- 1644 – No. of saltwater crocodiles in the Jan 2014 census
- 4 – Giant crocodiles measuring more than 20 feet in length (of which we were lucky to see 2)
- 15 – No. of albino crocodiles (we saw one ten minutes in to the first ride)
- 45 – No. of people killed in the national park over the past 10 years
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Friday, February 14, 2014
How does one sum up a fascinating marine ecosystem dominated by mangroves, multitude of creeks and wetlands, and an incredibly unique bio-diversity of flora and fauna? A few numbers may help.
Located in Kendrapada district ans spread over 672 sq.kms, Bhitarkanika is a designated wildlife sanctuary, and boasts of the largest population of saltwater crocodiles in the country, along with a huge number of king cobras, about 50,000 nesting birds at the height of winter spread across more than 200 species, and several species of spotted deer; to top it off, the nesting grounds of the endangered olive-ridley turtles border the wetlands on one side in Gahirmatha, albeit out of bounds for tourists. The main attraction, through are the crocodiles.
It is a difficult place to reach, and I would have been surprised if it weren't so. 220 kms from Puri through Kendrapada, Rajnagar to Khola checkpost, the last 70 kms is a back-breaking adventure through the narrowest of barely paved roads surrounded by vast expanses of paddy fields and waterways; if it weren't for Pinto and his patience, I am not sure we would have ever made it, but that seemed to be the theme on this whole trip through Orissa – alternating periods of struggle and rewards. Sand Pebbles (http://www.sandpebblestours.com/bhitarkanika-jungle-resort) has 15 Swiss-tents located about 100 metres from the Khola check post, and is one of the most isolated places I have stayed in.
Surrounded on one side by the main creek that leads into the national park and on the other three sides by huge expanses of nothingness, the nearest civilization (with the notable exception of some small villages and tribes) is 30 kms away. Dusk falls at 5PM and by 530PM, it is pitch dark, and I was told, dangerous too (several reported attacks on humans by crocodiles, and we saw a couple of recent animal kills on the approach). Other than the television in the open restaurant and the books we carried, there is absolutely nothing to do around. Ideal grounds for introspection and lazing around! There is a nip in the air, and at night, it gets down to low single digits, so a campfire is a good option, and even better is to layer up (I had on three layers of clothing, and AP four, while Pinto was extremely comfortable in one!). How cold it gets is judged only in the mornings, when putting your hand under the tap is an ordeal. The food is rustic, the people are down to earth and large-hearted, the locale is picturesque and feels a million miles away from the world.
The next morning, we were the first in at the check-post; a few elaborate forms and challans filled up by the helpful spotter-cum-guide and we were in. Booking an all-inclusive stay helps, we breezed through the check-points, and had a boat all to ourselves for the next 6 hrs, along with an extremely knowledgeable guide and a chatty navigator. And here is where the money pays off. We were taken on an amazing trek on invisible paths through the forest and to several watch-points; several flocks of deer, monkeys, jungle cats, civets, several species of birds including one purple-colored kingfisher and crabs of the most vibrant color of red, were the discoveries of the trek. We were happy, but disappointed too. On the way in, we had no glimpses of any crocodiles (we had seen several smaller versions on the previous evening, but we were here for the big ones) and kept asking “where are they?” and the spotter would assure us “there are thousands and some of them are enormous”. And then a 2-hr trek, at which point we were downbeat (maybe it wasn't our day), hungry and tired.
The return ride got off to a flurry of excitement, the spotter shouted “woh dekho, bada magar”, we held our breath and sure enough, one of the largest was floating about 20 meters away, an indescribable thrill along with a chill up the spine; it was after some time we realized we had no one to hold or breath, the joy of watching wildlife in their natural environment has that effect on you. One assumes a large crocodile would be impossible to miss, but the spotter plays a key role for their eyes are trained to seek out the living from the logs. And these are slippery creatures, at the first noise or approach, they slither away and disappear under the murky water. Then another tanning itself along a creek, and more at low tide and high noon; it was then we realized the walk was mere foreplay! These giant reptiles come up mostly around noon to bathe in the sun, and can apparently stay motionless for hours till disturbed. So for the next 2 hrs, as the boat glided from one creek to another, we must have seen more than 30 crocodiles, some in the water at a distance, some tanning in the sun, some sliding in to the water, maybe a large albino but we weren't sure, and after some time, there were too many to care. There are only so many crocodiles one can be bombarded with, the spotter must have sensed this for he asked “dekh liya bade waale, wapas chalein?”
Crocodiles may be the coupe-de-grace but the birds surely deserve a mention; I have never seen those colors on anything alive. Shades of green that can only be painted, purple, flamingo red, wooden brown, striped wings and so on. What is positive to see is that the tourist influx is tightly controlled, and poaching seems non-existent, and there seem to be a large no. of herbivores. And while we were disappointed that Gahirmatha is now off-limits (a recent phenomenon I was told), that is the price we have to pay for pushing more and more species to the endangered list. Sometimes, we do not give the Govt. enough credit for its conservation efforts, Bhitarkanika is a stark reminder of what can be achieved if the authorities have a will.
Two nights here, and we debated whether Chandipur would be worth the drive; 200 kms one way from Bhitarkanika, and then back to Bhubaneswar with just a one-night halt to see the mysterious beach. I was out-voted 2:1 and Pinto was vociferous and emotional, haven’t seen my family in 10 days he said. He belongs to Balasore, and Chandipur is a sleepy hamlet 10 kms away, best known for the vanishing sea. So we landed here around 130PM, and the sea was right there. But then the tide began to fall and the water startedreceding, slowly at first and then a bit more, by 230 though, people were walking on water. In Havelock, I had walked in about 500m in to sea in low tide on a rocky coral-infested beach, but this is very different. We must have walked about 1.5 kms in, there were no rocks and the sea at no place was more than half a meter deep. So much so that barely 5 meters from the waves were a group of seagulls sitting on the water. All i could think was how could such a shallow piece of land pass off as a beach, surely a freak, nature reveals its mysteries to those willing to go the extra mile, in our case 440 kms. But this beach has to be see to be believed.
Panthanivas on the beach is an excellent deal for the price (INR 1300 for a double AC room) and it helped that it was sparsely populated. It has a decent restaurant and an excellent view of the sea, which can be heard when he completely takes over the beach and hits the rocks on the shore, at high tide around 9PM. Vanishing sea now turns in to a vanishing beach. There is absolutely nothing in Chandipur except a couple of stalls and the beach, and one doesn't need more after a long day. The old waiter who mans the restaurant is grumpy and has his own set of rules, but he has a soft heart, a couple of thank you’s and he turned extremely chatty, albeit in Oriya and broken English. He told us that there were only two such beaches in the world, one somewhere on the U.S east coast (or was it west?) and here. Natural wonder and I have the luxury of seeing this and the beautiful sunrise every day for the last 40 years, he said, with a toothy grin. Happiness comes in large doses for some, and it is usually a choice. He seemed to have made his peace with the world. A divine sunrise and an excellent cup of tea told me he had made the right choice, and so had we. The trip had started in Bhubaneswar with a question "what is there to see in Orissa" and it ended here, in Chandipur, with the answer "everything and more".
Sunday, February 9, 2014
Spread around an area of around 1,200 sq km, Chilka lake is the largest coastal lagoon in India and the second largest in the world. This brackish marine ecosystem is spread across three districts of Orissa and supports about 150 villages and 100,000 families on its shore and several islands; in addition, the famously reclusive irrawady river dolphins, several species of bottlenose dolphins and several hundred species of birds make it their home, marking it the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in the country.
We had visions of driving from one end of the lake to the other, or floating down from the origin to the sea-face; practical considerations ruled both out. There are several approachable inlets to the lake, and two most important are from Balugaon and Satapada. Bhubaneswar is a good homing point for Balugaon and other northern inlets to the lake, while Puri is ideal to reach Satapada and the sea mouth on the southern side.
We left Bhubaneswar early morning at 630AM and after 90 kms reached a fork where we got off the 4-lane highway at Balugaon. What surprised me was how green the fields and surrounding vegetation were; it was the middle of winter, there was absolutely no irrigation for yards, and the only conclusion could be that somehow, the cyclones while wreaking havoc (and we saw several signs of this, we were 50 kms inland from the sea and the wind from Phailin had flattened an entire forest on a hill we visited on the other side of the lake) had rewarded those vegetation that survived. It is a rocky 10 km drive to the lake from the highway, and the lake itself is surrounded by low-lying hills on three sides, and continues parallel to NH5 till its origin near Rambha.
Height of winter meant there was a thick low-lying haze on the lake, extremely poor visibility and the need to trust a rickety, old traditional boat, which had been modified and fitted with a noisy, fuming engine. Chilka here is green, and the haze and the low visibility meant anything more than a meter away was at best a guess work; even with the sun blazing down at high noon, visibility was 10m at best, making photography challenging; yet some of the finest pictures I took during the trip were here, including one in which a boat mysteriously appeared and disappeared in to the mist. For the princely sum of INR 600, we got a boat all to ourselves, for a two hour ride (which turned out to be almost 15 kms) to an island which housed a temple, and the possibility of spotting the famous dolphins.
A breeze always blows on the lake, it is an ecosystem by itself, and exceptionally clean, except those areas near human settlements, and we saw several of them on the way. We also saw all of them fishing, and the local folk told us the lake has plentiful of fish, prawn and crab. So were there several schools of dolphin, but whether one gets a sighting or not depended on the dolphin; apparently, they were very playful at times and very reticent some other times (moody said our boatman). He also said since we were there early, and there were very few boats to scare the dolphins away, if we had the patience, we would surely see some near the islands.
The ride is worth the time and the money, irrespective of whether one sees the dolphins or not; it is a picture perfect locale, and the colors are striking and dual, the water at times is a brilliant green and other times an exceptional blue, depending on how the sun reflected off it; the surrounding hills (when we managed to see them through the haze) were an amazing brown and green, the sun alternated between bright red and hazy orange, and the boats, in contrast are bright blue and red. An hour and absolutely no sight of the dolphins; we weren’t complaining (city folk have no right to argue when in such pristine environment, you never know when the next opportunity comes along, if it does at all) but getting itchy; and then a fin, and another, then a flip and a tail, the boatman shouted “there is a school around” and cut the engine.
And we waited there, trying not to make a noise. And surely there were a school of dolphins bobbing up and down about 5m from the boat, at times splashing and turning in the water, at times disappearing and appearing on the other side of the boat. How many we never got to know, maybe 10 or more silently moving around the boat and towards the island as we silently followed (the boatman did a fine job rowing silently) for what seemed an eternity, but in fact must have been just 7-8 mins. And then they vanished as we headed closer to the island, I must have taken hundreds of snaps, but all I have to show for the effort is a single fin and a splash! The temple and the island itself are irrelevant, and on the way back, we hoped we would see more of the dolphins; but not a sight of them. The local fishing folk revere the dolphins and do not hunt them, in fact, they are rumored to help them fish by driving prey towards the dolphins. Cohabitation at best; we also heard of some practitioners of “cormorant fishing” but didn't see any. The first sight of a most fascinating marine ecosystem and dolphins had gone better than expected.
So thrilled were we that we took a second swipe at Satapada another day, which is 45 kms from Puri, with the road itself an experience; it is very narrow and winds through several tiny villages, fresh green paddy fields, and finally through the backwaters of Chilka where we saw several instances of prawn cultivation. The last 10 kms to Satapada is all water on either sides, with the road skipping along and the inviting smells of the sea wafting through. Satapada is the more “touristy” of the inlets to Chilka, there are a large number of motor boats of slightly better quality and size, and the charges for a 4-hr ride in to the lake and sea-face is INR 1,800. Pinto assured me it was worth it, “bahut se dolphin dikenge, aur sea-face accha hai”.
And thus stated the second Chilka ride, while the first was somewhere near the origin, this was at the mouth, where Chilka emptied in to the sea. What about the dolphins, well, we saw so many in the first 15 mins of the ride that after some time, the boatman asked us “sea-face?” Surely Satapada is a better point to view dolphins, there are many more here than at any other place in the lake, and the lake itself is at its widest. While at Balugaon the ride was smooth, there hardly being any waves in the water, at Satapada, the lake is both wider and deeper as it approaches the sea. There was a strong breeze, all through the 4 hour ride there were waves breaking across the surface, and several islands where we saw mangroves, several sets of migratory birds (I couldn't tell you what species they exactly were, but white and black cranes were the most prominent, and 10-12 other species in multi-colors were swooping up and down the surface all the way through), along with the by-now “usual” dolphins bobbing up and down from time to time.
It seemed an exceptionally long ride, and the boatman did say 25 kms to the sea. One loses track of time when having fun, has absolutely no expectations, and no timelines to stick to. The water here oscillates between a much milder green and gets progressively bluer as one nears the sea-face. Technically, it is the last habitable strip of land where the lake and the sea run parallel to each other, before merging somewhere down the line. Why is this worth a visit? Simply for the ride, and the stark difference one sees in the two waters just 50 meters away from each other, and separated by a thin strip of sand; the sea is a clear bright blue and lashes out in waves, while the lake is calmer, a tinge of green and has zero visibility. Even the air smells different, so does the sun feel different on your skin, it feels as if the haze surrounding the lake mysteriously drifts away on the other side of the island. Incredible! Now if only we could do the entire lake at one stretch from the beginning to the sea-face, that would be something. And if only I could get a decent snap of the dolphin. If only I could do this more often. If only I had better company than AP; Chilka looked and felt much purer than some of my snaps would suggest, and we are better off leaving it alone. Nature is capable of a lot more self-regulation than we can ever imagine.
Watch this brilliant film on Chilka by Shekar Dattatri.
Watch this brilliant film on Chilka by Shekar Dattatri.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man. Richly deserving its place as a World heritage site, the magnificent Sun temple (also known as the black Pagoda owing to the color of the stone) is an architectural marvel; immense, majestic and awe-inspiring. Imagining the Sun god being carried on a giant chariot with 12 pairs of gigantic wheels, and pulled by seven horses in 13C A.D is one thing; designing it and giving it form out of stone is quite another. No wonder the temple draws such a large number of tourists.
First discovered and sketched in 1832 and fully excavated in 1906, a large part of the original structure, including the main spire, kitchen, dancing hall have been destroyed, and the main entrance was walled up in 1910, presumably to protect it from the very crowds it draws today. What is left is the unbelievably huge and elevated main structure with all the wheels and part of the horses intact, along with several thousands of dancing structures, murals and gargoyles, all of which seem to be almost alive. The sheer delight and humbleness one feels here needs to be experienced to be believed.
The main temple is surrounded by several shrines on all sides, each with its unique story and mesmerizing carvings, with a huge “natyamandir” facing the main structure, whose walls exhibit carvings of such complexity that after some time, I had to give up trying to photograph them, it is such a futile exercise; the mind too selectively remembers the salient features, especially the huge chariot wheels and the colossal main entrance. How in the 13C A.D did the artisans conceive and construct those wheels, whose inner carvings even today function as sun-dials is beyond belief. ASI is doing a wonderful job renovating the weaker parts of the structure step-by-step, and several artifacts recovered in the temple and other historical sites in Orissa are displayed in the nearby museum, which sadly receives no visitors. We could have spent a couple of generations admiring the temple and still discover something new every day, the feeling one takes away is “just not enough time”.
Konark lies on the sea, about 35 kms away from Puri and 60kms from Bhubaneswar. The road from Puri passes through a wildlife reserve, about 2kms inland from the sea for about 20kms, till a fork in the road gets the sea into view, with an unbroken beautiful white beach running parallel to the road till one reaches Chandrabhaga beach, where the International Sand festival is held every December About 30 artists, several from overseas, set-up stalls on one side of the beach, and conjure up beautiful images out of the sand, based on themes given to them over 5 days. Extremely innovative and imaginative, and a great way of attracting tourists, although the beautiful beach doesn’t need any dressing up; it gets extremely crowded between 3-5PM, with several groups of tourists descending here from as far away as Bhubaneswar. And why not, there is the sand art festival, the cool breeze, the beautiful beach and a great picnic spot. And to add one of the most beautiful sunrise and an almost equally glorious sunset in these parts of the world, provided the weather co-operates.
Konark has a lot of attractions; the Sun temple, the beach, the sand art festival and to add to these, the annual Konark dance festival. What it lacks though is decent accommodation and restaurants, except the “Panthanivas” run by the Govt. What we should have done is fix a base at Konark, do Puri as a day-trip, and leave enough spare time to attend the entire 5-day dance festival and the sand art festival. Poor advice and lack of planning are to blame.
The 5-day long annual Konark festival focuses on Indian classical dance forms, performed by some renowned artists and is held at the majestic open air auditorium adjoining the sun temple. The stage is brilliantly lit, the temple illumination filters through the winter mist, the music is splendid and the dance performances are mesmerizing. And all in the backdrop of one of the finest architectural structures in the world, heart-warming enough to dispel the chill December air, and captivating enough for us to squeeze in an extra evening here; only with great reluctance did we manage to pull away the second night. Pinto was non-puzzled, he in fact asked us why we were wasting time on “song and dance” in a ramshackle town! And for the first and only time over the 12 days and 2,200 kms through the state, we saw a few foreign tourists; perhaps only the true aficionados had turned up this year.
And now for the sour points. After going through all the lengths to organize a truly world-class dance festival, why would you invite irrelevant bureaucrats to inaugurate it? The musicians were ready, so were the artists and the crowd, braving the chilly air, and the chief guest decides to turn up a full 45 mins late. And then the absolute bore of an inauguration ceremony and lighting the traditional lamp by an assortment of characters, which takes another 30 mins. Only to have the "dignitaries" walk away in the middle of a performance. The crowd wildly cheered the performances and went absolutely quiet when the “guests” were invited on the stage, only the stooges clapped, says a lot about how important they were to the event! Why not invite some artists as chief-guests I wonder? Official patronage must be important!
Sunday, January 19, 2014
Shrieks and cries reverberate through the expectant air, creating waves of devotion that surge through the large front porch; a unified body of devotees who were hugging the dhwaj sthamb, as the purohit called it, (it is rumored to cure all ailments) fall over each other, while pushing towards the Vimana (sanctum sanctorum) where the Lord along with his siblings sits atop a throne supposedly made of pearls. The traditional bhog is placed at the Lord’s feet by the bevy of priests, and one catches a glimpse of the diety, he with large white eyes, black body, and surrounded by his siblings Balabhadra and Subhadra. The atmosphere is intense, there is chanting all around, and only the helping hand of the purohit-cum-guide we had hired for the darshan stops us from falling, surely to be crushed by the advancing crowd. It is madness and panic, but this Lord elicits such emotions.
Dedicated to the beloved avatar of Lord Vishnu and revered across the state by all castes and religions, Jagannath temple is among the “chaar dhaams” that every practicing hindu attempts to visit once in his lifetime. Built around 12C A.D and dedicated to Lord Jagannath, the temple has a maha-gopuram and is surrounded in four directions by imposing gates. The four-chambered temple complex, with several small shrines inside dedicated to Krishna, Sun-lord, Durga, Laxmi and several other versions of Krishna, is itself is surrounded by two huge walls; its 58m-high sikhara (spire) is topped by the flag and wheel of Vishnu. Guarded by two stone lions and a pillar crowned by the Garuda that once stood at the Sun Temple at Konark, the eastern entrance, or Lion Gate, is the passageway for the chariot procession of Rath Yatra. The other three gates are guarded by men on horseback, tigers and elephants. The inner-walls of the temple tell several tales, and are adorned with rich multi-colored paintings. Twenty-two huge steps welcome the visitors; the temple complex is vast enough to tire out those not driven by faith, and one of the largest kitchens in the world continuously feed the devotees. Death ceremonies for the loved ones are performed at the other end of the temple, with cremation at the “swarg-dwaar” a couple of kms away outside the complex and on the beach road, signifying the passage from this life to another.
Several myths and legends about the Lord exist; our purohit must have mentioned atleast ten such legends including the one in which the sea receded about a km on the Lord’s complaint that it disturbed his sleep, and the one in which the Lord’s idol is finally stolen, which heralds the end of “Kaliyug” and the literal destruction of the world. Interestingly, although Jagannath is considered an avatar of Vishnu or Krishna, he is not strictly speaking a Hindu lord. While there are associations and various sects, the Lord is worshiped by all religions and castes. (However, only practicing hindus by birth are allowed in the complex, while the rest have to make do with a version of the Lord). The world-famous “rath yatra” takes place once a year during “Ashada”, when the Lord travels 3 kms to “Gundicha temple” on huge chariots along the high street, which is easily the widest I have ever seen in the country; it has to support about 10 lakh devotees!
Puri revolves around the Lord, and is a flourishing “temple economy”, which supports the nondescript town, offering a fascinating glimpse of ancient religious India where kings built temples and supported an army of devotees and purohits, an ancient form of fiscal support. It is always crowded, people pour in through the year at all times, all the hotels, irrespective of class or quality are full, supporting both the army of priests who make a living out of religion, and the thousands of vendors who feed and clothe them. Puri is just 60 kms away from Bhubaneswar and it is a pleasant drive except the last 20 kms which are back-breaking and an insult to a state highway. The views are splendid, green and yellow rain-fed rice fields abound both sides of the highway, although coconut trees are conspicuous by their absence.
Puri has two roads in which the bevy of hotels are located; beach road which has the budget hotels and is crowded and narrow, and which Pinto wanted us to stay in, being more “convenient/approachable”. The other is the CT Road which is about 3-4 kms away from the temple, and is far away from the noise and the crowds. A few resorts are located here, but Samudra Puri is certainly not a “resort”. It is a 1980’s style old bungalow in dire need of a renovation, very few amenities, and exorbitantly priced; the only relative advantage I could justify is the amazingly clean beach right at the back, with easy access and absolutely zero crowds.
The sun sets in these parts around 430 PM in winter and by 515 PM, it is pitch dark. And the beach road mysteriously transforms into a huge array of stalls, hawking anything from eateries, clothes, local artifacts, handbags and other items; the whole array of tourists descend here by 6 PM and the mood is cheerful and lively. A bit of activity and a small crowd of “experienced tourists” on a part of the beach drew our attention, and what followed was one of the most spiritual experiences yours truly ever witnessed.
Between 615-630 PM, a group of young priests arrange their articles of worship, along with a pedestal and a large aarti on the beach. For the next 45 mins, continuous chanting of religious hyms, prayers and offerings to the sea follows, with the crowds surging and chanting along. The most fascinating of this exercise was the part where the sea seems to accept the offering, and surges towards the crowd and the pedestal, completely surrounding the aarti and priests, except for a small piece of sand around the pedestal. Completely inexplicable is the fact that the rest of the beach is fully dry and the sea is a few metres away. The priests seem totally oblivious to the crowd and the crowd to the rising water, and still the chanting continues, as the crowd keeps moving towards and away from the aarti offered by the priests, as if practiced and in unison. The entire prayer ceremony is truly spectacular, and is mystical, soul-lifting and illuminating. If there is a god and faith is as powerful as it is made out to be, it is here.
Friday, January 10, 2014
Orissa Archives: Part.2: The Cultural circuit and the three religions - Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism
The capital Bhubaneswar has such a large no. of temples in such close vicinity that it is called “temple town of India”. And it is here we landed one misty morning from Bangalore, expecting fierce winds and terrible rain, it being the season for cyclones and worried about the after-effects of Phailin; we were pleasantly surprised – both by the immaculate planning and cleanliness of the city, as well as the perfect blue skies and ideal weather. Bhubaneswar can be broadly divided in to two zones, the temple zone and the residential zone. The residential zone is dotted with broad roads all the way to Cuttack, and almost all the decent hotels lie on one single road leading from the airport, so do most of the educational institutions and office blocks. The administrative part of the capital particularly stands out for the well-laid out elegant structures, plenty of greenery and clean straight lines, and are worth a brisk walk late afternoons. It is to the temple zone that we headed, with our driver “Pinto” lamenting “too many, takes too much time”.
One of the most revered Shaivite site, and where the deity “Tribhubaneswar” lends his name to the capital, the temple precinct itself is dotted with more than 100 other small shrines. It is an elaborate and well-spread out complex, with multi-layered and intricately carved walls, built over multiple historical periods and styles, which is clearly evident from the differing constructions. Surprisingly, while the exterior of the 180 feet high gopuram and the walls are richly carved, the interiors are extremely sparse and almost bare. The most striking feature though, are the conical pillar constructions, with each era slightly different from the earlier, lending the temple a dated view. However, as with all famous temples, it is extremely crowded, very commercial, and extremely biased (no non-hindu is allowed inside, and the temple priests who we spoke to while waiting for the darshan were extremely proud that one former prime minister, having married a non-hindu was denied entry; they were also specific that cameras and mobiles dilute the essence of the lord!). It is albeit very strange that an agnostic and an atheist are allowed in a religious sanctuary by the single virtue of being born in to the religion. While one can wander around from one shrine to another within the complex, with the accompanying demands of “dakshina” serving to empty your wallet, to get a sense of the scale, one has to climb on to an elevated gallery behind the temple, struggling past touts and creeps trying to extract money. The temple is magnificent, built between the 11-13C A.D and the view from the gallery is perhaps the best, also the fact that one can take photographs only from here and nowhere in the vicinity of the temple makes this worth spending some time here.
I am positive I will never come across a more aptly named temple. All one sees around the beautifully laid out lawns are the modern and young “raja-rani”, and a lot of PDA; surprisingly, no tourists, absolutely none the one hour we were here. It is not as large as Lingaraj, and the absence of a presiding deity must have something to do with the minimal crowds; sometimes I believe it is better that way. Structurally older than the Lingaraj temple, being a single structure allows it to be far more intricate and ornate, with the smaller mini-gopurams around the main structure exceptionally charming. The carvings of the gargoyles, and beautiful clean rock-cuts reminded me of Khajuraho rather than Orissa, maybe they share a common history. The style and arrangement though is similar to Lingaraj temple, and with the added advantage of being allowed to carry my camera and absence of crowds, my personal preferences are clear. Pay your obeisance to the Lord at Lingaraj if you are religious, and spend some quality time here admiring the Orissa temple architecture and its evolution, which is so starkly visible in the next couple of temples a short walk away, that I would recommend doing the three temples in the reverse order.
The smallest and the earliest of the temples in the capital, Mukteswar belongs sometime to the 9-10C AD, and thus acts as an evolutionary bridge between the ancient structures and the latter temple complexes such as the Lingaraj. It is extremely concise, but has two unique features: an arched gateway outside the temple, and a carved ceiling, both missing in the other two. A small walk away from here is the even more ancient and smaller Parasurama temple, which supposedly belongs to the 7C AD. A small garbhagudi surrounded by a quadrilateral, with the temple walls as intricately carved as the other three, and a “lingam” on one side. ASI is missing a trick here by not having a description of the history of evolution of temple architecture in the capital; clearly we went in the wrong direction – starting with the largest and the most popular and ending with the most ancient and most neglected. But isn’t that the way the world is – some temples and by extension, some people get a disproportionately large share of fame and popularity, whereas other ancient and maybe, as important ones, lie in splendid isolation? And all hinging on the presence or lack of a deity! One cannot argue with matters of faith.
The Jain caves of Khandagiri & Udaygiri
The next day, we headed ten kms away from the capital, where lie the 1C B.C rock-cut Jain caves of Khandagiri and Udaygiri, twin hills offering not only a glimpse of the ancient Jain way of life, with multiple stories depicted on the walls of these caves, but also panoramic views of the city of Bhubaneswar and the fields surrounding Dhauli hills. The caves themselves are sparse; they were meant to be living quarters of Jain followers, but the walls of these caves are adorned with mythological stories and murals, which a good guide would be able to turn in to a story. But seriously, chuck the guides, they rush you from one structure to another and keep talking, distracting one from the pleasure of discovery. The most important specimen here is the famous “Hathigumpha” inscription which dates the earliest of the caves to 1C B.C, with continuous improvements till 10C A.D. Brilliant use of naturally available sandstone and rich wall carvings, along with their heritage make these Jain caves a visual treat. Unfortunately, both the locals and tourists treat this more as a picnic spot rather than respect them for the historical artifacts they are; be prepared for large crowds of families munching away and littering, and plenty of irritations and people posing and making an absolute fool of themselves; I have always wondered what purpose do humans serve when set against natural wonders, in spite of reminders from my family that they couldn't find a single picture of me in 10 years of my travel. I don't see the point of wasting frames on the living, when the dead have left behind so many tales, AP nods in agreement.
The Buddhist shrines of Dhauli/Lalitgiri/Ratnagiri/Udayagiri
Shrine is a misnomer, but historical edifices they are; and much to the horror of Pinto, who in his 20 years as a driver in Orissa, had always passed through, but had never actually been asked to drive any human form to any of these except Dhauli, we dedicated almost an entire day to the Buddhist circuit on our way back from Chandipur. Buddhism took root in these areas post Asoka’s dramatic conversion around 250-260C B.C post the Kalinga war.
Dhauli is the most famous and well-known of these landmarks, the fields on the bank of river Daya being the site of the infamous Kalinga war. From the top of the hill, the fields are clearly visible, the river still snakes through the area, a mute spectator to probably the bloodiest war in India after the Mahabharata. Dhauli also houses, at its foot, one of the most important relics of Asoka, his edicts engraved on a mass of rock (which is now safely stored away behind a glass enclosure, much needed knowing how poorly we treat our history), and the rock-cut elephant above the edict which is apparently one of the earliest specimens of Buddhism in Orissa. But once again, there were no people around. On the other hand, the Japanese inspired white-washed Stupa built at the top of Dhauli hill in 1973, almost 2500 yrs later than the edicts, receives plenty of “religious” visitors. Important and serene it may very well be, but how any sane being can ascribe more importance to it than the edicts defies logic!
Enroute between Chandipur and Bhubaneswar, with a 30kms detour through Kendrapada lie some of the oldest Buddhist establishments in the world. The largest, most significant and the oldest dating back to between 1C B.C to 1C A.D is the archaeological remains of Lalitgiri. A mahastupa, several prayer monasteries, a huge main temple, an extensively long stairway, and a unique lotus holding Lokeswara give it the look and feel of an important Buddhist settlement. A major part of these archaeological remains have been excavated, and several important forms of Lord Buddha have been discovered here. The mahastupa is a singular circular structure on top of the highest of these hills, and served as an important site of prayer in ancient times.
Udayagiri is another vantage point; it is smaller, much better protected on three sides by steep hills, and belongs to a much later period between 11-12C A.D. Suggestions that it was an important site among the later ages emanate from the many forms of Buddha cut in to the walls of the large brick monastery. In addition, a large number of seated Buddha statues have been discovered from the surrounding areas, and I suspect more lie hidden among the hills. Ratnagiri hill range also houses a similar large monastery and significant archaeological finds of similar ancestry.
This trinity of shrines remains one of the most ancient and extensive discoveries belonging to the earliest spread of Buddhism in the country; sadly, Pinto who had driven through these areas plethora of times across two decades, and who is very knowledgeable regarding the tourist circuit in Orissa, professed his absolute ignorance, with a query “why are they important when there is no God here?” I rest my case.
If one plans it well, this religious circuit consisting of Hindu temples in and around Bhubaneswar, Jain caves and the Buddhist shrines can be covered in three days flat, as they ideally should be, with the Hindu temples taking a day, Dhauli and Jain caves the second, and the Buddhist shrines, being the most far sprung from Bhubaneswar the third day. The capital is an ideal base for all three, with maybe a visit to Cuttack one afternoon covering Barabati stadium (which in no way resembles a stadium which has hosted international cricket) and topped off by the inspiring Bose museum. The approach to the museum is through some incredibly narrow lanes through the old town, and only the truly deranged tourist (like AP and me) reaches here without losing heart and a sense of direction, in that order. But the museum is absolutely worth a visit; one can argue with the depiction of history, but not the historical significance or the awe-inspiring story of the first great revolutionary in Indian history. If only Bose had been successful in his conquest, maybe the history of the nation would have been told differently.
Saturday, January 4, 2014
The most frequently asked questions were “Odisha? Why? Couldn’t you find anything else?” and “How will you spend 12 days there?” Obviously there was Puri and Konark, and the beaches, but friends begged me to choose Thailand/Malaysia or even Goa if I wanted beaches. Others pointed out Cambodia for religion and exotic water-locales. Some pointed out closer home to Tamilnadu for culture and temples. Finally, a “good-friend” had the gall to predict I would be stuck down with dengue in the forests, or drown in the next cyclone if I dared. Well, I am back well and alive, albeit with a bad throat and a sticky 3-shade tan; courtesy of two Abhijit’s, one a banker from Baleswar with a passion for travel, has enormous patience and did all the planning and most of the organizing; and the other who is both brave and naive enough to risk traveling with me through several of my impulses. And all those “advice” was well-meaning, yet so wildly off the mark! the well-heeled and well-traveled Indian seems to be able to locate Phuket on the map far easily than say, Konark or Chandipur, two of the most stunning and under-appreciated locales in India. It is both a shame as well as a relief.
“Scenic, Serene, Sublime” is the official tagline for Orissa. One could add a couple more “Ancient, Diverse, Rich”.
It is ancient with a long-dated history, probably among the earliest yet discovered in the Indian subcontinent. Apparently civilization flourished here as far back as the Paleolithic age; cultural remains supposed to be more than 70,000 years old have been discovered in the interiors of the state, with tools dating to the same period found in several districts in modern Odisha. Human skeletons, dating back to 2000 B.C and belonging to the early Copper age, have been discovered near Puri and Bhubaneswar, throwing light on the existence of early farming communities and their settlements along the coast. Buddhism spread across the country, led by Asoka and his dramatic conversion sometime around the 260 B.C. The Kalinga empire has references in religious scriptures such as the Mahabharata, while mentions by Ptolemy and some Greco-Roman writers speak of a thriving coastal capital, the most prominent of which is by Megasthenes, around 300 B.C.
The diversity in nature, both flora and fauna is enchanting. On one side you have the almost silent natural wonder of the Chandipur beach. Is it the sea that vanishes or the beach? Either way, it is one of the most surreal experiences one can ever have, along with other beautiful beach towns such as Konark, Puri and Gopalpur. Then there are the two national reserves, Bhitarkanika marine reserve and the densely wooded Simlipal national reserve, along with Chilka, Asia’s largest brackish lake and a fascinating marine ecosystem. To this one can add the quartet of wondrous species, the secretive irrawady river water dolphins, the largest saltwater crocodiles in India at Bhitarkanika, the world-famous Olive Ridley turtles at Gahirmatha, and the Royal Bengal tiger at Simlipal.
And then comes the rich cultural heritage; one of the earliest Buddhist settlements at Udayagiri, Ratnagiri and Lalitgiri, the famed Jain rock structures at Khandagiri and Udaygiri, the notorious river plains surrounding Dhauli hills, the temple town of Bhubaneswar, the majestic Sun temple at Konark, the sacred Jagannath temple at Puri, and these are just the well-known. Orissa has a bit for everyone: for the wild-life enthusiast, for the religious minded, for the beach addict, for the history junkie. Luckily, what it doesn't have, yet, are the crowds and hippies on the beach except the numerous Bengalis (but they are everywhere!), no five-star hotels except maybe in Bhubaneswar and Puri, which means very few places where you get swindled with high prices and low quality. In general, people are simple, helpful and courteous. Food is excellent and value-for-money, although one has to adjust to eating rice all the way. All of which made for a fascinating week-and-half along the length and a bit of the breadth of the state, and if one were to bear with me for gloating, a 2,200 km drive. A warning though; leave your biases behind. The best discoveries in life are accidental, and work their magic when one has an open mind. Odisha has a lot to offer, but it cannot be categorized, nor cliched. It is not your average tourist circuit, and may it never turn in to one...
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Just 3cr tax-payers in a population of 100cr of which the working population is estimated to be at least 50%. An incredible statistic!
Top 10 temples in the country hold an “estimated” USD 60Bn in gold and other precious metals, with the largest accounting for USD 22Bn; enough to almost wipe out this year’s current account deficit, and generate a recurring annual income of USD 3Bn.
A greater proportion of an average Indian household net worth is in gold and property; most of it unaccounted. By a large consensus, we have a parallel economy at least as large as the reported. And a majority of our transactions are in cash.
Are we really a “poor” country? Numbers don't lie, but they at least need to be representative of the sample.
Monday, October 14, 2013
The size of this city I do not write here, because it cannot all be seen from any one spot, but I climbed a hill whence I could see a great part of it; I could not see it all because it lies between several ranges of hills. What I saw from thence seemed to me as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight; there are many groves of trees within it, in the gardens of the houses, and many conduits of water which flow into the midst of it, and in places there are lakes; and the king has close to his palace a palm-grove and other rich-bearing fruit-trees. This is the best provided city in the world, and is stocked with provisions such as rice, wheat, grains, Indian-corn, and a certain amount of barley and beans, pulses, horse-gram, and many other seeds which grow in this country which are the food of the people, and there is large store of these and very cheap - Domingo Paes’ who visited Hampi at its zenith in 1520.
UNESCO declared Hampi a World heritage site in 1986 – “As the final capital of the last of the great kingdom of South India, Hampi, enriched by the cotton and the spice trade was one of the most beautiful cities of the medieval world”. One of the world’s largest discovered archaeological spread till date, it has, at last count, over 500 monuments spread over 26 sq. km. Yours truly and AP drove/walked around most of it over two days, and came away with the feeling we missed a lot more than we saw. As futile an exercise as it was, it was far comprehensive than my first visit seven years ago, when a nagging girlfriend, who was more worried about her “beauty” than the natural, and a complete lack of preparation, left me convinced that I had seen the whole of the ruins in just three hours; neither the relationship nor the memories survived. And a couple of 20-yr old Brits we bumped into this time swore that after two whole months, they still couldn't get their minds around the scale of the ruins.
One can try and imagine, but seeing is believing. What one sees is the overflowing Tungabhadra (it had been the wettest monsoon in the last 20 years, and the heaviest the river had ever been for a long time, said the locals) snaking away in to the horizon, with the ruins next to it, surrounded by low-lying, yet far flung hills on the other three sides; the enormous boulders that mark the landscape ensure two basic needs for a flourishing capital are met – access to water, and adequate security from invaders.
The swiftness with which Hampi rose and fell from grace make it sound almost like a mirage. It starts as a myth, with references to Ramayana, where the area is known as Kishkinda, whose rulers helped Lord Ram build the bridge to SriLanka. In 1336, Harihara and Bukka founded the Vijayanagara dynasty, with Hampi as their capital, which over the next couple of centuries grew into one of the largest Hindu empires in history. By the 16th century, the greater metropolitan region of Vijayanagara, surrounded by seven lines of fortification, supposedly covered 650 sq. km and had a population of about 500,000. All this grandeur came to a sudden end in 1565 when the city was defeated and ransacked by a coalition of Deccan sultanates, after which Hampi went into a terminal decline. What are left are remnants which offer a glimpse in to what was truly one of the largest cities in the world at its peak; the ruins are well-preserved, far-flung and well-protected – probably why the invaders couldn't destroy them all, although there surely are signs they tried.
Independence day is of special significance to me; it so happens that invariably, I end up in one of these historical locations. Coorg, Jaipur and now Hampi, three of the last six years. We started on 15th Aug early morning, reached NH4, almost emptying our wallets on tolls (there is easily one every 50 kms) and continued till Chitradurga junction, where the very fork where I once almost killed a guy 4 years ago beckoned. 220 kms of excellent 6-lane highway and 4 hours of blissful driving, with a 30 min break for breakfast.
The road changes character here, and turns in to a 2-lane bumpy track till one nears Hospet; still very much drivable, although lack of a divider makes over-taking hazardous, especially with it being a heavy trucking route. The surroundings also turn much greener and pleasant, with low lying hills giving one the feeling of gradually rolling up and down. 100 kms and 2 hrs well spent admiring the scenery on a cloudy and windy day, and listening to Asha singing “tururutu, tururutu”. Oh what a genius RD was!
The nightmare begins 20 kms from Hospet, and it is mystifying why after 320 kms of excellent roads, someone felt the need to remind passers-by we were still in India. Hospet is a major industrial junction and one would assume roads would be better leading in to it! There are potholes and dirt tracks, and the road at times makes an appearance, as if to put the driver out of his misery, only to disappear shortly. This continues till one reaches the rim of the TB dam, where ongoing construction (I was later told it was a round-about for the existing road) and steep inclines, more than make up for the joy of seeing a dam bursting at its seams, at times the water threatening to rush through its meager banks. And one steep incline and a turn, and you find yourself at the heart of Hospet. It was pouring, and had been so the whole month apparently, roads were slush, traffic was terrible, we were hungry and tired, and only AP’s new Ipad managed to identify the roads from the canals and the ditches. But what it did was lead us to Hotel Hampi International, where we were to set-up camp for the next 3 days. (AP blogs here http://abhijitparkhe.wordpress.com/)
For the price of INR 1,800 for a double room, it is not exactly cheap; but the location is ideal for those visiting Hampi, it has car-parking, clean rooms and an excellent reception. Stay here, but find another place to eat, unless you have a family and no choice. Food is ordinary, service is not too great, and in general, not worth the money you end up shelling out, except for the breakfast which is a decent spread, if you can make it down early enough to the restaurant.The rest of the day was spent recovering from the long drive and praying to the rain gods to relent.
The City and other relics
A little bit of preparation would have helped –to understand the structure of the old city and to better appreciate its enormity. We relied on guide maps, my old but trusty car, and a lot of walking. About 15 kms a day. And that helped in appreciating how immense a metropolis Hampi must have been in yore. What we know now is that the city can be broadly divided in to five large units, of which we managed to do justice to four. My guess though, is that we had just scraped the tip, we ended up discovering more temples and structures than the map contained, and these were the ones that ASI maintains; we must have walked past far more that are neither named nor maintained. And I am sure, just as I was in Anuradhapura in SriLanka, that there is much more that is waiting to be discovered, under the grounds, or hidden away by those enormous boulders that stretch for miles and miles. The five units are:
- Temple City: The religious area, where the most famous temples and other religious structures are located, with the Tungabhadra forming the natural barrier to the north. It starts with the Krishna temple, Ganesh temple and the second most-famous Virupaksha temple, with its giant walk-ways and the enormous bazaars. The coupe-de-resistance though is the Vittala temple complex, with the stone chariot and the mystical musical pillars. As usual, one needs to suffer before reaching the lord. A rocky path that winds through relics of several temple complexes, parallel to the river threatens to hurt knees and ego alike. One would be forgiven for believing that was all Hampi was – such a magnificent view leaves one mesmerized and awe-struck. It is an excruciatingly long and tough walk – but worth every blister on your feet. We started at 9, and sometime between 11 and 12, I gave up trying to do justice to the snaps, there are so many and so diverse that it is humanely impossible to describe, and even more to capture through an artificial lens. A day is too little, a lifetime may probably suffice!
2. Kamalapura: A suburb located just outside Hampi, and accessible through a winding road past the Kamalapura lake, and then a narrow broken road, about 10 kms away from Hampi. There are a number of interesting monuments like the Pattabhirama temple, which is as large and brilliant as any of the Hampi temples except the well-known, but far lesser frequented by tourists, being off the circuit. We landed here the second day morning at 9 AM and we were the only two around. Also close-by is the beautiful bathing ghats and the domed gateway, which by appearance, looked to be some sort of a gateway between Hampi and Kamalapura, sadly, ill-maintained and with absolutely no records of any sort. Again, the area must extend all the way to the religious city, which is what the gateway suggested, but the path was blocked by imposing boulders. The highlight of the day though, was the Archaeological museum, which we had no intention of visiting and stumbled upon as we drove through the ramshackle town. Such a beautifully instructive little place, and so well-documented. I would go as far as to suggest that one makes a trip here first, and then to the rest. The birds-eye view one gets about Hampi and its history, and the spread of the metropolis, would surely help planning. Such a shame the museum is located not in the main city but here. An engrossing first half well-spent in Kamalapura.
3. The Citadel: The area dominated by the Royal Center and military structures, the nerve-center and residence of the king, queen and other royals. It would be easy to imagine that due to its importance, this part of the town would be the most plundered – but it is in surprisingly good condition, and a little imagination is enough to understand the grandeur. The Citadel is easily accessible from Kamalapura and it is advisable to spend your time wisely, there are so many structures worth visiting that in the end, we had to skip about half of them just to ensure we covered the main attractions. The Royal center with the king’s seat is in itself worth a whole day. Incredibly huge and towers above the landscape. Then there are others such as the Hazara Rama temple, Queen’s bath, Lotus mahal and the Elephant stables, all of which are within a 5 km spread. Incredibly, behind the elephant stables which again, is the most visited landmark in this part of the town, just 100 yards away, are several small and neglected temples which we kept looking for some history, but found none; too many and too widely spread for anyone to bother about. It speaks volumes of how large the city must have been, that from the elephant stables to the far-away hills, which must be at least 10 kms away, the naked eye can see several dilapidated structures, including the small dome constructions on the hills, which are neither reachable nor do any records exist. Half a day spent driving and walking, it is an enchanting experience to drive through structures that are centuries old, and one can drive all the way up to the stables which is the end-point for this part of the town.
4. Islamic Area: The Islamic area, consisting of several tombs, mosques, gateways and other religious structures, built or modified post the fall of the Vijayanagara empire.The difference in the construction styles is stark and looks like two eras fused together, although it is easy to detect the original construction from the encroached. These quarters are in the middle of the Citadel; they neither add nor take away its magnificence, and are not as elaborately spread as the others. We passed through most of them and debated whether their history (even these are at least 300 yrs old) over-rides the fact that they were built over the original structures. On second thoughts, maybe we should have spent some more time here, but the long walk and wobbly knees corrupted even the iron will of two time-trusted enthusiasts.
5. Anegondi: We missed this entirely; one needs to cross the river and the presence of motorboats gave me no confidence, Tungabhadra was so angry that I was sure anything in her path would be swept away. I saw one motorboat struggling to cross the 40 m or so from one bank to the other, and was convinced it would capsize any minute. The Hanuman temple on the hilltop is visible from afar and it is an extremely popular site, local lore has it as either the birth-place or a favorite praying location of Hanuman, depending on who one speaks to, although I have, by now, been to several temples that claim to be so; neither were we able to piece as to whether Anegondi was pre or post the rise of Hampi. Another trip maybe.
The town of Hospet has precious little to see; or maybe we did not look enough. Either ways, it is like the Tiger who has tasted human blood. Once you have seen an entire city 800 years old, it is extremely difficult to respect anything modern. Hampi does that to you, so we had neither the interest nor the time to look at anything in Hospet town, except TB dam. It is absolutely full to the brim, there were waves lashing against the dam walls and sending sprays of water several feet in to the air – what a thrill. What it also is, is a huge tourist scam, which is disheartening.
We were directed to a parking lot at the bottom of the dam, and then found one can drive all the way up and even on the dam. Imagine raging water on one side and fully open dam gates on the other, and you driving between them. This is no way to scam visitors, and I would have willingly paid any amount of money just for the experience, rather than the pittance of INR 20 that the scamsters extracted from me, maybe the Govt. should put up huge noticeboards at the parking lot, and start charging tickets to drive through; at least one would know it is possible. May those jerks who deprived me of this opportunity suffer the most unmentionable agony. That though, takes nothing away from the beautiful views from the top of the dam site which rounded off a wonderful trip. Hampi stays with you, and the images get imprinted in your memory. The past is always more beautiful than the future, and hopefully, ASI and other conservation authorities will ensure it stays that way. Our “Rome”has survived wars, plunderers and countless natural elements; it is too precious to lose now!
And for the academic-minded, here is what renowned architect-academic George Michell presented on Hampi, during a session at this year's Jaipur Literature festival.
And for the academic-minded, here is what renowned architect-academic George Michell presented on Hampi, during a session at this year's Jaipur Literature festival.
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Don’t take my word for it; Time rated Radhanagar or the strangely numbered Beach 7 “the best beach in Asia” in 2004. All such rankings tend to be biased, and my “best” could be starkly different from yours, but this bit is actually true.
The first time I heard of Havelock was in 2006 from a well-to-do friend who had spent a week there – something about an eco-friendly resort where one could swim with elephants and lounge on pristine white beaches with no one in sight for miles. He said it reminded him, both literally and in spirit, of the Agatha Christie novel “And then there were none”.
The consensus while me/AP were planning for Andaman was this: Havelock had choices ranging from the ultra-budget conscious to super-luxury, and while the latter was easy to manage, the former would be notoriously difficult. And we were told getting to Havelock would be an even bigger challenge, considering that there were limited Govt. ferries from Port Blair, which were usually over-crowded and pre-booked. We had two choices: ignore well-meaning advice from strangers on travel forums – which is what we tend to do most of the time – or pre-book a budget accommodation/ferry tickets. We did the latter, well out-of-character for both of us. After a lot of online scouting during which I must have written/called about 15 resorts suggested by “forum experts”, we found one that bothered to reply with astounding urgency, i.e., the same day – Emerald Gecko. The name sounded interesting enough, the pictures of the resort looked good, so that was that. And Makruzz provided the escape route to ferry tickets, albeit at a steep hike. But that is the price one is willing to pay for peace of mind. Old age must have crept up, surely.
On a nice sunny day, we landed up at Phoenix Bay Jetty (referred to as Phoenix by localites), only to be told one has to board a private bus to get in. You see, the jetty is also used by the navy, so security is tight. And Makruzz, being a relatively new concern has decided to go the whole hog and adopt the airline concept to a ferry. All well-meaning I agree, but this means you get there an hour in advance, wait in a long queue for boarding passes, then a bit more to get in the ferry, search for your seat, secure your luggage and then finally hope you are not next to a protective mother with a wailing kid! Or a bunch of lovely dovey honeymooners, of which there were tons of them in the queue. We were lucky though, the ferry is amazingly well-maintained, there is a small café which serves some basic snacks, they even do a 10-min safety orientation before the ferry starts, and we got the corner seats. I like it, it is worth the money for a 2 hr leisurely ride. The ferry goes along the shore for about half an hour and then crosses in to the open sea, where it can get a bit rocky at times for about an hour, till it reaches the cute jetty of Havelock.
It gets mightily interesting now. Everyone is in a mad rush to run out, just as on a flight. This is surely an Indian cultural phenomenon. There were several foreigners on the ferry, who were happy to wait patiently. If you have taken a 2 hr ferry to reach a supposedly exotic island, you can surely wait 10 mins more? But not so, the newly-weds are the first to dash to the exit, followed by the family groups, then follow the guide-led excursion parties, and then come the losers like us and the foreigners, who can barely understand the fuss. It doesn't stop here. 200 cameras are suddenly flashing on the deck, people are awkwardly posing, kids are running around, grandmothers are breathless with excitement. You can imagine the mayhem.
And wading through this, we were confronted with a crowd of autos, with one holding my name on a banner. A 15 min rickety drive and we were at “Emerald Gecko”. (http://emerald-gecko.com/). And Manoj, the estate manager, regarded us with a crooked eye when he said we were the only “non-couple” pair around!
It is a fairly spacious budget resort off Beach No.5, about 10 kms from Havelock jetty, 10 m off the road. The cabanas are about 10 m from the beach, a bit too closely spaced for comfort maybe, but we didn't mind. Anyone who has traveled wide and far would tell you the two basic needs of a budget traveler. Clean bed and a hot bath. The cottage is well maintained, the attached bathroom (there are huts with a shared bathroom, they come a lot cheaper) is clean, and at INR 1500 a day, it is a decent choice. One has a choice of hut/cottage/one storied cottage with a view at various distances from the beach, all located around a central bistro. People tend to overpay and fantasize about staying on the beach, when one can get there in a couple of minutes, to me, it seems a mere technicality whether you stay on it or off it. But the honeymooners were furiously arguing over who got the cabin nearest to the beach, which had the best view, and so on. Couples need something to talk I suppose. And one of them turned out to be a colleague from the same company and campus, who also knew a couple of people i work with. Yeah, you travel 1300 kms to get away from work and you run in to someone who wants to discuss pitfalls of being in your organization. We IT crowd are everywhere, must do something about that!
The bistro is named “Blackbeard” and has some amazing selections of sea-food and Italian, albeit a bit on the expensive side. The breakfast spread is sumptuous, and the main courses for lunch/dinner are about 10 varieties of sea-food, almost Bengali style but without the overpowering spices, vegetarians have some limited choices though, and the desserts are a treat. Truly value for money. We hardly found the need to search around in the three days we spent here, the restaurant is located a few metres away from the beach and is clearly the chief attraction, we must have spent more time reading in the bistro than in our cabin. Free tender coconuts to boot, although one has to exercise one’s shoulders. Not to climb, but to chop. Worth the effort.
The beach must be a she. It is beautifully white, almost golden yellow at sunset, and is a clear 2 kms stretch, and is wonderfully inviting at first sight. I went for a jog one early morning and took some amazing snaps of one of the earliest sunrises in the country. 5:22 AM said my watch. It was so serene that you wouldn't want to share it with any of the other resorts that dot the road.
And then it turned character. We were immersed in our books, I was lost in “1984” and the machinations of big brother, when I noticed with a start it was low-tide. And the sea had gone back almost 100 m to reveal the true nature of the beach. It was extremely rocky, and at low-tide, one can walk in almost 200 m in to the sea. Which is exactly what yours truly did, while the rest lounged on hammocks and frolicked in the water. And found out that one need not be a swimmer to observe marine life, it was crawling all around my feet and across the sensational corals that jut out like rocks. Sun on my back, a stomach full of barracuda, women in strings all around, the memory of a book, some irresistible photographs, and walking in the sea so far away that I couldn't make out the shore in the burning sun. Getting a tan is one of the obvious benefits here.
That afternoon, we hired an auto to Radhanagar. Beach No.7 (and I still can’t connect the logic, must have had something to do with the British) is about 20 kms away from Beach.5 and takes a narrow twisty single lane road through some wild growth and pretty villages and fields. We should have hired a bike! And discovered why “Time” was captivated enough to rate it so highly.
This is picture perfect. The beach is sheltered by jutting low hills on both sides, which ensures waters all along the 2 kms stretch are calm. The contrasts are mystifying. The water is emerald green, the hills are brown and at times chalk, the forests on the shore are blazingly green, and at 430 PM, the suns blasts rays of red on the water. Divine. I have been to several beach paradises around South Asia. This beats them hollow. And wondered why anyone would travel all the way to Phuket (which is a straight line across the ocean as the crow flies) or any of the overseas beaches when you can be here? Well, that is why it is India’s best kept secret, I concur. It must have been far more pristine when TIME was here in 2004.
With fame comes the crowd! And crowded it was, but that is the price we pay for our “discoveries”. Luckily, we Indians tend to leave our filthy habits behind when we travel, we flout all rules at home but when we travel, we are as disciplined as they come, why is that? Radhanagar is all spic and span. The downside is that finding a good camera angle without the crowd is a challenge. But I have come across very few “must-see’s” that actually live up to their reputation. This is one of the special ones! The man in the safari suit agreed, so did the woman in a Kancheepuram sari. Seriously, safari suit in 2012, and on a beach? No wonder Indians are caricatured when we travel! And kids with Gandhi topis?
The couple of days following this were spent lazing on the beach at the Gecko and in the bistro, reading, walking around the resort, exhausting the memory card in the camera, and a lot of ogling around. A mind at peace and a full stomach. Exactly what two mid-thirty IT professionals in non-IT roles sought when they stepped out on a much needed vacation. And discovered it in a tiny speck 1300 kms away from the mainland.
This is “If” by “Bread”. I must take my guitar along…. A different context, yes, but the emotions are the same…
If a picture paints a thousand words Then why can't I paint you?
The words will never show, the you I've come to know
If a face could launch a thousand ships Then where am I to go?
There's no one home but you, you're all that's left me too
And when my love for life is running dry You come and pour yourself on me
If a man could be two places at one time I'd be with you
Tomorrow and today, beside you all the way
If the world should stop revolving spinning slowly down to die
I'd spend the end with you And when the world was through
Then one by one the stars would all go out
Then you and I would simply fly away