Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Tsunami 2004 - Hit out of the Blue: Need for proactive dynamism

Driving south from Chennai the day after Boxing Day on a temple tour to celebrate family reunion is an experience our group of seven adults and a couple of kids is not likely to forget, ever. With only thoughts of a weeks’ holiday from the office routine, I found myself in Chennai on the morning after Christmas Day; little did we realize what the expression ‘making waves’ could mean, not even when the ground shook beneath us. And so it was with widening and brimming eyes that we watched news pouring in, throughout that Sunday, of exploding numbers.

Deciding to proceed with the planned tour, we left by road towards Pondicherry and adjacent towns after being directed to take an inland route since tragedy was unfolding along the otherwise scenic coastal road. That cloudy Monday, it seemed Nature was showing her gloomy façade, perhaps she was also mourning, as was the whole world. The beach at Pondicherry, hardly a few feet between Gandhiji’s statue to the waterline, was out of bounds, but crowds at the roadside watched with awe as the body of that life-giving fluid continued to heave and splash on to the sands.

We continued southward, coming across more news and first hand accounts of the havoc, of families of Air Force friends lost to the sea. At Chidambaram food meant for the thousands of ‘Arudra Darshan’ pilgrims instead traveled to the refugee camps eastward, at Sirkazhi, which is nearest Nagapattinam, the temple served one of its true purposes as a camp for the homeless and the deprived. My son asked my mother: “Patti, why are you crying?” as a lady came up to her requesting help - a sari, or money, whatever. Her offer of a hundred-rupee note would have set off a Pandora’s box, given the numbers of the needy.

Believe me, old clothes are not the solution – neither for their suffering nor to give us a complacent feeling. Given out of compassion or out of mistimed sense of cleaning up household garbage, the mounds of old clothing raining all over is enough to suffocate. What we need to do is go there and adopt children or groups, or villages, or render physical help, psychological support, construct toilets and teach hygiene, keep up the morale. After all, with the Gujarat quakes and Orissa cyclone not quite behind us, we should know how contributions to relief funds (do not) work. One is unlikely to forgive oneself for not pitching in during an hour of need; wisdom dawned late. God and temples could have waited. Family reunion thanksgiving it may have been for me, but have I not learnt ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’? Apparently not yet.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Kolar-A crore lingas, and places around

The adventurous foursome that we are, we set off to discover a few places we found only in KSTDC pamphlets. With a load of hearsay and a couple of maps we hit the road in a small family car to 'Chikka Tirupati' via Whitefield. And continued to hit it every once in a while. But never once thought that opting for the rural route was a bad idea. (At the final turn out of Bangalore, a jobless group attempted to give us a hiccup by questioning our route and motive- it was the first day of Benny Hinn's prayers; across the road tyres were being burnt. A good deal of 'My good man,' diplomacy and a grudgingly permitted detour later, we could continue on our way).

Most travelogues and guides flood you with usable and sometimes dated info on popular tourist beeline ends, smoothly motorable 'beaten tracks' and cushy spots to eat and sleep. For a change we veered away from just such a repeat, and that's how we found our way to a Vaishnavite temple ('before Cholas' - said the priest) amidst a handful of hamlets. A homely but clean-on-the-inside mess provided us with staple idlis, puris and 'Avarekalu bath'; coffee to wash the fare down would have to wait a while!

Wending our way on routes frequented more by tractors than plush cars; we passed rose and marigold expanses, tomato ('Manasa' variety), chilli, potato, cabbage, cauliflower, Bengal gram, mulberry plantations and mango and eucalyptus groves. Roses and tomatoes beckoned: we stopped to admire, chat with the locals lovingly tending their wards, pitched in at farm work for a while, and familiarised with the onward route.

Kotilingeswara, we found, was one big park of Lingas, lining pathways in all sizes amidst Bilva and Amla trees, but all in one single colour and shape - tens of thousands, amounting to 35 lakhs at the last count. One can do 'prathishta' (consecration) to add to the target of one crore for a price starting at Rs 1300/. The temple houses shrines for several Hindu deities, Manjunatha, Panduranga, Srinivasa, Panch-mukha Ganesha, Pancha-mukha Hanuman, Rama-Sita-Lakshmana, Ayyappa, Annapoorneswari, Santhoshima, and Kanniga Parameswari, besides the Navagraha and Saint Raghavendra. The biggest Linga is some 108 ft tall, and matched by a huge figure of Nandi. The temple's history begins as recently as 1971. Between 12:30 and 2:00 pm, prasada-lunch of anna, saru and majjige is served to all visitors. One can browse at a spiritual art gallery located adjacent to the temple.

It was a short drive to Bangaru Tirupati, you can't miss the arch marking the entrance from the road to Mulbagal. The temple dates to Brigu Maharishi's days, and is built on rocks. The shrine is reached after a climb of several hundred steps; the deity is seen through a chequered window. At a different level is the shrine for the consort Padmavathy, which dates to mid 19th century.

Mulbagal lies just off the NH4. This taluk shows better signs of rural progress: roads are broader and even. The famous spot here is the temple for Hanuman, installed by Arjuna after the Mahabharata war. Sage Vasishta is said to have installed the idols of the main deity Srinivasa, as also Padmavathy and the Rama-Sita-Lakshmana trio.

Off the Srinivasapura road going north from Mulbagal, we reached Kurudumale. Two temples, within a hundred feet of each other are now protected monuments, as proclaimed by notices put up by the Archaeological Survey of India. The Someswara temple, where restoration work is under way was built and dedicated to the locals by King Raja Raja Chola. The priest very patiently led us (in Kannada though – this is my understanding of his narration, and any errors in facts, figures and names are all mine alone) through the Chola King's times depicted on some of the pillar-sculptures, worked on by the Raja's shilpi Jakanachari. After a plunder some centuries later, just about fifteen of the original 30 odd idols have been found and reinstated.

The Ganesha temple has a much more hoary history dating to the Krta Yuga. The idol is said to have grown from a 'salagrama' stone (originally from Gandak river of Nepal) through the four Yugas to attain its present size. The Hindu trinity together installed the idol - hence the name Koodadri colloquialised to Koodumale / Kurudumale in the name of the place. The idol stood by itself through the ages; the Vijayanagar king Krishnadevaraya built the temple around the idol at the request of the locals. (See ‘Soaking in legends at Kurudumale’, Deccan Herald, 23 September 2004 for more details).

A recently built Prasanna Venkataramaswamy temple is located along a 1.5 km detour on the road back to Mulbagal. Have time, can go. The place is called Doddaguruki / Vedagiri. (See Deccan Herald dated 20/01/2005).
Getting back to Mulbagal, it's a smooth turn into NH4 towards Bangalore. 5 km down the highway is a fairly huge Ayyappa Kshetram. As we drove back the 80-odd km home, the huge red ball of fire that had made its presence felt through the day was setting at the far horizon, keeping us company a good part of the way. Kamat group's Upachar, located after the Kolar bypass, is a decent refreshment halt, 20 km short of Hoskote, and is one standard stop for the KSTDC bus services.

That was a good twelve hours well spent. With an earlier start and a couple more hours in hand, it is possible to complete the day with a trip to Kaiwara, a Forest Department maintained resort via Chintamani traveling northwest from Mulbagal and get back on the highway near Hoskote.

Chikka Tirupati (35 km from Bangalore): Turn right at O farm Cross, Whitefield (10 km).

Kotilingeswara: On the right, 3 km short of Betamangala. Travel on Bangarpet-Betamangala- route (Waypoints: Malur, Tykal, Bangarpet)

Bangaru Tirupati: 8 km from Kotilingeswara on the road towards Mulbagal. Entry marked by a stone arch.

Kurudumale: 10 km northeast from Mulbagal, off the Srinivasapura Road.

Bylakuppe-Dubare: A weekend of Coorg Magic

We left the city of Bangalore one Saturday morning in December by road, at 6 am on the dot. We carried with us breakfast and lunch, packed nicely, and lots of water. A reasonable drive and 6 hours later we reached our first halt: Bylakuppe where there are four Tibetan monasteries. It's really a wonder how a mini-Tibet exists,
monasteries, nunneries, red costumes, and ‘minimized’ noses all thrown in. It so
happens that Dalai Lama had inaugurated a 'Golden Temple' just a couple of
days earlier, so there was such a profusion of flowers all over the place,
there couldn't have been a timelier visit to this settlement. The locale is really picturesque, neat, and lots of sights to see if you have an eye for colourful paintings, Buddhist practices and temple construction details. We could visit the two main temples, then we were on our way to Abbi falls, which is a nice rocky region where the Cauvery falls from some 60 ft. We found it good enough for lunch halt. The rice, vegetables, Indian bread (rotis) and someone’s gifted pickles tasted wonderful, even my fussy son had a better than usual fill of all items.
We moved on to Talacauvery (origin of the River Cauvery: in India, all rivers are holy, and the origin is a pilgrimage site), which is at around 4000 ft above msl. A small shrine marks where the river spouts (you can actually see new water gushing out during a specific period in the month of October, we were told). 360 steps cut in the hill leads you to the top of Brahmagiri, which is a great vantage point to see hilltops to the North, Arabian Sea to the West and Nilgiris to the South. By the time we descended to Madikeri, which is the capital of Coorg district, it was well past sunset, so we missed visiting Raja's Seat and the fort, which used to be erstwhile kings' viewpoint for sunsets and sunrise. Madikeri is a small town, looks like Ooty, with all the roads sloping up and down, and the town becoming cluttered with over-crowding.
We found nice accommodation in a hotel, freshened up, and left to visit the Omkareshwara temple just a kilometre away - and then did a double take. This temple, at first looks, gives the appearance of a mosque, what with its white walls and minaret-like temple towers, and even a small structure at the centre of the temple pond. There again, we were lucky, for Providence seemed to make up to us for other
missed tourist spots - it happened to be the sixth day of the lunar fortnight, special in the Dec-Jan lunar month; the temple was all decked up with lights and flowers, the palanquin and a decorated carrier for the deity were ready to tour a small metallic idol of the main deity around the temple and in the pond, and there were cultural programs going on - We got to see and appreciate aesthetic Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance) and a local orchestra which was being broadcast live on FM radio. Prasadam (offering to God) was rice and soup served on areca tree leaves.
Since we expected to start early the next day, we moved on to a place for dinner, and ended up having more bread and rice, but memorable ones, more because of the nice view we had from our table directly to the temple pond, where the festivities continued with a cracker show and the idol procession.
A restful night, hot water baths and a mini breakfast done, we checked out
and set off to Dubare Forest to visit an elephant camp. You have to cross
the river by boat to reach the Government Forest department-run camp which features an interactive session with the pachyderms: so intimate that your first task is
to give them a bath in the river! The mahouts and the tourists wait patiently when, like well-trained humans, the elephants empty their bowels at the river, and then sit down or lie in the water to submit to being bathed by Indian and foreign hands, adult and kids hands.
Most tourists have no problems moving into the water and scrubbing down a couple of elephants, some fussy ones may prefer to watch. My son would not get into the water where the elephants had just, well, relieved themselves. His dad kept clicking away, and I, well, after pulling up my jeans sufficiently and waiting for a baby elephant to be brought in, I too got into the act and scrubbed away. (Later on my son mellowed down enough to perch on his dad’s hands and then scrub an elephant) Oh aren't elephants lovable! At the next session the visitors are encouraged to feed the residents. At this time, the manager, a veteran vet specialized in pachyderms’ habits gives you the low-down of the history and geography of Indian and African elephants; with one docile 'demo' elephant helpfully following whispered instructions. By this time, huge ragi (Indian name for a nutritious cereal) balls are ready and the visitors take turns to pop one into the open mouths of the friendly giants. The session ends with a 15-minute ride on the back of the elephant, 4-5 people perched on a hoodah. When you get off the elephant’s back, you are bound to come away with renewed respect for all non-human creatures and Nature that always gives them their needs.
We went back to the mainland and moved to another exotically named Government-run resort called Cauvery Nisargadhama to watch more elephants, and visit some deer and rabbits in a park. The deer may have been bored with their usual menu; we watched them happily munch some peels that some local kids fed them through the fence. Then we were back on the road, looking for a place for lunch before starting homeward, with stops for tender coconut water, coffee and the famous wooden Channapatna toys on the way. My son slept thru most of the drive through both days. I get the impression he does not enjoy car rides and elephant rides as much as he does train journeys. At 8 pm it was home sweet home. What did we bring back apart from memorable moments and our garbage? - A healthy appetite to enjoy a hot dinner of soup, rice, salad and lentils.

Ozar to Ooty on my Vespa

Three of us set off on two two-wheelers from Ozar (Nasik, Maharashtra) one October morn. The destination? - Ooty, just around 2000 km south. Ozar to Pune - Goa -Karwar - Hassan- Mysore- Ooty - Coimbatore. A good nine days, and I am ready to go, my Vespa sadly is not...

Rafting down the Brahmaputra

"You are the first Indian woman to raft down the Brahmaputra!"..exclaimed a colleague. Not possible...arguable, I said. Who cared? There was the Brahmaputra, and there were the set of six rafts and a couple of canoes, and all around me were the team of 21 Americans and 5 Air Force colleagues. The mission? A 12-day Indo-US expedition on the Brahmaputra from Tuting to Pasighat. Team leader JB had a motley crowd of first and old timers to shepherd around, so did his Indian counterpart Sqn Ldr TS. Me? Oh a veteran with a vast experience of 4 days on the Indus at Leh a summer ago, and another 4 days on the Ganges at Shivpuri as a warm up for the expedition.
(All this was 12 years ago, I intend taking swimming lessons very soon)
White water flows, adrenaline accompanies

At Yembung

3 'Bhaskar's... a coincidence 

When the tents almost flew away...

Yes, noodles with aruNAchalis

Surveying ahead of a rapid

Waters that were mostly serene

The guide's skill with the paddle

Lovely white sands 

Lined up for another day

The 21 member US-IAF team

Warm dinner in a warm house with warm people

Jennifer Gold, a rafting guide


The equipment (rafts, tents, cooking) was provided by AK's Mercury Himalayan explorations; his team had a Kashmiri cook G and two more raft guides.
The schedule: Set off early from Tuting on Day 1, traverse the Along till about 2 pm, the pull out at a convenient beach, camp the night and set off next morn, till on Day 12, we reach Pasighat around mid-morn.
Our low-budget red-coloured wet suits consisted of pants & jackets. (Every morning after the first spray from a good white water stretch, we got used to the wet feeling)


Our trip to Chalakudy (30 km south of Trissur town) this time was full of travel, but it was also a real holiday as I see it – far from the responsibilities of home-making, school and work. Peak-season bookings (not done in time in our case) ensured that we reached home well after 5 hours past the usual 9 am, after travelling in two trains, two buses and two autos. Soon after lunch and banter to catch up with neighbourhood ‘gossip’, we went on a usual round chez friends and neighbours, a visit to the laughter club hour at the riverside and then to the village temple. Next morning was another visit to the temple, and thereafter lazing around having the occasional ‘karikku (ilanir - tender coconut water)’, munching on the tender sweet pulp and, well, doing nothing.
An impromptu decision to go direct west to the beach in Trissur district and we packed in the car bound for Kodungallur, famous for its Bhagavathy temple. (Actually legend has it that it was a temple for noble and pious Kannagi of ‘Silappathikaram’ fame. Later a saint invoked the Goddess Durga to come and reside in the temple). Perhaps because of the controversy or due to plain lack of care by the powers that be, the temple appears unkempt and run-down, populated by nomadic beggars. Regular pujas though, are obviously performed.
Having logged this temple for Kannagi, we wended our way through winding roads to the beach…to be met by the strong smell, nay stench (I beg pardon, dear fish-lovers: I love them too - when alive and water-kicking, so there) that is part of fishermen’s livelihood. Once we went beyond the heaped mounds, it was enjoyable and we splashed around in the water watching the sunset, an occasional boat coming in, and birds going to roost – and we even got round to munching a few tit-bits we had carried from home – and we carried back a few snapshots of the red glow and the waves and laughing faces (it being my nephew Arun’s first visit to the seaside, he didn’t take to it like a fish). All too soon it was time to go home, but another ‘first’ was in store: a different route took us across the backwaters on the Krishnankotta ferry, car and all (and saved nearly 10 km of travel).

Next morning we lazed at the river, my husband pretending to have a bath, me pretending to swim (Let me put it this way: I was actually trying to remember instructions I had read in a book ‘Learn swimming in 30 days’ bought 8 years ago in waterless Chennai), and our son feigning fear of getting in and wet. An hour and several efforts (by me at flapping woefully webless feet and by father at cajoling son) later, I reluctantly climbed back home to shower and lunch.

Post tea, we set off for Irinjalakuda and the famed centuries-old
Bharata temple. The Irinjalakuda road is narrow, but very, very smooth. As we turned in from the Trissur highway, we were in for a 20-minute wait at the railway crossing. Allepey express passed, and we continued on our way, fleeting past shops and houses. The ‘Koodal Manickya Kshetram’ (Om Namo Bhagavathe Sangameshaya!) is a vast and beautiful space. We ladies nearly missed entering the uniquely circular sanctum sanctorum, the watchman kindly directed us to the temple office, which lends dhotis to just such hapless lady visitors (Most temples in Kerala do not allow any kind of tailored clothing near the sannidhis).
The temple pond is revered so completely that it is totally off bounds for use except by the priests, that too after a cleansing bath elsewhere. One can feed 5-rupee worth ‘meen-ootta’ though – the fishes are said to be divine incarnations and a circuit of the pond is considered special. Adu for the first time in his life did a namaskaram (prostration) – a la stone symbols depicting prostrating human figures on the ground.
The only other Sannidi is that of Ganesha just ahead of the entrance. I later learnt that one usually makes a pilgrimage of 4 temples for the four brothers in Ramayana (Thriprayar, Irinjalakuda, Muzhikulam, and Payammal in that order, all within a half-hour drive of each other). Well I can look forward to that in a future visit. The drive back was memorable: it was well past sunset on a December evening. Colourfully lit houses, churches and shops were indeed a sight; it was Christmas Eve. At nearly every set of lights it was tempting to stop and admire a tree décor here, the star there, lights on trees spanning the road, and scenes from Bethlehem – we made do with fleeting glimpses and occasional bellows of ‘Merry X’mas’ to groups of choral singers (In Kerala, almost every house heralds Yuletide with a star hung at the porch, whatever faith the inmates follow). The ride was over all too soon, and we were back on the highway, after rummaging in a brass vessel shop for riff-raff.
Another morning at the river and then it was time for packing bags to board the train to Chennai. Now don't you agree that that’s a real holiday: no phone calls, no committed obligatory visits, no rules to eat and sleep, M-I-L cooking delicious fare...... !