Somnathpur – visit once and only once.

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“The construction of this temple was caused by Somanatha”, the notice-board put up by the Archeological Survey of India informs us at the entrance. That mild syntax glitch aside, the ASI has done a fair job at the Channakeshava temple at Somnathpur.

Built around 1268 AD, during the reign of the Hoysala king, Narasimha II, the Kesava somnathpur-1temple presents the connoisseur with the best of Hoysala architecture in a compact, one-day package. To the purist, Somnathpur is perhaps a more complete representation of Hoysala art, than its much bigger and more famous cousins at Halebidu and Beluru, a hundred miles to the west.

Not many people know that the Halebidu-Beluru temples are generally incomplete. They don’t have the vimana (or gopuram) on top. Somanthpur does, and while its vimana doesn’t tower over you, unlike the gopurams of Tamil Nadu, it is imposing all the same.

Walk around slowly, pause at an exquisite sculpture, admire the lathe-turned stone pillars, turn your eyes upward to the sixteen intricately carved ceilings, and as Whitman would put it, simply ‘stand and stare’. Each of the ceilings depicts a banana flower in different stages of growth.somnathpur-1-5

somnath-1-21Somnathpur is one of the few temples in India where you can walk right into the sanctum sanctorum with your digcam and snap away at the idols. somnathpur-1-8Try and locate the names of the sculptors, carved at the base of each statue. Ruvari Mallithamma, a famous temple sculptor of the time, sculpted most of the statues.

Somnathapur, until recently, was a good place for a quiet Sunday visit, especially if you like ancient temples. That said, the placid beauty of this historic Hoysala temple is rapidly being ruined by greed and neglect.

You will find patches of poorly done repair work all over the temple, junk and debris randomly dumped inside the courtyard, and the jarring sight of a solar panel placed right on top of the gopuram. Couldn’t they find a more discreet place to put it?

Once, you could park your vehicle under the shade of a nearby tree and stroll across Somnathpur at leisure. Now, there’s an unwashed thug breathing stale booze on you, demanding a hefty parking fee. There’s no parking lot though. You still have to look for parking space on your own. If you’re lucky, you might be given a receipt for the absurd parking fee extorted from you.

The local villagers were a benign, friendly lot, once upon a time. Now, you will find yourself being harassed by hawkers and beggars of all kinds. Even the ASI clerk who issues the entry ticket to you is a surly fellow who rudely informs you that camera tripods are not allowed, and will not tell you why.

Good luck with the stray dogs that infest the place. And try not to look at the urban slum that surrounds the immediate vicinity of the temple.

Best time to visit: Any time, but it does get hot during April-May.

Bottom-line: Visit Somnathpur only if you appreciate medieval Indian temple architecture and are capable of ignoring all the trouble and general filth you will be subjected to. And visit it just once. The residents of Somnathpur will ensure that you wouldn’t want to visit again.

Cheers … Srini.

Mahabalipuram … NEVER again!

Shore Temple - Centerpiece of Mahabalipuram.
Shore Temple – Centerpiece of Mahabalipuram.

Once, just once in my life, I want to visit one destination in India where I won’t get ripped off, cheated, abused, intimidated and generally made to feel like concentrated crap.

Just once, I want to walk into a place, relax and listen to what it has to say to me, and walk out in one piece. Just once.

Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, is a UNESCO heritage site that has been on my bucket list since many years. When I took a day off to visit this temple town that dates back to the 7th century, I thought it would be a memorable experience. It is after all, a UNESCO site.

Memorable it certainly was, for all the wrong reasons.

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Pancha Ratha – five temples carved from a single granite boulder. Thirty eight years in the making. Dedicated to the Pandavas and Draupadi.

The instant I got off my car, a horde of hawkers and touts descended upon me. Buy this, try that, come with me and I’ll give you a good time … they just would not leave me alone. And then I made the enormous mistake of hiring a guide to take me around. And I wound up paying him Rs.750/- for no particular reason. He took me around in my own car, to monuments that were easy to locate anyway, and gave me information that I had already looked up in Wikipedia anyway. But he did ensure that the right hawkers ripped me off.

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Arjuna’s Penance – bas relief sculpture, depicts various episodes from the Mahabharata.

The arrogant moron at the ticket counter gave me a nasty shock, as he refused to issue a normal ticket to me. The fee for Indian nationals is Rs.10/- only. For foreign nationals, it is Rs.250/-. I never understood why foreign tourists must cough out at least ten times what Indians do, wherever they go. Do they get anything more for the huge amount of extra money they pay? I hardly think so.

For some absurd reason, the afore-mentioned arrogant moron at the ticket counter was convinced I was a foreign national, and demanded Rs.250/-. And then demanded to see my ID. I offered my driver’s license, and he felt it was forged. I told him I’d rather go back to Bangalore than pay Rs.250/- to that arrogant jack-ass. Finally, he relented and gave me a Rs.10 ticket.

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Krishna’s butterball – an unusual balancing rock structure.

Hawkers, hawkers, everywhere. Every nook. Every corner. Every turn. And they will not leave you alone. They go on and on. They chase you. They harass you. Until you buy something. And my friendly guide ensured that I did buy a lot of worthless artifacts, at astounding prices.

The day ended with my taxi driver ripping me off, and forcing me to pay an extra Rs.500/- for a speeding ticket that he got on the way back from Mahabalipuram.

I had it coming to me. A fool and his money, after all. Should have just stayed at home.

Why do these hawkers and touts think that tourists from another land owe them a living? What value do they provide to the places that they infest? They did not build any of the magnificent monuments that people like me travel hundreds of miles to admire. They do not maintain the place, they in fact soil it with their presence.

They abuse the law with impunity. They loot tourists blatantly. They harass, they harangue, they intimidate. And the local custodians of the law simply stand by and watch.

And then we wonder why India’s share of the world tourism market is less than ONE PERCENT. That’s right. Mera Bharat Mahaan has less than 0.72% of the global tourism market.

Bottom line: Mahabalipuram is strictly avoidable. Admire this ancient temple town in the safety of the Internet.

Mahabalipuram was certainly the experience of a lifetime. That’s because I will never go there again in my lifetime.

Ah well, I did take some good pictures. Enjoy my pictures, and be happy you didn’t get ripped off, unlike me.

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Where Aves rules – Ranganathittu.

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Spot-billed Pelican. Resident species at Ranganathittu.

What I love about namma Bangalore, and the sole reason why I continue to live in this garbage-laden, dog-infested, over-congested and rapidly decaying city, is the proximity of so many prime birding locations.

Ranganathittu is one such. Spread over just 700 square meters, this sanctuary is one of India’s smallest. Yet, it is home to well over one hundred avian species and several other flora and fauna.

During the winter months, the star attraction at Ranganathittu is the Eurasian Spoonbill. So named because of its characteristic flat bill, the Spoonbill is a long-distance migrant that comes down to India all the way from Europe.

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Eurasian Spoonbills.

Come October and hundreds of Spoonbills arrive at Ranganathittu to breed. Spoonbills prefer shallow waterbodies and feed on small aquatic animals, like snails, frogs, crabs, aquatic insects and young fish. Spoonbills have a typical feeding style. They walk around in shallow water with their open bills dipped in, constantly sweeping for prey. The bill snaps shut instantly when it touches its prey.

While the Eurasian Spoonbill is a winter visitor, there are many other resident avians at Ranganthittu that are just as spectacular. The gorgeous Painted Stork is one of them.

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Painted Storks at Ranganathittu.

So is the Asian Openbill Stork. And the Oriental Darter (alias the Snakebird), and the Woolly-necked Stork, and the Spot-billed Pelican, and the River Tern, and the Great Thick-knee, and the Indian Shag, and many more.

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And look out for the Marsh Crocodile (or Magarmach, if you prefer). Ranganathittu is one of the few places where you can see the endangered Marsh Crocodile in its natural habitat. You can usually spot a couple of these magnificent monsters sunning themselves on the rocks.
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There is a large colony of Flying Foxes at Ranganathittu. Flying Foxes, FYI, are bats. In fact, they are the world’s largest bats.

If you take a boat across the lake, the boatman will take you very close to these crocs and foxes – for a small financial incentive, of course!

The entry fee is Rs.50/ per head (per Indian head, that is). For foreigners, the entry fee alone is Rs.300/-. And that, to my mind, is not fair. Why do we always assume that visitors to our country are all stinking rich and are all very happy to pay ten times the normal fee?

The fee for a common boat is Rs.50/- per head. Or, if you have money to spare, you can shell out Rs.1000/- for a four-person boat and a prolonged half-hour ride across the lake. Shell out another Rs.100/- to the boatman, and that half-hour can become one hour!

The gardens around the lake are equally rich in avian life.

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Green Bee-eater, Ranganathittu gardens.

 

Look for the Green bee-eater, Grey wagtail, Oriental magpie robin, Black-rumped Woodpecker and India’s smallest bird, Tickell’s Flowerpecker. About the size of an adult thumb, this elusive little fellow prefers to feed on the fruits of the Singapore Cherry tree, which is where I snapped this Flowerpecker trying to gulp down a meal.

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Tickell’s Flowerpecker, Ranganathittu gardens.

 

Distance from Bangalore is about 120 km, an easy two-hour drive from the city. Ranganathittu is close to Mysore. If you prefer, you can stay at Mysore for a couple of days, and visit several birding spots around the town.

Ranganathittu is good for a visit through the year. If you want to see the Spoonbill, visit during October-March. If you’re serious about birds and photography, then strictly avoid weekends. Mid-week is strongly advised. Visit the place as early as you can. Ranganathittu opens at 8.30 am, at which time you will probably have the place to yourself.

Please avoid loud clothes. Dull greens and browns are the correct attire. We don’t want your ultra-tight jeans and bright-yellow tank-top to scare those poor birds, do we?

Do avoid exposing large amounts of your skin – and not for moralistic reasons. There is no shortage of mosquitoes and other stinging insects at Ranganathittu. Odomos is well advised.

If you have no car, no worry. There are many buses from Bangalore and Mysore. Or gather a few friends and hire a taxi. The nearest rail station is Srirangapatnam, but I think a road journey is far better.

Just grab your binocs, hit the road one fine morning, head for Ranganathittu, and leave your worries to the birds!

Cheers … Srini.

Bole re papihara – the Pied crested cuckoo.

Pied crested cuckoo, at Tiruvannamalai, Aug 6 2011

‘Commence your journey, O messenger of the clouds, sprinkle rain upon this parched earth’.

Kalidasa’s poem Meghadootam talks about the yearning of the chataka bird for the first drops of rain. The chataka, alias the pied crested cuckoo, in Indian mythology, drinks only raindrops and is considered a harbinger of rain.

As I’m fond of saying, when Mother Nature gives, She really gives.

Through these years, all I could get were fleeting glimpses of the pied crested cuckoo. Clamator jacobinus, also called the Jacobin cuckoo is a summer migrant and its arrival down south precedes the arrival of the monsoons.

In an open field at the temple town of Tiruvannamalai, opposite my friend’s ashram Tapasyalayam, I was blessed with the sighting of not one but three pied crested cuckoos, sitting on an overhead wire. They allowed me to take a really long look at them. And for the nth time in my life, I rued the lack of a good DSLR camera.

The cuckoos were really close however, close enough for me to get one decent record shot with my little point-and-click camera.

Common Hawk cuckoo - Brainfever bird

The other member of the Cuculidae family that smiled on me at Tiruvannamalai was the Brainfever bird, Cuculus varius. Its characteristic call followed me everywhere on my bird-walk through the fields on the foothills of Arunachalam.

Other notables, all sighted at hand-shaking distance in and around the ashram, were – Indian treepie, a large flock of brahminy starlings, black-shouldered kite, shikra, innumerable white-headed babblers, indian rollers and black drongos. And also, Indian bush-lark, indian silverbills, black-headed munia, scaly-breasted munia, purple-rumped sunbirds and pale-billed flowerpeckers.

Inside the massive temple complex of Annamalaiyar, near the temple tank, one gets to see the white-browed wagtail and laughing doves.

I would strongly recommend a visit to Tiruvannamalai for those of you who are ornitho-spiritually inclined. There is plenty of birding to be done at Tiruvannamalai and en-route. The road from Krishnagiri to Tiruvannamalai is ghastly, all 100 km of it. The route via Vellore is much better, but longer by 80 km.

Either way, the route is scenic and avian-rich.

Cheers … Srini.

Yercaud – the lake in a forest.

Yercaud Lake

“Poor man’s Ooty”, smirks my IT neighbour, when I tell him where I’m going for the weekend.

Six hours later, it’s our turn to smirk, as we take a cab out of Salem station, and head for the Servarayan hills in the Eastern Ghats, in the lush bosom of which lies the little town of Yercaud.

“Forty three hairpins, saar”, our garrulous driver insists, as we make our way up the convoluted hill road that leads to Yercaud. That’s a typically Tamilian cheeky overstatement, the official count is twenty two. The twists and turns do seem endless, all the same. And one doesn’t feel like complaining a bit. The air gets fresher and the hills get greener with every bend in the road.

People debate about whether Yercaud qualifies as a real hill-station or not, on par with Ooty and Kodaikanal. Who cares? Let the hordes descend on Ooty, thank you very much. Yercaud isn’t as hyped up as the Queen of the Nilgiris, for which one is grateful. There’s still an air of innocence at Yercaud and there’s still a feeling of warmth in the local populace, because of its down-market image.

The best thing about Yercaud is – it’s not a ‘happening’ place. No casinos, or dance bars, or rave parties, and no boozed up fast-track types trying to ‘unwind’, and, for that matter, not too many locals either.

If you’re the upwardly mobile, rambunctious type and if your idea of relaxation is to keep the neighbours awake through the night, then please give Yercaud a miss. This place is for the generously built, softly rounded, easy-going type who abhors loud sounds, and doesn’t mind a good walk once in a while.

The name Yercaud is an Anglo-version of Yeri kaadu – literally, lake in the forest. Sometime in 1820, the British brought coffee to this quiet little hamlet in the clouds and set up plantations that still produce the strong coffee for which Yercaud is famous. Make it a point to pick up a kilo or two, if your palate can appreciate the difference between cyber-café instant swill and the real thing.

Christian missionaries followed the British officers up the hills and set up schools and churches. Thus like Ooty, Yercaud has its share of Ye Olde English institutions and some quaint nineteenth century place-names.

The climate at Yercaud is moderate the year round. The Servarayan hills are gentler than the Nilgiris, and the weather is just as mild. Usually light woolens are more than enough. If you like Bollywood-style misty and mysterious climes, visit Yercaud in the winter. Or, like me, you prefer a clear view of your surroundings, go there in the summer.

There’s the usual list of must-see places, five of which one would recommend:

The Lake.

It is, after all, Yercaud’s raison-d’etre. So your visit is called for. It’s actually quite nice, this lake. Plenty of greenery around and a friendly place to go boating in. It’s quite deep and gymnastics in the boat are strictly avoidable. Grim stories abound about its dark waters, but as long as you’re careful, relax, sit still and listen to your boatman, you’ll do just fine. Avoid the paddling boats, since they’re not exactly state-of-the-art. Try the oar-boats instead. They’re not state-of-the-art either, but they come with a boatman inside. The amiable boatman is aghast when I compare it to Ooty’s lake. A pungent string of strong adjectives follows. One is forced to agree, partly because the boatman may tip me over into the lake, and partly because he happens to be right.

The Botanical Garden

Set up by the Botanical Survey of India, some twenty years ago, this well-maintained outpost of the Plant Kingdom boasts of two rare plant families – the orchids and the insectivores. The botanists there tell us they rear about a hundred different orchid species in their orchidarium. The botanical garden deserves your unhurried attention for its orchids alone.

As an added bonus, you’ll find insect-eating plants that you’ve only read about in your schooldays, notably the Nepenthes species, or pitcher plants. If you’re lucky, as I was, you might even spot a pitcher plant enjoying a little ‘snack’.

This is not a place to rush through, each plant species deserves a second look, and constant exhortations from your bus driver can be readily avoided by not taking the tourist bus in the first place.

Pakoda Point

Don’t expect to see piles of pakodas here, the name is mispronounced by the locals. The correct name is Pagoda Point, but you can’t see pagodas either. This place affords a spectacular view of the valley below. The village of Kakambadi beckons to us from the bottom of the valley, and one is seriously tempted to yield. Lucky people, one feels, far away from BPO’s and call-cabs.

Enjoy roasted corn on the cob and opt for the ‘American’ corn, it’s juicier. And after you so enjoy, please be nice to Yercaud and use the litter-bins, not the valley below. One feels obliged to add this message, for Yercaud’s sake.

Ladies Seat

One could not obtain a suitable explanation for the name, not many ladies here and there’s more than one seat. The guidebooks promise a breathtaking view, but this place is bit of a let-down. One’s breath isn’t taken away. But worth your visit, all the same. The view is quite good, on a clear day. The city of steel, Salem, can be seen spread out across the plains below. The correct time to enjoy this spot is at dusk, when you can see the lights of Salem coming on, one by one. Besides, the dusk covers up the bits and pieces of garbage lying around. What a pity, we Indians will be Indians.

Servarayan Temple

Home of the patron-god of these hills, this temple is actually a cave, located near Yercaud’s highest point, at about 5000 feet. People say Tipu Sultan hid from the British here. The locals believe it extends all the way to the Cauvery river, 400 km away. One wouldn’t advise you to find out if this is true.

This is one place for which you’ll need a vehicle and a local guide. We weren’t allowed to enter the cave, and considering the state it was in, we weren’t too keen anyway. But look it up and pay your respects to Servarayan from a distance.

The truth about Yerikaadu

There are several other ‘places of interest’, as the guidebook calls them. Visit them at your choice. One doesn’t actively encourage you to do so, for a simple reason. The truth about Yercaud is, you cannot enjoy it from inside a tourist bus. You walk. Just don your walking shoes, and walk. Walk down Vanniar Teak Forest, trek up the wooded lanes, stroll around the Botanical Garden, amble down to the lake, walk up to Montfort School on a Sunday and see their little zoo.

Trust your legs, chuck out your guidebook, and discover the real Yerikaadu. Nice friendly people, wild flowers, untamed yet gentle hills that don’t tire you out, and unspoilt air that you’d yearn to take back with you in a bottle. Go find out.

Try and avoid the guided tours. They’ll take you right into herbal shops that offer ‘guaranteed’ herbal oils and concoctions, at prices that will make you wheeze.

And please remember the Rhesus factor – Yercaud’s monkeys. I do mean watch out. The time to be careful is in the morning, when they come out to forage. Keep your hotel windows firmly shut. Very firmly shut. They know how to open windows latches! Do not leave anything on the window sill, edible or otherwise. Be warned, gentle traveler. After all, you’re the intruder, not they.

Where to stay

Thanks to its ‘poor Ooty’ tag, Yercaud has some good hotels, offered at reasonable prices, even during season. Ask around about their service however. We stayed at a well-known, cliff-side resort on the first day of our visit, and vacated on the second. The next one we stayed at was far better. Some caution is advised, therefore, like for any other hill-station.

Getting there

Road: It’s about 220 km from Bangalore. Take NH-7, aka Bangalore-Hosur road. Start real early, if you want to retain your sanity. Once upon a time, Hosur Road was a tree-lined sylvan escape by itself. Now it’s a terrifying nightmare. The road clears up after Murthy’s Kingdom at Hebbagodi (Infosys HQ) and one can finally hit top gear. Drive straight down NH-7 after Hosur and proceed to Salem. At Salem, ask for and take the road that leads up to Yercaud. You’ll need strong shoulders and, preferably, power-steering in your car. The bends in the hill road are really bent.

Air: Nearest airports are Trichy (170 km) and Coimbatore (190 km), from where you’ll get buses and trains to Yercaud.

Rail: Nearest railhead is Salem, 40 km away in the plains below. Trains aplenty from Bangalore, Chennai, Trichy and Coimbatore. Don’t forget to ask your hotel for a car to receive you at Salem station.

Best time: Usually the year ‘round. Avoid mid-May, if you need an escape from the rest of humanity. That’s when the summer festival is on, and Yercaud gets crowded during that time.

Hot tip: Visit during June to November, or so. You might have Yercaud all to yourself.

The bottom-line: Go to Yercaud, come back home, grin ruefully at your IT-rich neighbour, agree with him – and keep the ‘poor man’s Ooty’ myth alive.

Yerikadu and Servarayan will thank you for it.