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.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A weekend Photo Expedition @ Banavasi

This photo expedition offers you an exclusive insider access to some of Banavasi’s most unique and visually compelling places. It will hone your skills, offer insights into photography. To help us and guide us in this expedition, we have with us Sreeya Sen (Photographer). When asked - why this photo expedition? she said "My love for photography is deeply connected with the streak of wanderlust I have within me. My work mainly talks about my travels and the rich experiences, that I encounter while I am outdoors, which I then present to the world to see and hope, that they ‘feel’ just a small part of what my mind has perceived."

On this expedition we will visit special places like the Madhukeshwara Temple built in the 9th century and dedicated to Lord Shiva, meet with skilled potters, stone carvers, wood carvers, and discover the wonder and secrets of the craft world. A visit to the Rani Mahal near the Gudnapur Lake during twilight is a stupendous experience behind the lens. We are not even going to mention the variety in birds!

Guess what? We are not done yet. That’s right! Not till we find ourselves in Mundgod, a beautiful slice of Tibet in Karnataka, that leaves one with a surreal experience.

For whom: Anyone with a camera (over 18) who wants to do more

When: 19th & 20th June 2010

Where: Banavasi, Uttara Kannada District, Karnataka

How Much: Rs.4900/- only per person

For: All meals, stay, transport to places mentioned in itinerary
Not for: tickets to Banavasi, pick up & drop at railway station/bus stop, anything else not specifically mentioned

To know more: or call +91 9940 559 513

Getting there:
The nearest airports are Hubli which is 100kms away (3 hours) and Dabolim (Goa) which is 245kms away (6 hours) from Banavasi. Taxis can be hired at counters inside either of the airports to reach Banavasi.

The nearest train station is at Haveri (70 km) away. Several trains from Bengaluru and Mumbai stop at this station. A taxi can be organised to pick you up from the station and it takes approximately 1 ½ hours from there. Some of the trains stop here just after midnight and so the ticket needs to be booked for the next day.

KSRTC runs two buses direct to Banavasi from Bangalore. Many more buses are available to Sirsi which is 23 km from Banavasi and there are buses once every half hour. Taxis can also be hired at Sirsi.

Driving up from Bangalore would take seven to eight hours. The route will take you through Tumkur, Tiptur, Arisikere, Shimoga, Sagar on NH 206 and then turn right at Manmane towards Siddapur, Sirsi and finally Banavasi. While turning off the NH206, there are several options; this is merely one option.

Driving down from Pune, take NH4 to Hubli passing through Kolhapur and Belgaum. Turn right off the highway after passing Hubli, towards Sirsi. You will pass the Tibetan settlement at Mundgod on the way. At Sirsi, turn right to Banavasi.

Tentative Schedule

Saturday, 12th June - 2010
8:30 am – Breakfast at Banavasi
9.30 am - An interactive session with Sreeya Sen (Photographer)
1.00 to 2:30 pm – Freshen up and have lunch
2.30 to 3.30 pm – Temple tour
3:30 to 5:30 pm – Craft tour – potter, stone carver, wood carver, pith flower making and bag making unit
5:30 to 7:00 pm – Rani Mahal and sunset at Gudnapur Lake
8:00 pm – dinner

Sunday, 13th June - 2010
8:30 am – Breakfast at Banavasi
10:00 am – Visit to Mr Rauf Sheikh’s farm to see – pineapple, banana, pepper, cocoa
11.30 am – leave for Mundgod (Visit the Tibetan monasteries and have lunch there in Mundgod)
5.00 pm - Sharing of photos and experience with Sreeya Sen and farewell

For more information about Banavasi, refer to