Sunday, June 28, 2015

Mystic land of playful mists - Kurseong

One moment, sunbeams pour over the ridges, abysses and into the valleys below, warming you up the air a little, and the next moment, before you know it, mist surrounds you and transports you to a mystic land, where from some faraway place, undulating melody of a folk song, makes its way over the chilling breeze, soaking all the flavors from the tea gardens on its way, and pours into your sensors. 

One moment, entire picturesque landscape of mountainous terrain, remote villages, serpentine roads, green canopy of tea gardens on the mountain walls, near and distant, are all crystal clear in front of your eyes, and within few minutes, you can only barely see the person near you. The landscapes are nowhere to be seen, like a white curtain falling on the nature's changing masterpieces.
Behold, Kurseong (Kharsang in Lepcha language), also called the land of white orchids beckons you! Sitting pretty on foothills of Himalayas, with clouds encircling it below in a ring formation, was the first glimpse of this beautiful place, that catches every visitor's attention.

Amazing transformation at play...

Exactly the kind of place to completely unwind, get connected with oneself and one won't be blamed for thinking of leaving the maddening rat race behind forever and staying back here, while the playful mists, continuously change the painting on the canvas and presenting different perspectives, with bountiful  colors and shades of grey. Strangely though, amidst all the thick mist around, the thoughts inside oneself tend to get cleared up like never before, reason why many a people underwent renewal and found solace in the serenity of these pristine hills.

We had heard quite a lot about Cochrane Place, heritage bungalow and erstwhile stately British colonial home of Magistrate Percy John Cochrane, which had featured in Lonely Planet Guide, and were fortunate to have it as our home in Kurseong during our stay. The property had undergone restoration and was recreated few years back, but has managed to retain its past nicely, including a VW Beatle and a pianoforte which had traveled all the way from England, close to a century ago.  With a Tea bar to flaunt, serving hot cups of finest Darjeeling tea throughout the day, and not to speak of  world-famous Makaibari tea gardens and factory within walking distance which produces the best tea available to the world, it makes for an ideal stay for any tea connoisseur from all across the world. We had our fair share of sips of some of the better varieties available there, if not the best which typically comes upwards of 40k of Indian rupees for a kilogram.
Cochrane Place

Restaurant with unique tea bar

How can one forget Mr Ravinder Cong and his staff? Having stayed in so many such places before, I must stay I have rarely come across a more kind, hospitable, enthusiastic and resourceful unit anywhere else, right from the time we landed there until the time we left the place, creating an extremely pleasant experience for us. We could make the most of the few days at our disposal, courtesy their proactive help with planning the daily trips and logistics to support them.

It took us a while before we climbed up the hill and reached our destination on the first day. What remained of that day was well spent going on a jeep ride around the hills, tea gardens guarded by bushes of lemon grass lying in abundance, and Netaji's family home, now a museum. The place is bound to raise the goosebumps, for this is the same place where Netaji was interned and where he envisioned the future of his mother land, including INA. The verandah overlooking the valleys was where he sat and scribbled some of his most memorable letters, and the speech which he delivered as President of Haripura congress in 1938. Many a personalities like Chittaranjan Das, Rabindranath Tagore had visited this place during early twentieth century.

A train ride to Darjeeling on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway(DHR), a UNESCO world heritage site, established in 1881, was exactly what the doctor ordered for the next day. This was an uphill ride, as train passed through densely populated areas and wilderness, criss-crossing the hill road from left-to-right and right-to-left,  through the highest station at Ghum, renowned for Ghum monastry, and through most picturesque Batasiya loop, before reaching Darjeeling. We spent the day in Darjeeling visiting the various spots, Zoological Garden which is home to some of the rare fauna found in cold climates, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which houses the oldest museum in the country, and is a glowing tribute to Sherpa Tenzin Norgay.

Darjeeling is much sought-after destination during the summer times and was obviously very crowded. So, we chose to wrap up early and head back to blissful Kurseong by afternoon, for latter was the centre our trip this time.

As always, I decided to spend the rest of the day, walking up and down the narrow hill roads through wilderness, absorbing more of freshness and solitude, capturing some of the breathtaking landscapes and imprinting them in my memory forever. That is also the time when I saw most of the hide-and-seek games that nature was playing while it drizzled and people stayed indoors.

Last day was spent visiting the Makaibari tea estate garden and factory, walking through steep mountainous roads, which is a great experience and a workout at the same time, while getting to know the place, people, their livelihood, lifestyles and aspirations from a closer angle.

All good things must come to an end, and so did this trip. Travel being such a great teacher,  relentlessly feeds perspectives, gives insights, throws up life lessons, as we spend more and more time in its company. It whispers to us to live with the doors and windows of our mind wide open, while it enriches us spontaneously.
This time too, it threw up many new thoughts in my mind to return back with,  some to cherish and retain forever.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Blissful solitude on the hills - Valparai...

Journey, we say, is more fascinating than the destination. The feeling of having arrived fills many with a sense of void and inspires them to go on and on. As I am back to my desk, writing about another of my memorable trips, or shall I say destinations, this proverbial notion appeared questionable, at least for once.

Valparai, a hamlet perched on the Western Ghats in Tamilnadu, and few kilometers away from Kerala border, amidst the magnificence of nature, was our destination.  A road less traveled by tourists, leads to this blissfully quiet land of acres of hillside tea gardens, through twists and turns, ups and downs of forty hairpin bends.

After a hectic few months, a much needed escape was just what the doctor ordered, and with the intent, in came a multitude of getaway ideas from all directions. Among all those, Valparai emerged as a place known to few and visited by even fewer. Coincidentally, I was reading ‘Road less traveled’ during those days, and was looking forward to my moments of solitude on the hills and there couldn't have been a better place than this.

So, going with our usual preference, we started early on a chilly Bangalore morning, and were headed towards Salem and onward through Perundurai, Pollachi to Valparai. After Perundurai, we were greeted with old-world charm of two-lane state highways, dotted with trees and mostly bordered with green paddy fields. Around lunch time, we stopped by at one of the many eateries offering piping hot meals and filter coffee, served by always-friendly people in this hinterland. After a timely meal, it was time to feel drowsy. While everyone in the car as well as in the villages we passed by, were enjoying their siesta, I had no such option but to keep my eyes in front.  Once we crossed Pollachi, before we knew, we were at the foothills of gigantic hills standing tall and straight, right in front of us. Soon, we passed Sholayar Dam and thickening wilderness was beginning to surround us and populace too was starting to become a rarity.

All along, one couldn't stop appreciating the consistently well-maintained roads in Tamilnadu, and this experience was no different. Although it was quite narrower all along, causing traffic to come to a halt at places, accommodating buses and other bigger vehicles, less traffic enabled us to climb faster, and I was not complaining, for I was eager to flirt with the forty hairpin bends that were still eluding us, as we crossed various sign boards indicating likely presence of tigers, elephants crossing our way. Not a single representative from those species were to be found anywhere though.
After few odd kilometers, the romance with beautiful hairpins started, with one leading to another, one outclassing the other with panoramic space on offer. We were relishing the view of forest covering the hills, decorated with serpentine roads with lake at a distance, while afternoon Sun too continued its journey slowly into dusk.   

Landscape changed further as we climbed higher, and tall eucalyptus trees were around us with still no trace of human habitation. Eventually, the hilly climate began to set in as mist greeted us after hairpin 29 and  picturesque tea gardens adorned the landscape.

Our stay was planned at Stanmore Bungalow, built in 1935, located outside the town, in the middle of acres of green hills. A planter's abode since British times, it is now open for tourists. On first look itself, it brought  back our vivid cherished memories of staying in such places during childhood days. A long private way leading upto it, well-appointed, furnished and spacious living, dining and bedrooms, with long verandah and huge open lawn in front, are reminiscent of illustrious lifestyle that officials in British Raj were privy to, and were all here exclusively at our disposal, for next couple of days. 

Early morning long walks through tea gardens, sipping hot cup of tea while seated on an armchair, playing badminton on the lawns, lying on hammock with closed eyes and being one with nature, appreciating the deeper implicit analogy between understanding of our own self through this journey of life, as presented by M. Scott Peck, towards its ultimate destination, and this journey which brought us to this tranquil abode, were all very sublime. To top it up, the in-house staff did not leave any stone unturned in extending their hospitality, pampering us with multi-course delectable cuisines and intermittent cups of fresh tea with snacks during intervals. One would be tempted to wish that ultimate destination would be as beautiful, pristine, serene and fulfilling as this one!

As evening came down upon the hills, a strange but harmonious chorus of rare species of birds, crickets raised their pitch, together with light drizzle and made the ecosystem truly ethereal. We sat around a table on the verandah, playing audience to this performance, spellbound at nature's breathtaking light & sound event, absorbing every bit of it.

Next day morning, we walked downhill to a stream nearby, sat beside crystal clear water, as nature's Reiki music was being played. It was all so refreshing! That was followed up with a visit to 'Monica Tea Factory', where seasoned officials  took pride in showcasing the wonderful contribution they have made over many years in producing many different flavors of this world-favorite beverage, and enlightened us with their vast knowledge and experience.

By afternoon, I was back in my own world with travel companion, and you guessed it right – 'Road Less Traveled'. In the coziness of the armchair, I revisited past and present chapters of my life, counting my blessings, remembering implicit things that we receive but often forget or ignore them, the barriers that we inadvertently build around us, refuse to face up to our own inhibitions, get entangled in fears and setbacks, and become obstacles on our own path to a more wholesome, fulfilling and happier life.

So, unlike many other sojourns, this one was delightfully light on schedule and that made the stay certainly very rejuvenating, to say the least. After adding some more time to our urban-induced depleting lifespan, we drove back the next day morning. 

Even while we were on the way downhill, a strong feeling of moving away from the wonderland was surely gripping us with a touch of gloom, making us resolve to be back again, sometime in future. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Viva Paella!, with touch of Indian flavor!

Hola! I am back. What kept me away for so long after the first post?  Was it a short-lived spurt of aspiration to start blogging that had pushed me earlier? Well, I actually went for another trip for a while, this time to the world of culinary delights from Spain.

Spain, in recent past, has scaled the list of top exotic tourist destinations for Indians populace very quickly, thanks to plethora of travelogues across all forms of media and showcasing by bollywood, which washed ashore great curiosity about everything that signifies joi de vivre or more aptly, la vida loca. Numerous fiestas (La Tomatina, San Fermin bull running, to name a few), scenic locales, parties, and national pastimes – all have evoked great interest.  With so much enthusiasm around, how could the delicacies be far behind?  Among all, in came the delectable Paella (pronounced Paeya), one of the many culinary delights that Spain has to offer to the world. Now, as little knowledge would do to most of us, we ended up identifying it as the national dish, which it actually is not. It hails from the region of Valencia, on the east coast of the country. But, the most interesting of all, with little effort one can easily identify it to be a not so distant cousin of our own Biriyani

But, why am I saying all this? Well, I took one step further and tried my hand on this delicacy, with a pinch of creativity. This one was a mixed paella with a twist, with chicken, green vegetables and seasoning.

  1. Chicken  - curry cut - ½ kg
  2. Olive oil  - 4 tablespoons
  3. Basmati rice - 1 cup
  4. Diced Tomato
  5. Green Peas (optional)
  6. Carrot (optional)
  7. Beans
  8. Bell Pepper - 1 - cut vertically into slices
  9. Onion - 1 cup - cut to circles
  10. Ginger - 2 tablespoons - finely grated
  11. Whole Garlic - 1
  12. Cardamon - few pods 
  13. Cinnamon - 2 long sticks
  14. Clove - 5 to 6
  15. Saffron
  16. Salt
  17. Coriander leaves and green chillies (for garnishing)
With all these ingredients at my disposal, I started with my strokes on the canvas, anxious as to what it might turn out to be.

  1. Mix chicken with salt (to taste), 1 tablespoon of Olive oil and keep it for 15 mins.
  2. Keep the rice rinsed and ready for cooking.
  3. In a flattish frying pan, pour in 3 tablespoon olive oil; saute and fry the grated chicken until they attain a slight tan.
  4. Pour in the rice and saute thoroughly; and let it cook until the aroma of rice comes out.
  5. Put in onion, ginger, tomato, bell pepper, carrot, green peas and beans into the pan and cook it. Place the whole garlic in the center so that its flavor gets soaked into the gravy.
  6. While the chicken gets ready, it is time to prepare the broth. Place a bowl of water, sufficient enough to cook the rice and let it simmer on another oven.
  7. Put cardamom, cinnamon, clove (4-5) and salt ( to taste) once the water starts simmering and cover it until water boils. 
  8. Pour the entire content of the pan into the boiling water slowly and mix it thoroughly. Be careful with the chicken pieces, lest they splash the boiling water out on you.
  9. Spread pinch of saffron threads on the mixture and let the rice cook.
  10. Once ready, garnish it with coriander leaves and serve.

As I was giving the final touches, the exquisite aroma had begun to spread all around and had our taste buds tickling, well before it was on the platter. When we finally sat down to savor the delicacy, it was time to be immodest, and why not? After all, I was proud of my masterpiece!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Time travel to Hampi, Aihole, Pattadakal and Badami

It was nearing five in the evening and we were desperate for a cup of tea. As I reached out to unlock my apartment door, the front page of newspaper supplement lying on the floor suddenly caught my attention. Karnataka has ranked among the top 5 tourist destinations in India in nationwide survey 2011. Quite a coincidence I felt, for we were just coming back after a time travel to Hampi, Aihole, Pattadakal and Badami, amazing heritage sites lying in Karnataka and had every bit of our money worth.

This was quite unlike my experiences from other heritage sites and monuments that I had been since early age. Thanks to a host of factors including a combination of commendable work done by Archaeological survey of India (ASI),  Karnataka Tourism and UNESCO recognition, Hampi looks remarkably unperturbed by ill-effects of ever-encroaching human habitation in modern times, although time and history has left its indelible mark on its once glorious past. ASI is trying hard to restore and keep the buildings intact.Even today, excavation is going on and more is expected to surface.

Hampi was lingering on our minds from several years since we landed in Bangalore. For the uninitiated, Hampi is the erstwhile capital of Vijayanagara empire which flourished on the banks of Tungabhadra river around 15th century and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. 

So, we zeroed in on this destination quickly and referred Karnataka Tourism website, a one-stop-shop for all information, for planning a round trip. Online booking facility at Karnataka Holidays made sure that I could plan our route and accommodation in no time. Going by past experience, I knew that Karnataka Tourism hotels would have the best locations possible across all the destinations and so I didn't look beyond and booked at Mayura Bhuvaneshwari (Hampi) and Mayura Chalukya (Badami). Team-bhp portal, as always, provided the much needed advice on routes to take and more importantly, the ones to avoid. 

D-Day Arrives...

At last, the day we eagerly waited for! At the day-break we were cruising away from the metropolis, driving down the NH4 towards Hiriyur. Modern highways are a definite boost for people driving out to distant places although it gets monotonous after a while, and one starts missing the old-world charm  of picturesque roads dotted with big trees on both sides. 

Once we were off NH4, into SH-19 and then NH-63, countless humps tested my driving, let's call it, braking reflexes every now and then. Braving all that, we reached Hospet in the afternoon, bypassing Bellary, and found our way to Kamalapur another 11 km away, along relatively flatter roads.

As was expected, Hotel Mayura Bhuvaneshwari located in Kamalapur village wins hands down on the location front. Situated next to Hampi world heritage site, the pristine surrounding, abundant open spaces, lush gardens with birding chirping and whistling around on trees, and the spacious room -     were all present there to welcome us after a long and tiring drive. After some recharge, a nick-of-time visit to the nearby ASI museum armed us with an overview of the historical landscape and helped us have a coverage plan for the site, thanks to the definitive miniature model of the site.

A long day packed with whole new experiences was awaiting us!

Journey begins...

It was to be a whole day affair. What makes Hampi different is its 26 sq. km area with clusters of monuments having historical significance and all connected by narrow roads, in most places. One can drive or take a bicycle ride from one cluster to another and cover the nearby monuments on foot. The landscape is well-maintained, spots and directions clearly marked. Numerous neem trees all across the site shelter travelers from the scorching sun. Pattabhirama Temple, Virupaksha Temple, Vitthala Temple (with musical pillars), Pushkarani (stepped bath), Queen's Bath, Royal Enclosure, Hazararama Temple and Zanana Enclosure are among the most prominent of all landmarks.


Vitthala temple is the one which impressed us the most with some intricate carvings, and musical pillars although the main temple building was under repair when we visited.

Throughout the day tourist traffic was moderate and interspersed, allowing enough space for every visitor to gaze and assimilate the architectural marvels that lay all around. Limited restrictions on photography let us capture some of the splendors of architecture, most notably, the famous Stone Chariot of Vitthala Temple. Guides were available at the spots, but they were not pushy at all and posed little or no interference for those who didn't opt for their services. It was also a time for us to quickly revisit 16 different world heritage sites in India, courtesy the ASI entry ticket, although the current cultural list stands at 23.

Onward to Badami through Aihole, Pattadakal

Mr. Sankh, manager at Hotel Mayura Chalukya, Badami was kind enough to suggest us the route from Hampi to Badami through Aihole and Pattadakal. After a short stop at Tungabhadra Dam, driving towards Bijapur on NH-13 and taking diversion from Hungund, we reached Aihole around noon. In Chalukyan period, this was a prominent city and temple complex served as a training site for would-be sculptors who would then exhibit their genius in Pattadakal. This was evident in the artistry depicted in sculptures in both the places. We spent some time going around the monuments, most notably, the Durga Temple, before moving forward.

After Aihole, we drove through remote villages and forests bordered by red sandstone hills on moderate to bad roads to reach Pattadakal, a village on the banks of Malaprabha river.Pattadakal was the coronation site for Chalukyan rulers, and is right in the middle of  wilderness in Bagalkot district. One would have to reach the place to believe that such an incredible piece of heritage lies hidden there. So much so that some of us were out of our mobile networks at that time. Different styles of architecture, Dravidian and Nagara (derived from northern India), are prevalent in number of temples in this compound.

The most prominent of buildings within this temple complex are Virupaksha Temple, Sangameshwara Temple, Kashi Vishwanatha Temple and Mallikarjuna Temple. After spending an hour and a half, wondering at the magnificence and richness of the craftsmanship of that era, we headed for Badami, waiting for us around 22 kms away.

Badami Caves

Badami got its name after red sandstone that covers the terrain, and was earlier called Vatapi, the capital of Badami Chalukyas who ruled here from 540 to 757 AD.

Beware of monkeys! They are everywhere in large numbers in Badami and are very much at ease with human co-existence. Hotel Mayura Chalukya (another KSTDC hotel) is located just outside the hustle and bustle of the town, on Belgaum road. We were received by friendly staff and were guided towards our room.

Next day, we made our way to the heritage site. The main attraction is centered around the Agastya Tirtha (lake named after Sage Agastya) with sandstone outcrops surrounding it on three sides. It is flanked by wonderfully sculpted Cave temples on one side of the lake, and Bhutanatha Temple, ASI museum on the other. The banks are not connected though and so one has to take a narrow lane at the Tonga Circle to reach the temple and museum complexes. 
Again, the place was strikingly litter-free, well-maintained and there was no chaos despite crowds pouring in large groups, mostly families.

Cave temples depict different incarnations of Lord Shiva(Cave 1), Lord Vishnu(Cave 2 and 3) and reliefs of Jain Tirthankaras(Cave 4). One can't help but gasp at the carvings strewn all across on the cave walls, ceilings and pillars.

Next, we turned to visit the museum through that narrow lane that barely accommodates one small-sized vehicle. Among other exhibits, it has some of the artefacts, narrations on history pertaining to that era, sculpting tools obtained from excavations and  a model of natural cave tunnel formation. Next stop was the Bhutnatha temple cluster located right on the bank of the lake. Temple with backdrop of clear blue sky and greenish water formed a breathtaking sight and had a seemingly calming effect on us. 

After relishing the cool breeze blowing over the lake, enjoying the calmness and solitude in the courtyard of the temple, we made our way back to the hotel, saddened that we would have to travel back to our time the next day. 

All in all, Hampi, Aihole, Pattadakal and Badami - A MUST SEE  for all World Heritage enthusiasts! In fact, this was enough inspiration and motivation for me to key in my first blog post ever.