Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 Travel Calendar

‘Short trips’ was this year’s recurring theme, making the best of my sparse holidays and sparser travel money.  If the last two years had been about discovering the joys of road-trips and solo travel, this year led me down a new path – food trips. Having always been a foodie, enjoying regional cuisine whenever I travelled, this year’s trips took this passion to new heights – trips where we ate like there was no tomorrow, hunting down the tastiest local specialities a place had to offer. I had more than enough food to savour, despite my supposed ‘drawback’ of being a vegetarian.

In between gorging on food, I photographed these delicacies, resulting in outright bad photos at first, but improving slowly by the next trip. This has made me want to better my food photography skills, something I’ve resolved to practice next year; not your glossy, studio set-up food photos, but photographing food on the streets. I love how travel brings such new challenges my way!

With a trip already planned for the first month of 2016, I sign off excitedly for this year, wishing everybody a very happy, healthy and travel-filled 2016.
I travelled to Madurai by chance, as my husband, who spent a few years living there, wanted to visit the city to re-live his childhood memories. The trip quickly snowballed into a larger agenda, of also enjoying Madurai’s famed food. The city takes its title of 'thoonga nagaram' (the town that never sleeps) very seriously, buzzing from the wee hours of the morning, well into the night. Catering to the teeming mass of people are hole-in-the-wall eateries and road-side vendors, with a wide array of meals and tiffin items. While meals include a lot of non-vegetarian dishes, tiffin is predominantly vegetarian, and can be a meal in itself. Madurai's residents have a discerning palate, which reflects in the food they prepare, and it is almost impossible to get bad food anywhere in the city. I ate my way through Madurai tiffin, which offers a mind-boggling variety of dishes and beverages: from popular dishes like kotthu parotta and idli to unique local items like jigarthanda and thennangkuruthu. 

The best way to atone for indulging in such excesses at Madurai was to walk it off, I thought. What better way to do that than to spend a few days at nearby Kodaikanal? Kodaikanal’s crisp winter weather and laidback weekday disposition proved to be the perfect setting for rambling walks, energetic cycling around the Kodai Lake, and a sweaty hike to Dolphin’s Nose. Our determination to not focus on food, however, was thrown out of the window thanks to our gregarious home-stay hosts, who broke our resolve with every lip-smacking meal they cooked for us.  All the food sent us scrambling for more walks, and we returned to Bangalore refreshed by Kodaikanal’s charm and natural beauty.

Read about this trip:

Kabini, Karnataka
This quick jaunt to Kabini in the monsoon was intended as a rejuvenating break after a strenuous first half of the year, and to celebrate hubby’s milestone birthday. As usual, Kabini lived up to its promise. Threatening clouds loomed, but it never rained hard enough to foil our plans. Four safaris into the forest, short walks around Kabini River Lodge’s campus, and contemplative sessions gazing at the Kabini reservoir got us fully recharged for the latter half of 2015.

Dilli ki sardi was something my friend would often poetically rave about. I decided that it was finally time to experience it first-hand, inviting myself over to my aforesaid friend’s home. Research prior to the trip had armed me with a list of over 40 eateries to visit, many serving winter specialities, and I lost no time in dragging my friends along for the food mania. Over three days, we systematically chomped our way through the list, walking for hours through Old Delhi, seeking out nondescript push-carts and not-marked-on-any-map eateries, all serving some of the cheapest, freshest and most delicious food I have ever eaten. When we could walk no more, we took breaks at some of Delhi’s lovely monuments, catching forty winks and resting our tired legs, only to resume our mission soon after. Not for the faint-hearted, this trail!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Wild Postcards from Sri Lanka

An unedited version of my story published in the November 2015 edition of the in-flight magazine, JetWings

I furrow my brows, as the ringtone interrupts my hectic deadline. The number displayed on my mobile is unknown, but I continue to stare – something about it beginning with +94 seems deliciously familiar. I answer. Silence. Just as I return to furiously typing out the remainder of my email, it rings again. I absently answer the call, only to be greeted by rapid-fire talk in a language I don’t understand. Then it comes back to me, rusty as the memory is, from months of disuse. I get up from my chair, smile at no one in particular, and say “ayubowan.” The relentless chatter pauses. “No Sinhala,” I continue, like I’d repeated for three weeks, many months ago. The voice begins talking in an endearingly halting and lilting Hindi, “Main Prasanna bol rahaa hoon.” I can hear a smile, a shy smile. “Aapka letter aaya.” Instantly, my deadline is all but forgotten.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve, in south-west Sri Lanka, is the country’s only surviving primary tropical rainforest. Its pin-head size belies the fact that more than 60% of the flora and fauna found here are endemic to the region. Due to this high endemism, the forest has been declared a UNESCO heritage site.

Prasanna was my eyes and ears in Sinharaja, where the earth was as slippery as grease, and battalions of leeches clung to every human who dared brave the incessant rains. The sky flickered between innumerable shades of grey, and could barely be glimpsed through small gaps in the tall, dense rainforest canopy. The highlight of my trek was witnessing a mixed-flock hunt, with raucous drongos, frisky babblers, belligerent Blue Magpies, and even the dignified trogon, feasting on worms and insects emerging from the rain-battered earth. The forest trail yielded birds, fungi, flowers, snakes, and lizards of such varieties, that we were constantly surprised at every turn; even the endangered Purple-faced Leaf Monkey revealed itself on my last evening at Sinharaja.

At the end of each tiring day in the forest, I’d return to my room at Martin’s Simple Lodge, a place which is exactly as its name suggests, swapping sightings and experiences with fellow birding enthusiasts while savouring refreshing tea in the terrace overlooking Sinharaja’s dipterocarps, or while nonchalantly plucking leeches off our persons by the communal tap. The owner, a former guide and a wealth of information, is a man of few words; what makes him smile though, is visitors’ childlike enthusiasm at having seen a Red-faced Malkoha or a Ceylon Frogmouth up-close, in the forest he holds dear.

"Sinharaja’s villages don’t have pin-codes; how will my letter be delivered?" I’d asked, while saying goodbye. Prasanna just smiled, answerless. I needn’t have worried: the letter, along with photographs of Sinharaja, had reached him within a week of my convincing my neighbourhood post office that I was not ‘wasting eighty rupees in postage’.

“There is an error in your identification” Prasanna says, alluding to the contents of my letter, “This is a Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, not a Bear Monkey.” I apologise sheepishly for my rookie mistake. The mention of the Bear Monkey, though, swings me along to another place, another day.

Horton Plains National Park, located in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, is the country’s only montane grassland and cloud forest. Due to its high elevation, fog and clouds deposit a large amount of moisture, creating a unique ecosystem of moist grasslands, swamps and wetlands. The endemic flora and fauna have evolved to suit this peculiar habitat. Ohiya is a convenient base for exploring Horton Plains. However, due to extremely limited accommodation here, most visitors prefer to stay at the popular hill station Nuwara Eliya, almost two hours away.

The mountain railway at Ohiya snakes through dense foliage, from which peek colourful tin roofs. An occasional curlicue of smoke from a cooking fire is the only sign of habitation. Hiking along the tracks brought well-preserved, century-old sleepers and metal components my way. I was also rewarded with an encounter with the endemic Bear Monkeys, cousins of the species in Sinharaja. Over twenty of them, jumping from branch to branch, with a wary eye on me, looking improbably like monkeys with bear ancestors - to think, I wasn’t even within the national park boundary yet!

At Horton Plains National Park, the 9 kilometre trail meandering across grasslands, seasonal ponds, over undulating rock, sometimes gravel, and finally through dense forest, can be completed in 3 hours. However, stopping to admire bright orchids and gnarly trees, while looking for Bear Monkeys and elusive birds, meant that my trekking time doubled. My guide and I trekked anti-clockwise, beginning at the grasslands, moving on to Baker’s Falls, Large and Little World’s Ends, and finally, through dense vegetation. 

Old-man’s beard, a characteristic of Horton Plains, festooned all the trees in the last stretch, whose trunks and branches were also decorated with lichen and moss. A Sri Lankan breakfast of rotti, jam, and bananas, devoured while staring into World’s End, added to the air of fulfillment and quiet contemplation; the sheer escarpment here offers views till the coastline, on one of the rare clear days like that day.

I sigh, looking at the digital clock on my computer screen. The sun has long set, and I’ve been caught up in Sinharaja and Horton Plains. A flick of the switch illuminates the room. The paperwork on my desk lies un-tackled, held down by a pebble, smooth and rounded, as grey as the sea was that day. With white specks, as white as the sand looked, reflecting the sun’s generosity beating down on it. There I go again, carried along by a wave of memories.

Mirissa, a tiny fishing village in southern Sri Lanka, attracts visitors for two reasons: its laidback, picturesque beach and its whale-watching trips. Since it lies at the southernmost tip of the entire Indian subcontinent, whales migrating east to west must cross Mirissa. The abundance of food in the Indian Ocean makes it a favourite with these cetaceans, and even the otherwise-elusive Blue Whales and Sperm Whales are routinely spotted.  

At 5:30 am one morning, travellers gathered at the whale-watching agency’s office, upbeat at the prospect of guaranteed sightings of whales and dolphins. I, however, couldn’t bring myself to ignore the knot in my stomach, as I don’t take well to open seas. On the two-decked boat, all around me was laughter, anticipation and colourful life-jackets. The tantalising omelette station on board was crowded; just an hour later, the boat’s only restroom would be; so too the railing on the deck, with nauseous travellers bent over. Despite having resolutely stayed away from breakfast, I could feel my innards churning - quite an indication of the roiling Indian Ocean.

By the time we returned to shore after six hours at sea, we had become a statistic – the only boat in forty days to not sight a single whale. I held on to precious, fleeting memories of the dolphin pod we had seen, unfortunately far enough to look merely like grey flotsam. The next afternoon, travellers were agog at having spotted multiple whales. One had even breached the water, excited voices told us. All I could do was close my eyes and picture it, the waves lashing Mirissa’s beach adding sound to my thought. I smiled, as my imaginary Blue Whale emerged from bluer waters, magnificence personified. For this, I will brave the Indian Ocean again someday, I decided, sanguinely.   

“Wapas aaoge tab milenge” is Prasanna’s parting shot. He knows Sri Lanka’s allure – you just MUST return.  Sometimes, that’s all it takes to travel in time – a call you hesitated to take.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Looking Beyond the Taj

An unedited version of my story published in the September 2015 edition of the in-flight magazine, JetWings

Swooshing through the sandstone maze of monuments, the 16th century slowly crept up on me - I saw first-hand the genius of Akbar’s thought-process, the meticulousness of Shah-Jahan’s embellishment, and the flamboyance of generations of Mughal Emperors. Mughal Architecture has left us with a heritage of buildings which were not only monumental in their appearances, but also poignant in their inspirations; buildings were built as dedications to people, as symbols of love, or as re-creations of a world far away, a world they left behind in Persia. Their architecture, though, was not an imposition on the milieu that existed – the Mughals seamlessly blended and adapted local styles to create architecture that was aesthetically appealing as well as climatically and geographically sensitive.

Akbar, the most prolific architect amongst Mughal emperors, has left behind a treasure trove in Agra – a treasure his successors added to. Agra, to most, is synonymous only with the Taj Mahal. Though not begrudging the Taj its status, I feel for visitors who miss out on what is undoubtedly the largest collection of monumental Mughal Architecture in a region – Agra, Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri – an Agra beyond the Taj Mahal.

Agra Fort
Early evenings add their own glamour to the red sandstone, setting them aflame. One of the rare forts built on level ground, the Agra Fort looks deceptively easy to breach. Completed in 1573 AD, Akbar and his team designed the semicircular fort over the ruins of an existing fort called ‘Badalgarh’. The Yamuna runs parallel to the chord of the semicircle, and was tapped by Akbar for beautiful river-side panoramas from all the buildings lining that edge.

The non-river-facing side is where visitors enter from, through the Amar Singh (Lahore) Gate. A steep ramp leads from this gate to the inner gate, but the unexpected work-out was made more bearable by my guide peppering the walk with history and anecdotes about the crocodile-infested moats, the Peacock Throne, and the emperors’ opulent lifestyles.

Of the fort’s four gates, the Delhi Gate – the biggest - can only be brought alive through your guide’s stories, as it falls within the inaccessible area of the fort being used by the Indian military. Built by Akbar as his formal entrance, a moat had to be crossed using a drawbridge, to reach the Delhi Gate. From there, the inner gate ‘Hathi Pol’ was reached after a 90 degree turn, so that enemies’ elephants couldn’t run straight through the outer and inner gates to break them down, as was frequently done in battles. Such was the architectural genius employed, which, with other stratagems like a double rampart separated by the 12 m deep moat, 70 feet high walls, forward-sloping lower ramparts to prevent scaling, and massive turrets, made the fort impregnable.

The ramp leading into the fort, from Amar Singh Gate

Written records sing paeans to the 500 buildings built within, by Akbar. However, his progeny Shah Jahan demolished many of them to make way for his marble buildings – a later evolution in Mughal Architecture. Some of what was spared by Shah Jahan was destroyed by the British in the 19th century, to construct military barracks. Only about 30 of the buildings are said to have survived today.

What sets the architecture of the Agra Fort apart from other forts is the presence of expansive, manicured gardens and lawns. Also, the buildings have an interesting mix of architectural styles – Akbar’s initial designs were heavily inspired by the architecture of Gujarat and Bengal, while Shah Jahan used the Indo-Islamic style. Breaking convention, a lot of the surface decorations are non-Islamic - dragons, elephants, and birds - as opposed to the sanctioned calligraphy.

Jahangiri Mahal, with one of the fort's many lawns in the foreground.

Faint strains of visitors’ chatter and history lessons doled out by copious tour guides followed me through the buildings: Diwan-i-am, Diwan-i-khas, Jahangiri Mahal, Bengali Mahal, Moti Masjid, and Seesh Mahal. At Mussamman Burj, my last stop, a strain of melancholy was added to the air – this octagonal, multi-tiered marble tower was where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb; the tower which probably added to his longing by offering views of the Taj Mahal in the distance; the tower where he breathed his last in 1666 AD. The delicate floral inlay work in the Mussamman Burj almost mocked the harshness of Shah Jahan’s situation.

The Taj Mahal and Yamuna, as seen from Mussamman Burj, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned.

Walking out of the fort on this poignant note, I looked up at the ramparts one last time. Embrasures (slits) and machicolations (openings) lined the wall, for soldiers to shoot from or throw objects on marauding armies without being shot at in return. Below these, my eye caught remnants of intricate blue and white mosaic work. Had I been a soldier in the marauding army, I most certainly would have been killed by hot oil falling from a machicolation, whilst admiring the craftsmanship!

Fatehpur Sikri
In 1569 AD, childless Akbar was blessed with Prince Salim, as prophesised by the Sufi saint Salim Chisti. As a token of his respect, Akbar built the Mughals’ first planned city at Sikri, and decided to make it his capital. Named Fatehabad, the city later came to be known as Fatehpur Sikri. One of the most ephemeral capitals of the Mughal Empire, Fatehpur Sikri was Akbar’s audacious dream – a dream that he lived in for 12 years between 1572 and 1585 AD. Audacious, because, defying conventional wisdom, the city was built on a rocky ridge away from any source of water. Though Akbar did build an artificial lake and devise efficient water supply and drainage systems, Fatehpur Sikri had to be abandoned due to water shortage.

Built entirely using local red sandstone, the architecture of Fatehpur Sikri, as of the Agra Fort, is an assimilation of Persian, Islamic, Hindu and even Jain styles, to create a style that has come to be identified with Akbar. The city was designed to meet all needs – administrative, living, religious, and pleasure – and each of the buildings had unique architectural tweaks. Like how the residences of Akbar’s Hindu and Muslim wives reflect their backgrounds. So does Birbal’s house. Administrative buildings like the Diwan-i-am, Diwan-i-khas, the treasury, and the astrologer’s seat are fairly nondescript, with the exception of my favourite element – the central column in the Diwan-i-khas. Embellished with bands of carvings, it culminates in a head of 36 serpentine brackets supporting a circular platform where Akbar sat, which is connected to the first floor level via stone walkways.

Birbal's house at Fatehpur Sikri, built in a distinctly Hindu style.

The central column and bridges inside the Diwan-i-khas.

Breaking the sedate architecture of the administrative buildings is the informality of the pleasure and entertainment buildings – with ornate carvings of birds, animals and very life-like grapes and pomegranates. It wasn’t too difficult to picture royal ladies giggling from the ornate 5-tiered Panch Mahal, staff moving at Akbar’s command on the Pachisi (ludo) squares inlaid in the courtyard’s floor, or even musicians performing from the floating platform over Anup Talao’s pool – so evocative was the architecture.

Pachisi squares inlaid in the courtyard, which was played using live courtiers.

Anup Talao, with its central platform.

My guide had saved another of my favourites for last – the behemoth that is Buland Darwaza. 180 feet high, equivalent to an 18-storeyed building, this victory arch was added in 1576 AD to commemorate Akbar’s successful campaign. I walked up the steep steps leading to the gateway, which magically transitioned to human scale as I entered the Jama Masjid. Salim Chisti’s white marble tomb within the masjid brought me full circle – face to face with the man for whom this entire city was built.

When Jahangir re-inhabited Fatehpur Sikri for a couple of years during his reign, to escape from the plague at Agra, it was the last time the city was ever occupied. Its sparse usage has made it one of the best-preserved collections of Mughal architecture, besides endearing itself to people as the birth-place of the legends of Akbar and his courtiers, the navaratnas.

Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra
The Agra-Mathura highway to Sikandra snaked through some of the most populated belts of Uttar Pradesh; as vehicles belched noxious fumes into the already insufferable heat, I wondered how Akbar rests in peace amidst this cacophony. As if on cue, a massive, red sandstone gateway came into view; with every inch of it covered in colourful geometric and floral inlays and mosaics, topped with white minarets, the gateway held promise. Its architectural elements were precursors to the inlays at Itmad-ud-Daulah and the minarets of the Taj Mahal. The gateway proved to be a portal to another world – leading on to lush gardens which attract antelopes, monkeys, peacocks and other birds. The highway was now a distant memory.

Entrance Gateway to Akbar's tomb, with ornate inlay work.

In accordance with the Tartary custom of building one’s own tomb, Akbar set about its construction in 1600 AD. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1605 AD, after completing his tomb and laying out the gardens in the typical char bagh pattern. His son Jahangir took over until its completion in 1613 AD.

Broad, paved walkways with channels and pools (which once had water) lead from each of the four gates to the stepped, 5-storeyed red sandstone building. The uppermost storey is in white marble – Jahangir’s signature touch to the design. An unusually squat building by Mughal standards, its linearity adds to its distinctive character, which is enhanced by the presence of arcaded verandahs on all storeys, as well as kiosks capped by cupolas (chhatris).

View of Akbar’s tomb with the paved walkway, water pools and water channels.

The interior of the building sends mixed signals – I was greeted by strikingly rich stucco work in blue, red and gold, only to move through a narrow, white-washed passage, to a white-washed room with the false cenotaph. The mystery of the severe interiors was solved by my guide - Jahangir is said to have brought his ostentatious design sensibilities to the tomb’s interior design; unfortunately, only bits of the stucco and none of the precious-stone inlays survived, as the tomb was heavily looted and disfigured during the reign of Aurangzeb, by rebel Jats.

Jaalis (lattices) in sandstone, pre-dating and competing with the finesse of the marble lattices at the Taj Mahal and Itmad-ud-Daulah, lend a delicacy to the architecture, which lingers with you.

One of the surviving examples of the elaborate ornamentation executed by Jahangir within the building.

White-washed interiors of the tomb.

Driving across the Yamuna is an exercise that demands your patience, but rewards you well. This little-visited area of Agra is home to a landmark building which marked the transition of monumental Mughal Architecture from its first ‘sandstone phase’, to its next, which was marble architecture. Pint-sized Itmad-ud-Daulah packs quite an architectural punch with its design and detailing, envisioned and executed lovingly by Jahangir’s wife, Empress Nur Jahan, for her deceased father Mirza Ghiyas Beg. A Persian Amir in exile, Ghiyas Beg had been a Wazir in Jahangir’s court and was conferred the title of Itmad-ud-Daulah (pillar of the state).

This marble tomb is a predecessor to the Taj Mahal, and is said to be its inspiration too. To reflect her father’s love for Persia, Nur Jahan borrowed heavily from Persian architectural and interior decoration styles, while adding Indian elements like chhatris and kalash-shaped finials. The dome-less building set on a red sandstone plinth within a char bagh garden, has hexagonal towers in each corner. The overall proportions and ornamentation of the mausoleum led to it being nicknamed ‘Jewel Box’ and ‘Baby Taj’.

The building’s white Rajasthani marble surfaces are covered painstakingly with floral arabesques and geometric motifs using inlay and mosaic techniques. One sees the extensive use of the pietra dura technique with semi-precious stones, which was later employed at a much larger scale in the Taj Mahal. Another important architectural milestone is the polychromatic nature of the ornamentation. Jahangir’s influence can be seen in the choice of Iranian motifs like wine goblets, bouquets and cut fruits. Don’t miss the beautifully painted dome when you enter the tomb. It’s worn out, but still displays some of the original colours – brilliant blue, turquoise, red and gold.

Marble jaalis are used strategically to create tailored light and shadows within, presenting a solemn air in contrast to the almost cheery exteriors. Cheer we must, though, for this path-breaking example of the second phase of Mughal Architecture.


Architecture is the least esoteric way for people to understand a time-period – it doesn’t require knowledge of exotic languages needed to interpret written text, nor does it need familiarity with technical details of art. Architecture conveys messages across centuries without the need for sharing common ground. Agra offers you tête-a-têtes with Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan; it is up to you to accept the invitation.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Thadiyandamol Trek: the ground beneath my feet

An unedited version of my story published in the August 2015 edition of Outlook Traveller

A view of the summit of Thadiyandamol

“Oops, sorry!” was a phrase I found myself constantly repeating throughout that day, as I dodged people. All around me was the clackety-clack of trekking boots and poles, as trekkers marched past in twos, threes, or fours, nodding at our group in greeting. I almost felt guilty for not being purposeful enough - for not aiming to reach the peak quickly - unlike those walking on. A few broke their march-past to peer into whatever bush we were peering into. They’d see nothing, and walk away with an indulgent smile and a slow shake of their head. Some, seeing me sprawled on the ground, stopped to enquire if I was injured and needed help. 

Thadiyandamol, Coorg’s highest peak at 5724 ft (1748 mts), is a favourite; enjoying its beautiful vistas and summiting it is on most trekkers’ wish-lists. Timing the trek too is important to many. I, however, had decided to stop and smell the roses - or the Kurinjis, in this case. What if I didn’t look at the views around me, but at the ground beneath my feet, for a change?

The endangered Blue-eyed bush frog, also known locally as 'Neel-netra', endemic to the Western Ghats

An endemic snail - the colourful 'Indrella ampulla'.
I was in Coorg just on the heels of the monsoon, when an errant painter seemed to have run amok with his bucket of green. Life-forms were undergoing changes on Thadiyandamol, after the invigorating rain. Somewhere, a frog croaked to attract its mate. Yet elsewhere, a snail moved at, well, snail’s pace, glistening raindrops riding piggy-back on its shell. Picture-postcard streams emitted clichéd gurgles as they swooshed around egg-smooth pebbles and seeped into parched crevices. A plant that flowers once in twelve years awaited us, while a carnivorous plant lay waiting for its next prey.

A cold, damp morning found our group of five at the beginning of the trekking route, in an open clearing in the rainforest canopy, through which we locked eyes with an ominously cloudy sky. Surrounded as the clearing was by some of the tall primary forest trees which had survived human brutality, this area instantly became the object of our affections.  Rain the previous day had made the ground slushy, and the morning stillness now reverberated with sounds of the earth sucking our shoes in, followed by the curt popping of shoes being released. Alert leeches scanned for heat and blood, clinging tenaciously as we tried to prise them off.

The initial path of the trek

In a corner, a burst of purple perked up the forest floor – Impatiens nodding away in the gentle breeze. These bright flowers grow near water or in moist conditions, and are endemic to the Western Ghats, of which Thadiyandamol is a part. An iridescent damselfly and a sluggish snail later, our naturalist urged us to move ahead, only because we needed time at hand for completing the trek before either the rain appeared or the sun disappeared; at worst, both. If we made good time, we could be slower on our way back, he promised.

The bright Impatiens. The ferns seen in this photograph are also typical of rainforests.

The vistas along the trek route were undeniably captivating; as we moved first through rainforests and then through shola-grasslands, we were hard-pressed to look elsewhere. But then, a sudden flash of colour would catch our eye, or that very faint call would have us perk up our ears, and a search would ensue. The vegetation along the path varied – some stretches had trees and plants densely packed on either side, revealing spiders, grasshoppers, frogs or orchids, if we knew where to look. Other stretches opened up on the valley side, offering sweeping panoramas of the shola-grasslands, a characteristic forest type of the region, which lends the hills the appearance of being cloaked in patterned green velvet.

These grasslands brought us a variety of wildflowers and a surprise! Every twelve years, Kurinji plants flower en masse, draping the hills with a purple carpet, a phenomenon which currently relied solely on my imagination to visualise it. To help me along, however, a couple of stray Kurinji had decided to be the delinquents of their tribe, eliciting a jig out of me. 

Kurinjis, or Neelakurinjis, seen here in their habitat, with a dragonfly hovering over. These distinctive purple flowers led to the Nilgiris being named so – blue mountains. 

The sudden calls of the Bright-headed Cisticola – a bird as tiny as its name is long – was all that was needed for our entire group to first break into a jig, and then a jog, as we tried in vain to keep up with the hyperactive bird. By then, the sun had reached its pinnacle, it had begun drizzling, and we had just reached past the mid-point, identifiable by a big boulder on a fairly level ground. A deliciously cold stream soothed our aching feet, as we energised ourselves with lunch and some well-deserved rest before the steep and rocky last leg of the trek.

A view from the latter part of the trek, where the sholas give way to grasslands. Trekkers, seen to the right, are a small blip in the vast landscape.

Nearing the summit, we stopped yet again. Sure, it helped us catch our breath from the climb, but, more importantly, it brought us face to face with our most prized sighting – the carnivorous plant, Drosera. Calling it a ‘sighting’ is probably a stretch – the species found here is smaller than blades of grass, barely discernible to the naked eye. The ingenuity of a plant this size is mind-boggling – rather than being easy prey, it is actually a predator.  Each ‘leaf’ has glandular tentacles which are topped with globules of sticky secretion. Assuming these to be dew, insects get stuck to the plant, ending up as its food.

We would have missed all this drama, had we just trekked past. Lying down on the ground had lent a new perspective – meeting Thadiyandamol’s inhabitants.  They hear the grasslands perform a synchronized sweep in that manic, midnight wind. They live under a sky which stars light up with different patterns each night. They witness Thadiyandamol disappearing into the morning mist, only to emerge slowly later, leaving early-bird trekkers sighing at the poetry of it all.

Robberflies, mating
Grasshoppers, mating

Back from the trek, lying supine on our guest-house’s terrace, we plucked leeches off our clothing – sometimes stomachs and necks too - with the nonchalance of seasoned ground crawlers. My energy now draining as fast as the setting sun, I succumbed to the evening breeze lulling me into a slumber.

In my mental map of the trek route now are numerous landmarks; what was at the beginning of the trek just an indistinct swathe of green, now has memories imprinted on it. To the people I meet, my conversations about ‘The bush where we saw the orange orchid’, ‘that puddle where the frog was half-submerged’ or ‘that rotten trunk where the sparkling fungus grew’ may sound like ramblings of an unhinged mind, but to me, they are indispensable parts of my Harry Potter-esque Pensieve, taking me back to Thadiyandamol. To that exact spot and that exact moment in time. To relive the trek, until I add new memories and markers from my next. 

Some trees at the base of Thadiyandamol yield surprising varieties of fungi, like this one
The area around Thadiyandamol is host to a variety of butterflies, and their colourful  caterpillars can often be spotted feeding on suitable plants.

For information about the trek and my tips, read this: