Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Minimalist travellers




From the pristine Northeast to the pampered by tourists South we saw the diverse and vivid colours of India! The last year was undeniably the best times in our life so far. The exquisite cultural experience, umpteen memorable moments, priceless friends - make the experience of our travel precious.

The trip began with charming Shillong - a very appealing welcome to the Northeast! Next was the romantic Bomdila and heavenly Tawang with generous locals. Fairytale Menchuka - this place is a fairytale with people precious like angels. Enthralling Sohra (aka Cherrapunjee) with tender and warm populace, mesmeric Mizoram with stunning people, the elegant Nagaland - Hornbill festival - with captivating men and women. Very confidently we can declare that exploring Northeast India was the only desire we ever had. Despite spending three months there, we feel places to be explored are plentiful. 

Jobless - Yes, we were not on sabbatical, had no job to come back to. The idea behind travelling was to experience different cultures, to figure out various possibilities of job. Today, we know which job interests us, what location pleases us. With so many friends all over India, surely we have a lot of job opportunities.


A few takeaways from our travel experience:
  • Time - it is a luxury, relish and enjoy while you have it. Money can't buy time, on the other hand time can buy you money. 
  • Nature - it has provided us more than it can, yet we are greedy for more. Care for nature in every step you take.
  • Health- take care of your health without excuses, 20min exercise everyday helps a lot, both mind and body.

As a philosophy of life, we follow 'Minimalism'; a tool used to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom. Read more:  http://www.theminimalists.com/minimalism/


Friday, September 20, 2013

Toy train and a birthday gift

(C) IRCTC

A birthday gift can't be better than this according to me - a ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway miniature train munching homemade chocolates, with my soul mate. We took the ride from Udaghamandalam (Ooty) to Mettupalayam. The train runs on diesel engine from Ooty to Conoor and changes to steam engine at Conoor. Not only the ride but the scenery too gets fascinating Conoor onwards. The chugging and puffing of the steam engine takes us a few years back, with the hot white puff of steam giving a fairytale effect. The huge mountains, numerous tunnels and the breath-taking bridges - increases the level of excitement and the adrenalin rush. Little past Conoor, we were lucky to spot a wild elephant running ahead of us on the track bewildered by the screeching horn of the train. It was surprising to see the steam engine run so fast, when it reached the plains. The ride is something to be experienced and not possible to express merely in words. The concept of Mountain Railways is flabbergasting!

It is easier to get the tickets for the downward journey (Ooty-Metupalaiyam) than upward (Metupalaiyam-Ooty). As the train takes the same route uphill and downhill it is not disappointing travelling downhill. Second seating costs you Rs.25, starting at 2:15pm and reaching Mettupalayam before 6pm.







Apart from Nilgiri Mountain Railway and homemade chocolates the reason to go to Ooty was to visit Keystone Foundation (www.keystone-foundation.org) in Kotagiri. In Ooty, Raja Lodge (0423-2443512, #5, Mannuvel pillai st, main bazar, near bus stand, opp railway station) is a good option with double rooms ranging from Rs.300-600, former with shared bathroom and the latter with private bathroom and water heater. While in Ooty, we were obliged, faute de mieux, to stroll through the Botanical Garden - very popular amongst Bollywood as well as south Indian movies for romantic song sequences. Thanks to the rains and low number of tourists, for proving the following sentence from Lonely Planet about the garden wrong - "Look out for a fossilised tree trunk believed to be around 20 million years old, and on busy days, roughly 20 million Indian tourists".


Kotagiri:
Nilgiris comprise of three popular hill stations - Ooty, Conoor and Kotagiri. Kotagiri being the oldest of the three stands at an elevation of 1800m amidst tea estates. The road to Kotagiri passes through one of the highest points in the locality of 2400m. Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri is an NGO working for betterment of the indigenous communities. The unique talent of few indigenous communities is honey collection. The organisation mainly focuses on honey collection and related products. They encourage indigenous people to collect honey the traditional way and keep a watch on ecological balance through experienced environmentalists. They market all products made my indigenous people and sell through the marketing label Lastforest. They have Green Shops that sells the products like honey, soap made out of bee wax, locally grown organic spices etc. These shops are to be found in Kotagiri and Ooty. They also run a Bee Museum in Ooty, which apart from having interesting facts about bee also showcases informative and educational movies (not commercial movies). The ride to Kotagiri from Ooty itself is interesting which takes a little more than an hour. Unlike Ooty, you will not be disturbed by touts or guides here and you can wander on your own in this clean town.

The pleasant weather and the welcoming people of Kotagiri made us stay in Kotagiri for a day instead of Ooty. Kotagiri enjoys a climatic advantage over Ooty in that it is protected by the Doddabetta mountain range from the onslaught of the south-west monsoon. Restaurant next door dishes up delicious Tamil Nadu style meals, but no dinner. Interestingly Kotagiri has got a lot of schools ranging from Government to International Boarding Schools. The main income of the place is from tea and agriculture, tourism has not picked up in this hill station of Nilgiris. Next morning we set off to Ooty to board the long awaited Nilgiri Mountain Railway miniature train. Stay at

Ramesh Vihar Hotel, HRM Buildings, Kamaraj Square (Tel : 04266 271346, dbl Rs 825), better than a few cheapies on the same road.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Vagamon - Laurie Baker's home

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 Did you know Laurie Baker lived at Vagamon before he moved to Thiruvananthapuram circa 1960? Well, it was a serendipity for us when we reached Asha Sadan at Kurisumala.

After the novelty of monsoon showers, it was not a very good idea to ride a motorcycle to Vagamon from Cherthala. There is a shorter route from Cherthala via Vechoor-Edayazham-Kallara-Kuruppunthara-Kuravilangad-Pala-Erattupetta to Vagamon taking around four hours  covering 100km by an old Yamaha RX100. Change gears after Erattupetta for winding, steep, war field like roads. The roads are preparing for a  complete 4lane conversion and many blasts tore open the mountains. Few sections of the road reminded us of the roads in Arunachal Pradesh.





Deluge of the monsoon season berained the valleys and mountains. At 982m altitude the three hills -  Thangalmala, Muruganmala and Kurishumala at Vagamon were wet and cold requiring some warm clothes. There are frequent KSRTC buses from Kottayam and Pala. A few private buses go to Kumily via Vagamon-Elappara. The old house of eco friendly master architect Laurie Baker was bought by a nature lover and he developed Asha Sadan (Tel: 98479914519, 8281723268, dbl Rs.800, www.econestashasadan.com), simple vegetarian meals are not overpriced and very tasty. You can choose from basic rooms, cottages and dormitory. Sagar, the manager claimed upto 250 people have stayed at once there including many Malayalam movie stars.  Strolling around a lovely campus of Asha Sadan watching the lush green slopes filled with a thick blanket of fog is sheer bliss. Kurishumala Ashramam is a short walk away.




Four kilometre away from Kurishumala, at the town centre restaurants and lodges greet the tourist. Love Land Home (Tel: 9961017379, dbl Rs.700) is run by Seban and his brother Joji offering rooms and cottages. They can arrange home cooked food. Their mother Mary Kutty runs a restaurant at central junction, Kurishumala.

Vagamon is frequented by college students and youngsters looking for a cool location to consume hot booze. Film making crew and honeymoon couples throng the meadows and tea estates for shooting. Pine Valley, Thangal Para, Kurishumala Ashramam, Kolahalamedu, Suicide Point and cattle unit are the places of interest for 'sight-seeing' tourist. 

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Travellers can take a ride to Elappara (15km, 1hr) or Elaveezhupoonchira (22km, 2hr) to soak in the complete experience of the Western ghats. We got soaked in the morning, literally, after a ride to Elappara through the bad roads among the hills shrouded in the mist. Elappara is a medium sized town with petrol pump and ATM thriving on tea estate economy. Two roads in opposite direction take you to Kuttikanam and Kattapana from here. If you are driving from Munnar to Thekkady stopping at Vagamon is a good option. Less touristy and more misty.

The traveler is active; he goes strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes 'sight-seeing'. - Daniel Boorstin

Friday, August 30, 2013

Wayanad- where the jungle meets resorts


Early morning view of Chembra Peak from Kalpetta Town
 
Wayanad still retains the innocence and culture of farmers. People & culture perspective, it may be the best place in Kerala. Women are safe in public and people respect each other. When asked a gentleman not to smoke in a public place, he obliged without any hesitation. Bus drivers and conductors helped us to reach our destinations. Mass tourism has not spoiled the economy and ecology. But climate has changed in the last decade owing to the rampant construction depleting the green cover.

Ernad express is a good bet for anyone on the coastal south Kerala to reach Wayanad. Starting at 2am from Nagercoil, this 'day' train reaches Calicut (Kozhikode) at 12.30 pm. We boarded from Cherthala at 7 am (216 km, 6 hrs, Rs.85). From Calicut railway station a short ride by private bus will take you to the 'puthiya' (new) bus stand, circumventing Mananchira square and pond. A 3hr ride from Calicut to Vythiri turns adventurous a little after Thamaraserry. Thamaraserry 'churam' (ghats road) is a very famous road known for hairpin bends and described in the Malayalam movie Vellanakalude Nadu by Kuthiravatham Pappu. Once you reach Vythiri, you see hoardings everywhere about resorts - green, silver, view - all of them sound the same.

Kalpetta is the district center and there is no place called Wayanad in Wayanad district. For a budget backpackers' accommodation Kannur Ayurveda Center, Emily Road, Kalpetta (tel: 9495260535, dbl Rs.600, http://www.ayurvedawayanad.com/) run by doctor couple Vinod and Jeeja. Excellent home made food will be served in your room Rs.60/meal. An hour long ayurveda massage Abhyangam costs Rs.700. The whole body is massaged with Dhanyatharam Kozhampu nourishes skin and provides quick relief from travel fatigue. 

Roaming around any part of Wayanad is possible from Kalpetta, as there are plenty of buses, except Tholpetty, Thirunelly and Pakshipatalam. It is better to stay at Mananthavady for these wildlife destinations.We did a trip to Pulpally taking a bus from Batheri (Rs.19, 1hr, 25km) via Chetalaya - where there is a temple dedicated to Seetha, Lava and Kusha. This is an interesting route amidst teak forest with a few tribal settlements at Irulam. 

We met Biju Joy's mother and brother at Marappanmoola, a short ride by bus from Pulpally Bus Stand. Panamaram is a low lying area in Wayanad which gets flooded during heavy rains die to its proximity to a tributary of Kabini River. Pallikannu church near Kambalakkadu is a favourite pilgrimage spot. We had a friend Biju George at Sarvodaya school, Echom teaching there. Both Biju Joy and Biju George studied with me at St.Xavier's college, Thumba.

Rain Soaked Tea Estates at Vythiri

Uravu Bamboo Heritage Centre  (http://www.uravu.net/) is 45 min from Kalpetta (Rs.12). Uravu promotes social enterprises based on value addition of local, natural resources, especially bamboo. This bus goes up to Mukkamkunnu, Meppadi is just 7km  through  tea estates and an interesting ride if you have own vehicle. Buses don't go beyond Mukkamkunnu. 

Blooms Green Farm:
Take a turn to Kenichira at Beenachi from NH212 between Batheri and Meenangadi. This route can lead to either Pulpally or Mananthavadi. Kenichira is a small town and Blooms Green Farm is 10min walk from the town, tucked away in lush greenery. It boasts an organic farm, a bunch of animals including ten dogs and a vast pond (www.bloomsgreenfarm.com, Tel: 999 555 3377, 999 555 7733). They also have budget accommodation starting from Rs.750 a little distance away and camping location at Makkiyad. Proprietor Jonh Joseph is a real estate developer and work with developing time-sharing villas with eco-tourism concepts. He organises an yearly shuttle badminton tournament in December. While unwinding yourself doing nothing, you can indulge in the delicious meals or go for an elephant ride within the organic farm.

A famous Kannada song "viraha nooru nooru taraha" from a well known director Puttana Kanagal is from the movie "Edakallu Guddada Mele" translates on top of edakkal hill. It was through this movie I came to know of Edakkal caves in Wayanad. I was looking forward to visit this place, as I'd heard a lot about it. Visiting the Edakkal cave gave me a sense of accomplishment, apart from meeting all my expectations I had. Soochippara, Pookot Lake, Banasura Dam, Pazhassi Tomb are a few other tourist attractions in different directions. Board buses from Kalpetta bus stand to reach any of these locations.


Green moss clad entrance at Pazhassi Tomb


There is a scenic route from Wayanad to Ooty via Gudalur. Most people will guide you to take a bus from Bathery, but there are TN buses from Calicut to Ooty. You can take a KSRTC bus from Kalpetta to Meppadi and board the TN bus around 8am which reaches Ooty by 1pm via Vaduvanchal-Cherambadi-Gudalur. An alternate driving holiday to Munnar if your predilection is for tea estates.

To reach Wayanad from Mysore, the shortest route is through H.D.Kote-Bavali-Kartikulam-Mananthavady- closed between 6am-6pm. The only route open through the night is via Kutta. Many KSRTC (both KA and KL) buses ply on this route and it takes around 3hrs from Mysore to Mananthavady for Rs 105. You can stay at Kabini Tourist Home, Valliyoorkavu Rd  (04935 240611, 954426399 dbl Rs.400, tr Rs.500) very close to the bus station at Mananthavady. You can visit Thirunelly and Tholpetty from Mananthavady; Kuruva Island is closed to visitors currently.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sivanasamudra, Talakadu, Somanthapura- a school trip

Ask any school student of our generation who studied in Government school where were they taken as part of one day trip, the answer would be Bluff, Talakadu and Somanathapura.A road trip to Mysore with my parents and sister – as the rains continued to flood North Karnataka. Though, we considered Hampi and other Northern part of Karnataka, we acquiesced on a two day road trip instead of taking a 14hr bus trip.
We did not want to take the usual Bangalore-Mysore route, instead chose to drive through Kanakapura. This route is well connected by ST buses to Kollegala and further to Coimbatore via Sathyamangalam. The first 25km or so might take one hour of driving and the traffic and roads are better beyond Kanakapura.

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Shivanasamudra:
Close to 100km from Kanakapura, after driving through the villages of Mandya and crossing Malavalli, on NH 209, you will reach Belakavadi. The second hydroelectric power station in India, Shivanasamudra (sea of Siva) was established in 1902 across river Kaveri. Locally known as BLUFF this power plant has an interesting story. Dewan Seshadri Iyer constructed this dam to produce electricity for Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) where John Taylor Company was extracting gold for the British. But the Dewan was telling that electricity was meant for Mysore. The people did not believe this and called it a ‘bluff’, eventually electricity was supplied to KGF. Recently a 5MW Solar Power Plant is installed here. Two spectacular waterfalls – Gaganchukki and Bharachukki brought this place to tourism map. When we crossed the dam and solar power plant, we reached a parking lot near KSTDC Hotel. As we stepped down, we could see two separate waterfalls, assumed by many as Gaganchukki and Bharachukki at the same spot. Gaganchukki has two separate cascades at this location and Bharachukki is around 10km away inside an army cantonment driving past a temple and mosque. Be prepared to pay hefty parking fees and Grama Panchayat development fees en route. You will be flabbergasted at the volume of water and the width of the cascades at both these waterfalls.

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During summer the quantity and force of water would be less and a few years ago, there was no security or a fence to stop you from going to bottom of the waterfalls. At Bharachukki, we have gone down to the bottom of waterfalls and played in the water, which no longer is possible. It was nice to hear the childhood stories from my father about how he had to carry my sister on his back uphill while returning.

Another 25km through T. Narsipura-Kollegal road takes you through the rural life of Karnataka. People literally sit on the road processing black lentil (whole Urad Dal) near the feilds. A long fly-over will bypass this small town in the future. T in T. Narsipura stands for Tirumakudalu - meaning the confluence of Kabini (Kapila), Kaveri and Spatika Sarovara – a mythical lake.




Talakadu: Ancient capital of Ganga dynasty and later captured by Cholas, Talakadu was important in Karnataka history. 28km from Sivanasamudra, Talakadu is part fiction and part facts. Talakadu had over 30 temples and this historically vibrant city got buried in sand, an ecological disaster linked to an inexplicable legend of ‘Curse of Talakad’. As the legends unfold, Raja Wodeyar of Mysore was ogling at a nose-jewel of Rani Rangamma of Vijayanagar family and proceeded against Talakadu. Rani Rangamma, throwing the jewel in to the Kaveri drowned herself uttering a three-fold curse. “Let Talakad become sand; let Malangi become a whirlpool; let the Mysore Rajas fail to beget heirs”. Another pious lady, Almelamma is also credited for this curse in some other legends.

We would slide down the sand and run up all the way to repeat the sliding on sand not bothering of scorching sun. The main temple complex cannot be visited now, as it is under renovation by ASI. Anyhow, around the temples there is nothing but sand. Fortunately, there is a shaded walkway around the temples in this desert like sand dune. Panchalinga Darshana occurs every 12years, next due in 2021. We spent our lunch time at the Kaveri riverside, which is a picnic spot.

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Somanathapura:
Well maintained by ASI, Somanathapura is a fine example of Hoysala architecture, more quiet and peaceful than Belur and Halebid. Built using green schist, the Keshava temple has trikuta (triple shrine) with a vestibule connecting to the main rectangular mantapa, decorated with reliefs and friezes with pierced windows screens above them. All the three shrines are sixteen pointed stellate (star-shaped) in design and their towers follow the same pattern, which allow light from all directions to fall on this marvellous architecture.

Hop on and hop off KSRTC buses to visit these places in day and you can head to Bangalore or Mysore at the end of the day. You take a diversion from Bannur to either Mysore (25km) or Mandya (30km), if you are returning to Bangalore. If you are staying at Mysore, there are many new hotels on the K.R.S road if you don’t like to stay inside city. Inside the city, Hotel Dasprakash at Gandhi Square (Tel 0821-2442444, dbl Rs 780) is still better than the lot with ample car parking and a nice vegetarian restaurant. The Mysore Palace and Jayaramachandra Art Gallery is just 15min walk. Next morning after an obligatory visit to Brindavan Gardens and SriRangapatnam, we drove over thousands of speed breakers on Bangalore-Mysore state highway before reaching home.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hurali village - Ancestral Home


Hurali: To recharge our spirits in the lush, cool, rustic village life and gape at the magical rains, we headed to Hurali- a non descript village where Megha  spent her summer vacations, her ancestral home. Circa 1955, people at Bangladi were displaced due to Linganamakki dam construction and moved to Hurali and other villages. The geography and lives of many changed forever. Megha's grandfather was one among them. In 1960 he bought a house from Kollapppa Gowdaru who has a merit certificate for leading improvement in Hurali village as Chairman of Kudarur panchayat in 1933. Wood and laterite stone built house with Mangalore tile roof and six ft high attic looks huge. Admire the carvings on the pillars and door frame. Bend your head while stepping in, the door is just five feet high - a custom to pay respect while entering a home. Hande - the bronze vessel in the bathroom to heat and store water with firewood is a luxury. The cattle shed is adjacent, housing more than20 cows. A cow is what is a yak to Tibetans, in malenadu.


From Sagara (35km, two hour) ride takes you to Holebaagilu (Ambaragodlu) through scenic ghats route. A ferry (locally called launch) carries your four wheeler for Rs.10 across 2km wide catchment area of Linganamakki to Kalasavalli. Once you cross, everyone knows everyone. Postal address doesn't include house names, just the person's name and village name! The roads get worse as you go more interior. Singandoor temple is a favourite among pilgrims in this region. The nearest petrol pump is at Tumari 14km away from Hurali. For any major facilities Sagara is the nearest option.
At Hurali most of the tasks are DIY, so your life skills matter a lot. A transformer fuse blows out, you get a thick aluminium wire and ties the fuse. If the rains in the city is about inconvenience and diseases, the rains here bring more crops and water for the lean period. While men handle agriculture activities, women are busy with daily chores and cattle farm. A thick jute sack protects men from rain and cold winds while on the fields. Tiller is used to plough the paddy fields. Major crop is arecanut and pepper that creep on the arecanut trees. Rice fields are managed through terrace farming though not large scale. Cooking is done using gober gas and firewood. The impeccable house keeping is commendable. Everyone follows the circadian rhythm, cattle return at dusk after grazing.
The staple diet is rice and dosa. The absence of a fridge talks about the freshness of food. Fresh butter, liquid jaggery (joni bella), chutney powder mixed in curd, coconut chutney ground in a stone grinder and aunts' love will not make you say 'No' to those crispy, brown dosas even when your tummy is full. Everyone sits on the floor in the kitchen to dine. Indulging in  Malenadu cuisine and our agenda of 'doing nothing' was perfectly executed with torrential rains 24/7. A short hike up the nearby hill drenched us.
Seven year old Sunay plays in the rain with mud. None to scold him and worry about virus and bacteria. He goes to a nearby two-room school with two teachers and 21 students. He played chess with me for hours. He is fond of all animals in the nature, most excited about fireflies and leeches.
Kollur Mookambika temple - a favourite among Kerala Hindus- is just 35km away and this route takes you  to Shimoga (125km) via Nittur. We did a half day tour to the temple driving through Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary. Many torrents were roaring down en route and this is one of the scenic routes in Western Ghats. The temple premises were near empty due to rains and Ashada month. Near the temple, you get jeeps to go for a hike to the top of Kodachadri hills, not during heavy rains.

To find this place on maps- N 13° 59.07780', E 74° 50.24400'
For accommodation: Haalkare Homes

Sagara and Jog Falls - Monsoon Drive

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Kannada movies offer a visual treat through the songs, location  courtesy Western Ghats. Better known as Malenadu in Kannada,  these virgin forests perched on mountains are jewels of South Indian landscape. The high ranging Sahyadri belt is at its best during monsoon with a highly saturated green hue, thanks to the heavy rainfall up to 5000mm annually by the south-west monsoon during Jun-Sep. Agumbe has recorded more than 5400mm from June 1st to July 29th this year, the highest in South India and double its rivals-Madikeri and Kannur.Home for roaring waterfalls, wildlife parks, 3 major rivers-Krishna, Kaveri and Tungabhadra; Malenadu offers a lot for nature enthusiasts.
Jog falls: Three hours from Shimoga, Sharavati river drops 253m in four distinct cascades - Raja, Rani, Roarer, Rocket - spurts sprays of water into the air with arching rainbows. A one hour, thousand plus concrete staircase takes you to the bottom of the gorge, if watching from multiple vantage points is not sufficient. Tucked amidst the lush forest along the expansive Sharavati backwaters Linganamakki dam floods the Jog falls when the gates are open, at its best. To sleep listening to the roaring Jog falls, book KSTDC Hotel Mayura Gerusoppa (08186 244732, s/d Rs.300/400).  Take a train from Bangalore, Talguppa Express (16227, SBC-SRF, Rs.200) and stay at Sagar. There are frequent buses to Jog falls from the private bus stand (30km, one hour).
The railway line to Talguppa was laid for transporting the materials for Linganamakki dam construction. Shimoga-Talguppa  was under conversion for the last 20 years. Interestingly Megha's first train trip was from Bangalore to Sagara as a three months old toddler by a steam powered narrow gauge!
Ikkeri and Keladi: Sagara, a sleepy town was important in the history being the centre of Nayakas of Keladi. Rameshwara temple at Keladi, first capital of Nayakas, boasts Gandhaberunda - a twin headed bird built out of greenish grey schist. Aghoreshwara temple at Ikkeri is smaller but more impressive with a huge Nandi statue. Both the temple have exquisite stone carvings and sculptures.

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Neenaasam, a drama institute where renowned theatre artists throng, is located at a  small village Heggodu, 10km from Sagara. The road from Ikkeri goes through Vardhamoola - origin of river Varadha.

A day trip from Sagara to Bangalore takes close to 9hrs via Shimoga-Bhadravathy-Tarikere-Arsikere-Tumkur-Nelmangala  by ST bus (Rs 312, 354km). If you are in a hurry, take a Volvo bus from Shimoga to Bangalore which starts every hour. Through exanpnsive sun flower gardens and rural villages, it is worth spending your day on this route. This is an alternate route to Chikmagalur and Kemmangundi, take a diversion at Tarikere or Birur. There are a few temples at Gubbi just before Tumkur at an altitude of 700m.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Shravanabelagola, Belur, Halebid and Kemmangundi

                                    UNWTO


People pay a fortune to spot wildlife when they go on jungle safari. No one would expect to spot a cheetah when they go on a pilgrimage!

It took us two hours to get past the Friday traffic of Bangalore and reach Nelamangala 49 km from Whitefield. Interestingly it took us same two hours to reach Shravanabelagola 114 km from Nelamangala with a dinner stop en route. The temple committee offers accommodation (dbl, Rs.210, Tel: 08176 257258).We reached at 9pm with Aby and Simi in one vehicle and snoozed off. Next morning we were welcomed by the story of Cheetah crossing just before the temple premises spotted by the Pauls who came at 11.30 in the night. Cheetahs often come to this village to feast on dogs, we were told.

Climb the hill in the early morning before it gets sunny. The rocks will be hot and almost impossible to walk if it is in the afternoon, as one has to climb the steps barefoot. You can munch on the free breakfast at the matha, you can visit Basadi next to matha, which has mural painting depicting stories from Jain literature. Bandhara Basadi is on the adjacent plot, explains story of Bahubali in English on flex prints.

 Shravana/ Shramana means a Jain monk, bili kola means a pond as pure as milk – this is how Shravanabelagola got its name. A place where there is a pond as pure as milk and Jain monks live, many have meditated here and attained salvation. Shravanabelagola is famous for the monolith statue of Bahubali (Gomateshwara) which was carved in the 10th Century A.D funded by the king Chavundaraya. The statue which is 57 feet tall is on top of a hill – Vindhyagiri at 3,288 ft above MSL. Apart from the Bahubali statue there are several small basadi – jain temple on the hill. Vindhyagiri is also known as Doddabetta (dodda – big, betta – mountain).

Adinatha or Rishabanatha is the first of the Tirthankaras in Jainism. Bahubali is the son of Adinatha. Bahubali, in order to expand his kingdom will wage a war against his brother Bharatha. Instead of fighting a battle with soldiers and violence, the brothers fought in three different forms namely dristhi yuddha, jala yuddha and malla yuddha. Dristhi yuddha – is to stare at the other person’s eye without blinking as long as possible. Jala yuddha – standing inside the pond, they spray water at each other. Whoever will withstand without falling into water wins. Malla Yuddha – this is to test the muscle power, also known as Kushti-the traditional Indian wrestling. Bahubali wins in all the three, but soon realizes that everything is temporary and life itself is transitory. He then goes on meditating in the standing posture. The depth of his meditation is denoted by the anthills that are formed around him and the vines that have grown on him. It also implies his detachment from the world.

Once you reach the top of Doddabetta, just before entering the main area where you see the statue, there is a statue of old woman holding something in her hand. The board reads her name as Gulaganji Ajji. The story dates back to 10th century when the king Chavundaraya built the statue. When the statue was completed and King Chavundaraya was conducting the abhisheka ceremony for the statue. The king was very arrogant as he had built one of the best and biggest statues in the world. It is said that in spite of pouring liters of milk it was not reaching the bottom of the statue. An old woman comes with some milk inside Gulaganji – known as jequirity or rosary pea, and requests the king to permit her to pour the milk she was carrying inside the small seed. All the populace will laugh at her; however King will permit her to go ahead. It is said when she pours milk on the statue the milk flows down till the feet and the pride of the king comes down. The old woman in disguise is thought to be Kusmandini Devi.

There is a small hill a little away from Doddabetta, known as Chandragiri or Chikkabetta (chikka – small, betta – mountain). On this mountain there are several basadis. Doddabetta became popular after the Bahubali statue was craved, where as Chikkabetta was popular much before the Doddabetta. Chikkabetta was preferred by Jain monks to meditate in the caves on the hill top. Today there are caves with footprints of the monks, who meditated here and attained salvation. 

Belur and Halebidu:

Belur 82km from Shravanabelagola, was the capital of the Hoysala dynasty, situated on the banks of Yagachi river. It took almost a century to complete the work on this temple, started in 1116 dedicated to Lord Krishna. Excellent carving can be found – Hindu deities, battle scenes, celestial nymphs adorned with the wealth of detailed make up and jewelry. 16km from Belur, Halebidu the latter capital of Hoysala dynasty boast a star shaped temple standing on an elevated platform. Every inch of the walls is richly carved with stories from the epics. Both Belur and Halebidu are striking from far, get closer and let your eyes rove over to admire the details and craftsmanship.


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Chikmagalur

It is believed that Baba Budan smuggled coffee seeds from Yemen and planted in Chikmagalur. Overlooking Baba Budangiri range, Chikmagalur district offers Western Ghats in microcosm -lofty peaks, trekking trails, captivating cascades, gushing streams, mighty rivers (Tunga and Bhadra originate here). Chikmagalur in Kannada means the youngest daughter’s town – refers to the youngest daughter of Rukmangada, the chief of Sakrepatna. Another part of the town is called Hiremagalur – elder daughter’s town. After Vijayanagara dynasty, Tippu Sultan enjoyed Chikmagalur as part of Mysore kingdom until British took over in 1799. The much awaited Chikmagalur railway line is nearing completion connecting to Kadur, the nearest railway station.

Many restaurants in Chikmagalur town offer gastronomical expeditions, Thyma for carnivores offering Arab Cuisine and Soundarya for herbivores, both on IG road. Hotel Rest Inn (dbl, Rs.500, Tel: 08262 234111, 236222) hidden in a cross road just opposite to Hotel Rajmahal offers parking facility, clean rooms and comfortable beds, though the Pauls continued their man-animal conflict with the cockroaches.

Kemmangundi 
50km from Chikmagalur at 4732ft above MSL, Kemmangundi is hidden inside Bhadra WLS. The Horticulture Dept. Guest House (Tel 08261-237126 to book between July 16- March 14), the best accommodation and restaurant in the middle of the forest are undergoing a complete makeover. You need to call at LalBagh, Bangalore (Tel: 080- 265719252657018126570824) to book your rooms between March 15-July 15. The old ratty buildings have been razed off to replace with wooden clad buildings with mod-cons, expect to pay Rs 1500 or more for a double room, to be inaugurated in Oct 2013. We were lucky to find two old rooms for six of us with 3 beds in each, though the rooms were not maintained well. The makeshift restaurant cooks up whatever is in the store.

updated on 03.03.2017
Price for double bedroom Rs.1680/-, these 
spacious rooms have power backup, Television. Another double bedroom for Rs.756/- doesn't have power backup or Television and is for a budget traveller. They have rooms to accommodate bigger groups. 


Trekking to Hebbe Falls was our main agenda but abandoned, thanks to a hefty Rs 200 per head fee introduced by Forest Dept. We headed to Kalhatti Waterfalls- just don’t bother to go here, almost nude men take dips in a filthy area. Touts may approach you offering a jeep ride Rs 2000 or above to take you to Hebbe Falls. Ride on your own risk- it is illegal to go through forest or private plantations.

updated on 03.03.2017
On the other hand you can contact the friendly jeep owner Mahesha (8105164354, 9482643180), who will take you to Mullayanagiri, through the Bhadra WLS and come back from Chikmagalur making a round trip. He will charge Rs.5000/- and can accommodate 8 persons. 

Z-Point: 45min walk from the Guest House; Z Point is a vantage point offering panoramic views and could be the single most reason to visit Kemmangundi. After crossing the leech infested forest, removing the leeches with lemon juice was not so easy and many bloodstreams formed. Enjoying the scraggly geometry of the mountains, we trudged along the narrow path on the ridge of the mountain.  We did not expect the winds can be so furious during monsoon. What started as a light drizzle developed to a heavy wind with spells of shower drenched all of us. Just surrendering to the magic of rains, we had the revelation about the vulnerable humans living in no harmony with the mighty nature. The thrill of almost-floating in air was serendipitous as we clung to each other to keep our feet in place.


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Kemmangundi-Mullayanagiri route:
Driving this route is not for the faint hearted but is a must for nature aficionados if you have own vehicle. First 15km is very bad until a check post. It is worth the effort, lush green forest and deep valleys amidst fog entice you on this scenic route. During monsoon, it is worse with poodles of water on the way. You will reach Chikmagalur-Lingadahalli road after Mullayanagiri. There are a few home stays in this route. The better route to Kemmangundi from Lingadahalli (20km) is widened and constructed with concrete. So if you love your vehicle more than nature, return the same way. There are a few new home stays at Lingadahalli, so in case you don’t get a booking at Horticulture Guest House, you can find accommodation here. By mass transport you can reach Lingadahalli, you need to hire a jeep to reach Kemmangundi.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Amen and Kumarankary



After the Malayalam flick 'Amen', Kumarankary -a tiny village 3km from Changanassery town got famous. I can't help writing about Kumarankary as I was born there! My mother hails from Kumarankary and I grew up hearing stories of Kuttanadu from her. I spent every summer vacation (two months) helping my relatives in daily chores of farming at Kumarankary. Though 'Amen' refers to this village, the movie was NOT shot here. Interestingly, it was shot at Olavaipu, another tiny village in Alappuzha near Ernakulam border. Like in the movie Amen, the social life of Christians was centred around the church with its annual feasts featuring cultural programs. I remember listening Kadhaprasangam (story telling performance).


The only infrastructure in Kumarankary is a church- St. Mary's Church. There is absolutely no other facilities here! Not a even a toddy shop!! There used to be a grocery store and a ration shop (PDS), now only the ration shop remains. With a declining population as most of the old generation had migrated to bigger towns or abroad. The roads to Kumarankary were laid circa 2002. Until then, SWTD (State Water Transport Department) boats were the only way to reach here. During my childhood, we used to take a boat from Alappuzha for a three hour ride to Kumarankary packing our breakfast. There was not even a bicycle used until recently. Annual floods during the monsoon was so common until 2007, so learning swimming was inevitable if you lived in Kumarankary.


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To retrace this route, reliving those sweet memories of childhood, Megha  and I took a boat from Alappuzha to Changanassery (Rs 11, 3hrs) starting at 1:30pm. SWTD has not revised the ticket prices in the last 15years!! They are about to be revised in July 2013. The route is Punchiri-Vattakayal-Kaavaalam-Lissieu-Veliyanadu-Kidangara-Changanassery. You will cross the Vattakayal along the R-block on your right side.  QST and R-block Kayal (lake) are known for its indigenous agricultural methodology, farming at a few feet below the sea level. Extensive land has been reclaimed from the backwaters and is protected by mud quay built around. Most of the houses along the paddy fields are abandoned now. When we were about to turn from Vattakayal, copious rainfall and a thunderstorm halted our journey for sometime. The dark clouds from a faraway distance rushed in a few seconds even before we could pull down window sheets of the boat. After Lissieu, there were many school kids to give us company. Curious about us, they asked our names practising the basic English lessons they learned.


1995 Malayalam hit movie Spadikam was shot in Changanassery town especially at the boat jetty - one of the most busy commercial hubs during its heydays. I remember my grandfather taking the rice in 'kevu vallam' (huge canoe) to the wholesale market. Tamil Nadu lorries come over here and the workers push around the  carts to different shops with a rhythmic humming to synchronise their effort. Turn left to the road leading to Paraal and Kunnamkary. Ask for 'Petta Shappu' for directions. You can ride an hourly KSRTC bus for Rs 7 or join a share auto for Rs 20 from this junction to Kumarankary.



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We enjoyed the company of the kids- John and Jose for next few days relishing the culinary expertise of my aunts. Avalose podi (Roasted Rice Powder), Idiyappam (String hoppers), Kadumanga Achar (Fresh Mango Pickle) were the favourites of the various dishes lined up on the dining table from time to time. You can drive around this route by turning left at Kidangara from the scenic Alappuzha-Changanassery road. You can get back to Changanassery driving through Veliyanadu, Kunnamkary, Kumarankary, Paraal. 

Alappuzha- Kottayam: The boat from Alappuzha left at 2:30 for its 2.5hrs ride to Kottayam (Rs 9)!! Right now, there is a bridge construction at Kanjiram, you have to stop here. You get a private bus from Kanjiram to Kottayam town- alight at Elanjickal if you are heading to Kumarakom. 

The Hindu


Mural City Kottayam: Most interesting would be the the Noah’s Ark on a 3000 sq.ft.wall of the St Joseph Church at Thellkom. Other spots to witness the artwork by various artists from around the world are: The gates of municipal ground at Thirunakkara, Sree mahadevar temple, Kottayam railway station, Knanaya Jacobite Valiapally, District Panchayat Office, CMS College, Press Club, Sreekrishna Swamy Temple; Darsana Cultural Centre and Sreemahadevar Temple, Nagambadom. Traditionally Mural Paintings (Chuvarchithram) involves only five colors- red, yellow, green, black and white -known as Panchavarna. The maintenance of these invaluable artwork is a question to be answered by time. Hurry if you want to watch before the monsoon rains affect them. 


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Going South welcoming monsoon



After a three months break to meet life’s expectations, we set out on a Wednesday to the capital city Thiruvananthapuram expecting The South-West monsoon to arrive on time. Our first destination was Kazhakkoottam to visit St. Xavier’s College, Thumba. Staying at Royal Lodge (Near A.J. Hospital, Kazhakkoottam, Tel 9388109963, dbl Rs 400) was the best option. I was in a Jesuit seminary on the same campus where St. Xavier’s is located. Going to the seminary after 20 years with Megha is akin to being at the crossroads of two parallel paths in life. The transport to the coastal area is very limited as it was in 1993. HVK Sir was there to help, his friend Rajanish met us at Kazhakkoottam and dropped right inside the 80acre campus. I gave Megha a tour of the campus which has not changed after 20 years. I met Biju Joy from my batch in 1993 and we talked for a while reflecting on our past life. He gave me the contact details of other three priests at Loyola College whom we met next day. Sijith hosted us for dinner the same night; I was impressed with his techie articles in Mathrubhumi .

The monsoon has not yet arrived and our fears grew about a late or missing monsoon. Going a little south to the coastal area was our next idea, so we visited Kovalam in the evening and the grey clouds looked promising. Catching up with the classmates from CUSAT was next in agenda. Deepak, Kunju, Jishin and Nevin; evocative memories of student life! Jishin did not want me to go looking for a lodge. We stayed with him playing with Mishal and Mia and relishing superb meals. A German movie- Blue Ocean- at Goethe Zentrum next to University of Kerala was indeed a good idea to spend the evening. Though Jishin did not come with us, he gave us a few names to visit in Kanyakumari district – Thottippalam, Thripparippu, Chitharal. These exotic names attracted Nevin and Anu to join us on a day tour with Ian- his 18 month old son.

If you are staying close to TechnoPark, you can take the road to Kovalam- Vizhinjam- Poovar to reach TN border at Marthandam. Though this route is longer, it is worth to avoid the city traffic through Balaramapuram-Neyyattinkara-Parassala. If you are taking a bus, frequent TN buses ply to Nagercoil. From Thampanoor bus station. Get off at Thuckalay to visit Padmanabhapuram Palace which is 15min on foot. Hotel Chitra at Marthandam is a good vegetarian option for a tasty lunch and they run a hotel at Nagercoil.

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Padmanabhapuram Palace, 64km from the capital, is in Tamil Nadu but managed by KTDC (04651-250255; admn Rs 35; 9am-1pm/2-4:30pm; Monday holiday). Parking fee is a hefty Rs 50 for parking on the roadside. Asia’s largest wooden palace complex built in 17th century by Iravi Iravi Varma Kulasekhara Perumal consists of 14 different palaces built by the Travancore rulers. King Marthanda Varma dedicated the kingdom to his family deity Padmanabha, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, hence the name Padmanabhapuram – city of Lord Padmanabha- was known as Southern Travancore. The clock at the clock tower in the palace is 300 year old. Time stands still here! Literally...the clock is dead at 3:25!! Glorious years of princely rulers and their indulgence in luxury are brandished with teak and granite structures decorated with Chinese, Belgian artefacts. Modern civilisation is visible with the presence of squat toilets with septic tanks adjacent to the bedrooms. After 1950s, the palace became part of Madras State (Tamil Nadu). 

wikipedia


Mathoor Hanging Bridge aka Thottippalam is a flume (open  aqua duct) connecting two gargantuan mountains across Pahrali river (also called Parazhiyar) for irrigation purpose; erected on 28 concrete pillars measuring up to 115ft height. Walking across this bridge gives you a sweeping view of the mountains and green expanse. 15km away from the Palace, this tourist attraction is easily accessible by road. From Thuckalay or Kulasekaram you can reach the top of the bridge. The road to the bottom of the bridge was in a bad state. Twenty-eight huge pillars shoulder the bridge. The then Chief Minister, K. Kamaraj, ordered construction of the bridge as a drought relief measure and for development of agriculture activities.

Kulasekharam: Named after Iravi Iravi Varma Kulasekhara Perumal, this area is very similar to Kottayam district in Kerala with lots of rubber plantations. Many Keralites migrated to this area for farming. More than one medical college and many churches are present. Thriparappu Waterfalls is a major tourist attraction in this route where crowds come and take a dip; though we did not find it very impressive.

wikimedia

Chitharal Jain Temple: At a tiny village in Kuzhithurai town, Chitaral is accessible via  Arumanai road from Marthandam. At Marthandam, turn left to reach Attoor and then left again. Ask locals for ‘malai kovil' (rock temple) in local parlance, and they speak in Malayalam and Tamil; in a seamless blending of languages and culture. A short hike through the wide cobbled path takes you to the top of the hill at the cave temple entry point. The hill was sacred to the Jaina ascetics of the 5th century A.D. Formed by a cluster of rocks there is a natural cave with a tiny pond at the west. There are several carvings, prominently Mahavira Tirthankara and on the left, Parsvanatha Tirthankara, and to the right.  The transition to a Hindu temple in 13th century is visible by the presence of brahmanical sculptures during Pandya rulers.  A 360 degree view of the surrounding serene landscape with Tamiraparani  river like a silver ankle; breathtaking and leads you into pensive solitude. This ancient monument is protected by maintained by ASI (Archaeological Survey of India).

Late in the night, on our way to Kazhakoottam, rains followed us along the coastal bypass. Schools open the next day, a rain soaked morning. Chasing the monsoon, we headed to the central Kerala and further North.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kumily, Munnar and the 'High Range' road





Periyar Tiger Reserve got the status of Numero Uno National Park in India. Whatever that means, this Tiger Reserve boasts of 925 km2 of forest bordering with Tamil Nadu almost 90km. Interestingly, Tamil Nadu does not seem to be interested in the wildlife, but just the water from Periyar River. Mullaperiyar Dam is situated in the midst of PTR, notorious for the political fight between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A river which was flowing west was diverted circa 1895to the east using four himongous penstock pipes to facilitate the needs of Tamil Nadu.

Kumily (elevation 800m) is a small farmers' town which has high tourists’ inflow most of the year except heavy monsoons. The Western Ghats in Kerala is widely known as 'High Range' and dwelled by migrant farmers- sprea across Pathanamthitta, Kottayam and Idukki districts. Kumily is well connected to Theni in Tamil Nadu. You need to reach Kottayam in Kerala for frequent buses (Rs 43, 4hrs).  There is a KSRTC bus from Pathanamthitta to Kumily via Gavi- another scenic route to if you have enough time.




There are plenty of accommodation along the main road and Lake Road starting from Rs 400. The road adjacent to the bus station, Bypass Road, is crowded by home stays. Next to Chrissie's Cafe, Elephant Hills (Tel: Mob: 9447667994,04869 222952, email: elephanthillsinn@yahoo.com,  dbl Rs 300-1200) is run by Chandran and family in the midst of lush greenery complete with a swing and hammock. They provide scrumptious breakfast upon request and do everything possible to make your stay memorable. Don't keep any food items outside your room; nasty monkeys are smart enough to unzip the bags and pick up what they want. Chandran's grandfather was a postman in Kumily and hence migrated two generations ago. He has many childhood stories to share about the forest. Hotel Habeebi next to WilderNest, Lake Road is a budget option for your meals. It was a big relief for us on two days of hartal (general strike). Most of the big restaurants are catering to foreign taste buds and some even refuse entry to domestic tourists. Small eateries are around the bus stand.

Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) Treks
Official treks and stays are organised by the Eco Care Center (04869-222571) on Lake Road- they are quite expensive. Check the website - www.periyartigerreserve.org  for more details. These ‘touristy’ treks are not so rewarding, but for an ornithologist it may be ideal. The entire forest is divided into three- core zone, buffer zone, tourist zone. Aptly named, tourist zone is where you will be taken for 3hrs to 8hrs walks including one in the night. The 8hr trek which goes through the border of Tamil Nadu, named Border Hiking is the best value - Rs 1000 per person including meals. Other walks might be spoiled by disinterested guides or other jabbering tourists. Foreigners need to pay an additional Rs 300 as entry fee, Indians Rs 25. You may see a herd of wild gaur, dozens of langur and slender loris, sambar deer and a variety of birds on these elephant dung filled trails. According to the officials there are 45 tigers! Keep complete silence inside the forest and sit down the moment you see any animal- to sight and not to be sighted by the animal.
We were lucky to spot a big hornbill taking off like an aircraft from the branches of a huge banyan tree. This particular tree was hosting many varieties of birds- Resul Pookutty would be happy to record the genuine sounds of a forest here. If you are on a low budget, just take an entry ticket to the man-made lake and stroll up the 4km through the forest. The boating is a chaotic experience, not recommended if you have agoraphobia. Except the speeding vehicles and honking, everything else is welcoming.  



Another cheap option is to cross the border and walk down a few kilometers towards Cumbum. There is a huge waterfall at Erachippalam- which channels the excess water to neighboring which cannot flow through four huge penstock pipes a while away. On this route, you can get panoramic view of Tamil Nadu plains. Chellarkovil and Ottakathalamedu are two options around Kumily for that sweeping gaze of the valley, the latter best visited during sunset. You can rent a bicycle from Kumily town or hop on to a bus to reach here in 15min.

Kumily -Munnar Road
This may be the best route through Western Ghats in Kerala. Driven by only slow 'Private Buses' with frequent stops (Rs 85, 5hrs), this roller coaster ride goes through spice plantations and some vantage points overlooking Tamil Nadu. As you make your way through Chellarkovil-Nedumkandam-Kattappana-Santhanpara-Devikulam you will reach valleys filled with rushing waterfalls, terraced tea gardens at an elevation of 1500m and above. We were headed to Top Station to meet Manoj (Tel 9446836712) who resides just below Top Station. Manoj's dad was an operator for the ropeway from Top Station to the Bottom Station in Tamil Nadu- this was abandoned in by 1978 as the roads developed from Kodaikanal to Munnar. This road is currently closed as it passes through dense forest of Pambadumchola National Park which was declared as a National Park in 2006. Manoj can arrange accommodation in tents at Top Station (1900m) and guide you for treks (Rs 600 per person) while his loving mother cooks dinner and breakfast for you.

Shola Forest and Grassland Complex Trek
A thrilling trek from Top Station to Middle Station climbing down 400m and return takes more than 3hrs covering 7km. Walking through the valley that you view from the Top Station view point, criss -crossing between Kerala and Tamil Nadu borders, against the backdrop of green grassy slopes of the mountains crowned by Kolukumalai tea factory and overlooking the habitats at Kelattukudi shouldering the dense forests of Pampadum Shola National Park. Locals in Munnar trek down to Kelattukudi -a rehabitation colony for the forest dwellers and catch a jeep to Bodhimettu and ride a bus to Theni.

Wake up next morning before 6am; you can capture in a single sweeping gaze the cotton clouds resting on the lofty peaks of dazzling mountains, terrace fields carved from hillsides and misty tea estates. If you are looking for a dense forest with lot of huge trees, ask Manoj to take you to Pambadum Shola National Park (admn Rs 65 for 2hrs) trudging along the soft bed of foliage - unique to shola forest. Even in summer, this trail will be damp, carry lemon to squeeze the juice onto your shoes to prevent blood-thirsty leeches. The blood pumping walk did not raise our heartbeats too high. But seeing the carcass of a wild gaur killed by a tiger definitely raised the heart rate to 3 digits.


If you are serious about multi-day hikes, Munnar could be the best place in Kerala. There are many operators offering treks starting from Rs 600 per day per person. Be specific about your needs, some of the treks could be just a walk through pesticide sprayed tea estates and plantations. Meesappulimala is a favorite destination and could be the highest point in Munnar and hence Kerala. Remember, the highest mountain peak in South India- Anamudi (2695m) - is in Munnar. Many do the trek from Top Station to Kelattukudi and then head to Theni. There is no official trek route through the forest from Munnar to Kodaikanal. The erstwhile Kodaikanal-Munnar road remains a forest jeep track ending at Bandharavu where two watchmen rotate in a 15 day/night duty. Manoj could be going there once in a while, so call in advance if you are taking his help.

Munnar had a tramway until 1928 operated by British to carry the goods from the hills to the port. If the ropeway had been kept, it would be a big tourist attraction today!