Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 Travel Calendar

I spent all of 2016 wishing I could travel more, and feeling that I hadn’t travelled much. Penning these travel memories down has made me realise that I have indeed travelled a fair bit this year, and a few trips had actually just slipped under my radar because they were disguised as ‘work’ or ‘wedding trips’ or ‘just going home’. I visited many cities and metropolises this year, something I don’t do too often, as I seek tranquil places most of the time. 2015’s food theme did continue strong this year. I also managed to visit places that had been on my travel wish-list since many years, some literally since my childhood! To top it all, I finally set foot in the northern Himalayas, having only travelled to the eastern Himalayas before. What more can I say? I’m ending 2016 on a cheerful and nostalgic note!

Here's hoping that 2017 brings this beautiful world of ours some much-needed happiness and peace.
                                                                                                                  Ranthambore National Park
A last minute travel plan to a national park which is notorious for being booked out months in advance should logically never work out; fortuitously, it did! Though my late booking meant that my safaris weren’t in any of the zones with Ranthambore’s famous monuments, or even the Rajbagh Lake, this trip gave me a fair idea of the forest’s unique topography. And I did see one of Ranthambore’s gorgeous tigresses.

When wildlife tours to Bharatpur were called 'Magical Bharatpur', I dismissed the description as just another tagline. Having visited Bharatpur now, I can vouch for the magic, and can say that 'magical' doesn't do the place enough justice. Beginning each of my three days with foggy rides in cycle-rickshaws at dawn, and ending them with multi-coloured sunsets, there wasn’t a dull moment spent at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park. For me, the highlight of the trip was witnessing an out-of-season mating dance by a Sarus Crane pair; the love they expressed for each other was – you guessed it – magical! I also visited nearby Chambal on a day-trip, finally seeing the region’s infamous ravines, the Chambal River, toothy Gharials, and the endangered Indian Skimmers.

Jaipur fell into place by accident, when I decided to fly in and out of the city while visiting Ranthambore and Bharatpur. Never one to miss chances like these, I decided to spend a day in Jaipur, for my first taste of the city which had been on my wish-list ever since I was enamoured by a cut-out of the Hawa Mahal as a child. A day is way too short for a holiday, but I thoroughly enjoyed ambling around the old city’s vibrant bazaars and monuments, gorging on local delicacies which my host had painstakingly listed for me. And of course, I fell in love with Hawa Mahal all over again.  

When a friend announced that her wedding would be in Kolkata, I lost no time in planning an extended trip to the ‘City of Joy’. With a little over two days at hand for enjoying the city, I splurged to stay at the Oberoi, in the heart of Kolkata, with all the landmarks just a stone’s throw away. The city is immensely easy to negotiate by walking, using the metro, or the classic yellow taxis (my personal favourites), though my friends didn’t really share my enthusiasm for these slow and rickety behemoths. We visited some of Kolkata’s classic landmarks, enjoyed Park Street’s weekend vibe, ate ghoti gorom while walking along the ghats of the Hooghly River, and over-dosed on authentic Bengali mishti, which has spoiled any mishti outside of Bengal for us. Kolkata’s street food was a revelation: delicious, available at every corner of the city, and light on the wallet.

Malnad region, Karnataka
I was grumpy during summer, due to my lack of travel plans because of having just recovered from a back injury. A sudden call from my wildlife mentor to travel to Sagar and Shimoga districts in the Malnad region had me bounding out of bed. With promises to my family that I would be extra cautious about my back, I set out on this four-day trip through lush forests and rolling hills, appreciating some lesser-known wildlife areas. The beautiful Jain temple at Nagarabasti, surrounded by verdant vistas, was a find. It drizzled incessantly throughout the trip; however, the famed Jog Falls was bone-dry, much to my dismay!

An account of my visit to the Sakrebyle Elephant Camp near Shimoga:

Home to me, but an intriguing metropolis to my husband, Mumbai (still Bombay to me) was a sudden trip in summer. What lured hubby and sealed the deal was the promise of Alphonso mangoes every day. I used this opportunity to walk around all my favourite hangouts in the city, with weary hubby trudging along in the muggy May heat. Exploring the Fort region to the CBD, Marine Drive to the Gateway of India, Juhu beach to Dadar, I relived my life as a Mumbaikar. Of course, how could food be far behind? Authentic Maharashtrian dishes, Irani restaurants, Gujarati food and Bambaiyya dishes, we savoured them all, washed down with copious cups of aamras and mango milkshakes. By the end of the holiday, my husband was a convert.

BR Hills, Karnataka
I’ve visited this forest many times, and the JLR property at K.Gudi is one of my favourites. Since my husband had never been there, we decided to take a short break mid-year. The probability of encountering elephants along the forest’s narrow, winding, hilly safari route always excites and scares me in equal measure. This trip, to add to our excitement was the cottage we had chosen to stay in – farthest from the other cottages, and where leopards are routinely sighted. One of our most memorable experiences was sitting in our stilted cottage’s balcony after 10 pm, in pitch darkness, surrounded by bats and fireflies, listening to frequent alarm calls and the rustling of leaves. Sometimes, the things you can only hear scare you more than the things you can see.

For an architect, Chandigarh is something of a holy grail. When I planned my trip to Spiti Valley, I jumped at the opportunity to spend a day there. My impression of the city, garnered mostly from school textbooks and architecture books, now sprung alive. In just a few hours, Chandigarh bowled me over with its cleanliness, orderly traffic, soft-spoken people, and joie de vivre. Nek Chand’s Rock Garden was a childhood dream come true, and every bit as crazy as I had imagined! Seated on the bund at Sukhna Lake, legs swinging over the edge, surrounded by locals enjoying the tranquility, I could see why Chandigarh’s residents love their city; I love it too!

Lahaul and Spiti, Himachal Pradesh
My trip to Spiti Valley was one of the highlights of the second half of the year, and I returned smitten by the beauty of the region, the stark landscapes, its ever-smiling people, their hospitality, and their simplicity of life. Spiti is raw nature at its best, and its worst; yet, the locals embrace everything as a part of life. Involving high-altitude travel on gravelly roads where traversing 200 kms takes 12 hours, the tranquility of Spiti’s tiny villages, the sparkling azure of its lakes, and the serenity of its monasteries are some of the many memories etched in my mind. Since my return, I remain deeply introspective.

Hampi never ceases to surprise me, even on my third trip! Having seen some of the main monuments on a ‘fun only’ first trip with a bunch of friends, and Hampi’s and Daroji’s wildlife on my second trip, I was third time lucky. With an excellent guide and lovely accommodation in serene Anegundi, I brought in my birthday just the way I liked it – walking all day through the treasure hunt that is Hampi, stumbling across picturesque ruins, pristine banks of the Tungabhadra River, and negotiating through herds of goats. Hampi’s scale is staggering, and this is the closest I have come to feeling like Indiana Jones. Hampi’s vast expanse also meant that in spite of the Dusshera holiday crowds, I always managed to find a quiet spot for myself.  

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Seeking Nostalgia in Kodaikanal

Published in the August 2016 edition of Discover India magazine, as 'The Big Misty'.

The fireplace crackled, spewing out untamed flames, and sparks that spat into the room like energetic fireflies. I smiled and sank deeper into my easy-chair, cupping a bowl of hot soup. I was enjoying every bit of the cold weather, having arrived here from the scorching plains. Just a few relaxing hours in Kodaikanal had afflicted me with a languor that was quickly becoming second nature. As my hosts spoke animatedly about life in Kodaikanal, their favourite long walks, secret nooks, and scenic views, it became abundantly clear that I had a battle on my hands to shake off my slothfulness, if I wanted to explore Kodaikanal.

Sepia-tinted photographs and meticulous black-and-white sketches from the 1800s, dotted all over my hosts’ living room, enticed me with the promise of pristine landscapes, fleet-footed Nilgiri Tahrs and Sambar deer in grasslands, and humungous Gaurs surprising me at road bends. As a compulsive nostalgia seeker, the thought of attempting to experience 19th century Kodaikanal immediately caught my fancy, and soon, I was consumed by the idea. So I pored over the photographs and sketches, noted details, and armed myself with directions and tips from my hosts, to help me recreate the memories held by these images.

Morning dew on my window
The next morning, I forced myself out of the snug comfort of my quilt, only to be greeted by the croaking of cicadas. When I left at 6 am, there was barely enough light to discern and open the padlock on the property’s gate, while simultaneously trying to prevent their resident pet from running out with me.  Kodaikanal had not yet awoken from its slumber, except for a dimly-lit tea shack from which wisps of smoke emanated.

From its viewpoint, Kodaikanal Lake was seen shrouded in mist, which had coagulated over the water like gigantic, unruly candy floss. All around, trees emerged, many of them distinctly pine and eucalyptus. The sunrise vista was like watching film slowly develop in a dark-room: monochromatic at first, segueing from pastel pink to sepia, with the other colours choosing to reveal themselves only an hour later, as I drove back past the viewpoint. The lake’s shape as seen from here corresponds exactly to its 19th century photograph. Not much has changed in the view, barring low roofs of Kodaikanal town peeking out from between layers of trees.

Pillar Rocks lay at the end of a long, winding drive from the lake’s viewpoint; save for a couple of houses, the road was deserted. Crepuscular rays streamed in through thickets of trees, from which I heard langurs swinging. I was shaken out of my reverie by the appearance of a barricade - the road hadn’t yet been opened to vehicles for the day.  I approached Pillar Rocks on foot, with heightened anticipation.

Pillar Rocks sketch by Douglas Hamilton, 1862.
Source: Wikipedia. Larger image: click here
The two separate pillar-like rocks from the sketch now stood a little less distinctly, the 150 years that had elapsed having allowed plants to grow over the rocks, reducing the gap between them. The grasslands of yore were also overgrown. There were no gambolling Tahrs or Sambar, and the metal railing all around the viewpoint kept threatening to make my time-travel difficult.

The valley, however, lived up to its promise of being mist-filled, revealing parts of the escarpment of the Palani Hills on which Kodaikanal is situated. A howling, bone-rattling wind made my jacket and gloves redundant, but helped clear the clouds; the sky then turned a picture-postcard blue and gifted me the sight of Pillar Rocks crowned by the setting moon. When I said gifted, I meant it – just a few hours later, eager visitors to Pillar Rocks saw nothing, as fog hid the rocks until the next sunrise. My hosts had been right in egging me on to leave before dawn.

Enthused by how my morning had panned out, I was less averse to exploring ‘modern’ Kodaikanal and decided to see the picturesque lake up-close. The lake is the focal point of life in Kodaikanal, for residents and visitors alike. With restricted vehicular movement on the road encircling the lake, it comes alive with cyclists whizzing past, people chatting, residents jogging, and couples enjoying quiet strolls. With the lake on one side and many palatial heritage buildings lining the other, the lake road exudes an old-world charm.

The sight of bicycles brought out the child in me and I spent a greater part of the afternoon giggling over our clumsy tandem-bike riding skills, while resolutely cycling around the lake. To perhaps continue kindling the child in you, the boat clubs have ensured that most pedal-boats have gigantic cartoon characters built on them. With Mickey Mouse for company, I pedalled across the lake to one of its quieter arms. Families had turned up in droves to enjoy the pleasant evening; in spite of the crowd, the large size of the lake allowed me to have a piece of Kodaikanal to myself. And I had to admit - the Kodaikanal of today had provided me with as much excitement and relaxation as the Kodaikanal of the past.

That didn’t stop me from resuming my pursuance of the next black-and-white photograph, though. Dolphin’s Nose, so named because of the shape of the rock overhanging the valley, promised an interesting trek, and I decided to undertake it early the next day. The narrow trail took me past bustling hutments, cheap lodges with bewildering Hebrew signage, refreshment stalls, and locals gathering firewood, before meandering through trees and losing all sight of habitation.  Which is why, it startled me to hear a voice behind me say “photo, madam?” barely ten minutes after I sat near the edge, lost in quiet contemplation.


Once an Enid Blyton-esque picnic spot for Kodaikanal’s residents, Dolphin’s Nose now attracts many visitors who enjoy posing in the ‘Titanic pose’ at the very edge. A few enterprising photographers not only orchestrate photogenic poses, but are also equipped with instant printers to give you copies within minutes. Upon my refusal, the photographer too sat down to admire the view. Coaxed by him into experiencing the feeling of sitting at the actual end, I slowly overcame my fear and swung my legs over the edge, hands gripping the ground next to me for dear life. Though decades had elapsed since my reference colonial era photo had been taken, Dolphin’s Nose still felt like the end of the world.   

If Dolphin’s Nose whetted my appetite for more solitude, Berijam Lake surpassed it. With highly restricted access to the lake, you are almost guaranteed to be the sole individual there if you time it right. The long drive to the lake passes through precariously surviving shola-grasslands; I was pleased because it increased my chances of spotting wildlife, if not the elusive Tahrs. Mist engulfed the road for quite some time, considerately lifting at just the right viewpoints. 

Berijam Lake sat in the valley like the grand prize at the end of a journey. To stroll and sit at the water’s edge, surrounded by hillocks and dense clusters of conifers, with no sign of ‘civilisation’ in sight, made it the perfect end to my quest for nostalgia.

Driving back from Berijam Lake, lamenting that it was time for me to leave Kodaikanal, I passed the golf course. Despite being mid-day, mist rolled over its gentle undulations, even as a lone golfer persistently played his game.  

That is when it dawned on me - the 19th century still existed in Kodaikanal: in its pristine landscapes, its capacity to offer solitude, and its flair for surprising you. And then, almost as if to chide that obsessing about the past wasn’t healthy, Kodaikanal drops a misty curtain on it all, nudging visitors to experience its present – its people, its lake, and its activities. I realised that Kodaikanal morphs into what you seek from it.