Friday, January 30, 2009

The Mahatma Gandhi Museum and the Jain Temple

It was easily one of the best museums I have visited - the Gandhi Memorial Museum and Library in Ananthapuram, near Kalpetta, Wayanad. Mahatma Gandhi took rest at a boarding near the Jain Temple; that boarding is today the Gandhi Memorial Museum and Library. Neat and clean and impeccably maintained, this is how our museums should be.
We stood in awe before the small room where Gandhiji sat. Photography is not allowed inside and, so, all I could take were pictures of the entrance to the museum and a long shot of the Jain Temple, also known as the Sree Anantha Natha Swami Temple.
The temple is one of the oldest Jain temples in the district, it was located in old Kalpetta till 1926. Its guardian was Payappa Tharakan, a Jain planter. It is said that the temple was built about 1,000 years ago when Wayanad was part of Karnataka. After the death of Payappa Tharakan, the temple was handed over to Mandhappa Gowder, who later formed a trust to maintain it. Krishna Gowder, Maniyankode, moved the temple in 1933 to its present spot. The main deity is Ananda Natha Swami (the 14th Theerthankara); Padmavathi Devi, Jwala Malini Devi and other Theerthankaras are also present.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A throwback to times before Christ

One of our visits was to the Edakkal caves situated on the western side of Ambukuthimala, about six kilometres east of Ambalawayal in Wayanad. The ‘mala’ or the hill must be about 500 metres above the surrounding area and you can spot the top of the hill from a distance, right at the beginning of the trek below. The hill, a local told us, once connected the high ranges of Mysore to the ports of Malabar.

There are prehistoric rock etchings on the walls of the caves. These are said to have drawn the serious attention of archeologists and historians worldwide. At the entrance, a signpost indicates that the earliest petroglyphs (there are three sets) date back over 5000 years, centuries before the birth of Christ.

Perhaps the caves were inhabited, nobody can say for sure. There are many legends. According to one, arrows fired by Lava and Kusha, the sons of Rama, formed the caves. Another has it that Rama killed Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana, in the narrow fissure at the southern end of Edakkal cave.

The elders in our group beat us all in the race to the top. They were all given prizes for their efforts. But even they couldn’t reach the first cave – the climb was steep and time was short. One of us though managed to enter the first cave and take pictures of the etchings. He was the one who braved the rocks to reach the waterfall earlier.

Pictures show the scene at the start of the trek to the caves, details about the etchings on the signboard, the way to the caves, and a banner down below that shows what the etchings are like.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lunch in a tea estate

If it is Wayanad, can tea estates be far behind? Well, we were almost swamped by tea estates during our journey in the bus on Day 2. So, it came as a pleasant surprise when our team leader told us that he'd arranged for lunch at one of the estates. It turned out to be quite an experience really, sitting in the midst of the sprawling estates, breathing fresh air and tasting some delicious food. No cups or plates were thrown around - they were all collected and dropped in a large bag kept aside for the purpose. The only problem: a couple of women folk in our group were desperate for a toilet after lunch, but in an estate it isn't all that easy - the assistant manager's bungalow was two km away, and they didn't take any chances.

Pictures show views of tea estates, and a signboard of the tea company very close to which we had lunch.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Monkeys and litter

When it’s the ghats, you can rest assured there will be monkeys. We saw several on our way. And they weren’t sitting on the kerb for nothing – look at the litter on the ground. Mostly made up of Chocobar packs of Lazza ice cream that we soon learnt was a very popular brand sold in these parts. Surely, bins could have been provided by the state tourism department for good measure. And what about the people who eat and throw away stuff? Would they do this in their homes? Here, of course, there’s nobody to yell. And the same people talk about ‘clean environment’, ‘global warming’ and ‘litter-fre zones’.

Picture perfect

When you leave the city and go into the countryside, you sometimes wish you never had to return. There’s nothing to beat Nature really, for the charm as well as the devastation. The Western Ghats are a tourist’s delight, every nook and cranny holds something interesting.

On this trip, I was fascinated by a sort of glade that suddenly appeared on our way back from the Sentinel Rock waterfall. It seemed the perfect place to rest, to read and ruminate all your life. Then there was this tree, I really don’t know which – perhaps a fig tree – that captivated me just outside the entrance to the Pookot Lake. A stunning view from a large bend on the ghat section is the third picture – some of us saw the sunset from here and it made for quite an experience.

Of boating, spices and handicraft

About 3 km south of Vythiri is the Pookot Lake, a natural fresh water lake with mountains all around. Except two of us, the rest want for boating around the lake, either pedalling on their own or preferring to be steered across the waters by boatmen. For Rs 20, or so, you can have a 20-minute ride. There weren’t too many visitors when we arrived, but towards the end a large group of school students landed up. They had to return without boating because it was 5pm - the Kerala government does not permit boating beyond that time. A drowning incident in some part of the state where several people dies had prompted this decision.

Kerala though is always proactive about promoting tourism. The government goes all out to attract the visitor. Even at the Pookot Lake, for instance, there were shops that sold spices and handicraft items. This drew almost everyone who had come for boating, and sale was brisk.

Pictures show a view of Pookot Lake, and boating enthusiasts finding time and space to make purchases.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Different faces, one common bond

Culture, habits and people define a place. When people are friendly, any place, no matter how difficult the surroundings, can become home. All of us felt at home in Wayanad, right from the minute we arrived in Kozhikode to the time we left Tirunelli.

I have always loved to talk to people I bump into irrespective of the kind of work they do. Take for instance, the security help at Tushara Motel, the hotel we stayed in at Vythiri. He always had a faint smile on his face and was eager to help. His is the first picture you see here.

At the Pookot Lake I couldn’t help take a picture of two boatmen who were waiting in the afternoon for people to get in to take them around the lake. They seemed as relaxed as the placid waters of the lake and, when I motioned them to pose, they happily did without batting an eyelid.

Abutting the hotel is a nursery, full of eye-catching saplings and plants. Have a look. Some of us bought a few saplings hoping that Chennai weather would be kind (that might be another story). One morning at the nursery, I noticed this small boy who was helping his mother tend to the plants. Little did he know of the world around him. I wondered how many visitors ever spotted him or talked to him. I did. But he was too shy to even mumble anything. All he did was stare at my camera and the result was this lovely picture.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The world of old, where people care

Continuing with our Wayanad trip, one of the heartwarming features was that most people we met were friendly, eager to help. As mentioned in the earlier blog, many of them led lives that seemed to be part of another world.

How else would you account for this? Abdul Rasheed is his name. We had to pass him on our way down to the Sentinel Rock waterfall. He was selling bits and ends under a tree – pineapple slices with chilly powder smeared on them, freshly cut raw mango slices, and gooseberry immersed in honey in bottles. There were lemon and other soft drinks too.

Rasheed was soft-spoken and friendly. When I asked him how far we had to go to reach the waterfall, he said it was not far away and that it was advisable not to take the route to the left as it was steeper. There would be people to help on the way, he assured me.

And just as he said, there was Vijayan half way down, with an assistant. He sold juice and lassi. All of us quenched our thirst on our way back at Vijayan’s. Rasheed and Vijayan stay close by the waterfall. Rasheed said that he’s been here since 1971! And in those days, elephants would come very near the waterfall. Now, he said, there were no elephants in the vicinity – an indication of how forest cover is dwindling and it is just as bad or perhaps worse than what we read in the newspapers. Everyday, Rasheed and Vijayan come to their nooks to sell their stuff. Visitors have reduced over the years, but on a good day, they manage to make money.

Pictures show Rasheed posing shyly for the camera, after we all had our share of his offerings; a vendor, complete with icebox, near the Banasura Sagar Dam, who quenched our thirst as well; and the leader of our team freaking out on a Honda Stunner parked near Rasheed’s makeshift store.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Times change, yet time stands still

Barack Obama has just taken over as the 44th President of the United States, and somehow I feel compelled to record it in my blog. The waiting is finally over. Today is a momentous day as Obama rides on the hope and trust of millions not only in the US but also in the rest of the world. There is no quick fix to the problems that plague the world, but in Obama, people see more than just promise and hope – there is the confidence that the man will get things to become better soon. A stirring speech once again – you do not expect anything less form him nowadays – and the special gesture of escorting the Bushes to the waiting helicopter, all this and more will become part of Obama lore and legend.

In spite of the hope that Obama brings, for many in the world, including in India, life will continue as before. There will be marriages to perform, children to be sent to school, parents to be looked after, health care costs to be met, loans to be repaid… the list will go on and on.

Which brings me back to our visit to Wayanad. In many places where we went, it was as if people were in a time warp. Nature ruled. We saw huts and shanties with people living in them, deep inside the forest. Perhaps no electricity in many of them, forget the fear of elephants.

Sometimes, in nature’s cradle, even the coming of people like Obama does not make any difference. Time simple stands still. An example is the waterfalls at the Sentinel Rock (also called Soochippara) we visited. There was hardly a soul, except a group of schoolchildren, the forest range officer and a few of us. Indeed, the way to the waterfall was difficult to navigate and the older in our group had to view it from afar. Have a look. And don’t miss out on the brave one who went all the way to get hit by the sprays.

Monday, January 19, 2009

India's largest earthen dam

Our first halt after checking in to the hotel, having breakfast and a wash, was the Banasura Sagar Dam, the largest earthen dam in India and the second largest in Asia. The water is used for hydroelectricity and also for irrigation and drinking water. The dam was constructed in 1979. Monitored by the Kerala State Electricity Board, the dam is used for the Kuttiadi Augmentation Scheme. Its catchment area is 6,144 sq km. The length of the main dam is 850 metres. The dam irrigates about 5,200 hectares in the Kuttiadi basin, and 3,200 hectares in the Karamanthodu basin.

Pictures show a view from the dam area and the water arrested by the dam.

In the hills of Wayanad

Unlike the visit to Rameswaram, the trip to Wayanad was planned two months in advance. And our group was larger as well – about 20 of us, cousins and their husbands and wives and parents.

Wayanad, in the northeast of Kerala, is only 28 years old as a district, carved out of Kozhikode and Kannur. When Kerala was formed in 1956, Wayanad was part of Cannanore district. Situated in the Western Ghats, we were based in Vythiri initially, moving on to Mananthavady and Tirunelly. Bound on the east by the Niligiris and Mysore, and on the north by Coorg, you can hardly find a better place for a getaway.

Historians say that there was human life in Wayanad even ten centuries before Christ. Whether it is true, we will never know. However, the Ekaddal caves we visited (look out for later entries) had pictorial writings on their walls that nobody has been able to decipher. Wayanad was once under the rule of Pazhassi Raja belonging to the Kottayam royal dynasty. The British ruled for about two centuries here. The battle between the British and Pazhassi Raja is famous. It is said that the Raja organised tribals to fight the British and he himself, when driven to the forest, preferred to take his own life. So, the British never caught him alive. Wayanad has a large adivasi population but we did not see many adivasis during our trip.

More than anything else, Wayanad is known for its wildlife – mainly its elephants. The Wayanad wildlife sanctuary is contiguous to Nagerhole and Bandipur, as well Mudumalai; it is an integral part of the Niligiri biosphere reserve.

Pictures show my first camera shot of the train – of a jack fruit ripe for plucking - and a couple of shots of Tushara Motel in Vythiri where we were based. Pushparajan, the GM at the hotel, is all smiles as his staff are busy serving breakfast; later, he and his deputy pose for the camera and a part of the hotel comes into view.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The House of Kalam

When you visit Rameswaram, the one name that comes to mind is that of APJ Abdul Kalam. India’s Missile Man who later on became the People’s President hails from Rameswaram, once a fishing hamlet.

We visited the House of Kalam on Mosque Street and learnt that the President’s elder brother stayed here. His nephew runs a small store next door. It is called Kalam Sea Shell Mart, and the visiting card mentions the names of places to see in Rameswaram - the Ram Zarokha, Ram Kund, Sita Kund, Laxman Kund, Panchmukhi Hanuman, Floating Stone and the Vibhishanji Temple. No trappings of Rashtrapati Bhavan here. Kalam is, of course, known for his austere lifestyle – he started his career as a newspaper vendor. And no wonder everybody holds him in such high esteem. You realise the greatness of the man when you are here.

A view of Lanka

At the southern tip of Rameswaram is Dhanushkodi, just about 18 miles west of Talaimannar in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Once a sort of border between India and Ceylon, Dhanushkodi, I understand, was only about 50 yards long.

In 1964, the Dhanushkodi rail line was destroyed in a cyclone and hundreds of passengers in a train were swept into the sea. The railway line between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi was eventually abandoned and, today, you see only water where once there was land. Before 1964, there was a train service from Madras Egmore to Dhanushkodi, and people would then travel by steamer to Ceylon.

Pictures here show a view of the Sri Lankan mainland from Dhanushkodi, and, quite out of context really, this remarkable bull we spotted on the seashore nearby.

Visit to a holy shrine

A trip to Rameswaram suddenly materialised out of nowhere. It was small group that boarded the Rameswaram Express on New Year eve. Rameswaram turned out to be just another dusty, crowded town, with most of the activity happening by the seashore.

The Ramanathaswamy Temple here is well known – it is considered one of India’s holiest shrines, and a visit to the temple is held on par with Benaras or Varanasi. The Shivastalam, representing the southernmost of the 12 Jyotirlingams in India, is closely associated with the Ramayana and Rama’s victorious return from Lanka.

There are legends about Rameswaram – that Rama, while returning to Ayodhya, worshipped Shiva in the form of a Shiva lingam made of earth by Sita, and that Hanuman was given the task of bringing from Benaras an image of Viswanathar.

Whatever it be, Hindus consider a visit to Rameswaram sacred and, during our visit, we saw many engaged in rituals by the seashore to ensure that the departed souls will have peace.

Pictures show pilgrims by the shore and a view of the temple gopuram.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Hare Rama Hare Krishna

I was recently watching Hare Rama Hare Krishna, the cult Hindi movie of 1972. Twenty-six years after Dev Anand introduced Zeenat Aman, the film, I found, is still quite riveting. The film, of course, became popular for its pulsating music – with RD Burman at his prime and Anand Bakshi, expectations were high. But then, the music became too popular for words. Songs from the film are hummed even today, and not just by old-timers.

The film was based on the simple ‘lost and found’ theme, a brother-sister relationship after separation. It was a time of the hippie revolution in those heady days of the late 1960s and ‘70s, and somehow, Nepal and the locals in the film seemed just right - Nepal in those days was still pristine and pure, with a romance all its own (does it exist today at all?).

More than anything, Zeenat Aman as Janice was special, and the Hindi film heroine was probably never the same after that role she essayed with almost effortless ease.

Mumtaz, as usual, charms you with her good looks.

And then, there was Dev Anand, one of the trinity in Hindi filmdom in those days (Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor being the other two). It was not an easy theme to tackle, but he managed well. Today, still known as the evergreen star, Dev Sahab is most remembered for this film, Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

I couldn’t resist capturing some shots as I watched.