temple is currently under restoration. The 20+ feet high temple gate was a monolith. Below is the top of the structure at temple entrance, and shots of the pillars at the main temple complex.

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The unique feature of big temples in Hampi is all of them have an area termed bazaar (Hindi for market) in front. These bazaars, now in ruins, were used to sell vegetables, puja offerings and other daily life items such as spices. Krishna Temple Bazaar was close to 500m long twin pillared enclosures made of stone for the vendors about 30m apart. Although mostly in ruins, you can still get good shots by including the rows of pillars in your composition. Below is what I managed to get when one lady was passing by in front of me.

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From Krishna temple, we moved on towards Royal enclosure, leaving behind the rest of the sacred enclosure to be covered at sunset or next day. The next stop was Lakshmi Narasimha, the iconic statue of the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

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Just besides this is a big 3 feet Shiv Linga of which 1 feet is under water. Both the sculptures are monoliths and are a testament to the Vijaynagar Art.

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From here, we moved on to the underground Shiv Temple. It is at the beginning of the Royal enclosure and has quarters for noble men and travelers next to it. It was mostly built as a temple for the vistors. This particular section of the royal enclosure was discovered by ASI in excavations of 1985-86.

We now move on to the main buildings of the royal enclosure. The first building we come across there is Lotus Palace which was meant for the queen. The palace is located right next to the King’s palace but that’s in complete ruins now. The structures at royal enclosure are built in Indo-Islamic style of architecture, so in all probability they were built in or after 15th century.

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If the light is right, Lotus Palace can be a good place to get clicked as well! so below is one portait shot that really came out good.

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If you’d spend sometime, you would love the intricacies of the architecture of the palace.

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Besides the palace, you would be able to see the watch towers at the junctions of the fortifications. You can make out just by the looks of the structure that it is an addition that came with the influence of the Islamic kingdoms in adjoining regions.

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From here, we take a reverse turn to cover the rest of the monuments left in the royal enclosure and move back towards the sacred enclosure. I’m not sharing all the pictures,  but we covered Hazara Ram temple, Mahanavami Dibba, Stepped tanks and the queen’s bath on our way back.

I was able to get this panoramic shot of the boulders behind the royal enclosure from one of the smaller un-named temples. You should definitely see this one full zoomed-in in my g+ album. There are amazing details in the photo!

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One thing I forgot to mention is water! You’ll need lots of it as Hampi can drain out energy from all the walking you’ll have to do in bright sunlight. Make sure you always have a bottle in your backpack and refill it whenever you get a chance.

We reach back to the Hemkuta hills for the sunset and see off the auto driver with his Rs 600. It’s now upto you to explore the rest of the temples in the sacred enclosure or rather watch the sunset at the hillslopes of the Hemkuta hills. I chose the latter and managed to get some good shots in the process as it was the golden hour (for photography).

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What you see above is the Gopuram of the Virupaksha Temple, the biggest and oldest temple at Hampi. The Gopuram is the second highest in India, after the Gopuram of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. Here are couple of more good shots of the Gopuram –

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Below is a 360 degree shot of the view you get from the Hemkuta hillslopes. Again, the panorama is best viewed in full zoom position on the g+ album

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Soon after, the scene changed to what’s below and I moved ahead to explore the local markets and have dinner by the sides of the Tungabhadhra river.

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You can find many cafes, all of which are well adapted to serve multiple cuisines, on either sides of the river for meals but since one can’t cross the river after 6, so I didn’t risk going on the other side as unlike others I had to return to Hospet. I went for Indian food hoping it to be the safest bet but it didn’t turn out to be very good decision as the food was prepared in coconut oil, something I’m not very used to. After dinner, it was time to return to Hospet and end the day. I had some problems on the way back as there was no bus due to Diwali and the auto which I took, punctured it tire on the way back. All these were incidental issues and therefore can’t be planned against.

Let’s move on to the Day 2.

I started the 2nd day with a training session on rock climbing at the boulders of Hampi. You can signup for these sessions at a shop called the “Tom & Jerry Rock Climbing Joint”. Tom and Jerry are actually the names of the 2 partners who run the shop. I went with Tom for my session from 8 to 11. The session was actually cut short by 1 hour because I wasn’t able to cross the river in time in morning and the operators won’t operate the boat unless there are enough people to fill all the seats. It’s a shitty arrangement. Anyhow, you can see Tom spotting one of the members of our group in the pic below.

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Here is a panoramic shot taken just after the one above, it will give you some idea of the terrain.

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It was a very different experience for me as I haven’t tried many adventure sports so far. Also, it was a fresh change from what I was expecting from Hampi – Temple ruins. So, that’s me atop one of the boulders that I had just climbed!

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After this session on bouldering got over, it was time for luch! You should check out this place called “The laughing Buddha”. It’s a great place to chill out. the restaurant is built on the banks of the Tunghabhadra river and you can good view while you have your lunch. The food is good enough but not the best. 

After lunch, we shopped for a while at the local market to get some souvenirs, I bought a pair of stone carved elephants for Rs 400 and they now would get placed in my living room, besides the book shelves.

With this we set out to explore the rest of the monuments, our main aim was to reach the Vitala temple. There are 2 ways to reaching the Vittala temple from the Virupaksha temple – to take an auto which takes you to the place via a 12km road route or you can walk/trek for 2 kms alongside the river and through the rocks. Being the adventurers we are, we took the 2nd route and covered several sites like the monolith bull, Matanga hill and a few temples on our way.

After almost 40 minutes of walking under the sun without water, we reached the Vittala temple. That’s where I had got myself clicked at the Stone Chariot – the first photo above!

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You would love this temple, it has been built in the most intricate manner by Krishnadevaraya. this temple too like the Krishna, Hazara Ram and Virupaksha temples had its own Bazaar in front of the temple complex. The road leading to the temple was once a market where the horses were traded. Even today we can see the ruins of the market on both the sides of the road. The temple contains the images of foreigners like Persians selling horses, like the one below.

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This brought us to the end of our Hampi trip. It was time to go back, but I had time for one more quick trip to the Tunghabhadra Dam at Hospet. You might not know this, but Tunghabhadhra was earlier known as the Pampa river. Pampa in local language was called as Hampa as well, thus the town which was based on the banks of Pampa river came to be known as Hampa Pradesh and over time Hampa got anglicized as Hampi. This is how Hampi got its name – from the river Tunghabhadhra.

If you’re staying back at Hospet, then I would recommend Hotel Malligi for meals and accommodation both. It’s a 3 star hotel and I had dinner there before leaving for Bangalore. The food was very good and I liked the overall ambiance of the place. I took the 11 PM bus to Bangalore from Hospet and reached Bangalore at about 6.30 AM i.e. Tuesday morning which brought me to the end of the trip and end of this blog post as well.

Hampi is a place you should surely visit if you’re interested in either of the following  – History, Photography, Travel, Rock Climbing. Let me know if you have any questions through comments below, I’ll be happy to answer..

I’ll leave you with this photo of a member from my rock climbing group looking over the city of Hampi, you too be fascinated by it, I’m sure!

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