Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Celebrating Bangalore’s Trees

Written about a ficus tree at NGMA, Bangalore, to accompany a photograph by Kalyan Varma, displayed as the centrepiece at the 2nd edition of Neralu, Bangalore’s annual tree festival

Photo copyright: Raji Sunderkrishnan

I was different. I could sense it.

Each time my roots were clipped, I didn’t buckle and fall.
I moulded myself differently.
I sought the sky. My connection with the earth changed. 
But I found a way to stay.

It made me different.

I saw it in the eyes of the gardener who tended to me.
I heard it in the whispers of the people who saw me.
I felt it from looking at the trees around me.

I told myself - “So what if I’m different?”

So what if children don’t swing from my roots?
So what if people don’t worship under my canopy?

My heart is the same as any other.

I love it when you come seeking the patterns I make on the ground.
Shade, you call it. Neralu.
I love sheltering the nuts the tiny squirrels trust me with.
I love the feel of an aching back resting against my gnarled trunk.
I wish I could make your pain go away.

I am always back-lit, photographers say.

I say I’m shielding you from the harsh sunlight.
The sun is always behind me. I have your back.
Come, enjoy a nap beneath me.
I promise you - you won’t need a photograph to remember me by.

Don’t judge me by my appearance.

I have the same love to give you.
I make you look up - at the sky beyond me.
A sky you sometimes forget to look at.

It’s been over 100 years.

I now see love in your eyes.
My difference no longer makes a difference.
You love me as you love any other tree.
For that, I love you even more.

I’ve learnt from my life. I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

It’s okay to be different.
People will eventually love you for who you are.
Even if they don’t, keep standing tall and proud.
Be there for them when they need you.
Give them your love.
Don’t give up when your wings are clipped; find a way.
And reach for the skies.


This over-100-year-old ficus tree at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bangalore, is one of the many beautiful trees found in Bangalore. Whether you are a nature lover or are simply looking for a different experience in Bangalore, tree walks can be an enjoyable and off-beat addition to your itinerary. These are usually informally planned on weekends, by the city’s active naturalist community. However, planned tree walks can also be booked at:


Both agencies are highly recommended: for visitors to Bangalore, as well as locals looking to know their city better.

If you are visiting Bangalore in February, though, you can enjoy Neralu (meaning ‘shade’ in Kannada) – an annual citizen-funded and citizen-managed tree festival, one-of-its-kind in India. Do look up the festival’s website and join the celebrations: Neralu.in

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Neralu: Bangalore’s Tree Festival

A short note about 'shade', written to accompany a large print of a photograph by Ganesh Shankar, displayed at the 2nd edition of Neralu, Bangalore’s annual tree festival

The shade of this tree at Halebidu, Karnataka, attracts a lot of afternoon visitors

Shade is why Sonali chooses that large Gulmohar to stand under, preferring to run the short distance to the actual bus-stop once she spots her office bus rumbling down the dusty road each sweltering morning.

Neralu is what makes Basavaraja smile and take off his sunglasses, as he drives through a stretch of highway surprisingly lined with Tamarind trees, which embrace each other across the otherwise-barren route.

Chaaya from the colourful Semal tree is what tempts Bijoya into playing a few more rounds of hop-scotch, not heeding to the sternly clanging recess bell.

Tanal is why Kuttan relaxes under a cluster of Coconut trees when he returns from a hectic morning of fishing, sitting there to eat lunch, keeping an eye on his boat moored on the beach.

Savali helps complete Nitin’s summer afternoon fun, of stealing mangoes from Bhonsle kaka’s orchard and slurping the pulp out of them, seated under the very same tree.

Nida is what draws Gowramma to the Banyan tree for a spot of gossip with friends, after a tiring day walking around parts of Kakinada, selling home-made khajas.

Chaanv is what makes the Banbehi tigress at Bandhavgarh crawl into a Bamboo grove in the afternoon, to escape the unforgiving summer sun.

Nizhal is what momentarily cools down Senthil’s blistered feet, as he seeks refuge after hopping across the scorching stones at the Madurai Meenakshi Temple in the afternoon.

Saaya gently nudges Ismail’s eyelids shut, and he naps unawares, though he only meant to rest under that Neem tree for five minutes before he pushed his guava cart ahead.

Celebrate shade in all its forms. Celebrate Neralu.


Neralu (meaning ‘shade’ in Kannada), is a citizen-funded and citizen-managed tree festival, one-of-its-kind in India. Festivals say a lot about a city and her people - Neralu reflects Bangaloreans’ passion for the trees that the city is so lucky to be endowed with.

The annual tree festival usually spans across a weekend or two, and has events for everyone – tree walks, storytelling under trees, audio walks through parks, music and dance about trees, art and craft sessions, yoga in parks, street plays, sketching workshops, games, talks by experts, and nature film screenings, to name a few.

If you are visiting Bangalore in February, do look up the festival’s website and join the celebrations: neralu.in

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 Travel Calendar

I’d discovered the pleasures of road-trips last year, despite being an anxious road traveller. This year, my romance with asphalt, dust and gravel continued. However, 2014 also led to newer discoveries and experiences - surprise, surprise – solo travel!

I know what you’re thinking: solo travel isn’t very unusual or path-breaking for many travellers. So, why the hullabaloo? For starters, despite being in my thirties, I’ve never taken a holiday without company. Let alone holiday, I’m the kind of person who is uncomfortable eating alone at a restaurant. And though I love my moments of solitude on holidays, I enjoy having just the right company in that solitude, to chat with or share experiences with. Now, having overcome my misgivings and travelled solo, I would happily do it all over again.

On the whole, travel has been very sparse in 2014. I miss those years when I travelled almost every other month. However, this break from travel was probably a blessing in disguise – it allowed me to process my backlog of images from last year, as well as write many stories.
Sri Lanka
This was a long-awaited trip to celebrate a momentous milestone. The date for this was hence set in stone – Jan 2014. After a lot of discussions based on our interest, weather suitability in Jan, ease of getting a visa etc, hubby and I zeroed in on Sri Lanka. This misleadingly tiny island effortlessly sustained our interest for 3 weeks, during which we explored west, south and central Sri Lanka. Lovely weather, incredibly friendly locals, scenic landscapes, fiery local cuisine and lots of outdoorsy activities left us with lingering memories. Hiring a car and driving around Sri Lanka was one of the best decisions we made; it was a great way to experience local culture and make serendipitous discoveries at nondescript little villages and towns.

An emotional brother. A benevolent visa officer. Generous parents. Timely summer break in the college I teach at - these sudden turn of events gave me 5 weeks of a much-unexpected holiday, beginning with my brother's graduation. To be frank, USA was nowhere in the top half of my travel wish-list. However, after crisscrossing the country solo, visiting Atlanta, San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Chicago, Philadelphia, the Poconos, New York, Boston, New Jersey, Atlantic City and New Hope, I ate humble pie – I thoroughly enjoyed the country! I napped in parks, fought pizza wars in Chicago, star-gazed in Yosemite at midnight, stood through the sun-roof of a speeding car, fought over that last cronut, got drenched in fog in SF, pub-hopped in Boston on a weeknight, lived on a couch in New York, and made jam using berries I plucked – a few of the varied experiences I had. Travelling by intercity trains and buses allowed me to strike up interesting conversations. I walked for an average of 8 hours every day, exploring each city. This, I think, is the primary reason I enjoyed this trip – the experience on foot is unlike any other.

Dubare, Coorg
This was my umpteenth visit to the region of Coorg. I didn’t have high expectations from this trip, based on glimpses I’d had of Dubare. Staying by the river Cauvery, I sought out the lesser-known experiences Coorg had to offer. And, Dubare proved to be a pleasant surprise – a little bit of river, some wildlife, a few dilapidated monuments, and lots of lore and coffee.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A River Runs Through It

Published in the Dec 1st edition of www.jlrexplore.com, a nature and wildlife-specific website

Nanjaraja, the king of Nanjarayapatna, had many enemies. In a dream, he was told that his troubles would vanish if he built a temple in a day. The task seemed impossible, but if anybody had a chance of doing it, it was the masterful Chola architects. They were pressed into service and set about achieving the deadline, working through the night. An errant rooster crowed earlier than usual, and the Chola builders left, assuming it was daybreak. A bridge - presumably across the river Cauvery - remained unfinished. Nobody knows if Nanjaraja’s fortunes reversed.

Fast forward five hundred years - Tipu Sultan’s pillaging army found neither gold nor gems in that temple, known as Veerabhadreshwara temple. Uninterested, they left it half-destroyed, saying “We’ll return another time to do this”, or, “We’ll come dubara”, giving Dubare forest its name.

The ruins of Veerabhadreshwara temple on the road leading to Dubare

A couple of centuries after Tipu Sultan, I packed my suitcase with equal disinterest; I threw in a few long-pending books, confident of finishing them that weekend. Being a seasoned, four-prior-holidays-in-Coorg veteran was reason enough for me to have my nose up in the air - I’d already had a ‘stay in a home-stay’ holiday; I was also done with my ‘pamper yourself in one of Coorg’s resorts’ holiday; I’d also had the rather rare ‘stay with your coffee plantation owner friend’ weekend. All the famous sights had already been seen – Bylakuppe, Abbey falls, Raja’s seat, Omkareshwara temple, elephant bathing at Dubare, Talacauvery. Why, I’d been on a trekking holiday to Thadiyandamol too. I sighed, kicking myself for not planning to go to a new destination.

Of course, lying around reading books with an endless supply of coffee can never be too bad, I consoled myself. My other-half (henceforth OH) had no such motivations for returning to Coorg; he staunchly refused to join me. I unabashedly lied to him, promising we’d spend all three days exploring facets of Coorg we’d never seen before. As we waited by the Cauvery on the bank opposite the Dubare Elephant Camp, for the Jungle Lodges’ boat to pick us up, I wondered how much time I had before my deception was exposed.

The landing dock at JLR Dubare, by the Cauvery

Three days later, OH gently steers our car over a bad stretch of road, to prevent the cheap liquor bottles filled to the brim with luscious Coorgi honey from clanging into each other and breaking. I glance at him for a ‘holiday indicator’ expression that is usually writ large at the end of each trip - a broad grin is plastered over his face.

Me: Enjoyed breakfast today, huh? You’re smiling.

OH: Yeah, the neer dosas were melt-in-your-mouth. And, I’m going to miss this coffee! (glaring at a honking car and frowning) Well, we better get used to our return to the urban jungle.

Me: So you’re glad you tagged along? You almost didn’t!

OH: I frankly didn’t expect the cottages at the JLR property to be set by a peaceful side of the river. I was half-expecting screaming crowds - bathing elephants or boating - right outside my room.

Me: I agree; this was a pleasant surprise. And who knew the forest began in their backyard! I was more thrilled with our morning walks than the jeep safaris, though. Once Putta Naik reassured me about being on foot in elephant territory, the plants, spiders, damselflies and other critters had my undivided attention. I’ve never spent ten minutes watching a spider spin its web!

A nature walk in Dubare, with the river for company

OH: (braking suddenly) We’re almost at the turnoff to Chiklihole…are you sure you don’t want to check if the view today is better?

Chiklihole, a reservoir, is one of Dubare’s little-known secrets. When we’d visited the day before, the weather had been moody. The water was a still, lacklustre sheet, with a mist-covered backdrop. The grey monotone of both the sky and the reservoir offset the vivid colours of the fishing coracles - not your quintessential picture-postcard vista, but, dramatic enough to command attention. The clouds, unfortunately, decided to deny us the spectacular sunset the locals had raved about. I could have spent many hours shooting the breeze, seated on the coarse stones of the humongous embankment, except, OH had dragged me away. For a good cause, though; I would have missed the fish auction if he hadn’t. Grown men running at break-neck speed, all for snapping up some fish, is not an everyday sight. At one point, two men almost got into blows over a beauty; egged on by their respective friends, they persisted for many minutes, until the fishermen intervened to seal the deal.

Fishermen and their fishing coracles, at Chiklihole reservoir

OH: (recollecting the fish-war) The locals sure seem to love their fish!

Me: Fish, and spices! Remember, Harsha showed us those deceptively small Gandhari chillies in his plantation? He was horrified when I said I wanted to taste one; he quietly steered me away from those bushes.

OH: (laughing) You would have been blinded like Gandhari, had you eaten one. I’m glad you forced me to visit a plantation – I feel like a pro, being able to tell the difference between Arabica and Robusta.

Coffee beans, in various stages of drying

Not only was OH happy, spurred by Harsha (our guide), he had even plucked fresh pepper, vowing to make some pickle once home. Harsha and his family invest a lot of time and energy looking after their coffee plantation, like many Kodavas do.  It isn’t easy, despite having sprinklers for watering the plants. Keeping them pest-free and harvesting the beans when just right is hard work. Not all creatures are pests, though; their plantation is home to a host of critters which are welcome – we spotted giant wood-spiders and well-camouflaged toads too.

Camouflaged toad in the coffee plantation

Me: Until Harsha told me, I didn’t know that spiders were such an integral part of coffee plantations.

OH: For that matter, wildlife seems so inseparable from Coorg. Even if you are not looking for wildlife, it finds you. Like when you saw an Indrella ampulla on the compound wall of a devara kadu.

Me: Or when I narrowly missed stepping over the bracket fungi in the devara kadu at Chettalli. I’m so happy we could see a few of these sacred groves.

I hadn’t known about devara kadus until I read an article some months ago. These forest patches have survived the onslaught of development, as sacred groves. Some remain in their primal form under trees, while others are being ‘developed’, with small temple-like structures being built. This trip had allowed me to peek into this spiritual side of life in Coorg.

Bracket fungi and a stream, in a devara kadu by the road, at Chettalli

OH: The next time we visit, we must time it to witness ritual dances at these devara kadus.  Or probably visit in March, when the grand puja is conducted at the Veerabhadreshwara temple - with priests coming from all over Karnataka, it promises to be festive.

Me: I wouldn’t mind another visit. I still need to experiment with photographing star trails. I am unhappy with the results this time, but we should get clear skies once this monsoon passes. You really missed experiencing midnight by the river!

I had spent many hours at night waiting by the river, hoping for the skies to clear. The riverside took on a different character, as the cobalt blue of dusk slowly turned inky. With people tucked away in their homes and hotels, a permeating silence descended on the Cauvery - one that allowed me to hear the gentle sloshing of the currents. Curious to see how the transformation progressed, I awoke at 2 am, only to find the landscape mist-covered and eerily beautiful, bathed in bluish-white moonlight. Though it felt too spooky for a walk, the cottage’s balcony had been perfect to lounge in, at that time.

River-side cottages at JLR Dubare

OH: (smiling) I may have had the energy to wake up in the middle of the night, if I hadn’t spent all evening chasing you around Madikeri’s buildings. You architects are magnetically attracted to buildings, aren’t you?

Me: (embarrassed and defensive) You enjoyed those monuments as much as I did! The Madikeri fort’s upkeep is a little disappointing, but walking on the moss-covered ramparts, taking in the town’s views, made up for it. Very few visitors seem to enjoy it, though.

OH: And even fewer visit Gaddige. The tombs may be decrepit, but their location is beautiful. So is some of the architectural detailing.

Moss-covered Madikeri Fort

Kings’ tombs, called ‘Gaddige’, set on an elevated patch of land in the middle of bustling Madikeri

Me: (laughing) Spoken like an architect’s husband! If only I were born a century ago, we could have lived in a gorgeous ‘Ain Mane’. We were lucky to even stumble upon one of these ancestral houses – most have been demolished to make way for newer homes.

A typical Kodava ‘Ain Mane’

Unlike Tipu’s demolishing soldiers who never returned, OH sheepishly agrees that Coorg definitely merits repeat visits. He still needs to ride down the Cauvery in a coracle. And, Putta Naik, our naturalist, has promised to show us many more critters and interesting insect-behaviour within the Jungle Lodges property.

A leaf-hopper, seen during a nature walk

I, however, had ended my holiday floating in a coracle amidst cheery, bright water lilies, past the resort’s gol-ghar, waving to OH, who had opted for a head start on breakfast. There, in that coracle, I reminded myself - even as a by-now-five-holiday veteran, I have more to seek out in Coorg, if I do come, ‘dubare’.

P.S: My books did not see the outside of my suitcase. Coorg had had the last laugh.

Water lilies and a dragonfly

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A Sliver of Memory, a Smile, and a Prayer

It was many moons ago.

Yet, this memory unfailingly visits, every winter.

The fire crackled deliciously against an inky blue sky. Lured by the promise of heat, I’d move in too close, only to have a delinquent strand of wool from my sweater singe with a hiss, pushing me back in alarm.

Amma and I were having a conversation.

We paused often, to sip the potent chaang and nibble on hot pakodas.

Her arthritis bothered her, she said; the cold weather didn’t help. She was disdainful that she now sat on chairs. A rug on the floor had been her favourite perch. ‘I felt connected’ she said.

I spoke about my visit to Gurudongmar Lake, a spiritual journey for the locals. Amma wondered if the weather hadn’t been too inhospitable. ‘Even we don’t visit in winter’. ‘Did you pray for a son?’

I burst out laughing. Amma joined me in a full-throated laugh, her crinkled skin folding into an intricate origami. Its rarity brought one of her daughters running. She smiled and placed her palm on amma’s shoulders, before returning to the kitchen.

Amma, the matriarch, spoke the language of the Lepchas. And only that. I, the traveller, spoke English. And only that.

Yet we conversed each evening, by the fire - the only time she allowed herself a break from chores.

Khangchendzonga, benevolent to her children and ruthless to those who trespassed, towered over us.

Yes, this memory unfailingly visits, every winter.

Dzongu - a region ravaged by the construction of a hydel power plant, yet, tenacious.

Khangchendzonga - the guardian mother of Dzongu, and the Lepchas.

Dzongu - whose river was soon to be silenced, disappearing underground to provide electricity for bustling cities far, far away.

I, living in one of those bustling cities, often wondering if Dzongu survived.

Unfailingly. Every winter. It comes back to me.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Kambala: Race of the Titans

An unedited version of my story published in the November 2014 edition of Outlook Traveller

The starting gong is sounded. Sharad’s staccato mumbling drones on in the background “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-1-2…” Sitting on my haunches, I feel my heart start to thump - slowly at first, and pounding soon after. My camera’s cross-hair aligned perfectly in front of me, my hand subconsciously fires shots in rapid succession. The commentator is narrating second-by-second happenings at a pitch which is getting higher by the minute, and may soon be heard only by canines. My brain sends me urgent signals to get up and run, but, my legs remain rooted. Sharad’s mumbling has reached a furious crescendo as he yells “Oh, come on! 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9…faster!!” Through the viewfinder, I can see the hitherto dot-like man and bullocks run towards me, growing larger by the second, until I can see details of the bullocks’ ornaments. Sweat pouring down my forehead in rivulets and my palms sweaty, my eyes widen - fear finally strikes.

“About time,” thinks my brain, jostling my legs into action. I spring up like a gazelle – fear endowing me with a surprising nimbleness - and run for dear life, without looking back. People around me are running too, in all directions. We hear thunderous applause and much screaming. I stop, look back and wipe my face. The adrenaline rush makes me return to my spot; I sit on my haunches yet again. Sharad’s hand fiercely grips the timer, ready to press the button yet again. We both squint at the horizon, in eager anticipation of the next run.

I was witnessing the Kambala - a race run by bullocks with their runners, a sport born out of seasonal farming schedules - with mixed feelings. The animal rights proponent in me told me I should be shunning it. The culture enthusiast in me was piqued by the rituals and the sheer muscle-power involved. Eventually, not wanting an experience coloured by judgements, as it often happens to a person from an alien social context, my first avatar was vetoed out.

Southern coastal Karnataka, also known as Tulu nadu locally, is predominantly a fishing and farming belt – growing paddy, to be precise. Paddy is harvested October onwards, with sowing beginning from March, leaving fields cyclically bare between November and March, when farmers would take a break from their hectic schedules, often passing time by running their bullocks in the slushy fields. Why wait for the farming season to pause? Even at the end of a long, tiring day, they would sprint home together, in anticipation of much-needed rest.  A related belief is that the bullocks were made to run in their fields to thank the gods for keeping them in good health, and hence, capable of running. Yet another theory is that bullock racing evolved as a royal pastime, many centuries ago.

Whatever the origin, in its current avatar, Kambala also doubles up as a competitive sport. There are various categories of races; to qualify, a bullock pair and their runner run together to aim for the fastest timing, or, two pairs with their runners compete against each other on parallel tracks. 

Because the races are held in paddy fields, often in tracks specifically built for the purpose, they are a long walk away from the nearest road. This path, donning a festive look with stalls of food and games, throws many a curious sight my way. Drums herald the arrival of teams from other villages, dressed in bright team T-shirts. Their lorries form impromptu dressing rooms for their bullocks, the stars of the show, being lovingly massaged and painstakingly ornamented, using mirrors, feathers or coloured rope. Nearby, a couple of men don the grease-paint, readying themselves for their dance later in the morning, which symbolises chasing evil away. 

Families make a day of the festivities, but strangely, the women seem to disappear before they reach the Kambala track; with very few women spectators, a lot of the locals are inquisitive about my presence, with many going out of their way to make me comfortable.

Though the Kambala isn’t as commercialised as you’d expect, it has definitely grown beyond the erstwhile humble prizes of fruits, coconuts or other farmed goods; cash and gold often change hands nowadays. Good runners are sought-after and lead a life of prestige; Sharad, who is timing his brother’s race, has a lot of hopes pinned on him. These runners, lithe, well-oiled, and sporting jealousy-inducing toned bodies, power their way through the slush, holding sway over the proceedings like nobody else.

As I’m speaking to Sharad, a sudden, deafening trumpet behind me startles me out of my skin. Amidst peals of laughter from the crowd, I turn around to photograph the offending musician, who offers me a split-second sheepish grin before solemnly launching into an upbeat melody accompanied by other assorted trumpets, bugles, and even a nadaswaram. An intrinsic part of the Kambala, music entertains people during breaks. Breaks, because readying these massive water-buffalo, each weighing a few tonnes, for their run, is no mean feat. In these gaps of almost ten minutes between races, the bovines are led down the finishing slope towards the starting point, with much fanfare and music.

Rapid-fire Tulu orchestrates the frenzied activities around the starting point: words of encouragement to teams readying for their run, soothing words to buffalo being cooled down post-race by a jet of water, and, the breathless words of last race’s runner, quickly discussing his performance with his team. Amidst this cacophony are seemingly grinning buffalo, as a referee intently takes stock of the bovines’ teeth - yellow, brown, black, sometimes, missing altogether – and makes a quick decision, categorising the animal as junior or senior. 

Only senior buffalo are considered privileged enough for certain races; a roar from the crowd tells me that one such category, where the runner balances himself on one leg, on a cube of wood tethered to the buffalo’s yoke, is about to begin. Even as I gape at the acrobatics involved, water gushes up as a jet through a hole in the block, spraying me in the bargain. I don’t really mind; the jet has touched one of the many banners tied across the track as height markers, declaring the team victorious.

As the sun slides its way to the horizon, peeking occasionally between swaying palm fronds, unnaturally strong yellow floodlights are pressed into service to simulate daylight. Races continue well into the relaxed Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon, once the champions have been crowned, a weary crowd will head home, some jubilant, some dejected, but all having savoured the Kambala. The triumphant runner and his glittering trophy will probably be hoisted on the winning team’s shoulders, for a boisterous victory lap around the track. A few runners and buffalo owners will be a couple of lakhs richer. Yet, somewhere deep down, Kambala remains a village pastime. If you steer clear of the larger Kambalas, you can travel back in time – where the bond between the runner and his bullocks is palpable, where competitors also share camaraderie, where the entire village turns up decked in their festive best.

I turn away from the glare of the evening floodlights, and see them there – three friends running into the setting sun, words unspoken, yet, in perfect sync; their emotions saying it all - a friendly slap on the back here, a joyful splash of water there, washing away the sweat from the day’s toil; the air echoing with their audible breathing and the heavy thudding of five pairs of legs; Kambala, in its primal form - nothing more than man and beast enjoying a run.