April 26, 2016

Bangladesh : A Neighbour's Perspective

Captured Off Mumbai Coast

Bangladesh is one such country which many people wouldn't have visited. The main reason for negligible international tourist traffic into this country is the complete absence of world class monuments/places etc which would have attracted them in the first place. So on enquiring with numerous local residents on the places of interests, I always drew a blank. I had visited Bangladesh on 2 occasions and on both occasions it was for business purpose. The first impression of travelling in the streets of Dhaka is the frustrating traffic jams and next being people everywhere. And you can assume the gravity of the situation when the person describing this resides in Bangalore, a place where traffic jams are as common as the sun rising in the east. Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world (apart from the city states like Singapore etc ), hence as expected you cannot escape from the crowd. 

Bangladesh is a muslim majority country (90%) and was liberated from Pakistan (with India's help), after the army of the present day Pakistan committed autocracies on the local Bangla people in the year 1971. In my opinion the population of Bangladesh identify themselves as Bengali first, rather than muslims. Hence this makes the majority of the population liberal in their thoughts. But unfortunately of late, this country has been in news for the assassinations carried out by IS agents, of famous bloggers who had been expressing their liberal views.  

Skyline Of Dhaka
The foremost factors which can make Bangladesh very attractive among the tourists is the food and shopping. Food is primarily non-veg, hence making a person like me who is a vegetarian non-adventurous in exploring the various options. Shopping wise Bangladesh has numerous garment industries which supply clothes to various international chains all around the world. Hence you can expect to get a very good deal during your shopping endeavours. Further majority of the population understand/speak Hindi, because of their former connection to Pakistan and of late the popularity of the Bollywood movies. 

Thanks to the population density and the narrow roads, the jams within the city are real pain in the ass. With a population of close to 168 million people, the only job centre in Bangladesh is the Dhaka city. Hence because of this everyone migrates to this lone city resulting in crumbling of its infrastructure. I was staying in the most upmarket area of Dhaka, the Gulshan region wherein you can find all the major embassies. Even in these areas I used to take close to an hour to traverse 8-9 kms. This city allows the usage of cycle rickshaws and when you augment that with the narrow roads, you end up with traffic moving at the pace of the cycle rickshaws. 

Anyway end of the day the people of Bangladesh are very warm and welcoming. And that is what really matters whenever you are visiting another country as a guest. And the single aspect wherein they impressed me, was the fact that they stand in queue for the lift everywhere, which unfortunately is not a practise in many countries including India. You can see greenery everywhere especially when flying over the city of Dhaka, due to the abundance of water especially from the Ganga and the Brahmaputra river flowing through the entire length and breadth of the country. 

April 15, 2016

Nagarhole : The Call Of the Wild

Nagarhole is projected as the national park with the highest density of tigers anywhere in India and therefore the chances of sighting a tiger in the wild is quite high. Hence getting attracted to the better odds and the best season for sighting (which being summer), we decided to make our way to Nagarhole forest. Finding accommodation inside the forest is a very expensive affair. There are some resorts near the Kabini reservoir and they charge a bomb for that. Hence we decided to find accommodation on the western side of the forest near to Kutta town. After our tour of Somnathapura we reached Mysore , had a sumptuous brunch at a cozy restaurant known as Jalpaan. 

Inside the forest

From Mysore we started towards Hunsur and after Hunsur we took a diversion towards Nagarhole national park. Sighting animals like spotted dears, elephants etc. is quite easy in this park even on the main public roads passing through it. Hence 2 wheelers are banned entry from this park , because there have been instances wherein elephants have attacked them. After registering at the check-post we entered the park, driving slowly and enjoying the ride. There were a lot of animals that we sighted even before we could reach the safari point. We saw loads of spotted dears, colourful birds and an elephant.

Once we reached the safari centre, we found that there was a huge crowd waiting for their turn. Safari in the evening starts at 3pm and 5pm is the last batch. After waiting for nearly an hour we got the safari ticket for the last batch, wherein they take us deep inside the jungle using mini-cabs run by the forest department. During this safari we spotted huge herds of spotted dears, sambhars, herd of elephants, peacocks, wild boars, bisons etc. Unfortunately no predators in sight. The safari lasted for an hour or so and costed 300 per person. Post safari we made our towards Kutta town , which comes as soon as the Nagarhole forest limits end. 

We had booked a room at Stay Simple Bison Manor, which I consider to be very good and value for money. It is around 2 kms from the town amidst coffee plantations, with decent roads all the way till the hotel. It is an old bungalow converted into a hotel and we really enjoyed the calm and serene surroundings. Night was chilly, even when Bangalore was shimmering with 35+ temperature. In the morning we went for a walk in the surrounding estate exploring the natural surroundings and came across thousands and thousands of coffee plant flowers in full bloom. It was a pretty sight to watch. 

Coffee Flower !!!!!!
Iruppu Falls
Following our breakfast, we moved towards Iruppu falls. Thanks to the long weekend the falls was teeming with tourists and the water flow was considerable less because of the summer season setting in. But still we enjoyed playing under the falls, getting gently massaged by the thousands of tiny water droplets. After spending an hour at this falls we decided to try our luck for safari at Kabini river lodge, wherein they take tourists in a different section of the forest, flanking the kabini river. But by the time we reached the place, we got to know that it was completely booked by the surrounding super luxurious resorts and there was no empty slots. Hence disappointed regarding not getting lucky with a second safari we made our way back to Mysore and then back to Bangalore. Being a wildlife lover who hates to see animals locked up in cages, my dream is to see an alpha - tiger in the wild , but unfortunately wasn't lucky this time around. Hopefully will get lucky the next time :).

Kabini Backwaters

April 14, 2016

Somnathapura : The Last Of The Hoysalas

With 3 Garbgudi. 3rd one not visible
Somnathpura is a hidden gem for those interested in temple architecture and  just about 140km from Bangalore. Even though the size of the canvas is not as big as those found in Belur or Halebid, the quality of the carvings in here can easily match those found in its more famous counterparts. Another important fact to remember is that, this is the last standing temple buitl by the Hoysala dynasty which is still preserved. This temple was built in the mid-13th century and it took nearly 50 years to complete this work of art. But the sad part is it was in use only for another 50 odd years before it was destroyed during the raids of Deccan sultanate.

Banana Flower

So on our way to Nagarhole, we decided to take a detour and visit Somanathapura too. The initial plan was to take Mysore road, have a great breakfast among the innumerable number of eateries lined up and then move towards Somanathapura via Maddur and Malavalli. But thanks to the long weekend, even before we could enter Mysore road we encountered a never ending jam. After consulting the google maps and getting to know the traffic snarls in this particular route leading all the way to Mysore , we made a quick getaway into NICE road and then into Kanakpura road. This was probably our best decision for the day. Kanakpura road had very minimal traffic and also well maintained. We averaged close to 90+ non-stop throughout the entire journey. But on the downside we couldn't find any decent eateries and hence had to reach Mysore for our brunch.

Anyhow just before reaching Mysore there is a diversion towards Somanathpura. This temple town was peaceful, with very minimal commercialization in sight. We employed a guide to take us around and to explain the intricacies of the place. He charged 300 bucks for his services. There are so many interesting features of this temple. For starters there are 3 garbagudis , arranged in a star formation which makes it all the more unique. For those interested to know Belur has 1, Halebidu has 2. Further this temple was not directly built by the ruling king, but by a local chieftain named Somanatha . Hence I assume there was pressure on him not to make this place grander than Belur or Halebid in terms of grandeur and scale.

Some of this things which are etched on the walls include very detailed events from the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. Some sections of the temple even has carvings from the Kamasutra. Hence according to the guide the walls of the temple acted as pages of knowledge for those who didnt know the art of reading and writing in that era. Hence hiring a govt certified guide will make things interesting. Another interesting aspect were the carvings on the roof of the temple. One can see the flower of a banana tree (considered to be very auspicious in Hinduism) shown in different stages of bloom.

After spending close to 2 hrs in this peaceful place it was time to move onwards on our journey. We finally got the opportunity to visit this after missing out on it for close to 4 previous trips.  I highly recommend visiting this place for 2 reasons. First for the unique temple architecture and second for the tranquil surroundings.

March 3, 2016

Off The Beaten Track : Belum Caves And Gandikota

On the final day of our trip we had decided to thread an off beaten path. We decided to visit Belum Caves and Gandikota , which are yet to gain popularity in the tourist circles. The major reason being that these places of interest are pretty isolated in terms of proximity to other tourist attractions as well as to civilization. The nearest major city is Anantapur, which is close to 85km from Belum caves. Yet it was an awesome experience exploring these unique attractions all by ourselves, without being bothered by anyone.

We set off quite early from Anantapur after having our breakfast. We even got our lunch packed, since we knew there is quite a dearth of good restaurants after leaving Anantapur. The route between Anantapur and Belum caves is good and for the majority of the section it is a double road, and the cherry on the cake is it is not even tolled :). But the landscape is very barren, almost resembling a desert, simmering with heat. We were in the district of Kadappa , land of the famous Kadappa granite. They are numerous industries processing this stone. Seems like this is the primary economy and job provider, apart from huge cement factories from all the major players.

We reached the entrance of Belum caves at around 10.30 am. These caves open from 10 am to 5 pm. And surprisingly we were the first tourists for the day. After getting the entrance tickets, we got hold of a guide who is provided "free" of charge. Free because officially he is not supposed to be paid by the visitors, but unofficially they expect a good tip for guiding you into the underworld maze. Thankfully they pump air into the caves at strategic places and hence it doesn't get that hot. And the walk inside the cave is suitable even for those who are aged. The interiors of the cave has been "sanitized" with a lot of ambient lights , unlike the one in Malaysia wherein they have tried to preserve the cave in its original form along with its inhabitants. Hence as expected Belum caves is void of any local fauna, except for some stray bats which loose their way and end up inside.

These caves were discovered in the late 19th century by a British surveyor. Later on, in the late 20th century a group of Germans explored and mapped these caves. A total of 3.5 kms of the cave has been explored , but only 1.5km of these caves is open for tourists. The cave at its deepest point is around 150 ft from ground level. These limestone caves have been carved due to erosion by an ancient underground river, hence resulting in halls and tunnels of giant proportions and smooth walls. 

The important places of attraction within the cave are the pathalganga , the deepest point of the cave wherein we can see a small rivulet flowing, the dyana mandira, which was terribly hot due to the fact that air was not pumped in, Kotilinga chamber, where the stalactite and stalagmite formations are in the shape of shivalinga and so on. This tour lasted for an hour and half and was exciting. After resting at the entrance we were again on our way to Gandikota. Btw, there is a giant statute of Buddha near the entrance of the caves.

All the Important Structures Of Gandikota
Gandikota is famous for 2 things. One is the ruins of the temple of the Vijayanagara era, hence getting the tag of mini Hampi and the second is the gorge over river Penna, which resembles the Grand canyon in US. Hence India's own Grand Canyon :). The distance from Belum caves to Gandikota is around 65kms and in decent condition. Once we take an exit to Gandikota from Jammalamadugu, the road becomes totally isolated, void of any traffic, and providing some great views. We reached this place in peak afternoon and the first thing we were greeted on entering this village is the Fort wall encircling the entire village. On one side you have the impregnable fort wall and on the other side you have the unscalable gorge. It was fun driving the car through the numerous gates of the fort wall , lined up in a zig zag manner. 

Inside the Granary
Snaking through the fort gate

One can drive the car all the way to the small parking area, close to the Jumma Masjid after crossing the village. Immediately we went to gorge view point and it was breathtaking in every sense. It was like a very deep gash perpetrated by the river Penna. One gets a birds eye view, with a drop of nearly 500m down to the water level. The other structures of interest within this village are the Ranganatha temple ruins, Jumma masjid and the huge granary. One can also get a good view of the reservoir. After spending close to an hour at this place it was time to return back to Bangalore. The drive back to Bangalore was event-less, apart from region around Kadri, which has lush green fields and forests, like an oasis in the middle of the desert, and very pleasing to the eyes, with numerous lakes brimming with life.

Green Kadiri

February 24, 2016

Heritage Tour Of Karnataka : Hampi

If one has to short-list the best heritage sites in India, then Hampi would definitely be in the top 3. Imagine an entire city dating back to the 16th century, preserved in a pretty decent condition. The time required to explore these ruins can vary anywhere from a single day to even a week. It all depends on one's interest and patience to keep on exploring. For lesser mortals like me, a couple of days would be sufficient , because after that one becomes saturated with an overdose of temple ruins. Moreover this was my second visit to this world heritage site after a gap of nearly 5 years. Hence I was the de-facto guide :P.

Tungabadra River

After having breakfast from a darshini in Hospet we drove to Hampi which is at a distance of around 14km. Hospet actually has more stay and food options when in comparison with Hampi, since there are certain restrictions for construction within the protected area. After driving through lush green fields we reached the core of Hampi, the Virupakshi temple. This is one of the only temples within Hampi, wherein daily pooja takes place and also from where one can hire guides, autos etc. This 16th century temple complex is huge especially the main gopura. Interestingly Hampi was one of the largest cities in the world during its prime. According to some estimates it was the second largest in the world during its prime in  early 16th century.  It was laid to ruins during the raid of the Deccan Sultanates, who defeated the Vijayanagara empire in late 16th century.

Hampi is like a goldmine for people who are interested in ancient architecture. Since we had already covered Badami, Aihole, Pattadakal and Bijpaur so far in this trip, we were a bit saturated. Hence it was decided to visit the major sites of interest and finish Hampi within a day. When in Hampi, in any direction you look, you can find a monument , gleaming with glory. We explored the inner sanctum of Virupakshi temple, including the room which acts as a pin hole camera, projecting an inverted image of the main gopura on a wall. We even visited the banks of River Tungabhadra. As expected tourists would be pestered by people, who would offer to be their guide in the surroundings of Virupakshi temple, but once you leave this place you can explore the other sites in peace.

Elephant Stables
Our first stop was the Kadilekalu Ganesha, which is a very huge Ganesha statue, fully enclosed. From there we moved to the Krishna temple. This temple was peaceful, in contrast with the hustle and bustle of Virupaskhi temple. We explored the outer walls and the inner sanctum , which however is void of any deity.  From Krishna temple we moved to the Ugranarasimha statue, which unfortunately has its hands chopped off, probably during the raid. Nearby is the giant Shivalinga which is always submerged in water due to the fact that it is built on a flowing water channel. Moving further we came across temple which is projected to be underground, but the fact is it is built just below the normal ground level and nothing more. This temple was always flooded with water, on both the occasions that I have visited it.

The next destination was the royal enclosure , which used to house the members of the royal family and their servants, guards etc. This place is ticketed and once we enter this place one can get a good idea of the type of palaces that used to exist within this high walled enclosure. There is the most prominent Lotus Mahal and bases of other buildings which have subsequently crumbled. According to legend each of these buildings used to house a different wife of the King. Behind the Queen's palace is the huge elephant stable. On top of stable is a lot of symbolism used, pertaining to different religions. Hindusim , Islam, Jain, and Buddhism have been projected showing the tolerant nature of the Vijayanagara empire. There is also an ASI museum within this high walled enclosure and it was mildly interesting, having very old photos of the monuments when they were just discovered and before restoring them to the present state.

View from Mahanavami Dibba

From the personal area , we moved towards the official area. This area mainly comprises of buildings wherein the King used to conduct his official business. These included the Mahanavami Dibba, the underground secret meeting room and the pushkarni, apart from the ruins of other buildings. One gets a good birds eye view of the surrounding structures from the top of Mahanavami Dibba, which infact was built to celebrate the victory of King Krishnadevaraya, over a kingdom in present day Orissa. We visited other nearby location which included a grand Queens bath. One thing which did bother me was the distance between the queen's palace and the queen's bath !!!!! :D :D

And after finishing all these places, it was time to visit the icon of Hampi. The stone chariot enclosed within the Vijaya Vittala temple. Hence travelled quite some distance to reach the parking spot of this complex. Had to cover the last 1km in Govt provided electric vehicles, which according to the locals was in order to reduce pollution in its vicinity and for its protection. As usual the stone chariot was getting all the attention. The other interesting part of this temple complex is the musical pillars of the Ranga mantapa. Unfortunately this area has been cordoned off for the tourists , for some renovation. The other mantaps also have these musical pillars which when hit softly with hand gives a very distinct musical note. And no two pillars give the same tone. But the main mantap had these musical pillars crafted with much more precision, only making us wonder what it might be like to hit these pillars. These pillars give this particular notes based on the fact that the heavy stone roof puts too much strain, resting on these quite delicate pillars. The basic concept is that of a guitar string :).

Musical Pillars
Hence after the completion of the enchanting second tour of Hampi, it was time to bring down the curtains on the Heritage tour of Karnataka. We moved towards Anantapura for the night, to explore Belum Caves and Gandikota , the following day.

A Glorious Sunset

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