Ticket to Hampi

From all the history lessons that I have taken, the name that has remained in my mind for long is Hampi. The description of its wealth and the vastness had always pulled me towards itself. Every time I see a picture of monuments from Hampi, the dream of visiting the place grew stronger. Strange yet, I always visualized these monuments to be on barren lands and any rain could disrupt my mental image of these with green patches in it. Now that the monsoons were nearing and many places in the south would face the rains, I chose an odd, non-seasonal, extremely hot month of June for a two day trip to Hampi. All suggestions were against going in this time, but I was in no mood to postpone the trip further.

I boarded the bus at 9:30 PM from Bangalore on Friday while the Bangalore was beneath the dark clouds entire day. All I could do was to pray for no rains in Hampi at least till I complete the trip. While I had some vague idea about what I would be doing on each of the days, Amy helped me to come up with a more efficient plan.

My constant travel companion in all the trips
Day – 1 : The North Hampi

My bus reached Hospet at 7 AM, a town 12 KM away from Hampi. From here one can hire an Auto Rickshaw, cab or board the government bus to reach Hampi. There are some KSRTC buses from Bangalore which drop you off till the town of Hampi as well. The government bus I boarded from Hospet reached Hampi in just 30 minutes for a ticketed fare of 15 Rs. The route to Hampi passed through sugarcane, rice, and plantain fields. The fields were all plowed and looked as if the thirsty mother nature was waiting for rain. The town somehow had retained a part of its authenticity even in the midst of the fast-growing world.

North Hampi is also known as the Hippe land. It has a very contrasting lifestyle as compared to the Hampi town. The place is filled with cafe and adventure activity centers. People looking for a place to relax in the midst of the fields far away from the hustle bustle of the Hampi choose to stay here.

While I was in Hampi for both, my place of stay Jungle Tree was in the north further deep inside the paddy fields. To reach the north side, one needs to cross the Tungabhadra river on a boat. While the riverbed isn’t so vast in summer, the water is still deep. I walked past the well known Virupaksha temple to reach the ferry point. A trip costs 10 Rs to cross the river and the boat travel to the other side only when a minimum number of passengers are available. So be ready to either wait or pay a higher amount to convince them to drop you off the other side. A simpler solution would be to go with a large group 😛

The owner of Jungle Tree, Mr. Sagar had already called me twice to make sure I had figured out the way to reach. He also arranged for a two-wheeler for my exploration at a cost of 500 Rs for two days. The road to Jungle Tree passed via Sanapur lake which is one of the biggest in Hampi. The curving roads on the edge of the lake and then through the huge paddy field was already setting the mood for the day. The stay was as beautiful and cozy as I had seen it in the pictures and all the staff including the pet dog Bhairava were really humble and friendly.

While my room was getting ready, I had a quick chat with Sagar over the breakfast about the places to explore in the north side. The climate was still hot which forced me to ‘chill’ indoors for an hour or two before I could step out. There was still ample time in hand since there were just 4 major places to see.

First in the list was the Sanapur lake which I had passed by while going to Jungle tree. It’s a lake surrounded by boulders and a major water channel from Tungabhadra dam feeds the lake. One of the sides of the lake offers boat and coracle rides. I chose to skip the ride due to low water levels. The huge collection of water and the heavy breeze sure brings down the heat surrounding the place.

A small waterfall formed from the Tungabhadra water channel is about a kilometer away from the lake. The water isn’t very deep and many choose to take a dip in the water here. The place where the channel meets the river-stream is fierce and offers a mesmerizing view of abstract shapes formed on the boulders on either side of the river due to its force.

It was almost lunch time and I decided to visit one of the cafe. Since it was off-season, most of them were either closed or under a facelift. After gobbling up a bowl of yummy pasta, I headed to explore some of the places of mythological importance.

The north side of Hampi is also called as Kishkindha the kingdom of vanara (monkeys). It is believed to be the birthplace of god Hanuman and a huge number of devotees visit the place every day to offer their prayers.

Pampa lake is about a 15-minute drive from the ferry point on the north side and it is believed to be the place where Shabari an ardent devotee waited for god Rama’s arrival for thirty years. The Pampa lake is believed to be one of the 4 lakes created by God Brahma during the creation of the universe. Other three were Manas, Bindu, and Narayan which are situated in northern India.

Next one was the Vali Parvat a 10-minute drive from Pampa Lake. The hill was home to Vanara king Vali, and a small cave formation believed to be his home can be seen even today. A small fort is built surrounding the hill and houses a temple to goddess Durga. It is said that the empire of Vijayanagar had its capital at Anegundi near Vali Parvat before moving to Hampi, and the kings used to take blessings from goddess Durga before any war. Worshipers visit the place often and tie a coconut to the tree in front of the temple when their wishes are fulfilled. Further walking uphill on the steps takes you to a garden where plants and tree which have their association with 9 planets, 9 goddesses, 12 sun signs and 24 stars are planted and named.

It was just 4 PM when I was left with the last place to visit for the day i.e. Anjanadri hill. It is believed to be the exact place where Anjana Devi gave birth to god Hanuman. The tall hill made of huge boulders had a well shaded 575 steps to reach the temple at the top. Took me about 20 minutes to climb them all and there was still ample time to explore the place. Anjanadri offers a bird’s eye view of the town of Hampi and I could spot Vijaya Vithala Temple and Virupaksha Temple I will be visiting tomorrow. The place offers an amazing view of the sunset as it is one of the tallest hills in the area. A mix of green, brown, and yellow patches of field, evenly planted coconut trees and a pitch black road passing through them like a python created a scenic view of the area beneath.

As the time passed by, slowly the sounds started to mellow down, the extreme hot wind was now turning into a cool breeze, the sky started to turn from blue to orange and the sun had started to set. The sky was clear for as far as I could gaze and the sun was looking exactly like an orange indeed. It was one of the beautiful sunsets I had witnessed after a long time.

Sunset at Anjanadri

There was an alternate route to connect to Jungle Tree from Anjanadri which passed through more paddy fields. The route was almost dark but surprisingly not scary. The place was all lit up with colorful lights when I reached. The menu for dinner had a variety of options to choose from. After a sumptuous meal, I had to take proper rest as the next day was going to be longer.

Day – 2 : The South Hampi

I was up and ready according to my plans by 7:15 AM. I had overheard that the first boat from ferry-point back to the south was at 8 AM which I wanted to catch at any cost. After checking out from Jungle Tree with a promise of coming back again, I rushed on my vehicle towards the ferry point. Just when I was 2 KM away from it, I realized that the vehicle was slowing down. In no time I was stuck on the main road with an empty tank in a place where there was no network connectivity. To add to the misery, my Vodafone prepaid plan had expired that day and I was in a deserted stage for a moment. A momentary heavy breeze somehow brought back a weak network connection to my secondary sim and upon calling Sagar from Jungle Tree, he pointed out that there was a local shop selling petrol about few hundred meters away. Maybe my starts were in the right position, the road was downhill and I found the petrol shop in just 10 minutes. There was a slight delay in the timeline, but I had a hair-thin escape. Any trip without at least one of Murphy’s law incident is incomplete.

The ferry was gone and there wasn’t anyone for the next batch. A family of three arrived few minutes later and helped me get my phone connection recharged. They also convinced the sailor to drop us for a fair of 50 Rs per person. I was ready to pay that amount considering the time that I will be saving.

Hampi as seen from the ferry-point

On crossing the river, there were a huge number of auto rickshaw drivers ready to make a day’s deal to show places around. Considering the hot climate it made sense to go around with a roof on top compared to a two-wheeler or cycle. A fellow Raju agreed to show around all places, wait for as long as I want in any location and finally drop me off to Hospet in the evening for an amount for 1000 Rs. Now, this might sound a little on the higher end, but this would reduce a lot of my efforts and make the best of the time I have.

Yummy Aloo-Paratha at Gopi Guest House

After a quick breakfast at Gopi, we headed to the Vijaya Vithala Temple. This is one of the farthest and can be reached both by walk and drive from different routes. The iconic stone chariot printed behind the new 50 Rs currency exists here. King Krishnadevaraya built this temple in the memory of his victory at Orissa. The word Vijaya translates to victory in Sanskrit. Such stone chariots can be found only at Konark temple and Mahabalipuram apart from here. The chariot originally had stone horses driving it which was destroyed by invaders. The archaeological department placed two elephant statues in its place for aesthetic purposes which was found in the excavation. The temple complex consists of a Sangeetha Mantapa at the center which was used for cultural performances. The unique 56 stone pillars of this structure can create musical notes of different instruments.

The other structures in the complex include a Kalyana Mantapa used to perform the marriage ceremony of the gods of the temple, a Bhajan Shala and a Sanctum of god Vithala. The walkway towards the temple has a long lineup of stone rooms which were used as shops to sell precious gemstones and metals. The empire was said to be so rich where these gemstones were weighed and priced instead of a single unit. An entry ticket for 40 Rs. taken here can be used to access multiple such locations in Hampi. A battery operated car takes you till the doors of the temple from the main road for a fare of 20 Rs.

The gemstone Bazar

The next in the list was the Museum. Most of the best-preserved stone and metal artifacts can be found here. A beautiful depiction of the Hampi town created as a 3D model gives a bird-eye view of all places in the vicinity. The collection here is divided as the Shaiva (Shiva followers) and Vaishnava (Vishnu followers) displays which have artifacts built by rulers of a different era. The most impressive collection here is of the coins and they have an arrangement of a magnifying glass placed against each coin to see its detail. There are also pictures of places before and after its excavation showing the extent of restorations done.

We moved next to the Royal enclosure, one of the largest excavated sites. A tall platform called Mahanavami Dhibba was used as a place for the king to observe the Navaratri celebrations. Built by king Krishnadevaraya, the location has a public pool, water tanks and places for the visitors and commoners for their stay. Each corner of this enclosure has a discrete arrangement of channels for water supply which was drawn from a lake at a distance. Another major attraction in the enclosure is the step-well. Made using fine black stones, it has retained its charm even today.

The Hazara Rama temple is at a walkable distance from the Royal Enclosure. While the exact reason for its name is not known, some believe that walls of the temple have about a thousand carvings of god Rama. I could indeed find many carvings related to different stories and incidents from Ramayana.

We had one more group of places to visit before lunch. Sun was right above my head sucking all the energy out from my body. I was carrying my backpack this entire time because I wasn’t very confident on Raju for its safety which drained me further.

The Queen’s Bath has its walls with a smoothed yellow finish and it is one of the most intact buildings from the era. The structure called the Lotus Mahal has a mix of Indo-Islamic architecture, another intact structure from the time of the empire. This area was exclusively used by the royal women of the Vijayanagara empire and consisted of two separate arrangements for their stay including a small palace in the pool.

The elephant stable next to the Queen’s palace has a vast structure to house more than 10 elephants. Even bigger than this stable was the Mahal built for all the Mahouts to stay. The rulers of the empire had indeed a great interest in owning elephants.

I had my Thali meals at Pink Mango (not to be confused with mango tree). The hotels here have seating arrangements with mattress allowing one to even lie down while waiting for the food to arrive. It was much helpful for people like me who were drained from the walk.

The places next were closer to the center of the town. We reached the well known Narasimha statue after passing through roads with plantain fields on both sides. There was finally some shade after a long time. The fierce statue has its both hands cut by invaders but still stands tall with an impeccable expression. Feet away from this is the Badavi Linga, a Shiva linga installed about 500 years ago. The sanctum of Badavi Linga is always filled with water due to a small channel passing through it.

Next places were the two Ganesha Idols situated on the hill called Hemakuta. The first being the Sasuvekalu Ganesha, a monolith Ganesha statue installed without a sanctum. Another was the Kadalekalu Ganesha, call so because the belly of it resembles Bengal Gram. Going by the second description, I was trying to see if the belly of the former looked like Sasuve (mustard) to justify my assumption.

Before watching the sunset, I asked Raju to wait in the stand while I explore the Matanga hill and Virupaksha temple which are in the center of the town. He seemed trustworthy when he refused to take any part payment and asked to pay only after I was dropped at Hospet. There was a pang of momentary guilt for not trusting this man.

Climbing the Matanga hill in the scorching heat at 3 PM was not a good choice. I had already gulped 7 liters of water but every step was making me more thirsty. I decided to stop climbing after a certain point since my shoes were slippery and the place was totally deserted. However, the climb had its worth by giving me a beautiful view of the town from the top.

I was totally exhausted by now and decided to visit Virupaksha temple and take some rest inside. Even the temple wasn’t spared by the invaders and I could see a lot of deformed statues inside. This is the only temple in Hampi that has ongoing worship of idols from the era of the empire. Do not miss the inverted shadow of the temple gopuram which can be seen at the rear wall inside the temple.

When it was almost the time for sunset, I called Raju to drop me off to Hemakuta. The Hemakuta hill has few more collection of small temples at the top and a good seating arrangement to watch the sunset. When I reached the top, the sun who was merciless the entire day was now hiding behind thick clouds. The wind wasn’t hot and harsh anymore. I just sat on the stone floor gazing towards the direction of the sun who wasn’t going to come out from the clouds that evening. But it didn’t matter. The moment was peaceful. I looked at my left, there were many groups of families and friends relishing the cool breeze. To my right were a dozen monkeys which appeared from nowhere and started to gaze at the horizon silently. For everyone, that moment meant something significant. I laid back and stared at the sky which was turning slowly to orange. A long pending destination was finally captured in my memories.

Raju kept his end of the promise and dropped me to Hospet after dinner and accepted the amount only after ensuring that I was happy with the trip that day. I headed back to Bangalore with a tanned face and bagful of memories to relish.

Map of places to explore in south

PS:

  • While it costs you, it is always good to look for a guide especially at Vijaya Vithala temple and Royal Enclosure since a lot of architectural wonders and the history can only be pointed out by them.
  • The last boat between the south and the north side of the river is at 5:30 PM, so plan your day accordingly.
  • No matter which month you go hydrate yourself properly throughout the day.
  • Have at least one meal at Mango Tree. The place is pocket-friendly and serves amazing food.
  • Raju can be contacted on +918277029068
  • Every day hundreds of travelers add tonnes of garbage to the place. Be responsible and travel green.
  • May-June is not really the month to visit Hampi unless you are OK getting tanned 😛

Ticket to Thanjavur

From the travel experiences that I had in the past, I have always found that tall mountains and gigantic architectures have mesmerized me often. They always show me how small I am in front of them and how even smaller my problems are. One such place I always wanted to visit was Thanjavur. While I have heard a lot about the massive Brihadishwar temple there, the dream was to measure it from my eyes for real. I had planned a short trip for the day I’ll be turning 27 and Thanjavur was the perfect match this time both to seek blessings and to have the fun of travel. There wasn’t much to explore for the entire day at Thanjavur, which made me add Srirangam to the itinerary. Plan was ready almost a month earlier and my usual anxiety kicked-in waiting for the day to arrive.

To Thanjavur

The journey started by an hour behind the schedule from Bangalore. Such delays are unusual with SRS travels, but I had a relaxed itinerary which could accommodate the delay in reaching. The new bus stand is about 5km away from Thanjavur temple where the bus dropped me off at 6:45 AM the next day. My hotel was closer to Brihadishwar temple and I had decided to cover the rest of the places around by walk.

I stopped for breakfast en-route temple to wake up my senses with a shot of caffeine. Trying masala dosa is a must when in the south. That too, in TamilNadu it is served with three variations of Chatney. This is one such safe dish in the south which they can never go wrong with.

It was 8:15 when I reached the temple. No wonder the name Brihat is associated with it. The massive stone carved temple stands on a strong 16ft tall foundation. Each side of the outer sanctum is more than 100mt in length. Built by Raja Raja Chola about 1000 years ago, the entire temple complex is a treasure of art. The walls of the outer sanctum are decorated with paintings that depict the 108 forms of Bharatanatyam. Standing at the center, the Brihadeeshwar temple has a dome weighing 80 tons placed on the top of its Shikara. History says that a temporary elevated ramp of about 5 KM in length was constructed to pull this stone with the help of 100 elephants and place it on the top. As proof to this, the area surrounding the temple does not have any other structure which matches the height of the tower of the temple. Inside the inner sanctum stands a 3.6m tall Shivalinga matching the size and style of the temple.

Along with Ishwara, the temple complex houses the shrines of Nataraja, Karthikeya, Parvathi, and Nandi as well. After seeking blessings and appreciating every part of this architectural wonder, I headed towards the next attraction of the city i.e. the Maratha Palace.

Thanjavur has gained popularity since the time of Chola kings and was ruled by Nayaka and Maratha kings as well before finally being taken over by the British. Different parts of this Palace complex was built by these various rulers. The utmost important part of the palace is the Saraswathi Mahal Library. All the rulers of Thanjavur appreciated different forms of art and literature and have contributed to the contents of this library. It consists of thousands of volumes of palm leaf scripture and books of various languages including Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, Sanskrit, and Urdu. There are manuscripts on art, anatomy, economics, literature, and mythology preserved in their original state. This place is never to be missed when visiting Thanjavur. The Library also has an audiovisual display of the history of Thanjavur which explains the efforts of each of dynasty in making it a hub of culture and skills.

Adjacent to the Library is the Darbar hall and Rama Mantapa. The walls and pillars of the Darbar hall are decorated with vibrant colored paintings and was built in the time of Maratha rulers. Rama mantapa has the display of various form of pillars and statues found in the temple complex. However, it was sad to see that the sculptures and the paintings on the wall were severely damaged by the tourists and needed immediate attention.

An art gallery situated next to the library has a collection of bronze sculptures and artifacts of the Nayaka and Maratha dynasty. Many of the bronze sculptures are more than 500 years old and still have the vibrancy in them. Even today, the sculptures and musical instruments made traditionally in Thanjavur are known worldwide. The influence of rulers from various ethnicity has provided a cultural significance to the city. Various art forms such as stone and wood sculpture, painting, Bharatanatyam is practiced and taught here from generations.

Though there are few more places to visit such as Rajaraja Manimantapam and Shivgangai Park, these places aren’t maintained well or one can see people resting on the floor randomly whom we wouldn’t want to disturb.

Thanjavur is well known for its Bobble Head Dolls aka Thalaiyatti Bommai and I didn’t miss a chance to take one back as a souvenir. After a tummylicious lunch at a nearby hotel, I caught my bus to Srirangam.

To Srirangam

The town of Srirangam is surrounded by Cauveri river and situated at a distance of about 60KM from Thanjavur. I had to catch a bus from Thanjavur new bus stand to Tiruchirappalli followed by a city bus ride to Srirangam. Journey towards Trichy was scenic with paddy fields on most of the parts.

The heart of the Srirangam, the Ranganatha Swamy temple is also close to 1000 years old. With 21 towars(Gopuram) and about 80 shrines within, it is one of the largest Hindu temples. The temple has also been nominated for the UNESCO world heritage site.

While I was confused in finding my way around this huge place, a priest there asked me to see the viewpoint before visiting the temple. The sight from the view point i.e. roof of one of the halls was indeed making me spellbound. I could see a clear view of the towers of all directions and different shrines in the temple complex. I could get a clear view of sculptures on these towers which I was struggling to capture otherwise.

I had reached almost at the evening closing time of the temple and noticing that the crowd was lesser than expected, I ran quickly to the free darshan Queue. After about half an hour of wait, I was allowed to enter inside the temple to seek blessings from the deity. The temple also consists of a shrine of Ramanujacharya where it is believed that his mortal remains are still preserved and open to see for all devotees.

I had completed everything that I had expected to do from itinerary and yet I had made a small but significant mistake. It was just 6:30PM and my bus towards Bangalore was scheduled to arrive at 11. Considering the time I could wait in the temple there was still about half of the time left where I had to find a temporary place to rest. Renting a room for about two hours didn’t seem like a good option so I decided to walk around despite the tiredness. A tea shop vendor was kind enough to have a chai-pe-charcha about the current affairs. I had never had such amazing and delicious tea before. After some panic moments of not finding the boarding point to getting picked up from a stop 5km away from where I was earlier, I was finally heading back towards Bangalore with the day well spent.

PS:

  1. Walking on the streets of Thanjavur below the scorching sun in the month of February is not a good option. At least carry an umbrella.
  2. A lot of monuments have been converted into love letters by hopeless romantics. If you see any such acts, educat them and enjoy the best of the views that have remained in this beautiful city.
  3. Though the food joints here serves a variety of cuisines, opt for south Indian food if you are comfortable.

Ticket to Bhutan

This is a third year-end trip that I have taken with my school friends. Since this story is going to be a longer one, keep a cup of coffee/chai and some munchies handy.

Our procrastinating mind always leads us to making same mistakes again and many of them happen during the travel plans. After multiple con-calls, date changes and flight reschedules, we had arrived on a 7 day itinerary from 27th Dec to 2nd Jan for Bhutan. Travel Triangle helped us to come up with a budgeted 10k package and we were counting the days for our first international trip.

Day 1

There was a long day ahead of us. First would be a 5-hour flight journey followed by a road trip to the Indo-Bhutan border for the same amount of time.

कुर्सी की पेटी बांध लें… अब हम उड़ान के लिए तैयार हैं

Our flight left Bangalore at 5 AM in the morning as per the scheduled time and I managed to reach Bagdogra 20 minutes before my friends arrived via Mumbai. The Bagdogra airport is an Army base and has very fewer amenities around the area. We were totally hungry and the most logical option seemed to go to Siliguri which is about 10km from the airport. The Siliguri City Center Mall appears like an oasis when compared to the area around it. Since we didn’t want to take any risks with appetite just before starting the journey, we settled for KFC burgers, though the food-court there offers a variety of options for a sumptuous food. One of our friend Abhishek was yet to arrive that evening and rest of had to kill 3 hours of time at Siliguri.

There is always chai pe charcha when you have some time to kill

We headed to Phuentsholing at 4:30 PM in the evening with a quick pitstop for yummy dumplings on our way. The temperatures were already nearing 10 degrees and it was pitch dark at just 5:45 PM. While all the members squeezed sat inside, our Innova moved quickly on a narrow country road. Our stay was already booked at Hotel Kasturi, 100m away from the Bhutan gate and we made it to the hotel by about 9:30 PM. Since it was already too late to explore the places around, we decided to have dinner at the Kasturi. Our destination was right next to us and the night passed quickly while we dreamed about the scenic beauty of Bhutan.

Day 2

The first look at the Bhutan Gate
Not just snow, December is the season of oranges too

Our tour operator All-Ways had sent a person along with us to help us get the entry permits. The permit office is at a walkable distance from the gate where we need to individually apply for the permit. It is always better to have an agent since they take care of all the hassles and get the process done quickly. The application for a permit should contain our itinerary, a passport photograph, an identity proof such as passport or voter’s ID and a photocopy of the same. Once our documents were verified, we need to wait in a long queue at the permit counters for obtaining the permit.

Since December is an off-season, there were comparatively fewer people yet the place was crowded and chaotic. After exchanging some Indian Rupee for Ngultrum(Bhutanese currency aka Nu) we were ready to head towards Thimpu. Ngultrum has 1:1 exchange rates with Indian Rupee and most of the Indian Rupee denomination are widely accepted in Bhutan. Most of the shops/hotels ask to pay the bill only by cash (Indian or Bhutanese) so it is suggested to keep sufficient cash in hand for the entire trip.

Money…. Money…. Money

We met our chauffeur Sonam and headed towards Bhutan. He was mostly quiet at the beginning and continue to chew Paan while we admired the beauty of the new country. Time at Bhutan is 30 minutes ahead of India. The cellphones will have no reception and opting for a temporary Tashi cell SIM can be handy. We were awestruck by the cleanliness of the roads and disciplined drivers. The life on both sides of the border was really contrasting.
The immigration check-post is about 5km away from the Bhutan gate where our permits would be stamped. The road to Thimpu was covered mostly with fog as we moved to higher altitudes. Distinct colored prayer flags were in most of the places and a conversation about them was an ice-breaker for us to talk to Sonam. The colored flags were used to ask for blessings and prosperity whereas a bunch of 108 white flags would be used to mourn and pray for the departed souls.

Flags blessing our way

The temperature was dropping and it was too dark while we were more than halfway far from Thimpu. When Sonam overheard us talking about snow-fall, he pointed towards the edge of the road where there was white powdered snow throughout. Since it was too dark, we could just imagine the scenes around.

Our stay for the next two nights was at Amaa suits which is a bit outskirts of Thimpu city. Again due to off-seasonal trip, we got rooms in this 3-star hotel for really less cost. Each suit included two bedrooms, bathrooms, hall and a utility area. It was a firsthand experience for most of us in a 3-start hotel. The beds even had a bed-warmer which kept us warm from the negative temperature outside. We reached the hotel at around 8:30 after a quick dinner. Since it was too dark already, we were yet to see the true beauty of Thimpu.

Day 3

The day started with a freezing cold morning and temperature was still in negative at 8:30 AM. I was struggling to capture the beauty around us from my shivering and numb hands. I had brought a DSLR with me for the first time and didn’t want to waste a moment to explore and capture some pictures. But that’s also the sad part of being the camera person in the group. You might not be in most of the pictures 😅

Our hotel was in the valley surrounded by tall mountains. The grass on them had all dried and the hills were flaunting their golden beauty. Our driver Sonam was asked to pick us up by 8:30, but he was more than an hour late. The sun sets very early (at around 5:30) and most of the tourist attractions would close by as early as 4 PM. It was our only day at Thimpu and we wanted to make the most out of it. After a quick breakfast (it was prepared late, but we gobbled-up), we headed to the Memorial Chorten also know as Thimpu Stupa. This was built in the memory of king Druk Gyalpo. The place had an entry fee of 300 Nu. The three-story building stands tall in the middle of a garden and houses many sculptures and pictures of the king and Budha. The stupa looked even more vibrant covered with all the colored flags. One can get the bird’s eye view of the city standing in the gallery of the second floor.

Buddha Dordenma, a tall Budha statue built overlooking the city of Thimpu was our next destination. The statue was built for the prosperity and well-being of the people of Thimpu which is the reason why they have a plan of keeping 25 thousand small Budha statues inside the majestic Bhudha. The statue is situated on the edge of a tall mountain and can be seen from most part of the city. A tall statue and snow-capped mountains on the foreground really seemed like a wallpaper coming to life. The calm expressing on the face of the statue takes anyone to a trance state for a fraction of a second.

The next place was Changangkha Lakhang monastery. This is one of the oldest monasteries in Thimpu. My advice is to find a guide or a local person/monk who knows about the place. Inside of most of the monastery looks the same yet they have a unique story tied to them. Most of the places have designated guides who enthusiastically explain the place history in either Hindi or English.

The national animal Takin can be seen in the National Takin Preserver in Bhutan. There are very few in number along with few Thar in this park. The entry ticket price was slightly higher i.e. 300 Nu, but seeing these animals from so close is worth the money. I could click some really good pictures here and it seemed like the animals were actually posing.

The Thimpu Heritage museum is at a distance from the monastery and shows the ethnic lifestyle of people of Bhutan. There is a huge 3 storied house which shows the purpose of each of the floors. The entire house is made of mud-walls, wooden floors, and wooden roof. This provides comfort from the harsh weather outside. The ground floor called Okhang acts as a stable for the cattle whereas the rooms by name Barthog and Phuna in the first floor is used to store grains and wine. The second-floor houses bedroom, prayer room (Choesham) and Kitchen (Thabtshang). There was a live display of traditional winemaking where we tasted the local wine Aara. It tasted sweet in the sample they gave, but the one we purchased there turned out to be bitter with an unbearable smell, so it’s better to settle for the sample they give.

The museum also has a restaurant which serves traditional Bhutanese meal including the well-known datshi for 300 or 500 Nu with a variety of options. Cheese in Bhutanese is called Datshi. It is combined with a variety of vegetables and meat to prepare Ema (chilly), Shamoo (mushroom), Kewa (potato) or chicken Datshi. We headed to a restaurant nearby and relished some datshi with red rice, we just loved the Shamoodatshi.

Traditional Bhutanese Dishes: Red rice, ema-datshi, steamed rice, Manchurian gravy and shamoo-datshi

The restaurant experience in our entire trip was always long because each service in the hotel is prepared from scratch. With the combination of skeleton-staff system, it took an average time of 1.5 to 2 hr every time. We were done with the places to visit and our driver dropped us near the handicraft market for some souvenir shopping. There are more than 30 stalls in a stretch where scarfs, hand-purse, wallpapers, wall-hangings are made by the people and sold. The place was already getting cold and dark soon, so we headed back to our hotel after some quick shopping. We had to travel to Paro the next day.

Day 4

When we are dependent on a single vehicle for travel, communication is utmost important. We had messed it up with Sonam and he had arrived an hour later even after the reminder calls. A trip can never be complete without an instance of Murphy’s Law. Just after 10 minutes since we have left, our vehicle stopped due to the frozen cooling system. It took about two hours for the mechanics to arrive and declare the vehicle fit to drive. We were late, impatient, hungry all at the same time, but there was nothing that we could do.

This is where we were stuck. Every inch here is so beautiful

Way to Paro was on the edge of mountains with Thimpu-chu flowing in the valley. Every turn opened to majestic mountains and traces of snow on the way as proof of extremely cold night. After two hours of drive, we had entered the city of Paro.

The first place to visit near Paro was Chele la Pass which is the highest motorable road in Bhutan. There was heavy snow-fall on the top of the hill and we had to stop 20km before the destination due to the slippery and inaccessible road. Bikers were struggling to balance their vehicle. The snow looked like cotton scattered in the forest and all that we could do was to play with the snow and imagine the situations on the hilltop. We left the place at 2 and headed to the city.

Just the look of this pretty Paro city from a birds-eye-view had brought back our enthusiasm only to be stopped by the never-ending wait for the lunch to be served. If your driver knows the hotel, better call them up half an hour early for your trip to be on schedule.
When we had our late lunch at 3:45 and reached the first monastery i.e Tha-dzong, it was already closed. In fact, most of the tourist attractions in Bhutan close by 4 PM (ticket counters close by 3:30). To make the best of time we had left, we visited the Nemi Zam Bridge (the bridge of happiness). It was fun clicking pictures wearing Gho the traditional dress of Bhutan. All sorts of poses from Karate-kid, dragon ball Z and Kung Fu Panda were experimented to get some perfect clicks.

After wandering through the streets of Paro to buy some souvenirs, we headed back to our rooms at Dechen Hill Resort. We had missed seeing three monasteries from our itinerary and our only hope was covering it somehow on our last day. The evenings are really cold in Paro and the city sleeps by 8:30. We had to plan something for the next day since it was new year’s eve and we didn’t want to just sit in our room early at 5 PM.

Day 5

It’s the last day of 2018, and we were all set to hike to Taktsang Lakhang aka Tiger’s next. The place got its name from the legend where Guru Rinpoche flew to the top of the hill sitting on the back of his consort who had taken the form of a tigress. He meditated there for 40 days in a cave and a Monastery was built around the cave in the early 16th century. It got burnt down once by a forest fire and then by a butter-lamp before the current one is built. The cave inside the monastery is closed at all times and opened only for a day on the 6th month of Bhutanese calendar.
The hike was a total of 8km ascend which included a steep climb through the forest and then about 700+ steps before finally reaching the monastery. Cane sticks are available at the foothill for rent at Rs. 50 which can be good hiking support. The entry fee for the monastery is 500 Nu and the entry to the monastery is provided only upon displaying the entry ticket. Ponies are available for rent which can take you uphill till half way but it would be a waste of money since the monastery can be reached only by foot in the second half of the hike.

Though we had started at a decent pace, we fell behind the schedule when our group got split due to various walking speeds. I was busy capturing the monastery from various angles and distance which was a waste of time. To all photography enthusiasts, there is a beautiful viewpoint near the monastery just when the steps begin, so cover the lens and take brisk steps. There is a cafeteria about half way where one can buy refreshments, but for a really higher cost. So it is advised to carry your own food. But remember, do not litter the place.

Just a little more. We can see it already

When I had reached the viewpoint, I was spellbound by the beauty and the structure of the monastery. It would always make me wonder how the ancestors managed to build it on the edge of a mountain while we struggle to climb it in bare hands. The place was really cold up there and the waterfall on top was partially frozen. Again, the guides there were helpful in explaining each part of the huge monastery. I literally jumped with cheer when a 10Rs note I dropped went deep into the cave which was considered a good sign. Maybe 2019 has more surprises waiting for me.

The tiger’s nest

We were sure of not visiting any other place that day so we descended at a moderate pace and managed to reach foothill by 4:15 pm. Our ascending took about 3 hours whereas the descend was just 1.75 hours. Never miss visiting Tiger’s nest at least once. In fact, it is tiger’s nest what you see when you Google for Bhutan.
It was surprising to find out that two restaurants Champa Cafe and Mountain Cafe on the main road of Paro were serving delicious food quickly. Book ark these restaurants for your next visit to Paro. If you are in the street of Paro in the night, never miss a chance to have look at the Rinpung Dzong. The entire fortress lit with yellow lights looks like a bride.

Rinpung dzong in the night. It looks much more beautiful in real

We had our new year’s eve dinner at Mountain Cafe after completing some last moment shopping for all those who had skipped our mind. The streets were getting empty even on new year’s eve. Thank god, the cab service was still available. The taxi drivers here were humble and honest. They refused to accept any extra money or take us to a place which they were not aware of. I was moved when a cab driver said “Yaha Koi Nahi Khata Sahab (nobody accepts bribe here)” when we offered extra money to take us all in a single cab.
We were celebrating New year half an hour early to Indian time, so we decided to celebrate and toast to the new year twice. The evening was spent with a lot of laughs and recalling some funny yet beautiful memories. I wish such evenings happen all the time. We welcomed a new year with smiling and cheering faces.

Day 6

There were few hours in hand to cover the places we missed before we head to Phuentsoling. The first place Kyichu Lakhang was a monastery built in the 7th century. The name is derived from Kyi(peace) and chu(water), literally a peaceful place beside a river. It was one of the first monasteries to be built in Bhutan and still consists of a statue of Budha from the era. Our guide Karma was keen to explain the place history of how each part of the monastery was built by different kings. He had answers to all our questions about the culture and uniqueness of Bhutan. Each painting on the wall came to life when he told us the story of how Guru Rinpoche came to Bhutan and how Budha showed them the path to enlightenment through his teachings. I felt blessed when a monk there offered us few oranges.

We then visited back the Tha dzong which we had missed the other day. This dzong was also used as the national museum now shifted to a building adjacent to it. There were huge collections of masks used for the mask festival of Butan conducted on the third month of the Bhutanese calendar. People of Bhutan have a close relationship with nature and hence the masks of various animals and birds. Each mask represents the state and nature of humans. These mask dances are believed to be seen by the great saint Pema Lingpa in his dream and then he taught it to people to pass the blessings. The museum also consists of various birds and animals found in the country as taxidermy. It was surprising to see such display of animals and more surprising to hear that these were created in India. Not a single place I have seen in India displays animals using taxidermy, I am thankful because the sight of it isn’t pleasant at first.

One of the guides there had an answer for our confusions in the terms dzong and Lhakhang. The dzong is usually bigger in size and built at higher altitudes since they were used as watchtower too. Lakhang, on the other hand, was comparatively smaller. It then made total sense when we could view the entire city and the mountains on the other side when we stood near Tha dzong.
The last place to visit was Rinpung Dzong, a majestic fortress that can be seen from any part of the city. It was built to keep a watch on Mongolians and Tibetans who tried to attack Bhutan. The fortress now consists of the Royal court of Paro and the Chief department of monks. It is the only place in Bhutan where the royal court is inside a fortress. The fortress is a visual feast from its interiors filled with vibrant colored paintings and fine carvings. The Rinpung Dzong hosts the first day of the mask festival inside its premises and the rest are conducted in the ground to accommodate a large number of people. Young monks are brought to Rinpung for their religious education. There is a statue of young prince Siddhartha or the unenlightened Budha in the temple of the fortress which signifies that even Budha was a normal human just like all of us before his enlightenment. The paintings inside the temple speak the story Budha’s walk of life and are made using natural dye. The entire fortress is believed to be built without a single nail following the ancient architectural style. Even this fortress got partially destroyed due to butter-lamp and the current one is built about 100 years ago.

With all the places visited, it was time to bid adieu to Paro and head back to Phuentsholing. The entire route is scenic with really fine roads. We had missed seeing these during our journey to Thimpu. On our way back, Sonam reminded me about the white flags and tried to explain every situation where people died while driving. I have spotted not less than 20 such groups of flags which sent a chill down my spine.
Our last stay at Bhutan at the Tsheringma hotel was very close to the Bhutan gate. It was really funny to watch two different countries from either side of the fencing following their own lifestyle.

The entire next day went in a travel first by road and then in the sky. Many of us were compensating for the sleep they missed while I enjoyed the hiccups of memories from the last few days. We had successfully completed our first international trip.

Our Crew. From left: Adhish, Abhishek, Suraj, Karthik, myself, Keshav and Preetham

PS:
1. If you are a first-time international traveler, do carry your passport for identification at the immigration office. You can get your first stamp on passport here.
2. Start your trip early, though it’s cold in the morning. It is better than spending pointless time in the room.
3. Do not miss visiting ‘Simply Bhutan’ at Thimpu. They have an excellent display for Bhutanese culture and food. We did miss this.
4. It can seem like heaven for those who drink alcohol. The prices are dirt cheap. You can try their Zumzin Peach wine and K5 scotch Whiskey which are well known. But drink responsibly.
6. Bhutan is famous for the use of Phallic symbols and art. So don’t be surprised if you see Phallus shaped key-chains or souvenir in the shops.
7. Special thanks to my cousin Sandeep for the camera. I could capture some really good pictures.
8. If you are carrying a DSLR, make sure one more person in the group knows how to use it and stick with that person to get a good picture of yours too 😛

Ticket to Munnar feat. Neelakurinji

Ever since a Facebook friend of mine had posted an article on Neelakurinji blooms in Munnar, I was waiting to see it live. I had read articles on the Valley of flowers and the Tulip-gardens of the north, but when I saw that such a phenomenon happens in the south, that too once in 12 years, I jumped from my chair and started planning for the trip. It was just the month of June and the blooming was expected to be seen between August to October. Though the Kerala tourism boasted of hosting the travelers for the blooming, there were no signs of precise information.
After a long search on the internet, I planned to switch to Airbnb since it would be a better experience having a host who might be interested in traveling too. One of the host Raiyaan, was quick enough to point me towards the Eravikulam National Park website and also suggested some more places that I can include in my itinerary. After a little more research, I planned to visit the Kalaripayattu Show which was the second main destination of my trip. Made my bookings for stay at Raiyaan’s home who agreed to help with getting a scooter as well for the travel. My bus journey bookings were done too for 30th August and 2nd September with a detailed plan for each day.
But the time had different plans. Majority of Kerala was struck by untimely floods towards the end of August which caused a lasting impact on the state. I had to cancel my plans and lost quite a bit of money on the booking. It was almost a month since then and just when was furious about missing out, a tiny window of opportunity opened and I got a weekend’s time to travel to Munnar. Since I already knew what I needed, I did my booking quickly, this time choosing a small hotel in heart of the town and entry to the National Park on Sunday 30th morning.

There was half a day to plan the itinerary and pack my bags. This was one of my first trip where I had no clue of how my days will go and surprisingly  I had made peace with it. The next few hours passed by quickly and I slept peacefully in the last seat of Greenline travels as the bus zoomed towards Munnar.

Day 1

It was 7:30 in the morning when the bus operator asked us to board to another mini-bus. We had stopped at Theni village overlooking the Shola forest. I managed to get a window seat excited about getting to see the beauty of nature from close. After a 10 minutes stop at a small hotel for refreshments, our journey started en route Munnar.

The gigantic mountains were playing peek-a-boo behind the clouds which created an out of the world scene. The long yet mesmerizing journey continued as our bus moved on the thin road carved on the edge of the mountains and we were finally at the border of Kerala. From here the geography changed completely starting with a welcoming tea estate. Next, we passed between the cardamom and spices plantation and then the well-known place called Gap Road. The place earlier was a tourist hotspot which would give a bird’s eye view of the tea estates, but now due to road widening all I could see was the entire area covered in mist and the road in front of me packed with a huge line of vehicles stuck in a roadblock.
The next destination on our way to Munnar was the Lock-Heart. The place had mostly the hills covered with lush green tea plants and small waterfalls trying to make its way between them. This was almost the constant scene on either side till we reached Munnar. I had plans of visiting Lock-Heart again, but the bus operator suggested me to skip as it would end up eating more time.

It was 10:30 AM when I reached Maunnar and the owner at SMM cottage had agreed for an early check-in. He even helped me get a scooter for my travel and I was all set to explore within half an hour.

There are 4 directions which have places to explore. One was towards the Lock-Heart which I decided to skip since most of it I had seen and captured while I was on the bus. The next one which is opposite to Lock-Heart is towards the Eravikulam Park scheduled for my second day at Munnar. I had two more sides to explore and Mattupetty was my first pick.

Riding a two-wheeler on hairpin curves covered with a canopy was a pleasant experience and the cold breeze was giving all the energy I need for the day. The first spot was called the Photo-Point where people stop by to get a picture clicked with tea gardens in the background. I had not had anything for the breakfast and decided to go with Maggie there as it was the craving of the moment.

Since I was not much of a fan of elephant-rides, I decided to skip the Elephant-park which was next. After continuing for about 3 kilometers, I had reached the Mattupetty Dam. Surprisingly there was no security personnel near the dam which would be otherwise. This made it easier to capture good pictures of water gushing out from the dam gate. I had missed this opportunity during my Manali trip.

Mattupetty Dam

Mattupetty was the last spot according to my plan. But I had ample time in hand and decided to continue ahead. The forest was getting more denser now and there was a place where I saw people curiously looking at something. When I stopped by, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were about 5 elephants which were grazing at about 100 meters away. Our presence seemed to be not disturbing them as they continued doing what they did. There are 3 such places on this route called elephant viewpoints where there are more chances of spotting elephants and other wild animals.

Three more places on the route ahead were echo-point, shooting-spot, and Kundaly lake. These three places have a huge range of mountains in the background with a picturesque view. The Echo-point facilitates boat-rides in the river as well. I covered these places quickly and headed back to the Munnar town.

Sun was behind the dark clouds when I reached back Munnar at 2 and it started to rain while I was having my lunch. I had anticipated this from the forecast but was lucky enough to cover one stretch without any issues. The Kathakali and Kalaripayattu shows were scheduled to start at 5 PM at Punarjani Traditional Village. There were two spots to cover before I reached there. Unfortunately, when I reached the first one i.e. the Pothamedu viewpoint, it rained heavily again. This was the sign to skip the rest of the plan and head straight to Punarjani which was about 7 km towards Chittirapuram. Due to heavy rains, I took about 1.5 hours to reach while taking continuous pit-stops. The route had water flowing on the road in many places and there were signs of mini landslides in the past, giving it an eerie feel. A pair of rain-proof jacket helped me stick to the timeline and I was half an hour early to the show totally in a drenched state.

I was 5 minutes late to the make-up session of Kathakali and couldn’t get a chance to click pictures while artists painted their face with makeup. After lighting the lamp, the Kathakali show started with an initial introduction to the art. An actor in the costume of a lady showed the 9 different expressions also known as Navarasa. We were spellbound to see each of the expression coming to life even without uttering a single word and just following the beats made by Chende (a traditional drum).

And then to put these emotions to life, I was called on the stage as a volunteer. She (this would be apt for the role that he was playing) first says that I look good, but I am skinny. She thinks that I don’t eat much. She serves me food with 4 dishes, makes me eat it till I lick the fingers conveying that it was delicious. Makes me wash my hands and then return. The entire act was done only using signs and expressions. I hesitated initially, but the crowd was cheering me to participate.

Following this was enacting of a story with two female and one male character. Each of the girls would try to make the guy fall in love with them by praising about themselves and the man. Though I couldn’t follow the story completely, I could understand that it was no different from any story that I might have seen or heard. In the end, the man ends up rejecting both of them.

The next being Kalaripayattu was a treat to the eyes. As the experienced performers fought with swords and daggers, we could see the sparks come out every time they attacked each other. They showed various stunts using bamboo-sticks, swords and rings lit with flames. They even asked about 4 volunteers to stand next to each other and could jump over them.

While all this was happening, there was a continuous downpour of rain which made me worried about reaching back to the hotel. However, the weather was calm when I traveled back and it was 8:30 PM when I reached the hotel after dinner. I was continuously praying for the rain to stop and didn’t realize when I fell into deep sleep.

Day 2

Finally, the day for which I have been waiting for months had arrived. I got ready quickly and left for Eravikulam at 7 in the morning. The roads were empty and the mist blocked most of the view. Though the temperature was bone-chilling, it still felt pleasant for a change. When I reached the Eravikulam National park at 7:30, there were about 30 people ready for the Kurinji tour. I had booked my slot of 9 AM, but they allowed me in the immediate batch. Meanwhile, I also saw that there was Kurinji Trails Trek which sounded interesting. My plan was to complete the tour and then come back and participate in the trek.

A mini-van with a capacity of about 20 members left for the Rajamala hills. The journey was short which passed through the tea estates. I got the first glimpse of the Neelakurinji flowers when the bus started to climb the Rajamala hill.

The plants started to increase in numbers as we moved up. We were at a checkpoint after which there was a kilometer long road which led to the topmost accessible point on the hill. To my disappointment, the amount of blooming was not as much as it was shown in the images, however seeing a flower that blooms once in 12 years had made the trip a worth.  I explored the place quickly and captured some good pictures from the top of the hill and headed back to the park entrance in a bus.

The ticket to Neelakurinji trails trek costed me Rs. 750/-. Nikhil, Sulthan, Asha and myself along with our guide Arun started our trek at 9 AM sharp. Arun briefed about the trek that it is an 8 KM long walk that usually takes 2 hours to complete. We would be entering the forest and also pass by a waterfall on our way. He also told that the trails are slippery and filled with Leeches. I was the only one in the team to have a poker face since I wasn’t prepared for both. I mentally prepared myself for the worst.
Our journey’s first 1km stretch was through the tea plantations. Arun was giving us a lot of information about the place. Most of the land in Munnar is taken on lease by the joint venture of Tata and Kannan Devan for a period of 100 years. There are more than 30 estates each with a manager who will be provided with a personal bungalow, vehicle and every facility for a lavish lifestyle. However, the day-wage workers would get meager pays.

As we walked ahead, I saw something crawling over my feet. Leech !! I couldn’t bear the sight of it trying to suck the blood, but I was helpless. More I stopped to remove them, even more would get time to start crawling on. At a point, I chose to ignore while two of them continued to drink blood from between my toe. Our first checkpoint had arrived. We were below the Erachipara falls. Sulathan and Nikhil didn’t waste time in taking a dip in the water while Asha was busy talking to Arun to get information on flora and fauna. I admired her interest in knowing every tiny detail.

 Till we reached the end of the trek which was to the top of Rajamala hill I had visited earlier that day, Arun helped us spot different types of flowers and plants. We even saw a flower(kurinji) that blooms in once in 3 and 7 years. 

We were in half minds to go till top of the hill unless we could get a chance to see the rare Neelagiri Thar. Arun was quick in calling his colleague and helped us see them which were just few meters away. Our trek was finally complete with 5 Leech-bites on my feet. We had seen everything we wanted to take back as a memory from Munnar. It was already 2 PM and I had to rush to the hotel. It was time to bid them farewell.

Though I couldn’t cover any other places after Eravikulam, my SRS bus went through the same route giving me a sneak-peak of what I had missed. I continued to admire the beauty of Munnar sitting at the window seat till the sun went down on the west. I had finally checked-off Neelakurinji from my bucket list.

Ticket to Tirupati

We might have often heard the saying that “you go to a place when the place calls you!”, this was true for me in case of Tirupati. About two years ago, when I had planned the trip to Tirupati with family, viral-fever had appeared as Murphy’s Law and made me cancel my trip. Now after two years,  I had got a chance again and my preparations had started well in advance.
The first thing about the Tirupati trip is to make sure you can visit the Balaji (Venkateswara) temple located at Tirumala hills. One needs to either book the special entry tickets in advance through online booking or climb the steps uphill(more information on this later) to join the special queue called Divya-Darshana, or simply join the big queue for free darshan(visit) at the entrance of the temple.
Since this was my first visit, Venkatesh helped me with all my FAQs. My tickets for the temple visit was scheduled for 2 PM to accommodate for any unplanned circumstances. Though I could directly go with that ticket, the thought of trying to reach the temple by footsteps had thrilled me. There were two ways to go by steps namely Alipiri and Srivari. The former has about 3550 steps and latter has 2388. Despite having had all the energy and excitement, Srivari Mettu (steps) was my choice for this visit. Based on Venkatesh’s suggestion, I opted to travel by train instead of the bus. This had worked out economically and cost me just ₹450 for travel. The return journey had a confirmed ticket and rest of my days till 9th August went in waiting for the onward ticket to get confirmed from RAC55.

Journey to Tirumala Hills

Waiting.. Waiting.. Waiting..

After all the requests from co-passengers to exchange the seats, I had managed to get a lower-birth and slept peacefully unaware of the total change of plans I need to face the next day. 5 AM in the morning, the phone rang soon after my regular Alarm. It was a wake-up call from my mom who also asked me to skip my plans of going at 2 PM slot. She suggested me to finish the darshan as soon I as complete climbing the steps. There were announcements that the darshan for the next 6 days would be canceled due to some ceremony at the temple. The train was still about 20 KM away from Tirupati and I had to rework on all the plans.
Since I had to visit the temple directly, I had to manage to take bath at the railway station leaving my bag outside without anyone to have an eye on it. Luckily things were safe at the station and even the bathrooms were moderately clean.

Place where Srivari Mettu starts

The Srivari steps are located in a village called Srinivasamangapuram about 26 KM from Tirupati railway station and can be reached from a direct city bus. The journey was a bit slow and the bus took about an hour to reach. I was at the starting point at around 7:45 AM totally excited to reach the top by foot.

It is best not to count them unless you are close to the end

First, few hundred steps went smooth and then the tiredness kicked in. To add to that, the speakers were announcing that the darshan is suspended till 16th August, making me totally confused about what do I do once I reach the top. There were no tickets given for the people climbing footsteps on that day and my only hope was the 2 PM slot I had reserved. It took me about  75 minutes to climb 2388 steps.

Almost there

There was a sense of accomplishment when I reached the top, thanks to all vendors of water, nimbu-sharbat, fruits who boosted my energy throughout. I had to now choose between either joining the rest of my team members who had arrived from my hometown the previous day or to go ahead and complete darshan from the free darshan (also called as Sarva-darshan) queue.

Tirumala Venkateswara Temple

A volunteer there suggested me to go ahead with the Sarva-darshan since there were fewer people that day and asked me to deposit my backpack while I complete the darshan. Thanks to Zingaro, I could stuff all my belonging in a single bag including my footwear. As I went ahead in the queue, I had realized my mistake. The Sarva-darshan depends on the time-slot and mine was allotted for 9 PM. All my belongings including my cell phone were deposited in the luggage counter and the only thing I could possibly do was to exit from the queue and wait in the luggage collection counter for them to arrive. It took about an hour for the luggage to transfer to the collection counter and the volunteer there was kind enough to inform me as soon as they arrived. I had made up my mind to not have any more adventures for the day and to go ahead with the 2 PM slot since the same was still available. I was allowed to enter the queue from the special ticket entry an hour earlier. The time flew quickly as we moved ahead in the queue chanting “Govinda Govinda”. All the stress from the day vanished when I saw the Idol of god Venkateswara. It was a mixed emotion of happiness and relief to be at that moment after two long years of wait. As the saying goes “Right place at the right time”, the darshan was smooth with lesser crowd due to the ceremony in the temple.

Thanks to Kashi Mutt Tirumala, I could have a peaceful stay for two days at a walkable distance from the Venkateswara temple. Nothing can be more exciting than finding homely food in an unknown town while you try to figure out things. There are very few private hotels in Tirumala. The accommodation is provided mostly by Mutts which are managed by various communities. There is also a guest house managed by the Tirumala Temple which can be booked from their official website. Temple had restrictions on carrying mobile phones and I had to capture the moments in my brain instead of a 32GB card in my phone most of the time. There are also strict guidelines on attire to enter the temple.

Padmavati Temple

On the second day evening, we descended from Tirumala to visit Padmavati temple. Goddess Padmavati is believed to be an incarnation of goddess Lakshmi who was married to Lord Venkateswara. The Padmavati temple is smaller compared to the Venkateswara temple but has the same glory. The visit to Tirumala temple is incomplete without the darshan of Padmavati. We got lucky again due to the lesser crowd and managed to complete the darshan within few minutes.

I bid adieu to my team after we had a quick visit to the temple in Srinivasamangapura where I had started ascending my steps. I was an hour early to the station and waiting for the train was more tiring than climbings the steps to hills. I had finally accomplished the long pending dream.

Our crew

Ticket to Ramanagara

Though during my Chennapattana and Mysore visit I had seen Ramanagar on the way, I could never make up my mind to visit. All I could see was just the huge boulders. Recently when I was trying to look for places around, few articles showed that the Legend….. (wait for it) … dary, the legendary movie Sholay was shot in Ramanagara. The Ramgadh of the Sholay was today’s Ramanagara. I also came to know that the place where most of the movie was captured was called Ramadevara betta now a Vulture Sanctuary. It is the only vulture sanctuary in India. So the place was decided, but I had a little more time in hand. I planned to take a look at the SRS hill which can then connect me to Kanakapura road.

The day had arrived and I left at 6 in the morning. I had kept my backpack light since there was a lot of hill-climbing to be done. Was not fully awake since the caffeine had not entered the blood-stream yet. What more can be a good start for the day than the Bisi Bidadi Thatte Idli? The place Bidadi is quite famous for its unique melt-in-mouth Thatte Idli. These are slightly bigger in size and traditionally cooked in plates(Thatte). I got a recommendation for Shree Renukamba Bidadi Thatte Idli, but the location on the map was quite confusing. I Just stopped at Shashi Thatte Idli and ordered a Double Idli Vada. The sight of melting butter on hot steaming Idli was a treat to the eyes and the taste was heavenly. Half a cup of coffee gave me the energy to continue my journey.

Ramadevara Betta

I was at the entry gate at around 7:45 AM and disappointed to see that the gates were still closed. Had seen in one of the blogs that the gates will open only by 9, but I wanted to check instead of directly believing. Now I had no option but to wait. While waiting, I met Minnu  who was a content creator for blogs. We had some interesting conversations about blogs, bloggers, content, SEO and then Bitcoins. Upon speaking to the guard there, he gave me some interesting information. First, many scenes from Sholay movie such as the scene were Gabbar cuts the hands of Thakur, the famous water tank scene by Dharmendra were all shot in the vicinity. But all those places are now covered with dense forest. The second was about the vultures. It was sad to know that they were there the previous day and had gone early in the morning in search of food. Now I had all my hopes on the views from hilltop.

I was the first one to enter through the gates after paying a nominal entry fee of ₹25. Upon reaching the foothill, a temple priest there told me that there are 400 steps to reach the top where there is a temple. 400 was not the number I wanted to count, so I just started to climb up. There are many viewpoints on the way which gives a nice view around. It took me about 20 minutes to reach the top where there were two small temples and a Lake. This couldn’t be it. There should be something more, isn’t it? I could still see the hill in front of me, just that the steps weren’t clearly visible. By this time, the other visitors had arrived and all of them were vanishing around a corner. I followed them and found some more steps which climb further up.

While everyone there was busy clicking pictures, I went up ahead to explore. The view from there was much clearer and panoramic. Just when I was about to climb down, I noticed a small trail which finally led to the last climb. The sight was actually scary because it was about 30 steps carved on a rock at almost 80-degree elevation. Though there were supports, I was not ready to climb up all alone. Minnu and his friends were almost near the place by then, and all were excited to make the climb. I left behind few of the heavy items and followed them. As soon as I reached the top, all that I could say was ‘WOW’. I could see many small hills and lush green forest in all around. I would have regretted had I missed this last stretch. After relishing the views, I bid adieu to Minnu and friends and left from there at 11 AM.  All I could hear while climbing down was “How much more to reach the top?”. I did my part by encouraging them to take frequent breaks but not to miss the sight from the top.

Bidadi Thatte Idli

Bidadi Thatte Idli

Steps to climb Ramadevara Betta

Steps to climb Ramadevara Betta

Temple at the hilltop

Temple at the hilltop

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The scary climb

The scary climb

View from hilltop

View from hilltop

SRS Hill

My next destination SRS hill was about 13KM from Ramadevara Betta. SRS or Shree Revana Siddeshwara Hill is a well-known pilgrimage site. It also offers a  great hill climbing experience. As I was approaching closer to the hill, I could see a blue line which was encircling a huge boulder. It was nothing but the walkway made for people to visit the temple on the hilltop. When I reached the foothill, the sight was jaw-dropping. I could see people as young as 8 and as elderly as 60 climbing the hill at the same pace. Not sure if it was from the background they come with or the miracle at the pace, I didn’t see a single tired face there.

The climb was challenging. Here, almost 2/3rd of the steps were carved on the hill and had an average inclination of 60 to 70-degree throughout. The good part was that there were railings throughout for the support and the entire walkway was covered with sheets for shade. There were almost the same amount of steps and I took about 25 minutes to reach the top. The place was a bit crowded since it was a weekend. A bird’s eye view of other small hills and the lakes around from the top almost looked like a dream. I still wonder how people managed to climb before all these supports were installed.

There was two tiny temple-like structure on top. All I could say was “Is that it? there must be something more. Where are all the people whole climbed”. That is when a fellow traveler showed me another path which was descending from the hill in another direction and asked me to visit the temple there.  I was surprised to see a small pond on the top and also a hidden sanctum sanctorum. The temple was packed inside and I took about half an hour to bow down to the diety and come out. The descend back to the foothill was much easier and quicker. Maybe my recent workouts had given me good stamina. I hadn’t experienced any discomfort though I completed visiting both the hills in a single day.

Steps carved on the hill

Steps carved on the hill

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View from the hilltop

View from the hilltop

The pond

The pond

Place where the temple is situated

Place where the temple is situated

Somewhere on my way back to bangalore

Somewhere on my way back to bangalore

The route back from  SRS hill towards Bengaluru was serene. Most of the road passed through paddy fields and farms of mulberry. Ramanagar is known for its sericulture and also called the Silk Town of Karnataka. I could spot many silk-cocoon frames kept in almost every house on the way. I must say, hills in Ramanagara offers a good challenge for those who want to test their stamina while rewarding them with stunning views when they conquer.

Ticket to Kolara

This trip was a quick pilgrimage in the places around Kolara. I had a crew this time of 6 people. Our prime location was Mulabagilu Anjaneya temple. The places around Kolar have their stories knotted to Ramayana, thanks to cousin Shubha for a timely update about all the places. We added Kotilingeshwara, Kurudumale, and Antaragange to the list and it was a perfect itinerary for the day.

Chikka Tirupati

We left at 8 in the morning from Bengaluru. Our first destination close to Sarjapur was Chikka Tirupati. It’s about 30km journey and we reached the temple at around 9. The temple houses a beautiful idol of God Venkataramana and gave a feel of tirupati with the sounds of ‘jargandi jargandi’ at the sanctum sanctorum. We were a bit unlucky since it was the time where they cleaned the idols and we couldn’t see them clearly. With a hope to arrive again, we left for our next location.

Kotilingeshwara

It is about 40km from Chikka Tirupati and can be reached via Bangarpet. The special white paani of Bangarpet was quite famous in Bangalore, but we couldn’t find any on our way via its birthplace.

The Kotilingeshwara temple was famous after it was shot in Shree Manjunatha movie. I wished to visit the place ever since I had watched the movie and it literally houses thousands of Shiva Linga. Sadly the place is highly commercialized. Make sure to set aside at least two hours for this place since there is a fixed path inside the premises for the devotees. There is no exit before you visit all the smaller temples inside and the place gets very much crowded on the weekends. The best attraction of the place is the 108ft tall Shiva Linga which reminds us how small we are in this world.

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They are countless

They are countless

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The 108 feet tall Shivalinga

The 108 feet tall Shivalinga

Mulabagilu

We had a sumptuous meal at Sree Saravana Bhavana on the Bangalore-Tirupati highway and headed next to Mulabagilu Anjaneya temple.

Legend says that after Kurukshetra war, Arjuna went on a pilgrimage and installed the idol in this place. We were at the temple by 2:30 in the noon and waited for a while for the doors to open. A place called Avani which is 10km from here is believed to be the birthplace of Lava-Kusha. We couldn’t visit the place due to the time constraints.

Kurudumale (Koodumale)

Kurudumale is about 10km from Mulabagilu and has a beautiful idol of God Ganapati. The idol is 13ft tall and carved with a single stone. The idol is believed to be very old and the temple around it was built during the Vijayanagara dynasty.

We usually don’t ask for the rains during the travel, but our feet were already burnt by the heated stone flooring in all the temples we had visited in the day. Maybe God heard our prayers and it drizzled a little when we reached Kurudumale. The journey was much pleasant from here onwards.

Adjacent to the Ganesha temple is Someshwara temple which is believed to be built much earlier. The walls have beautiful carvings on them. It has a mixture of two styles by the architects Jakanachari and Dankanachari built during the Chola dynasty. The temple is built without a foundation.

Someshwara Temple

Someshwara Temple

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Beautiful hill behind the Ganesha Temple

Beautiful hill behind the Ganesha Temple

Antaraganage

This was our last location for the day. This place is on a hilltop and has steps to reach the temple. It has a small stream of water that continuously flows to the pond which then flows downhill. We were exhausted by the time we climbed all the steps and disappointed to see that the pond was dried. But the stream still flowed continuously unaffected by the weather around. One can spot some beautiful butterflies apart from the monkeys which are huge in number. The place is also famous as a trekking spot and for cave exploration which I am planning to set aside for the visit here.

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Its a long long walk

Its a long long walk

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The stream

The stream

We bid farewell to Kolar and headed back to Bengaluru humming some old movie songs on the way.

Our crew

P.S:
1. All of us on the team were Aam-Aadmi(Mango People). Though we spotted many farms throughout our journey, we didn’t find a single vendor since the fruits weren’t ripe yet. Pick the best time if you are mango lover too.
2. Special thanks to cousin Madhusudan who made sure we had a comfortable journey with his amazing driving skills.

Ticket to Lepakshi

Lepakshi has been appearing as one of the frequent suggestions every time I look for places to visit around Bangalore. The unique naaga-linga structure had caught my attention easily. I wanted to see it for real. Also, as usual, I started to look for places on the way to plan my day better.

The Hyderabad highway was the best pick for my journey towards Lepakshi. I decided to take the state highway via. Doddaballapur while returning and visit Vidurashwatha on the way. This place is known for witnessing an incident similar to Jallianwala Bagh. Also, if my time calculations matched, I wanted to have my lunch at the Ghati Subramanya Temple which is a slight diversion from my return route. The biggest challenge now was the vehicle. I own an Activa and definitely, it’s not suited for such a long journey. This means I need to travel at a moderate speed taking a breaks at regular intervals. But I wanted to take this one risk to avoid postponing my plan further.

Finally, the day was here and I started at sharp 6 AM to make sure there is ample time to spend at places and to accommodate any Murphy’s law. The only thing I had missed to be prepared was the tire pressure of my vehicle. This had kept me under pressure for most of my journey. Almost 90% of the journey towards Lepakshi was smooth due to the flawless national highway and I ensured to stop for every 40KM to take a break.

Lepakshi

Lepaksha is situated very close to the Karnataka and Andhra border. After about 3.5 hours of journey, the first thing I spotted was the Jatayu theme park. This actually didn’t pop in the Google maps when I had searched earlier and unfortunately, it was closed. The place is in close vicinity to Jatayu Moksha Ghat and could be a new inclusion to the place. The next place to visit right opposite to the Jatayu Theme park is the Nandi. The place is well maintained by the authorities. The spectacular statue of Nandi is caved on a single rock.
About few meters ahead from Nandi is the Veerabhadra Temple which was the destination of the day. The entire temple structure is marvelous and built completely with stone. There was not a single inch without the carvings and each pillar had their own story to tell. After admiring the architectural beauty of the temple, I was finally in front of the Naaga Linga. It was exactly as it looked in the pictures and I was spellbound for a while looking at the mammoth sized structure only to be distracted by everyone else around me trying to take pictures with Bahubali pose.

Jatayu Theme Park

Jatayu Theme Park

Nandi

Nandi

Pillar with minute details

Pillar with minute details

Pillars with life-sized carvings

Pillars with life-sized carvings

Lord Ganesha

Lord Ganesha

Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu

Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu

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Symmetrically placed pillars

Symmetrically placed pillars

Naaga Linga

Naaga Linga

Naaga Linga

Naaga Linga


I met few travelers there who suggested me to visit Bhairsagar Lake which houses plenty of migrating birds. The well known Penukonda fort is also at a close vicinity, but due to constraints in my timings and the resources, I planned to save these places for my next trip.

Vidurashwatha

The next place in the list was Vidurashwatha, which is about 33KM from Lepakshi. I took the road towards Hindupura and then a diversion to the state highway to Bangalore. I was at an hour deviation from my planned timings, but things were still in control. It was around 12:00 PM when I reached Vidurashwatha. The monument of freedom fighters and the famous Ashwathanarayana temple are next to each other. The place was a witness to the brutal killing of 32 freedom fighters and a monument has been built in the honor of them. Veera Saudha situated in the vicinity has a photo gallery which speaks the story of the struggles which led to the independence.
Ashwathanarayana temple has more than a thousand idols of god Naaga and has hundreds of devotees visiting every day. The temple also houses the Ashwatha tree which was believed to be planted in the times of Mahabharata. The tree collapsed a few years ago and now has a part of it which is worshipped by the people.

Freedom fighter's memorial

Freedom fighter's memorial

Naaga idols in the temple premises

Naaga idols in the temple premises

Things were fine when I left Vidurashwatha and I had to reach Ghati Subramanya Temple which was around 50KM from there. Murphy’s Law happened and it started raining. The breeze was so strong that I had difficulties controlling my two-wheeler. After 15 minutes, it was manageable drizzles and I decided to skip Ghati Subramanya and head straight to Bangalore. When I reached the diversion towards the temple, the rain had already stopped and I chose to take a chance here and continue with my original plans of visiting the temple. It was overcrowded there, but I managed to get the gimps of god and have a sumptuous meal at the temple. Rice, sambar, and buttermilk were all I needed after the long tiring journey. The jaggery-poha payasam was an added bonus.

It drizzled again while I traveled towards Bangalore but the experience was still pleasing.

P.S:
1. Do not travel in a two-wheeler like Active for more than 200KM at a stretch in a single day. It does cause back pain. Now I know 😛
2. The May and June month is a heaven to jackfruit lovers and you can spot plenty of vendors throughout the journey.

Ticket to Pondy

It was a dream trip plan for a special day. I wanted to celebrate my birthday with a unique experience. Pondy + scuba-diving was a perfect combination.

With my experience from Rajasthan trip, the hostel was the best accommodation for a solo trip. I got a good deal at Villa Olivia for my two-day stay. I was also in conversation with Amy who was helping me to plan my itinerary with all the do’s and don’ts. Now the wait was for the day to arrive.

Pondy

Reaching pondy was a smooth journey because of the travel on a sleeper bus and I was at pondy by 7 AM as expected. I had to wait for almost an hour to get into the hostel where I met Samuel (Sam). Our stay was a small house on the second floor where I was sharing my room with two other people. I even got a scooter for myself for just 300/- a day. I met Sue, Adrian and Baz there who were sharing their experience from their stay at Pondicherry which continued till we got our beds allotted.

It was already midday when I was at the Rock Beach for a brunch which is just about a kilometer away from the hostel. I settled for a Burger and went on to explore the French Colony. First on the list was the French Memorial followed by the Gandhi statue which was on the right opposite side. It was already 12 by then and I couldn’t visit Aurobindo Ashram since it was closed. Next was the French Museum which was nothing but a huge collection of books inside a French mansion. It’s not really worth a visit if one is not interested in just the books. But the Pondicherry Historical Museum didn’t disappoint me. It was worth watching all the artifacts recovered from the excavation done at Arikamedu and other areas surrounding Pondicherry.

Without wasting much time, I had to now head to the Temple Adventures to get some lessons for my Dive. The instructor Kailash was friendly and patient enough to help me understand the hand signal to be used and various techniques such as removing and using back the regulator and clearing the eye goggles. Breathing inside water using my mouth was really uncomfortable initially and I was very nervous for the next day since I would be inside water for longer time.

I still had some time on hand and the next destination was Paradise Beach. This is one such beach with fine white sand where one can spend all day. Though there was a ferry that can take me to the beach, I choose to ride by scooter which took me to the same beach at a distant shore. The feel was just amazing sitting on the seashore and admiring the waves that rush towards the sand.

When I reached back to the hostel, Joelle was the new member there and we all had our part of experiences to share from the day. Adrian was leaving to Madhurai that night and he wanted to explore the French colony. I accompanied him on the walk through the French colony where we tasted some local Masala Puri, watched few classical dance performances and explored the market. He was happy like a kid when we saw an elephant in the temple nearby and it blessed him in return for a One rupee coin. The next day was big for me since it was my Birthday. I also met Lensie before I ended the day.

Villa Olivia

Villa Olivia

Gandhi Statue

Gandhi Statue

French war memorial