Friday, 11 July 2014

The forgotten palace of Kodagu

The grey ominous clouds sound a final warning and large droplets descend from the sky splashing on the brown dirt of the school playground. The characteristic smell of the land when its thirst is quenched by the rain on a warm summer day is complimented by the fragrance of coffee plants lined along the washed paved road. Beautiful houses straddle this road; the courtyard a canvas for hundreds of blooming red flowers and towering trees with hanging branches. Colourful pictures adorn the walls of the school – today is Sunday and a blanket of silence wraps this remote corner of the Western Ghats. Beside the school, behind a parapet wall, stands an aloof wooden structure topped with a sloping brick roof; its appearance is shabby yet it retains an unusual air of nobility. A creaky wooden door leads to the courtyard of the one storied Nalaknad aramane (house) where a sense of gloom and despair is palpable. This modest palace was the last refuge of Chikka Veerarajendra, the last king of Kodagu, before he was deposed by the British in April 1834. It was here that the Haleri Dynasty of Kodagu, established by Veera Raja in the 16th century, breathed its last and faded into the dense jungles and lofty mountains of the Ghats.

The palace sits in the shadow of the highest peak of Coorg, Tadiandamol which rises to the clear blue sky and is kept company by equally impressive lesser peaks dotting the landscape. The mountain looks over the plains of Mysore, with its paddy fields and the meandering Cauvery, to the east and glances towards the distant sea-shore to the west. The journey to the summit begins at the aforementioned school from where one must follow a paved road threading the coffee plantations to the edge of the forest. A mud track continues from here and climbs steadily along the mountain face; it bounds over small streams and dives deep into the jungle and then re-appears on the open slope offering unadulterated views of the heavily wooded foothills. It darts across the mountain face and emerges into a wide clearing looking up to the towering peaks. To the left the top of Tadiandamol is faintly visible through a misty veil, to the right rows and rows of mountain ranges fade into the distance. The path then swerves left and climbs along the spur till it reaches a thickly wooded and steep section; the summit is another half an hour climb from here. After a hard day’s work toiling up the mountain the vista from the top is tonic to the tired lungs and heart. The wind howls lending wings to the fog which runs amok on the lofty ridges and swoops down the parched brown hills reining in the unbearable heat of the mid-day sun.

Back at the palace an eerie silence grips the decaying walls, wooden pillars and perforated windows. In the courtyard a forlorn pavilion narrates the stories of King Dodda Veerarajendra and his beloved Queen Mahadevamma. It remembers the capture of the King by Tipu Sultan and his subsequent escape from the prison in Periyapatna; it remembers the coronation of the King, the accompanied revelry and the aroma of feasts. It also recollects the final years of the King shattered by the death of his Queen – a bitter and inconsolable man. A fading mural spanning a wall on the ground floor depicts Dodda Veerarajendra seated on an elephant surrounded by spirited Kodavas. The ceiling of the courtroom on the first floor is intricately painted with flowers and the patterns carved on the woodwork are impressive. A secret stairway leads to a couple of dark rooms in the basement designed as a hideout in the event of a raid on the palace. The lonely corridors of the house evoke a feeling of nostalgia for the glorious history of Kodagu and its people. The tales of courage of the Kodavas, the roar of the tigers in the jungles, the worship of weapons during the Kailpodh Festival and the songs about the monsoon and planting rice reverberate in these empty halls. These halls are mute witnesses to the last days of Chikka Veerarajendra, a somewhat unpopular and unfair ruler feared for his cruelty. In April 1834, the British had marched into Kodagu and had captured the Madikeri Fort; they had then summoned the King to surrender in Madikeri thus ending the era of the Haleri Kings who had ruled this region for more than 200 years.
In the olden times the Kodavas were considered to be reputed huntsmen - bow and arrows were placed in the hands of a new born in the hope that the child grows up to be a fine warrior; this martial tradition has been kept alive by numerous decorated officers who have served in the Indian Army. Today Kodagu is known for its sprawling coffee plantations, pleasant climate, warm hospitable people and a vibrant culture. The days of conflict have been forgotten and the neglected aramane in Nalaknad is an added attraction for people trekking to Tadiandamol but even so it never disappoints curious travelers searching for the past – the lost legends of Kings and Queens buried in the dark jungles.

Deeptangan Pant

Friday, 4 July 2014

Wandering the lanes of Bylakuppe

As the darkness envelops the towering three storied temple adorning colourful victory banners, tassels, bright red canopies and a golden pinnacle hundreds of earthen lamps give birth to soothing light which grapples with the night. The hustle and bustle of the day has given way to a surreal calm - the sound of drums, trumpets, conches and cymbals which reveled with the morning sun has faded in the emptiness of the cosmos. The chorus of chants which resonated in the halls of the monastery has been swallowed by a vacuum. While sitting on the cool floor and beholding a red hue bathing the golden statues of Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus time stands still and all worries disappear into nothingness. A child monk in ochre robes clutching prayer beads ambles gaily to the tranquil Buddha and gazes at the peaceful face; breaking from a trance he then prostrates himself and walks away humming.  Here on the steps of the Golden Temple in Namdroling Monastery, under a canopy of a starlit sky, the magical silence is broken only by the hushed voices of a couple of young monks enjoying a coca-cola. As the monastic town of Bylakuppe in Karnataka prepares to fall asleep it compels me to contemplate this eventful day spent wandering its streets.

Arriving in the dull town of Kushalnagar, sitting on the highway from Mysore to the hill station of Kodagu, one is pleasantly surprised to come across Buddhist monks dawdling through the market. From here a lonely road threading green fields runs to the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe known for the sprawling monasteries, Namdroling being the most popular, and its jolly inhabitants. The Golden Temple, in the Namdroling Monastery, houses huge copper and gold statues of Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus which are filled with scriptures, relics, small clay mould stupas and statues which symbolize body, speech and mind of Buddha. The walls on third and second floors are colorfully painted to illustrate the life and teachings of Buddha, great teachers and disciples of Dzogchen (body of teachings and meditation practices of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism). On the first floor the walls are covered with male and female deities - some in wrathful forms attired in skins of living beings and bone armaments others in amicable silk and white. Behind the Golden Temple and to the right, silver prayer wheels, interspersed with giant red coloured ones, form a boundary which ultimately ends in a row of pagodas.

Heading further along the road, in the opposite direction of Kushalnagar, one comes across the civilian cluster called Camp One offering authentic Tibetan crafts, paintings and cuisine. Close by is the quaint Sakyapa Monastery with its golden and red heavy wooden doors, a neatly laid hall with bells, heavy drums and trumpets. Behind the monastery is a field where a thousand prayer flags flutter sending their message to the heavens. Retracing the steps, strolling past a decent pond and following the road across open country one comes to an intersection; taking a left here brings one to a mish-mash of massive monasteries and colourful compact houses with small courtyards and gardens. This settlement boasts of exquisite monasteries like Sera Jey, Sera Mey, Sera Lachi and Serpom. The artwork in the Sera Jey focuses on the life of Buddha – conception, birth, renunciation, enlightenment, teaching dharma and the deed of passing away – and houses paintings of all the Dalai Lamas. During prayer hours the halls, drowning in incense smoke, come alive with the crash of cymbals and gongs accompanied with guttural chants. Other interesting murals in these monasteries are of the Four Guardian Kings of north (Vaisravana), west (Virupaksha), east (Dhritrashtra) and south (Virudhaka) which grace the walls of the porches. The walls also depict the Three Roots and tantric practices of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. 

In the evening when the sun transforms itself into a big ball of orange hundreds of monks gather in the courtyards of these monasteries to indulge in the Tibetan tradition of debate. It usually involves a couple of people, one standing who asks a question and the other seated who answers them – the end of a question is often punctuated with a clap. Buddhist temples are inherently bastions of peace and sobriety where troubled minds can find solace and Bylakuppe is no different. Add to this the opportunity to experience the life in a monastery up close complimented with delicious Tibetan food makes Bylakuppe an ideal destination for travelers aiming to relish different cultures. And I can assure you that listening to the clamour of claps emanating from the monasteries in the backdrop of the setting sun will cleanse the trepidations of an urbane life and rekindle a na├»ve sense of joy – if only for a little while!

Overseas tourists are not allowed to stay in Bylakuppe without a Protected Area Permit. Visitors can stay in Kushalnagar and make a day trip to Bylakuppe. In Bylakuppe accommodation is available in Namdroling Monastery, Sera Monastery and Paljor Dargye Ling Hotel located near Namdroling Monastery. For information on getting a Protected Area Permit please visit

Written by
Deeptangan Pant

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Sim's Park - Ooty

Dr Satendra Singh - A student by choice; a doctor by profession.I am Dr Satendra Singh, Assistant Professor of Physiology, faculty at Medical Education Unit, Founder 'Infinite Ability' and Coordinator, Enabling Unit at University College of Medical Sciences and GTB Hospital, Delhi, India.

And an intrepid traveller out of interest!

Read about his visit to the The Sim's Park in Ooty -

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Kesava Temple of Somanthapur

The turn of the 2nd Millennium A.D. witnessed a marked resurgence of temple building traditions in South India furthering the new styles and techniques developed in the latter half of the first millennium when cave temples gave way to towering monuments of granite and sandstone. Though this era was mired in dynastic feuds between the Chalukyas of Kalyan and Cholas of Thanjavur, heralded the decline of Gangas of Talakad and beheld the rising Hoysalas of Dwarasamudra (present day Halebid) temple architecture reached new heights surpassing the glory of the bygone days. Kings and nobles showered patronage on gifted artisans and architects commissioning grants and lands for building temples. These temples which were the center of religious and social life also served another purpose of ensuring that the legacy of the Kings survived for a thousand years long after the winds of time razed their pompous kingdoms to dust. Today some of these temples lie forlornly in quiet villages sitting on the shore of a placid lake and reminisce of their heydays; the bustling capitols of the yore have lost their sheen but the temples still stand steadfast narrating the tales of proud Kings who have been forgotten.

Somanathapur is a non-descript village located 30kms from the heritage city of Mysore. However its narrow muddy lanes and lush green paddy fields harbor a well kept secret – the Kesava Temple. Dating back to 1268 A.D it is a classic example of Hoysala architecture and is considered to be one of the most striking Hoysala temples matching in poise and beauty to the Chennakesava Temple in Belur and Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebid. 

The monument is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India and a nominal entry fee is charged for all visitors. Here on a weekend one can observe a teeming crowd consisting of school children seemingly on a picnic, foreign tourists, pious devotees, enthusiastic photographers and budding historians. Historically this temple was revered by the Maharajas of Mysore and records show that even in the late 1880s and early 1900s various dignitaries visited this marvel of human engineering and craftsmanship. 

The temple is accessible from the eastern side by a doorway, in a high boundary wall, which opens into a gallery running around the temple. The sight of the shining black towers rising against the cloudy blue sky is a delight; though watching the rain wash over the sculpture studded walls during the monsoons is equally enjoyable. A flight of steps descend to the stone-paved courtyard surrounding the temple which is raised on a raised platform (Jagati). Another flight of steps rise to the platform and then to the intricately carved entrance flanked by heavily ornamented Dwarpalas (Gate-keepers). The doorway leads to a dark closed hall supported by rounded pillars bearing minute carvings. A narrow vestibule connects the hall to the three shrines dedicated to Vishnu in the form of Kesava, Venugopala and Janardhana. The ceilings are covered with sculptures of gods and goddesses, blooming lotus flowers, stories from epics and mythical beasts.   

A soothing calm permeates the surroundings complimented by the filtered sunrays creeping through the perforated stone windows bathing the hall in a dim light. One can sit on the stone benches which are projections on the outer wall and escape into the nothingness experiencing a fleeting moment of unadulterated peace. 

This temple, as all other Hoysala temples, is truly remarkable for the thousands of sculptures which adorn the outer walls rendered possible by the use of soapstone as a building material. Soapstone has a unique quality – it is soft when mined and becomes hard on exposure to air thus making it possible to be carved into meticulous idols and shapes. A circumambulation of the temple gives an insight into the skill and precision of the erstwhile artists as not an inch is spared with carvings spread over the outer walls of the star-shaped cella, hall and the towers. An eave runs along the outer wall separating the upper section decorated with towers on pilasters and the lower half covered by images of myriad gods, goddesses and demi-gods. Vishnu resting on Shesh Nag in Baikuntha, Krishna playing his flute, Lakshmi with Narasimha, Durga slaying the demon Mahisasura and Saraswati playing the Veena are some of the noteworthy sculptures. Six friezes also run along the temple walls depicting birds, riders atop elephants and horses, makaras (mythical aquatic beasts), floral designs and tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata. One can spend days analyzing and understanding the significance of these artistic relics as they not only reflect upon the religious aspect of that era but also shed light on the social norms and how creative expressions evolved over time.

Visiting the temple is being led down the annals of history though the grandeur has been swallowed by the forces of nature and man. The stoic sculptures on the walls stare into the past and hark back to a period when a vibrant settlement flourished in this region and the sweet water of Cauvery nurtured the hopes of budding artists who aspired to leave their mark on this world. And although these nameless dreamers have long since been gone their ambitions live on unfazed by the incessant march of time.

Deeptangan Pant
April 2014

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Travel Another India - Newsletter March 2014

No Looking Back – A Review

I met Shivani Gupta in 2010 when Travel Another India wanted an access audit done for itineraries in Ladakh. At that time, I was just starting out in the bad world of business after having spent about 18 years in the good world of social development. I was very cynical of the world I was coming from and that cynicism tinted everything that I took in the world I was entering. Shivani’s attitude and audit report helped to blow apart the clouds of cynicism long enough for me to see that there were people out there who really made a difference.

I have met Shivani off and on since then to talk about Ladakh but also because I draw from her positivity each time I met her. She is one of those rare persons who is totally pragmatic – she looks at what is possible; not just on all that could go wrong or have gone wrong. Given how critical I am of everything and everyone, this is a refreshing attitude for me. I have been practising ever since, but miles to go before I get there.

I have often wanted to ask her about her life, but have held back out of politeness. So when Shivani posted on Facebook that her book was to be released, I ordered 3 copies right away. When I got them, I read it in one sitting. I enjoyed reading the book – cried and laughed in equal measure. And inspired by the end of it to try and make a difference.

I cannot think of a better way to commemorate the strength of women than to share the review of “No Looking Back” by Shivani Gupta.

The book is about two decades of her life from an accident at the start of her career to now. Along the way she describes how she finds herself, family, love, death and herself all over again. Shivani has written this book from her heart – in a simple narrative that is easy to read. The lack of hyperbole and exclamation marks serves to highlight her life. I am sure it was not an easy book to write – to showcase your life, warts and all, to the world is tough.

I like the way that Shivani has explored the many identities of a person. Too often when we see a person in a wheelchair, her entire identity is reduced to that. It is difficult to think of her with dreams, wants, desires. In her gentle style, Shivani lays bare all the facets that go into making her the person that she is.

When she had the first accident that affected her spine, she was in her early twenties – a time when we all sow our wild oats. Becoming physically immobile does not change her need for all the other things that we do at that age, especially the risks we are willing to take. And why should it? That to me is the highlight of the book – the way in which her many identities keep asserting themselves even though everyone around her tries to focus on only one aspect, simply because it is the most evident.

As a woman from a middle class Indian family in Delhi, she wants what her peers want – to dress up, have male admirers, get married, be accepted by her husband’s family. It is touching to read about the “regular” side of her innermost thoughts. Becoming an icon in the Disability Rights movement doesn’t change who she is fundamentally. And I appreciate the ability to share that.

And as a woman from a middle class Indian family she also knows the need to be financially independent. She describes her attempts to earn an income - in those few words you can see the struggles of so many people. They dont want charity for their disability; they want to use their abilities to earn an honest income just like so many of us. And yet, the unthinking majority that the non-disabled are put up barriers, whether they mean to or not. 

The second highlight of the book for me is her constant positivity. She ascribes a lot of her strength to her sister, her father and to her husband, Vikas. I am sure they bolstered it, but it is her own attitude and strength that has brought her this far and will take her further. In her usual direct manner, she paints portraits of her family as normal human beings – strengths and weaknesses equally. She looks at society, “the system”, the State et al with that same impassion. She gives the benefit of doubt to every one of these actors. Maybe they don’t mean to be nasty, maybe they just don't know. So let’s work on making sure they know! I think many of us in social development need to borrow this attitude. It is just so much easier to get into the mode of thinking other actors to be good or bad (mostly bad), that we don’t make the effort to see any of the zillion shades of grey in between.

An inspiring, honest book that is not preachy – do read and share it around. You can order it on Flipkart – the print version or the e-version.

Or if you send me your postal address, I will order it for you.

If you would like to share this review with your friends, on your blog, or in your newspaper or magazine, please do so.

Update on Travel Another India

On behalf of Travel Another India, I would like to thank Meenakshi Chhabra for all the time and inputs she gave us. She has moved to Singapore to a new job. Meenakshi came to us after the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award as a Mentor. She was soon roped in to join the Advisory Board. Her contribution has been her keen business sense, marketing acumen and attention to detail. She was available for over three years regardless of her already busy schedule with her work and helping other start-ups. She gave us of her vast repertoire of skills but never pushed knowing that a start-up is a total juggling act. Meenakshi was truly an unexpected prize for TAI from CWIA!

Travel Another India experimented with offering customised itineraries based around themes - crafts, history, a river - last year. The fabulous response makes me offer it to all of you. If you want to interact with craftspersons directly, delve into our varied history, simply follow a river or any of your travel dreams, call or write to me. 

Here are some of the itineraries and the feedback from guests.

“Anne and I are very grateful to you for making our vacation a great success. We appreciate your kind and thoughtful attention to our needs and reassurances on arrangements for travel, lodging, and tours. For sure, I will recommend your group very highly to our friends and colleagues interested in "alternate India" experience.”

“Thank you so much for arranging hotels, visits to the Taj and other beautiful sites- and for arranging visits to the heritage walks to see other sides of India. Thanks for taking care us at each step of the way. I enjoyed taking the trains and it was interesting to experience and not just read about 1st and 2nd class train travel.”

Hassan Virji and Anne Weinberg
Itinerary – Delhi, Agra, Jaipur
February 2014

“...fantastic choice of locations - suiting interests of all four of us PLUS was away from the maddening crowds, yet giving our kids a great flavor of India.. EXACTLY what we wanted.. thanks a lot once again.”

M G Ram
Itinerary – Exploring Chambal River over two weeks with a stopover at Agra
December 2013 and January 2014

“We had a really great time traveling with you too! Honestly it was one of my favorite trips we have been on and it was so special to see all the amazing craft people you connected us with.”

Katy Tanis
Itinerary – Exploring craft in Eastern India, Jaipur and Delhi
September 2013

“Thanks again so much for helping us arrange our amazing vacation in Goa.  It was also wonderful to meet you in person.  We would recommend you, Olaulim Backyards, or Arco Iris to anyone in a heartbeat.”

James Pickett
Itinerary – Exploring Goa
August 2013

Thank you all for helping me show off another India to you...

As always, do write back to me with news of your travels - photos, doodles, travelogues, video - anything goes...