My travels in India


One of my all-time favorite trips, which I wrote about almost 2 years ago. I thought its worthwhile saving it here.

The golden triangle of Bhubhaneshwar-Konark-Puri is a much visited tourist circuit in Orissa, accounting perhaps for most visitors to this state. While Bhubhaneshwar boasts of the largest number of extant temples from the 7th to 12th centuries A.D., Konark beckons with the magnificent Sun Temple, and Puri overflows with crowds seeking the beaches and the Jagannath Mandir. On a visit to this triangle, however, we discovered a gem of architectural history which is well worth visiting, but carefully tucked away and needs some prodding before it comes to light! This is the 64 Yoginis temple, on the Bhubhaneshwar-Konark route. Apart from the state buses that ply on this route, there are private tourist as well as tourist buses run by the Orissa Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC), which cover the stretch to Konark. Not too many of these, however, stop at the 64 Yoginis though they may do so on request. So if you want to visit this temple, it may be worthwhile hiring a taxi, easily available at the OTDC office.

We set out from Bhubhaneshwar early, on a pleasantly windy day and headed for the road to Konark. Since we were on a leisurely trip, there was none of the “your time starts now” anxiety that afflicts most tourists and leaves us with little time to explore any of the places we visit. About 15 kilometers from Bhubhaneshwar, we reached a small town called Balakati, which is where the detour for the 64 Yoginis temple begins. We set out on the dusty canal road which leads to Hirapur village, where this temple is located. Driving down this canal road for 5 to 6 kilometers, with nothing in view but paddy fields and a few village houses, we were beginning to wonder if we had lost our way. Finally, some kindly souls guided us some distance back where we had missed a road sign in Oriya showing the location of the temple.

As we reached the temple, all we could see from the outside was a regular modern one roomed temple with white washed walls. I was baffled as to why the tourism website had referred to it as ancient. We offered Puja at this temple, at which point, an Archaeological Survey of India caretaker posted there came up and escorted us to the 64 Yoginis temple located behind. We approached a circular stone structure, the entry to which is through a narrow passageway with carved sides. Entering through this passage, we found ourselves in an open well like structure that left us speechless. Unlike the grand temples of Bhubhaneshwar or Konark, there are no soaring spires here. Rather, it felt like the heart of a primeval society, open to the skies, yet safely hidden from prying eyes. Dedicated to worship of the mother goddess in her myriad forms, I felt as if the temple entry has perhaps been designed to replicate a passage into the womb, though I was unable to find any information on this.

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The inner perimeter of the circular wall was covered with the statues of 60 yoginis or female goddesses, intricately carved from black chlorite. One feature which struck me was that the stone had been carved so finely as to look like black metal and deceive the onlooker from a distance. Each yogini has been lovingly endowed by her creator with her very own personality -she possesses a distinctive hairstyle (some of them no less elaborate than what an Asha Parekh would have worn in the 70s!), elaborate jewellery and clothing, sharp facial features and her own vehicle, such as a rat, a snake, a pig or various birds. One of the most interesting Yoginis was Ganesani, a female Ganesha!

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There were many others such as Narasinghi, the female Narasimha, Baluka, a Yogini with the face of a bear, and others wearing garlands of human heads, or endowed with different kinds of weapons and standing in different poses. They also include the commonly worshipped goddesses such as Lakshmi and Chamundi. The entire place is a tribute to the beauty of the female form.

In the centre of the open circular temple was a square slab about 1 meter high with a pillar at each corner. At each of these pillars is stationed a Yogini, and this completes the set of 64 Yoginis. An image of Siva is also to be found on one of the pillars. This square slab is believed to have been used in olden days by wandering Tantriks as a sacrificial altar. The sparse, almost ascetic beauty of the place helped us picture this readily. It is dated by the A.S.I. as having been built sometime in the 7th century A.D, and a few villagers told us that it is believed to have been built by a queen, Hira Rani, who also lent her name to the village, though the story behind this was not very clear.

We were fortunate to meet the A.S.I. caretaker here who is a knowledgeable person and more importantly, interested in sharing this with visitors. He explained to us in detail who each of the Yoginis is meant to be and pointed out tiny details of attire which we would have missed otherwise. It was a joy to meet this man who was so genuinely interested in these treasures that he guards. I contrasted this later with most of the temples in Puri including the Jagannath Mandir, which abound in a wealth of beauty but where self-appointed priests masquerading as guides exhibit a bloodthirsty zeal for your money. We were also fortunate to be the only visitors at that time, and so had the place all to ourselves. Reluctantly, we came out of the temple and unwilling to leave this beautiful place, took a slow walk around the outer perimeter of the circular wall. Here are placed figures of nine ‘Katyayanis’ or Durgas. The Katyayanis do not, however, have the finely carved beauty of the Yoginis. Rather they stand inside roughly carved stone enclosures on the wall, each mounted on a human head and accompanied by a dog and a jackal.

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Considering the antiquity of the temple, it has been fairly well preserved, although a few of the Yoginis have suffered some damage from being exposed to the elements. Not yet invaded by hordes of tourists, it is yet to suffer the ignominy of having M.G. loves A.P. being scrawled on its walls. The main visitors right now are academics with a specific interest in such work, or a few tourists like us who had wandered off the regular circuit having heard of the place. It is however the local people, who have, with their deep reverence for these goddesses, ensured their survival through time. Some times, perhaps, being unknown is a blessing! As Orissa continues to attract more tourists every year, I am sure visitors to this hidden marvel will increase – I only hope they will leave it untouched, for the Yoginis are bound to delight all who take the trouble to visit them!

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I am a big fan of homestays, as opposed to staying in hotels, for several reasons and wherever possible, I try to see if any homestays are available. Homestays have many things going for them. For one thing, its an opportunity to stay with a local person who can point of things that the regular tourist may miss. Often, after a day spent roaming around, your host may be able to tell you more about the things you’ve seen, perhaps legends connected to them, perhaps local gossip, how such and such municipal office is letting a park rot, why the roads to a particular destination are so bad…All this makes you feel much more aware of the places you are going to.

Another major attraction for me is the food. Most homestays have a maximum of 7-8 rooms that they offer. With a smaller number of people to serve, and the homeowners either doing the cooking or overseeing it closely, food quality tends to be much better. Its also easier to get special requests catered to, for example, if you have small children, or if you are diabetic etc. Homeowners tend to treat you as a guest in their house and not just another room that needs to be catered to. Customisation is therefore not such a challenge. And – if your host is a great cook, you often get a chance to eat the local cuisine that tourist hotspots may not necessarily cater to. In India, many tourist places these days offer only the standard “North Indian” food, which can often mean poorly made greasy sabzis and upset stomachs. At the end of a hard day of wandering around, a home cooked meal can seem like heaven.

Homestays tend to be quieter, due to the smaller crowd. There are also homestays that have come up on different locations, such as organic farms, dairy farms, nurseries etc. Staying on these also helps one appreciate the interesting ventures that these owners are involved in.

So is it all good then? Well, the flip-side to a homestay could be that a lot of the experience really depends on the personality and character of the owner, unlike hotels where a standard experience is laid out that hotel employees are expected to adhere to. Maybe the homeowner has had a bad week. Maybe he/she is not physically upto par. Maybe he/she is just a jerk who really has no interest in treating people well. So some element of unpredictability exists.

Again, homestays may not offer all the creature comforts of a hotel. Some of them may not offer telephones in your room, some may not have television, some may not have enough staff to offer room service. You need to play this off against the fact that you are more likely to get out of your room and meet people. With communal meals around a table, we’ve often met some really nice people at homestays.

Again, not all homestays are equipped to cater to the needs of kids, older people, those with a medical condition. Some of them tend to be further away from the centre of town, since suburbs/ residential areas may be further away. In any case, its always better to talk to the owner beforehand, and check these things out. If the owner seems hesitant to share information, or spend time talking to you, its a good bet that they will be too busy to look after you when you are there!

Further, you can always check out some of the more organised ones at sites like Holiday IQ, and see what other visitors have to say. If you have a good experience, go on and write about it. Its a good way to promote small businesses. Two homestays that I would unhesitatingly recommend – the Hidden Forest Retreat in Gangtok, Sikkim which I’ve blogged about earlier, and the Taj Gardens at Yelagiri, a tiny hill station in Tamil Nadu. At the Taj Garden, noteworthy features include excellent food and an owner who can teach you all you want to know about the beautiful trees and plants on his property, and the birds that inhabit them !

When deciding on where to go, its always such a temptation for a culture-vulture to land up at places with much to see – temples, forts, ruins, palaces, all of which India has so much of. To top that, if you live in a state like Karnataka, which really has more than its fair share of history – Hampi, Badami, Aihole, Pattadakkal, Mangalore, Udupi, Dharmasthala, Moodbidri, Mysore, Belur, Halebid, Shravanabelagola, Bidri, Somnath – well, its sometimes difficult to just say no to pottering around, and instead choose a completely chilled out holiday that involves nothing more than lazing around, reading a book and maybe on occasional walk to digest all the food eaten.

After some trips had gone by in a haze of walking, seeing and absorbing much history, we finally decided that we needed one weekend where we traveled to do nothing. Ofcourse, we could have done this at home, but if you can do nothing in so much more peaceful and green surroundings, which one would you choose? Call it coincidence, but a friend mentioned this place called Horsley Hills, close to her native place, Madanapally. Now all us snooty city-dwellers had made much fun of Madanapally as a one-lane sort of town, but it has two distinctions – it boasts an old sanatorium from British times, and it is the birthplace of philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi.

Horsley Hills is about a 45 minutes drive from Madanapally, the nearest town, and about 3-4 hours away from Bangalore, although the drive on terrible pot-holed roads makes it seem longer. It’s interesting to note, that the stretch of road in Karnataka is terrible, while it improves immediately on reaching the Andhra Pradesh border, where Madanapally is located. Doesn’t say much for the Karnataka government, does it!

The road from Madanapally to Horsley Hills can loosely be called a hilly stretch, though in no way does it approach the steep hair pin bends of Tirupati for example. We reached there by afternoon, and settled in at the government owned cottages, which are pretty much the only accommodation you will find here. The cottages look picturesque from the outside, with their sloping red roofs, though the inside can only be described as adequate. For our purposes though (doing nothing, remember), they were good enough. If you need more luxury, the old governer’s bungalow has been converted into traveller’s accomodation, and for around Rs 1500-2000 a day, this is much more swanky, with refurbished tiles and decorated as well as larger rooms.

The property is situated on a gentle slope, with much greenery around, and the high altitude gives provides it with lovely cool weather. It is impossible to resist pulling the chairs outside, and settling down to a game of cards, and some food accompanying. Coming to food, the resort has an attached restaurent where fairly decent food is available, with the breakfast being particularly good. We however arranged for one of the shacks on the perimeter of the resort to cook and send in food, since the non-vegetarians in the group were not too keen on the restaurant’s food. Everything in Horsley Hills ofcourse moves slowly, including the arrival of your food. Calm is the dominant theme, for humans and animals alike!

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Good walking routes are available, around the property – this is not however a trekker’s paradise. The entire place is so small that it can be covered in a ten minutes walk, so gentle ambling around and enjoying the cool mountain air, is about the most strenuous exercise possible. We discovered some beautiful nooks though, overlooking the valley, and these are cosy places for enjoying a peaceful moment. Early morning in Horsley Hills is a beautiful time in particular.

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For those inclined to do something more, the resort does offer a swimming pool. Large spaces have also been left unbuilt, and these offer enough space to set up a game of cricket, football or just play frisbee. While Horsley hills is a sort of idyllic meadow in the daytime, night offers a totally different face. With very little artificial lighting around, in the glow of a few halogen lamps, the place looks like a recreation of the Blair Witch Project. Add to this rumours of a tiger from the surrounding forests on the prowl, and we were understandably a little nervous.

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Nothing much happened ofcourse, and after two days of pleasant indulgence, we drove back to Bangalore intact. On the way back is a small village Angallu, which specializes in pottery, with pieces sold on the roadside at extremely reasonable prices.

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Faint twinges of guilt nudged us, at the thought of the calories that had been piled on during the weekend of nothing. We assured ourselves that it was a well deserved reward for weeks of over work, and groaned at the thought of getting back into yet another work-week !

I had written about a visit to this old and lovely Chola temple at Dharasuram, on my old fiction blog, but now that I have a dedicated travel blog, I thought I would bring it over here. For those who haven’t read it before, here it is…

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Dharasuram, a quiet place on the edges of noisy Kumbakonam, is the site of an ancient temple of the Cholas. This is one of the Big Three Chola temples, the other two being the temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. I visited this place on a sunny afternoon when there was no one else around here. A 12th C temple built by Raja Raja II, this temple is dedicated to a form of Shiva called Airavateshwara – Shiva worshipped by Indra’s elephant, Airavata. The Archaeological survey of India and the Temple board have worked out an amicable compromise here – the temple board takes care of the garbha griha alone, while the rest of the complex is well maintained, thanks to the ASI.

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On all four sides of the complex run raised corridors, which are likely to have been ornamented in a different age and time. Only some of these remain, like a pannelled wall which you can see above – these are the Nayanmar saints singing the praises of Shiva.In the centre of the complex stands the garbha griha surrounded by a splendid Mandapam. The Mandapam has many pillars, all of these carved and decorated with images of gods and goddesses, singing and dancing women, and many miniature sculptures, including a ganesha an inch and a half tall.

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The Chola artists certainly had a different conception of the human body, and the contortions that it can be twisted into. Somehow this whole concept of “illusions” or “trick sculptures” seems to have been popular. I saw this kind of thing in Konark as well, a mingling of images, so that the viewer is lured into following the sculpture more closely, like a puzzle, figuring out who the limbs belong to!

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Another one here…What exactly is that animal?

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And they didnt hesitate to use the temples like a kind of vehicle too, to express the ideas of the age. The ASI guide informed us that this sculpture here, the lion devouring the elephant, was meant to be a symbolic representation of Hinduism triumphing over Buddhism. Buddhism at the time had a profound influence and was posing a serious threat to Hinduism with its promise of liberation from caste.Interesting to think that eight hundred years down the line, much the same thing is being repeated. Depressingly, caste still rules, and conversions to Buddhism still often happen not due to any interest in the teachings of the Buddha but as a desperate measure of escaping the oppressiveness of caste enforced roles.

Dharasuram is a beautiful reminder of an older age, but sometimes, time seems to have stopped where it was.

When you think of beverages unique to a place, Paris and Wine, Japan and Sake or the US and Starbucks coffee are some of the things that come to mind. Countries like France take a lot of pride in their wines, and go to great lengths to promote them as a part of their culture as well as a tourist attraction. Infact there are wine tours and wine treks designed for beginners as well as afficionados. (Read Eric at the Paris Daily Photo blog, a truly fantastic blog, where he talks about one such wine ‘school’ in Paris)

In India ofcourse, Goa is the one state that is noted for its own drink, the Feni made usually from cashew fruit. The other one that comes to mind is Tamil Nadu (and maybe, Madras specifically) which is known for its filter coffee. (Check this customised tour of Madras aptly named Filter Coffee Tours!)

For me, a new addition to this list was – drinking Chang in Sikkim.

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Our hosts, the Lachungpa family who run this lovely homestay called the Hidden Forest Retreat arranged it as part of a traditional Sikkimese meal that we had one evening. We were told that the drink is made from millet grains which are fermented over time – as such it is very mildly alcoholic, though I suppose it could be made stronger ! The interesting thing is the way it is served, in those tall bamboo jars that you see. One has to literally suck the chang out through a straw, from the millet grain still in the pot. After some time, it dries up and then more hot water is poured in.

Give it a break, indulge in some good conversation or dreaming while looking at the fantastic views around. (which are never hard to come by in Sikkim). In this case the Hidden Forest has its own share of the picturesque, with beautiful flowers (including many orchids) all around.

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When you’re done, you can resume sipping again ! After a pleasant hour or so doing this, we went on to our fine dinner, which included steamed yak cheese momos, nettle soup and glass noodles, all home-made and delicious. What else does a hungry traveller need….

Many of the world’s religions, are founded on various myths and beliefs, which may have certain historical or factual evidence, but often cannot be entirely supported on these. It is the believer’s faith perhaps that makes history out of this myth and gives it additional support in the form of evidence gathered from stories, folklore etc. Some of the newer religions however are less dependent on myth, as the lives of the founders are relatively better documented. While I am no expert, I always thought a religion like Sikhism, with a known founder , Guru Nanak, would therefore be more fact based, as opposed to say, Hinduism or Christianity. (Yes, Christ is known, but Christianity nevertheless is based on many unverifiable myths that need some degree of faith to be justified).

Finding the footprints of Guru Nanak, in North Sikkim then, along with a myth right out of Hindu or Buddhist tales was a revelation to me, that perhaps every religion will make its own myths along the way. Chungthang is a small town in North Sikkim, perhaps best known as a halt for folks heading on to the more picteresque and touristed areas of Lachung or Yumthang. We halted here in the evening, and with no specific “sight-seeing” to do, set out for a walk around the small town. Being February and off-season, there were practically no other visitors and walking around rather aimlessly, we came to some signs indicating the presence of a Gurudwara. Intrigued by this, we followed these, until we came to a small rock cordoned off, with a gurudwara nearby.

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The caretaker priest at the Gurudwara, a most welcoming person, then proceeded to tell us the story of the place. The tale went, that Guru Nanak, on one of his journeys along with his disciples, had come across this place and vanquished two demons here before proceeding. The footprints of that battle were believed to be still left on that cordoned off rock. What was strange was the presence of other Buddhist relics in the place, such as a large Buddhist prayer wheel. These seemed much older, while the Gurudwara and pictures of Guru Nanak which had been placed around looked obviously newer.

The priest was extremely sincere but it was all very puzzling. He even mentioned that Chungthang derived from the Punjabi, “Changa sthan” or good place, which Guru Nanak had bestowed on it. This did seem somewhat farfetched. On our return to Gangtok, at the homestay where we were, the owner told us, a little resentfully, that it was actually Guru Rinpoche, the Buddhist master, who had passed through Chungthang, and that this myth had been taken over and ascribed to Guru Nanak, with the aid of the Indian army which has a base there. Its possible ofcourse that the army would be far more conversant with Sikhism than Buddhism. Online resources do indicate Guru Nanak’s visit to Sikkim, though none of them are authoritative sources, and perhaps many derived from people visiting Chungthang themselves. On the other hand, it is known that Guru Nanak did undertake a number of such journeys, though I doubt Sikhism would include tales of Nanak-ji fighting demons?

The best explanation I could think of was that the earlier myth of Guru Rinpoche fighting the demons at Chungthang may have merged with the tale of Guru Nanak’s visit there to create this rather intriguing story !

Now, Goa is well known for all things portuguese including vinho and sussegade. Calicut in kerala is however one of the earliest places where Vasco da Gama is supposed to have landed. Unlike Goa, Kerala has little obvious Portuguese influence left in its daily life. On a recent trip to Kannur in North Kerala, we were therefore surprised to learn that Fort St. Angelo, an early sea-facing stronghold built by the Portuguese, still stands.

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The fort stands at the edge of the sea, overlooking some fishing villages. It feels ominously quiet, and one can hear the waves on the rocks below. I imagine some Portuguese general standing at the top, watching out for the English, the French, the other invaders only too eager to get a piece of India.

Now, the fort is quiet though. Overgrown shrubbery left untended, invades its grounds. The dingy barracks for the men still stand, their walls looking sooty and crumbly. The cannons have been left behind, mute witnesses of a colonial past that many here no longer remember.