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.


Saturday, 31 May 2014

Juggling Identities


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

The temple bells toll in the distance - a distinct, metallic clang of bronze.  “What a trendy bikini,” I think, as two girls walk past, suddenly rendering my swimsuit woefully out-of-fashion. Nearing sunset, the sea now resembles molten lava. I hear a yoga mat being dusted next to me. I look up to see its owner - a middle-aged Caucasian with long, shocking-white hair and beard, tanned like a carrot from the sun, with rudraksha beads around his neck and aviators perched on his head – heading back to his hotel, his yoga for the day done. My mobile rings - my auto driver says he’s waiting for me at the top of the hillock; if I want to see the evening aarti at the Mahabaleshwara temple, I’d need to leave right away. I polish off the last slice of my Hawaiian pizza and gulp down my drink. Half an hour later, I join a snaking queue at the temple, so crowded that most of the queue spills onto the narrow street outside. The heady fragrance of jasmine fills the air, occasionally mixed with the stench of cow dung, as cows sporadically relieve themselves. The bells toll even louder now, and people fold their hands in devotion, chanting prayers, occasionally crying out the lord’s name aloud. Suddenly, the queue begins to frantically compress and shove; the door to the sanctum has just been opened.

A cow ponders worldly matters at Om beach, un-distracted by revellers. The name Gokarna means ‘cow’s ear’ and has a mythological story to back it.

One of Gokarna's quirky residents.
A couple of days ago, I’d driven into Gokarna as a part of my road-trip along Karnataka’s coast. The highway gradually narrowed until a point where my car got stuck trying to enter a crowded, one-car-width road. I panicked, called my guesthouse owner, and reconfirmed directions - was it really down this road? He said that it was. As I inched ahead, panic-stricken, the human tide parted to make way, squeezing between my car and open gutters on either side of the road. I was afraid somebody would fall in or that another vehicle would come along. The road did slightly widen after a while. Another vehicle did drive past. Gutters continued lining the road. The swarm of people remained. Yet, we all squeezed in to fit into that road. That’s what Gokarna is all about – coexistence.




If you had told me then that I’d actually enjoy Gokarna, I wouldn’t have believed you. By the time I drove on, took an incredibly difficult turn into an even narrower road to my guesthouse, slipped on omnipresent cow dung and almost fell into a gutter, I was ready to leave. I only stayed because I was too scared to drive out again. Yet, here I was, a couple of days later, seasonedly squeezing myself, walking between a  car and the dreaded gutter, making way for somebody else’s arrival into Gokarna.

A typical Brahmin house
If Gokarna were a person, it would’ve been dubbed schizophrenic; it has two facets – a pilgrimage centre drawing hordes of devotees, and beaches attracting equal droves of flower-children. The former is called Gokarna Town while the beaches are simply known as Gokarna. The town was a bastion of orthodox Brahmins, until it began attracting hordes of non-Indian visitors seeking spirituality, yoga, meditation and its many virgin beaches. Today, almost half the people you see in Gokarna Town are foreigners.


An aerial view of Kudle beach, with Om beach around the
cliff to the left and Gokarna beach around the cliff
to the right.
 
An aerial view of Om beach
For most visitors, their holiday begins and ends at the beaches. Most pilgrims confine themselves to the temple town. Both are neatly separated by a series of hillocks. Only one beach straddles that gap – Gokarna beach. Accessible by a short walk from the temple, this is where pilgrims unwind at the end of their temple visit, the women bashfully dipping their toes in the water, while the men and children let loose. This beach is also where rituals for last rites are performed; Gokarna, aka Dakshin Kashi, is considered one of India’s seven holiest ‘places of salvation’. On the very same beach, you sometimes find beach bums who have strayed a bit too far from neighbouring Kudle beach, a part of the ‘beach Gokarna’ side. I, in fact, was attempting to straddle the divide in my own way – I’d chosen to stay in the town and visit the beaches from there. This was such a decisive factor in being able to experience both facets of Gokarna, that it was a wise decision in hindsight.

Beach-bums walk the rocky promontory from Om beach to Half-moon beach, even as a person meditates under a coconut tree at sunset.

Om Beach is popular with locals and visitors alike. And, with bovines too. 
Very little gives away the fact that Kudle beach is located in a temple town; tourists sun-bathe, play frescobol, canoe, swim in the clean, blue waters or idle in one of the many shacks. Om Beach on the other hand, is popular with pilgrims too, attracted by its shape – an inverted Om - a religious symbol. This lends it an air of virtuous fun, preferred by families trying to avoid the possible culture-shock at Kudle beach. Boats moored here ferry people to Paradise and Half-moon beaches, whose camps and wild parties, disallowed nowadays, make Om and Kudle beaches seem tame in comparison. All these beaches are also gateways to yoga centers and holistic resorts.


Tourists play 'frescobol', a Brazilian beach game akin to table-tennis, on Kudle Beach

Om beach is most crowded in the evenings, when the glorious light tinges everything orange.


If the beaches exude a relaxed vibe, Gokarna Town is their antithesis. It buzzes feverishly from as early as 4 am, well into the night. All activity centers around narrow, winding 'Car Street'; homes jostle for space with tiny shops selling musical instruments, trinkets, sarongs or yoga essentials. Graffiti and street art co-exist with the colourful local architecture. Car Street’s surprisingly bohemian flavour is much like Goa in the 1970s, though it progressively wanes towards the end where Mahabaleshwara and Maha Ganapati temples become its focal points. The former temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, seen here in the form of an atmalinga (a piece of Shiva’s soul). The latter, to Shiva’s son Ganesh, who is said to have deceived Ravana and prevented him from fleeing with the atmalinga. The boy-Ganesh statue here is unique, in that it is two-armed and in a standing posture. The temple chariot sits not unlike a UFO, in between cars and minivans from which hundreds of pilgrims emanate, to seek blessings at both temples.




Shops selling swimwear, spaghetti tops or bongos, strangely congruous amidst shiny brass-ware and devotional paraphernalia, lure you along Car Street. As you gingerly step around a painstakingly-drawn rangoli outside the swimsuit shop, it reiterates why though reminiscent of Goa, Gokarna can never become Goa’s replica; the temples ensure that. Some locals do speak of resentment setting in, at their town degenerating due to immorality. In general, however, there is a nonchalant acceptance of foreign visitors – most are mindful of not hurting local sentiments and attempt to blend in, dressing like locals, shopping for groceries and vegetables, and eating at local eateries. In fact, some seem more local than locals themselves.


Under the cover of darkness, Gokarna Town morphs into a laid-back twin of its daytime avatar. Most locals head home, while pilgrims vanish. Blackened aluminium kettles bubble away on tea-carts, supplying everybody’s favourite evening glassful. Sudha’s, which not only stocks books in a plethora of global languages but also offers to ship them to you should your backpack be full, becomes a hotbed of discussion. In the multi-hued, dim lighting Gokarna seems to favour, the vagaries of that afro hairstyle, the Om tattoo, or that tongue piercing make for a people-watchers’ paradise.


An old, Indian-style barber shop has a foreign visitor. The unintentional saffron colour of the cloak reminds you of Gokarna's status as a temple town. All this makes the photograph redolent of Gokarna's duality.

Enjoying hot tea by the roadside.


My last morning in Gokarna, I awaken much before the sun does, have a 5 am breakfast, and don’t find it odd; Gokarna has effortlessly sucked me into its routine. Dolphin-watching hadn’t been fruitful the evening before, so I’ve decided to try again. Did I forget to mention it? Amongst all things Gokarna offers, glimpses of curious beaks, slender fins and flexible torsos are a given; if you are lucky, acrobatic breaches from the water too. Boats are available from Om and Kudle beaches, and boats-men double up as guides on hour-long trips. 

As our boat returns towards Kudle beach, we are surrounded by shoals of tiny, silver-coloured fish, jumping in sync with the boat. While photographing them, I hear the bells toll, a reminder of where I am - not on a beach holiday, but at a temple town. Ahead lies pristine Kudle beach, where shacks are just beginning to open for the day. A few early-swimmers’ heads bob alongside us. So am I not on a beach holiday? Or, is it a temple holiday? Beach? Temple? I seem to be constantly flitting between the two, my memories from both intertwining to form a crazy, unconventional holiday memory. I smile as I alight - I’d never know.