Can a door to a house tell you more about the people living behind it? Can it represent a person? Can it frame the essence of the family living in it? Can it tell you a story? As I walked through the back alleys of Essaouira’s medina, I saw the the most prettiest doors to the houses, some lived in, some abandoned. It begged to me frame these few questions every time I clicked a door and helped me tell story to myself every time I sighted a pretty door.
To create the stories behind the door, one has to understand the origins of Essaouira. The city is a cultural confluence, the seamless co-existence of the old and the new. The fortified ramparts of the port city (Mogador in medieval times) and the blue moored fishing boats impart the old world charm whereas the clean well kept and cobblestoned medina is bustling with art galleries, boutiques and cafes that speaks of the modern essence of the city. The confluence is a heady mix, transporting you to an allure of an European city but pulling you back every moment with the sights and sounds of an Arabic city, be it with delicacies lining the streets or the soothing prayers playing over the loudspeakers of a few mosques’ dotting the medina. The hues of blue and white of the medina makes it an unmistakable fishing/ port town. Be it with the blue fishing boats moored on the port or the blue doors set against white limestone washed walls, the city is all blue and white – calming and relaxing.
As I let my imagination run wild, below are some of the stories that popped in my head when I saw these doors. Behind every door was a story waiting to be told.
A note on the plight and future of Circus. Scenes from Asiad Circus, New Delhi.
The photo was featured by National Geographic as part of their daily dozen top shots on 16th Oct – See here.
A few months ago, a photographer friend and I went to get some behind the scenes action at an Indian Circus group – Asiad Circus – who were performing in Delhi. After much cajoling, we eventually ended up talking to the owner and the artistes and were pretty moved and overwhelmed by their plight.
The reluctance towards talking to outsiders is quite palpable. The owners and artistes are very wary of talking to either media or the general public as it is difficult for them to gauge on which side of the debate the other person is coming from. Empathy for their situation is often lacking.
Years ago, under NGO and public pressure, circuses were forced to give up usage of animals in the circus. Lions, Tigers, elephants etc which were the big draws for children to drag their parents to a circus, had to be given up. Along with that went the traffic and many big circuses had to wind up with the falling footfalls. The ones remaining are finding it hard to cope up with high rentals, intense scrutiny of officials (often having to end up paying bribes for nothing) and rising costs of running a circus. The problem of finding artistes is also compounding the problem. Many artistes in yesteryears were homegrown in circus, raised in the circus from their childhood and groomed to be performance artistes. With new laws on child safety and labour, circuses can’t groom young children anymore to be artistes. To keep the footfalls going, many hire foreign artistes from Russia and Kenya to bring in the novelty and wow factor but that also impacts the running costs of the circus. Years of government neglect and support in providing the circus the right technology to upgrade themselves have left them with no means to continue in the business. Artistes are finding themselves jobless, often having spent their entire life in the circus and now finding themselves with no other employable skills and nowhere else to go.
Both sides of the debate on the plight of circus are quite valid. But in these times, the debate has to be constructive towards solving the problem. The need of the hour is for the government to provide cutting edge technology to these circuses to upgrade themselves, reduce the entertainment tax and rentals that can help the circuses survive. Rehabilitation programs with skill development and deployment should be put in place to help the artistes to settle into a life beyond the what was their home, the circus.
Pangot is one of the best places to do birding and is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The place has almost 250 species of birds, both resident and the migratory birds that come here. The best season for bird watching is from Nov-Mar.
How to get there: Pangot is about 15-20kms from Nainital.
“Dear Emily, my only wish would be that you could make a trip over the great ocean. The land is golden and the people are so gracious and they have taught me so many things about kin and kindness. Hope it won’t be long until we see each other soon my dear. Love, Frasier.” ~ A postcard from Burma. 1st Feb, 1948.
Inle Lake is nestled in the Shan Plateau, surrounded by hills and home to the Intha people, as well as some Shan, Taungyo, Pa-o and Danu ethnicities. One of the most iconic features of Inle lake are the fishermen who have an unusual technique of rowing their boats using their feet. Wearing traditional wide trousers, shirts and conical hats, the fishermen have become an iconic sight at the lake. Carefully balancing themselves on one feet, they row the boats with their other leg wrapped around a paddle oar. They carry a huge conical net which they use to trap the fish and occasionally spear them through the opening on top of these nets. The locals are devout Buddhists who live in simple houses of wood and woven bamboo, raised above the lake water on stilts. Though the primary occupation is fishing, there are farmers as well who grow their produce on floating gardens made of grass and seaweed which is just so amazing to see.
A one week road trip to Spiti Valley via Manali – Kalpa Kinnaur – Nako – Tabo – Kaza- Key – Kibber – Langza – Hikkim – Dhankar – Lhalung – Chandratal – Manali
The beauty of Lahaul-Spiti valley is overshadowed by the interest in Leh, its flashy famous neighbour. Hence Spiti remains untouched by the millions of tourists who throng to Leh every year. Spiti means the Middle Land – the land between India & Tibet. A melting pot of Indo -Tibetan culture, splendid views of untouched natural beauty, stark barren landscapes dotted by green oasis of villages, picturesque old Buddhist monasteries perched on top of the hills, gorgeous blue lakes and clear skies for stargazing, a trekkers paradise; Spiti has all this to offer and much more to travellers. Continue reading “A road trip through the Middle Land – Spiti Valley”→
I must have been 13 years old when I first read about Lahaul – Spiti and the picturesque Chandratal lake. There it was on a travel magazine, a double cover spread, capturing the majestic beauty of the semi-frozen lake and the snow-capped mountains in peak winter. Me, the young untraveled soul at that time, couldn’t fathom that such a beautiful place could exist in our country! I believe it subconsciously spurred my innate desire to travel. Although I used to dream of all the places I read about in my history textbooks and desired to see them one day, but if ever there was a turning point or the point Continue reading “The igniter of my wanderlust – Chandratal Lake”→
On a recent road trip to Spiti Valley, had the opportunity to spot a few more Himalayan birds, different from the ones I had spotted a few months ago in Rumbak valley in Ladakh. (See the birds here: Birds of Rumbak )
There were beautiful birds like rock buntings, european goldfinches, common rose finches, red fronted serins, long tailed shrikes etc.
Which one is your favorite?
How to get to Kaza:
Kaza in Spiti valley, Himachal Pradesh, can be accessed via road from Manali. It is approximately 200kms away.
Thoughts while crowd-watching the evening humdrum of Yangon, Myanmar
There is no other better way to immerse yourself in a new city than something which does not involve spending long hours walking the busiest streets and watching the locals. Streetwalking gives you an inside view of the culture as you watch the locals get on with their daily lives. You are just a mute spectator, with the fortune to witness a part of the lives of people going by. As you feel the drama of the scene presented in front of you, you stop to imagine and concoct stories in your head. As you absorb the culture, sight, sounds and aroma, questions starting forming your head: What must that person selling the fruits be like? Will he go back to a family to have dinner? When did he come to the city? What are his dreams for his kids? What would be his favourite fruit? You are transported to this exciting world where the lines between reality and imagination begin to blur. You are in the moment, witnessing, assessing, absorbing and judging all the drama in front of you and yet in a parallel world you are curious, imaginative and telling stories to yourself. It is not without a doubt, my favourite pastime when I travel. After all when can I be a receptive, curious, imaginative storyteller. More imaginatively, the game I play in my own head is: What is he/ she thinking? Absorb the scene and form a thought bubble of the protagonist. Be curious. Tell stories.
A trek of a lifetime to spot the Snow Leopard in Rumbak valley, Ladakh
It is the most elusive cat to spot, the snow leopard or the grey ghost or the ghost of the mountains or as the locals call it, the Shan. This very elusivity drew us to undertake an adventure of a lifetime, braving harsh terrains and sub-zero temperatures, to trek all the way upto the Rumbak valley in Hemis National Park in Ladakh in search of the snow leopard. With 30 tiger safaris under my belt without having spotted a single tiger till date, the trek was an attempt to spot the rarest of the wild cats and break my wildcat jinx. And boy! Did my jinx break and how!
There is a reason the snow leopards are called the grey ghosts. Snow leopards live in an extremely difficult terrain, walking along cliffs and slopes and living in sub-zero temperatures in high altitudes upto 6000m. They usually feed on blue sheep for Bharals and in those high altitudes, they need to be agile and have impeccable camouflage and that makes it really hard to spot these cats.
Without any serious trekking experience under any of our belts, my group of friends and I set out to do undertake this moderate to hard 10 day trek in the bone-chilling cold winters of Ladakh. The Rumbak Valley is the mecca for snow leopard spotting. Every winter, the severe cold drives the Blue Sheep, the staple diet of the snow leopards, to lower altitudes in search of vegetation to feed on. This in turn draws the Snow Leopards down the high mountains, enabling the visitors to spot these elusive creatures at lower altitudes. Between Jan to March, scores of nature lovers descend upon Rumbak Valley to get a chance to spot these elusive creatures. We also arrived in Leh this March in search of this Grey Ghost.
After a 2 day acclimatisation at Leh, we drove to Zinchen, the last point of the motorable road to Rumbak. After that is a 5-6 hour hike to Rumbak Valley passing by the Husing campsite. The hike passes by frozen streams and picturesque mountains and loads of Blue sheep could be spotted on the way.
Upon arrival at the valley, we had a packed lunch and we were welcomed with spotting on a scope set up to track the Lynx. The Lynx is even more rare creature to spot than the snow Leopard in these parts of the world. I was hopeful that with this spotting, my wildcat jinx was broken and was eager to spot the snow leopard.
We progressed to our homestay in Rumbak Village. As the night approached, the temperatures dropped to -15 to -20C. Our only saviour was the Bukhari or the Ladakhi room heaters which burn wood to keep the room warm. After a difficult first few hours contemplating if I had mountain sickness with the body ache and headache, I passed out into a restful sleep.
The bright next day brought hope and we made our way slowly to the spotting point after an hour’s trek. The whole morning passed uneventfully with the no signs of any movement of the wildcats except the spotting of the blue sheep by the dozens! We struggled to keep our hands and toes warm in the severe cold. We were about to give up but with setting sun, we were rewarded with the spotting of out lifetime! A male snow leopard walked on the ridge of a mountain a km away for almost 30 mins! It was a young male and it’s mating call reverberated through the mountains! It was an experience covering sight, sound and motion!
Now that we had seen what we had come looking for, the next 4 days were spent trekking to different directions from the village in the hope of spotting more wild animals. Though we didn’t see any more snow leopards, we saw much more fauna of Ladakh. On one day, we trekked west from the village and saw a Red Fox at quite a distance, basking itself in the sun. On the way back, we saw a dead red fox, which was being fed by the Black-billed Magpies. The remains of this red fox were the object of the fight between a Lammergeier and the Magpies which kept us enthralled all afternoon. One another day we trekked up to Yurutse Village, a one household village on the Markha Valley trek route, for an up-close encounter with the Lynx. We ended up sighting many other animals like a Yak,Wooly hare etc and some of us had some fun skidding down the frozen river on their bums. We also spent time birding and capturing many birds of prey like the Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle, Lammergeier etc. After 5 days at Rumbak, we trekked back to Zinchen and drove to Ulley where we were rewarded with spotting of Himalayan Wolf & the Ibex. With so much that we saw, I couldn’t have asked for more, especially since my wildcat jinx was now finally broken!
How to get there & where to stay:
Leh is connected by flights and can also be accessed by road from Srinagar or Manali. Rumbak Valley is in the Ladakh region. The motorable road ends at Zinchen from where one needs to trek to Husing Camp. Further up after a couple of hours trek is Rumbak village. Rumbak Valley is famous for snow leopard sightings. Either stay at Husing campsite or in one of the many government regulated homestays in the Rumbak village.
The Rumbak Valley in the Hemis National Park in Ladakh is known for the elusive Snow Leopard spotting. Besides the snow leopard, which of course we were fortunate enough to spot, the area is dotted with many other animal species. Even more elusive to spot is the Lynx, which we could sight only through a scope as the distances were large and our 600mm as rendered completely useless! Even the Red Fox and the Himalayan Wolf could be seen through a scope. Most common amongst the animals is the Blue Sheep or Bharal which is the snow leopard’s staple diet. From the same family, one can also spot the Ibex,Argali and the Urial. Smaller animals like the Wooly Hare and the Pika can also be spotted aplenty.
Birding in Rumbak Valley, Hemis National Park, Jammu & Kashmir, India
On a recent Snow Leopard trek to Rumbak Village in Hemis national park, Ladakh region, I got an opportunity to spot some beautiful birds including some Tibetan species uncommon in other parts of the country. The area is home to many birds of prey like Golden eagle, Lammergeier and Himalayan Griffon vulture which rule the Rumbak valley. Many other local species like Chukar, Tibetan Partridge, Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Snowfinch, Streaked Rosefinch, Robin Accentor dot the valley.
Water Birds: Mallard Ducks, Storks, Common Coots etc.
Birds of Prey: Griffon Vulture, Lammergeier, Golden Eagle
Native Birds: Tibetan Snowcock, Chukar, Tibetan Snowfinch, Rose Snowfinch, Tibetan Partridge etc.
Common Birds: Black Billed Magpie, Robin Accentor, Brown Accentor, Grey Tit, Grey Wagtail, Red Billed Chough etc.
How to get there & where to stay:
Leh is connected by flights and can also be accessed by road from Srinagar or Manali. Rumbak Valley is in the Ladakh region. The motorable road ends at Zingchan from where one needs to trek to Husing Camp. Further up after a couple of hours trek is Rumbak village. Rumbak Valley is famous for snow leopard sightings. Either stay at Husing campsite or at the Rumbak village homestays.
A bird-watching trek to the town of Sattal, located in Uttaranchal, India
The lower Himalayas is home to a hundreds of indigenous birds of India. Adding to the local avian fauna are the migratory birds who make the lower himalayas their home every winter. An opportunity to see such a vast range of birds took me to Sattal. Sattal, the land of seven lakes, is in the lower Himalayan region in the state of Uttaranchal and is home to a vast variety of indigenous & migratory birds, approximately over 230 in number. Over one weekend, I got to see and click over 50 beautiful birds that one can never ever see over the metro skyline.
Where to go: Sattal & Pangot are popular locations for bird watching. Both are at app 300 kms from Delhi and can be accessed by road or rail that goes till Haldwani & Kathgodam.
When to Go: Nov-Feb is best time; the weather is good and the avian population comes to life in the North Indian winter.
Meghalaya is undoubtedly one of the jewels amongst the 7 sisters of Northeast India with its mountainous terrain and year round rainfall that gives it a dense green forest cover, numerous waterfalls that cut deep into the valley and miles of limestone caves. It is not without a reason Meghalaya is called the Abode of Clouds. One can walk though the clouds as almost all the time, there is thick cloud cover, not in the sky, but on the land! Meghalaya is one of the better explored states of northeast due to its accessibility from Assam which enjoys best connectivity with the rest of India. A week in Meghalaya is good enough to get a sampler of the riches the state has to offer.
Day 1 & 2: Shillong
Shillong is a 2 hr. drive from Guwahati. It is the capital city of Meghalaya and was known as ‘Scotland of the East’ by the Britishers due its good weather and mountainous terrain.
What to do:
Umiam Lake is right on the outskirts of Shillong. Nestled amongst the thick pine forest on the hilly terrains surrounding this huge man-made lake, is a getaway like no other – Ri Kynjai resort. Faraway from maddening city crowd and with spectacular views of the lake, peace and tranquillity welcomes you with open arms. Made in beautiful traditional wood, furnished with wood and cane furniture and decorated with stunning artefacts from northeast, the resort has a colonial feel to it and is truly a cosy home away from home. Stunning sunrise from the hills right across the lake will jostle you awake very early in the morning and ensnare you to follow the natural trekking path down the hill to the edge of the lake, the way this landscape is best enjoyed.
Lady Hydari Park is a small delightful park with a mini zoo. Many species of birds like owls, eagles and animals like panthers, monkeys, deer can be found here. Wards lake is a remnant of the colonial-era Shillong. Surrounded by dense green trees, this man made lake has a small bridge and boating facilities. Shillong Golf Course is one the largest golf courses in Asia and is known as the Gleneagles of the East. Surrounded by thick pine forest, the golf course is a beautiful and scenic natural wonder. To know more about north east & its culture, one can visit the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures which is knowledge repository for the region. Butterfly Museum is one of its kind museum devoted to the study & preservation of moths & butterflies. Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians is one of the main and beautiful churches in Shillong. Shillong Peak is the highest point in Meghalaya from where one can get a breath-taking view of the entire Shillong city. Nearby is the Elephant falls or the 3 tier waterfalls. The walking path descends behind the entrance and gentle paved stairs leads one down to each of the 3 waterfalls in succession. Café Shillong is one of the best cafes with good food & great live music every evening.
Shillong is small hill station that needs to be explored languidly. Stroll around the city and watch a slow pace of life go past.
Where to Stay:
Ri Kynjai resort is the best option but is a 45 min drive away from the city. Other economical options are available in the city.
Day 3: Sohra/ Cherrapunjee
Sohra / Cherrapunjee is a 2 hr. drive from Shillong. Sohra or Cherrapunjee as it is popularly called, was once the rainiest place on this earth. The title has now been overtaken by another town called Mawsynram in Meghalaya. The the heavy rainfall has created many natural rock formations and waterfalls throughout the area, which cut deep into the lush, green valley.
What to do:
Many waterfalls dot the surrounding area. The Nohkalikhai falls is about 7 kms from Sohra and is the tallest plunge waterfall in India. The Nohsngithiang waterfalls or the 7 Sisters’ waterfalls is app 4kms from Sohra and is one of the tallest waterfalls in India. Wakaba & Kynrem falls are other beautiful falls around Sohra. Mawsmai caves are the located about 4kms away from Sohra and is one of the beautiful limestone caves in the region that can be explored by a beginner. From the Cherrapunjee valley view point, one can see the deep gorges and valleys of the region. The view point also offers a zip lining adventure overlooking the valley, covering 2400ft at a dizzying height of 500 ft.
Carry an umbrella and walk through this small, pretty town.
Where to Stay:
The Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort or La Kupar are both economical options.
Day 4 & 5: Nongriat
Tyrna village, the starting point of the trek is ½ hr. drive away from Cherrapunjee.
The Living Root Bridges of Nongriat village are one of the manmade wonders, dating back many centuries. The aerial roots of Banyan tree on opposite sides of the river are continuously twisted, given direction and woven together, till it can be shaped and strengthened into a sturdy bridge. This is the only means for the villagers to cross the raging water streams to reach the other side. There are two living root bridges in Nongriat, a single bridge and a double decker bridge.
What to do:
From Tyrna village, trek upto the Nongriat village to the see the Double Decker Living Root Bridge. It is 7000 stair trek to the village & back and will take upto 5 hrs. to complete this. But it will be totally worth the pain to take off your clothes and swim in the river stream by the bridge. Far away from the maddening crowd, you can walk around other trails to nearby villages and take a dip in many waterfalls along the way. It is highly recommended to stay in the village overnight and do another short 2 hr. trek next morning to the Rainbow falls and back. It is supposedly very scenic and highly recommended by all trekkers and locals alike. Chances of spotting an actual rainbow over the waterfalls are very high. If you plan to stay 2 days, carry only bare essentials, leaving rest of your luggage in Sohra as there are no porters and you will have to carry your stuff on your own, up and down the trek.
Where to stay:
If you want to do a day trek, stay in one of the Hotels in Cherrapunjee. To stay in Nongriat, check Serene Homestay as it is a good option. Expect nothing fancy.
Day 6: Mawlynnong
It is a 2 hr drive from Sohra / Cherrapunjee and about a 2 hrs. drive from Shillong. Being credited as Asia’s cleanest village is no mean feat. Mawlynnong is one of the finest examples of sustainable, eco-friendly community living, one that is obsessed with cleanliness & recycling.
What to do:
Walk through the fields of the villagers which are on the hillsides surrounding the village, where they grow betel nut trees & broom-stick plant apart from other smaller crops. Walking through the fields via a paved path, leads one to edge of the hill from where one can see the plains of Bangladesh. The same spectacular view of the Bangladesh plains can be seen in from a tall 80 ft sky view treehouse made within the village itself. A short drive away is the living root bridge, where bamboo tree roots are intertwined and shaped over decades to make a bridge to cross the river. A quaint church plays an important role in the life of the villagers who are all Christians. Small tea shops lining the road made with bamboo & creepers are the perfect places to sit back, relax and feel the nature consuming you in this quaint beatific village. The village doesn’t thrive amongst nature; every effort is made to make nature thrive in this village. Where else will one come across such a village with its winding paved roads, lush greenery, small springs & waterfalls that swell up during monsoons, charming bamboo houses and a notorious obsession for cleanliness & recycling. It is a village to get lost and get consumed by nature. No wonder the board welcoming tourists to the village, proudly proclaims Mawlynnong as ‘God’s Own Garden’. It is indeed a picture of what heaven could look like, on Earth.
Where to stay:
Homestays are available aplenty. Expect basic accommodation & food, nothing fancy.
Day 7: Dawki & back to Shillong
It is a 1.5 hr. drive from Mawlynnong and about a 2 hrs. drive back to Shillong.
Dawki is the last village in Meghalaya, bang on the India – Bangladesh border. India ends where the mountains end and Bangladesh begins where the plains begin. The picture of crystal clear blue river bed & the boats seeming like floating in air, set me on the track to explore Meghalaya.
What to do:
The views of the flat lands of Bangladesh are astonishing beautiful. One can walk up to the Indo- Bangladesh border crossing area and witness a border setting which is very calm & peaceful unlike the energy and emotion charged Wagah border of Indo-Pak. One can see line of trucks ferrying stones to Bangladesh, stretching upto many kilometres. Since it had rained cats & dogs the night before, I couldn’t see the blue waters. Nonetheless it is a sight to behold. Walk down to the riverbed & ask a boat for a boat ride along the river.
Where to stay:
Stay is not required. A comfortable day trip to Dawki can be planned.
I woke up with a start. The clouds thundered, electrifying and streaking the distant skies with lightening, each of which was spaced just seconds away from each other. The rains created a noisy ruckus, pouring over the tin roofs. The noise was spectacularly frightening, as I was startled awake from my disturbed sleep every few minutes, fully shaken. It was as if the heaven was about to fall. Tucked away in a cosy homestay in Mawlynnong in Meghalaya, I tossed and turned all night, Continue reading “God’s Own Garden: Mawlynnong, Asia’s cleanest village”→
It is a matter of great chance, persistence, fortitude and patience that goes into spotting an elusive tiger. Numbered around 3000 in India, each tiger occupies an area it calls home, often spanning more than 40 sq kms. No wonder, the rarity & the dispersion across a wide area, makes a tiger sighting extremely difficult. Of course, the sheer power & the majestic yet ferocious presence that the tiger exudes coupled with the fear it inspires, makes it an exciting thrill to pursue while inducing a greed to increase the chance encounters.
“350 seediyan hai. Pehle neeche phir upar jaati hai, phir village aur bridge aata hai. Ek baar main gaya tha. Uske baad 2-3 din tak bimaar padh gaya. Seedhiyon se nafrat si ho gayi thi (It is 350 odd stairs that go down and then up to the village and the bridge. I did it once and after that , I fell in bed for 2-3 days. I hated the sight of stairs),” muttered Tapan, our driver in Cherrapunjee, once the rainiest place on this earth. From his sombre voice, it was evident that this was his attempt to discourage me from doing the trek to the village, based on his bad experience. The trek to the Living Root bridge of the Nongriat village near Cherrapunjee is not for the weak kneed or the faint hearted as I was soon about to find out.
The living root bridges of Nongriat village are one of the manmade wonders, dating back many centuries. The aerial roots of Banyan tree on opposite sides of the river are continuously twisted, given direction and woven together, till it can be shaped and strengthened into a sturdy bridge. This is the only means for the villagers to cross the raging water streams to reach the other side. There are two living root bridges in Nongriat, a single deck bridge and a double decker bridge.
Dismissing Tapan’s foreboding warning of things to come, I decided to embark upon the trek to the village the next morning. After all it was just 350 steps! What was he talking about! It couldn’t be that bad after all. After reaching the Tyrna village, the starting point on top of the mountain, I found a guide named Phil. Phil was a smiling young lad, right out of school, who was killing time and making some pocket money by offering to guide in the few months he had before he had to join college. The board at Tyrna village indicated a 3km hike to the Nongriat village and some mild alarm bells were set off in my head. 3km and 350 steps didn’t quite add up!
The path to the village is a cemented staircase in middle of a thick jungle, that first reaches the bottom of the valley and then after crossing the river, another flight of stairs upwards lands one at the village. Very casually, we walked down the flight of stairs, enjoying the beauty around. After about ½ hr of walk down the stairs, with knees beginning to become wobbly, I figured we must have actually done double of 350 steps that my driver warned me about. I asked Phil, how many steps were actually there? To my shock, he said 3500! Clearly Tapan didn’t count properly! Well, shoot me, I said. Phil smiled helplessly. How was I even going to get through it, with my knees already wobbling! Walking down was the easy part I figured. Walking up the steep and narrow flight of stairs could be a death wish! Never mind, I would crawl up. But it was a problem for later.
So we continued. The breathtaking hike through the forest was well worth it. The jungle was enveloped with clouds and the morning dew made everything look fresh and beautiful. We saw a few villagers coming up the stairs. One was a little girl in a school-dress, not more than 7-8 years, who was walking up the stairs to go to school! It was very hard to imagine that the young kids did this everyday! Just for basic things like going to school and getting a good education! Soon, we spotted two more villagers who were transporting local produce in heavy sacks strapped to their backs. To see & experience the hardships that the villagers faced day in and day out, was extremely heart wrenching. What made them go up and down the stairs every day? Why couldn’t government make more efforts for them to easily connect with the world outside, like making ropeway trolleys. But observing them gave me the impetus to complete rest of the trek without a whimper.
After the steep flight of stairs down, we arrived at a small village, from where the single root bridge can be accessed. We progressed ahead, arriving at a wobbly iron bridge at the bottom of the valley. Crossing it for the first time, gave me a good scare. While Phil languorously strolled ahead, with wind in his hair and spring in his step, here I was, sweating by litres, clutching the swaying bridge for my dear life and crawling ahead. I did not want to look down at the water stream 30 ft below, for I would have succumbed to my fear of heights and gotten fully paralysed. Miraculously, I survived, only to find another higher and longer iron bridge after a short walk ahead. History repeated itself as this also I survived. Phew!
After a short walk up on another flight of stairs, we arrived at Nongriat village. Nestled in the middle of the jungle was this quaint and clean village, freshly sprayed clean with the shower that had just started. The village is fully off the grid and hence has become a hotspot for trekkers who want to be engulfed by nature. There were a few homestays I found on the way where trekkers esp from abroad were relaxing. It is commendable what the villagers have done to encourage responsible tourism while protecting nature. They have contributed towards a community guesthouse for trekkers, have made large dustbins for collecting waste etc. They respect nature by keeping the village clean. It is a harmonious co-existence of villagers, nature & tourists. A short walk from the village, is the Living Root Bridge. The first view of the root bridge mesmerised me and made the arduous trek fully worth every drop of sweat and every ache in my body. It felt as though I had arrived in paradise. With chirping birds that began to emerge after the downpour, the double decker bridge in middle of a thick jungle, set right across a rumbling waterfall and over a gentle water stream, was a sight to behold. The double bridge was a masterpiece in itself, with intertwined roots made sturdy over centuries. The villagers are working on creating a third deck, by twisting and shaping the roots. Perhaps in a half a century, it would be fully made. The water was so clear, cool and fresh and it was enticing me for relaxing dip. I hadn’t got a change of clothes, so I just made do by sitting with my feet swaying in the water and periodically dipping my face in it. Mesmerized with the bountiful greenery around me, I thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the place amidst the slight drizzle.
Ahh, I so didn’t want to go back. It is quite natural to feel like this in middle of nature, completely off the grid, where one can unburden the stresses of daily life and try to find a rhythm between self & nature. I bumped into a foreigner who completely endorsed my sentiments. He, like me, had come for a day trek and decided to stay back after feeling enchanted by this place. My resort in Sohra doesn’t know where I am, he said very coolly. I wished I could have done the same. But I am a woman with proper plans and it would mean the rest of my trip would have gone for a toss. A small tea shop right next to the bridge was just perfect to have a cup of hot tea and steaming Maggi, before I reluctantly winded my way up.
The rains had cleared up the clouds on the way up and I could see the spectacular landscape of the valley, gasping in awe of how much we had walked. Slowly and steadily, I made my way up, not knowing what was sweat and what was rain drops on me. This time I had counted. It was 3500 stairs (app 5000 steps ) from the bridge back to the top which meant we had done 7000 stairs and total 10000 steps up and down. But it didn’t hurt one bit, for my body and mind had found a gentle rhythm to propel me further. I met an aghast Tapan at the top, for I had completed the trek in 4.5 hours which is quite an average time clocked for the trek. Thank god you didn’t tell me it will be a 7000 stairs trek, I would not have ever done it, I told him. The loss would have been only mine!
And yes, my body revolted at the sight of stairs for almost a week after that.
How to get there:
Tyrna village, the starting point of the trek is ½ hr drive away from Cherrapunjee. From there it will take a relaxed 1.5 hr walk down to the Nongriat Village and then a 2 hr walk up. Budget 4-5 hours including stops.
Where to stay:
If you want to do a day trek, stay in one of the Hotels in Cherrapunjee. However, it is recommended to stay at Nongriat village for a night or two to thoroughly experience the place. Serene homestay is a good option. Expect nothing fancy.
What to do:
Carry swimming trunks and a towel if you want to dip in the stream. If you plan to stay, walk around on other trails to nearby villages and take a dip in many waterfalls along the way. Also trek up for an hour to Rainbow Falls which is supposedly very scenic and highly recommended by all trekkers and locals alike. Chances of spotting an actual rainbow over the waterfalls are very high. It rains abruptly making the stairs slippery, so wear trekking boots and waterproof your camera and phones. Travel light.
“Hum sab workers ne protest kiya. Hum Varanasi se cheap powerloom products yahan aane nahi de sakte tey. 2-3 log bhuri tarah ghayal hog aye use protest mein (We all weavers organised a protest. We couldn’t let the powerloom products from places like Varanasi enter this village. 2-3 people were injured badly in the fighting that erupted during the protest),” said Tapan, a supervisor of handloom silk factory employing 20 workers in Sualkuchi.
Sualkuchi (pronounced as Hualkusi), popularly known as the Manchester of the East, is a small village 35 kms from Guwahati where the primary occupation of the villagers is silk weaving of the famous and fine Assam Silk. Assam is famous for Muga, Pat & Eri Silk of which the Muga silk is the only one exclusive to Assam as silkworm from which it is made is endemic to Assam. It is naturally golden in colour and the colour only becomes more bright and golden with every wash. Pat silk also known as Mulberry silk, is pearly white and is made from mulberry silkworms. Eri silk is also known as the Ahimsa silk as the silk threads are made from the cocoons after the adults have left it and hence the pupae are not killed in the harvesting process unlike what happens in the harvesting of other varieties of silk.
The silk handloom tradition in Sualkuchi dates back to 11th century when the Pal dynasty king established the village by bringing in silk weaving families from Tantikuchi and settled them here. The tradition continued over generations, firmly entrenching Sualkuchi by 17th century as the silk weaving centre of Assam, producing fine Mekhela Chadars, Gamosas (both are traditional Assamese garments worn by women & men respectively) & Sarees. As I walked through the back-lanes of the village, through open doors and windows, I could see almost every household having 2-3 looms. I visited some medium scale ‘factories’, either with 30- 40 looms operating from a whole floor of a 2 storeyed run-down house or with 20-30 looms in an improvised cowshed behind the residential huts. It is estimated that in a population of 14000, the village has about 17000 looms which well indicates the prominence and importance of weaving in every villager’s life.
No wonder the battle between handloom and powerloom is a battle for survival of this traditional craft. Mechanising the industry with powerloom reduces the cost of labour & hence lowers the cost of the final silk weaves. Few years ago, the market was besieged with powerloom products from Varanasi which often used cheaper silk, i.e. silk mixed with polyester which reduced the prices further. Since it is difficult for a consumer to tell the difference between powerloom and a handloom weave and equally difficult to tell the difference between 100% silk and adulterated silk, the costs charged by the local handlooms comes under a big question and puts further pressure on the viability of the handloom factories. “Powerloom iss village mein aane hi nahi de sakte (We cannot let powerloom enter this village),” passionately cries Tapan.
The angst is well justified. I could only understand it better when I walked into a shop. As my jaw dropped after hearing the prices of sarees (a pure silk saree costs upwards of Rs.5.5-6K), the shop manager, Arun, visibly upset with the look on my face said, “Aap mere saath aayiye madam. Main aapko dikhata hoon. Aap phir samjhenge iski saree ki keemat (You come with me madam. I will show you. Only then you will appreciate the worth of this saree).” As I walked into a rundown factory, I was indeed appalled. The conditions in which the weavers work is frightening and saddening. Most factories are set up in jute and bamboo sheds, much like an improvised cowshed! The factories are cramped to pack in as many looms as possible, fitting in as many as 30 looms in a 600sqft area. There is little sunlight and no fans to keep them cool on a hot summer day. The process of silk weaving is time consuming and labour intensive. Depending on the design, it could easily take 6-7 days with 12-14 hours of non stop work with only lunch breaks in between to weave a full saree. There are no fixed hours of work and no weekends off either. Only in the context of seeing the working conditions and knowing about the tedious process, was I able to appreciate the “worth” of the silk weave and the angst the weaver community had towards onslaught of cheaper and inferior powerloom products.
Equally, skilled labour is also increasingly hard to come by. “Wapas aayenge ki nahi pata nahi (I don’t know whether they will come back or not),” laments Arun who is also supervisor of the handloom factory apart from being the shop manager. Since there is a state election the next day, he has given an off to the workers to go back to their villages to cast their vote. That is the sad reality. While lot of government effort has gone into making it a co-operative industry, it still remains highly unorganized. Many villagers have given up the traditional craft to pursue more lucrative opportunities in cities. Hence most of the weavers are migrants who come in from other parts of the country to work & earn here. But there is no system to check, verify and track the workers, making it difficult for factory owners to get reliable labour.
The rocketing raw material prices have further put pressure on the industry here. The process of cultivating silkworms, harvesting and creating the threads have been mostly outsourced while some local operations still exist. The pat silk threads usually come in from Bangalore and the supplies have shrunk, spiralling the prices upwards. Coupled with the flooding of the market with ‘semi silk’, which is nothing but synthetic silk made with polyester with a look & finesse of real silk and at almost 1/5th the price of real silk, the viability of the handloom industry is really challenged.
Despite all the issues plaguing the industry, it refuses to die. The demand for Assam silk is very high and Sualkuchi contributes to ~75% of the Assam’s output. It is the hub for wedding shopping as prices here can be easily lower by 1500-2000 rupees and in an Indian wedding where clothing is gifted to close relatives from both bride and groom side, buying in bulk does mean lots of savings! Demand is also coming in from international buyers from Thailand, Germany etc. who buy in bulk and sometimes also give their own designs for production. Several government initiatives are helping the handloom owners after their plight has been highlighted by media and in other forums. For e.g. Govt has set up a fashion institute in collaboration with NIFT which imparts training for skill up-gradation, design process & innovation, apart from widening their perspective on fashion and trends, so that they can cater to demand in a fast changing fashion environment. Traditionally, the design pattern for the borders and the motifs embellishing the saree are first sketched and then holes are manually punched on paper cards. These reams of design cards are mounted on the loom and the weaving happens as per the patterns on these cards. Now with the help of the institute, design process and the punching is now being increasingly computerized, saving lot of time and manual effort.
Tapan speaks about his future, “Experience mil gaya hai mujhe. Ab apna chota factory open karoonga (Now I have the experience. I want to open a small factory of my own).” As Tapan continues to talk about his dreams, his young 8 yr old son, Shyam, walks in to eagerly show us more about the factory where his dad works. “Ji haan. Usse sab aata hai. Roz yeh sab dekh raha hai jab se bacha tha (Of course! He knows how to weave. He has been seeing all this everyday since he was a child),” says Tapan upon being asked whether Shyam knows how to weave as well. Will Shyam continue in his father’s footsteps, I ask eagerly. “Bas padh likh kar achi naukri kare city mein, main toh yeh hi chahoonga(I only wish that he studies well and gets a good job in the city),” he says with a dreamy voice. The dreams are indeed silken.
How to reach Sualkuchi
It is 35kms from Guwahati, about an hour’s drive. Stay in Guwahati.
Visit the place before noon. Weavers have lunch breaks from 1-3pm.
Shillong is better known as the Melting Pot of North East, it being the gateway to experience the rich culture and treasures that the lands in faraway east provides. A two day getaway to Umiam Lake, right on the outskirts of Shillong, is highly recommended to undo your lifestyle stresses and prepare yourself to experience the melange of culture that north east offers.
Nestled amongst the thick pine forest on the hilly terrains surrounding this huge man-made lake, is a getaway like no other – Ri Kynjai resort. Farwaway from maddening city crowd and with spectacular views of the lake, peace and tranquility welcomes you with open arms. Made in beautiful traditional wood, furnished with wood and cane furniture and decorated with stunning artifacts from northeast, the resort has a colonial feel to it and is truly a cosy home away from home. Huge french windows invite you into enjoy nature, uninterrupted by any human form or element. Sit out on the balcony, snuggle up in a blanket and read a book for hours, sipping on hot tea , only to look up every few minutes and admire the beautiful landscape. Stunning sunrise from the hills right across the lake will jostle you awake very early in the morning and ensnare you to follow the natural trekking path down the hill to the edge of the lake, the way this landscape is best enjoyed.
The place lulls you into a slow pace of life and that can be only enhanced by giving in completely. So sit back, meditate, slow down, get a traditional Khasi massage and prepare yourself for the cultural experience in northeast that beckons.
As a history buff interested in old civilizations, seeing ruins of old cities gives me an unparalleled high in imagination. To step back in time & to imagine a whole city above & around a meter high of ruins, to imagine who all walked that part of the earth, to imagine their daily lives is just pure adrenalin rush for me. I often complained about lack of good old ruins in India after my unbridled joy in experiencing the ruins of old Roman & Greek cities spread across the Mediterranean. Nothing prepared me for what I saw in Hampi, a great ghost town, a city abandoned after destruction, a beautiful ruin like no other in India.
The mythical, yet forlorn and stony landscape of Hampi entices and awes in the first look and before I knew it, I was head over heels in love with Hampi. The landscape, dotted with granite rocks and boulders, some which are precariously perched on the edges of the rising hilly outposts, casts rusty orange hues with the rising sun, only to be interspersed with some lush greenery of coconut palm trees and paddy fields, swaying to the breeze from the mighty Tungabhadra river flowing alongside. Scattered on this earthy landscape are the 5 century old stunning ruins of Hampi, with innumerable ruins of temples, palaces, bazaars etc. It is an alluring place, an abandoned ghost town, standing still in time, waiting to be explored, and bewitching one to fall in love with it. The sight looked daunting, as I didn’t know where to start and how to finish, greedily at that, and not wanting to miss even one small piece of history anywhere on the 9 sqm ruins of Hampi.
Hampi, a UNESCO World heritage site, was the capital of the Vijaynagara empire and one of the richest & the largest cities in the world in the 16th century. Such were the riches of the people of the city, that the long bazaars in front of the temples sold precious stones much like grocery items! After the invasion by the Deccan sultanate in 1565, who repeatedly plundered Hampi, it lost its glory and was abandoned, never to be reoccupied again. Hampi has mythological connections. In ancient times, it was known as Pampakshetra after goddess Pampa who was Brahma’s daughter and later became Shiva’s wife. Hampi is also connected with Ramayana as Anegudi, which is across the river, is considered to be the birthplace of Hanuman. Hampi was also known as Kishkinda which is where Rama supposedly beheaded Bali to install Sugreeva on the throne and muster support to free Sita from Lanka. Many events in Ramayana have been identified with specific locations around Hampi, like the cave where Sugreeva hid Sita’s jewels, which she dropped from the aerial chariot while being abducted and the rock where Sugreeva was crowned, amongst many other such markings.
Hampi was established by the Sangama brothers, Hukka & Bukka, in 1336 who were chieftains under the rule of Kampila, a small kingdom in the Tunghabhadra valley. The kingdom continued to expand under the rule of kings of the Sangama dynasty, Devaraya I and Devaraya II who expanded the kingdom covering all land south of the Krishna river. When the fortunes of the kingdom eroded with the repeated conflict with the Bahmani rulers, Narasimha Saluva took control in 1485 and established the second dynasty at Vijaynagara, called the Saluvas. In 1505, Vira Tuluva seized the kingdom the third dynasty of Tuluvas was established which produced the most famous kings, Krishnadevaraya and Achutaraya, under whom the Vijaynagara reached the peak of its culture, power and glory. It was in 1565, the capital fell to Deccan sultans after which the city was abandoned and the 4th Dynasty of Vijaynagara empire, the Aravidus, controlled the decaying empire from Penuconda in Andhra and eventually faded into history.
Hampi was a 2 night stop on my 2500 km road trip route from Mumbai – Bijapur – Badami – Aihole – Pattadakal – Chitradurg – Jog Falls – Konkan Coast – Goa – Ganpatipule – Mumbai. (Read more about the full trip here ->2500 kms of Road Trippin’ through North Karnataka & Goa). Hampi is spread over 9 sq miles and one needs to be prepared to walk a lot. Though autos ply on the main road, one is tempted to walk and lose oneself in the ruins of Hampi. There are 3000 temples & points of interest in Hampi and it will take a year to see all of them!! To cover the main attractions at leisure, one needs 3 days. To make the best of your time, follow this useful 3 day comprehensive walking tour: http://hampi.in/3-day-hampi-itinerary
Hampi can be divided into four routes groups and covered in such fashion – route 1 covering the Sacred centre around the Virupaksha Temple, route 2 covering the royal centre with the royal palace ruins, route 3 covering the Vitthala temple, riverside ruins and Achutraya Temple vicinity, and route 4 covering the Zenana enclosure and the museum. The major points of interests in Hampi are:
The majestic Virupaksha temple dedicated to Shiva and his two consorts, sits right on the river bank. The temple complex was enhanced by Krishnadevaraya upon his coronation in 1510. The temple ceiling has exquisite paintings depicting the marriage of Shiva & Pampa and scenes from Ramayana. Also deep inside the temple complex, is a place where architecture meets optics and magically, without use of any mirrors, the shadow of the temple’s gopura forms an inverted shadow vs an upright shadow!
Hampi Bazaar and Nandi
Right outside the temple, is a 750 mtr long Hampi bazaar or market area, which are now in ruins thanks to the occupation and conversion to dwelling houses by locals, who are now relocated to outskirts of Hampi. At the end of the street, is a Majestic Nandi monolith and a mandapa, which has been converted into a Museum to display early photographs of the site from 20th century, right from the time of discovery of Hampi and before and after the restoration of the ruins.
Best way to observe Hampi is to climb up the Matanga hill, to the right of Hampi bazaar, at sunrise and experience the awe-inspiring landscape of Hampi.
Hemkuta Hill and the Ganesha monoliths
Walking right from the Virupaksha temple, one arrives at the Hemkuta hill which is dotted with many small temples and shrines. The hill also serves as a sunset point and is one of the magical ways to experience Hampi. The two major points of interest here are the Kadalekalu Ganeshatemple, which has a large monolithic statue of Ganesha, and the the Sasivekalu Ganesha Temple, which also has a large monolithic statue of Ganesha surrounded by majestic columns.
Krishna Temple & Bazaar
Walking southward from the Hemkuta hill, one finds the Krishna temple erected by Krishnadevaraya in 1515 to commemorate his victories & the adjacent scenic Krishna bazaar surrounded by hills and has a stepped water tank and small pavilion in the middle of it.
Lakshmi Narasimha, Badavilinga and Uddana Virabhadra temples
Further south, after crossing lush paddy fields, can be found two more stunning temples: The Lakshmi Narasimha temple which hosts a huge monolithic statue of Narasimha, the man-lion avatar of lord Vishnu. The adjacent Badavalinga shrine has a huge monolithic Shivling and continue to be used by locals. Further down south is the Uddana Virabhadra temple, used by locals and is dedicated to goddess Kali. Right outside is a ‘sati’ stone dedicated to a general who contributed to the temple.
Sisters’ Stone or Akka Tangi Gudda
These two massive natural stones, leaning against each other, lie at the entrance of the road that leads to the royal centre. Legend has it that two travelling sisters who were visiting Hampi, became jealous of the city & its glory and said some bad things about the city. The reigning deity was enraged and turned them into stones! Nevertheless, the massive stones are a wonderful sight to see.
The underground Shiv Temple
A little further from the Sister’s stone is the Underground Shiv temple complex. It was fully buried with time, but the excavation resulted it in being below the ground level. It is a massive temple complex and partial remains of a gopura can be seen at the entrance.
Royal Palace ruins & Hazara Rama Temple:
Exploring the sprawling royal place ruins will take better part of the day at Hampi. First on the route are the Noblemen’s Quarters, a walled palace complex called the Dannayaka Enclosure with walls and basement of palaces and has the Band Tower, a Mosque, a mint area, remains of the palace of Vira Harihara and Krishnadevaraya. Further ahead is the majestic Hazara Rama Temple, which has intricate reliefs carved on the walls. Near to Hazara Rama Temple is the entry to the Royal Enclosure where the king used to conduct his daily duties. A lot of the structures in this complex were built in wood and hence were destroyed when the city was set on fire. It is here that one can find many interesting structures like a geometrically shaped stepped tank, the underground chamber for secret discussions, an audience hall which is in ruins and one of the majestic structures in the area called as the Mahanavami Dibba from where the king used to watch the parades.
The Queen’s Bath & the Octagonal Bath
A short walk from the the royal enclosure is the Queens’ bath. It is a hexagonal shaped architectural beauty with influence of Islamic architecture and has a stepped pond inside for the queen to bathe. The Octagonal bath lies amidst the place complex ruins.
The Zenana enclosure & Elephant Stables
The ruins of a huge walled compound are known as the Zenana enclosure or the harem. Inside the enclosure is the famous Lotus Mahal, which has distinct Indo-Islamic architecture and was naturally ventilated using air shafts. There are many deep water tanks & a granary in this area. The impressive elephant stables are a long line of 11 chambers with distinct Indo- Islamic architectural style. It is believed that many monuments which had Indo- Islamic influence were left untouched by the raiding Deccan sultanate army.
Vitthala Temple complex & Stone Chariot
Walking left from the Hampi Bazaar, one comes to the riverside from where one can take a coracle boat ride which takes about a leisurely half hour to reach the Vitthala Temple complex. There is the legendary cave of Sugreeva on the banks of Tungabhadra. At a distance, remains of the Tungabhadra bridge connecting Vijaynagara to Anegudi can be seen. The remains of the Vittala Bazaar are seen right outside the temple. Just after entering the temple, is the most famous attraction of Hampi – the monolithic Stone Chariot. Two elephants are seen pulling the chariot, though originally horses were there. Facing the stone chariot is the Maha Mantapa with unique monolithic carved granite pillars called as the musical pillars which emit musical notes of different instruments when tapped. This majestic temple is an architectural beauty with many intricate reliefs carved on the temple walls, showcasing the life in Hampi in the 16th century.
Achyutaraya’s Temple complex & Kings’ balance
Walking away from the Vitthala temple, back towards Hampi, one finds the King’s balance with inscriptions of Ramayana. The King used the balance to weigh himself and give away his weight’s equal in gold and precious stones to temple Brahmins. Further ahead is the Achyutaraya’s temple dedicated to the lord Tiruvengalanatha along with the remains of the bazaar.
Kodandarama temple complex
Coming back to the riverside starting point for the coracle boat ride and the one finds the Kodandarama temple complex dedicated to Rama, Lakshaman, Sita & Hanuman. Along the riverside, there are many reliefs carved on the rocks.
I would have missed many other smaller attractions due to paucity of time, but was glad to have covered most it. Hampi left me feeling greedy. It drew me in and captured my imagination. I began to imagine & visualise the life in glorious Hampi in 16th century, of the riches of the bazaars and of the grandeur of the palaces, dreamily wishing to be borne back then. I wanted more and more of Hampi, not wanting to go back, only to be dreamily consumed by imagination and love for the mythical and majestic landscape that is Hampi.
How to reach:
The nearest railhead is at Hospet which is 16kms away.
The nearest airport is at Hubli which is 160kms away.
Where to Stay:
Stay across the river from Hampi at Virupapur Gaddi in one of the many guesthouses frequented by foreigners. This side has a bustling nightlife and shops for buying in clothes & other knick knacks. We stayed at Mowgli Guesthouse which was nice & clean with great views of paddy fields behind. It was a short 10 min walk to the ferry point to cross the river to Hampi ruins.
Catch the sunrise from the Matanga hill and the sunset from the sunset point on the Hemkuta Hill. Hampi is an open air museum and can get really hot during the day. Carry shades, cap & bottle of water and something to eat if you plan to walk the whole day as you will not find any food amongst the ruins.