Travel and Places

Varanasi through my eyes – a photo feature

Travel and Places

It is supposed to be one of the oldest cities in the world that have been continuously inhabited. Some passionate locals claim that it is the oldest such city in the world. For the Hindus, it is the holiest of holies, the gateway to heaven and therefore, the preferred departure point for their final journey.

Varanasi must be one of the most storied cities in the world, one of the truly great cities. To put it mildly, it is an overwhelming city that assaults your senses. It is possible to decode Varanasi at different levels, depending on how deep you want to look, what your worldview is and which aspect of the city you encounter during your visit. For instance, while it is revered by many for its spiritual overtones, it is reviled by many others at the same time. Reviled for being another grimy, crowded, chaotic Indian city and for the various shady operators who try to rip tourists off.

But revere it or revile it, you cannot be indifferent towards it.

In ancient times, this city was known by the name ‘Kashi’. Even today, Hindus across the world refer to their trip to this city as ‘Kashi yatra’. Weddings in the South Indian Iyer community feature a ritual known as ‘Kashi yatra’, in which the groom symbolically renounces this material world and embarks on a journey to Kashi to live in abstinence for the rest of his life. Until, of course, the bride’s family manages to ‘convince’ him and bring him back.

In time, it got a second name ‘Varanasi’ and a third ‘Banaras’. Not many know that ‘Varanasi’ is the conjoined result of the names of two rivers that flow by the city: Varuna and Assi.

Look beneath its spiritual cloak and you will discern several little known facts about this city. For instance, the famous queen Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi was born here. But today, her place of birth lies forgotten and forlon in a corner of this city. Varanasi offers you some of the best vegetarian food, especially chaat. The city is home to a fine architectural legacy left behind by erstwhile rulers and noblemen. Just 12 kms (8 miles) away likes the tiny town of Sarnath, where Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon after gaining enlightenment. And finally, it is a hub for tabla-making (the tabla is the chief percussion instrument in Hindustani classical music).

So friends, here is Varanasi in its various shades. Hope you enjoy this photo essay. Please leave a comment after the post. And if you want to know anything more about this city or plan your trip to it, I will do my best to help you.

P.S. These photos were taken when I was not yet a good photographer. I was still learning the ropes. Still, I want to share them with you to bring out the various shades of this interesting city. So, bear with me on this please.  🙂

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At the Kal Bhairav temple, a vendor looks out for tourists who will buy his wares as an offering to the Lord.

 

Devotees inside the Kal Bhairav temple. The deep red of the pillars and the walls give the temple a very tasteful look. This temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva in a fierce incarnation of Kaal (meaning both ‘fate’ & ‘time’ in Hindi). He wears a garland of skulls and wields a club made of peacock feathers.

 

Flowers and sweets on sale.  The flowers to appease the Gods and the sweets to appease your tummy. 🙂

 

Dusk falls on one of the ghats lining the holy river Ganga.

 

You are in queue for salvation. A corpse lying on the steps of the ghat, waiting for its turn to be burned. Afterwards, the ashes will be scattered in the Ganga.

Burning pyres. It is indeed true that even this supposedly noble act of cremating a body has been turned into a racket in Varanasi. Those who want the body of a loved one consigned to the flames here reconcile themselves to touting, ‘commissions’ and a long waiting line.

 

The faded inscription on this board is the only indication of the historic importance of this place. Rani Lakshmi Bai was born in 1828 in a house that stood here.

 

The Lal Darwaza, one of the entrances to the Ramnagar Fort, built by the erstwhile ruler of Banaras, Raja Balwant Singh, in the 18th century.

 

The chequered lines of the pathways and lawns inside the Ramnagar Fort. The Fort was also known as ‘Kashi naresh ka qila’ (meaning ‘the fort of the lord of Kashi’ in Hindi.)

One of the viewing galleries inside the fort.

 

And quietly flows the Ganga, watched over by the fort. The pavilions on the rampart of the fort give you beautiful views of the river.

 

Symmetrical lines and contours inside the fort.

 

A royal pavilion overlooking the Ganga.

 

Boats waiting to take tourists across the river.

 

 

The lovely ornate entrance to the Buddhist monastery in Sarnath, 8 miles from Varanasi.

The Buddha. Need I say more?

 

This mural on a wall of the monastery shows the Buddha in deep meditation.

 

The more-than 2000 year old Bodhi tree under which The Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon after attaining nirvana.

 

More murals on the walls of the monastery.

 

 

A Buddhist monk of the Theravada order from Sri Lanka.

 

Buddhist women from Sri Lanka, who are on a pilgrimage to important sites in India. Buddhists from South Asian and South East Asian countries flock to places that feature prominently in the Buddha’s life. Sarnath is definitely one among them.

 

Wind horses, as the prayer flags are also called, are supposed to carry the prayers of devotees to the lord.

 

The Sarnath temple, seen from a distance.

 

A long message inscribed on a stone slab, the interesting feature being that it is in the Mangolian script.

 

Devotees make it a point to turn the prayer wheels.

Votive offerings for the Buddha. Offerings range from bowls of water (considered the purest offering) to flowers and small cups of butter. Curiously, even soft drinks are offered by some people.

 

The prayer hall. A photo of the Dalai Lama is placed at the centre, flanked by two rows of seats for the chanting priests. When I visited, prayers were being chanted for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

 

This bell weights two tons. That’s right, two tons. Put up in the deer park in Sarnath, it tolls twice daily. Apparently, it can be heard 4 kilometres away.

 

 

 

 

 

Two other views of the Sarnath temple.

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The Old Delhi food trail – Part 1

Travel and Places

Hidden in the labyrinthine lanes of Old Delhi are some of the best food spots of the city. They are high on history, taste and atmosphere.

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The mere mention of Old Delhi conjures up vivid images of a crowded bazaar (market), old buildings from the Mughal era and wonderful, aromatic food. Take away even one of these elements, and the Old Delhi picture will not be complete.

For me, Delhi is home because one half of my family lives there. So, while I live in Bangalore, I definitely end up making a ‘family pilgrimage’ to Delhi at least once a year. During my trip in October 2016, I took time off to explore the streets of Old Delhi. I was especially interested in the decades-old eateries that have been Old Delhi’s pride. In fact, many of them were set up in the early 1900s, making them nearly a century old. Some others are about a hundred and fifty years old and counting. With so many years behind them, you are talking serious history. Each of these joints has secret family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. Every one of them also has one or two signature dishes that they claim will beat competitors hollow. Facts like these add to the allure of these eateries. No wonder then, that they accumulated a large number of loyalists (and remember, this was much before social media popularized the concepts of fan base and followers).

Make no mistake, given the character of Old Delhi, these eateries are all dives. Nothing fancy when it comes to ambience here. People throng them only for the taste of their food, their history and the ‘atmosphere’. Without much further ado therefore, let’s dive right in(exclamation)

Nathu Ram Kachoriwaala

We got off the metro at Chandi Chowk and exited the station through a narrow gully (lane) that leads deeper into the Chandi Chowk market. A couple of minutes later, we spot a Hanuman temple and right opposite that, under the shade of a large tree, is Nathu Ram’s food stall. The ‘stall’ is actually a large tarpaulin sheet that has been spread under the branches of the tree. Cooks are at work under the canopy, one frying jalebis, another frying kachoris. A couple of attendants are helping the cooks out. A few rickety wooden tables stand desultorily, with customers gorging from small, stitched-leaf bowls known as donney in Hindi.

Nathu Ram has been feeding hungry souls for more than seven decades. Nobody (including the guy at the counter) seems to know exactly when it was set up, and frankly, nobody bothers. What they do bother about though, is the food that is being doled out.

While the menu nailed to a wooden pillar announces a dozen dishes, most customers ask for one thing first: bedmi puris. We do the same. A couple of minutes later, we are handed out donnays with piping hot, crisp puris, accompanied by aloo subzi (potato curry).  Bedmi puris are palm-sized fluffy breads made from whole wheat flour (atta). The dough has been infused with spicy lentils and asafoetida (known in Hindi as ‘heeng’). The aloo subzi has small pieces of potato in a spicy, watery gravy. I have had this subzi at various places in North India, but the variant found in Old Delhi has a unique taste and flavor.

Given the size of the puris, we nail several before drawing a deep breath and taking a break. We are sweating profusely, partly because of the heat, but also because of the spice in the food. Talk of being in sweaty heaven(exclamation).

A pair of puris with unlimited refills of aloo subzi comes for Rs. 24/-. If that isn’t cheap, what is?

Kanhaiyalal Durga Prasad Dixit

Next, we wend our way to Gali Parathewali (Hindi for ‘paratha lane’; making it amply clear as to what life here is all about), which lies a short distance away. On the way, we pass Shishganj Sahib, a famous gurudwara.

The history of Gali Parathewali goes back nearly two centuries to the mid-nineteenth century. Though the character and complexion of this street has changed considerably over the decades, a handful of the old eateries remain. They are each run by the sixth or seventh generation of Brahmin families from Uttar Pradesh (especially, the Allahabad belt), a fact they take great pride in. It is to one of these that we head this morning.

‘Kanhaiyalal Durga Prasad Dixit’ announced a large board at the entrance to the humble eatery. The fact that it was set up in 1875 is mentioned prominently. The insides of the eatery have been jazzed up a little with lights that are too bright. The cook is at work near the entrance, making – what else – parathas.  You can play safe by asking for the regular aloo, gobhi, methi and mooli parathas. Or, you could get adventurous by ordering one of the more intriguing variants: nimbu, gajar, mutter, papad, kela, karela, tamatar and mewa.

Our gastric juices start flowing again (never mind that we have just stuffed ourselves with puris). We seat ourselves and order three plates of parathas, which arrive a few minutes later. Each plate comprises two small parathas, accompanied by three curries and some pickled vegetables.  Everything on the plate is delicious. We polish the food off in no time, before ordering a few more plates. The parathas are crisp and stuffed well with the vegetables of your choice.

Each paratha sets you back by about Rs. 60 or 70, depending upon the variant you choose. But the price premium is worth it, considering the wonderful taste and the fact that you get repeats of the accompanying curries and pickle.

Pandit Gaya Prasad Madan Mohan

Deciding that our tummies needed a respite after that overload of puris and parathas, we walk a few paces from Kanhaiyalal to Panditji’s hole-in-the-wall that serves luscious rabdi and lassi (to be explained). The lassi (thick, sweetened, churned curd) comes in a tall, stout steel tumbler, while the rabdi (thickened, sweet milk topped with a thick layer of cream) is served in a small bowl made (oddly) of aluminium foil. While lassi is available in most parts of India these days, you must have it in North India, especially in Punjab or Old Delhi, to savour it in its full, authentic glory. It is refrigerated and served chilled. The drops of moisture on the outside of the steel tumbler could well we a reflection of your thirst.

Our thirst slaked and the fire in our tummy doused for the moment, we took a stroll through the Chandni Chowk market with its small, old shops and pavement hawkers. Cycle rickshaws and autos deftly wove through the congested thoroughfare like only they can.

About an hour later, we were ready for our next gastronomical foray. And that’s how we landed up at Kanwarji’s Restaurant.

Kanwarji’s Restaurant

You can’t go to Old Delhi and return without having had the chholey bhaturey. Kanwarji’s Restaurant is a narrow outlet, with sweets arranged in shelves right at the entrance. You can take one of the few seats laid out inside or opt to stand on the pavement and enjoy your food. We choose to do the former.

Chholey bhaturey are as much a part of Delhi’s culture as the Red Fort and India Gate. If you ask me to single out one dish you should have on your next trip to Delhi, I would recommend this dish without batting an eyelid. Every area of Delhi has several joints serving this staple, and each has its own taste and flavor.

As if to demonstrate this point, the bhaturey at Kanwarji’s are oval (you get them round everywhere else). The dough of the bhaturey is infused with a mild mixture of asafetida and something else that I could not quite place. The chholey is a dark brown slurry, with chickpeas (channa) floating in it. Onion rings and pickled long green chillies (which are staple accompaniments to dishes in Delhi) complete the ensemble.

I am recalling all these details for you in retrospect now. At that time though, we just waded into the food. The next time we looked up was fifteen minutes later, after we had picked our plates clean. After that, all we could do for the next few minutes was sit back and sigh in deep contentment.

A plate of chholey bhaturey here comes for Rs. 60/-.

 Pandit Mittanlalji Lemonwaley (aka Mittanlalji Bantawaley)

Banta, as it is known to locals in Delhi, is lemon soda to which a pinch of black salt has been added for that tangy twist. It is much sought-after as a great refresher in the torrid climes of Delhi. A reasonably tall glass of cold banta comes for Rs. 15/-. Since the shop (like all other shops in Chandni Chowk) is actually a crevice on the old wall, there is no shade to stand under. Gulping down the cold drink standing in the glare of the hot sun is an interesting experience.

Natraj Dahi Bhalla Corner

And now, for some famous dahi bhalla. Located at the mouth of a lane that leads to Chandi Chowk metro station, Natraj has been dishing out dahi bhallas since 1940. A bhalla is a fried, sour ball of gram flour. After it is cut into small pieces, onto which fresh, thick curd is poured. This is then topped up with generous doses of green chutney (made from crushed mint leaves) and khatti-meethi chutney (sweet-sour chutney made from tamarind) and served to you. I shovel a piece of the bhalla into my mouths and feel a soft explosion of flavours hit my palate. By now, it is well past noon and the sun is high up. Thanks to our prolonged culinary assault since morning, our stomachs are bulging and our knees buckling. We are tottering on the pavement. Much as we’d love to have a second helping of the bhalley, we are forced to keep that for another day.

For now, we just want to head home and crash. But before that, one last stop.

Old Famour Jalebiwala

Several decades ago, Dariba Kalan was famous throughout Delhi for its goldsmiths and jewellery shops. Though many of them remain in business, many others have shut shop. At the entrance to this narrow lane is a shop whose business has nothing to do with gold or jewels. Welcome to Old Famous Jalebi (heck, I am not using these words as adjectives, but as a proper noun. This is the name of the shop, you see?) When your outlet is old and famous, why complicate matters by naming it anything other than ‘Old Famous?’ The shop has been around since 1884.

Thick juicy, golden-coloured rings of fried batter lie in trays, waiting to be bitten into. A pot-bellied cook is taking out fried maida rings from the cauldron and dunking them into a large vessel containing sugar syrup (known as ‘chashni’ in Hindi). A crowd of about fifteen is jostling for space where there isn’t any. Here, you have to pay first and then take your goodies. Not being in any shape to eat them there, we ask them to pack a kilo of jalebis for us.

We will enjoy them in the comfort of home, sprawled on comfortable beds. And then promptly go on the blink.

The vitals

  • Old Delhi is a city within a city, a world in itself. In its warren of narrow streets are several food joints like the ones I have described above. One trip is not enough to do full justice this area. You could therefore make a beginning by visiting the above-mentioned eateries and then come back another day to continue your culinary sojourn. After my next visit to Delhi, I will upload Part 2 of the Old Delhi Food Trail.
  • By and large, most eateries here are open from 8 am to past dusk. You can therefore visit any time in between. The trail I have described here took us about four hours to complete at a leisurely pace.
  • Just keep the heat of the city in mind when you plan this trip. The temperature stays above 40 degrees Celsius for most of the year and the humidity is high.
  • The best way to go to Chandni Chowk is by the metro. Taking along a private vehicle would be a bad idea, because you won’t get a place to park. This area is congested with a capital C.
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Five reasons you should go to Fort Kochi right away

Travel and Places

Fort Kochi, the most interesting part of Kochi city in central Kerala, deserves your attention. To me, it is one of the most interesting parts of Kerala, infinitely more interesting than Ernakulam, its cousin across the bay. Ernakulam is your regular Indian city, forever caught in an urban tizzy. It has lost much of its cultural identity and sanity over the past two decades.

Fort Kochi, on the other hand, is a different world; an oasis of cultural and historical riches that soothe the soul of the discerning traveler. Here, you will find a co-mingling of several histories, because a number of dynasties and communities have left their imprint on this tiny piece of land.

For many centuries, Kochi was ruled by several native Malayali chieftains and kings. It is a documented fact that Kochi state was formed in 1142 AD, when the kingdom of the erstwhile ruler Kulasekhara, broke up. Not much is however known about this kingdom until the late fifteenth century, when Vasco da Gama landed on the coast of Calicut.

Fort Kochi came into existence only after the arrival of the Portuguese in India. A few years after they made landfall on the Calicut coastin 1498, they ventured south and built a settlement on a land parcel gifted to them by the then king of Kochi. Their interests lay mainly in trade. They were keen to ship back pepper and other spices. Soon after they reached Kochi, they fortified it with permission from the Kochi Raja and named it Fort Emmanuel. When the modern city of Kochi was formed much, much later, Fort Emmanuel was renamed Fort Kochi. Except for a bastion and a cannon (which you’d be hard put to find), nothing remains of the fort today. But the town has emerged into a vibrant tourist destination.

I give you five specific reasons why you should go there right away.

One: the Portuguese heritage and the churches

The Portuguese were aggressive conquistadors. At the same time, they were prolific builders too. Wherever they went, they put up all manner of beautiful structures – including stately mansions, churches and forts. Fort Kochi is a superb example of the architectural legacy of the Portuguese.

I love two things the most. The first is the way in which they beautifully blended Portuguese and European sensibilities with the native Keralan architectural style. And so, you will find tall columns, arches and gables in houses that are roofed with local tiles. And since no house in Kerala is deemed complete without a backyard and a well, you will find a lush backyard and a deep well too.

Stroll along the streets of Fort Kochi and you will see what I mean. Several of these buildings have been converted into cafes, art galleries and guest houses, which is great. It means that tourism is being built on the strong foundation of a heritage conserved. Bishop’s House, Cabral Yard, Bastian Bungalow and several hotels around the Vasco da Gama Square are fine examples of Indo-Portuguese architecture.

The other thing I love about the Portuguese are their churches. Here, you will find solid masonry, tall spires and belfrys, exquisite stained glass, unshakeable wooden furniture and beautiful murals and frescoes.

Fort Kochi has the best collection of medieval churches in India, all within a few miles of one another. From the church where Vasco da Gama was first interred after his death (St. Francis Church, 1516 AD) to Santa Cruz Basilica (1505 AD), Our Lady of Life Church (1650 AD), Our Lady of Hope Church (Vypin, 1605 AD) are some of the best churches I have been to. It is a pleasure to sit in the pews in silence for a bit, then gaze up at the murals, take in the liturgical furniture and finally, stroll around in the church yard. I get goosebumps when I find tombstones dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Speaking of churches, Fort Kochi has one of the most intriguing museums I have ever seen. The Indo-Portuguese Museum is located inside the compound of Bishop House and contains a number of rare artefacts from the Portuguese era. With one important twist: these artefacts are all liturgical in nature; which means, they pertain to the history of the Catholic Church in India. From medieval versions of the Bible, chalices, crosses, altars and vestments, they are all on display here. If you love love the intersection of history and religion, you will love this museum for sure.

Two: the beaches

Fort Kochi is located bang by the sea. It is home to a few lovely beaches where the sand is golden brown and very clean. Apart from what is known as the Fort Kochi beach, there is a beach in Vypin and another in Cherai. Fort Kochi beach does get crowded in the evening, but you can still have a lot of fun. The crowd is never troublesome. Cherai and Vypin beaches are lesser known and therefore, much less crowded. You have to be very careful though, because the waters are very rough. We have built sand castles, jogged on the wet sand and played Frisbee here.

Being on the West coast, these beaches give you great views of sunset. Finish frolicking in the water by 5:30 pm or so, and then settle down on the sands. Watch the sun slowly sink into the horizon.  The orange and pink glow it casts on the waters is magical indeed! Words have no place at moments like these. I love basking in this fading glow. At times like this, I truly feel one with the universe.

Three: the food and the restaurants

Where there is the sea, there is bound to be excellent seafood. And so it is with Fort Kochi. Eateries here offer you a wide variety of fish, in addition to prawns, squids and crabs. And you can have them fried or curried, cooked in one of several ways in the traditional Kerala style.Pair these dishes with the flaky, crisp Kerala porotta or dosaiand you will reach heaven in this life itself.

Or, you could order a naadan (‘country/local/traditional’ in Malayalam) meal, which is served on a plantain leaf, and ask for a non-vegetarian dish on the side. The meal, known as ‘oonu’ in Malayalam, typically consists of two or three vegetable preparations (such as avial, thoran, kaalan, etc.), sambar, rasam, spiced buttermilk, papad, banana chips and pickle, all this to be eaten with nutrient-rich parboiled rice. Some restaurants add a few other items to this ensemble.

My preferred place for lunch or dinner is a sea-fronting restaurant with excellent views of the harbor and the bay. To eat and drink while watching boats and mammoth ships pass by is an interesting experience, to say the least. Seagull Restaurant on Calvathy Road is my all-time favourite for a beer and meal.

For breakfast, stick to delicious local food options like puttu, appam and dosai, served with kadala curry, meen curry or vegetable stew. My kind of breakfast is eaten steaming hot at a street cart, with the aroma of the food mingling with the chatter of locals who are digging in before plunging into their workday.I love to end the meal with a cup of strong Kerala style tea.

Though some eateries serve Continental food and noodles too, I give these a wide berth, because they don’t make it well. It just seems to be a pretence to serve foreign tourists.

Four: the atmospheric hotels

Nowhere else (at least in India) have I seen so many lovely, centuries-old buildings that have been converted into hotels, B&Bs and guest houses. And each one of these buildings has many tales to tell. Koder House, for instance, belonged to a Jewish family in the 19th century, before it was sold by the last descendent. It is now the lovely hotel with a red façade on Vasco da Gama Square. Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel was the site of the old lighthouse of Kochi and the residence of a senior official of the British empire. The Old HarbourHotel belonged to the Dutch way back in the eighteenth century. I could go on like this.

These hotels are high on history and atmosphere, something you’d not find in a regular hotel.

Five: the native art forms of Kerala

Take in a cultural performance at the Kerala Kathakali Centre, located in a tiny winding lane near the Santa Cruz Basilica. A few months back, I spent an enchanting evening watching a Kalaripayittu performance, an ancient martial art form of Kerala. The Centre hosts vocal and instrumental concerts and Kathakali recitals also.

Another venue for such performances is Greenix, which has two auditoria. One of them is located near the bus stand and across from the boarding point for the ferries to Vypin (don’t ask me why, but these ferries are called ‘Jhankar’). Greenix’s second centre is located onCalvathy Road, near a landmark building called Pepper House.

 

When you are there….

  1. Hop onto the large motorized barge, locally known as ‘Jhankar’ and take a five minute ride to the island of Vypin. Once there, take an auto or a bus to the lighthouse and beach.
  2. From Vypin bus stand (which is close to where the Jhankar will drop you), you can take a bus to Cherai junction and from there, hop into an auto to go to Cherai beach. If you don’t like buses much, you could take an auto from Vypin bus stand itself. The ride to Cherai will take between half an hour and 45 minutes. Cherai beach is unspoilt, clean and not crowded on most days.
  3. From Vypin, you could take an auto or bus to Vallarpadam island and visit the beautiful medieval church there.
  4. If you are interested in railway history and trivia, you should visit Cochin Harbour Terminus on Willingdon Island. Until about 1997, long distance express and freight trains used to ply from here. But dwindling business on this route sealed the fate of the terminus. Today, this small abandoned railway station holds a thousand memories and stories. An old weighing machine, fare lists, train schedules, railway tracks, a ticket window…..all these stand mute witnesses to the passage of an era.
  5. I’d also recommend a visit to the Cochin Marine Museum (Willingdon Island), Jew Town and the spice market (both in Mattancherry).
  6. And of course, of course, you must visit the Chinese fishing nets. If you go about 5:30 or 6 am, you can watch the fishermen operate it and cast their nets. It is believed that Chinese traders erected these cantilevered nets a few centuries ago. Little would they have guessed that these nets would one day become the most iconic symbol of Fort Kochi.

 

The vitals

Getting there: Fly to Kochi International Airport and take a taxi to Fort Kochi from there. Or, take a train to Ernakulam from wherever you live. From Ernakulam, take an auto or a bus for an overland ride to Fort Kochi. A more interesting way, however, is to take an auto to the Ernakulam boat jetty and hop onto a public ferry from there.

Shacking up: Like I mentioned earlier, Fort Kochi doesn’t want for accommodation options. From backpacking hostels to luxury hotels, you will find everything here. I think the most interesting way of experiencing the place is to plump for a seaside luxury hotel (high priced, obviously) or a homestay (mid-priced). The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel is one of the best luxury hotels I have stayed at. A sea-facing restaurant, an al-fresco lounge, a swimming pool and lovely old-fashioned rooms make this a charming place. The food and service are very good too (in particular, the enormous breakfast that is part of the room tariff).

From many forays to Fort Kochi though, I know that the following are also excellent options:

Koder House(luxury; not seaside, but near the sea and the Chinese fishing nets)

The Cochin Club (mid-priced, but very comfortable and almost luxurious)

Tower House Hotel (luxury; not seaside but near the sea and the Chinese fishing nets)

Brunton Boatyard Hotel (luxury, seaside)

Vintage Inn (at Jnaliparambu Junction; low-priced, but clean and comfortable)

Happy Camper (at Jnaliparambu Junction; a backpacker’s hostel)

Grub

Here is some more dope, beyond what I have told you above. A couple of my favourite eateries here are:

Seagull: seaside restaurant and bar, best known for its Kerala style food. Try to go at around 5:30 pm and catch a table on the re-purposed boat pier. Sit back for the next few hours and watch myriad interesting sights as you guzzle cold beer and enjoy your food. It is not everyday that you get to have a beer watching a glorious sunset or a mother of a ship pass close by.

Shanu’s food cart: This is where you should go, for a cheap, authentic, delicious local-style breakfast. The cart is permanently stationed adjacent to the Tower House Hotel on Vasco da Gama Square. You will invariably find a crowd here from say 6 am every morning. Gorge on puttu, appam, kadala curry and meencurry. Once you reach the Square, ask a local to direct you to Shanu’s thattukada (‘thattukada’ is Malayalam for food cart).

Getting around

This settlement is small enough (and of course beautiful enough) to cover on foot. This is how I move around whenever I am there. Other good option is to hire a cycle or scooter by the day. Auto rickshaws (known as tuktuks in certain countries) are available too.

Since Kerala is a conservative state, please cover up adequately.Since the weather is extremely hot and humid for six months a year, light, summery clothes would be your best bet.

With the influx of foreign tourists, some local eateries/bars.auto drivers have started acting snooty towards Indian tourists. Which is sad. I have encountered such specimens a few times. So, if you are an Indian visiting this place, be warned. Remember to not take it personally. If you find someone behaving unreasonably, just give him a piece of your mind (politely, but firmly) and move on to another auto, eatery, hotel. There are plenty of options.

When to go

The heat here is torrid from March to June. If you go during these months, you can roam around in the morning and evening, and retreat to your room in the afternoon.

The best time is from mid-June to mid-August (when the place is drenched by the monsoon rains) and from November to February (when the weather is somewhat pleasant).

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A View from the Machan – book review

Travel and Places

This review was written in April 2011.

In his latest book “A View from the Machan”, field biologist and conservationist Ullas Karanth makes a strong case for greater use of science in the effort to save the tiger. The book takes a holistic look at the life of the tiger and calls for greater urgency in conservation efforts. A valuable addition to the debate on wildlife conservation. And to my bookshelf.

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Being borderline passionate about nature, wildlife and ecology, I keep looking for books that enrich my knowledge on these subjects. During a recent visit to Mangalore, I spotted a slim book in a tiny bookstore called Athree (near Jyothi Circle, if you must know). The fact that it was written by Ullas Karanth made me browse through it. The decision to buy the book was taken in less than two minutes. The extremely well designed cover and the superbly evocative illustrations inside definitely helped.

I started reading the deceptively slim  book the same evening, with my favourite poison by my elbow.

Ullas has dedicated the book to two biologists who “taught me to think clearly about wildlife”. The book is divided into 13 chapters. In the first few, Ullas describes his abiding passion for animals and the forests (right from early childhood) and his transition into a trained conservationist and field biologist. The fact that his father (the noted writer Shivarama Karanth) did not believe in formal schooling and so, did not send him to school until the age of 11, gave young Ullas unbridled freedom to roam the forests. He did join school eventually and then went to train in Engineering. A career in Engineering and later, in farming only served to heighten the restlessness within him – to get back to nature and wildlife. And so, well into his thrities, he enrolled for a Wildlife Management Training Program being run by a noted conservationist in the USA.

Returning to India after the program, Ullas throws himself into efforts to conserve the tiger at Nagarahole in Karnataka. And meets Chinnappa – a ‘lone warrior’ against poaching and human invasion of the forests. The two strike a warm and enduring friendship immediately, and go on to make several field trips together. The feeling of ‘give and take’ between the old school and the new, is palpable as Ullas describes how he learns a whole load of field wisdom from Chinnappa and in return, inducts him (Chinnappa) into birdwatching. Ullas has devoted an entire chapter to Chinnappa and his work.

Through the life of Chinnappa, Ullas throws light on the trials and triumphs of several such ‘lone rangers’, who have formed the backbone of India’s wildlife conservation efforts over the decades. These are unsung heroes, who combine compassion for animals and forests, an honest approach to life and copious amounts of native intelligence. To me, this was one of the most heart-warming chapters of the book, especially since I have met a few such in Namdapha and Mudumalai.

While the first few chapters of the book are definitely informative and interesting, the best ones come later. Ullas steps back from his own work and takes a look at the larger issues like predator-prey dynamics, wildlife population estimation, the need to manage wildlife populations and finally, the vexatious question of ‘humans versus animals”. Every conservationist worth his pair of binoculars has commented on these questions over the years. There have been endless debates on the right way to conserve our wildlife and forests. Often though, these debates have been notable for sentiment and stridency. Scientific tenor has been mostly missing from the arguments. Often too, politicians, armchair conservationists and the media jump on to the bandwagon, confusing the issue further.

In his no-nonsense, logical yet gentle way, Ullas marshalls his arguments clearly and succintly. Further, he does not hesitate to take a definite stand.  For instance, in the chapters titled “Sacred Groves for the New Century” and “Nagarahole:Shop or Shrine”, he says that enough damage has already been done to wildlife by mankind, and so, the need of the hour is to implement 100% protection of forests and animals. He advocates zero tolerence to poaching, logging and other attacks on nature. He is against “letting nature manage itself”, as demanded by some conservationists. Since mankind has already wrought extensive damage on the earth’s natural wealth, the only way we can bring back the balance is to proactively take efforts to manage forests and wildlife scientifically.

His point is that forests have to be considered as sacred groves and left alone – just as ancient tribes consider the core of their forest to be the ‘sacred grove’, where their guarding deities dwell and where nobody is allowed. The practice of incentivising locals to use the forests for their economic needs, in the hope that this will make them care for the forest better, is untenable. I can’t agree more with this point!

Elsewhere, he talks in detail about estimating the population of animals, taking the tiger as an example. He explains the inherent flaws in the waterhole census and pugmark census methods of estimating tiger population. According to him, a growing body of wildlife biologists is now using that good old statistical tool – sampling – in order to estimate the total population. Which is indeed true! (What surprises me is that it took so many years for this simple tool to be recognised and used in estimating animal population! As a statistical technique, sampling is several decades old, and has been used in several forms of research.)

Ullas ends the book on a realistic, yet hopeful note. He concludes that it is indeed possible to save our tigers, but only if we act now.

What I like best about this book is that it demands a lot from the reader. It is definitely not for the pop wildlife enthusiast. Skimming the chapters would mean missing the point entirely. Each chapter is loaded with relevant, interesting information, all of which feeds Ullas’ central arguments very well.

I finished the book in two sittings – one before and one after I refilled my glass. After a long time, I felt happy to have read a gripping account of animal life and wildlife protection. Having finished reading the book, I found myself musing about lone warriors, the battlefields which our forests have become, the intersection of human intelligence and greed and our moral duty to protect animals.

It was a long time before I went to bed.

 

 

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A breezy summer holiday in Sakleshpur

Travel and Places

With coffee estates, lovely treks, waterfalls and encounters of the wild kind, Sakleshpur can surprise you. Do yourself a favour and go there right away.

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It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. One moment, we were chatting about heading back into the hills and the next moment, we had decided to go to Sakleshpur the next day. This is how we decide on most of our trips, because it goes with our personality (of not thinking and planning too much and leveraging the spontaneity of the moment). We had visited Fort Kochi as a family just three weeks ago (and I had packed in a solo trip to Madras/Chennai after that), but already, there was this strong itch to go away somewhere again.

So we set out Saturday morning by car. We have heard that the train route from Bangalore to Sakleshpur is also scenic, but we kept that for another time. Leaving home at 5 am (to avoid the traffic nightmare that invariably descends on this city as early as 6 am), we were in Nelamangala by 5:45. A brief stop for a cup of tea and we were on the move again. Reaching Chennarayapatna at about 8:30, we breakfasted at Adyar Ananda Bhavan (AAB). We’d have preferred a smaller outlet that was more ‘local’ in nature, but there was nothing like that for a long distance. And so, AAB it was.

When we set out again after this pit stop, it was 9 am. We breezed through Hassan, after which the road became a little narrower and rougher (but it was still reasonably good). We reached our guest house at exactly 10:30 am, 5 hours after we left home. It was a comfortable ride overall, and if you consider the two halts, I’d say we made good time.

Our guest house was nothing fancy; but, it was clean and comfortable, with excellent views of paddy fields on one side and a jungle on the other. I wondered about its fancy name (Butterstone River Valley), but forgot to ask the manager about it.

We checked in and lazed around for a while, stretching our cramped muscles and just settling down. An hour or so later, we walked over to a waterfall nearby. The leisurely ten-minute stroll took us past humble houses built in the Malnad style, piles of logs kept on the roadside (and to be used to make a fire later on, I guessed), coffee plantations and rough-hewn paths that led into the forest. It was good to be walking in the hills again– my mountain-loving soul was on song!

The small sign board said ‘Abbi Falls’, although the manager of our resort had called it ‘Habbi Falls’. Nothing much in the spelling, really. It is quite common to find different spellings of the same name in India, with one syllable more or less. One of the funny things about this country is that, with its varying languages and dialects, it is enough to be able to pronounce a name somewhat correctly – an approximation of sorts.

A short, but slippery descent through a mud path took us to the waterfall. We heard the sound of the water just before we turned the final bend and emerged from a clump of bushes. At first glance, it was nothing much; the water plunged about 25 feet after which it eddied for a bit amidst the rocks before forming a stream. But as we started moving towards the fall, we realized that the rocks and pebbles were slippery. Some tricky negotiation of this stretch and some Dutch courage took us to the point where the water was plunging down. It was then that I realized that the water was falling with considerable force, even though the height wasn’t much. We slipped into the water (cold and so refreshing) and stayed there awhile. Much kicking, splashing and squealing happened. After a time, I ventured past the water eddies and sat directly under the water’s flow. Fat drops of water now hit fell on my head and back directly, making me feel the force of the current anew. I emerged from the water curtain after about twenty minutes, feeling thoroughly refreshed and my skin tingling.

We then sat on the rocks for a long time, letting our clothes dry in the warm sun. The warmth of the sun was in contrast to the cool breeze – it was a feeling to be savoured. So far, we had had the place practically to ourselves, but now a small crowd arrived. We sat there, idly watching them, letting the breeze caress our bodies, listening to the sound of the insects in the forest, wondering at the continuous rush of the water….time just passed.

Finally, reluctantly, we dragged ourselves from that spot and trudged back to our resort for a hearty (and well earned) meal. Predictably, we felt heavy-lidded after lunch and crashed in our room for a couple of hours. Awaking in the late afternoon, we found some piping hot filter coffee waiting for us. I had forgotten all about coffee!Sakleshpur is coffee country, home to thousands of acres of coffee plantations. So no wonder we were being offered some fine coffee by the resort. A leisurely cuppa later, Shankar who works at the resort, offered to take us on a plantation walk.

The plantation was about 80 acres in size (small, as plantations go), but it was in the midst of a thick jungle. Our path was rocky at places and highly uneven, which meant that we really had to focus on it. At particularly steep stretches, I could feel my sinews stretching. I remember thinking that this was proving to be more of a trek and less of a plantation walk. Coffee had been planted in between a variety of native tree species, forming a thick jungle. As we hiked, Shankar pointed out coffee bushes and explained how coffee is grown. Apparently, it takes about a year for the coffee beans to sprout. Of the different kinds of coffee, Robusta and Arabica are the predominant varieties in Sakleshpur. They differ in taste and aroma. Sprinklers meant to water the bushes punctuated our trail.

We kept up a steady pace, trying to concentrate on both the tough trail and Shankar’s monologue. After about forty minutes of hiking, we stopped for a short breather. Silence enveloped us, broken only by our slightly ragged breathing. We took a few pictures of the scene. Charu (the wife), said ‘Oh, look. There is a bison.’ And when I turned to look, there indeed was a bison. About seven feet tall, he seemed to be gazing at us calmly. And we gazed back at him calmly. He was standing on the edge of the path, half inside the bushes, about twenty feet from us. But it was when Shankar saw the animal too that all hell broke loose. He just whispered ‘Run!’ at us, turned and matched action to word. Nonplussed by this unexpected turn of events, we stood rooted to the spot for a moment before Shankar’s feverish ‘Run (exclamation) reached our ears a second time. The blood gushed through our veins and we started running. Honestly, I should call it scrambling. We ran blindly for God knows how long. We ran back the way we had come, our minds a total blank – except for the fact that, by now, we had realized that the bison could be a very dangerous customer indeed, inspite of his benign expression.

I don’t know how far we ran, huffing and puffing. I had the extra task of holding on tightly to my DSLR, a task that suddenly seemed onerous. My legs felt like chunks of lead and my lungs were on fire. As we ran, I was haunted by the thought that any moment now, the bison could gore us into the ground from behind. And finally, when we felt we couldn’t run an inch more, we stopped. The silence and calm around us was in shocking contrast to the turmoil in our heads. As our breathing returned to normal, we started walking slowly. Shankar assured us that we were out of danger now.

Reaching our guest house, the first thing I did was to imbibe some stuff far stronger than coffee. God knows I needed it. As I sat on our porch afterwards, I thought back to the experience. Somehow, it felt unreal. But the fear and exhilaration coursing through my mind were telling me that it had been all too real.

We sat on the porch for the rest of the evening, reading, chatting and enjoying views of the now-golden paddy fields. Dinner was a subdued affair, because we were happily tired.

We set out early the next morning, after some more of that wonderful filter coffee. We drove about 10 kms from the resort, parked the car and then trekked up to a peak that was perhaps a kilometer away. This and two other peaks that were close by, we together called Byreshwar Gudda (‘gudda’ means peak in Kannada). The name is actually that of the deity of a small temple close to where we had parked our car. Byreshwar is a common deity in Karnataka, and an incarnation of Lord Shiva. The peak was open on three sides, offering us a stunning, 300 degree view of the valley and the ranges yonder. Behind us, a steep path rose up to another cliff.We were there for a long time, taking pictures, enjoying the view and lying down on the moist grass. A wind was gusting and the sun was slowly warming up to the day ahead. Shankar pointed out an elephant corridor in the distance. Places like this shoo away all thoughts from your mind and compel you to live in just that moment. Looking up, I badly wanted to gather the deep blue sky in my arms.

We spent an hour on the peak, before carefully picking our way down. As we were walking, a small stone temple hove into view. This was the temple that has given the peak its name – Byreshwara Devasthana. Local legend says that the Pandavas built it and dedicated it to Lord Shiva as part of their prayers to the yogi God. Such legends abound in a country like India. There is no way one can verify them. And so, the best one can do is to take the legend at face value. And before you know it, the place automatically acquires a sense of history and atmosphere. Inspite of the plain stonework, the temple looked elegant. The still-soft sunrays formed a halo around the temple crest. The design of the crest looked unique to me – fashioned into a nine-step arrangement, it was like nothing I had seen in any other temple.

We drove back to our resort in silence, our minds stilled by the lovely experiences of the morning. Breakfast was a simple but tasty affair, comprising spicy sevai (rice vermicelli), akki roti and coconut-garlic chutney. We chased down the meal with tumblerfulls of – what else? – filter coffee. We then had a quick bath and checked out of the resort. In leaving, I managed to buy some coffee powder from the manager of the resort. The powder had been sourced from their own estate, the one we had walked in the previous evening.

Driving back to Mangalore Road, we stopped at Manzarabad Fort – our last halt of the trip. It seems that outside the Sakleshpur region, hardly anybody knows about this fort. And yet, it is a thing of beauty, tucked away amidst forests and coffee estates. We had to park the car on the main road and go the rest of the way on foot. Steps with a railing have been laid to make the climb slightly easier for people. We counted 255 steps from bottom to top in what was a short, but steep climb.

As forts go, this one is small. Its visual attraction is that it is built in the shape of a star, though I realized that you’d have to view it from a helicopter to make out that shape. This fort was extremely important to Tipu Sultan, because it helped him guard the ghat ranges in this part of Mysore Province, of which he was the ruler. At that time, he had to fight continual battles with the British, the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Like other old forts in many parts of India, this one too is in reasonably good shape (it was built in 1792).

We walked past the old garrison, peeped into dark chambers and admired the step-well built right in the middle. Bending and walking through a narrow passage, we emerged inside a watch tower. This must have been where soldiers would have stood centuries ago, guns at the ready, not knowing when the enemy would attack them. The broken ramparts of the fort gave us a sweeping view of the surrounding hills.

Our drive back to Bangalore was smooth. We made it home in exactly five hours (including a halt for lunch at Kamat Restaurant near Channarayapatna). As we sat sipping ginger tea at home, we thought back to the lovely place we had left behind and started making plans to return there.

 

Sakleshpur – fact file

  • The Sakleshpur region is about 4000-4500 feet above sea level. Situated on the Bangalore-Mangalore route, it takes a running time of 4 hours by train or car.
  • Apart from coffee, pepper and cardamom are also grown here. The salubrious climate makes it good for growing spices.
  • Sakleshpur forms part of Malnad, a socio-cultural name given to this part of Karnataka. The word ‘Malnad’ comes from ‘maley naadu, which means ‘hill country’ in Kannada. Houses in this region are characterized by sloping roofs clad in elegant brown tiles and a colonnaded porch for people to relax in.
  • By and large, this area is unknown to people living outside Karnataka. As of now, most tourists to Sakleshpur come from Bangalore.
  • Other than tiny, dubious-looking eateries, there aren’t many good options on this route. It is therefore best to stop at Adyar Ananda Bhavan in Chennarayapatna. Though overpriced, the food is very good. Kamat Restaurant, diagonally opposite Adyar Ananda Bhavan, is really not worth it.
  • We stayed at the Butterstone River Valley, a guest house that is about 24 kms from Sakleshpur town (where incidentally, you can buy essentials and tank up).
  • A quick sidenote about this guest house: it is good for those who want a simple, no-frills place which just lets you hang out with friends and indulge in a few team activities. You can play badminton, volleyball and mud volleyball. There is a rustic ‘swimming pool’ too (by that, I mean a tank where you can dunk youself). You get authentic Malnad breakfast, but the cooks lose their way at lunch and dinner. If you want superb all-day food, a wide menu, personalized service, a well-appointed room and the trimmings of a real resort, this place won’t cut it.
  • When we went there (April 2017), this region did not have luxury resorts. Look for a good homestay that offers you scenic views, local cuisine and superb filter coffee.

When you leave, buy some coffee powder. Buying close to source will mean that you will get excellent quality at a good price. Ask the manager of the guest house for help in this regard.

 

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Luxury by the sea – a review of Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, Fort Kochi.

Travel and Places

 

Picture this. A British engineer is brought to India from London, on the express commission of building the Cochin port. This man accomplishes this task with the help of a large team that includes native Indians. Over the years, he makes Cochin a port to reckon with. With the arrival of the port, the railways too came to the area (the imported goods had to be carted away from the port, right?), and the Cochin Harbour Terminus was established in neighbouring Willingdon Island. The engineer is lauded by none less than Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of Madras and is decorated by the Queen.

In 1928, this man, who answers to the name, Robert Bristow, builds a sprawling mansion for himself by the sea and lives there until his return to Britain in 1941. The parcel of land he picks offers choice views of the untamed sea, of boats and ships passing by and of glorious sunrises and sunsets. But it has something more than all this too – a piece of maritime history. Because on this very same plot of land stood the old Cochin lighthouse, the guiding lamp for ships passing through the bay.

Fast forward by ninety years. The bungalow by the sea is now the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, a boutique hotel. A couple of sit-outs with awnings, a lawn, a swimming pool and two rooms have been added to the compound. Modern fixtures have been fitted too. But the core of the mansion remains as it was all those years ago. The wooden floors and stairs, the large wood-framed windows, solid wooden doors and tiled roofs are all there and in superb nick.

 

We stayed at this hotel for three days recently. We were treating ourselves on the tenth anniversary of our hitched life. Sitting on the terrace that gives on to the sea, I remember thinking that ‘hitched’ would be a wrong word to describe our married life. On the contrary, ‘liberated’ would be the apt word, because I found my soul mate in my wife. Someone who shares my love for life and believes in letting me live the way I want to, rather than imposing ifs and buts on me. I really started leading an unfettered life only after I came to know her.

 

 

We are given the only room in the hotel that has a private terrace. I look at the nameplate outside the room (The Bristow Suite) and realize that this is the same room that Robert Bristow used to occupy all those years ago. Apart from the terrace, the suite has a spacious room and a roomy bathroom. Most of the furniture has an antique look, right down to the brass dial telephone in which the earpiece and mouthpiece are different. This instrument is the source of much excitement to us over the three days, with each one of us taking turns to make calls on it. If the hotel staff are surprised to find so many calls coming from our room, they do not show it.

 

 

 

Our typical day was like this. We wake up at about seven and settle down in the terrace with a cup of tea to watch the sky come alive. The sea breeze caresses our faces as we drink in the sights and sounds. On the tiny beach next door, people are already riding the waves. Our cuppa over, we head over to the beach for our own share of frolicking. An hour later, we tramp back to the hotel, totally drenched and with sand all over. A large grin is plastered on our faces. We wash off the sand (but not the grin) at the outdoor shower, change clothes quickly in our room and come down for some much-needed food.

 

Breakfast is sumptuous, with a few Continental and Indian dishes on the menu. Apart from cornflakes, fruits, a variety of fresh juices, toast and eggs, there are a few Keralan dishes on offer. We see a changing menu of dosas, idlis, uppuma, puttu and appams, with chutney, sambar, vegetable stew, kadala curry and peas curry to go with them. Over the next hour and a half, there is total silence at our table, as we treat the food with the devotion it deserves. Sitting back with a belch and a contented sigh, we move on to a cup of hot South Indian filter coffee. In between all this, we chat with the genial wait staff, gleaning details about their life, the hotel, the town and sundry other things. They are hardworking people who help a lot in giving us a great experience.

 

 

 

We then drag ourselves out of the hotel for a bit of exploration. If we take in the little-known Indo-Portuguese Museum and the St. Francis Church one day, we visit the Vasco da Gama Square and the quaint little streets around it the next. One morning, we take off to explore Vypeen island and the beach in the tiny hamlet of Cherai (separate pieces on all this to come soon on the blog). Later, we down a beer somewhere and lunch at a sidewalk café or a thattu kada (mobile food vending stalls that serve authentic local food in Kerala) before returning to the hotel for a snooze.

 

Late afternoon finds us in the lovely pool, letting the water cool down our heated bodies. Afterwards, we lie back on the deck chairs and read awhile.

 

 

Come evening, we take a table on the sea-facing lawn and gaze out at the churning waters. Over the three days, we got used to seeing boats big and small, and ships so massive, your jaw’d drop. Some banter with fellow-guests follows. And soon, the great orange disc in the sky starts dipping towards the sea. There are few sights in the whole world that rival a sunset in sheer beauty and simplicity. Even a sunrise pales in comparison, I think. Words seem not just out of place, but positively intrusive at this time. A cloak of silence invariably descends, as all the guests and even the hotel staff submit to the mesmeric beauty of the moment. Slowly, we watch the fireball inch its way towards the great waters on the horizon. And then, finally, it touches the sea and melts into it.

 

 

We wend our way to our room and take our place on the terrace. Uncorking the bottles, we sit down to enjoy a few drinks. Sometimes, we talk. At other times, we fall silent. The mind wanders into fresh pastures. A pleasurable hour or so later, it is time for dinner. We choose one of the lovely cafes that are housed in bungalows nearby. Bungalows that are at least two hundred years old; some built during the Portuguese rule, some during the British time. In all of them, you can see colonial architectural influences beautifully merging with the native style of Kerala.

 

 

Returning to the hotel, we read or star-gaze on the terrace. A few guests are dining on the lawn below, their conversation punctuating the silence. Gradually, the neighbourhood falls silent. The diners go back to their rooms. The last revellers leave the beach and go home. After that, it is just the sea, the breeze, the swaying trees, the moon, the stars and us. And then, late into the night, very, very reluctantly, we leave the terrace and get back into the cozy room. Tonight, will it be the four-poster queen-sized bed or the bay window that is wide enough and comfortable enough to sleep on?

As we hit the sack, there is a sense of peace and quiet satisfaction. It has been a wonderful day. Lazy, yet productive. And sooner than later, we surrender to blissful sleep. A glorious tomorrow awaits us.

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P.S. I doff my hat to the management and staff at The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel for giving us a supremely memorable stay there. The room, the property, the food and the service were all first-rate.

We paid for the room and food. Our stay was not sponsored by the hotel or any other company/person.

Hotel fact file

  • The hotel is located on Beach Road, near the INS Dronacharya naval base. Most locals in Fort Kochi know it as the ‘old lighthouse bungalow’. For more details, visit the hotel’s website: http://oldlighthousehotel.com/
  • From Kochi airport, you can take a taxi to Fort Kochi and then ask for the hotel. From Ernakulam railway station, you can either hop into an auto (anywhere between Rs. 150 and 400, depending upon your bargaining skills, the mood of the auto driver and whether or not there is a bandh on that day), take a bus (Rs. 10 or thereabouts for a pleasant ride) or take the ferry (ask someone for the ferry to Fort Kochi; fare in single digits.)
  • Depending upon what kind of room you choose and the season, the tariff is upwards of Rs. 7000/- per night, including breakfast. Taxes extra. For the exact tariff, contact the hotel through the website.
  • The hotel is child-friendly. We took our six year old brat along and he had a great time too.
  • The food here can be termed ‘bland’ by Indian standards. So, if you like your food spicy, request the staff to up the ante while placing your order.
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A veggie’s guide to Lucknow’s signature dishes

Travel and Places

Lucknow. Even if you are not part of the regular travelling set, chances are that you would have heard of this city. After all, it is one of the most feted cities on the historical and cultural map of India. There are hundreds of accounts out there that extol the glory of this city. Lucknow was founded by Kanishk Gupta. Though it came under the heel of several dynasties over the centuries, it most popularly known as the ‘Nawabon ka shahar’ – the city of Nawabs, erstwhile rulers of the kingdom of Awadh (the Brits pronounced it ‘Oudh’). The Nawabs lorded over Awadh during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the heritage structures (palaces, tombs, mosques, mansions, clock tower, city gates and mourning houses) you see in the city today date back to that period.

The Nawabs were hedonists. It is well known that they had a large appetite for wine, women and song. I like to call this ‘sharab, shabab and rabab’ in Hindustani, the local language of Lucknow. To this, I’d add another word ‘kabab’ (a mutton-based delicacy, but also a larger metaphor for food itself) to complete the description. It would be spot on to say that ‘sharab, shabab, rabab and kabab’ captures the long-held worldview of many of the city’s denizens.

Most articles on the food in Lucknow make it out to be a city for the carnivores. Ask someone what food this Nawabi city is famous for and pat comes the reply ‘Kababs and biryani.’ A few others will perhaps add ‘sheermal and korma’. Except sheermal, all these are meat preparations.

What is not mentioned with equal fervor though, is the lesser-known fact that the city is a haven for vegetarians also. Over a few visits to the city in the last decade, I have sampled the best vegetarian fare that this city has to offer. Which is why I thought a guide like this will help others who visit the city.

When you are in Lucknow next, don’t forget to dig into these. Please note that you do get other vegetarian dishes too in Lucknow – including regular North Indian staples. The list here only mentions my favourites from among the signature dishes of this wonderful city. Also, the list of eateries I have recommended is by no means exhaustive.

So, here goes.

 

Tokri Chaat: Tokri means ‘basket’ in Hindi. So, this is literally chaat that is placed inside a basket. But, wait. It’s not what you think – not a wicker basket. It is an edible basket that is stuffed with chaat. So, you gorge on the chaat and finally, gobble up the basket too. This dish is more of a packaging innovation, to put it in Marketing parlance, because the ingredients are those you’d find in a regular chaat all over North India – diced potatoes, imli (tamarind) chutney, dhaniya/pudina ki chutney (chutney made of coriander or mint leaves), dahi (curd), etc. Still, there is some novelty here and it does taste good. What’s more, it is quite filling, too.

Where? Royal Café, Hazratganj; Madhur Milan near Hanuman Mandir in Aminabad.

 

Tokri chaat

 

The messier, the better. Curd and pudina chutney overflowing the edible ‘tokri’.

 

Tokris awaiting their turn. They are kept on a large griddle to keep them warm until their time comes.

 

Matar ki tikki 

Tikki (flattened patties) is a common enough dish all over North India. But in most places, they are made out of aloo (mashed potato). Lucknow though, offers up an interesting variant of this streetside dish – the mattar tikki. This is a spicy patty made from a mixture of mashed green peas, potatoes, green chillies and spices. The patty is shallow fried in a pool of oil on a large tawa (griddle) until the edge and both sides turn crisp and golden-brown. The inside however, remains soft. The crisp and soft contrast works wonders on your tastebuds. Best eaten with pudina (mint) or dhaniya (coriander) chutney and a sweet-and-sour chutney made from jaggery and tamarind.

Where? Shukla Chaat House, Hazratganj; Ram Narayan Tiwari & Sons, Aminabad.

 

Yeh tikki hain yaa tower? (Are these tikkis or towers?)

Mattar ki tikkis on the griddle at Shukla Chaat House.

 

Sharing space with tokris, aloo tikkis and other snacks.

 

Tahiri – this is a wondrously flavourful rice dish made with seasonal vegetables and masalas. For want of a better description, you can think of it as a vegetarian counter to the biryani. Try peeping into the history of this dish and you might lose your bearings in no time. Legends abound. One of them goes that the Nawabs of Awadh wanted a meatless equivalent of the biryani (Nawabs and meatless? Go figure.), which is why they had their cooks create Tahiri. Another tale says that it actually originated from Hyderabad (though these days, one can find hardly any trace of this dish in the city of the Charminar ). According to yet another, Tahiri is a descendent of the pulao.

In any case, one whiff of fragrance from this dish will dismiss all thoughts about its genesis and history and make you drool.

The Tahiri I have had in Lucknow came with perfectly cooked long-grained Basmati, with a mix of cauliflower, sliced carrots, green peas and chunks of potato, all of which were first shallow-fried in butter. The secret to its flavor and taste though is the fine blend of hand-ground spices made afresh every day. Cardamom, turmeric, ginger, bay leaf, black pepper corns, cumin seeds, garlic and ginger come together to unleash magic on your palate.

No wonder then, that on each trip to this city, I must the Tahiri at least once.

Where? Heritage Hotel, Charbagh. There definitely will be other outlets in town serving this dish, even though I have tasted it only at Hotel Heritage. Ask the locals and they will guide you.

 

Tahiri, served with thick onion raita and mango pickle. Just before I waded into it.

 

Poori-aloo Without question, this is one of the most popular breakfast dishes in the eateries of Lucknow. Why, some of the joints start serving it from as early as six am and keep it up till about eleven. Some others serve it through the day.

A paste of green chillies, ginger, asafoetida, cumin seeds and curd is mixed with wheat flour to prepare the dough for these pooris. The dough is rolled into small balls, which are flattened and fried in a deep pan. And out come crisp, mildly spicy, mildly tangy pooris. These are eaten with a gravy-based potato curry, a spicy chickpea curry and sometimes, pickle too.

Pooris are slightly high on oil, but don’t let that stop you. After all, you will not find this particular taste in many other places.

Where? Ratti Lal’s in Lalbagh.

 

Pooris, aloo ki subzi, chholey and mixed vegetable pickle.

Paan

In most parts of North India, this is the dessert to end all desserts, though it is officially not classified as ‘dessert’. It is made by wrapping a few leaves of the betel vine around areca nuts and slaked lime. You can ask the paanwaala to add tobacco to this mixture for an added bite. You’ll find locals idling in the shade, chewing paan after a hearty meal. One theory goes that the juice of the areca nuts that are wrapped inside the paan leaves has digestive properties. Though this claim is contested by some people, what is not contested by anybody is the fact that paan gives you a mild high.

If you have a sweet tooth, the meetha paan (sweet paan) may be just the thing for you.

 Where? Tiny paan shops all over the city. Just look around from anywhere and chances are, you will spot one.

 

The famed paan. Pop it into your mouth and get ready for a pungent taste and a burst of flavours.

Thandai

The food you get in Lucknow is – let’s face it – as oily and spicy as it is delicious. Add to it, the hot and humid weather of the city. And so, you are going to need a refreshing liquid every now and then. A liquid that keeps you cool and helps you continue eating and exploring. And that liquid answers to the name of ‘thandai’. Eat, drink, explore, eat, drink, explore….that’s the mantra. ‘Thandai’ is a good name for this drink, given that the word means ‘cold’

‘Thandai’ translates to ‘coolness’ in Hindi. And the drink delivers on that promise, straight and simple. It is an off-white, frothy concoction made from an intriguing mixture of ingredients: almonds, fennel seeds, watermelon kernel, rose petals, pepper, white poppy seeds, cardamom, saffron, milk and sugar. There is no fixed recipe for this drink, each joint feeling free to add its own twist to the concoction. Which makes it all the more intriguing.
Where? Raja ki Thandai, a small shop in the Chowk market. It has been around for several decades. It comes in two sizes: regular (chota) and large (bada).

Psst – for a dose of intoxication, ask him for the bhaang thandai, infused with cannabis.

 

Sweet, frothy thandai waiting to be downed.

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Chasing the ruins.

Travel and Places

 

It was a Sunday like any other. But a run like no other.

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It is 6:30 am on a cool Sunday morning. I take a deep breath and look around. I see a hundred other souls like me, most of them kitted out in T-Shirts, track pants or shorts and shoes. Some of them look bleary-eyed, but the rest are on their toes already, limbering up for the run that is about to start. The place is mostly dark, but the area where we have assembled is awash with light.

The MC is on stage, talking about the run – how this run route is different from conventional routes, what to do after the run is over, etc. She then takes the assembled crowd through a basic warm-up exercises. Most people seem to be in their twenties, thirties or forties. But, I spot a few senior citizens too. One lady in particular catches my eye. She seems to be in her seventies, a little frail and slightly bent with age. She is wearing a saree, but her feet are shod in running shoes. She is accompanied by a couple of much younger people – her grandchildren, perhaps? I salute her spirit inwardly as I do my stretches.

And then, it is time. All of us move to the starting point, where a chorus of girls starts an enthusiastic (and screechy) countdown. …4,3,2,1….and GO.

Slowly, like vehicles responding to the changing traffic signal in a city, we start moving. One foot in front of the other, nudging, weaving, avoiding other feet. The crowd, which initially moved as a single block of humanity, starts breaking up a little distance ahead, as the runners start hitting their stride. The first flush of pink dusts the horizon.

 

 

The more serious runners take off at a reasonably high speed, leaving the rest of us behind. Many others (the in-betweens) are running more leisurely. And bringing up the rear are the laggards, including yours truly. Honestly, I am not here to run a timed race, eager to better my previous best and put my fitness to the test. I am treating this more like a pyjama party. And I have dressed the part too – in blue-and-white checked pyjamas, a regular T-shirt and a pair of very frayed walking shoes. What’s more, I am going to run with my camera in hand; probably the only person here who will do so!

My main agenda in coming on this run is to catch this beautiful place at a very early hour in the morning, see some of the parts that I did not see in my previous visit here and take some photos in the soft daylight. This is something I have always wanted to do, but I am hoping that the tag of a ‘run’ and the presence of a few hundred other people will motivate me to get off the starting blocks so early in the morning.

After all, it is not often that you get a chance to run through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi, taking in the beauty of its medieval ruins in the first light of the day.

I shuffle my feet and trot slowly round the first bend in the route, saluting Lord Virupaksha who is on my right. Even at this early hour, the temple is thronged by several devotees and tourists. By the time I climb the incline next to Kadalekallu Ganesha, I am huffing mildly. I stop and take a couple of photos of this small shrine, as the first rays of the sun fall on it. I marvel that it is so well preserved, inspite of being 500 years old. The slim stone pillars contain carvings that depict day-to-day life from those times.

 

From here, the run route hangs a left and then a right, taking you past the Krishna Temple (also built in the 16th century).  The rising sun lights up the temple’s finely-carved entrance. It seems to be in fine fettle, considering its vintage, though some restoration work is going on. Historians believe that an idol of Balakrishna was brought from Orissa and enshrined here. Across the road from the temple, the long, multi-pillared pavilion of Krishna Bazaar makes for a dramatic vista. I simply have to stop again to take in the beautiful scene. Those days, Krishna Bazaar was the groceries market. I am to learn later that Hampi had many such bazaars – including, unbelievably, a paan supari bazaar. As other runners breeze past me, I shoot a few frames of the temple and bazaar. I don’t know how long I stand there, thinking back to the time when this place must have been teeming with people. I wonder if they too haggled with sellers, like their modern-day argumentative descendants.

 

 

 

Next, I come upon the small, yet beautiful Chandikeshwara Temple. The animals (they seem to be lions) carved into the pillars of this temple look splendid in the soft light of the morning. The inner parts of the temple are in deep shade, but I can make out long cracks in the structure at various places. This temple is unusual, because it is one of the few in India that is dedicated to a form of Vishnu called Tiruvengalanatha. I take a few snaps and move on.

 

 

 

 

At the next bend lies another small temple with whitewashed walls – the Uddana Virabhadra temple. The whitewash is uncharacteristic of Hampi (where almost all the old structures are made of granite) and so, gives the temple a distinctive appearance.

 

A short distance ahead, the road passes under a stone gateway. Running under it, I emerge on the side and almost stop in my tracks when I spot several lush, green plantain trees. In fact, a whole grove of them. I am pleasantly surprised. I had never imagined finding even a patch of greenery here, in this ancient capital of the Vijayanagara empire. I wonder why all the photographs of this place show only large boulders and ruins of stone structures.

 

 

As I run, I keep sighting boulders and the ruins of centuries-old structures on both sides of the road. Many of these fabulous structures were ravaged by Muslim marauders of the time (such as the Bijapur Sultans); the rest have been eaten away by time and the elements. I wonder how beautiful these monuments would have looked in their full glory. I feel sad as I think of the destruction wrought on such beautiful works of art. As things stand, we are left to gaze at their ruins and find beauty in their decay.

I rememeber thinking at this point that Hampi perhaps has the distinction of having the maximum density of ruins and boulders per square kilometer in the world.  ‘More history per square inch’ will make a good tagline for this place.

 

 

By now, my run has turned into a full-blown quest for ruins. Though I have been here once before (a few years ago), I did not visit some of these parts back then. And so, I am full with a sense of discovery.

Unlike the other runners who are focused on the road, I keep looking to my left and right. I don’t want to miss the beauty of the route, you see? My mind is like a sponge, soaking in the sights and sounds I encounter along the way. Running with the camera does slow me down a little, but I don’t mind. I see a few other runners raise an eyebrow on spotting my camera and then smile broadly, as understanding dawns.

A short distance ahead lies another shrine – this one dedicated to Lord Anjaneya. Finding an ascetic at this shrine of the monkey god, I stop to have a few words with him. He tells me that this particular Anjaneya is believed to be all-powerful. ‘Pray here and your wish will definitely be granted.’ he tells me in Kannada. He graciously allows me to take his photograph before going his way.

 

 

This stretch of the run route is flanked by paddy fields, with the rice paddies growing to more than six feet. I am huffing again, and so, stop at a culvert to catch my breath. A small stream rushes by at the culvert. I take in the fresh air and marvel at the lushness and serenity of the place.

Soon after I resume running, I come upon a fork in the road. The right turn leads to Hospet (and seeing how desolate it is, it seems to be the road less taken), while the road ahead is the run route, going towards Kamalapur. Bang at the fork, a motorcycle is parked with a policeman sitting astride it. I wave at him and say ‘Namaskara, sir’ and he waves back. As I continue running, I spot a woman, a man and a boy walking together ahead of me. The lady is goading the little man to keep running. I catch up with them and say ‘hi’. The boy, all of six years old, is wearing a T-shirt that proclaims him to be ‘Adi’. Along with him are his mom and uncle. Apparently, his dad and aunt are running the 12 km stretch. I do my bit to motivate Adi to resume running – ‘Look, you have been ahead of even me so far. And if you keep running, you can beat me to the finish!’ After some nudging and cajoling, he resumes jogging. I mentally doff my hat at the child, who is sportingly running 5 kms over undulating and unfamiliar terrain. Talk of getting out of one’s comfort zone.

 

I want to run along with Adi, but I can’t. I have just spotted something intriguing and must know what it is. I see a cluster of stone slabs to my left. A closer look reveals that they are a set of roofs in the middle of a patch of green. I walk around the fenced area and find a small gate. Entering, I find steps going down to a temple. A board proclaims the site as that of a Shiva temple, lying totally underground. It is easy to miss this temple from the road, if you don’t look carefully or didn’t know about it already. This temple is sunk about 15 feet below ground level. Inscriptions found in the temple refer to it as the ‘Prasanna Virupaksha temple’, seven hundred years old. King Krishnadevaraya is said to have donated a lot of money to this temple at the time of his coronration. Today though, many pillars have fallen and stones dislodged. The walls are cracked and the corners, chipped. And yet, the temple is strangely beautiful. I can see that the halls, pavilions and sanctum sanctorum have been crafted with great love and skill.

 

 

I spend about 10 minutes taking in the place, before I run on. I am now on an upward incline on the road. To my right is what the locals refer as the ‘akka thangi gudda’ (‘Sisters boulders’ in English), a couple of mammoth boulders that seem to be conjoined at the head. Across the road from me, I spot two runners on the return leg of the run. Thinking that I am losing steam, they dole out some pep talk. ‘Don’t lose heart, buddy. Keep going. You are nearly there.’ says one of them.  ‘You don’t know the half of it’, I mumble, but smile back at the well-meaning gesture.

 

 

 

Cresting the incline and turning a sharp bend on the road, I see that I have reached the turn-back point. The half-way mark on the run. A few other runners are clustered here, helping themselves to the bananas and biscuits that have been laid out on tables. A volunteer is serving water. I can see smiles of relief and relaxed faces. They must all be happy that at least half the distance has been covered.

 

 

I suddenly realize that I am famished, and wolf down a couple of bananas and a few biscuits. As I am making small talk with the volunteers, Adi, his mom and his uncle also join us. A few minutes later, it is time to start my return journey. This leg of the run is quicker, because I don’t stop to click photos. Curiously however, it also seems easier than the first half. Almost before I realize it, I spot the Virupaksha Temple and a few minutes later, I am at Hampi Bazaar, the starting and finishing point.

 

 

 

 

Rajesh, my friend, has finished ahead of me and is waiting for me here. The place is teeming with people again, many of them clicking the mandatory selfies. I move to a quieter place, take several deep breaths and look back on the run – the sunrise, the beautiful ruins, the greenery, the ascetic, the underground temple. I have seen some parts of Hampi that I missed on my earlier trip to this place.

Physically, I am a little tired, but mentally I am fully refreshed. It feels like I have done myself a favour by participating in this run.

 

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The Lighthouse Effect

Travel and Places

I have a thing for the past. And the ‘paster’, the better. Events, buildings, houses, towns, things, people, stories….anything. In my travels, I often visit places that have a strong hangover of the past. In a country like India especially, it is easy to find such places because they are practically everywhere. There, I find myself spending hours browsing antiquities, looking up old bookstores, gazing at old mansions and forts…even seeking out old people with faces crinkled like walnuts to chat with.

Why is this so? For one, because there is simply so much beauty, grandeur and harmony in things from the past. Most things from the olden days have an exquisite design aesthetic, a robustness and a caliber of craftsmanship that is difficult to find these days. But also, the past reminds us of our roots, our beginnings and the paths we have trodden to come this far. The living remnants and accounts of the past tell us of another way of life, another worldview altogether. They tell us about how we had thought, spoken, acted at one point of time. And if you aggregate these remnants and accounts, you get a cumulative view of the history of mankind. After all, all that we have today has been built on the past (often, on the debris of the past).

But, of all things that embody another time, the one that moves me the most is the lighthouse (again, the older, the better). No curio, no fort, no ancient temple or mosque comes even close to it. From the minute I clap my eyes on a lighthouse, I itch to explore it – even touch and feel it. Even if I spot one from afar (say, from a bus or train), my gaze remains locked on it till it fades out of view.

 

 

The lighthouse instantly calls to mind the several generations of seafarers, for whom the sea was the only way to travel to far-flung places. These were the bravest travelers of all time, foraying into uncharted waters and finding unmapped lands. Braving extreme weather conditions, illness and frequent paucity of resources, they managed to go where nobody else had gone before them.

For them, lighthouses were crucial navigational guides, like lamp posts in the sea. And often, the presence of a lighthouse made the difference between life and death to them. In that sense, they were one of the earliest friends of travelers.

 

 

All these thoughts rush through my mind whenever I see a lighthouse. I have seen several of them over the years – in Daman, Kannur, Vypeen, Vizhinjam, Chennai, Galle (Sri Lanka) and other places. And the effect they have on me hasn’t changed over the years – if anything, it has only intensified.

As soon as I arrive at a seaside town, I enquire about lighthouses. And, if I find that there is one in those parts, I invariably end up visiting it. I enjoy rooting about their base, looking for identification marks (like inscriptions and metal plates) that can help me anchor them in a specific time period. I then sit down on a rampart or rocky coastline next to it for a while, gazing into the sea. If I find the caretaker of the lighthouse, I spend a few minutes with him in delightful conversation.

 

 

 

But what exactly I see in a lighthouse also depends upon my mood-of-the-moment. When I am in a deeply reflective mood, I think of what would have happened, had there never been lighthouses in history. That would surely have set back our progress and our understanding of the world by a few centuries.  When I feel buoyant, I see it as a beacon of hope and safety – a pathfinder and a sanctuary. When I am feeling a little low, I can’t help thinking of it as an extremely desolate place, eyes eternally cast over an equally desolate sea that is vast and unchanging over millions of years. At those moments, I am invariably reminded of a short story called ‘The Foghorn’, that I read in school. ‘The great deep cry of our foghorn shuddering through the rags of mist…’ and the answering call of the creature of the sea, deep-throated in its loneliness are forever etched in my memory.

No matter what my mood, lighthouses have left an indelible impression on me. In my book of travels, they occupy a very special place.

What effect does a lighthouse have on you?

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Life on the edge

Travel and Places

They say life on the edge is always exciting. Even exhilarating. Laced with fear. For a long time I wondered what living on the edge was all about. Though I could half-understand what kind of emotions they were talking about, I couldn’t picture them properly…couldn’t imagine their extent & depth. The rush that they were talking about.

All that changed the moment I stood at the door of a speeding train for the first time. I don’t clearly remember when, but it must have been during one of my journeys home when I was in college in Trissur. I joined college 11 years ago, so I’m talking about a long time back. We used to go home once in maybe six months. And it invariably used to be a group affair – 3 or 4 of us rocking & rolling all the way! So you can imagine the racket we would make.

And at that age, standing at the door is de riguer. It is even better if you are a smoker. You could then light up standing right at the edge of the door, taking care not to hold on to the bar. Then you would lean back against the door with a nonchalant air and smoke away…..stick after stick. Of course, you would vary your pose once in a while if there were nubile young things around.

Thankfully, I didn’t suffer from such impulses. Plus, the fact that I didn’t smoke somewhat made me a non-starter. But that didn’t stop me from spending hours at the door. A habit that has stuck till today.

Back then, because we used to travel in a group or at least as a pair, group dynamics took centrestage. We used to sing loudly, crack jokes & generally make a nuisance of ourselves. Standing at the door gave us a high. We would have made a racket anywhere, but standing at the door enhanced the experience.

After I started working, my travel experience underwent a subtle change. The chief reason being that my journeys became solo affairs (at least mostly). And I started traveling more often. But the old habit of standing on the very edge has stuck. I can’t wait for the train to pull out of the station,  so that I can do my thing. So much so that, I usually spend at least half the journey at the door.

It seems to me that when you are seated inside on your seat, you are a frog in the well. Whichever way you turn, you only see other frogs in the same well. The view to the outer world is well, blocked. It is better if you have a seat by the window, but not much. Because, though you can see the beauty of the world outside, you still feel boxed in. Your view of the world outside is framed. It’s like the frog is just about able to peep out of the well. While it is able to see the beauty all around, it is not really able to get the full import of it. The frame of vision is too small.

When I stand at the door, the frame of vision suddenly seems enlarged many, many times. I am able to experience so much more, take in so much more. It’s like the whole wide world has been spread out like a giant, multi-coloured carpet for my benefit.

 

 

Life at the edge is like a personal conversation between the world & me. I am buffeted by extremes of sights & emotions. One moment, I am looking at a toothless old woman smiling at me through her thick glasses. The very next, I see this cackle of young kids jumping, shouting & waving at the train. This is a frequent sight. I always make it a point to wave back. Their joy is so infectious! I have some difficulty in restraining myself from jumping & shouting like them. It is as well, since I am alive to tell the tale.

One moment I see this buxom young woman bearing her child on her hip, waiting for the train to rush by, so she can cross the track. The very next, I am amazed to see this young turk navigate  the dirt track alongside the railway track on a Rajdoot, with two milk cans hanging from either side! Sometimes, the train slows down & I see workers repairing the track on a bridge ahead. I fear for their safety….I mean, what if one of them falls onto the dry river bed? I can’t get over this uneasiness for several minutes. Not until I see a flock of snow-white birds take off from the bank of a small pond.

 

 

When the train passes through a town or city, I involuntarily take a step backward. As if, all that crowd, noise, dust & stench were physically pushing me back. Some towns can be quite repelling, that way. At the very least, they assault your senses with garish lights & over-loud music. That’s the only time I feel like taking a break from the edge.

In some places, the houses are lined up so close alongside the track that I can witness household scenes through open doors & windows. These are awkward moments, when I feel like an  intruder. I try to avert my eyes from the houses to something farther away. After all, it is not their fault that they have set up home by the tracks.

One of the best sights from the edge is that of the train curving along a bend on the track. Since our trains are usually very long (many are more than half a kilometer long), these bends offer a fabulous view of the entire train. To actually see the coaches connected to one another & to the loco, is to feel the rush in a very intimate way.

 

 

Mountains, groves, deserts, rivers, the sea, farmers tilling the soil, mechanics at work, processions of death, temple-festivals, decorated churches, the muezzin’s call, children walking to school, teenagers idling by a culvert, roadside brawls, ….I have seen it all, heard it all. This is not to say that I have seen it all. Not by a long way.

Of course, life on the edge comes with its risks. The train bucks & sways at high speed; so, you have to be very, very careful. You lose your grip on the handlebars for even a moment and you are history. You need a good sense of balance & anticipation. Over time, your body tunes itself with the motion of the train. You intuitively know when the train is banking on a curve, when it is slowing, when it going up an incline and so on. You learn to stand at the edge, just within the frame of the coach, without jutting out even an inch. You learn to remain alert all the while, watching for the mammoth door lest it should swing close on a bend & chuck you to death. The idea is not just to experience life on the edge, but to also live to tell the tale.

Life on the edge is exhilarating, liberating, humbling, elevating, revealing, dangerous, riotously colourful, beautiful, now seducing, now repelling.

In short, it is indescribable.

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