The first time I saw the name Munroe Islands was almost a decade back. It was during a train journey from Kottayam to Thiruvananthapuram, that I noticed a small railway station called ‘Munroe Thuruthu’. It might have been the name that fascinated me. I used to wonder what was outside that railway platform. What the lives of the people there would have been like. I had imagined a place with British era bungalows.
Some where in 2019 after the one year anniversary of the devastating floods in Kerala, I happened to read a editorial article about the plight of the residents at Munroe Islands. The article went on to say that the residents live in water clogged houses through out the year and that many families have left behind their land and are looking for better living opportunities. And how the authorities have completed turned a deaf ear to the remaining people of Munroe Islands.
During one of my recent vacations to Kerala, we decided to visit this exotically name place called Munroe Islands.
We started of from our relative’s place at Kollam after a 1 hour drive the townscapes started giving way to the typical Kerala style villages. With narrow tarmac roads with foliage on both sides, interspersed with houses. And after every few kilometers there would be a junction, which had a handful of shops.
Then came the Ashtamudi Lake and now homes were replaced with ‘Home Stays’. There were canoes, ready to take tourists for a ride.
It was a little past lunch time so everyone in the group was hungry and we were on a look out for a decent place to eat before we continued further. We stopped to ask for a good suggestion and the a few local folks said that either we could drive to one of the home stays or they could take us on their canoes. After much thought and bargaining on the rates we decided to try the canoe ride.
We got on one of the boats one by one with the canoe shaking at each movement that we made. We almost were about to rethink our decision about getting on to the canoe, given the fact that my 2 year daughter was with us, but our boatsman Mr. Shiju assured as that the canoe was capable of handling even larger crowds and that there was nothing to worry. For some of us his assurance was not good enough so we enquired about life jackets, to which Shiju responded with a smile and told us that the water was not too deep.
The canoe moved through the canals. I have to admit that although I have been on boat rides in other parts of Kerala, like the famous backwaters of Alapuzha and Kumarakam and the likes of it. This was unlike any of those rides. There was a homely feeling to those narrow canals and the mangrove forests. The place was indeed beautiful. It was like on of those places right out of the travel guide pictures. It might not have been the English colony that I had once imagined but this was far more better. It really felt like God’s own country. Some of the Islands had houses. Yes they indeed were beautiful and might be perfect for visitors to enjoy the waking up to a cool breeze and the view of back waters, but one can only imagine the struggle of the every day people over there.
Mr. Shiju took us along those canals and tried to add in some adventure as well, there were areas where the mangrove branches were low lying and one had to lie down inside the canoe to cross them.
The whole place looked like scenes from postcards. After around 30 minutes of the ride. We approached a shack. Shiju docked the boat close to the shack. It was more like a small house with an extended shed. There was seating arrangement “inside”, as well as an outdoor seating arrangement. I couldn’t make much difference between the two.
We were served the regular Kerala rice with all sorts of fish and chicken curries. Maybe it was the hunger but everything seemed delicious to me. Although the shack was on the canal there was nothing out of the ordinary to see, It was just water on all sides. So I gave rest to my camera and concentrated on the food. Things were disappearing as soon as they were being bought to the table.
After lunch we got back on the canoe and we took a different route this time. We saw the infamous Perumon bridge. This railway bridge once
collapsed and caused on of the greatest railway tragedies in the history of Kerala. Shiju recollected the memories, he was small boy and some of his neighbors were on that train. We also saw the spot where the elephants cross the river for the Pezhumthuruthu temple festival. After dropping us at our car parking spot, The local men there asked us to take the traditional route that connected Kollam town to the Munroe Island, which involved crossing the lake on a ferry. Driving our cars onto a ferry was an exciting experience. And these ferries are no modern machines, They are old shaky boats, chugging through a 500m distance in about 10 minutes.
If any of my readers ever plan a trip to Kerala. I would suggest that they drop the regular touristy spots from their itinerary and try to include Munroe Islands as a replacement. You will not regret it and for the shutter bugs out there, you will thank me later.
For those of you who are wondering how the place got it’s name. After coming back from the trip I did search the internet and found that the place was named after Colonel John Munro who served as the Deewan of the King of Travancore.
Let me take my readers today to a hamlet called Talakadu. Once a capital city of the Ganga dynasty, now reduced to a ‘heap of sand’. There are many legends, folklore and mysteries surrounding Talakadu.
Legend says that aeons ago in the Jungles of this area lived two brothers (some stories say they were demons, others say they were hunters). One day they were chopping trees in the jungle. One tree started bleeding as soon as it was struck by the axe. The brothers panicked and tried to cover the wound on the tree with the leaves and fruits of the tree. And magically the tree cured itself. It is believed that the tree was a manifestation of Lord Shiva and since he had cured himself a temple was setup in that area. The deity is known as Vaidyanatheswara ( which means god of healers). The place came to be known as Talakadu because the the brothers were ‘Tala’ and ‘Kadu’.
I believe this legend has a deeper meaning to it than the literal meaning. It shows that trees are divine beings. They not only provide the rest of the world with all necessities but are capable of self sustaining themselves.
Now back to my story. I started from Bangalore at around 7am in the morning. Took the nice road to get out of the city and got on to Mysore road. This almost took me an hour and stopped for breakfast at Malgudi Vatika. The place has a nice theme that resembles with the India of 1900s, some antique pieces of furniture add to the ambience. At the entrance there is a large stone engraved with A quote by R.K. Narayan ( but that quote does not belong to R.K.N it was by Marcus Garvey).
After the breakfast I continued on for almost and hour to reach Maddur. From there I took the route to Malavalli. The road ahead looked like a black serpent laying on a green velvet carpet. There were lush green farms on both sides of the road. The traffic on these roads consisted of bullock carts carrying loads of sugar cane.
I reached Talakadu by 12PM. There were buses and cars parked on both sides of the road. I could see the Vaidyanatheswara temple. I went a little further and parked a little away from the crowd. As I mentioned earlier this place was the capital of the Ganga dynasty and was later taken over by the Hoysalas and later by the Wodeyars. This place was a bustling city once and as per a folklore, Talakadu was submerged in sand after the curse of Alamelamma. I would not be getting into the details of this story at this point because, the internet is full of references to that story with different versions. The Archeological Society of India very recently excavated parts of a temple from the sands of Talakadu.
We started our ‘pilgrimage’ from the opposite end (Typically people would start from Vaidyeshwara temple). There is a covered walkway that takes you all the way round the area. We first visited the Maraleshwara temple. This is a small temple with the diety as Shiva. It is located in a trench. This is because the temple was excavated from under the sands. The temple in itself is small. Photography is prohibited inside the temple.
This is followed by the Pathaleshwara temple, which looks very similar. We then continued our walk and we reached the back side of Kirti Narayana temple one of the most beautiful temples in the area. Unlike the other temples of the area Kirti Narayana temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. This is a huge temple the carvings on this temple is not as detailed as the ones on the Vaidyeshwara temple but still. It is an excellent piece of architecture marvel by the medieval Indians. This temple was built by the Hoysalas to mark their victory over the Cholas. The temple has a “Mahadvara” (main entrance) made fully of granite, which adds to the beauty of the temple. All these parts were recovered from under the sand in recent times.
And finally we have the Vaidyeshwara temple which is full of intricate carvings depicting stories from the Hindu Mythology. The temple is built in a star shaped platform which is quite common with many temples in Karnataka. The star shape gives more surfaces for the sculptors to work on with more details and carvings.
Our final stop was at the river Kaveri. The river was gently flowing. It was a witness to all that has happened at Talakadu. It was there when the Hunter brothers were cutting down the trees. It was still there when the Ganga dynasty came and established a city and with a subsequent conquerors it was a witness to the creation and destruction that occurred on its banks. Kaveri has seen Talakadu changing from a capital city to a heap of sand.
It was a fine Sunday morning. The past week Bangalore witnessed intermittent spells of rains and the the days were overcast and gloomy. In the past few weeks some of my birding trips to the lake was cut short by spells of rain.
Today was different. There was a cool breeze and the sun was fighting vehemently with the clouds. The sky looked like a battle ground with the Sun piercing through the clouds and making its way to the beautiful waters of the lake. As the rays touched the water it shimmered like diamonds. Pelicans swam across this water scooping in to catch fish. Herons stood in meditation, as if they were also thanking the Sun god for shining upon them. Swamp hens were pecking around searching for something they lost. The cattle grazed lazily whilst there shepherds sat under on the ground basking in the warmth of the sun and puffing a beedi and occasionally accompanied by a dog that would bark at anyone passing by. There was a lapwing calling out in the distant.
Drongos and Shrikes were performing their acrobatics. Each time it flew to the ground it picked up something went to a nearby perch to gulp in the morning catch. A bee eater was perched on a nearby tree, and in a swift movement it spread its wings and tails, shot up like a missile and returned to the same perch with a dragonfly between its beaks. Larks kept shooting out from the low bushes, it was a beautiful sight to see them glide effortlessly back to where they launched from.
But I was on the look out for the Baya Weaver. This is the breeding season for the weavers and on my previous visits I had seen the weavers cousins – the Indian Silver bills, tri-colored munias and even the scaly breasted munias. The weavers are not a rare species but its just that I have not been fortunate to see them during the breeding season.
My usual walk starts near the farm fields near one end of the lake and then I keep walking to the other end and back. I had walked for almost an hour and had almost lost hope of spotting the weaver, when I suddenly saw a weaver’s nest hanging at a distant. This brought my hopes back and I was also cautious so as not to disturb the birds during their breeding season. I walked past the tree and found a wonderful spot at a safe distant from where I could see the nest and its weavers. It seemed as if the nest was still being built as I could see a male Baya weaver weaving the nest. The females gave occasional visits as if inspecting the quality. They would fly in through the bottom opening of the nest and after a few seconds would come out and hover around the nest. Sometimes they would hover around the entrance, as if they were wondering whether to go in or not. Another male weaver happened to drop by the nest, but was immediately chased away by the first bird. Watching these birds gave me an immense sense of gratification. I had spend quite some time watching these birds and I failed to notice that the Sun had lost the battle to the clouds and the sky was overcast. And just when I was about to pack up and leave, a cool breeze blew caressing the tall grass around me. Like a shower of flowers falling from the skies a flock of Red Avadavats flew and perched on the grass and bushes around me. wept across the tall grass around me. I was pleasantly surprised by what was being offered to me after several weeks of disappointing birding trips. The lighting was not good enough for a clean and clear shot but, I wanted to capture this record moment. And as I was aiming my camera the Sun shone brightly for a moment, giving me a window short but long enough to get one shot of the bird.
I start my day by seeing the newspaper boy fling the paper as I watch its different pages landing all over the place. He has almost 10 seconds between the opening and closing of the lift at each floor, to fling papers to 4 different door steps. He is always in a hurry. I wonder why?
I get ready for office and leave, as usual the Bangalore roads are choked. I see drivers honking incessantly though they see that the poor chap in-front of them is as helpless as they are. At the traffic signals some drivers are impatient and race off even before the signals turn green. Everyone is in a hurry I still wonder why.
I reach office, and as I walk away from the parking lot I receive a call, It’s my mother. I pick up and reply, ‘Amma I’m on my way to office and I’m in a hurry…’
With another Onam round the corner, all Kerala restaurants are flaunting its customers with the promise of a Kerala feast or the Onam Sadya as it is more popularly known. I thought it appropriate to decode the Onam Sadya ( and no, Onam Sadya does not include beef and liquor).
The ‘Sadya’ is not specific to Onam, for a culture that believes in ‘Annadanam Mahadanam’, a feast is the part and parcel of all celebrations.
It is a time where kith and kin join together and have atleast one meal, which is prepared and savored by the entire family together.
The sadya is served on a plaintain leaf, that is laid on the floor where you sit with legs crossed( also known as Sukhasana in Yoga) infront of it. There is lot of information avaialble that explains the benefits of sitting in the Sukhasana posture while eating.
The items on the leaf are arranged in a particular order as in the picture below.
Pickles, chips and pappadam take the left corner, the side dishes or kootu curry takes the top row and the rice on the bottom row. This order is maintained so that the people who serve can identify what might be missing on a leaf and what needs to be served.
To really enjoy a Sadya one has to do a bit of planning in advance and has to be displined in sticking to the plan. The aroma of the steaming rice on a plaintain leaf makes it really difficult to stop yourself from over-eating. You have to decide on how much rice you are capable of eating. Divide this into three portions and during the first serving ask for only the first portion. One half of this portion of rice is to be enjoyed with parippu curry (dal), ghee and pappadam. The second half with Sambhar. The side dishes can be used to add more flavour to each scoop of rice you take.
Once you have savoured the taste of parippu curry with ghee followed by the taste of the moderatly spicy sambhar, with a touch of side dishes like olan, kichdi etc. Its time for your digestive system to get soem aid in digestion. This is where the second portion of the rice comes in. This portion is to be had with rasam or puliserry ( curry made from buttermilk). This gives a soothing effect to your tongue as well as your entire digestive tract.
Then comes the most favourite part of any meal, the deserts. For Sadya the desserts are the payasams. Sometimes you may have multiple varieties of payasam, but traditionally the Ada Pradhaman ( made from Ada, jaggery), followed by Palpayasam ( made with milk, rice and sugar). The payasams are to be had in the same leaf where you had rice. The sweet payasam mixed with the salt, sour and spices of the curries takes you on cloud nine. Usually a modern day meal ends with the desert, but for a sadya, the last part is the last portion of rice which should be had with curd. Ask any Tamilian and they will tell you how a meal is incomplete without curd rice. Having curd which is rich in lactobacillus, is like taking probiotics. This aids in digestion, prevents acidity from all the Payasam that you had. The sadya is usually served for lunch, and noon time in South India can be really hot, curd acts as a coolant to the body.
And then as a climax the guest folds the plantain leaf from top to bottom which is a gesture that he is happy with the food served. In a way it shows that the guest is grateful to the host for providing him with a meal and the host is grateful to the guest for having blessed him with his presence and well wishes. So the next time you are invited for a Sadya keep these in mind, enjoy the food and most importantly make it a point not to waste any of it. Happy Onam to all my readers.
On the 7th of May 2017, I woke up to the morning rays hitting me through the windows of an Airplane. I looked down and saw waves, brown in color and not the usual shades of blue. It took me a few seconds to realize that I was looking at the sand dunes and not the ocean. I was flying over the Arabian deserts to one of the marvels created by Man – The City of Dubai.
In the last 27 years of my existence on this planet I have never seen a desert and all I know about it is from the books, photos or videos that I have seen. The picture painted by all these media were quite dull and melancholic. Those sand dune patterns looked as if some one had painstakingly arranged them to form wavy pattern there was a symmetry and the contours were almost parallel.
As soon as we landed in Dubai the entire landscape had changed. The brown sand dunes gave way to skyscrapers made of steel and glass. The suns reflection was glaring from each of those glass panes making them even brighter. I was travelling with my family and my uncle was there with his friend to receive us at the airport. Unlike my usual trips the next seven days of this trip was well planned and charted, thanks to my uncle and his friend, Mr. Nawas. Being the beginning of summer ‘Arabian Days’ were hot. So all our activities were planned for the evenings and from the information I gathered that’s when the city of Dubai really comes to life.
During lunch time I realized that although I had crossed one sea and a couple of international borders, I was not going to miss Kerala cuisine. Dubai had more Kerala cuisine hotels than the Arabian ones. After lunch we set of to see the Dubai mall and the aquarium that spanned over three floors of the mall. All those creatures in an artificially created habitat miles away from their real habitats. Although I despise such places, it made me think about the educational value such places hold. It is one way of educating the younger generations on the wide variety of life forms that share this planet with us.
After spending almost 2 hours in the aquarium, we were all mesmerized by myriad life forms under the sea. The surprises for the day was still not over, next we headed to the Dubai Miracle Garden.
This was a real ‘Wonder’ for me, how on earth could all these flowers remain so fresh and colorful, in the scorching heat of Dubai. I should admit that I have never seen such a well maintained garden, ever. And the fact that this is located in the one of the most water scarce landscapes on earth adds to the beauty of the place.
We walked through the garden and by then it was dinner time and we headed back. We all went back to the hotel tired but exited about the days ahead.
The next day everyone woke up at lunch time and post lunch we were all geared up for Day 2 of Dubai. This time we headed to the Dubai Marina we took a boat trip around the Palm Jumeirah. I witnessed one of the most breathtaking view of the sunset. The sky was painted Orange and setting seemed magical from that boat.
Day 3 was the best of all. We were to witness the real Dubai. The desert safari was the most awaited event of the trip. We were instructed not to have a heavy lunch as the ride was going to be bumpy and there would be amazing food at the end of the ride for which we had to keep a good appetite.
Our guide was Mr. Allah Baksh, a fine gentleman from Pakistan who could speak malayalam. He was a very good host and kept us entertained through out the evening. We started off around 2:30pm and soon the city landscape gave way to the barren desert land, with a couple of Palm tree plantations on the way. We stopped at one of the highway supermarkets to freshen up. Due to the immense pressure from my cousins we stopped at a Quad biking place and spent half an hour driving those crazy machines in the sand. Most of the time we would either bump into each other or get stuck in the sand ricocheting sand onto whoever was behind us. We then headed for the sand bashing. Mr Baksh expalined to us how the tyre pressure of the vehicle had to be reduced to almost 50% to drive through the sand dunes. The next 1 hour of the ride was like a roller coaster. And there was nothing but sand visible in all four directions as far as our eyes could see. We stopped on the way to click some photos.
We then went onto one of the camp sites where food and the shows for the night were arranged. It was an awesome evening with a blend of food, adventure and tradition. The ‘Tanoura’ a traditional Sufi dance where the performer continuously keeps spinning to a psychedelic music, was mesmerizing to witness.
The next day was the set aside for Burj Khalifa. A Dubai trip would not be complete if you have not seen the Burj Khalifa. It is truly a remarkable feat that the Dubai Government achieved when it constructed the tallest standing man-made structure. But while on our way back from Burj Khalifa we happened to pass in front of the Ras AlKhor Wildlife sanctuary. I saw a flock of birds and in a split second I realized that I was looking at the ‘Lesser Flamingoes’. There was no way I was going to leave Dubai without clicking a few shots.
We then went on to visit the LED glow garden, another man made spectacle. The whole place was decorated with colored lights and there was a Dinosaur park, with Dinosaur models that looked real-life. They even mimicked the movements of a live creature. The attention to detail given by the architects of the Dinosaur park is truly remarkable.
Day 5 was less hectic as we spent a day at Dragon Mart, the largest Chinese bazaar in Dubai. We had dinner cruise in Dubai Marina. The Dubai skyline looked really wonderful with the Burj Khalifa standing as an odd one out.
On day 6 we left early in the morning for Abu Dhabi. We spent an entire day at the Ferrari world, A Ferrari branded theme park, It had some amazing and thrilling rides. This park houses the fastest roller coaster in the world. It was almost 5-6hrs of pure fun and adrenaline rush.
We then went to visit the The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The carpet in the main prayer hall is considered to be the world’s largest carpet. The chandeliers in the mosque have been imported from Germany.
The sheer will power of the rulers of a barren land has transformed it from a desert to marvel. There is nothing that you will not find in Dubai, they have artificially created natural habitats for animals and they have created modern technological wonders as well. The entire city and the sights there are truly miraculous, they seem like a tale from the Arabian Nights.
It was peak summer time in Kerala, but I was determined to check out one item from my Bucket list and that was to witness ‘Thrissur Pooram’ in all its glory. Our Journey this time was on the chariots of Indian Railways. For an overnight journey I believe trains are the best option if you are in India. You get food sleep and a comparatively safer journey. The journey began on the evening of 3rd May. Next day early morning we stepped out from the comfort of the AC coach of the train onto the hot and humid platform of Thrissur railway station. But this discomfort was short lived. From the day I landed in Thrissur I had decided that I will reserve a few lines in my blog post for the good natured people of this beautiful town in God’s Own Country.
Unlike other major cities and towns in India I have found the people of Thrissur more polite, and tolerant towards outsiders. Right from the auto rikshaw and taxi drivers to the road side vendors are people willing to help and guide you. We took an Auto from the railway station to our hotel. The driver was kind enough to give us a quick tour of the city and informed us of the major attractions there and what timings were apt for each place. At the end of the journey he charged us a fee which I felt was reasonable (this happens rarely in Kerala as taxi and auto drivers never miss and opportunity to loot you). He even gave a breakup and an explanation of how the rates were decided.
Soon after freshening up we decided not to waste a single minute. The next action item was to visit the ‘Vadakumnatha Temple’ and then have an authentic Kerala breakfast. We took a bus from our hotel to the temple, it was a short fifteen minute journey with the loud devotional songs typically played in these kind of small private buses in Kerala. You will have a conductor with a whistle in his mouth leaning at the doorstep of the bus swaying with every rash turn the driver takes, which will throw some passengers off their feet, who were not fortunate enough to get a seat. These buses are the lifeline of many villages and towns of Kerala and for people who are willing to be a bit ‘adventurous’ this can get you to a place in time without burning a hole in your pocket.
The bus had a stop right in front of the temple.
It looked very calm and quite. We saw people putting up bamboo structures that would serve as support for platforms for the media to cover the event. There were some smaller structures also, which were meant for the street vendors. We saw a couple of stalls being setup. Without wasting much time we went into the temple. This is by far the largest temple compound I have ever seen in Kerala. Legend says that this temple was built by lord Parasurama to atone for the sins of killing Kshatriyas. There are many stories associated with this temple. Since I am no expert on legends and folklore , it is better that my readers obtain these information from the right sources. But one thing that I can say for sure is that this is a marvel, it boasts the skill and craftsmanship of the architects of Kerala. The area around the temple once used to be a teak plantation which was cleared by Shaktan Tampuran to conduct the Thrissur Pooram. The place is still called ‘Thekinkadu’ which translates to forest of teaks.
After a stroll through the rich history of the temple we went on to have breakfast in one of the nearby hotels, since it was still early in the morning we had limited options. After this we roamed around the city for some more time.
Before I go into the details, I believe I should give my readers a quick introduction to ‘Thrissur Pooram’. Thrissur Pooram is a relatively young festival compared to other festivals in Kerala. Before the Thrissur pooram the largest temple festival in Kerala used to be the the ‘Aratupuzha Pooram’. Many of the temples participating in ‘Thrissur Pooram used to be a part of the Aratupuzha pooram. Once due to heavy rains some temples got delayed to participate and they were denied entry to the Pooram. Thrissur Poorma was a retaliation to that insult. The Maharaja of Kochi His Highness Rama Varma Raja also known as Sakthan Thampuran is considered to be the architect of ‘Thrissur Pooram’. He unified ten temples of the region and they were to participate in Thrissur Pooram making it the largest temple festival in Kerala.
The major attractions of the Pooram are the processions by the constituent temples, the Elanjithara melam, Kudamattom, and the fireworks display. The 10 temples split themselves into two groups- some side with the Paramekavu Bhagavathy temple and the others with the Thiruvambadi Sri Krishna temple. The rest of the activities are like a competition between the two sides. Its an opportunity for both sides to show off the unity and determination of their devotees in making the Pooram a huge success.
One of the major attractions of the pooram is the ‘Kudamattom’ where beautifully colored and decorated parasols are displayed. On the day before the pooram both teams put the parasols for public display. This is called the ‘Chamaya Pradarshanam’ which means display of decorations.
We went to see the Chamaya Pradarshanam of Pramekavu Side.
The next day again we reached Thrissur town in the morning. Processions from the constituent temples had started, the roads were free of Motor vehicles and Elephants had taken their place. Huge male elephants with long tusks and decorations carrying the idols of the temples. Though the whole setup looks magnificient, I felt pity to these large animals who seemed to be undergoing discomfort and were in great pain standing on the hot road under a burning sun with a large load on its back.
These processions continued throughout the first half of the day. The famous Elanjithara melam that happens inside the temple compound started at around 3PM. We were just lucky enough to gain entry into the temple. The crowd was so large that at some point I even gave up the hope of getting in.
I do not have words to describe the grandeur I saw there, the joy and excitement I saw on every face on that street. There were people from different parts of the world, from different walks of life. I was glad to be a part of the Pooram. I was impressed by the way the organisers of the Pooram were able to coordinate so many aspects. The way the Police, the people and the tourists cooperated to make this the largest temple festival in Kerala. I cannot claim to have witnessed the entire Pooram, I am yet to witness the Fireworks display. Afterall whats the fun if you finish off everything in one go its always good to leave something behind for later. Because that will serve as a motivation to come back again.
It was the first day of a long weekend. While most of Bangalore was still slumbering, my wife and I had packed our bags and by 4AM we had hit the roads. This time our destination was a small hamlet somewhere in the State of Andhra Pradesh called Gandikotta. Known as ‘The Grand Canyon of India’, this place is still in its pristine form, not many tourists have started flocking in to see this natural marvel. This was almost a 300 Km ride so we decided to stop by at Belum Caves in Kadappa district.
Even with the summer at its peak, a bike ride very early in the morning in Karnataka, is still very chilly. Almost an hour into the ride with my gloves and Jacket on, I was still shivering, Every passing minute I was dying for the sun to rise so that I could bask in the warm rays. By the time the Sun was at the horizon we had reached Le Pakshi. For people planning a visit to Gandikota from Bangalore I would suggest they cover, Le Pakshi, Belum Caves and Gandikota in a single trip.
Following Google maps we had to leave the Highway and soon the roads turned into narrow roads. At the horizon I could see chimneys of a large factory, that explained the dust. We had reached Kadappa, A place famous for its granite stones. In every corner we could see slabs of stones piled up, some places the entire walls were made up of such stacks of granite slabs. There was a beauty to that symmetrical arrangement. It seemed as if some one with OCD had gone around town stacking every available slab of stone. Such views continued for almost half and hour and then at a distance we could see a white statue of Lord Buddha, we were almost certain that, that was our Belum caves. We reached just in time or rather before time. The ticket counters were just opening and a few of the staff had gone down the caves just to make sure it was safe for the tourists to go down the caves. We quickly grabbed a coffee from the APTDC canteen nearby. We were ready to explore the second largest underground caves in India.
Belum caves is an underground cave system that has been formed naturally. The place was discovered in 1884 by British surveyor and later by a German speleologist H. Daniel Gebauer explored the caves, there hall at the entrance into the caves is named after Daniel Gebauer. Being a dark and dingy place the cave is home to a decent number of bats. If you ever intend to take photos of this place do not even bother wasting your time and effort unless you have a tripod. The whole cave system is lit with dim lights and strips of LED. The dim lights infact add to the ambiance of the whole place. It was humid and we had started sweating.
Since there were only very few people, I got enough space to calmly explore the whole structure. From the information I gathered about 3.5Km of the caves have been explored but only around 1Km is open for public access. As we went further deeper the pathways became narrower.
After that exhausting journey we grabbed some lunch from the ‘Haritha’ restaurant by APTDC. A word of caution to fellow travelers, the entire route does not have any good place to eat, so it is advisable to carry food and water with you.
We still had to cover a distance of 60Kms to reach Gandikotta. We left Belum caves with our minds still wondering how the caves would have been formed and if it indeed was a natural formation how mother nature does these tricks.
The final 20 Kms of this journey was through a barren land, you can see the entire landscape and there was no sign of any hotel or resort. At this point the sun was at its peak and the Andhra summer is not something for the faint hearted.
But I should admit that even barren land had a beauty of its own,unlike the concrete buildings of Bangalore. Except for the heat I was enjoying everything else on the way, and then suddenly out of nowhere we see some flags fluttering and on it the APTDC symbol. The whole place looked like a palace from a fairy tale.
Both of us where completely exhausted quickly checked in had a second round of lunch and had a power nap. ‘Haritha’ run by the Andhra Pradesh Tourism department is the only hotel available in almost 70Km radius of this area. I was pleasantly surprised that although this is a government run hotel, still it had some pretty decent standards and the service was amazing. The only downfall is that the staff speak only Telugu, a few of them can understand English or Tamil. We managed with English, these folks are so cooperative and dedicated that soon the language will not be a barrier. Our room boy told us that we should head to the Juma Masjid which was half a kilometer from the hotel for a sunset view.
We drove through the Gandikota fort and on the other side were a couple of small houses which was still inhabited by farmers. The road led us straight to the Juma Masjid. We went around the place. There were a couple,of tourists scattered here and there but the whole atmosphere was calm and peaceful.
The place also had a decent number of birds especially laughing doves, bushchats, sparrows, hoppoes, purple sunbirds and Red Vented Bulbuls.
From the day I had been planning this trip I was skeptical whether Penna river would still have water flowing in this summer. But those doubts soon vanished. We climbed up some of those rocks to get a good view of this magnificent river and the path that it had cut out for itself over the millenniums. The sun was slowly setting behind us. It felt as if the sun was also peeping from behind us to get one last glimpse of the Penna River before it went down. Soon after sunset we headed back to our room to enjoy the hospitality offered by APTDC.
It took almost 1.5 years and three visits for me to finally pen down an article on Jungle Retreat. The first trip we made was in January 2016, where we encountered a tiger while on a trek, the next trip was in December 2016, again we were on the trek when we all heard a tiger growl almost 10 meters away from us. Out of all the Wildlife destinations I have been to in the past one year, Wayanad was the only one that guaranteed us some adventure, and Jungle Retreat always felt like home. And that is why we decided to visit it a third time. During the scorching summer to get away from the polluted Bangalore atmosphere, into the Jungles of Wayand.
It was an early Saturday Morning, we set out from our nest in Bangalore to ‘The Jungle Retreat’. We had decided to leave early so that we could enter the of Nagarhole Wildlife reserve as soon as the gates open. My brother-in-law was behind the wheels.
We reached the Nagarhole gates by 8AM. In the next one hour we saw a myriad of birds and animals which included common hoppoes, Indian Rollers, Racquet tail drongos, A pair of wild dogs, Gaurs, barking deer and spotted deer . I was frantically clicking photos as we passed by these (there was a strict instruction not to stop anywhere in the sanctuary). Spotting of the wild dogs was a pleasant surprise, because from one of my previous visits I had learned that these were a rare species to find.
We crossed the other end of Nagarhole within an hour and then we headed straight to Tirunelli temple. The idea was to have breakfast from one of the tea shops nearby. After having an authentic Kerala style breakfast in a Hotel with thatched roofs and shaky benches (The food was really delicious. I would recommend my readers to try one such place while in Kerala). We reached Jungle Retreat and there was the familiar face of Darshan and Manu to welcome us. They have been our hosts in our previous visits too. Mr. Anil the owner of the place was also there. We checked into our rooms and from the balcony I could see Anil heading out with a group for the customary Jungle Trek.
We quickly freshened up and took a stroll around the property. There was a large bird hovering over us, the distinct white under wing pattern was a definite give away that it was a crested serpent eagle. We had a JLR safari in Nagarhole scheduled for 3:30PM, we had our lunch, and took rest for almost half an hour. Then we started off for the safari. Mr. Santosh from JLR was waiting for us with his Jeep. There were other tourists also with us. I took one of the side seats with my camera ready. When you are in the jungle every moment you spend anticipating a miracle. You expect a tiger, a leopard or even a herd of elephants to cross your road or atleast to appear somewhere in the distance. But in such anticipation people tend to ignore the smaller creatures, plants and flowers of the forest. Its a privilege to even hear the sounds of the jungle and one should be ready to enjoy that. Because on some trips that maybe all that you get. We saw some shy barking deers and some curious sambar deers.
There were some guest appearances by 3 monitor lizards, a grey mongoose, couple of Malabar Giant squirrels, a lesser adjutant stork, peafowls and even a cobra. Mr. Santosh tried various corners of the Sanctuary to get some good sightings.
When you are out in the jungle, you tend to loose track of time, there is a never ending excitement. Who knows maybe at the next bend there maybe a tiger waiting, or maybe behind the bushes. And even after the safari ends the excitement lingers for some time. Content with whatever we had seen we headed back to our room. We had the customary camp fire arranged for us, a little away from the Jungle Retreat property. We then headed straight for that. This time Mr. Anil was driving we all sat besides a stream, under a moonlit sky around a fire that was devouring every piece of log that was thrown into it. There was a pot of hot steaming soup above the fire. Everyone was chatting and sharing stories, while Chathettan a tribal guy who has been with the Jungle Retreat was busy cleaning a stone and was grinding some chutney to accompany the soup and tapioca. Mr. Anil and Manu were sharing there experiences in the wild and it was so fascinating to hear those stories. On our way back the keen senses of Manu and Anil picked up on some barking deer calls. Anil was explaining that barking deer calls are the most reliable calls and that the reason at this moment can be nothing but the presence of a tiger. Everyone was alert and were straining there eyes in the dark to catch a glimpse of that tiger. But then we all had to return back knowing that we were very close to a tiger and although we had not seen it, It might have already seen us and might have decided that we were not worthy of its audience. After all it was the king of the Jungle in these areas. The next day early morning we got up and went for birding. Having been to the lakes in and around Bangalore for birding, it was a completely new feeling to go birding in the Jungle, I accompanied Manu and we found position on a rock near the property were we set base for the next one hour. We had a couple of visitors in that one hour.
After this we had breakfast and were geared up for the jungle awareness trek. This was one single activity that we were all waiting for. Manu was our guide for the day. He took us on a different route this time, stopping at points to make sure that there are no elephants. We got the strong smell of elephants at certain locations. Almost half a kilometer had passed by when Manu saw a pug mark. He was explaining to us that it must be a couple of days old. He was going into the technicalities of how the age and sex of an animal is determined based on the pug marks. As we moved ahead there was a strong pungent smell and Manu confirmed that it can be nothing but a recent kill made by the tiger, we followed the scent and found the hoof of a spotted deer. The whole area was scattered with pug marks, thanks to recent rains in the region the ground was wet and muddy. The pubmarks were clearly visible even to the untrained eye. Manu even noticed that a leaf which had fallen inside one of the pug mark was folded and it was just beginning to unfold, his conclusion was that the tiger must have stepped on that leaf and if it still unfolding then the pug marks are not more than an hour old. Blood was still dripping out of the hoof piece that we saw, which meant that the tiger was still around with a half finished meal and we were entering its territory. Manu gave us a signal to turn back and we took a detour and hurried back in to the safety of the electric fence around the Jungle Retreat property. Thanks to the expertise of Manu once again we all returned back in one piece to tell the story of how close we went in disturbing a tiger that was having its meal.