Looks like the year for 2019 has a lot in store for me. After my trip to Hampi, the urge to visit Badami had grown stronger. To see this place which inspired the architectural marvels all throughout the south. However, I had not imagined that my wish would be granted so soon. A weekend was all I needed and after a couple of last-moment search for stay and buses, the Badami trip was on. When I mention Badami, it is the trio i.e. Badami, Aihole and Pattadakallu are a must-visit together. They are often referred to as the Cradle of Indian Architecture.
Out of the three, Badami is a larger town and has good accommodations. Pattadakal and Aihole can be reached from here via bus, autorickshaw or any mode of self-transport since they are just 12km apart. My stay at Krishna Villa was confirmed for early check-in. It was at a walkable distance from the bus stand and the Badami caves making it an ideal spot. I set out towards Badami trying to contain my excitement in a bumpy ride on a Friday evening.
When I opened my eyes to the ‘Last stop! Last stop!’ call of the bus driver, it was just 6:45 in the morning. That was it, the town of Badami. But I was dropped off more than an hour earlier than the informed time. To save an embarrassment for a super-early check-in request to the hotel, I decided to have my breakfast first. A Udupi Hotel was adjacent to the KSRTC bus stand, a name which one might find all throughout India known for serving South Indian dishes. A small cup of Uppittu (Upma) was an energy booster, enough for me to drag my steps towards the hotel. After requesting the manager for at least a quick fresh-up facility, I was ready to explore Badami. The manager was kind enough to offer complimentary breakfast which I politely accepted (Pet-Puja is necessary 😛 ). Sun was already much above the horizon and there was a lot to cover in the first half of the day.
First in the list was the Badami Caves. These are a set of 4 caves carved next to each other on a sandstone hill. Like any other historic places, you can find almost any person claiming to be a guide and to a surprise, they tell you most of the facts right. One person named Iranna aka Benne Shetru claimed that he was the oldest around and would accept any amount that I give him in return for the information he gives. His son Arjun was accompanying us throughout, climbing all the tall steps.
All these 4 caves have temples carved are in a single rock. Each of these cave includes a prayer hall called Sabha Mantapa, pillars, sanctum sanctorum, the main deity idol and the carvings of the wall. I was marveled to see how all of these are carved in a single rock without any joints. Out of the 4, the first cave is dedicated to god Shiva, the 2nd and third are to god Vishnu and the last one to the Jain teacher Mahaveera and the 24 Teethankars(teachers). These caves were built during the Chalukya dynasty between the 6th to 9th centuries. Iranna was explaining the reason behind the name Badami where he quoted the demon twins Vatapi-Ilvala who were killed by sage Agastya. So the Vatapi name changed to Badami. Another belief is that the almond colored sandstone hill brought the name to the town since almonds are called badami in Kannada.
The first cave housed a Shiva Lingam in its sanctum sanctorum and the walls were covered with epics related to god Shiva. An 18 hand shiva carved on the wall depicts 81 different postures of Bharatanatyam showcasing the skills of sculptors. Iranna was brilliantly explaining the importance of idols Ardhanarishwara (half Shiva and half Parvati idol) as equality between man and woman, Harihara (half Shiva and half Vishnu) as equality between opinions/beliefs. Unlike many other temples I have seen in the south, even roofs of these caves had beautiful carvings of gods and angels.
Iranna described the 2nd and 3rd caves as 35mm and Cinemascope setup. This is because both of these caves had similar carvings with the difference that the second cave had the sculptures in them smaller in size compared to that of the third. The work in these two caves had the idols in better form and detail. One could easily spot the colorful patters on rocks giving the caves a unique look. The walls of the caves had carvings of god Vishnu in Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, and Harihara forms. The view of the Agastya lake from these caves is a treat to the eye.
The last cave is completely dedicated to Jain Teachers(Tirthankars) and has a carving of Mahaveera in meditation posture in the sanctum sanctorum. The side walls have carvings of Adinatha, Parshvanatha, and Bahubali. Iranna points out that this was proof of the Chalukya dynasty’s love and respect towards the religions.
Separating the Badami Fort and the caves is the majestic Agastya lake. The lake was believed to have medicinal properties before the humans contaminated its water by using pollutant chemicals. The lake gets dried completely in summer and relies on the rainwater flowing down from the hills next to it. The Bhutanatha Group of temples built by the side of this lake was the main reason I was drawn towards Badami. The picturesque view of this temple made from red sandstone is definitely a gem among all. Many of these temples either are empty or have some intriguing carvings on their walls. Museum near the temple has a collection of various idols, tools, and inscriptions found during the excavation. It was during the Chalukya dynasty where the Kannada and Telugu languages had clear distinguishable scripts.
The gigantic fort of Badami is built on a massive hill. There are two Shiva temples called Upper Shivalaya and Lower Shivalaya, a watchtower, treasure rooms and few ruins of storage-rooms/homes at various parts of the hill. The lower Shivayala was believed to have an Idol of god Ganesha who inspired the song Vatapi Ganapathim Bhaje (written by a South-Indian poet Muthuswami Dikshitar[1775–1835]). More sets of steps lead to the upper Shivalaya and the watchtower from where one can catch a bird’s eye view of Badami town. Unlike many other places I had visited where people were busy capturing the views in their cameras, in Badami, there were groups of artists trying to capture them in their canvas. I was spellbound by their patience of standing in the scorching heat for hours together to get that one art right.
The heat was now unbearable and luckily I had covered all the places. It was time for lunch and I went in search of roti meals for which the town is famous for. Corn-roti and Yengai Pallya (brinjal curry) are a must-try combo when in Badami. Unfortunately, the place where I had my lunch didn’t have the brinjal curry, but the meal felt heavenly.
After an hour of rest in my room to escape from the heat I set out to the next set of places. One of the oldest temples in the vicinity Mahakuta group of temples was a suggestion from the hotel owner. An autorickshaw guy Manju agreed to drop me at the temple for an agreeable cost which was 5km far. On our journey, he enquired about my plan for the day and offered to even show Pattadakallu for an additional cost. It was a good option since the buses in the routes were not that frequent and Pattadakallu will be closed for visit post 6 PM. After a quick visit to Mahakuta temple, which indeed looked like the first few built by the Chalukya’s based on its architecture, I was en route Pattadakallu.
The journey was through the lush green fields of corn and sugarcane. The golden corn plants spread across acres and acres of land were new to me who is frequent to such sights of paddy fields. Some days I have this thought of taking farmland and building a house at its center so I could wake up to this view every day. Few humps on the road had brought me back to reality while Manju was getting me closer to my next pitstop.
One of the perks of opting autorickshaw was an opportunity to see this tiny dolmen just 1.5 KM from Badami. They are prehistoric constructions made of flat stones used either as shelters or tombs. The visit happened to be even more exciting since I was carrying a copy of The Early Indians as my journey companion and seeing something even vaguely related to it had already kindled an excitement. It was hard to comprehend how they would have managed to find/make such multiple flat rocks and place them to form a room thousands and thousands of years ago. The site was unfortunately locked and I had to be satisfied with a view of this dolmen from far.
It was a pleasant evening when I was dropped off at Pattadakallu. This was the last town where Chalukyas ruled before getting defeated by the Rashtrakutas. The reason behind the name of this town is interesting. The place is in the banks of the Malaprabha river and such sites are considered auspicious for constructing temples. Unlike most of the rivers in India which flow from north to south, Malaprabaha flows in the opposite direction which is believed to be making it the place of religious significance. This was the reason why Chalukya and other 98 kings in the vicinity would come to Pattadakallu for the crowning ceremony. In Kannada crowning is also referred to as Patta hence the name Pattadakallu (place of crowning).
While the place has many small and big temples, only one of them still has the idol being worshipped today. The reason for this was that most of the temples here were experiments. Yes! you read it right. Chalukya’s spent most of their wealth and time nurturing the Indian architecture. They were trying to amalgamate the Davidian construction style(the step towered structures of the south) and the Rekha-Nagar construction style(curvilinear towering structures of the north). One can spot many small and medium-sized constructions of temples in either of the styles which looks like many prototypes prepared by an architect planning for something big. Yes, and they were successful too. The Virupaksha temple here was this blend of both styles called the Vesara style which has a curvilinear-stepped tower. It is also believed to be perfect in terms of Vastu since it contained the 8 necessary parts in the temple i.e. Garbhagruha(sanctum), Mantapa(entrance), Shikahara/Vimana(tower), Amalaka(disc on the tower), Kalasha(tip of the tower), Antarala(vestibule), Jagati(praying stage) and Vahan (mount or the vehicle). All other prototypes of temples that are around it, had one or more of these parts missing and was considered not suitable for worship.
Watching these sandstone temples turn into the red wonders from the last rays of the sun was a magical moment. A splash of rain added a unique charm to the weather while I was on my way back to Badami and call it a day.
During my previous day’s travel with Manju, he had told me that the buses aren’t that frequent to Aihole and I should plan my timings to avoid waiting or missing a bus. Though I had an entire day to visit Aihole and come back to Badami, figuring out the bus timings were crucial. After checkout from the hotel at 9, I was at the KSRTC bus stand waiting for the bus scheduled to arrive at 10:30. I was behind my planned itinerary by 1.5 hours.
The disappointment went away as soon as the bus started to take twists and turns through the widespread fields. They were looking even more beautiful today. There were heaps of corn ready to be peeled on either side of the road. Even onions and garlic were kept to dry after harvest. The entire cycle of germination to harvest was happening right in front of my eyes. A wonderful sight indeed.
It took almost an hour to reach Aihole and the weather was already unbearable. I still wonder how I end up in such hot and humid places every time 😛 There was something unique about this town. Any direction you look at, there was at least one small temple. Be it the open ground, lake-side or the tallest of the hills, yes there was a temple. Not one or two, but there are 125 temples in this town of Aihole 😲 Being the first capital of the Chalukya’s, this town was their workshop for architects and sculptors. One can spot temples in various stages and styles of their construction, all of which were built in the 6th and 7th centuries.
One of the most fascinating groups of temples were in the heart of the town. I chose to first visit the archeological museum to escape the unbearable heat and the huge groups crowding the place. Many findings from the times of Chalukya’s and even those from the prehistoric era are on display here. A 3D model of Chalukya kingdom showing noteworthy monuments of Badami, Aihole, and Pattadakallu is a must-see.
A guide offered to explain the significance of the places around and made me sit on a platform nearby to reveal the story of these. He went on explaining how Chalukya’s started their empire here and, how each of these places got their name, the experiments they did with temple architectures, the kind of carvings and sculptures that we commonly see these temples and so on. I sometimes wonder if they ever feel tired or bored of narrating the same story. However, the unique thing about the guides here was that every part of the monument they described, they were trying to give examples from our real-world about lifestyle, behaviors, skills, etc.
The first of the temples he showed me was Durg temple. Do not confuse this with the goddess Durga. Durg in Kannada means fort, so it is the temple of the fort (you might notice that in every fort there is a place of worship). This has a unique Gajaprushta (curved wall resembling the back of an elephant) shape, one of the oldest to be found. Each of the exterior pillars has carvings of the incarnations of God Vishnu. Between these pillars, the walls have windows of unique patterns. The pillars inside the temple have carvings of many mythological stories on them.
Next was the Lad-khan temple. Rather a confusing name where I assumed either Lad-khan built the temple or a temple was built for Lad-khan (both sound equally strange). Turns out, since these temples were just experiments and never used as the place of worship, families used to live in these. Since the family of Lad-khan lived in this, it was called by his name. There are temples by name Gaudra Gudi (temple of the village head), Badigera Gudi (carpenter’s temple), etc. The Ladkhan temple has its significance since the royal emblem of the Chalukya’s is carved in one of its pillars. The only one I have seen in my entire two-day journey. Another temple by the name Suryanarayana temple is dedicated to the sun god and has an idol carved in green marble stone.
There were a few more places to see, but my stomach was growling. Luckily the KSTDC hotel nearby to the Durg Temple, managed by the Karnataka tourism board serves good food. A quick meal and some shade from the sun was all I need to recharge myself. Next place in the list, the Ravana Phadi cave is the only such cave-temple found at Aihole. Though smaller than the ones at Badami, I found these to be carved with more details. The entire inner wall was covered with carvings of Shiva in his various forms.
The bus back to Badami was due for leaving at 4 PM and I had almost an hour’s time left. I took a brisk walk to all other small groups of temples in the vicinity covering temples by the lake and that on the hill. Some had names and some did not. Yet they were all unique in their design.
When I reached back to Badami at 5 PM, there was no place to stay back and wait till I board my Bengaluru bus scheduled for 7:30. The solution? visit another place. The hotel owner had told me about Banashankari Temple 5km away from Badami. The original temple was built by Chalukya’s in the 7th century and the deity is being worshipped ever since. Buses were frequent towards the temples and I visited the same with ease.
That checked off all the places I expected to visit in my trip to Badami and a long pending dream was finally complete. The last moment booking was not so helpful in finding a comfortable seat for my return to Bengaluru, but memories of Badami and the tiresome walk of two days made me fall asleep instantly.
PS: 1. Protect the monuments. This involves keeping them clean and educating others in restraining from any actions that would harm them. 2. Eat local. Every place has its own delicacy (if you are a vegetarian like me, the probability of tasting them reduces by a little 😛 ). 3. Though information is available at the click of a button these days, try to appreciate the efforts of a local guide in explaining them to you. After all, we love to hear stories right? 4. If getting tanned was in your new year resolution, Badami is a must add to your list.
I am sure most of us would have read about Bahubali(psst! not the movie) in our history textbooks, but the obsession of seeing this mammoth of a statue had pulled me all the way to Shravanabelagola. While the place is just 140 km away from Bangalore, it was a back-breaking distance for me to attempt on my Activa. In the vicinity, there was Melukote another place of historic significance and Basaralu, a not-so-mainstream place which I had come across from a magazine. Since the mode of transport was on the bus for most of the distance, I spent a long time solving my ‘ traveling salesman problem’ to find the optimal route.
Visiting Shravanabelagola was definitely the first because this open hill would be unbearable to climb on a sunny day. My plan was to reach at least by 9 AM and start the ascend while the weather is still bearable. The train will always be the best option and there was one available starting from Yeshwantpur (Bengaluru). The arrival time was 9:45 which was a bit late than what I had expected. My hunch was any bus towards Mangalore would take me there much earlier. Yes! plans do go wrong and there wasn’t a single bus that would drop me by 9 AM from Majestic bus stand.
After a dilemma of reworking on the timings, I picked a bus towards Subramanya which promised me to reach Channarayapatna a town 15km away from Shravanabelagola by 10 AM. While I was on the bus, getting down at the town Hirisave turned out to be a better option. Though it was 18 KM away from Shravanabelagola, it would save a bit of detour. It was a day journey after a long time. Luckily I had my unfinished Alchemist by Paulo Coelho which instantly transported to the deserts of Africa. Continuing the tradition, a box of Puliyogare (tamarind rice) wasn’t a miss in my backpack to boost the energy.
The rain god was merciful and it was pleasant and not so sunny weather when the bus dropped me off at Hirisave. While I was waiting for a bus towards Shravanabelagola, an autorickshaw driver offered to drop me at 300/- for an individual trip or 40/- if he adds another 7 people along. I managed to catch another autorickshaw en route which dropped me off about a kilometer away from the Vindhya Giri hill in Shravanabelagola. The route to Shravanabelagola had farmlands and tiny villages on either side with greenery all around.
The Bahubali statue was already visible from a distance and all I had to do was to point at the hill to ask for the direction. The Vindhya Giri has 620 steps cut on the surface of the hill to reach the top. Other than the statue, there were tiny temples called Basadi, pillars with detailed carvings and smalls ponds on the top too. I stopped twice to catch a breath while climbing up and the almost vertical climb increased the difficulty. About a hundred steps before reaching the Bahubali statue, there was Thyagada Khamba pillar where Chavundaraya the then minister in 980 A.D. used to donate groceries for people in need. The pillar has a detailed floral design and inscriptions. On the other side of the pillar is Vadegal Basadi which as the name suggests is built resting on inclined pillars. The shrine houses first three of the 24 Teethankar(teachers) of Jainism namely Adinatha, Neminatha, and Shanthinatha.
There is a temple built around the Bahubali statue and climbing the steps inside the temple was getting harder as I reached towards the end. When I entered the temple, right in front of my eyes were two gigantic feet hinting at the massiveness of the statue. There it was, the monolith marvel, the tallest sculpture in India. For a few moments, I was awestruck by its beauty and magnificence. Sculpted in the 9th century, this statue has retained its glory ever since. Years have passed by, rulers have come and gone, the town has changed with the people, but this statue has seen it all from the top since millennia.
The exit to the right side of the temple leads to an open space on the hill where one can get a bird’s eye view of the lake, the coconut farms, never-ending roads, and tiny matchbox like homes. I stretched my legs for a while, but the sun was probably a little jealous that day and I had to start moving towards the next places. Cousins had suggested the hotel ‘Raghu’ for lunch at Shravanabelagola. Their spicy rasam was worth the visit and an energy refill to continue the journey.
‘Maktub’ (it’s all written), a word that was stuck in my mind from the ‘Alchemist’ throughout the trip was planning the day for me without my awareness. Few friendly autorickshaw drivers suggested catching a private bus towards Bangalore which would pass right next to the foothill of Bahubali temple. I had to then get down at Bellur cross to go towards Basaralu. The plan was catching its momentum.
The tiny village of Basaralu lies on the way towards Mandya from Bellur cross. While I was expecting to go to a place called Nagamangala somewhere on the midway and then figure out a way to Basaralu, another private bus waiting at the Bellur cross happened to stop directly at Basaralu. What a lucky day! Maybe I should have prayed for something better 😉
Probably it’s just the temple that we can visit in Basaralu. After about an hour’s journey from Bellur cross, I was dropped right next to my destination. The Mallikarjuna temple dedicated to god Shiva was built in the 13th century during the Hoysala dynasty. While the temple is small in size, the sculptors haven’t left a single inch without detailed carvings. Idols representing the scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, gods and goddesses, elephants, and horses are all carved on either side of the temple. Inside the sanctum sanctorum, an idol of god Shiva is worshipped even today. It’s a prototype-like the kinds of temples in Belur-Halebeedu minus the hustle-bustle of the crowd. The temple is maintained neatly by Archeological Survey of India, yet lacks its charm and exposure due to very few visitors.
It was about 3 PM and there was ample time to check-off Melukote from the list too. Got a bus back to Nagamangala and then one more towards Mysore to reach Jakkanahalli. The town of Melukote is just about 7 KM from Jakkanahalli cross. There were buses going directly uphill almost close to the Cheluvanarayana temple. I opted for an autorickshaw instead to save some time who agreed to drop till the gates of the temple and suggested possible routes to return to Bangalore.
Both the Cheluvanarayana temple and Yoga Narasimha temple are a must-visit if you are in the vicinity of Shravanabelagola. While it is just 25 KM away from Shravanabelagola, I had to make a round-about trip due to lack of bus services. Nonetheless, a relaxed trip was all I needed. Watching the sunset from the Yoga Narasimha hill while being constantly disturbed by monkies was my favorite moment of the day. They sell some amazing Puliyogare(tamarind rice) paste on the hill and I didn’t miss picking up one to fill my tummy in the next trip.
Luck was still on my side and a direct bus leaving from Melukote at 6:15 PM dropped me off at Bengaluru. Never-ending journey in the bus had already exhausted me, but that’s the fun of traveling: Hours of journey for a few blissful moments.
PS: 1. If you have the time in hand, always opt for public transport. They are comfortable, economical and environment-friendly. 2. Places like Shravanabelagola must be visited either early in the morning or in the evening unless you want to get super-tanned. 3. Talk to the locals. They are the best travel guides you can ever find. 4. Pack a lunch box if time permits. Hunger can kick-in anytime, anywhere. 5. Have patience. Not everything goes by the plan. Maktub!
We all have that one destination, that one trip with a group of friends, family or even a solo-trip which takes years to accomplish. While a solo-trip usually gets worked out earlier (most of my trips happened this way), a group takes a longer for everyone to get convinced. Every time we cousins meet for festivals and family gatherings, we would discuss going to Ladakh, do a bit of research and then the topic would silently die down. But the year 2019 had something new in store for us. There was a new enthusiasm which was driving the plan towards reality. Things found a quick conclusion and we were in high spirits to travel to dream destinations of Ladakh in July. [Long post alert 😉 ]
The Preparation [Adding-up all day zeroes]
Unlike any other location, Kashmir needed an advanced level of preparation. Starting with the number of days, altitudes, stay and transport arrangements, there were many unknowns. We could either look for an agency to do an end-to-end booking or do the entire groundwork by ourselves.
Now that the trip was confirmed, we started hunting for the routes and places to visit. A team Deyor camps got in touch with me to help plan our itinerary. Our initial plan of Delhi-Manali-Jispa-Leh-Nubra-Pangong-Kargil-Srinagar was facing a sever day crunch due to the massive increase of altitudes between each location. This route ideally should be taken in 12 days for good acclimatization with a minimum of 9 stops. While we were worried about which places to skip, the reverse route miraculously had good acclimatization and was taking lesser days. All we had to do was to swap our start and end locations. The first thing we did was to book flight tickets to ensure nobody drops out at the last moment. Sandeep, Ganesh, Shubha, Shridhar and I were the ones who made through a long conversation of days, money and locations and had the boarding passes printed with our names. The quote offered by Deyor camps was reasonable, however, Sandeep and I wanted to give things a shot by trying to book everything by ourselves.
Devil on Wheels offered valuable information about places to visit, stay options and vehicles to rent. From these blogs, we got the contact number of Sonam Angdu who offered the 8 day Innova ride through the locations for ₹65k. At Srinagar and Leh we opted to stay in Zostel which came for a nominal cost. Other places required a search through booking.com, MakeMyTrip, and Airbnb. We booked hotel Rangyul at Kargil and Gemur camp (tent stay) at Jispa which offered a comfortable stay. Tso Moriri was a new destination in our list and Nubra, Panging along with it had really bad telephone network to find any hotels over the call. I discovered Bunny from Airbnb who offered us a good deal with the stay at Nubra, Pangong, and Moriri. Our stays at Kargil, Jispa, Pangong, Nubra, and Moriri cost us an average of ₹6k for a group of 5 with 2 rooms, breakfast and dinner included. Except for Leh and Kargil, all other locations were mostly outskirts and had lesser food outlets around them. Having a meal plan built with the stay price was a better option to consider. Additionally, an inner-line permit is required to visit Pangong, Nubra, and Moriri which can be obtained at Leh. The permit costs about ₹600 per person and the same was handled for us by Sonam as part of his travel arrangements. The entire booking process took about 3 weeks and we were finally counting days for this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Things in our backpack 1. Bodywarmer – 1 pair 2. Regular cloths -6 sets (no shame in saying some days you won’t take bath in freezing temperatures, so keep the bag light) 3. Woolen gloves 4. Wind-cheater/jacket 5. Sunglasses 6. Cap 7. Good pairs of socks (many, because you don’t want to be smelly) 8. A pair of cutlery (whatever you can, because you want to travel green) 9. Water bottle 10. Sunscreen + lip-balm (yes, guys use them too, unless you want to return tanned) 11. Medications (common-cold tablets, fever tablets, first aid, Volini spray, Diamox tablets – to be taken only if there are chances of altitude sickness) 12. Screen-shots/prints of hotel booking vouchers 13. Multiple photocopies of Leh inner-line permit ( at least 10) 14. Binoculars (some animals, birds, flora, and fauna are far from the road) 15. BSNL postpaid sim (at least one per group to coordinate with driver and stay connected with family and friends or for any emergency) 16. A power-splitter/spike-buster to charge many devices at once.
Bengaluru to Srinagar
The day was finally here and we had an early start. Sandeep and Sridhar were already in Srinagar exploring the places. Ganesh, Shubha and I were to reach this day in the evening. Shubha was going to reach Bangalore from Hubli and we had to catch our 10 AM flight to Srinagar. The first set of panicking moments started when her bus reached an hour late. We decided to pick her up on the way to save time. We made it to the airport half an hour before the boarding time and quickly had some light breakfast. Our flight had set course to drop us at the start-line of our trip.
The flight journey was rather interesting. We had brought packed Biriyani+ chow-chow bath from Bangalore and just the thought of opening my lunchbox at thousands of feet above ground had made me laugh harder. An air hostess had got a hint that we were on a trip and enquired about our itinerary. I should appoint cousin Ganesh as my PR head for talking so much about this blog throughout 😛 We even spotted Golden temple at Amritsar and some huge valley and snowcapped mountains from a birds-eye view. The weather at Srinagar was at around 27 showing hardly any difference from Bangalore. A cab dropped us at Zostel Srinagar near Nishat Bagh at 4 PM and we had half a day to explore this pretty city. It was my first day in Zostel and I loved the arrangements. Srinagar is known for Dal lake, Shankaracharya temple, and housing a lot of gardens such as Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, Tulip Garden. One can even visit Gulmarg if there is an additional day in hand.
We decided to go straight to Dal lake which us about 20 minutes away (the main market, most of the city is in fact around Dal lake). A Shikara fellow agreed to show us around for a fare of ₹1800. All 5 could fit in this tiny wooden boat floating just a few inches above the ground. As our oarsman started to row the Shikara, beautiful scenes started to unveil in front of our eyes. Few nearby boats started approaching who were souvenir sellers giving us a floating market experience. I even got a few pictures clicked wearing the traditional Pathani dress. We had Kawa (a unique sweet drink of Kashmir) at a small ship docked at the end of the lake, saw some well-known movie shooting spots, beautiful lotus ponds, houseboats, did some window-shopping, all while sitting inside this tiny yet lavish boat. When he dropped us back, I looked at my watch and it was 7:15 PM. Sun was still much much away from horizon which made me more confused about the weather and days here. In just a few moments it started to rain and the entire surrounding turned golden. A beautiful rainbow appeared above the lake and the place was a Jannat indeed.
There was a strike at Srinagar that day, but none of the tourists were facing any issues. The hotels were open, public transports and tourist attractions were functional as usual. The picture which the social media imprints on our mind rather feels much far from reality even on days like strikes here. People were humble and were ready to offer any help or guidance in exploring this beautiful city. We had some yummy Kashmiri biriyani (that was biriyani for the third time in the day 😛 ) at a restaurant. Our long journey was beginning early the next day.
Srinagar to Kargil
Our chauffeur Mushtaq Bhai was ready near the hostel right on time. We bid adieu to fellows of Zostel and set out on our journey towards the mountains. The routes had army personnel stationed at every 100 meters. These months were also the season of Amarnath Yatra and we came across many groups which were traveling in either direction led by a van of the army. We stopped for a quick breakfast at a Dhaba on the banks of the river.
The roads were slowly picking up elevations. There were huge green hills on one side and a valley on another. We five had come to an agreement that each will take turns in sitting at different seats in the car to get an equal opportunity to admire the beauty around. The first place in the route was Sonmarg, a valley surrounded by lush green hills on all the sides. A half an hour journey on a horse can take you close to a glacier and some of the locations of movie shooting. We decided to skip going here to keep ourselves on time for our long journey ahead. We would definitely see similar scenes in our week-long journey. The first pass in our journey i.e. Zojila had uneven and dusty roads much different in reality than beautiful views of passes I had imagined. Mushtaq Bhai amazed us by providing detailed info about each place, hills and rivers we asked about. This 58-year-old man with a young heart had already gelled with us. Baltal was in the lap of Zojila. This serves as a basecamp for Amarnath yatra. One can visit the temple by helicopter, horse ride or a day trek from here. We were both amazed and sad for passing so close to Amarnath. Ganesh had not touched snow in his life. Seeing a patch alongside the road, though it was covered in dust, had brought a big smile on his face. Helicopters were rising up like honey-bees and taking the devotees up the hill as we watched from our car wobbling on the roads.
While Sandeep was explaining his experiences to tease Ganesh of rather fresh and white snow, we came across the Zero-Point. The place offers some fun activities such as wooden-sled, snow scooter ride, and skiing. Two inclined slopes of snow were our playground to drive and jump on the snow. We had fun throwing snow on each other. I even got a chance to ride the snow scooter.
Next stop before lunch was Drass, a place where the fierce Kargil War was fought. A memorial is built in the remembrance of the victory and to pay homage to the martyrs. The air in this place was filled with patriotism and the stories of war. Being so much close to the borders of the country had given me goosebumps.
Drass is also known as India’s coldest inhabited place for its record low temperatures in winter. Ali Dhaba at Drass is a must-visit for some lip-smacking food.
As we came close to Kargil town, the hills on both sides were filled with Apricot trees. We had missed both Apple and Apricot seasons since both were still a month due. We were on NH1 (number 1 gives some strange excitement) driving by the side of a river and Mushtaq mentioned that it was flowing to Pakistan. No wonder the border was much closer. After checking in at Hotel Rangyul, the hotel owner intrigued us by saying that we could actually see the national border. In no time, a cab was arranged to drive to LOC. While we were expecting just a quick drive to the place, our driver was rather taking us back in the time of war.
He showed us the marks on the shop doors caused by the shell-attacks, the stone chambers where the villagers were hiding to keep themselves protected, and the bunkers which were used by the soldiers to keep a watch. We were driving up the hill in a narrow road and the moment turned eerie when he said that there were live mines on each side which were planted during the time of war. The road almost came to an end near a small tea stall where one could see much bigger hills at the front with a steep valley in between them. That was it, we could see the land of India ending and that of a new country beginning. Our driver was quick enough to snatch binoculars from other fellow viewers and guided us to show the river that flows out from our country, some last bunkers still used by the soldiers, a mosque and the lands of either side. As usual, the sun was still up till about 8. After returning, we played in a park near our hotel, but we were getting tired easily. Shubha had made a new friend at the park while we others were playing something similar to football. She even invited us to her home for dinner, but we politely refused. The nights were getting more chillier and it was still the second day.
Kargil to Leh
The geography around had already changed. The hills were no more covered with thick grass or tall trees, and all we could see was the soil of different colours. Each hill had a unique shape and pattern and some even reminded me of the grand canyon(I haven’t seen it for real). The car climbed up and down many hills each opening to a much more scenic view. There would be greenery only in few small towns in between them and then again would start the never-ending barren land.
We could clearly notice that we had entered the district of Ladakh when we stopped at the first monastery on our way, The Mulbek temple. It has a huge stone carving of Maitreya Buddha made more than 2000 years ago. The place was already reminding me of the times at Bhutan. A drive ahead took us on top of Futu-La (La means Pass) at 13479ft, the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh road.
The next stop at Lamayuru had another monastery Singay Lakhang. It is believed that a well know monk Naropa had meditated on this hill and a monastery was built later in 11th century at the same place. This massive structure standing on the tip of the hill had most of its structure built using wood.
After a quick stop for lunch, we came across the confluence of rivers Indus and Zanskar at a place called Nimmu. It was still the beginning of summer yet we could clearly identify water from each river with distinct shades of grey. Our earlier plan was to go for rafting here. But Sonam had suggested us to try it near Nubra valley the next day.
The landscape had now changed and we were driving on a seemingly neverending flat land. The hills had now parted away much far and the black tarred road had stretched towards infinity. A point called ‘Magnetic Hill’ en route had an illusionistic view making it look like the vehicle is moving up the hill without any acceleration while it was sliding on the slope in reality. But we had approached this point on the opposite side where we could already see the slope on the road which took us a while for us to testify it.
We then stopped at Patthar Sahib Gurudwara, which was maintained by the Indian Army. Seeing army camps was now a common sight on our journey. None of us had been to Gurudwara before and a volunteer there identified it quickly from our puzzled looks. He asked us to bow down to the Darbar Sahib and then proceed to Langar for tea and refreshments. We had a quick conversation with a volunteer who was a soldier to know more about the place and its history. The place gets its name from a story where a demon throws a huge boulder to disturb saint Guru Nanak who was meditating at that place. The stone is still kept inside the premises where one can see the boulder having a cavity in the shape of a man in a seated posture.
The last stop for the day was ‘Hall of Fame’, a massive collection of artifacts and information about the wars fought by Indian Army. The place is a must-visit to know the history and challenges faced in each war.
Julley Leh!!!!! Our stay was again at a Zostel here. Leh town and especially the Zostel was more lively with expressions of people inviting conversations. We had to bid farewell to Mushtaq Bhai as the remaining trip would be on a different car.
Our travel arranger Sonam welcomed us with a Julley (means ‘Namaste/Hello’ in the Ladakhi) and introduced us to our new chauffeur Dorjey (aka Yuru Bhai). In our 6 six-bed dorm room, our roommate Munnu was quick in introducing himself. He had just arrived back from Nubra the previous day on a bike and had stayed back due to health issues while his friends left for Pangong. He spent the entire evening with us telling stories from his trip and telling us the do’s and don’ts while we explored the streets of Leh. We started a conversation about the very famous Pashmina Shawls at one of the shops. The shopkeeper seemed knowledgable and explained how wool from Leh gets transported to Kashmir and gets woven, as the skilled women and men are available only in Kashmir.
Pasham in Pashmina just means hair, however, the quality of it from a specific type of goat brings the fineness to it. Whereas the shawls made from the wool of the sheep are called Cashmere. He suggested not buying both since the climate in Bangalore was much hotter and there would be hardly any use of such shawls. After a bit of exploration, we managed to get some souvenirs to take back as a memory. We stayed up till late in the night on the roof of Zostel munching on snacks and humming some old and new movie songs.
Leh to Nubra Valley
Today’s journey was the toughest. We were to go on the highest motorable road in the world i.e. KhardungLa at 18,000ft altitude. It was definitely a challenge. Leh being at around 11,500ft was already making us breathe heavily just after climbing a few stairs, the state at KhardungLa was questionable. However, we declined Sonam’s suggestion to carry a backup oxygen cylinder. After some light breakfast, we decided to explore the places in Leh before our ascend. First one in the list, Leh palace was a 9 storied building that is resting on the surface of a hill. It reminded me of old houses from my hometown with its infinite rooms separated by tiny doors. View of Leh city from the 9th floor is not to be missed. The walls inside the rooms are filled with the history of Leh and some really beautify paintings. Next stop, the Shanti Stupa was on the other end of the town. Buddha statue here overlooking the town was rather a recent installation.
Our car now started to climb up the 7000ft elevation that was remaining to the pass. The curves were steep and changing terrain after every turn. Roads were good almost till South-Pullu, a place about 10km away from the peak. Pullu is the temporary stay used by shepherds. There are one each on either side of Kardung La i.e. South-Pullu and North-Pullu. We could now see fresh snow on either side of the road. Khardungla top was filled with a crowd numbering few hundreds. People were coming by cars, bikes and even cycles (a big salute to their courage). Any high altitude pass including Khardung should only be stepped on for a maximum of 20 minutes, any longers would cause symptoms of altitude sickness. Ganesh and Shridhar and a minor headache before starting the ascend and they felt it’s effect since all of us had stayed out on the top for about 40 minutes. Yuru Bhai was hurrying to start the descend to avoid any further health issues. While we continued to drive down, he shared his experience of a group which he had traveled with recently, who vomited blood after staying out on the top for more than an hour(not sure how much of the story was true, but we could not deny its possibility). I felt a mild headache which started to reduce as we continued to drive down.
The road downhill was on the edge of mountains some of which were covered completely with snow. When we finally reached the base, it was like completing a rollercoaster ride filled with numerous turns. Our driver dropped us at a camp for lunch at Khalsi. The place offers good stay options and fun activities including river-rafting. Our original plan was to try river-rafting here, but since all were still recovering from nausea, we decided to skip it. A little ahead from Khalsi, a diversion was leading towards Siachen, the highest battleground on earth. We continued towards Nubray on the other road and stopped for some fun dessert activities. We tried ATV ride where we could zoom this heavy beast on sand dunes for 3km.
Next stop was the Diskit monastery where a gigantic Maitreya Budha statue is installed overlooking the Shyok river. The meditating expression of Budha takes anyone to a momentary peace on a quick gaze upon his face. Diskit monastery is the oldest monastery of Nubra valley built in the 14th century. The place is also known for hosting the well known “Festival of the Scapegoat” in the winter.
Last stop for the day was the Hunder sand dunes. It seemed like a miracle to see a desert in the middle of nowhere. Ladakh seems to have a mix of all types of terrains. Hunder is known as the home for double-humped camels. The placed looked straight out of a fairy tale filled with camels, tiny sand dunes and a freshwater stream flowing on one of the sides. The constant conversations between the camel owners and travelers, games, and the air filled with dust had created a festive mood. After an hour-long wait, it was our turn for a camel ride. The one which I was riding was called Yuropasa, we ended up naming the other two with something random since they dint have any.
Our stay was booked at Hotel Yourdum. I must say, it was one of the best stays we had. The people were humble and friendly where it almost felt like we were staying at relatives. They served yummy and hot home-cooked food prepared from veggies grown right in front of the house. It was the night of lunar eclipse and moon was brighter than usual. We slept peacefully listening to the rhythm of the flowing river.
Nubra Valley to Pangong Tso
The next three days of the trip is going to be crucial. The places will have hardly any network, so we had to stick together and inform all our parents in advance about the same. Even the roads were not completely marked for these places, so extra caution was needed too. The routes were known for getting washed off from the streams caused by melting snow from the mountains. Additionally, the next three places including the Nubra we stayed earlier had the power supply available for only 4 hours i.e from 7 PM to 10 PM. Any devices requiring a recharge should be managed in these 4 hours. The first part of the journey was through the Shyok valley. We had to pass through Diskit and Khalsi again to join the diversion towards Pangong. The road seemed neverending as it stretched till we could see through naked eyes. We came across many bikers though it was not the usual road taken by tourists. The conventional route is to go back to Leh and take a different route to Pangong via Chang La. The Border Roads Organization (BRO) however was making it’s best effort to maintain both roads in good condition by quickly deploying groups to fix any road blockages. Quotes on road safety by BRO are literally on another level. Almost till we reached the Shyok village, the roads were bad. Some were washed away by streams, some had still small yet challenging streams flowing on them and some were getting cleaned after a recent landslide. After a quick stop for some yummy hot momo and chai at Shyok village, we were sure of reaching Pangong by lunch.
Roads were in a better condition now and were directly facing the mighty Karakoram range (gets its name from the mountains formed from black rocks). A new freshwater stream had joined our course and all we wanted was to sit on the rocks dipping our legs in the water. Yuru Bhai stopped the car at a small village called Durbuk where we could get close to the stream and the currents were safe. We could dip our legs for only a minute as the water was really cold. We even tried to climb a huge rock on the side to catch a glimpse of the places around. Pangong was just an hour away now and we were getting impatient. Just before we could get the first glimpse of the lake, we stopped at Changthang wildlife sanctuary. It is in fact an open grassland where we could find various wild animals including the Himalayan marmot. These looked really cute when they hopped from one place to another or stood on two legs appearing to greet you. Though they are harmless and you can go as close as you want, they tend to bite if disturbed. When I tried to click a picture of one of them, it stood still and started to gaze at the camera. Closest I have been to any wild animal. If you intend to visit this place, don’t feed them anything. These are now an endangered species primary because people feed them random food which they can’t digest. A little ahead was a location where some of the famous Bollywood movies were shot. One could spot some really beautiful horses and herds of sheep. Wool from this very sheep is used to make Pashmina Shawls.
There it is! we could see the Pangong lake behind the hills playing hide and seek every time we took a turn on the road. It was still far, yet the turquoise colour was eye-catchy. When we approached closer, we could see it change colours as the clouds passed above it. What a magical moment!! Every part of the lake with mountains at the background was looking like wallpaper from the desktop. Our stay at The Golden Cottage was very close to where one end of the lake began. We quickly finished our lunch and went to explore the lake. The lake was at a higher altitude too, which was draining us just in a 1o minute walk. We clicked a lot of pictures near the lake and even saw some places where few movies were shot (such as 3 idiots). The water was bone-chilling and we had to drop the plan of taking a dip. There were a lot of tiny stone-balancing structures near the lake. Ganesh and I tried to build a similar one and miserably failed 😀
The place was getting cloudy and we could hardly spot any stars. We were in high expectations to capture the Milkyway from here (we actually don’t know how to capture them), but the weather played spoilsport. Coincidently the next few huts in our stay were occupied by mutual friends of Ganesh. It was fun playing Dumb charades with them sitting around the fire till late in the night. Same as Nubra, power was available only from 7:30 PM to 11 PM, but we were prepared for it this time.
Pangong to Tso Moriri
Tso Moriri or the Moriri Lake was a less heard of a place for us. People would usually return from Pangong and skip Moriri either because they don’t know about it or because there is no road (that’s right. There isn’t one for about 80% of it). Also, the place is extremely remote with really poor network connectivity. So, even to book a stay there was a nightmare. We somehow got it arranged from Bunny. We had to leave early to avoid any delay due to bad roads. Since we were at the starting of the lake, we had to travel all the way to the other and to join the road towards Moriri (skipping the word Tso here because Tso means lake). This was a 40km long journey on the edge of the lake, undoubtedly the most scenic journey of our entire trip. Shades of brown and grey to our right and shades of blue towards our left, a scene straight from heaven indeed. Water was so clear that even from our vehicle we could spot rocks beneath. It had probably snowed on mountains on the other end, most of them appeared like ice creme cones. When the lake turned towards left, our paths departed. The rest of the lake’s share would belong to China i.e., 60 %, the rest 40% of the lake belongs to India. One can opt to stay at the Spagmik, Maan and Merak villages which we crossed in this day’s journey.
Rods were now completely vanished and all we could see were some tire marks. Yuru Bhai was constantly looking at distant mountains, taking some unexpected turns. At one point, we assumed that he had lost the road, but that was how the roads were. We saw some bunkers built by the Indian Army. These were the fall-back posts in case of war. The weather wasn’t great today and temperatures were towards the lower end. We first saw the Indo-China war memorial. Surprisingly the place was unmanned and locked. We quickly had a look around and got in the car before it started to rain.
After crossing plenty of tiny mountain passes with a growling stomach we stopped at a tiny tent for Chai. A much-needed refill before we could proceed any further.
Finally, better tar roads had now begun and we were traveling on the banks of the Indus(Sindhu) river. A lot of army trucks and vehicles were passing by and it was fun to wave at them. We literally jumped like kids when they waved back or saluted. I can barely imagine their life here so far from home. Yuru Bhai showed us some wild horses which were strangely of exact same in colour. Binoculars will be handy here since most of them will be grazing really far and are afraid of vehicles. We came across a lake by name Kyagar which Yuru referred to as Tso Moriri ka bacha (kid of Tso Moriri). A tiny lake surrounded by hills. Morir was getting closer. We spotted a few more Himalayan Marmots and Dimo (female Yak). There were tiny settlements of shepherds throughout. Each would have a tiny tent, a flock of 200 – 500 sheep and a makeshift rock fence to keep the flock at night. These were the true nomads, the ones to discovered paths to these beautiful locations on earth. They reminded me of Santiago from The Alchemist.
The network was already dead when we reached Moriri and dark clouds were waiting to burst. Most of the lakeside is fenced and only a tiny part is open for having ways to reach the water. It looked equally beautiful but unlike Pangong, Tso Moriri was a sweet-water lake. Waves were constantly hitting the shore setting a peaceful and rhythmic mood. We couldn’t stay out for long and quickly headed towards the town.
Every trip needs to have that one bitter moment and our share was waiting at Moriri. The guy at Hotel Grand Dolphin denied that there was any booking on my name. He denied recognizing Bunny’s name who had booked the stay for us. However, he suggested he would help us find a place to stay assuming he was at fault. This made us more suspicious about the entire scene as he could have given our rooms for anyone paying more money on the spot. We were helpless without a telephone network even to callback Bunny and reconfirm, and neither could I fetch back the email confirmation I had received. I was losing confidence every moment and we were just following the guy to places he was suggesting as an alternative. After a lot of arguments and disagreements with him and each other, we settled for a place called The wisdom Guest House. I had struck a deal that we wouldn’t be paying a single penny more. The place was still under construction and amenities needed a lot of improvements. The owner there, however, was humble and accommodative. Menu me kya hai (what’s on the dinner menu), we asked him and a standard reply of ‘Roti, Alu-sabzi, rice, and yellow-dal’ was waiting. We had lost our appetite by now and were craving for Dosa, Pongal, Idly and Rasam like any typical South Indian. Some chose to have rice with milk that day instead of dal. Yuru took us to a nearby hill to get a better view of the lake. It was a small town with a few hundred people and an equal number of goats. Cloudy weather and fenced lakeside had made it impossible to get any clear view, so we decided to return back to the room. There was no sign of power as usual till almost 8 PM. We gobbled-up our dinner early that day since our next day had to start as early as 6 AM to cover a 320km long journey towards Jispa.
Tso Morir to Jispa
To our request, the family at the guesthouse and woken up early to pack breakfast for us. We left at 6 as per our plan. Weather was still not great and general anxiety kicked in about completing today’s journey. Most of us continued to sleep while the music player played some old classics as a lullaby. Many of the hills we had seen the previous day were now covered in snow. The tents of shepherds had the morning tea brewing in them, the sheep were still asleep ( few more in our car 😛 ) while the car moved on the bumpy roads.
We first saw the hot springs, but unfortunately couldn’t go closer since the entire area was muddy and soaking wet from previous days rains (another scene were binoculars are needed). We were already hungry and were waiting for the lake at which Yuru had promised to stop for breakfast.
Probably even he was anxious about covering most of the road quickly. After traveling for more than 2 hours, the lake Tso Kar had arrived and we hurried to find the packed breakfast. The sky was now clear and promised a better journey. The highway was about 15 km from here which would then lead us towards Jispa. Every year hundreds of tourists travel to Tso Kar for bird-watching. We had to zoom-in through a 75mm lens to spot a migrating bird which Yuru was pointing at. By this time we had crowned Yuru as an off-roading expert and he proved us right by shortening a 15km road to just 5km by finding his way through open grassland. We were now on the highway on a section called ‘Mori plains’. This is a 50km long stretch on the valley. The road was amazing and we could easily cover the distance faster. Every time there was even a tiny sign of off-roading shortcut to cut-down the distance, we would laugh because we knew that Yuru would take even a more than 45degree inclined road to go faster.
On our route, we passed through Lachung La and Nakee La, passes at an average altitude of 15000ft. At Lachung La, we even witnessed snowfall, the first one I ever saw in my life. At Pang village, there was the world’s highest army transit camp. A greater portion of our descend was through ‘Gata Loops’, a series of 21 hairpin curves. Each turn was giving a majestic view of the valley. This was probably the only road where Yuru couldn’t take any shortcuts. 😀
Sarchu is one of the places where during ascend people would camp, but since we were coming from the opposite direction, we could easily continue ahead. Luckily most of the distance was covered early and we stopped at Bharatpur for lunch. There was fresh snow all around and Baralacha La was covered with dense fog. Cold weather increases hunger and I was still ready to eat more after gobbling up a plate of Rajma-Chawal and a bowl of Maggie. Jispa was just 70km from here and Yuru asked us to take some rest. This tiny tent had beds at the edge of which tables were kept to have food. It was a heavenly feeling to remove our shoes and lie down on the bed. We could stay in that cozy place all day, but Jispa had our evening’s tea brewing. Just after 10 minutes of the drive, we came across a 10meter wide stream right on the road. In fact, there was no road at all and just rocks. The tire of the vehicle in front of us was getting jammed and all the nightmares of getting stuck on the roads we hunting me. The bikers were struggling to get their bikes crossed, but we somehow managed. The Baralacha top was completely covered with snow and we were cautious this time to stay out only for about 15 minutes as the altitude here was around 16000ft. We played our heart out in the snow and there was nobody around to make us conscious. The view of Suraj Tal lake was another beautiful sight from the Baralacha top.
The change in terrain was evident now as the mountains around started to turn green. Himachal was welcoming us with open arms. We had a lot of mountains to climb down to reach Jispa. A little ahead of a place called Zing Zing Bar (god knows why such a name), there was a roadblock and we could witness a #JCBkiKhudai moment. That was the shortest and probably the only severe roadblock we had witnessed in the entire trip. The place was yet scenic keeping us busy while the road got cleared. While crossing the block we realized the actual reason was a stream flowing on road washing it away. We would witness at least 4 more such streams before reaching Jispa. While it looks thrilling to go over these tiny waterfalls, the drive is equally challenging to cross them at once. Deepak Tal lake in the lap of the green hills was yet another beautiful stop on our way. The signals in our phones were now back and people got busy with their phone. Our stay at Camp Gemur was a little ahead of Jispa at Gemur Village. The guy checked us in quickly and the first thing we wanted to do was to take bath. Really cold weathers at Pangong and Moriri had made us skip the bath. Chilling winds were cooling down the heated water instantly and nobody wanted to have a semi-cold bath in such bone-chilling weather. A warm cup of chai after a hot water bath was a perfect recharge. This camp was overlooking the Bhaga river with green hills at the background. The constant sound of the river and greenery all around was setting the perfect mood. The tents were filled with amenities for their size. We met a group of bikers who were headed towards Leh. After witnessing the conditions of the road which we had crossed today, we couldn’t believe if the same can be crossed by a bike. The group members, however, appeared more energetic. The long journey was tiring and after two long days, the weather was perfect for good night sleep.
Jispa to Manali
Our last day of the trip was here. Though the distance is just about 150km to Manali, the roads would be either bad or would face a jam due to a large number of tourists. The group of bikers at camp had shared their experience of slippery roads and countless diversions which made us start early from Jispa. While having breakfast, all of us swore to not have Paratha and yellow dal for almost a month 😉 The hills were lush green on both sides and soaked with the early morning drizzles. Tiny pink, yellow, red, and white flowers had covered the hills making them look like a newlywed bride. Some of these hills had huge fields of peas and cauliflower. At Keylong, we witness the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga river later to become Chenab (aka Chandra-Bhaga river), one of the prominent rivers of Panjab. The sight of melting snow turning into a stream and then to a river was indeed magical.
The Rohtang pass looked much different than what I had imagined. It was more green and most of the snow had already melted. These melting streams caused more troubles by creating a surry on roads. Any moment a vehicle could get jammed and we would have had to wait for long for them to get cleared. But our stars were in the right position and we could ascend faster than expected. After witnessing beautiful passes such as Khardungla and Baralacha, the Rohtang pass seemed quite overrated. The place was overcrowded and it was painful to see people littering the place all around. While the road to descend was in good condition, people driving senselessly was causing more traffic jams. These stops, however, didn’t disappoint us. Any direction we gazed at, we could see waterfalls, snow-capped hills, pine forests, tiny villages in the valley and the neverending roads.
The place started to look familiar now. I had been here, I had seen this Beas river. But it was more than 2 years ago. Some parts of this beautiful town still looked the same. On one end I was happy to come back here which I had never imagined I would, but Manali would also mean the end of the trip. None the less, the last 8 days had taken us to a whole new world. We bid farewell to Yuru Bhai for taking us through this amazing journey and sharing all the knowledge that he could. The first thing that we looked for after checking-in at a hotel was south Indian food. How awesome is it to find an Andra style hotel in Manali? The food wasn’t as tasty as we imagined it to be, but tastebuds wanted something new anyhow. We strolled through the markets of Mall road, yet none of us were fascinated by things sold there. With a bag full of memories and stories to share, we boarded our bus to Delhi. The all-cousins trip was finally successful. And it doesn’t end without saying the cliched line “This is the story of how I got Leh’d”……..!
PS: 1. It’s a long journey and every view, every place is different. Capture more from eyes and less from the lens. 2. While I like traveling Solo, some trips are awesome with groups. 3. When there are many voices in a trip, arguments are common. Work together to make it the best. 4. Trust people. Especially at places that are new to you. 5. It’s ok if things don’t go by the plan. We all love surprises right?? 6. Be prepared to come back tanned. Its a mark of the truly enjoyed trip 😛 7. Travel often and travel green 8. A big shoutout to Shridhar, Shubha, Sandeep and Ganesh for clicking some of these amazing pictures.
The Adress-book 1. Sonam Angdu (for vehicle) – +919469272773, +919469683834 2. Dorjey (Yuru Bhai, for vehicle) – +919419177040 3. Bunny Punia (for stays in Airbnb properties) – +919654244102 4. Dheeraj (for frequent updates on Himachal weather and travel tips) – https://devilonwheels.com/ 5. Yourdum guest house Nubra – +911980221114, +919469735827 6. Wisdom guest house Tso Moriri – +919469894014, +919469451568 7. Gemur Holidays Jispa – +919418933067, +917018009887
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 BadaviLinga, 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.
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 😛
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Though the food joints here serves a variety of cuisines, opt for south Indian food if you are comfortable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 feworanges.
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.
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 😛
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Steps to climb Ramadevara Betta
Temple at the hilltop
The scary climb
View from hilltop
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
View from the hilltop
Place where the temple is situated
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.
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.
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.
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.
They are countless
The 108 feet tall Shivalinga
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 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.
Beautiful hill behind the Ganesha Temple
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.
Its a long long walk
We bid farewell to Kolar and headed back to Bengaluru humming some old movie songs on the way.
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.