Friday, 10 December 2010

A discussion on Tourism in the Northeast India

The ANT Northeastising the Mainstream (a project supported by FST is organizing a session on "The Critical Perspectives in Tourism with a focus on the North Eastern Region"
Saturday, December 11 · 6:30pm - 7:30pm
@ The Ants café. 2023/B, 14th Main, HAL 2nd Stage, Indiranagar Bangalore- 560038.

The Discussion will be led by Swati and Aditi from EQUATIONS:

EQUATIONS is a research, advocacy and campaigning organisation working on the impacts of tourism on local communities in India since 1985. Supporting grassroots struggles against unsustainable tourism developments and practices, it calls for policies that ensure equitable, democratic and non-exploitative forms of tourism development.
Aditi Chanchani has been associated with the EQUATIONS since 2000. Within the organization she is responsible of the overall coordination of all programmes. Her focus areas of work include critiquing the impacts of tourism and tourism related policies.

Swathi Seshadri has been associated with EQUATIONS for past three months and is responsible for Central, East and NE India. Her earlier areas of work have been in the fields of water, energy, youth empowerment, traditional systems of medicines and community health. 

Those who wish to participate in this discussion are requested to write to us on the following email id:  or call Mob: 08123481721, Ph: 08041715639 before 10th of December, 2010.
For any further information you could also visit us -

Sunday, 5 December 2010


Part one

I always wanted to go to India but I never expected the irresistible life changing impact it was going to have on me the minute I arrived. I first became aware and interested about India when The Beatles visited. It looked so dreamy from the reports I saw on TV and listening to the radio about it. I grew up with the Beatles, and like millions of others, I idolized them and loved their music and their whole persona. And I really liked the added sitar and tabla drum to some of their later songs which put a soundtrack to this mysterious country. I was instantly captivated with Indian music and Indian culture. When I finally took my first steps on Indian soil, all of my western perceptions of everything I knew changed right before my eyes. Coming from the west cannot prepare you for how different life is in India, no matter how much you have read and seen on line or even traveled elsewhere. After the first step, everything changed.

It all started with a brief transit stop in Sri Lanka from Rome, Italy. Brief enough that I stayed on the tarmac long enough to change planes. I pointed out to a ground crew man to make sure they take my backpack and place it on the plane to Trivandrum, India. It didn’t. I spent an hour and a half after arriving in the Trivandrum airport, working with the airlines to arrange for my bag show up another day. So, I left the airport empty handed with just the clothes on my back, and entered into another world. My eyes went from being sleepy slits from the long flight to a wide eyes kid in an Asian cultural candy store. Instantly, I saw things I’d never seen before: people carried high piles of anything on their heads, palm tree lined dirt road, and women dressed in colorful saris and they looked so beautiful. There were kids everywhere playing a wheel and stick game, cows and monkeys and chickens all wandering around, people just going about their business. Immediately I forgot about my backpack and felt this overwhelming and most welcoming sense that overcame me. I felt the stress of western life quickly flowing out of my body while I instantaneously adapted spiritually to my new surroundings with excitement and fervor. I was finally in India, and I liked it, I loved it! I couldn’t wait to see what was beyond the airport grounds.

Part two

From there, I spent three relaxing days at Kovalam Beach in the South in Kerala State. I took a tuk-tuk, a three wheeled auto rickshaw, to my hotel I had read about in my trusty Lonely Planet travel guide. The tuk-tuk driver stopped somewhere along the way to his home as his wife had prepared him lunch so he took a few minutes to eat while I waited outside. I chuckled to myself after I realized this is how it is here. I didn’t mind and happily stood outside watching life walk by.

I had read about the hotel and was described as “a casual place run by two brothers”. When the tuk-tuk finally pulled into the grounds of my hotel, one of the two brothers came to greet me. I said, “Ah, you must be one of the brothers” and he said, “Yes, I am one brother and he is one brother and we are two brothers”. I was so warmed by the manner of which he spoke, and was instantly charmed and felt like I had come home.

I walked to the beach in my western clothes, standing out like a real tourist. “I’m a traveler” I told myself and went to buy some loose cotton pants, and a very simple shirt and now felt like I blended in as a western traveler, and not a tourist, a big difference! I loved this new life, being in India…everything was so different, and life was reduced to its common form of striving to eat every day. The simplicity of it all was extraordinary. Combining this and how religious and spiritual India is, I wanted to know more as the spirituality was just overpowering and intoxicating and euphoric!

I left the beach as it was a relaxing and good way to start my India trip, and I got my backpack back! Now on to the gigantic city of New Delhi. I loved all the sights and sounds, and chaos of New Delhi, especially Chandi Chowk, the main street in Old Delhi. A man followed me during my walk and kept shouting at me about something, and I became a bit concerned at his persistence while he walked behind me. I turned around and asked him what he wanted and he pointed down at my crotch and told me “my chain” was down, meaning the zipper on my shorts was open…how embarrassing! What a nice man, and a symbolic moment how cool people are in India.

From Delhi I flew to Kashmir. I knew of Kashmir from the Led Zeppelin song and it was supposed to be pretty. My goodness, “pretty” was an understatement: it is heaven on earth. Now this was 1985 and peaceful. These days, probably not the wisest place for a tourist to go walking about and it is such a pity the political issues that do exist there. I spent a week on a houseboat on Dal Lake near Srinagar, and another week up in Leh in Ladakh, 12000 feet high in the Himalayas. Every minute of every day was magical, incredible and more and more I was becoming of the spirit that is India, wherever I went. After my week in Leh, I came back to the same houseboat as Aziz, the houseboat owner, was so surprised to see me again. After all, I am loyal to my people. He allowed for me to integrate me into his family and have meals on his houseboat next door. I wanted to stay forever, and marry one of his beautiful daughters. But I had to move on.

Back to Delhi, I started on the “tourist trail” to Agra and of course to see the most incredible monument, the Taj Mahal. I was so spellbound by this breathtaking testimonial of the love story behind the creation of the Taj. I felt compelled to outline it on a scratch piece of paper. Mind you, I am no artist. But fifty people crowded around behind me to watch me draw the crudest drawing on a half torn piece of paper from my writing journal. On to Rajasthan.

Part three

I must note at this juncture of the article, that I had been traveling alone for four months at this point. The back story of my India story and how I came to be in India, is that I was working like anybody else and was “let go” from my job back in the US. They let me go because of politics as it was either the nephew of the boss or me to go. Fine! I called a travel agent and was gone within a month and booked a round-the-world airline ticket for a year long journey. I went alone, just me and that backpack I almost lost. I liked traveling alone as it leaves you wide open to meet anybody that crosses your path, and I was happy how this was all working out.

Well, everything changed when I went to Jaipur. While waiting to take the City Palace tour, I had started speaking with a couple of French girls. We chatted for a moment or two, and realized we would both be heading to Pushkar the next day, and I said great, see you there. Well, I did see her there and we agreed to travel on together to Jaisalmer and take a camel safari ride in the desert. It was warm and a full moon out while camping out under the stars and it was so romantic. The next day, I knew my life was going to be different. It was. We traveled back to Jaisalmer, and an overnight train ride to Jodhpur. Early the next morning, the train stopped in the desert to allow for tea and stretch of the legs. We exited the train, drank some tea and heard noises coming from on top of the train. It was the people on 4th class, or last class, who rode on top of the train. They were playing music and were waving to us as we waved to them. And it was that sublime moment where I lost all sense of western materialism. Here were the poorest of poor people looking as happy as anybody I’ve ever seen. And it struck me how happy they were, despite the poverty. And I envied them and wanted to be them. I look back on that moment as life changing.

The train arrived in Jodhpur, and said goodbye to the French girl, and was alone again with only her address in France and the most amazing memories of the five days we spent together. She went north to Kashmir, I went south to Udaipur. And I was mad that I found myself feeling miserable and lonely. I was having such a great time by myself meeting lots of different people, and why would she have to show up and “ruin” it for me…? I was love struck and felt a bit helpless wondering what, if anything would happen next, about her.

I had to continue on with my tour of India. I spent five days in a hotel room in Udaipur, and shut myself off from the world, trying to process what had just happened. I spent much of the time watching fierce monsoon rainstorms from my hotel room, smoking cigarettes, pacing in my room and writing. I wrote about those five days with this French girl and how she turned my whole trip around. I wasn’t happy being in an odd and bizarre limbo state. But the people of the hotel were great and of course I had to regale them of my story, and found myself in a group of hotel workers as my support system and new family. They convinced me I had to carry on with my journey and prepared for me the best Tandoori chicken I ever had…yum!

Part four

From Udaipur, I went to on Varanasi…thank God for Varanasi! And not because of the importance and holiness for Hindu’s and all peoples. But because it is such an overpowering and spiritual place, that it temporarily allowed me to take a breather from feeling so love struck and ridiculous. I focused on the essence of this incredible city. I took a sunrise row boat to capture life on the Ganges. I forgot about everything.

I moved on to the town Khajuraho, and toured the Kama Sutra statues. They were so sensual and sexy and then I started thinking about this French girl again….arggggh! My next and final stop in the subcontinent region was Nepal. Oh, how I was looking forward to being in Nepal. I fell in love with Nepal, as much as I did with India. I loved being Kathmandu wandering around the old temples of Durbar Square, and felt at home with the friendliness of the people. And yet, there I was carrying around this foreboding feeling of being love struck and love stuck on what to do. I had room in my budget for extra travel, just in case, and here it was. While walking around in a daze, I wandered by a travel agent and it hit me: buy a ticket to France and go see her. Voila! It was three weeks away, this unknown and sudden and unexpected trip to France.

And so feeling uplifted with the prospects of being love unstuck, I enjoyed my three weeks in Nepal, just hanging out, relaxing after five months of being on the road. I took the eight or ten hour bus ride to Pokhara, near the Annapurna Mountain Range of the Himalayas and trekking country. But I didn’t trek, I just wasn’t up for it…but I sure ate a lot of pie! My last days in Nepal were spent in Nagarkot, a small mountain community above the Vale of Kathmandu with an incredible view of the Himalayan chain and even Mt. Everest, just slightly taller than the rest of the peaks. It was practically free to stay there, very simple conditions using my sleeping bag I carried for sleep…and I’d never been happier in those few days staying on the ridge, drinking tea and looking at the majestic view. By and by, my time was up in Nepal and was about to catch the flight for my trip to France.

Part five

I had to walk quite a ways in a pouring rain in Kathmandu the morning of my flight. In fact it was a late monsoon rain storm that delayed my flight by ten hours. The itinerary for this trip on Aeroflot, the Russian airlines was Kathmandu, Calcutta, Bombay (then), and a transit stop to Moscow, Paris, and a train ride to Grenoble in the south of France.

Now, I wasn’t exactly sure how receptive this French girl was going to be with my visit. I did send her a postcard from Kathmandu announcing my arrival time, but planned it right not to allow for any rebuttal about my appearance. Anyways, I didn’t have an address she could send me any letter, and do keep in mind dear reader that there was a life before cell phones and texting, although I don’t know how we all managed back then without it! At this moment in time, maybe it was better to be in the dark about communications.

It was a thirty six hour endurance test of leaving my Kathmandu hotel walking in that pouring rain to showing up at her doorstep. When I arrived full of heart pumping nervous adrenaline, and travel weary exhaustion, I found a note taped to her door. It simply read: “You are a crazy American for coming here. Please go back on your journey, and leave me alone”

I collapsed to the floor, just simply in shock and feeling so stunned and numb. I read the note over and over couldn’t believe it. Certainly I took my own responsibility and accountability for this reaction and yet I couldn’t help but feeling pretty much heartbroken. And extremely disappointed. And yet I was already preparing to dive deeper into my budget for a flight to Bangkok, Thailand, the next destination on my round the world journey and get the heck outta France! What to do? It was Friday evening in a suburb of Grenoble, and found a bus back to the city to book the cheapest and dingiest hotel I could find. After living on $5 a day in Nepal, coming back to France was a financial culture shock! I spent the weekend wandering in a daze on the streets of Grenoble, France. It was October and getting cold. I was really missing India and Nepal, and cursing at the Western world for being so pretentious and snobby and expensive…and cold!

Part six

It was lunch time Monday when I went back to her apartment to leave her a note letting her know where I was staying and to at least see her one time before moving on. After all, I came all this way. She must have heard me fussing at the door with the note as it opened, and there she was. She wasn’t really sure if I had moved on yet, and was a little surprised to still see me here, and yet relieved that I was still here. I think she felt a bit guilty leaving such a note, especially knowing how far I had come out of my way just to see her.

Well guess what? The magic of India lived on in her own backyard, and I had to prove that it was so. We spent a wonderful week together touring her area. We even had Indian food one night. But I had to leave to get back on my own tourist trail of Bangkok, Hong, Kong, Tokyo, and back home to Los Angeles to complete my round-the-world voyage. And so I did. But the story isn’t done here.

I flew back to France at Christmas time for a couple more weeks of intense and concentrated “dating”and by the end of those two weeks, convinced her to come to Los Angeles, and experience a taste of my culture. And so she did, and we flew back together from Los Angeles to France, lived together for a few months. I went to school and learned some French, while she worked. By summer, we got married and flew off to Hong Kong for a four month honeymoon to China, Tibet, back to Nepal, Burma, Thailand, and ended with two weeks in Bali in Indonesia, a real honeymoon, before starting my real life of working again. It was eat, pray, love before the very successful and popular book “Eat, Pray, Love” came out.

For almost two years, I lived this vagabond travelers tale, and was the most incredible two years of my life. Many great memories and events emerged from these two years: one is our beautiful daughter and two, my novel, a romance adventure called Overland. I took quite a few memories of this journey and weaved them into Overland and referenced some of them in this article and you will recognize them when you read the book…based on a real true life adventure love story! Thank you India, thank you Nepal, I love you. Namaste. ~!~

The End (these travels took place in 1985)

Mark Steven Levy has written Overland- A Novel, Published by Zorba Publishers, India. Book available at

Thursday, 25 November 2010

A talk and film screening at the ants Cafe


A talk and Discussion by KP SASI

Saturday, November 27 · 6:00pm - 7:30pm

@ The Ants café. 2023/B, 14th Main, HAL 2nd Stage, Indiranagar Bangalore- 560038.

Kindly register your names with Mr. Trichao Thomas Project Coordinator Mob: 08123481721, Ph: 08041715639 or email before 26th of November, 2010.

No tickets or entrance fee. All are welcome.

For any further information and synopsis you could also visit us - /

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Driving Holiday - Karnataka

Jog Falls – Murudeshwar – Maravanthe – Agumbe – Sringeri - Horanadu

Recently went on a five day driving trip and covered Jog Falls, Murudeshwar a temple town on the West Coast of Karnataka, Maravanthe , a small beach again on the west coast , Agumbe a hill station in Shimoga and Sringeri and Horanadu temple towns in Chickmagalur district of Karnataka.

We set out on Wednesday 25th August morning and reached Jog after driving through 380 Kms on NH 206. We had earlier planned to stay on in a home stay close to Jog but drove on to Jog. Jog falls has quite a few accomodation options including the Karnataka State Tourism Mayura hotels and a PWD guesthouse. Though not much difference between the two we preferred the PWD guesthouse, which while was very spacious and the windows overlooked the Jog falls fell quite short on the maintenance aspect.

Jog is best during the monsoons when the water flow is the maximum but the disadvantage is that it rains continuously and is very misty so the falls is obscured at times. The other disadvantage was that the steps to the bottom of the falls was getting repaired and hence we could see Jog only from a distance. In addition to the main Jog falls viewing area there are two additional sight-seeing points where one can get a good look at the falls as they start to fall into the mountains, and we visited both these points also.

We had originally planned to relax in Jog but the sad state of our accommodation made us to move on. I have always had a fascination for beaches and decided to head westwards. While the distance from Jog to Honnaver on the west coast of Karnataka is just 60 Kms, the road is through the mountains and is full of bends. Since we started a little late in the evening, it was foggy all through and we made very slow progress and could cover the 60 Kms with a ( break in between )only in about 3 hours.

In Honnaver I called up my friend Sai who is an encyclopedia on places to visit in Karnataka and he suggested an extremely challenging work plan which would have made us drive about 3 - 400 kms and cover places like Gokarna in north Karnataka, Udupi to the south and many temple towns in between.

I had heard about the RNS residency in Murudeshwar which was supposed to be a good hotel and decided to move to Murudeshwar. Even though the drive from Honnaver to Murudeshwar was on National Highway 17, the road was quite bad and the journey of about 25 kms took some time.

RNS residency in Murudeshwar is really a wonderful and comfortable hotel with one draw back that it is a pure vegetarian hotel. Murudeshwar is best known for a grand Shiva Statue and a Shiva temple and we visited both.

On Saturday morning we set out on a truncated list given by Sai and went to Maravanthe beach again on the west coast .Maravanthe is a great beach with a river on one side and sea on the other but being off season there was no activity and we did not stop over.

From Maravanthe we headed to Sringeri and the road took us through a beautiful small hill station called Agumbe. About 20 kms distance to Agumbe is quite a steep climb and comprised about 10-12 sharp hair pin bends. Agumbe is best known for its Sunset but this being monsoon, visibility was quite impaired and we moved on.

Sringeriis home of the Shankracharya and has a temple dedicated to Saraswathi. We went for Darshan in the evening and after darshan also had meals in the mess. Sringeri is on the Tungariver and we once again visited the Temple in the morning just to see the river flowing besides the temple.

We set out for Horanadu at 10.30 on Sunday morning and drive from Sringeri to Horanadu is so beautiful. During monsoons the hills were lush green and there were so many water falls along the way.

We reached Horanadu, the temple dedicated to goddess annapurneshwari and after darshan had meals in the temple. Given that the name “Annapoorneshwari means feeding one and all, we had a nice simple lunch in the temple.

We set out from Horanadu at 2.30 PM , the distance to Bangalore being 330 Kms. The route to Bangalore would take us through Kalasa – Kotigehra, Mudigere, Belur Hassan on to NH 48 and onwards to Bangalore. The road from Horanadu to Kotigehra was hilly terrain again and we made slow progress. The road from Kotigehra to Belur was quite bad but the State highway from Belur to Hassan is one of the best roads I have seen. We reached Hassan at about 7.15 PM but decided against stopping over. Given it was night time I drove as carefully as possible and finally reached Bangalore only around 12.30 pm

The journey through Chickmagalur during the monsoon seasons is remarkable and recommended to everyone.

Anirban Mukerji

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Great Outdoors - 7th August 2010, Bangalore

‘The Great Outdoors ’– A one-day symposium on Adventure Sports, Outdoor Activities and Responsible Eco Tourism on August 7th, 2010 at Goldfinch Hotel, Bangalore

Essen Communications is organising its 4th edition of the one-day symposium on ‘The Great Outdoors,’ highlighting the potential of adventure sports, outdoor activities and responsible eco tourism initiatives. This proposed symposium will have an array of interesting panel discussions and presentations by renowned field experts relating to jungle trails, safety standard norms in adventure sports, potential of scuba diving, sustainable tiger tourism, rural and responsible tourism initiatives, and OBT besides rushes of adventure destinations & activities by outdoor outfits.

Other highlights include a display of adventure gear and a photo gallery displaying varied outdoor activities and an interactive session between stakeholders in tourism, participants and speakers. The event will witness the participation of travel agents, tour operators, corporate executives, HR personnel, educational institutions, nature and wildlife enthusiasts, government officials, stakeholders in tourism and adventure/ outdoor tour operators and promoters.

For more details & registration contact (before 2/Aug) : Essen Communications at Email: Mobile: 094483 63336

Tentative agenda relating to one-day symposium on Adventure Sports, Outdoor Activities & Responsible Eco-tourism on August 7th, 2010 at Goldfinch Hotel

9.30 am - Registration of delegates, Tea/ coffee
10.15 - 10.40 a.m -Inauguration -Jyothiramalingam, IAS, Principal Secretary, Tourism
Guests of Honour – 1.Vishwanath Reddy, IAS, Director, Karnataka Tourism
2. ND Tiwari, IFS, MD, JLR Ltd
Session 1 -10.45-11.15 am-Jungle Trails by Dr. Sanjay Bijoor, Special Officer, Karnataka Tourism Development
Session 2 - 11.20-11.50 am- Safety standard guidelines for adventure tour operators- Vinay Sirsi, Director, OZONE
Session 3 -11.55-12.25 am Potential and prospects of scuba diving in Karnataka & Andamans by Madhava Reddy, MD, Planet Scuba India & Andaman Diving Academy
Session 4 – 12.30 -1pm- Corporate Perception of Outbound Experiential Learning –Jagadeesh B, General Manager, HR, SKF
Session 5- 1 to 1.15 pm - Interaction of speakers with participants
1.15 -2.15 - Lunch & Networking Break
Session 6 -2.20- 2.50 pm- Sustainable tiger tourism by Dr. AJT John Singh, Wildlife Scientist
Session 7- 2.55-3.25 pm – Rural tourism ventures in India -Gouthami, Travel Another India
3.25 to 3.40 pm Tea Break
Session 8- 3.45-4.15 pm- New Initiatives in Responsible Tourism by Gopinath Parayil, Founder, Blue Yonder
Session 9 - 4.20 -4.40 - The Adrenaline Rush –Snapshots/AV presentations (1 min.) of adventure destinations & activities by adventure/outdoor outfits
Session 10 - Open House- 4.45 to 5 pm
Vote of thanks – 5 to 5.05 pm
Programme subject to change without prior notice

Essen Communications, Mobile: 94483 63336

Friday, 2 July 2010

Accessible Ladakh

After a long seven month break from work, I was looking forward to the project in Leh, to assist in the development of Leh and its surrounding areas as an inclusive travel destination. Leh, the capital of Ladakh, falls within the boundaries of Jammu & Kashmir. Areawise, it is the largest district in India, and is located at an altitude of 3500 m from sea level. It is commonly referred to as a cold desert.

All my friends warned me about altitude sickness and harsh weather conditions that I was bound to face there. I felt nervous on hearing stories of people returning back from the airport due to altitude sickness, but was still determined to go.

The project was commissioned by a social entrepreneurship ‘Travel Another India’ (TAI) in collaboration with a local NGO ‘People’s Action Group on Inclusion & Disability’ (PAGIR). TAI is working towards helping set up Responsible Rural Tourism Ventures and then link them up with travel agencies for marketing. TAI promotes Responsible Tourism with travellers and hosts by supporting communities to set up Responsible Tourism Ventures (RTV). They support on sensitising on Responsible Tourism, planning the experience, bringing in technical and financial resources, reaching out to guests, ensuring appropriate capacity building, facilitating learning across RTVs and identifying allied livelihoods that can be enhanced. For the Ladakh project TAI is working in collaboration with PAGIR, a rights movement working to create a society that is inclusive and free of prejudice. They do this by mobilizing people, campaigning on rights issues and accessing legal aid. Alongside, they also address livelihoods of disabled people.

Together TAI and PAGIR are working towards developing an inclusive travel circuit in Ladhak, that is accessible to people using wheelchairs. This is the first time in India that “inclusion” at travel destinations is being worked for professionally by organizations. Clearly, they considered it a profitable commercial venture rather than mere charity.

Leh can be accessed by road via Srinagar or Manali in the summers. This route is open for about five months in a year. Alternatively there are daily flights to Leh. I flew to Leh and was there for almost a week to visit and audit all tourist attractions in and around its vicinity, from April 12 to 18, 2010. While the actual tourist season begins only in May, there were already a large number of tourists who were attracted to Leh especially after seeing the breathtaking Pangong Lake in the recent movie ‘Three Idiots’.

The Leh Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, is one of the highest airport in the world, and is managed by the Indian Army. Though quite like the Delhi airport, there was no ambulift available at the airport. The ground transport to and fro from the aircraft is provided by small buses that are completely inaccessible. The ground handling staff pushed my wheelchair all the way from the aircraft to the airport. The airport is step free with a couple of steep ramps in places. There is no accessible toilet as expected.

The local taxis that are available are high, four-wheel drive vehicles, ranging from Innova, Scorpio to a Sumo. Smaller cars may be good for traveling within Leh city, but to travel around Leh a larger vehicle is a must. Being a tetraplegic, getting in and out of the Innova was very difficult for me, probably more difficult than negotiating with the architectural inaccessibility of all monuments! My trip would not have been possible if it were not for the impeccable hospitality extended by PAGIR locally. All credit goes to Kunzang (Secretary, PAGIR) and Kunzes (Cordinator, Himalaya on Wheels) and the driver Ehzaaz who accompanied me everywhere and assisted me at every step.

Predominantly a Buddhist region, Ladakh is also known as the land of Gompas (monasteries). Every village has its own Gompa in a secluded area away from the village, generally on a hilltop. Most Gompas have a large number of steps, but some with fewer steps include the Alchi Gompa, Shey Gompa, and the Likir Chamba where the deity of Buddha (70 feet high) can be viewed from the road itself.

I was truly excited when I saw that the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) working towards making the Alchi Gompa accessible, as it is an11th century monastery. Besides being the oldest in Ladakh, it is soon to become a World Heritage Site. The work was on, and an engineer from ASI was on site supervising the work. Though the ramps that they were constructing were rather steep, but still it was wonderful to see that ASI’s policy of making monuments accessible is truly taking shape. Some expert advice before making the changes would help them further, and avoid undesirable flaws such as the steep ramps.

Top : Work to improve accessibility
 in progress at Alchi Gompa

Left : A step free but steep access route to the Gompa
The natural beauty of Ladakh is incomparable. Being a wheelchair user, I tend to enjoy natural beauty as it is usually more accessible than man made monuments which are comparatively inaccessible. Leh’s natural beauty is so magnificent and overpowering, that it completely humbles you and spreads a sense of peace and calm. No wonder I survived so well, without mobile connectivity and without worrying about time comfortably for those six days. Each mountain in this dry land is of a different colour. Each view is such that you would want to photograph it. Two significant tourist locations are Khadungla pass, the world’s highest motorable road, and the Pangong Lake,a 134 km long lake extending from India to China. Being nature’s gifts, both these places are fully accessible, but unfortunately the man-made restrooms in both these places are inaccessible.

Left: vehicles waiting forthe army to clear out the route to Khardungla
Top: Khardungla, the highest motor able pass in the world.
 Pangong Lake

As a person who enjoys travel and adventure, I would love to return to Leh in spite of Ladakh not having a single accessible guest room that a wheelchair user can stay in or an accessible restroom for use. As an access consultant, I would have to say that there is a lot of work to be done before we can term Leh as an inclusive destination. Some major points of intervention, that would bring far reaching changes, are as follows:

1. The Jammu and Kashmir State building byelaws must adopt accessibility as a requirement, so that no new building can get a completion certificate unless it is fully accessible.
2. The Ministry of Tourism has very recently brought out Guidelines for Classification of Hotels that requires all hotels, 1 star to 5 star, to subscribe to accessibility ( It is important that local hotel associations too take these seriously.
3. Building the awareness of the local people in the area of accessibility is important.
4. Capacity building of local engineers and architects, especially working with the Government agencies such as ASI, PWD etc., on the subject of accessible environments is important.
5. There are a few villages in Ladakh that are being developed as model villages. Accessibility must be a criterion built into the development plans, as it would not only benefit the tourists, but also the sick and elderly in the village.

While accessibility is the key to the mainstreaming of people with disabilities, Ladakh is an untouched land when it comes to issues like accessibility for persons with disabilities. It is only due to organizations like ‘Travel Another India’ who are working towards creating an accessible travel circuit in Ladakh, that will bring initiate such a paradigm shift in the society with the local leadership and support of PAGIR. I wish them good luck and persevering strength to see this project through.

For further details on the travel packages, please contact Kunzang at or Gouthami at

Shivani Gupta,
Director, AccessAbility

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Road trip from Srinagar to Leh - via Kargil

Though I travel a lot, it is mostly to places where I have been before. So while I do get excited, I don’t get EXCITED. This was to be totally new terrain for me. Delhi to Srinagar and then on to Leh by road. Till we reached Srinagar, we weren’t sure whether the crucial Zojila pass on that road was open or not. As usual Delhi soured my mood. However, once I got into the plane and had two nice Kashmiri gentlemen sitting next to me, I was back to being gung-ho and looking forward to the trip. These men had not visited Kashmir in a long time and so it was a full-of-beans trio that kept peering through the window to see if we have reached.

We had booked a room at the Hotel Swiss based on recommendations on Trip Advisor that though the facilities were mediocre, the hotel owner’s helpfulness was to be seen to be believed. We drove through Srinagar during afternoon prayers blaring from mosques every 200m. There was also a gunman every 100m pointing his gun, it seemed, directly at the imaginary bindi on our foreheads. I had to quickly tell my young photographer friend that she is NOT to shoot the gunman – they would have no hesitation shooting right back. She reluctantly put her camera away.

If you ignore the presence of the armed forces, Srinagar is really one of the most beautiful places I have been to. Flowers in profusion and the tall chinars give a graceful look to the whole city. Our hotel was on a back lane of the shore of the Dal Lake – we were to be in the middle of the action. Rouf John, the owner of Hotel Swiss, was everything and more than we expected from the Trip Advisor reviews. He first asked us to be seated and gave us some Kahwa tea and cookies. Then he asked us about ourselves and our plans. Reluctantly we told him that we could not spend more time in his beautiful city and needed to head off to Leh. Would he help us find a taxi? He told us how to go about it and also made a couple of phone calls to taxi drivers he knew. However, since it was not yet tourist season, none of them were operational. Finally he showed us to our room. And much later, once we were ready to go sight seeing, he asked us apologetically to fill up our details in his guest register.

We stopped first at the Lhasa restaurant for lunch and negotiated with a dilapidated auto to take us to the Shalimar Bagh. On the way we had the calm Dal Lake on one side. And after entering the gardens, I could well understand why Shah Jahan was fida about Srinagar. It was here he was supposed to have said, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this…”! Not in English of course, but that was how our school history book translated what he said. I could not agree more. I think that from this point on, my words and my photographs are going to do little justice to the natural beauty. You simply have to see it to experience that uplifting of spirit, that feeling of complete and utter joy, the jaw dropping and me not even noticing…

Shalimar Bagh is laid out in a straight, simple, symmetrical manner. It slowly goes higher as you walk inside. In the centre is a water body flowing from the highest point. There are small waterfalls where everyone stopped to take photographs. On either side are two rows of colourful flowers – pansies, lilies, rose lilies, daisies, phlox, poppies… Behind the flower beds, at regular intervals, rose bushes of every hue. On either side were grass lawns dotted with flower beds, some magnificent old trees and some benches. What tales those trees should be able to tell!

In the backdrop were the snow capped Himalayas. Well, to be strictly correct, they must be the Karakoram range. The whole effect was simply stunning. As we came out we noticed that the walls were covered with rose creepers with bunches and bunches of roses of the most vivid colours – red, pink, yellow…

Step out and you step down from paradise back on to planet earth with the souvenir shops and chai stalls. I guess those really complete the experience.

Our return journey was just as beautiful by the Dal Lake. This time we were able to sit by the lake for a while though we didn’t have the time for a shikara ride. The lake is perfectly still and reflects each shikara exactly.

We continued our search for a taxi to Leh and got quoted some exorbitant prices. To raise our low spirits, we went shopping (of course!) and came back to the Hotel Swiss to tell our tale of woe to Rouf. He made some phone calls and then said, “Come, let us find you a taxi. These prices are ridiculous.” He drove us to the taxi stand in his car and asked us to look out for a JK-07 vehicle as those are from Kargil and would probably be going back empty. They would be much cheaper than the taxis from Srinagar. We found one soon enough and then the negotiations began. It was fascinating to watch Rouf and the many drivers who collected around talk, walk away, share a joke and finally agree on a price. We, three south Indian women, would have never been able to do it on our own. (Later I realised that we were breaking the co-op effort set up by the taxi drivers of Srinagar, Kargil and Leh where fixed prices operated.)

We came back much pleased and sure that Rouf would give us a fat bill the next day. And very embarrassed when he refused payment even for the room since it was their spare room and not really fit for guests!! This country is amazing! It was only after much insistence that he took a payment for the room at all!

Rouf had explained the previous day that we are not to think that Kashmiris are like “North Indians”. North of the Jawahar Tunnel, people are again human was what he told us. I have experienced amazing hospitality everywhere in the world (even in Delhi) and Rouf was yet another example of that.

Setting out at 7 in the morning is not my idea of fun. But the driver insisted that unless we left early, we would be stuck behind many trucks on that narrow road. How do I even begin to describe the journey Kargil? We were soon out of city limits after going past the glassy Dal Lake. And we started climbing almost at once. Often the drop on one side would be so steep that I closed my eyes. The mountains were all snow capped and it looked like we were climbing to that snow. It was a shock how quickly we moved from the verdant valleys of Mulbek to stark Ladakh.

Soon, in the bright sunlight, we could see the snow drifting towards the aqua green streams that flow in the valleys. Our driver was in a hurry, but we just had to stop and take pictures of the snow drifting. It had picked up a lot of rubble on the way and was really dirty snow. And it was getting cold to step out of the car.

And then we were in the midst of the snow. On either side of us were huge snow banks towering above us. Zojila pass was marked with two army men covered completely and wearing snow glasses. We had some narrow meetings with trucks coming the other way and one point where the trucks had parked leaving no place for us to go past. We passed several army check posts. At each, one of the soldiers would come in and peer at us. I smiled and made small conversation with each of them – and usually got welcomed to join them for a cup of tea. What a life they lead. I am not in favour of war and the armed forces, but these men were extraordinary. They ensured these roads were kept open for at least six months in a year and stayed here in these lonely and frozen conditions. I will not go into the futility of their work – but their bravery and resolve I cannot question.

At one check post a very cheerful young man asked us where we were from. And our standard answer was Chennai. Hopefully he asked if any of us could speak Telugu and when I did, he beamed brighter than the snow around. He was from Hyderabad and had been here for nine months now. I was so touched that I immediately offered him some of the mangoes and murukkus that we were carrying with us. He refused it resolutely. Really! If someone were to offer me murukkus and mangoes in Madras I wouldn’t refuse. In the middle of a frozen desert? I would have broken down and cried! (I did that after a month in the Philippines and then being served alu puri on the Singapore airlines flight back!)
Once we crossed this army post, our driver relaxed a bit and we guessed that the worst bit was over. Soon we were in Dras which was worst affected by the Kargil war of 1999. We stopped to have some lunch and take pictures of the infamous Tiger Hill where the “enemy” first appeared. Of course we had to take pictures near the board that said “Second coldest inhabited place in the world”. Truly, been there done that.

Further ahead was the Operation Vijay memorial and we went around it thoroughly. War is of course futile, but that is for the heads of governments to take a stance on. The soldiers fight and die and in terrible conditions at that. I kept expecting to hear Barkha Dutt’s voice in a commentary, but was spared that at least! I was tickled pink to see a souvenir shop – caps and t-shirts with Operation Vijay written on them! Good for the armed forces!

By the time we reached Kargil, we were completely exhausted. The guide book says that Kargil was on the ancient route from Samarkand to Srinagar. While that evokes romantic images, let me assure you that it is dusty one-street town with honking cars. And it didn’t help that we were the only women in town who didn’t cover our heads.

After a bit of rest, we went in search of some vegetarian food and I got two thick rotis with enough butter on them to last me a lifetime. A taste of the famous butter tea and we were back to the hotel. A good night’s rest would have been useful. But the bed bugs came awake as soon as I slept. Of course I insisted that I be given another room, but that was the end of sleep for the night.

The next day’s drive was even more beautiful – if that were possible! The road was terrible and none of us had slept well – but the natural grandeur kept us awake and in raptures. We stopped at Dah for a cup of tea and found a bakery making fresh goodies – picked up an assortment of those. As we climbed higher, my head was paining ready to burst. As always I wondered at the effect on my companions of my exploding head spewing emptiness. It was a relief when I saw the sign “Fotula - 13479 ft – Highest point on the Srinagar Leh Road”. It had to be downhill from here. Sure enough we came down a 1000 ft rapidly and the rookie drummer in my head took a break.

And then the mountains started to change colour. This I have never seen before. To me mountains don’t have a colour of their own. Only of the vegetation that grows on them. But here, each mountain was multi-coloured in a different way. Pink, green, ochre, purple, maroon – I swear! The road continued to twist and turn and drop steeply. We didn’t notice – we were spellbound in the colours. Soon enough we saw some sand dunes justifying the label of “cold desert” – should that be “coldest desert”? I had on about seven layers of clothes and still wanted the car windows closed. I am exaggerating - actually only six layers were needed!

We stopped for lunch at Khaltse. Rajma chawal was becoming our staple. Good at some places, not so good at others. The meat eaters are of course luckier with a wider choice.

I took about a zillion photos (or at least as many as the memory card would allow) and really none of them come close to showing reality. These are bare colourful mountains. Everywhere you look. At times it looked like one large construction site. At others it looked ready for an afforestation programme. I expected at every turn to see a man in khaki shorts and topi say, “Let us just fill up this place with eucalyptus, shall we?”

Suddenly we saw a flock of sheep on the steep slopes. What were they eating? Stones? No, there is some plant life on these slopes, but so little that we couldn’t see it. We were also entering the land of monasteries. Perched on the highest point of each range would be a stunning structure. And the driver would mumble that it is … gompa. I didn’t catch any of the names that first day. Time enough for that.

At some points the wind and the snow had done weird things to the rocks. Looking at them, you could believe in extra terrestrial life. Surely this was neither human made nor natural. And as if to confirm my theory near the largest of these weird structures, the driver showed me a meteorite – kept in a cage. It was black, smooth and egg shaped. I could go off into sci-fi with that et egg!

Nimmu for tea and we were all excited at getting closer to Leh. Perhaps it was the tea and freshly baked biscuits, but it suddenly struck me that we were driving by the Indus now – the river that gives this country its name. And we were all suitably sombre for seven seconds.

Finally the road started improving. While most of it was like “Hemamalini’s cheeks”, some of it continued to resemble mine.

Further ahead we saw the aqua green Zanskar river merge into the muddy brown Indus – the play of colour here was just … I am running out of superlatives, now.

A board told us it was the Magnetic hill before we entered a wide open valley. Just a black road cutting across and the mountains all around. The colour, the snow caps, et al. Beyond were more vistas of the Indus – tiny still, but the melting snows would make it roar within the month.

And we were in Leh. But that is another story!

8th May 2010

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Orchha, soon to be unveiled

I was invited to a workshop at Orchha, Bundelkhand in the middle of this summer.  The logistics of travel from Hyderabad were rather de-motivating - fly to Delhi and then travel back several hours to reach Jhansi in the middle of the night or waste a full day of work to travel by train from Hyderabad!  “Aah this is not going to work out,” I thought and my secy, sensing the reluctance, kept the tickets on hold till the last hour. 

But Orchha was tantalizing – tales of valour of the Bundela rulers, Jhansi ki Rani, the magical Chandela palaces…  I decided to go for it with two wait-listed tickets for DelhiJhansi in hand.  Reached Delhi by an evening flight, after a full day of work and luckily got a confirmed seat on the Delhi – Bangalore Rajdhani which had Jhansi as its first stop at 1 in the night!  Managed to catch some sleep despite the cantankerous co-travelers.  Why is it that people in slow trains traveling by sleeper classes are a happy and merry lot and those in super fast a/c trains and coaches always grumpy and complaining? 

We reached Jhansi a bit late, at 1.40 am. As always no one in the family knew I was traveling alone and would end up in the land of dacoits in the middle of the night.  My secy had researched Jhansi and told me it was a Maoist infested area too – I didn’t believe that one.  But happily a large and robust jeep and driver were waiting for me.  We drove through the quiet streets of Jhansi and were soon on a narrow state highway, running through the rather sparse forest of the region.

Bundelkhand is at the cusp of two states – UP and MP and there is a long pending demand for the region to be formed into a separate state.  At some point, which I did not register, we crossed the border to enter MP.  The drive was meant to take only 20 minutes but I felt was longer.  “Am I being taken to the famous Maoist hideouts”, I wondered idly.   But the milestones rather morosely said we were nearing the famous Orchha. 

It seemed like a regular village with narrow roads and tightly packed houses opening onto the streets.  But for a welcome arch, most of the houses appeared `modern’ – small concrete structures that mark prosperity and new money in most villages.  A sharp turn to the right and we seemed to have reached the resort zone.  It was about 2.30 am by now. 

As we cruised into a sprawling resort I saw an amazingly beautiful structure gleaming in the moonlight.  It was at least 3 storeys high, with graceful arched roofs, lovingly plastered and hand-polished with lime centuries ago. The dark patches left by the passage of time, such as on the roofs, only highlighted the beauty of the architecture and like the laugh lines on a beloved face, emphasized the pearly, glowing finish elsewhere. I stood mesmerized for long minutes while the driver fidgeted and the hotel staff took away my luggage.  `What is this?’ I asked.  And the driver nonchalantly said, “Just one of the forts of Orchha madam, now please sign here”.  Thus firmly brought back to earth, I dragged myself to my room which could have been anywhere in India – from the Heritage village in Gurgaon to dear old Alankrita in Hyderabad

Next morning I had time to walk to the river Betwa, spanned by a lovely old bridge and thence straight into the forest.  It was populated by an amazing assortment of birds and the usual bunch of hyper active rhesus monkeys.  My day was made by the bird songs alone but it still held other pleasures – the Ram temple, Jahangir Mahal, several chatris by the river side and so much beauty just beyond the roofs of the concrete houses that line the roads. 

I was there for a workshop so of course had no time to explore any of these structures but I promised myself I would be back, with family and more time, as I had done to several lovely places discovered through work related travel. 

But Orchha is truly special, seeing it unveiled at 2 am has started a new romance.  That moment will be with me forever, to be savored when surrounded by the ugliness often produced by modern architecture.

Orchha will be on the big screen soon, a soon-to-be-released Maniratnam film,  `Ravaan’, has been extensively shot there.  Not sure if this is good news or bad for Orchha (deluge of honeymooner with nifty cameras and loud cars?), but the experience was great for the local people, many of whom got bit roles in the film and Rs. 500 per day!  Reminds me of the dacoit of Octopussy I met in a village near Udaipur, but that’s a story for another day.


Rupa Mukerji
May 2010

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Gwalior Magic

This is about my trip to Gwalior. I had gone there recently as part of my presentation for a project by DST. I love travelling and exploring new cuisines. I am a true believer in the fact that India is really incredible. There is so much to explore in our beautiful vivacious country.

I have always been a sucker for the rich heritage of our forts. Each state has its uniqueness and rich story of its own. The Gwalior fort took nearly some twenty five odd years to build and Raja Man Singh lived there only for a short time. The walls of his pooja room were filled with emerald, rubies, diamonds, etc which will were all plundered by the invading Ghazni. The temples stand as a mute testimony to all the pilferage and destruction caused by the invading rulers. I had little time in my hands so I was unable to see all the places. For anyone wanting adventure, Gwalior is the place. There are many palaces of the ruling Scindias but I was unable to visit them.

The Surya Narayan temple has built with the Konark temple in mind and I must say it is a fine replica. The Gurjari Mahal which houses all are rich sculptures is worth exploring. Felt wonderful to be in the place where once upon a time the beautiful Mrignanyani lived.

The food of MP though similar to Maharashtra has a distinct identity of its own. The batata wadas, poha and sabudana khichidi were all strikingly different from the ones I used to eat at Pune. I loved the Dal Bhatti too. The til ka gajak is wonderful and irresistible for a sweet loving person like me. Eating jalebis early in the morning is a unique feature of MP’s breakfast and not to be missed.

I somehow felt my trip was not complete so maybe in the near future I will go again with my family and combine the exploration of Orcha and Bundelkhand too.

Bindumathi Mohan
March 2010

The tour of Konaseema, Rajahmundry and Nidadavole

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March 16, 2007

Sumant and I left for Rajahmundry on March 16 on a 1pm Air Deccan flight.  We reached Rajahmundry at 3pm after making a brief halt at Bezavada (Vijayawada) to pick up passengers – only outbound flights from Madras halt at Bezavada.  Babu, my late cousin Purushottam’s son, picked us up from the airport and took us home in Prakashnagar, a modern extension of Rajahmundry.  Prakashnagar is a neat, well-planned neighborhood with tree-lined, broad roads and modern buildings.  Babu lives in a comfortable ground floor apartment with a front and back yard.

In the evening, we went for a tour of Rajahmundry town.  First we visited Government Modern Secondary School, popularly known as “Training College”, where I studied for three years from 1934 to 1937 (fourth form to SSLC).  When I was a student, the school building was a beautiful structure surrounded by open verandahs.  I was disappointed to find the school is badly maintained and dilapidated. I understand that the school now has many times more students than it did in my day.  The strains placed on the infrastructure by this much larger group of students, along with the age of the building and the bad maintenance of most government buildings probably account for the present depressing site.   All these verandahs have been walled up, spoiling the beauty of the building.  The school used to be surrounded by a badminton court to the North and a ring tennis court to the East.  Both of these courts have now been replaced with modern buildings.  The playground is now the site of a hostel building.  The main gate on the Southern side is closed and shifted to the Eastern side opposite the old Krishna Cinema.

Next, we went to my old college – Government Arts College – where I studied for four years (intermediate 2 years and B.Sc two years).  Like my old school, my college building used to be a beautiful structure with wide open verandahs all around.  One could walk through the verandahs all around the building.  Now that building is not visible because the railway bridge runs between the college building and the hostel blocks.  I am told the former college building is used by the railways as an office.  The old hostel blocks (two in number) and the warden’s house are still there.  They are now used as a junior college for women. All the verandahs on the ground floor and first floor of the buildings are walled up, destroying the beauty of the old building.  The maintenance of the buildings is also awful.  The ground level has increased with a result that the lower level of the hostel verandahs and the ground level are the same.  A few buildings have also come up on the West side that adjoins Godavari Bund where there used to be bathrooms in our days (1937-41).   

In our days, the Godavari Bund was not wide enough to permit vehicular traffic.  Now, the Godavari Bund has been widened, parks have been created at a few places – including the area behind the Government Arts College, at Launche’s Wharf, Innes Peta, and Shrattananda Ghat.  Standing on the Godavari Bund, we enjoyed the panoramic view and the width of the Godavari River. 

From there we went to Aryapuram and Kotilingalu.  These areas are considered to be holy sites for bathing in the river.  The government has made excellent arrangements for devotees to bathe.  We also passed by the site of my father’s eldest brother’s (who later became my adoptive father) old residential house in Aryapuram. I sold the Aryapuram house in 1954 for 10,000 rupees to the Rajahmundry Timber Merchant’s Association after the Godavari floods of 1953 submerged the whole town.  The property measured 1,200 square yards (or approximately 1.5 grounds).  At the time of its sale the property included a nice house facing South and a block of 9 residential tenements facing West onto Godavari Bund.  These structures have been replaced by a Wedding Hall (Kalyana Mandapam) and a number of other shops.  The area now looks terribly crowded and is as unsanitary as ever.  With the huge increase in population, it is not possible to identify the places that were so familiar to me 70 years ago. 

Like Prakashnagar, the other extensions of Rajahmundry are well planned and attractive.  The old Government Arts College has been shifted to a new place near Prakashnagar with extensive grounds and open space.  I am told that the current enrollment of the Government Arts College is over 3,500 students, a far cry from the 300 students who attended the college in my day! There are also a number of other colleges in Rajahmundry now.  In those days, Government Arts College was the only college in the entire district!

March 17, 2007

We left at about 9am the following morning for our tour of the surrounding areas.  We first visited Kadiam, which is very close to Rajahmundry.  The main canal of the Godavari Eastern delta (branching off from Godavari Anicut built by Arthur Cotton in 1858) runs by the side of Kadiam.  This place is full of plant nurseries, some of which are 30-40 acres in size.  Thousands of varieties of flowering plants, fruit trees and other plants are grown in these nurseries using modern techniques.  They are run by enterprising businessmen with exports running into crores of Rupees.  All the nurseries are located along the canal.  Next, we passed through Kappeswaram, which is also on the banks of the canal.  This village is famed for producing the finest Madathakaja in the region, along with other local sweets.  As we proceeded further along the road, we touched Graksharama, famous for its Siva temple.  The place is known as “Dakshina Kasi” (Benares of the South).  The temple’s Siva lingam is so tall that the abhishekam is done on the first floor of the temple.  Graksharama is one of the pancha aramas of Andhra Desam (the five borders of Andhra Pradesh).  After visiting the Siva temple, we proceeded further, touching Ramachandrapuram on the way.  Ramachandrapuram is an old town but since there are no places of special interest in that town, we proceeded further to Yenam. 

Yenam was part of the French territory of Pondicherry prior to independence and is still administered by Pondicherry. We went around the town and proceeded next to Kaakinada.  We somehow missed visiting the Yenam road bridge across a portion of the Bay of Bengal, the construction of which is considered an engineering feat.  Kaakinada is the headquarters of East Godavari District and is home to a number of educational institutions including a number of engineering and medical colleges.  The famous century-old PR College (Pithapuram Rajah’s College) is situated in Kaakinada.  We had our lunch in Kaakinada and returned to Rajahmundry via Samalapur.  The road from Samalapur to Rajahmundry is also very good.  This road lacked the scenic beauty of Konaseema and other Godavari delta towns.  There are a number of industries located on this road.  We reached Rajahmundry by about 4pm.  In the evening, we looked up my niece Rama Devi, daughter of my cousin Durga Ramalu.  Rama Devi is a year younger than my eldest son, Ramana.  Her father was my closest cousin – three months my junior in age. 

March 18, 2007

Sumant, Babu, Gauri and I started at 9am on a trip to Konaseema via Bobbarlanka.  On the way to Bobbarlanka, the gateway to Konaseema, we touched Bevaleswaram where we saw the statue of Sir Arthur Cotton, the famous builder of the Godavari Anicut.  There is a museum of the Godavari Anicut design in that town.  The Anicut across the Godavari River, stretching from Pichikillalanka, Bobbarlanka and Vijjeswaram at the Western End is about 4 miles in length and is the longest in the country.  It was not only an engineering feat in the 19th century but has also brought enormous prosperity to East and West Godavari districts because it resulted in the extension of irrigation to over 2,000,000 acres which were previously not irrigated.  After Independence, the Anicut, which had become old and needed repairs, was abandoned and a barrage was built in its place.  The barrage has facilitated year-round vehicular traffic right from Madras to Calcutta, which was previously not possible. 

We took off from Bobbarlanka to Konaseema.  The roads all over Konaseema are excellent.  All along the roads there are canals on both sides.  The scenery is really wonderful – miles and miles of green paddy fields, coconuts groves and banana plantations.  It is a real sight to see.  Practically all of the villages and towns in the area are located on the banks of the canals.  I doubt that there are many places on Earth that have such fertile land, intensive cultivation and natural beauty. 

On the way we visited the Rayli Temple – a temple built in the honor of Jaganmohini – a local deity.  This temple has been famous for hundreds of years.  The Vigraham of Jaganmohini is very unique featuring the visage of Vishnu on one side and that of Lakshmi on the other, with the entire vigraham fashioned out of a single piece of stone.  The vigraham is exquisite in its detail – one can even see the lines on the palm of Jaganmohini’s hand.  We had darshan at the temple and proceeded further.

Next, we visited Mandapalli where there is a famous Senikshetram, known in the Roman tradition as the god Saturn. The previous day, Saturday, was Senitriodashi (the 13th day of the lunar cycle), which is considered to be the most auspicious day for Saturn.  The place attracts lakhs of people on Senikshetram day from all over Andhra Pradesh so we decided to visit on the next day, had a leisurely visit and took Darshan. 

From Mandapalli we went to Yenugalamahal, a village which abuts Mandapalli.  Yenugalamahal village happens to be my maternal grandfather’s native place, where he had land and a number of relatives.  Yenugalamahal is also home to Srichakramahameru Temple, a temple that was recently constructed by the late Swami Pranavananda of Mansarovar. He was born in Yenugalamahal installed that Srichakram in Yenugalamahal village when he was over 90.  I am told that it is the largest Srichakram in India.  It is made out of a single black granite stone, which was made in Hyderabad and transported to Yenugalamahal.  The village is quite old so the roads – you can hardly call them roads – are hardly 5 feet wide. The canal wall which surrounds the village, the Bund, is so high and narrow and risky, even for small vehicles to pass.  I wonder how the Srichakram was transported to that village.  It is difficult for a car to negotiate those narrow streets.  He must have employed human labor to transport the one ton Srichakram from the lorry to the temple site.

Swami Pranavananda is a very interesting character.  He was a great explorer of the Himalayas and a spiritual Sadaka.  He knew the entire Himalayan region like the palm of his hand having lived a number of years in Tibet.  The Swami was recognized as a Lama by the Tibetans.  His circumambulation of Kailas and Mansarovar more than 25 times is a world record.  He also explored the origin of the Ganga, Sindhu and Brahmaputra rivers and exploded the existing theory of Dr. Svenhedden and wrote a book on the origin of the three rivers that was published by the Calcutta University Press.  The Royal Geographical Society elected him as a member and he was made a permanent delegate to the Indian Science Congress. 

On our way to Amalapuram, we visited Ambajipeta, Bandaralanka, Ganavaram Aqueduct and Munganda village.  Ganavaram Aqueduct is a famous engineering feat.  A canal flows on the aqueduct, and the Godavari River flows underneath.  This is the only aqueduct of its kind in the Godavari delta and was constructed by the enormously productive Sir Arthur Cotton over 150 years ago – a real engineering feat even today.

Munganda village is an Agraharam; a local adaptation of the village’s original name - Muni Khandam.  It is the birthplace of the great Sanskrit scholar Jagannatha Pandikarayallu who lived during the time of Akbar the Great and was the author of Ganga Lahari, a great piece of Sanskrit poetry.  Jagannatha Pandikarayallu is one of many great Sanskrit scholars who hail from Munganda. 

We had lunch at Amalapuram, an old and important town of Konaseema.  On the way, we touched Kothapeta, another important town in that area.  After lunch, we proceeded to Bendamurulanka – the birthplace of my maternal grandfather Bomagantu Latsayagaru.  This village is at the fag end of the delta where the Godavari joins the sea.  From there, we took Amalapuram-Razole Road but we did not visit Razole. We crossed the bridge across the Godavari – the last branch of the river where it joins the sea.  As we crossed the bridge, we went from East to West Godavari Districts. After crossing the bridge we took Vallapallu-Martheru Road, which takes us to Nidadavole, the village where I grew up.  There are a large number of villages on that road.  The Nidadavole-Narsapur canal runs along that road.  The villages on that road are also quite prosperous as a result of the good transportation infrastructure which has been extant for a number of years.  There is a lot of trading activity and agriculture in these villages.

We reached Nidadavole on 4:30pm on March 18 and drove straight to Polam, a place outside the village where my late cousin Purushottam’s house is situated.  My nephew Babu – Purushottam’s son – is building a beautiful house in this ancestral location adjoining the road and canal.  The house will be ready in a couple of months.  It has a wonderful view.  The house faces east towards the canal.  Babu owns all of the land around his house so he can ensure that nothing disturbs the magnificent view from his house.  From Babu’s house we went to the old town where I spent my childhood until 1934.  We looked up a cousin sister of mine who is over 90.  Then we looked up my maternal uncle’s wife and left for Rajahmundry.  We took the road to Gopavaram along the Godavari Main Canal and from there took the Vadapalli Road which runs along the Western Bank of the Godavari and then took the Road/Rail Bridge across the Godavari River which enters Rajahmundry town near the old Government Arts College building.  The view of the Godavari from the Road/Rail Bridge is superb.  The width of the river there is over 3 miles.  We returned to Rajahmundry at about 7pm after a comfortable journey and enjoyable trip.

Sumant was very keen on visiting Rajahmundry, Nidadavole and other places in Andhra.  Because of his enthusiasm, initiative and the way he organized the trip, I was able to visit Konaseema which I have been longing to see for a long time.  Although I spent my entire youth and childhood in Rajahmundry and Nidadavole, which are very close to Konaseema, I could not visit the area because there were no roads to go to Konaseema in those days.  One had to go to Bobbarlanka from Rajahmundry by steamer and from there take a bus.  The bus service was irregular and roads running along the canals were poor and dangerously narrow.  If you wanted to go from Nidadavole to Konaseema, one had to walk all the way to Amalapuram.  On the way, one had to cross the Godavari at Raulapalam by boat and walk from there.  My maternal grandfather used to visit Yenugalamahal once a year and used to walk all the way (about 30-40 miles) one way and return after 5 or 6 days.  My maternal uncle used to go on a bicycle from Nidadavole, cross at Raulapalam and cycle the distance both ways. That was the only way to reach that area until the road bridge was constructed connecting that area to the national highway.  Since all our relatives in that area moved to Nidadavole and Rajahmundry there was no reason to visit that area in our days.  I am glad I was able to see those places at this late age in my life thanks to Sumant’s initiative and help.  He immensely enjoyed the trip and took photos of all of the places we visited.  They will provide a great incentive for all of the other members of the family to visit those places and enjoy nature’s beauty at its best. 

Suri Ramakrishna, March 30, 2007
The author was 86 years old when he made the journey and wrote this piece.