Drenched with Monsoon Memories: Ratnagiri, Ganapathipule, Sawantwadi, Amboli Ghat

FeaturedDrenched with Monsoon Memories: Ratnagiri, Ganapathipule, Sawantwadi, Amboli Ghat

If you love travelling, you would agree that some trips are remembered for the beauty of the place, some for the memories you made, while some others for the company you had. But this monsoon trip, with a dear cousin, will be remembered for all three; The perfect spot to watch the sun set into the sea, dreaming of modaks that we never got to have, the cold gushing waters, getting locked up in a palace with hidden artful gems, and the ever concerned driver who even called us to check if we were back in the city and home safe; it was a musical, konkan getaway, with the sounds of rain and the cousin’s ARR hums, in the background.

Our first stop was Ratnagiri, a small port city that’s been on my Maharashtra list for long. At first sight, I was slightly sceptical, but my oh my was I wrong. This city has some hidden tricks up its sleeves to make your knees go weak in love for Mother Earth. The one that tops our list is that perfect spot along the cliff between the Bhavani Mandir and the hike up to the other end of the Ratnadurga Fort; the perfect spot to watch the sun set into the Arabian Sea. From here you can also spot a cave, presumably a secret getaway route from inside the fort into the sea. Ratnadurga fort is horseshoe-shaped, runs for over 1300m, and opens you to many such spectacular views of the coastline as you walk along the fort walls.

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Sunset at Ratnadurga

From Ratnagiri the rain clouds chased us, while we chased the coastline northwards upto Jaigad Fort. The view enroute is an unforgettable one. It almost seemed like the white waves were pulling back in slow mo, allowing us to count them as they hit the coastline. We stopped over at Aara Ware and in several view points along the way, the mandir at Ganapathipule and Prachin Konkan, a nature trail museum that illustrates the Konkan life.

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Rain clouds caught up with us at Aare Ware
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The view enroute to Ganapathipule
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Walls of Jaigad

The Jaigad fort and lighthouse was our last stop for the day. Jaigad is another sea fort that overlooks the Arabian Sea on one side and the Jindal Steel Works site on the other. JSW has also built a private port over here. The lighthouse, although not too tall, offers a good view of the area. The place was almost empty, and we coaxed the caretaker to show us the light on top up close and we headed back before another spell of rains hit us.

Roaming around the quiet city, we found that Ratnagiri also had a couple of historic connections.

 

Here’s some quick trivia; Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the famed freedom fighter was born here. The charming old world house. with a sloping roof and green backyard, where he was born is maintained by the government. As we walked through this humble house,  his vociferous struggle for freedom through his slogan, “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it”, echoed through my mind.

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View of the Tilak Ali Museum from the backyard

The city also has a Burmese connection. When the Britishers took over Burma, they arrested and brought King Thibaw all the way to Ratnagiri and kept him under house arrest at the Thibaw Palace. Certain sections of the palace are open to the public, while renovation work is being carried on other parts.

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Thibaw Palace. Perfect for a KJo film, if he ever has budget constraints.

After a good two whole days at Ratnagiri, the mountains beckoned. Amboli Ghat was the next destination. We boarded an early morning Konkan express and enjoyed the scenic 3-hour journey gaping at valleys, rivers, waterfalls and the general monsoon green-ness. The closest station to Amboli is Sawantwadi, and the ghat is a 25 kms drive. Sawantwadi is a quaint little town with not much to do.

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The rumbling monsoon clouds shrouding over Vengurla Beach

We headed out to spend the afternoon at Vengurla beach, definitely not one of the cleanest beaches. But the must visit here is the Sawantwadi Palace, built by Khem Sawant Bhonsle in the 1700s. The town is famous for its lacquer art, and the royal family is known for supporting the local artists. The palace has been converted into a museum and also showcases charmingly colourful lacquered furniture, toys, figurines, artefacts, and the famed hand-painted ganjifa (playing cards). The intricate detailing illustrating the dashavatarams is truly a masterpiece I’d love to own. The intricate art hooked our admiration, so much so that we got locked up, as it was past the visiting hours. Thank god the caretaker let us out after we waved out to him through the glass door. In those fleeting moments though, we really felt like we owned the place and the art.

 

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Hand-painted circular Ganjifa wall hanging illustrating the Avatars of Vishnu

Amboli Ghat is a good hour’s drive From Sawantwadi. With water rolling down at every turn, this hill station gushes of monsoon love. The Kavale Saad view point defines this perfectly.  We walked on the flowing waters, played around to our heart’s content, and waited patiently to get a good view of the valley. My cousin’s little prayer to the nature god moved the dense fog to give us a peek; Spellbinding. Precisely my idea of a magical heaven.  In fact, when the winds are strong, the water that falls down the valley is blown back forming a reverse waterfall effect. YouTube is filled with these videos. We too did experience the reverse spray, but not a strong one. Quick tip, try to start early and beat the tourist crowd to this point. We had the place to ourselves for a while before the crowd arrived, and when they did, we promptly moved out.

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The cousin posing at Kavale Saad

When you do visit the place, don’t miss out on the chai at the shack, right on top near the landing, run by two women.  It is the best cha l’ve tasted thus far in my travels so far in Maharashtra. Added to the cha came a pinch of progressiveness as we listened to the women talk about the importance of clean loos for women in such places. Prema and her friend maintain a women’s toilet here and do a brilliant job. In that altitude, with rains, water everywhere and chilling temperatures, trust us, you will feel the need to use the space. They charge ten bucks a person, but keep the place tidy. We had left all our bags in the cab as it was raining. We promised to walk down and return with cash. When we did, the women broke into a warm and surprised smile. They said we were the first ones ever to keep our word. I agree it’s quite a walk down and up, but these women totally deserve the trouble for their service. Much love to them both.

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Although the Kavale Saad experience was our most favourite, the Amboli Falls (R) comes second. You can simply climb up the stairs (L) to this roadside milky white falls. But again, hit the falls early like we did, else the queue will annoy you. While returning, the long line of people waiting on the stairs had us shell shocked and we were so thankful for waking up early that day. The Nangartas falls is another attraction here that offers a rather fascinating view. The water falls into a sort of a shallow canyon, a natural, narrow, walled pathway. The sound, therefore, is deafeningly loud and amusingly captivating.

With howling winds and heavy rains following us, we drove back to Sawantwadi to catch our night bus back home that day. We were quite tired having shouldered the mighty rains all along, but the memories would last a long time. And that’s the thing about monsoon trips, keeps you cold on the outside, but makes you warm and fuzzy on the inside. Sometimes I  wonder if my stars brought me to Maharashtra just to give me the monsoon experience.

Looking for more monsoon memories? Go here!

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Karnataka Diaries – Two Women, an Activa, and the Coast!

FeaturedKarnataka Diaries – Two Women, an Activa, and the Coast!

There’s something very liberating about riding a bike. I’m undecided on whether I should add ‘as a woman’ over here. But the truth is, the first time I breathed freedom was when I rode my first adult cycle beyond Chamiers road, (Alwarpet, Chennai :)) peddling through the heavy Nandanam traffic. Since then, riding a two-wheeler in gay abandon through unknown roads and by lanes has brought me closer to happiness and independence. Needless to say, bike trips are a favourite, night rounds with the husband man, especially this summer has become sort of a routine. Although, to be honest, ever since I moved out of Chennai, I’ve only been a spoilt pillion who lets her hair loose and let her eyes lead her to the beautiful, hidden scenes that pass by. This month, an opportunity landed on my lap to unspoil myself.

It’s not often that a bff is on a break from work and agrees to step out of the self-imposed 3 kms around office radius. This called for an impromptu, unplanned, quickfire, realistically budgeted trip. The only ground rule was to go to places neither of us have been to. We narrowed down on Karnataka, as I was already in Bangalore for some personal work. Like a friend put it, although I’ve moved out of Bangalore, my heart is still in Karnataka. Well, my heart is in Madras, but it does wander into Karnataka every now and then 🙂 The sweltering heat didn’t hold much of a promise, but we decided to hit the coast and wet our feet in the Arabian Sea.

We took an overnight bus to Manipal and the University town welcomed us with cheer. There’s something about these university towns. Not sure, if it’s the wannabe, cool, hangouts teeming with students or the surprising cleanliness, security and non-judgemental-ness, but they definitely make you feel like you’re back in college. That’s how we ended up making the brash decision of hiring a bike and riding through the Karnataka coastal stretch. To my friend’s family – please note, it was my idea, I take all the blame. And to my family, well, I just gave the idea, she very quickly and enterprisingly found a place for us to hire the Activa, don’t blame me! 😀

That was the first thing we did once we landed in Manipal, hire a bike (you too can, over here). We then checked into our room, freshened up, and decided to head to the Udupi Krishna Math for free lunch. Yay! This has been on my bucket list for a long time; Yes, my bucket is more like a Ratna cafe sambhar bucket, filled with vegetarian food dreams and realistically budgeted trips. But Krishna had to play his leelai; it was an Ekadeshi with fasting and only tiffin was served (sweet and spicy avalakki, and mosuru avalakki). We made up for it by sneaking in the next day again for lunch. I know Udupi rasam is famous and all, but the pumpkin sambhar was god-awesome.

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Pumpkins and Andas – behind the kitchen scenes at the Udupi Krishna Math
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Temple tank

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While this satvik food is a must have in Udupi, the second must have is the Diana Hotel ice cream. This place has the best AC I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant. Uniformly cool temperatures in every nook, no wonder their ice creams are to die for. Gadbad is the most famous here, and as the legend goes, the sundae mix originated here. The other sundaes were equally good too, we tried Lighthouse and later Double Sundae as well.

Now that we were well fed and had the bike, the plan was to run google maps and hit the lanes as close to the beach as possible. This meant longer routes, more time and narrower lanes. But that didn’t stop us. For the next three days, we tag teamed and rode through fields, small bridges, backwaters, and neat rows of coconut trees.

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Kaup Beach Lighthouse

Kaup Beach was our first stop. Thankfully the beach was not crowded. The lighthouse had an old world charm as expected, and is very similar to the Mahabalipuram Lighthouse, only taller (at 111 feet) with a greener view to offer. The waters were invitingly cool and clean. Geographically, there’s a natural inlet here of shallow waters and from the right spot, makes for a beautiful view of the lighthouse perched between the two stretches of water. Kaup is the ideal beach for long lazy walks, and when you get bored you can climb atop the lighthouse for some breeze and stunning views, or wade in the shallow as well as deep waters, only to dry yourself later spotting crabs sitting on the high rocks next to the giant lighthouse. We did all of this, plus got our hearts wrenched spotting a dead turtle corpse washed ashore 😦

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The Kaup Coastline
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View from the top

Another unforgettable Arabian Sea sunset and I was good to get going. We headed back to Manipal for the night, ate in one of the wannabe cool hangouts (with bad food) and dropped dead on the bed.

Day two, we moved over to Malpe. The Malpe beach is a lot more commercial, sadly we weren’t too aware of this fact. Not our scene, we threw our bags into the second hotel and rushed out to the bike. This time Kodi Bengre caught my eye. This stretch on the map looks like a tail, with backwaters on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other. As weird as this sounds, I have been getting recurring dreams of such a stretch for a few years now and had to check this out. Plus, it’s not too far from Malpe. Our only concern was the roads, but it turned out to be a great ride.

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Delta Point

Kodi Bengre is everything that Malpe is not. It is secluded, quaint, and opens you to a whole new world of pastel coloured houses. Remember that viral photo of brightly coloured houses of Norway? to everyone who shared that, if you don’t have the budget to do Norway, please head to Kodi Bengre. It begins with the pure white temple that seemed like it popped out of a Tide ad and as you move further, you see pastel shades of purple, pink, green, deep blue, aquamarine blue, yellow, orange, cream…. some houses even have walls of different colours, but very aesthetically matched, atleast to my eyes. We are an unfair society, the minute you say fishing community, a city-bred person imagines rows of huts, smelling of fish. This entire stretch from Gujjarbettu, till beyond Hoode shatters the stereotype completely. The houses are super tidy and being an hour post lunch, we caught several families siesta-ing on netted tent-like structures and on the porches. Yes, many of the houses here had small porches and a neat square for the tulasi maadam. I just couldn’t get enough of these houses I tell you! We passed through the fishing docks, more coconut trees, the fish cleaning factory, more houses and finally reached the end of the road. From here we had to get off the bike and climb on the rocks, only to see the beauty of the Suvarna estuary entering into the Sea. This is the Delta Point.

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Kodi Bengre Fishing Harbour
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Boats in Siesta

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I would have loved to stay here till sunset, but we had other plans lined up for the evening. St. Mary’s Island, rather the best thing about Malpe. To all the Kirrin Island fans of the Famous Five following, this comes a little close, minus the castle. A GoT fanboy friend had to comment seeing a picture, that it reminded him of Iron Islands though. Make a pick, here are the photos 🙂

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The columnar basaltic rock formations at St. Mary’s Island

DSCN2477Beyond our fictional fantasies, St.Mary’s Island has some hardcore history and geology to it. The island is touted as the spot where Vasco da Gama set foot before entering India through Kozhikode. (Slight doubt, why didn’t he just enter through Malpe? It’s so much closer) This is why I found the Geology part more interesting. St. Mary’s Island is a cluster of four islands embellished with columnar basaltic rocks. The columns are nature-sculpted seats for you to sit and gaze into the endless sea. These rocks were formed due to a sub-atomic volcanic activity that eventually caused the drifting away of Madagascar from the then India, about 88 million years ago. For someone who has always been curious of Pangea and the rifting of continents, this information thrilled me to bits! The distinctive rock formation has earned St. Mary’s Island a place in the short list of 26 geological monuments of India. We never wanted to gulp down this bite out of the ancient world, but we weren’t left with much of the choice. Strike 5 pm, the ferryboatmen start combing the island for humans and putting them back on the boats. We stretched our stay till about 5:30, but couldn’t escape the men’s eyes anymore. An important note; the island is closed during the monsoon season – June to Sept. On other months, you have ferries plying from the Malpe Beach, the Malpe fishing harbour and I suppose even from Kodi Bengre if I’m not mistaken.

Satiated with enough sea and salt, we ferried back on sun-down to Malpe, chilled for a while, had a beach shack dinner and slept early with plans of waking up with the Sun so we could hit Murdeeshwar. Tall plans. We woke two hours later than planned, had a filling breakfast and decided to hit Murdeeshwar nonetheless 😀 When two women set their minds to something, no logic can break through our obstinance. The fact remained that we had to take the buses out that night to our respective cities. That meant getting back to the Udupi bus stand by 7:30 pm at the latest. By the time we checked out, it was already 9 am. We also had to come up with an economic idea to shove our bags someplace, afterall we had 200 kms to cover and it was impossible to ride the distance with three bags (My fault, usually I backpack, this time I had an extra trolley thanks to the two weeks of travel I had to do prior to this trip for various reasons!) We headed to Udupi, thinking we’ll just rent a cheap lodge room close to the bus stand to leave the bags. Having never done something of this sort, we were sceptical. Thankfully, we spotted a luggage room at the bus depot and left our bags there for 20 Rs./bag. the most economic solution ever.

Without wasting much time we hit the highway. All I can say is we were mad, the third day, the sun hit us bad and the highway dust added to it. But it was one hell of a ride. My friend aced it. Seeing her ride instilled the confidence in me to overtake on a highway. When I eventually did that while I rode, it was like an achievement unlocked!!

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Maravanthe was the mid-way point. We stopped for elaneer, switched places and rode on. In a solid two and a half hours we reached Murdeeshwar. The towering gopuram of the Murdeeshwar Shiva temple was unmissable. We gaped at it, walked around the temple complex and the humongous Shiva statue, and in the process got our feet burnt by the afternoon sun. I like to think of it that Shiva didn’t spare us of his Rudra-ness. We had quick lunch at Kamath and hit the highway again. Only this time, on our way back, we stopped over at the Maravanthe beach to soothe our aching legs. Maravanthe is another clean stretch that is parallel to the highway. On the other side of the highway, you spot the backwaters from the Kolluru River. From what I could gauge, this was once an undoubtedly picturesque highway. Now, the extension work is in progress, but you still get to see the backwaters. As years go by, I’m sure the backwaters would completely disappear. I was only thankful for having come here sooner than later. And with that thought, we reached Udipi a record 2 hours earlier.

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Having successfully finished the trip, we treated ourselves to more Diana ice cream. Afterall, for first timers, we had covered close to 400 kms. With that, we returned the bike and headed back to the bus stop, with aching feet and longing hearts.

That’s how I wrapped up another Karnataka diaries chapter. Perhaps the next time, I would stopover at Uppinakudru to listen to the stories of the Yakshagana Puppetry artists; something we missed this time around as they were on tour. (If anyone has been here, do share your experience, we were a little heartbroken that we couldn’t visit the place.) And then there’s still Kumta, Netrani Islands, Hampi, Badami, Pattadakal, Bijapur and more. Damn you Karnataka!

Images Courtesy: Cinthoorika Sambamurthy. Do check out her flikr profile

Read my previous Karnataka Diaries chapters here and here.

P.S.: 2166 words. Phew! If you did last through this long post, I truly appreciate your interest, thank you 🙂     

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10 evil things that restaurants do

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I am a perfectly reasonable glutton and I hardly fuss about restaurants and their ambiance. Non-AC udipi hotels or fancy pants uber expensive Italian restaurants, I’m game for both, it all ultimately boils down to the food. Also, I always tip. All I’m asking for, dear restaurants, is a little common sense, enough to not do the below.

  1. Fork, knife and no spoon! Some of these sizzler restaurants and the continental food serving places do this behaviour. The minute you see me ordering vegetarian food, please add the spoon to the setting. Maximum I’ll use the knife to cut the long beans, that also sometimes I don’t.
  2. One less starter. Imagine you are a group of 6 and the starter you order ends up having 5 pieces. Nobody wants to share a spring roll, and for that one extra piece we don’t want to order another plate, we might as well order a different starter. Why restaurants don’t get this logic? Seriously, being benevolent and adding that extra piece won’t cost you a fortune right restaurants?
  3. Ketchup sachets. First of all, if you are a place that anyway serves food that needs to be eaten with ketchup, you’re not all that fancy. So invest in some of those hideous red squeeze bottles. This sachet opening is the worst especially if your hands are all buttery after touching the sandwich. Atleast pre-cut them and serve no?
  4. The wait and watch game. If I ask for extra sambhar, I will wait for it till you bring it. If you think I’m gonna get fed up and finish my dosai with just chutneys, that’s not gonna happen. Let’s see who blinks first. Challenge?
  5. Expecting me to order the raita for biryani separately. Hello!!! Most evilest ever.
  6. Non-spicy chillies. Atleast here in India, you have the light green ones and the dark green ones. Now the light green ones are not spicy and pretty much useless. If I am in your restaurant and I ask for green chillies, it is specifically because your food is not spicy enough for me, so please do not give me the bland light green chillies and make me more sad.
  7. Serving hot chocolate in non mugs. I’m not kidding, I’ve actually left this as a feedback in a couple of places. Steamy hot chocolate in a cozy looking large mug is what I’m paying for, else I’d rather have it at home in tumbler itself!
  8. Konjam lighta stronga Filter Kaapi. How can you get this right? Impossible. However hard you try, the way you mix the decoction and milk is never going to be right. So just give the decoction in a separate davara even before we ask for it. It will be much appreciated. Although I don’t drink coffee, as a South Indian I feel it is my responsibility to voice this out.
  9. Not categorising desserts as veg or non-veg to constantly keep me guessing. See, desserts are tempting I agree, but toying around with my weakness is just pure evil. Don’t play the mind game with me. If they aren’t eggless, please add the red circle in a box next to it on the menu.
  10. Weird mouth fresheners. Nooooo…..that’s not the taste I wanted, now I’ll have to call you again to refill my glass with water. Saunf, betel nut, mint are acceptable. Anything else can only be options. Learn from those rajasthani thali places that have a whole gamut of mouth fresheners to choose from.But I must add that all of this will be forgiven and forgotten if the food served is absolutely, lip-smackingly, unforgettably divine!

Sipping some tak at Pratapgad with Shivaji Maharaj

FeaturedSipping some tak at Pratapgad with Shivaji Maharaj

The movie for the day was ‘The Great Wall’, a Chinese film starring Matt Damon with the script revolving around a fantasy-war fought by the Chinese army stationed atop the Great Wall against a horde of mythical creatures. The warriors fight valiantly using the brilliant blue crane corps and black powder to their advantage, but the wall itself has several secrets inbuilt to defend the land of the red dragon. Battles and ancient architecture – a much-needed trigger to make me sit down and pen this long-pending piece.

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The Royal Entrance

Cut from the Great Wall to India. Pratapgad, Maharashtra to be precise. The first trip for the year saw us heading to Mahabaleshwar with a couple of friends for some good weather and fresh strawberries. Of the routine sight-seeing spots, Pratapgad was the only one that held our interest. And so there we headed.

When I first shifted to Pune, all the frenzy around Shivaji Maharaj was very amusing for me. The city comes alive on Shivaji Jayanthi with the saffron flags and Jai Bhawani Jai Shivaji chants and some youngsters even march up the famous killas of Shivaji to hoist the flags. But none of this really enthralled me, until I found myself climbing up the Pratapgad with Sandeep, a descendant of the Shivaji army who doubled up as our guide. Generations have gone by, but the pride and loyalty remain. Generations of the army family continue to live inside the fort, carrying out the many rituals, “The doors are closed at six, and our day comes to an end, we don’t step out after that,” says Sandeep. The fort is a private property, maintained by the heir of the erstwhile Satara princely state.- Udayanraje Bhosale, an MP. One hell of an ancestral property to inherit no?!

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Oil Chutes

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Cannon posts opposite the  entrance

 

History textbooks have taught us that Shivaji Maharaj was known for his use of guerrilla warfare to one up the Mughals. This visit to Prathapgad truly brought alive those chapters. The fort is a standing testimony, illustrating some of Shivaji’s tricks. The structure is built in two parts, the lower fort, and the upper fort. The lower fort walls are lined with bastions with a narrow hidden entryway, making it difficult for big armies to navigate through. The main entrance itself is surrounded by hidden posts to shelter soldiers and cannons, ready to raise hell.  The fort walls beyond the main entrance are lined with chutes carved to spill hot oil on the attackers.

 

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Restrooms with a view!

The hilly terrain has been used as an advantage to store the flowing waters in tanks for during long battles. The architects even had the presence of mind to build restrooms, humble stone structures, for the soldiers.  Once an army enters the fort, there is no alternate route for retreat, as there is only one entrance. The upper fort is at a higher altitude giving enough time for the army to shield the fort from the attackers, and the only exit at the summit is more of an escape route than an exit, allowing soldiers to escape back to the base to lock the attackers inside the fort.

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A water storage pond/tank midway through the fort.
This is just one of the many.

 

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The escape route entry on top, now restricted, and rectangular escape route that
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The most famous battle of Prathapgad was fought between Shivaji Maharaj and Afzal Khan, the braveheart commander of the Adilshah dynasty. The story goes that Afzal Khan was desperate to bring Shivaji down from the mountains to the plains to gain an advantage. But Shivaji used his cunning & strategy and sent word through an emissary to inform Khan of his reluctance for a battle and an agreement for a peace meeting with the commander unarmed, barring personal guards. Afzal Khan knew this was an opportunity to outwit the Maratha warrior, and arrived at the base of Prathapgad with his guards and a dagger. The commander least expected Shivaji to be armoured and carrying a sword. A battle ensued among the guards and ended with Shivaji Maharaj beheading Afzal Khan. A little away from the fort, looms the tomb of Afzal Khan, but the structure after several mishaps has been closed down for public entry.

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Afzhal Khan’s tomb

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The Statue of Shivaji Maharaj

Exploring the fort takes about half a day, including a visit to the Bhavani mandir built by Shivaji in response to a dream and the majestic statue of Shivaji Maharaj on a horse. The handicraft emporium is quaint and also has information booklets on the fort and its history. Along the length of the fort, several refreshment stalls are lined up serving cool tak, soul kadhi, kokam juice and nimbu pani, in pretty terracotta lotas. We even managed to purchase a few to carry back home as a solace for the scorching summer days ahead and as a keepsake from this well-spent afternoon.

Meandering through the Pichavaram Mangrove Forests

FeaturedMeandering through the Pichavaram Mangrove Forests

It was mid-morning on the day before Deepavali. By then we had taken a train and a bus to reach Pichavaram, after a quick stopover at Chidambaram. I still hadn’t heard a single cracker burst. “We have bought crackers, but with Amma in the hospital, we’ve decided not to burst them until she recovers,” our boatman Natraj voices through his lisp. The odd quietness followed us as Natraj paddled us through a web of canals.

dscn1685Pichavaram is a mangrove forest that’s about three hours from Chennai by road. Spread over 3,000 acres with over 4,500 canals, it is an ideal spot for a Triwizard tournament challenge or a Tim Burton movie. But in this case, Kollywood is way ahead. Natraj lists out movies like Idayakkani, Sooriyan and Dasavatharam, which have been shot here. This puny old man, who has been riding boats in this area for the tourism department for over 15 years, was an animated, talkative character. As he maneuvers the boat, he shows us the spot where he stood as a kid, while his dad pointed into the waters and said, “Adho theriyaraare, avardhaan MGRu” (The man over there, he’s MGR). But the movie-making caught his eyes more than MGR’s aura, going by his insights on the visual gimmicks that movies play. He shoves the oar into the water to prove that it is just thigh-deep and says the scenes where people struggle and drown are shot here but are not true. Perhaps a sour grapes story of not making it into the industry?! “I was very much in the Sooriyan movie,” he swears, “but if you watch the movie, you might not spot me!”
When Natraj doesn’t talk movies, he talks politics, “I used to be a Congress supporter, an ardent follower of Moopanaar, but now the entire belt here supports Amma and so do I.” Needless to say, the freebies have click baited the locals. To the extent that the villagers were even fasting and providing offerings to the village temple for the beloved Chief Minister’s speedy recovery. As I ask him about his income, he shiftily says that for every ride he gets a meager 130 rupees from the department (we paid him extra to take us into the inner canals). But he claims that he has everything, including the land that was given by the government post the 2004 Tsunami. “Tsunami came and we all became rich.” he says. The irony though is that the mangrove forests are said to have saved the villages around this area from destruction. A major function of mangrove forests across the world, saving the land from water’s fury. Sadly, this very function coupled with deforestation, exploitation, and pollution poses a threat to the ecosystem.

dscn1699The Pichavaram forests in some areas, especially in the periphery are manmade, while the inner denser areas occur naturally. This is easy to tell apart, the former looks tamer and maintained, while the inner canals have wild mangroves forcing one to bend completely to even pass through. In one place, the boat was caught in the branches, and we waited for a couple of minutes before the waters flow pushed the boat ahead. The forest department seems to have weighed the importance of the ecosystem and have tried to maintain them. Pichavaram is listed as a moderately dense mangrove forest by the forest reserve, being an area that hosts 14 exclusive varieties of mangrove species. On either side of the forest cover runs the Vellar and the Coleroon estuaries, leading to the Bay of Bengal. This means much of the agricultural waste mixes into the waters here. The rich alluvial soil and waters also mean fishes, prawns and crabs. We spot two women from the Irula tribe, wading the shallow waters, catching prawns and crabs.

dscn1739The Irula tribal community populates the hamlets in Pichavaram; fishing and harvesting forest produce are major sources of livelihood. Some of them even contribute to the mangrove conservations efforts by form of labour. Natraj involves in some friendly banter with the women, while we curiously look at how they manage to wade through the waters fishing.

We had almost completed our two-hour ride, and I had one last pertinent question for Natraj, “So is there a haunted tree in this forest?” Recently, a tamil TV programme had claimed that Pichavaram houses a haunted tree that causes gory deaths. The channel of course, made it dramatic with the host on a mission in pursuit of the tree. Natraj laughs it off saying, “Come to my place, I’ll show  you several trees that make eerie sounds”. But he also interrupts our collective laughter with a dark smile, “Even if there was one I wouldn’t tell you, else you wouldn’t come back would you?!”          

P.S: If you are visiting, avoid peak summers as the water levels will be too low and the land too marshy for boating, and rainy season as it may not be too safe. Hire row boats if you want to ride through the denser canals.  

Karnataka Diaries – Gokarna, Mirjan, Jog

Karnataka Diaries – Gokarna, Mirjan, Jog

I will always remember the first time I heard about Om Beach. It’s a memory from a time when life was all about crisp uniforms, polished shoes, worrying over my handwriting and memorising convent choir songs. After having spent all day with our teachers trying their best to make us girls stay quiet, the ride back home in the school van would give us ample out of control chitchatting time. Yesterday’s match, Sachin’s century, the newest ARR song, word building games and window seat politics. Quite happening! One such conversation introduced me to a sea shore shaped like Om. I thought my friend was fibbing. I asked her again, but how can a shoreline be in the shape of Om. The innocent Tamil girl in me was imagining the Tamil word form. It didn’t even strike me to question her back then to explain the formation. But her conviction made me believe that such a place could exist. As I grew older and my geography, common sense and exposure to Hindi got better, it struck me! It’s just one of those little things that make me chuckle. While that memory has always been my number one reason to visit Gokarna someday, the hiking trails from one beach to another was a compelling second.

And just like that years later, like how things that are meant to be, come to be, Gokarna too happened; as a sudden let’s just go plan.

After a hauntingly beautiful bus ride through the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, we (the husband and I) got dropped off at Kumta. We quickly freshened ourselves up and took a local bus to Gokarna and in half hour, we found ourselves amidst vegetable vendors transporting fresh produce and sleepy auto drivers, passing the buck as to who would drive us to our stay.

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The AwesOm Beach

We got off at Om Beach and had to climb down and walk a bit to our Airbnb stay. I wasn’t prepared for the sights that awaited me this early in the morning. The fisherfolks at  work, the rocks and the crashing white waves. Transfixing. It took us quite an effort to keep our eyes off the sea and find our way to the cottage. After breakfast, we spent the entire day beach bumming and walking up and down the Om stretch, from the Shiva rocks to the Parvathi rocks and beyond. The beach was quite empty and most of the off-season visitors like us were chilling at Namaste Cafe. While I’ve heard so much about the place coming alive during the season, the beach shacks that are a steal deal, the off-season trip did have its own charm. For one, we had the beach, the rocks, the cosy sit-under-the-tree spots all to ourselves. My favourite spot is the one with two huge brown rocks forming a gorge on the shore through which the water splashes in. I even tried walking in between the rocks with the slight fear of getting my healthy frame stuck. Om Beach is filled with many such delightful spots.


The only bummer though was the police guard on duty. He made it a point to hold us off from hiking to Paradise Beach, for which I was so looking forward to. The high tides were covering the shores completely and we simply gave in and headed to Kudle Beach instead.

The thing about Gokarna, and probably the entire stretch from Karwar down to Kumta, is the cliffs that rise up from the shore. You find menacing rocks, hill terrains and really narrow shorelines. This is just perfect if you love both the mountains as well as the beach; like a place inspired by dreams.

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Ale Ale.. Kudle Kudle..

Kudle beach, we were told is a 15-minute hike from the Om Beach. I swear to God I have no clue how it happened, but we lost our way and found ourselves climbing rocks and cliffs. The menacing views and the howling waves were scary, beautiful and addictive. At one point we knew we were completely off track and made our own path through the bushes and the rocks, taking turns with the camera and the water bottle as we needed our hands to climb in some places. It took us about 40 minutes, but it was the most fun I’ve ever had being lost.

Finally, we reached what seemed to be the Gokarna Cliff, after which the path was pretty straight. We even saw a few workers down the hill, with some road laying work happening. Topographically speaking it’s a brilliant place, although the waters weren’t as clear. The big plus was that the beach was almost abandoned, barring the two guys who were trying hard to surf. We found a sweet spot between the rocks and settled ourselves facing the waves. After long random conversations and being completely tanned we decided to walk back. It was only while returning that we realised there’s an easy path that takes you right down to a park area from where you have steps running down to the Om Beach. But trust me this is a really boring walk compared to our lost pathway along unnamed cliffs.

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Kudle Beach scenes

Led by our feet, we traced the shorelines through the day and again by the moonlight. And just like that two days passed us by like a dream. The monsoon drizzles were on and off, but even that couldn’t keep the sun’s heat away. When it was time for us to leave, we left behind a bit of our hearts, just enough to make sure we visit again.

We rode away from Gokarna, but the trip was far from over, as we had another dream destination to check off our list. Last monsoons it was Athirapalli falls, this time around the mighty Jog Falls. Being the map hoggers that we both are, we knew we’ve been hovering our cursor over this place far too long to miss it, having come this far. Jog falls is just about 110 kms from Gokarna. Throw in the  Mirjan Fort en route and it makes for a perfect day.

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The endless walls of Mirjan Fort

We started early around 7 and our first stop for the day was the Mirijan Fort near Kumta. Growing up, my only visual reference for a fort was the song Uyire from the movie Bombay. Although the one that comes in the song, is the Bekal fort in North Kerala, Mirjan Fort came close enough. It was everything I’ve always imagined a fort to be. Long stretches of walls, gone green post the monsoons with tiny plants growing through every crack. Abandoned, melancholic and vast with echoing stories.

The architecture of the fort manifests both Portuguese as well as Islamic designs. The round bastions are characteristic of the Indian Mughal forts of the 17th century, while
the tall square watchtowers along the southern walls belong to the 16th century Portuguese era.


We explored the fort ruins wall to wall walking through several touch me not plants. We spotted a huge circular well, hidden passageways and steps that lead down presumably to the well, Hindu deities under a large tree and an open square which I overheard from sudden company to be a mosque or some sort of a prayer hall. I also climbed up the watch towers hoping to spot the sea at some point, but in vain.

After spending a good hour and a half at Mirjan, we were all set to speed away to Jog falls. We grabbed a quick yet heavy breakfast on the way to keep our energies up. We reached Jog Falls close to noon. It was quite a long drive and the roads were surprisingly empty. We reached and the view that greeted us was simply magnificent.

Jog falls is the second highest plunge waterfalls in India. Although my random memory reminds me that according to my 7th std textbooks, Jog falls was the highest. I wonder how the drop happened. The signposts along the way refer to the falls as Joga, Jogadagundi, Gerosoppa or simply as the World Famous Jog Falls. Jog falls as a whole refers to four waterfalls – Raja, Rani, Rocket and Roarer, rather Raja Rani Thirudan Police as in my head! Together, these four streams create magic. Magic that is not enough to be just seen and photographed from the numerous viewpoints. They pull you closer, and the closest you will ever get is by climbing down 1400 steps to the bottom of the falls. A task which most of the tourists skipped, don’t ask me why. In fact, a bunch of guys were climbing down, when one of their friends, this loud-mouthed girl came running down telling them that it’s not worth it and the view would probably be the same. The poor guys turned their back on the most beautiful sight they’d have probably had that year. Tough luck!

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It’s Raja, Roarer, Rocket and Rani – in that order

The climb down is easy, takes just about 25 minutes. And the reward is a stunning piece of nature’s artwork that you’ll find yourself gaping at widemouthed. I felt like I was in one of those nat geo videos that make you feel really tiny. Tilting your head 90 degrees is the only way to spot the top of the falls. The Roarer is named so for a reason. The roar silences your thoughts, your words and your very existence. All your hear is the Sharavathi river flowing down with all her might. The water magically disappears by the time is reaches the bottom. For all the water that flows, there’s just a small rain puddle below. The entire time I tried following the water trail to see where the water disappears. Some hit the rock, some turn into mist and some just escape my naked eyes, glueing my eyes to its trail even more. The water sprays do reach you, not in an obvious way, but in an invisible misty manner. The landing area is secured with a high fence and three super strict guards who weed off any kind of monkeying around. Inspite of the fence, it provides the best view of the Jog one could ask for.

The only thing beautiful enough to distract your eyes from the falls are the tiny birds circling the falls. These are the only beings you spot from down below at that height. They look like the glittering winged keys as in Harry Potter. In fact, I thought they were insects only to be corrected later on by our telescope guy. Watch out for this guy. He’s the one who can show you the breezy pink orchids in between the falls dancing to the water’s tunes, and the rock formation that looks like Lord Hanuman’s face on a closer look. He usually is around the view point area. The upward climb took us just over an hour, and it was quite a task, but for an experience that was totally worth the effort.

 

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It was time for us to leave, as we had tickets for the night bus from Honnavar to Pune. We reached Honnavar well ahead of time. The trip at this point was turning out to be endless 😀 we headed to the closest beach to catch the sunset. The quiet and clean Kasarkod beach, not to be confused with Kerala’s Kasargod. The Kasarkod Eco beach is a clean flat stretch with crispy white waves. We spent an hour here waiting for the Karnataka sun to set and bid us goodbye. Needless to say, like a true Arabian Sea sunset, the sky colours were in different colours, a bright blue, a dreamy pink and lavender and a gutsy grey, aptly summing up the scenes from our trip – the beach, the fort and the falls 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lohadgad Fort and monsoon awesomeness

Lohadgad Fort and monsoon awesomeness

Monsoons are the best. The petrichor evokes hope. The winds shoo away the leftover heat from summer. The heavy rain spells launder the past. The recedent spells are the rinse cycle before the world around turns green. And amidst all the pattering, the grey skies subtly pulls the self away from everything mundane. I even shifted my diwan closer to the window for a comfortable view.

Everytime the monsoons have lured me away from life, they’ve given me memories of a lifetime. A drenched-in-all-ways-possible bike trip to Mahabaleshwar, touted as one of the wettest regions of India after  Cherrapunji? – loved it, need to repeat it soon. The gushing Athirapalli falls and Kerala? – never wanted to return. This time, it was a quick little day trip to Lohadgad and? – well, I was not quite prepared to be so blown away by the humble countryside.

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Drizzles for company

There are always a few perks when  on a bike and not a car. The fresh air hits my body from all sides awakening me; it makes the whole experience all the more raw and adventurous. Added to that, this time around we (the husband and I) were forced to avoid the highway and take the Pavananagar-Kamshet road, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The entire stretch upto Lohadgad, a ride that takes about an hour and a half, reiterates why monsoons are the best travel season. The green hills on all sides, the meadows, the stretch running parallel to the Pavana Lake, the dam and the spill gates, the little huts and pretty private bungalows, the narrow stretch with the rocky mountains closing in – and all of this so close to our home in Pune. This was unexpected and came in as a surprise, for someone  who is still new and getting used to the city.

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When the road looks like this, there’s no turning back

All along, the rain clouds were chasing us and reached Lohadgad right in time to make our climb drizzly and fun. The streams of rain water flowing down the rocks and the steps conjured the kind of joy similar to surprise rain-washed school holidays. Needless to say, we went back to being kids with gay abandon, getting our clothes and shoes wet, muddy and delightfully brown.

A quick hike to the top (just about 500 steps) opened us to stunning views of the Pavana lake and the monsooness around. Higher up, the fort walls and steps below became visible. There are also many gates and doorways on the way to the top and this fort being a majestic 3400 feet above sea level would have surely been a difficult one to conquer. It is no wonder that the fort is considered to be one of the key forts of the Maratha empire. The Vinchu Kata point, the one that all the blogs and info sites mention is a surefire viewpoint/photo-op point. The fort itself is a beautiful campsite. It sure made me wish I had the camping gear and firewood. A reason for me to return to this place for another monsoon memory 🙂

Now please enjoy the rest of the photos, while I enjoy the view outside.

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Monsoon routes
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Pavana Lake, the hut, the gate, the path leading to the water – perfect
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The fort walls and the climb
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The view gets better as you move up
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Spot the tricolour? Salute.
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One of the cosy paths on the top.
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Reminded me of Enid Blyton’s hollow tree
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The best of the views to remember the place by