22 February 2015

Dhanushkodi - The atlantis of India !

Seldom you go to a place that stays with you long after you have left it.
Dhanushkodi is one such place which haunts your memory and pulls you towards it long after you have returned. It’s the Dead end of India – the Lands end!
It’s a narrow stretch of land, approx 1 KM wide and stretches almost 25 Kms into the sea. One side you can see the Indian ocean, and at the same time see the calm and tranquil Bay of Bengal on the other side. The difference is perceptible.

There is a small fishing community who still live there, atleast 1 hour away from nearest telephone, medical facility or even basic supply of daily needs. You can hear the constant hum of the ocean on both the sides with the winds hitting the Indian landmass at great speeds. The fishing boats dot the horizon of the ocean, where they brave their lives just to make ends meet, braving not just the fury of the waves but also the coast guard of our neighboring country who frequently nabs them for no good reason.

Imagining Lord Rama and his vanara army building the great causeway gives you goosebumps, whether you believe it to be history or part of the Myths. There are markings to show where Rama worshipped Siva and started to build the causeway to reach Lanka. There is a tiny temple where you can see the stone which floats on water.
Then there are the remnants of the Ghost Town which was ripped apart in the devasting Ceylon cyclone in 1964. There are parts of a Church with its tapestry still standing. One can also see the tracks of the Trains which Connected the Remote Dhanushkodi to EGMORE !!  This small town was a entry point to Sri Lanka and an important port till then.
There are horror stories of how winds at 160mph hit the land and people survived clinging to the Pamban bridge, while many others perished before the fury of the Nature.
I struck a conversation with a Souvenier shop owner and was surprised at the Fluent Hindi of the person who rarely left Dhanushkodi. I was in disbelief when he told me that they live on this remote piece of land without even a phone connection, and which is disconnected from mainland when sea is high.
He told me they get fresh water on the island itself!! He told me that he loves the peace of the place and the uncomplicated life. He says that he can provide for his family and has all the time to do as he pleases.
It reminded of the Remote places in Ladakh which are under snow for 9 out of 12 months an year. When asked, why they survive these conditions ?! The farmer had replied that, here he is an owner of 3 acres of land and If he went to Delhi, he has to sleep under a flyover! What choice does he have.

Though I can’t imagine doing anything like that, I do want to camp out in Dhanushkodi, in the lap of the ocean for a few days. They say it’s dangerous for non-locals to hang around there, would definitely make this trip before I leave TN. 

13 October 2013

Trip to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, Kerala

Periyar River

Bird Trail

Looking for the elusive forest birds
• An arctic Tern is a bird which flies 2.4 million Kms in its lifetime.
• Racket tailed drongo can imitate 26 different birds.
• Hummingbirds fly at 54kmph.

Interesting creatures… their flight, sense of freedom, colors and variety has always fascinated us!

In 1933, While he was travelling from Travancore to Munnar on the old British highway, Salim Ali , a world reknown ornithologist, had to stop overnight at a Govt Bungalow at Thattekad. He was on his way to Munnar to study the endemic birds of the Malabar-Nilgiri area.
To his surprise, he counted 167 different birds in his 2 days stay at Thattekad. He remarked that this is one of the richest bird habitat’s he had seen in Peninsular India. Later he sent one of his students to study and document all these different species of Kerala. He recommended the government that a bird sanctuary be opened here, which they fortunately did almost 50 years later (sigh)!

Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Thattekad: It’s a little known place on Indian tourist map, though quite popular on the international circuit. Many foreigners travel to this place to sight hard to spot bird species.

The two rare bird sightings are:
Ceylon Frogmouth: Belongs to Sri Lanka, has the colour of dead leaves, difficult to spot.
Malabar Trogan: Extremely colorful bird, becoming rarer by the day.

Since the place was only 54 kms from Cochin, Adarsh and I drove to the sanctuary on Saturday afternoon. It was a pleasant drive through the Kerala countryside with the air getting purer and landscape getting greener as we approached the forests.
Fortunately we found a home-stay within the Sanctuary, owned by a Naturalist and Bird-watcher Vinod. He told us that the best time to watch for birds is, just before sunrise and late in the afternoon, when they forage for food. So we set out in the afternoon to watch some birds.

Around 4 pm, we left for a jungle trail and spotted many birds like :Jungle babbler, Emerald Dove, Racket tailed Drongo, Malabar Parakeet, Black Cormorant, Whistling Duck, Kingfishers: red and blue, Water Hen, Yellow Oriole, Little Tern, Coucal, Ash tail, Crested Woodpecker, Rufous Woodpecker.

Next day morning:It was difficult to wake up on a cool Sunday morning at 5 am, while its drizzling outside, and is nice and cozy inside the home stay room ! Dragging ourselves out and getting dressed, we picked up our binoculars and headed for a hilly trail, where we can spot the birds out for their breakfast!

A short trek into the forest led us to a hillock. As we climbed it , we were treated with a fantastic view of the hills with the mist shrouding them and sunlight breaking its way lazily through the clouds.
We spotted many a rare and endemic bird today: Crested eagle, Ceylon Frogmouth, Iora, Orange Minivet, Wagtail, Greytit, White breasted woodpecker, Ash Drongo, Jungle Myna, Common Myna, Crested Goshawk and some birds whose names I forgot! Each bird more beautiful than the other.

Another good thing was watching a Southern Birdwing, the largest butterfly in India! … and Parisian Peacock. Both exceptionally beautiful to look at! It’s quite a task to get a hang of how to view through a field glass and adjust the focus in a short while, as our winged friends are twitchy and disappear into the trees if you are not quick.
As it was just after the rain, we got lucky with the sightings, as many birds were drying themselves in the sunlight on the treetops.

The best time to visit this place is November-February, when msot of the migratory birds flock to this place in winters.Many birds fly in all the way from the Himalayas. Spending some time in the nature away from the daily chores and work is a great way to restart your mind and body!

After we returned from the trek, we left for a swim in the Periyar river with some Columbian tourists who were staying in the same guest house. The dip in the river was cool and refreshing. Though, as the water level was low, we couldn’t manage Kayaking 
Apparently, birding/bird watching is quite popular hobby, with some enthusiasts tracking and seeing as many as 12,000 species. Some hop across continents to study / see these endemic birds.

Overall, it was quite an experience to spend the night in the forest, and the whole experience had a very calming effect. Let’s see how many species we can tick off! A weekend certainly well spent.

How to reach: 54 kms drive from Cochin crossing Kothamangalam. Bus/Taxi: best way to reach.
Where to stay: Hornbill camp, Soma bird song. Home-stays: Bird Song, Jungle bird
What to do: Bird-watching, Kayaking, Nature Trail/ Trek, Cycling, Swim!
Where we stayed: Birdsong Home-stay.
Contact: Vinod: +91 9764248274, +91 8943894087
www.thattekadhomestay.com, vinodnatu1@gmail.com
Per day: Rs 2000 for stay + Food , Rs 750 per guided tour.
Decent place with basic amenities, friendly people and good homely Kerala food.

11 August 2013

Nehru Trophy: Kerala Snake Boat race

People travel thousands of Kms to watch the Legendary Chundan vellam - Snake Boat race in Alapuzha, so staying just 70kms away and not going there felt like a crime! Hence we decided to move our lazy selves to tick this off our list.

This year the rains have been reported to be over 60 % higher than usual norms, many rivers flooded their banks and the infamous flooding of the Cochin Airport by Periyar river happened this year too! Fortunately today rain gods have been a little merciful today, and it’s been a light drizzle instead of the usual afternoon downpour.
The origins of these boats go back to the era of raja-maharaja’s. The rajas of Changachery, Kottayam, Kottarakara were all vassals of the Travancore kings for most of the time. Yet, there was constant rivalry amongst them for gaining an upper hand over others and controlling the trade and hence the revenues of their regions. Since Kerala is enmeshed with water bodies, it was frequently patrolled by their navies and spy-network to maintain control. This led to competition amongst the chieftains or Raja's to design and own the fastest-strongest and most powerful boats helping them patrol their waters and also to win in the constant conflicts in the backwaters and seas.

Thus over time, these snake-boats were developed with specific designs to help them move fastly and swiftly in times of need. They are smeared with oil or oil skins of the animals to help reduce the friction over water. Most of the designs of these ancient boats are carried and used till date.

Back in 1952 the proud PM of the oh-so-proud-and-free India Sri Jawahar Lal Nehru visited Kerala. He was given a rousing welcome with people queing for miles to get a glimpse of him and some with even audacious ambitions of shaking hands with Panditji. He was taken on a boat ride in the calm backwaters of the Punnamada Lake in Alleppey and a procession of boats followed him. The people are said to have cheered him for a full 2 hours. He then presented a token trophy to one of the boats which had reached the shores first. Since then on the 2nd Sunday of every August, there is a fierce competition to win the prize and bring honor and acclaim to their village or club.

Since last year, a women’s race has also began to be conducted separately from men. They are clad in the typical cream-white sarees with golden or colored borders and adorned with flowers in their hair. They row with equal fierceness and competing spirit as men do.
Approaching Alapuzha:
Surprisingly the traffic wasn’t as bad it usually is on these potholed roads from Cochin to Alleppey which is a 90 min drive. As traffic was barred on the main approach road to the Starting point, we left the cab on the main road and started walking towards the main stands.
There were pandals and makeshift shades like the shamianas along the coast with some chairs in it. There were some paid stands ranging from Rs 500 – Rs 2000. Those who wish to watch the races comfortably can book those tickets on internet or from reliable sources in Alleppey.
The rest of the stands are mostly free for all and you can simply walk into these stands. We were conned by a local into buying some free passes to these stands who must have run to the closest BEVCO shop (govt liquor stores) with our money. Do NOT buy complimentary passes from anyone there.
Unlike most of the other parts of India, people are extremely courteous to visitors and look at them with some degree of curiosity. If you are a foreigner, you are sure to be ogled at all the time.
Foreigners or touristy looking people are allowed by the locals to walk to the front side of the stands to get a better view. If you are carrying an SLR, you are moses, for the crowd parts infront of you to make way and help you get a better shot!

Let the Race Begin:

There are teams from various clubs and affiliations, which only the locals are aware of. Some of the men carry soft drinks laced with the happy potion and pass it around. After some of the happy potion goes in, they start singing and chanting boisterously cheering their own teams ahead! The cheering rises and falls in rhythm with people carrying the plastic whistles and horns whenever something happens or doesn’t happen!

You better carry some drinking water and wear the right clothing as it’s not possible to get out of the pavilion once you are in and you might have to sit down on the damp floor to let people behind you get a view of the race. Policemen are deployed in all stands as some of these gatherings have got rough and violent in the past. This time there was great order in the crowd.

The Umpire boat does a survey of the waters and once done, it waves a white flag signaling the beginning of the race. All the boats then travel to the starting point one after the other amidst roaring cheers from the audience.

Some of the boats are unbelievably long: with over 100 feet and carrying 100+ men, and are said to be the longest water vessels, used for sporting purpose, in the world. In centre of the boats, you can see men with drums or long wooden poles hitting the base of the boat to create beats with rhythmic intervals. This helps the rowers to maintain their timing and sync their movements for maximum speed.

Once the race begins, these boats compete with each other and it’s quite a sight to see these men row in unison with beats and trying to outdo each other. These races amidst the picturesque setting of coconut trees and placid waters of the lake make it a terrific vista!
The races typically take about 2 hours to complete. It is quite a spectacle to watch the tight competition between the boats close to the finishing line. The audience erupts into cheers and the trumpets blow continuously till one of the boats reaches the end line.
There are series of races based on lots and at the end of the races, the winner is announced based on the timing and handed over the Great Nehru Trophy which is a rolling trophy passed on over years.  
The current winner of 2013 has been winning it for last 3 years and was quite the favorite among the locals.
Can be better:
Though the arrangements were kind of adequate. The number of people estimated to view the races is around 2-2.5 lakhs who are crowded into the stands and some are forced to sit on the damp floor (like us) and others are forced to stand Jostling into each other. It can be a problem sometimes when you are travelling with kids and women.
Since its an event of international repute, our Tourism ministry can do much more to make the experience better for the audience and also to use it to promote Tourism during this off-season !
1. Organise the stands in a better fashion.
2. Ensure proper communication about the tickets and other arrangements for the event and publicise it in India and abroad adequately.
3. Help people build some connect with the competing teams with their brief history and other details available on the internet or by distributing brochures along with the tickets.
4. For the common stands, they can charge a nominal fee and utilize the money to make the stands a little cleaner and comfortable.
5. Be a little more organized and control the chaos !



17 May 2013

Differences in Shia and Sunni prayers

Gulliver's travels contains one episode where Liliput and Blufescu are at war with each other as they hold different views as to which end of an egg must be broken first - Little or Big.

Differences between Shia and Sunni :

The Shia (or Shiatul Ali) are the 'Party of Ali' or those who believed Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, as the rightful successor of the Prophet. The Sunnis did not regard him as the rightful successor.

1. Shia Muslims pray three times a day and combine Maghrib and Isha salat whereas Sunni Muslims pray five times a day.
2. Sunni Muslims fold their arms whereas Shia Muslims do not fold their arms during namaz.
3. Shia Muslims add “Khayr al amaal” whereas Sunni Muslims add “Nawm.”
4. Sunni Muslims touch their heads to the ground whereas Shia Muslims use a wooden block or tablet of clay to rest their heads during prostration.
5. Shia Muslim scholars prohibit the use of word Amen during the namaz whereas Sunni Muslims consider it as a must.

6.Shia sit comfortably on the folded feet whereas Sunni sit on twisted foot and so on.

For these differences, we blow up each other ! !

Heard somewhere: If i am asked to summarise last 2000 years in 2 words, my reply would be : Religion, Science.
While science took us to the moon, religion gave us crusades and extremism - not only in islam but in christianity, hinduism and many religions too.

DISCLAIMER: I was going through this on purely academic interest and reserve no judgement on the following. Hope no one issues a fatwa in my name.

14 October 2012

Top 10 Led Zeppelin songs

Led Zeppelin created music which is truly one of its kind. I can hear them in an infinite loop without ever getting bored.
Though difficult to pick top 10 songs ... in no particular order are:

1. Going to California
2. Tangerine
3. When the levee breaks down
4. Whole lotta love
5. Lemon song
6. Immigrant song of coz
7. Stairway to heaven
8. Good times, Bad times
9. Heartbreaker
10. Ramble on !

29 August 2012

Religion. Identity. Existence.

Those who experience constant happiness are bored of it, those who are not happy are constantly pained by it.

We tend to measure our lives more often by things that we do not or can not have, often remembering our failures more often than our successes.

But that’s the truth of life, successes will be few and far in between and we must appreciate the journey between them.

Though when conscious, most of might brush these essential questions as imaginary hypothetical or philosophical musings.

But deep down inside, we all are trying to find out who we are, and what is the bloody purpose of this life. Does it actually mean anything, Am I supposed to accomplish something while trying to stay alive ??

Some take these questions too deeply and become either philosophers or religious or go insane. Most of us though are able to keep It below the conscious surface and pretend to ignore it.

To come over these questions is the precise reason, we have invented the religion… most of the religions in their own strange ways, try to explain these questions . Since most of the religions were invented much before we even discovered that the earth goes around the moon, these are somewhat bizarre imaginations of the men of long gone days. And with time, as these were passed on, each generation added its own imagination, and we now have to bear the burden of imaginations of about 200 generations, and in some other religions much more than that!

Very few men create their own independent identities on basis of their genius or exceptional luck. The masses however need their own bit of identity too. That’s where the religion steps in and tells them that your life is not futile and meaningless. Nothing drives human beings more than a ‘divine’ purpose. This strategy was ofcourse shamelessly during the innumerable so called holy wars in the medieval times and since we don’t tend to learn, is still being used all across the world in various forms and for more various purposes. The key strategy however tends to remain the same: exploit in name of religion.

To create an identity, we have to differentiate from others. The most striking differentiation being in the appearance. Since the Jews had long beards and hair, the Christians began to do the opposite. The tribals in the Arabian peninsula had no beards and longer moustaches. Hence the prophet ordered his men to grow beards and have shorter moustaches. The main idea was to distinguish his own followers from the others. The drive was more political and military than anything else. When Hinduism and islam threatened to engulf Sikhs into their own fold, by claiming that it was just an offshoot of their religion, the last Guru ordered Sikhs to entirely revamp their appearance. They were to sport beards , long hair and a small weapon all the time, which is characterized by the five k’s supposed to be on a Khalsa sikh all the time. Thus a religion creates some sort of identity, without which one would be as lost as being nameless. It gives an identity to even those who reject religion entirely.

And in it’s name, so many of us seek purpose and a justification to our actions. It also proves that the psychological drivers are much more powerful than the material ones, well some might argue … not always!

If one goes through all the holy books of the major religions, atleast briefly, it is absolutely stupefying how so innumerable number of wise sane people are driven into a fervor just based on the writings and the sayings of a few men, however great they might have been. The fact that their actual thoughts might have undergone infinite mutations and propaganda driven changes, goes completely unnoticed.

With the rise of science, the number of atheists is growing and at the same very time, so is the number of fanatics. Well in the end then …. Is our existence totally Sisyphean or indeed has some divine purpose ? ?

30 January 2011

Thotlakonda and Bojjannakonda budhist sites

Thotlakonda: Vishakhapatnam was once upon a time a great hub for budhist activities. We can find many ancient budhist sites nearby. The most famous being the Thotlakonda site. It is located on the very scenic sea side drive towards Bheemli. The ruins of the stupas and the quarters of the monks are located on a hill with a splendid view of hills on one side and the sea on the other.
Bojjannakonda rideMost of the travels i have been doing lately in coastal andhra were in cabs / buses / trains. I had been longing for the rush of freedom which only zooming my bike can give.
I located Bojjanna konda which was around 50 kms from Vizag. The pics on the net looked a little promising. So i just picked my jacket and got onto my bike.
The usually crowded highway was clear and i could happily cruise on 100 kmph without many breaks. The site is located just before entering Anakapalle from the highway near a village called Sankara which derives its name from Sangharam.
The ruins are believed to be dating around 4th century AD. The site acutally comprises of two adjacent hills called Bojjannakonda and Lingalakonda. That was the peak of activity, and historians believe after that era it decreased due to the rise of hinduism.
The main stupa is rock cut and encased in a brick structure.There are many rock cut caves which were possibly used for meditation or as a center of learning. There are many miniature Stupa like structures on the hill adjacent to Lingalakonda.
During the excavation they found many coins and earthenware dating to that era. One would expect them to be displayed near the site in a small museum, but despite being a protected site by the ASI... there is hardly anything except a board mentioning about the site briefly.
These sites were discovered in late 80's and pushed the history of Vizag back by 2000 years. Some even say that Vishakhapatnam derives its name from an ancient but very famous Budhist monk.