Strangers in Paradise (Bhutan)!

I’m sure that my passport was super excited to get ‘stamped’ while we waited eagerly to secure the permit on arrival as soon as we crossed the Bhutan main gate and entered the land of the Thunder Dragon. I mean, why wouldn’t it, right? Every stamp in a passport, after all, has a story to tell.

Just that this time it was going to be a story about mountains, some shrouded by clouds and others with a blanket of fresh snow; about the mystery that this place was and the magic that its architecture added to it; about its peace loving people and their unswerving faith in Buddha and his teachings.

The group of nine met our guide (Karma) and driver (Ngawang) for the trip while at Phuentsholing, the border town that shares its dramatic landscape with India and the point of entry for tourists travelling by road to Bhutan.

After an early morning breakfast, we started to Thimphu via the oldest road constructed by Dantak, the Border Roads Organisation, in 1962. Yes, this country is quite young but is taking its baby steps pretty fast.

The closer we got to the capital city, the colder it got and we slowly began to pull our mufflers​, caps and jackets out of our backpacks. Karma smiled when he noticed this and notified us that it was only late spring and summer is just almost on its way. “It is a great time for you people to visit us, actually. Our country is going through a lot of changes – infrastructure-wise, culturally, climatically and otherwise.”

“When I was a small boy, my friends and I used to place our cups of milk mixed in sugar on our rooftop. If we didn’t take it on time, it turned into frozen milk chunks” he chuckled and continued before anyone could interrupt him.

“This was way before we had the refrigerators at our homes, mind you! Unfortunately, these are things that our kids would never relate to now,” he recounted turning to Ngawang who was enjoying the story while he swerved the vehicle with ease as the long and narrow mountain roads twisted and turned.

It was time for lunch and we stopped to sample some Bhutanese cuisine. We ordered what they called Ema Datshi along with their famous tea, that they suggested we try. No, don’t get puzzled yet. No, really! Having tea for lunch is fine. And no, Ema Datshi was all right too. It was a bowl of rice, a lot of red chillies (“ema”) and truckloads of liquid cheese (“datshi”). Quite spicy but definitely flavourful.

What confused our taste buds was their tea. Tea and coffee have been part of our culture and every Indian household for decades now. But have you ever tried adding salt to it?

They served us their national beverage, the Himalayan butter tea, also fondly called ‘Suja’. Want to know what it is made of; tea leaves, yak butter and salt! Ask me whether I want one more cup, hmmm, I really wouldn’t mind! Fresh and full, we hopped on to our van.

We saw these colourful flags hung almost everywhere while traveling in and around Bhutan – by the river, in front of buildings, beside hotels we stopped​ to eat, on the bridges and tied to poles next to the mountains.

Curious, I asked our guide as to what it signified. He explained with a broad smile on his face. “These are prayer flags, ma’am! We hang it for multiple reasons; for good luck, long life, great health and sizeable wealth. We believe that if they are hung in such a manner, that the winds will touch the flags and pass the prayers on to the people living around. We consider it very auspicious”.

He spoke about how they also had the ‘prayer wheels’ and that they could be made out of wood, metal, stone or even leather. They, like the prayer flags, are believed to spread positivity and good vibes. Just like how the breeze activates the prayer flags, you turning the wheels with your own hands in a clockwise direction will bring similar blessings. I knew that very moment that it was going to be a journey into a very different kind of reality and that falling in love with this sacred country and its people weren’t going to be difficult, one bit.

While we were almost approaching Thimphu, we saw a life size statue of what the Bhutanese call the ‘Four Harmonious Friends’ and you can see them as paintings, wooden carvings and sculptures all through in the country. And according to our new favourite storyteller, Karma, this is how the story goes.

Once upon a time, in a dense jungle where light couldn’t penetrate the canopy, stood a tall and strong tree that bore some tasty fruits​. When it was time for the fruits to ripen, four animals who lived in that forest came to claim the rights to the tree and the fruits on it. There was an elephant who said that he saw the fruits first and that it was rightfully his. Then, there was the monkey who said that the tree was his home for a long time and that the fruits that grew on it was legitimately his. The rabbit intervened and said that she came here while this tree was just a small sapling and that she had been putting her rabbit droppings beside it ever since. That has helped the tree grow into the massive size it is now and bear such tempting fruits. Finally, the bird who stood listening to all this, spoke!

“But I had flew a long way and had had spat out the seeds of this tree here years ago”. The elephant, monkey and the rabbit bowed to the bird in awe and high regard. They went on to become friends, share the fruits and protect the tree.

Karma, Ngawang, their captivating stories and interesting conversations with us and between themselves became what I looked forward to for the rest of the journey.

And from them I knew that there was so much to love about Bhutan. Stay tuned for more! 🙂

Darjeeling – A Joy(ful) Ride through the Hills!

My cousins and I were in the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’ in May this year and we couldn’t stop gazing at its landscape that was enveloped by the emerald green sheets all through. The town is not only known for bearing one of the world’s finest and most expensive leaves – the Indian Darjeeling Tea – but also for the most sort after Himalayan Toy Train ride through the green hills.

Since the gang was in Darjeeling for less than 24 hours, we wanted to make the most of it. Lucky for us, my friend had booked us on the last of the three steam-powered trains that service in a day; the 04:05 pm one out of Darjeeling station. A huge board in the station read that this UNESCO World Heritage Area was completed in 1881 and started operating from September of the same year. Phew, that’s longer than a long time ago! The map on the board also highlighted that Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) toy train (as it is called) covers about 72 kilometers and runs between Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.

History lessons aside, the toy train blew its whistle sharp at 04:05 pm and all of us stopped strolling in the platform and hopped on to the only coach that was attached to the steam engine. We were all excited as the train started its 2 hour ride to Ghum and back.

But as soon as it began to trill and trot on the tracks that was built alongside the narrow roads with shops on either sides, and launched into negotiating with the people crossing the tracks by blowing its horn and almost brushing against the trees and brushes on its way, we embarked on that typical journey of doubting our decision to take the train.

Except that it went on only till we reached the famous Gorkha War Memorial and the engine, for some time, stopped huffing and puffing and chugging like the classic choo choo train it was.

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It is said that around seventy and odd Darjeeling soldiers sacrificed their lives for the nation since independence. And this tribute to the Gorkha soldiers who bravely fought but lost their lives, was located right in the centre of the picturesque Batasia Loop.

This spiral railway track that runs amidst the tastefully landscaped garden with flowers of almost all colours one could fathom, wraps itself here, and is said to have been commissioned to curtail the elevation of the DHR. Though the Batasia Loop was built as an engineering requirement to overcome the concern related to the geography of the place, it looked so in sync and in harmony with the entire scene – like the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle that completes the puzzle mat and makes it the perfect picture. The train stopped and let us take a few good shots before we resumed our journey.

The next stop was Ghum, the Highest Heritage Railway Station in the world, which sat at an altitude of 7,407 feet (2,258 meters).

We walked towards the railway museum that was housed beside the station which had a collection that stood there as a commemoration to the bygone days of the railway.

It was the perfect place, time and weather to sip on some piping hot cup of Nescafe. I know, who has coffee when she goes to a place that’s known for its tea. For me it is not a mere beverage that you have every morning. I don’t drink coffee everyday but every time I do, it gives me a feeling of wakefulness.

And this time, it added a unique flavour to our short tryst with the Queen of Hills before we headed back to Darjeeling station and crossed the scenically eloquent and historically significant war memorial, for one last time! Rest in peace heroes, among the brightly coloured flowers that bloom just for you while you overlook the aesthetically appealing view around and ahead. Rest in Peace!

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If you think the photo quality is better, then it is all thanks to a borrowed iPhone 7! 😉 But I am secretly waiting to buy the One Plus 5. I hear the photo quality is in par with its expensive iOS counterpart.

 

 

 

Madurai – History etched in stone!

In South India, temples are not just mere buildings devoted to worshipping​ a particular God or a Goddess. From stone carvings on walls to beautiful sculptures on pillars and colourful frescoes on the ceiling, they are a representation of ancient tales retold by different dynasties, in their own style, that hold great religious significance.

The Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai had one such chronicle to tell us through its sculptural tradition when we visited the magnificent architectural marvel a couple of months back.

A temple that seats itself in a spacious 45 acres of land, right in the heart of Madurai, is said to have a history as old as the history of the city itself or maybe even older. We will never know. Oh, but sometimes there is beauty in what we will never know, right?

If legends are to be believed, it all started with the birth of the beautiful fish eyed baby girl who was born to the longtime childless Pandya King Malayadwaja and his wife, Kanchanamalai.

As a result of their prayers, she emerged from the holy fire with an extra breast and was named Meenakshi – the one who had eyes like that of a fish.

While her parents noticed that she had a third breast, they heard a voice from heaven asking them not to worry about their little girl’s deformity. The voice of the omnipresent also added that she would lose her superfluous breast as and when she meets her potential soulmate.

While in one part of the world little Meenakshi was growing up to be a great warrior princess preparing to ascend the throne, getting trained in the field of science and the art of warfare, in another side of the planet was Lord Indra (the defender of the Gods and the mankind from everything evil) committing a huge sin. He goes on to kill a demon, even though the demon hadn’t harmed anyone.

This act of ungodliness brings a curse upon him which forces him to live a life of a rootless wanderer.

No one is ready to show him the way to redeem himself from his plight, until one day he chances upon a ‘Shivalingam’ under the kadamba tree in a dense forest where he goes on to build a small temple.

The mythological connection behind the temple says that Princess Meenakshi, after her coronation, wages a war against three worlds. After conquering Sathyaloka (Bhrahma’s dwelling) and Vaikunda (Vishnu’s abode), she valiantly advances to Kailasa, Shiva’s base camp.

Though she easily defeats Shiva’s army and his trusted confidant, Nandi, the moment she sets her eyes on Lord Shiva, her third breast vanishes.

She, almost immediately realises that she was the manifestation of Goddess Parvathi and that Shiva is the man she was meant to live the rest of her life with.

Celebrations began at the very same temple that Lord Indra had built for Shiva, to atone his sins, in the southern part of India. Many Gods and Goddesses descends to earth to witness the occasion, partake in the festivities and bless the couple. Their representation is shown on the pillars and walls of the the temple in the form of sculptures depicting various Gods and Goddesses with their striking features, in action.

It is said that they refused to have the meal they were served until Shiva performed his glorious dance. Legend has it that Shiva performed the cosmic dance in front of his young and attractive wife Meenakshi, while the others watched the representation of life and beauty merge into one. This union is celebrated as Chitirai Thiruvizha festival during the months of April and May.

Millions of devotees are said to visit the city in general and the temple in specific during these months while the festivities end with the celestial marriage of Shiva and Shakti.

After the marriage, they went on to live in this temple complex, located on the southern banks of the Vaigai river, for a few years and later became Sundareswarar and Meenakshi, the deities of the temple.

This Dravidian work of art, placed in the geographical center of Madurai, is said to receive about 15,000 devotees every day. Devotees come in large numbers and wait long hours in the queue to catch a glimpse of Meenakshi with a parrot on her right hand. Other attractions in this temple are the huge sculpture of Ganesha, the gold plated Sundareswarar shrine, the Meenakshi shrine made of emerald hued black stone, the temple lake, 108 Shivalingas and the Nataraja sculpture, the dancing form of Lord Shiva.

While revelling in the grandeur of the temple, we almost forgot to walk around the lotus shaped city built around this masterpiece and enjoy a glass of Madurai’s famous Jigarthanda. Almost!

 

The Town whose Middle Name is ‘Timeless’!

Overlooked by many travellers who visit South India, this town is home to the glorious historical legacy of the great Chola Empire. Thanks to a job that requires me to run around and travel like a headless chicken, I reached Thanjavur, one of the busiest commercial towns in Tamil Nadu, on a not-so-sultry March morning of 2017.

While heading for work that morning, I saw a few foreigners walking through the sidewalks aiming their DSLR cameras in all possible directions. They were trying to capture some fresh and offbeat angles of the town where sleeps history, while Thanjavur refused to stop for anyone. A lot of sign boards pointed to all possible routes with names of different temples, palaces and museums written on them. It didn’t take too long for me to be conscious of the fact that this place definitely had enough to hold the interest of its tourists for at least a couple of days.

While temples and its timeless architecture are Thanjavur’s middle name, paradox is beyond doubt its surname. Though the crowded town had a busy air to it, it felt like the place was not affected by the passage of time or the change in fashion whatsoever.

“The past is very much my present”, cried every nook and corner of this place and its premises. And we know that these are not words that we say in the same breath usually.

This place definitely does not hurry up but surprisingly, neither does that stop her from accomplishing anything. The natives still preferred to live in independent houses. Apartments continued to be a rare sight and even if we spotted one, they were not more than three storeyed. Having lived in cities for a long time now, getting to see the clear blue sky while not having to strain the neck because of the high-rise structures blocking the view felt like a unfamiliar happening.

Visiting the town for exactly two days and a night as part of work, we definitely did not have the time to see all the sights and landmarks of Tanjore but neither did I want to miss visiting the most eloquent edifice which showcases the power and grandeur of King Rajaraja and his Chola Empire while they were at their zenith.

The Brihadishwara Temple, also fondly called as the Big Temple, was lavish looking in every sense of the word.

I am going to type no more. Let the (unedited) pictures speak for itself!

Courtesy: My humble One Plus Two

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This temple is the only structure that dominates the skyline of Thanjavur and I doubt if anything else can make the skies look prettier
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Saw a lot of people gather in the park in front of the temple while some older men were taking a stroll and catching up with their friends
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Did you know that the Big Temple has the UNESCO World Heritage status?

 

Yercaud – A Weekend Fling!

I was in a fit of the sulks that Friday evening (True, only I can be grumpy on a Friday night), and so instantly took to cribbing about the busy weekdays and hectic city life to my cousin when we met for an early dinner. We had a long weekend ahead of us and I really wanted to take a break, go for a long drive and unwind.

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Thanks to the free Wifi at the café we were in; for both of us started frantically searching for getaways not too far away from Chennai. We were clear on not wanting to go to Pondicherry or Mahabalipuram, the customary hideaways from Chennai. No, definitely not because they aren’t as happening, but simply because we were looking for a breath of fresh air. Some place that would be new and different and some place that would make everything seem more stimulating.

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Google gave us a lot of options, as usual, but the pictures of this one hill station, hidden in the lap of the Shevaroys range of hills in the Eastern Ghats, made us want to flee from the hustle and bustle giving us just enough time to pack our backpacks.

I called up a friend who helped us get two rooms in a resort there and lucky for us, they had rooms to spare even though they were getting ready for the busy Christmas season.

We left the city, after a hearty breakfast from the famous Murugan Ildi, into the wide and welcoming roads of Krishnagiri.

We took our own sweet time to revel in the good looking landscape while playing all our favourite tracks in the music system over and over again.

Finally, it felt wonderful being the shotgun; reclining in the car seat like a boss, sipping on a cold drink we got from a Coffee Day on the way. 😉

We took a long 8 hours to cover a mere 380 kilometers. A couple of toll booths, a lot of monkeys, a dozen hair pin bends, a few degrees drop in the temperature and a flat tyre later, we reached our resort where we were going to spend our holiday. The warm smile from the wonderful host as we stepped out of the car, instantly made us feel at home.

While we walked into their 100 years old bungalow-converted-into-a-resort, it felt like we had walked into a fairy-tale from the 1800s.

The colonial building from the British era has four suites, a enormous dining hall, a restaurant and a villa. We got two huge and comfortable suite rooms as promised.

Neither did we for once doubt Vishu Kalliapa, the owner’s good taste when it came to interior decoration and furnishing nor were we surprised when he got his friend, a naughty little cockatoo, and introduced him to us.

‘Sweet Rascal’, the resort’s kitchen, treated us to some great tasting pancakes for breakfast, crispy chicken fry for lunch and the appetising Hindu Muslim soup (hope I didn’t get the name wrong) for dinner. The hospitality was overwhelming and the dining area amusing with fun quotes and interesting one-liners on the walls.

With just another day left in Yercaud, we walked around the resort after a wholesome breakfast, got the tyre fixed, drove around the ‘valley with a scenic view’ and went for a boat ride in the lake close by.

Driving back down the traffic free loop road, amidst the misty evening sky, I realised that heading back to the “big city life” was bearable all over again.

All soul searching travellers must add this lush green hills to their bucket list. After all, all the lazing around while wallowing in the personalized hospitality helped us relax, take that deep breath and rejuvenate our otherwise restless souls.

I gazed vacantly at the long and winding road ahead. Snapping back into reality, I smiled and thought, “Where next?”.

In search of ‘The Quiet’!

Been in a place with a soul that overwhelms all your five senses at once? A hired cab, an off-road bus drive and a 10 minute boat ride are all it took to get us here. Our eyes were soothed by the lush greenery; the sense of smell gingered up by the original fragrance of the serene outdoors; our attention to listen awakened by the comforting sound of the flowing Periyar right beside; the touch sensations heightened by everything green, brown and natural.

Oh, how can I forget the taste buds that took that ride down memory lane after being tantalised by the down to earth mathi (sardine) pickle whose unpretentious flavour reminded me of my Ammamma (grandmother) and her homemade recipes!

The first weekend of the New Year 2017 was all about these for my family and I. We decided to escape to ‘The Quiet by the River’ in Perumbavoor, Kerala. Every square inch of this island is designed to please its visitors.

I, for a moment, felt like Robinson Crusoe, being isolated, detached, and surrounded by water. Only that I wasn’t alone and we weren’t castaway. Lucky for us, I know!

It doesn’t take too long for a dream to be a nightmare, sometimes.

I better be careful about what I wish for, right? 😉

A satisfied tummy yawned after a delicious lunch and all of us took a catnap before jumping into the infinity pool that overlooked the beautiful landscape with the river and the foliage in the foreground and the fine-looking hills against the evening sky in the background. The view couldn’t have been more perfect!

Kappa Puzhukku (mashed tapioca), Chemmeen Olathiyathu (Prawn roast), boiled Kaada mutta (quail eggs) and Nadan Erachi fry (Kerala style chicken fry) awaited us as we got out of the pool, hungry like no other activity could have ever made us.

We ate like souls who were stranded and staved for ages.

“How about going spearfishing after you guys are done? Let’s just help our stomach digest all that we just ate, in the process,” teased Sarath, the fun-loving Manager of the resort.

“In another 10 minutes?”, we smiled, trying to do a silent burp.

My brother, sister-in-law and I followed Sarath and Manu, the spearfishing expert in the resort, while the grandparents (my parents) stayed back to look after their naughty two and a half year-old grandson. Since it had already past 6:30 in the evening, they gave each of us a small torch, so that we do not trip or slip while walking amidst the river and its rocky trail. It was definitely a novel experience and we happily headed back to the cottage once Manu successfully caught a vaala (a type of fish). We posed with the ‘catch of the day’ before they fried it for dinner for us that night.

The next morning began by us sipping on a cup of coffee/ tea followed by some quality time in the pool. It felt good enjoying breakfast sitting by the great Periyar, the river that has a significant role to play in the economy of the state it flows through. It is not only a source of irrigation, but is a river that helps generate electricity, and the natives fish and use its water for domestic purposes.

It is for a reason that this watercourse is famously called the ‘Lifeline of Kerala’ I thought to myself while taking a second helping of the soft and fluffy appam and dunking it in the succulent mutton stew.

The best part of the stay was definitely the finger-licking good food and the highlight, the infinity pool we literally lived in. On a side note, we managed to spot a Siberian migratory bird whose name I forget and a dark-coated gaur. Which is not bad, right?

This beautiful mystery of an island was a balm to our soul, and presented us with an extraordinary weekend, away from the choking cities we live in that are sadly weighed down by fumes, trash and bad planning.

A letter to an emotion called Madras!

Dear Madras,

I’ve wanted to write to you in a long time and have had a lot of things scribbled in the notebook of my mind. Just thought of pouring it all out today; on one of my first few blog posts of 2017. I remember speaking my heart out to you all the time and no matter what, you would silently and patiently listen to all my rambling. And then you would simply continue doing what you always do best, opening your arms wide to all who are keen on drowning in your calmness as much as they are comfortable in your commotion.

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“Chennai is a city, but Madras is an emotion”, said a wise man once and after having spent a little more than 8 years with you as my beautiful backdrop, I cannot dispute.

Yes, I must admit that I did not feel that I belonged until you took me under your wings, when I came to be a part of you as just another out-of-school-didn’t-know-what-to-do-with-life 17 year-old. Oh geez, you were surely amiable and really warm but come on, let’s not lie, you were ‘hot’ mostly.

You were unassuming and pure. Your streets were wider than the ones in my small town and I looked at you in admiration.  You had the limitless shoreline that the Indian Ocean caressed, the edge of the sea that I always ran into and played with.

If watching the sun rise from the horizon was exciting for me, gazing at the reflection as the sun melted down into the sea was a quaint experience, each being a novel and unique encounter in itself. From feeding pigeons at the Marina beach to slurping on ice gola, shooting those colourful balloons and hogging on those fried fish from the stalls on the Bessy beach and getting our fortunes read after the parrot drew a card – the delightful moments you gave my friends and I are all of these and more.

Loving your scorching hot summers, highly polluted Cooum river and loud and cricket crazy people, came naturally to me. Yup, surprisingly I took to all this like a duck to water. Funny, I agree!

Ah, speaking of dog days, I recollect another episode with you. I was lying on the beach sand that April afternoon, under the blazing hot Sun, with the cool sea breeze blowing over me. And then there was this shade that fell on my face, suddenly, as though trying to guard me from the warmth. I opened my eyes, squinting because of the sun and looked all over the place to see no one around. But I knew that was you.

Speed boating at Muttukadu backwaters, jet skiing en route to Alamparai and riding the All-Terrain Vehicle near Mahabalipuram; all these accelerated the adrenaline rush and fuelled the confidence of that 17 year old small town girl.

I cannot thank you enough for giving me the taste of freedom while subtly reminding me that freedom, at the end of the day is responsibility. You taught me to take decisions and make good friends and I did all these with some great tasting food in my hand or on the table, always!

Breakfasts at Ratna Café, Welcome hotel and Murugan Idli set unforgiving standards of how piping hot sambhar, fluffy idlis and crispy medhu vadai should taste like. Exotic lunches at the Madhatter’s Fish Market, The Marina, ITC Grand Chola and M’Bessy Kitchen & Bar introduced our gang to a world of new flavours we had never tried till then.

The dinner dates at small cafes like Pasta Avenue on KNK road and Pantry D’or in Alwarpet to restaurants like Mamagoto, MainLand China and Raddison Blu, and dessert tasting at Sandy’s, Menchies’s or Cream & Fudge, you made sure that none of us left the city without being able to savour the best that was out there. From Indian to Italian, seafood to fast food, English breakfasts to lunch buffets, from starters to afters, you had the best of all and everything in between too.

To my friend, philosopher and guide, I love you for adding flavour to my tasteless foodie life, for mixing self-confidence to my uncertain spirit, and for bringing clarity to my confused mind. I love you for leaving me speechless and for finally turning me into a storyteller. I love you for introducing me to Frankie (Come on, they are delicious, and there is no denying that). I love you for more reasons than one.

Looking forward to spending more time with you, mate. Maybe not now but someday, one day I will come running back to you to be the same old 17 year old teenager, only a little more self-assured and hopeful, maybe.

Eternally yours,

Jo

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P.S : Like I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t love at first sight with you, but it was love nevertheless. 😀 You taught me so much more than anyone ever did. And for that, I am and will always be indebted to you. Yen favourite emotion’ikk oru periya whistle!

P.S.S : All rights to the photographs posted here reserved! 😛