My stay at Jungle Lodges, Bandipur

When we reached the Bandipur Safari Lodge, run by Jungle Lodges, it was only 11 am. We had left Bangalore early in the morning, and even with multiple breakfast and rest stops, we made it to Bandipur sooner than anticipated. The folks at the check in counter were kind enough to give us a room right away, so managed to get some rest before lunchtime. The resort is set in a thickly wooded area, filled with trees and plants, giving us the feel of being close to the forest as soon as we entered.

path

Lunch was a pleasant affair at the gol ghar, with a good choice of south Indian and north Indian food, with vegetarians well catered for. The service everywhere in the resort is excellent, with the staff taking care of guest needs promptly.

After lunch, the manager Mr. Nadaf took me on a quick tour of the property, showing the special rooms, which are slightly larger sized standalone cottages that come with an extra verandah.

cottage

verandah

I was staying in a normal cottage, each of which is named after a different animal found in the forest, and has a wall painting of the same behind the beds. I was staying in the sambar room (none of the rooms are air-conditioned but stay cool with the windows open).

room

The resort is also dotted with hammocks here and there, which make the perfect spot for a quick afternoon siesta before the safari. I made myself comfortable on one of those, with a book in hand, although I did not read much, distracted constantly by the various bird calls.

hammock

My experience at Bandipur Safari Lodge had so far been very good – room, food, service – but then it was time for the main reason I was there. Unlike other luxury weekend getaways, people head to Bandipur not to chill out at the resort but for the wildlife safari. And it is in this that the lodge fell seriously short of my expectations.

From the way guests were allocated to different jeeps, to the attitude of the jeep driver, everything was unfortunately below par. There was no naturalist accompanying our jeep, and the driver was just not interested in stopping anywhere to take in the forest, even for photographs. He was not a keen tracker – in my previous several experiences in our forests, I have only seen drivers who keep their eyes and ears trained for any sign of the tiger, and along with that, also point out other animal and bird species. But none of that here.

We just drove on listlessly, without any purpose or interest in seeing anything. By the end of it, even the guests in the jeep had lost interest in the forest and we were glad to be back at the resort – which is another story, because we reached Bandipur Safari Lodge ten minutes before the safari closing time.

In two safaris, forget tigers, we ended up not spotting even many bird species – a major disappointment. I was invited by the folks at thekarnatakatourism.com to this weekend stay at the Bandipur Safari Lodge and I have given my frank feedback here, because it is imperative for any wildlife resort to have good drivers / guides to make the forest come alive to guests.

Note: Karnataka Tourism is a private website that manages bookings for several nature resorts in the state, most of them from Jungle Lodges. You can visit the website or write to them at book@thekarnatakatourism.com for more information.

A fascinating catwalk in Bandipur

tiger1

I had a great weekend at Bandipur, a quick break with my family. I was not sure about going to a forest in the monsoon season but then I figured that if these national parks stayed open, then it must be ok to go there in July. Luckily, the rain kept away and we had two clear, sunny days with a gentle breeze.

The Saturday evening gave us good sightings of tuskers, one of whom kept playing hide and seek with us till we moved away. And when we got out of the forest at the end of the safari, we found this family by the side of the road – two adults and one small tusker. It was lovely seeing the male tusker having fun with the young one. Other than that, we saw several herds of chital, a couple of mongoose and few birds, of which I could identify only the green bee-eater and the magpie robin. Otherwise, the forest stayed quiet all afternoon, with not even birdsong to be heard.

It was equally silent when we drove in on Sunday morning – I love morning safaris because it is great to be in the forest when everything is just coming to life after the cold night. It is usually a loud, busy time, but not in Bandipur. Just ten minutes after we entered the forest, our driver got a call on his mobile phone and off we went, zooming over the bumpy mud tracks, holding on for dear life. A few hundred metres on, he stopped behind another jeep and waved his hand to the right, with a flourish, as if to say, “here is the treat I promised you.”

And what a treat it was! A dominant adult male was walking parallel to our path – and he gave us a show for over an hour. In fact, we spent the entire morning tracking him and watching his activities at various places in the forest. The drivers and guides knew exactly where he would emerge from, when he entered into the thickets.

We were the only two jeeps for the first many minutes and so, the sighting was extremely peaceful, without any of the annoying noise and excited chatter that we find in our national parks. Nor was there any crazy pushing and shoving among jeeps for the vantage position.

Up close

We drove alongside him for several minutes; he was so close that it felt like we could reach out and touch him (yeah, right).
He then seemed to get bored and went off into the lantana – this grows in such abundance that it is difficult to spot anything hiding inside. While driving through our national parks in search of the tiger, I have often thought that there would be many tigers that remained invisible – to us – amidst the thickets, laughing at our keenness and desperation.

At this point, we wondered for a minute if the show was over (it had lasted for many minutes, so we were not complaining), but our driver went ahead to the exact place from where came out in a few minutes and walked through the grass towards the other jeeps which had come in by then.

hiding

walking

Now, the gait of the tiger can only be called a catwalk – graceful, elegant and haughty. As if everyone watching the show is not worthy of his attention. he walked close to our jeep again, crisscrossing on this path many times – but he knew exactly where he was headed. At one point, I spotted him yawning and then sticking his tongue out to lick his lips – that is the instant when the power of this magnificent beast becomes visible. Till then, he seems like a benign cat, which we almost expect to start purring.

crossing

tongue

In all this, the area still stayed pretty silent; no alarm calls from sambar (not sure if there were any around) or langurs (of which there were plenty). We held our breath when he started walking towards a herd of chital grazing nearby. Was it going to be the end for one of those? And were going to get to watch a kill?

The chital got on to super attentive mode, ears up and eyes keenly following his trail – this next image is my favourite from this trip. It shows the delicate and exact balance of the jungle ecosystem. The tiger was not hungry and therefore did not even look at the deer. They, in turn, did not feel threatened and therefor, just stood on alert mode.

ecosystem

From there, we drove on to a small water body, which the driver guides were sure he would approach. He did come, walking close to the water, but did not stop to drink there.

thirsty

Back on the mud track, he walked ahead of our jeep (we were lucky enough to be the first in that long line of vehicles) – walked on and on, with us following in fascination.

What a merry dance he led us on – walking on the path, crossing here and there, marking territory everywhere, disappearing now just to reappear soon and so on. At one point, he stopped to look back, almost as if to ask us, “are you getting this?” before heading towards the jeeps waiting on the other end of that path (to bless them with darshan).

collage

In my forays into our national parks, I have had many tiger sightings, some good and some all too brief. But this has to be one of my best experiences – the show that lasted for over an hour, and the proximity to this graceful cat. My fears about heading to Bandipur in the rainy season proved unfounded. I guess this was a really lucky sighting and I can’t wait for more and more of these to come.

Gokarna: Sun, sand and spirituality

Gokarna has not woken up completely when we drive into the town early on a Sunday morning. We are on the single main road, a narrow stretch known as ‘Car Street’ after the temple juggernaut, which sits heavy and drowsy as the rest of the village. Its huge wooden wheels are stuck in the mud, waiting for the annual festival when they roll slowly around the town, carrying the image of the deity.

Most shops are shut, a few sluggishly coming to life as the owners raise the creaky metal shutters to another day. A few women are up and about, sweeping the street in front of their home, before drawing intricate rangoli patterns. A young priest sits on an abandoned platform in one corner, absorbed in his newspaper, unmindful of the dust his clean yellow robes are picking up.

reading2

reading1

And the cows, plenty of cows, flipping their long tails as if to keep people from coming too close to them. In a way, the cows belong right there, given that the name of the town stems from a legend that lord Shiva, known in the local temple as Mahabaleshwara, emerged from a cow’s ears (go-karna).

In one of the narrow lanes spreading out from the main temple road, we come across Karl painting a picture of Radha and Krishna on a swing. His canvas is the outer wall of the Radhakrishna bookstore, owned by his friends. Karl, from Germany, has been backpacking through India and has already been in Gokarna for several weeks now. “It’s a very special place,” he says solemnly, “I don’t have the heart to move on from here.”

painting

Welcome to Gokarna, the new Rishikesh.

Like Rishikesh, and perhaps Puri, Gokarna has something of a split personality. On the one hand, it is a temple town attracting the devout and the faithful. They are here seeking spiritual salvation in this “Kashi of south India.” For them, the sea just serves to take quick cleansing dips prior to prayers at the Shiva temple.

And on the other, it is also a typical seaside town where beach bums throng, lured by the song of the waves. They too are here on a pilgrimage of sorts, in search of nirvana amidst the sun and the sand, and the hipster beach shacks with names like Namaste and Yoga.

The twain rarely meets but when it does, it is a happy and smooth mingling.

Kudle
(Kudle beach: image courtesy wikimedia commons)

Although the temples themselves are out of bounds for foreigners, take a look at the surrounding streets. At breakfast at one of the local eateries with rickety metal tables and chairs, we find ourselves next to a young couple from Israel and their two small children. They, kids included, are tucking into idli and upma in a manner that suggests familiarity as much as fondness. Another of those fallen for Gokarna’s languid charm.

By the time we finish breakfast, there is a buzz around the area. Dozens of pilgrims walk purposefully towards the temple, some still wet from their tryst with the sea. More cows appear on the scene, as if summoned by the clanging bells. The shops are all open now, the ones selling shiny idols and laminated images of deities the most crowded.

Heading on from town, even that early in the morning, Kudle beach is a beehive of activity. The shore resonates with the happy shrieks of the young frolicking in the water. The patron saint of reckless kids clearly keeps a benevolent eye on them. There is a raucous volleyball game in progress, the two sides too busy laughing to have a serious match. An army of crabs scurries across the soft sand, leaving interesting patterns on the sand. They are the only ones who seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere.

Further away, young couples and singles sit at the beach shacks, waiting for their coffee and toast. From my bench in the shack, I can see a sprinkling of Om tattoos strategically placed on bare shoulders and waists. Someone talks of going for a swim, someone else speculates if it is time for sunbathing.

In all this, there is no sight of a local anywhere; this part of Gokarna seems strictly for the “others.”

Driving up to the next hillock (known, I am told, as Yoga Hill), we stop for stunning views of Om beach, also popular among tourists. The name seems to be the product of an imaginative mind; the rocky beach curves at two points on the shore, creating a Sanskrit ‘Om’. The beach is pristine, the waters glinting a muted silver under the morning sun.

Om

Further ahead lie the promisingly named Half Moon beach and Paradise beach, both reached only by a hike or through a short boat ride. Friends who have been there say that both are lovelier and quieter versions of the beaches we have left behind.

Looking out on the beaches, I wonder for a minute if this is Gokarna or Goa. But later on that evening, inside the town, with the temple bells pealing in the distance and in the company of cows once again, I know.

***
Published in The New Indian Express on 22/03/2015 as Where Rishikesh Meets Goa

Bye bye Bangalore, Hullo Haryana!

So it’s bye bye to Bangalore after five years. And a good five years it was. When I moved to Bangalore in 2009, this was my third stint in the city. I was not particularly fond of it, though I didn’t actively dislike it.

My husband and I were both fans of Bombay and suffered a massive Bombay hangover for close to two years. But I slowly fell into its languid rhythm and grew to like everything about Bangalore. Well, almost everything. And leaving has not been easy. Especially for a place like Gurgaon. Ah, well, the things we do for work…

I will definitely miss Bangalore. As I sit here sweltering in the north Indian summer, my thoughts ran to all the things I will miss about Bangalore:

~ The weather: This has to top any list about Bangalore – the lovely, cool, breezy days and the al fresco dinners that are possible almost through the year. I am so tempted to block all Bangalore friends on facebook because all they seem to talk about is how cool their city is. Grrrrrr.

~ Kharabhath and filter coffee breakfasts: Airlines was already shut by the time we left, but there is still MTR and Ballal and the dozens of small places that dish out lip smacking masala dosa and kharabhath. Sunday mornings will never be the same again.

<Also read: Breakfast in Bangalore 1, 2, 3, 4, 5>

Masala dosa

~ Cubbon Park blooms: This was one of my absolute favourite parts about living in Bangalore, the fact that we could drive through Cubbon Park and always see some trees in bright bloom through the year.

Cubbon Park

~ Summer evenings at Lalbagh: Although I didn’t do this as frequently as I would have liked – one of the things I took for granted – walking through Lalbagh was always a delightful experience. Apart from all that greenery, I loved the people watching opportunities that Lalbagh always offered.

<Also read: A summer evening at Lalbagh>

Summer

Lalbagh

~ Drives on Mysore Road: Another favourite weekend activity, long drives on Mysore Road, especially during the cooler months. Kishore Kumar or Gulzar on the speakers and the windows rolled down, the breeze caressing my cheeks, bisi bisi thatte idli within calling distance… need I say more?

~ The markets: Mangos at Gandhi Bazaar. Street side bargaining on Commercial Street. Fresh flowers at KR Market… Avenue Road. Malleswaram. The annual crafts mela at Chitra Kala Parishat.

KR Market

Commercial Street

So, bye bye Bangalore. I hope to be back. And for now, I will leave you with a collection of my posts from Bangalore. Regular programming to resume soon, from Gurgaon from now on.

The Chalukya kings and the cradle of temple architecture

The cradle of Indian temple architecture. Before I leave for the Chalukya temples of north Karnataka, I come across this phrase in all the guidebooks I read. And once there, I find that this phrase rolls off the tongues of tourist guides with a practiced smoothness. And not just cradle; other well-worn metaphors like abacus and blackboard too are soon pouring out of my ears. Alright, I get the point. The sculptors learnt, slowly and painfully, to carve these magnificent temples (or groan, ‘epics in stone’, as my guide would say), using nothing but their imaginations. And the patronage of their Chalukya rulers, especially Pulakesi I.

Pulakesi I is the kind of ruler we today would call a dude. Back then, in the 6th century A.D, he built over a hundred temples across his kingdom, stopping briefly from time to time only to conquer and annex further kingdoms to his own. At the height of his reign, he ruled a vast swathe of the south of India, extending all the way to what is now Maharashtra in the west and Orissa in the east. And the architecture in his temples reflects the influences from diverse parts of his empire.

The Chalukya temples comprise three main groups: those in Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal. For centuries, these temples have remained in the shadow of their more famous cousins in Hampi, built much later and just over 100 kilometers away. And it remains so even now, even though Pattadakal was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987 and the other two are now in the running.

sunflower fieldsI first head to Aihole, a bumpy ride through roads lined with sunflower fields glowing in the mild morning sunlight. This route is more the dreamy countryside of North India – immortalised by countless Hindi movies where the heroine dances to a catchy tune waving her yellow chiffon sari in the wind – than the rough and ready landscape of Karnataka. At the entrance to the temple complex, Basava waves his tourist guide badge and latches on to us. As an introduction to Aihole, he says that on the skills scale, this group ranks as elementary school, since according to him (and experts, I presume), the architecture and carvings are at a very basic level here – going up to college level in Pattadakkal.

The Durga temple

Many of the original hundred temples survive in Aihole today, though some of them lie hidden behind thorny bushes, dusty rubble and thatched huts. Aihole, which served as the capital of the Chalukyas for two centuries, is today a forgotten village, the locals looking with wonder at the way we tourists look at their temples. Living in the middle of so much grandeur, they have come to take it for granted.

There is nothing elementary about the first temple I step into, dedicated to Durga, the all-powerful goddess. The sun has just begun to climb up into the sky, as a bunch of giggling school children make their way into the temple, shepherded by a couple of teachers trying their best to keep them in control. The walls and ceiling are covered with intricate carvings of gods, goddesses, demons and animals. None of the other temples here were consecrated since they were meant to be only learning models; the experimentation is obvious from the different shapes and sizes of the temples dotting the landscape. Behind it stands the 7th century Lad Khan temple, which folklore says, owes its name to a Muslim noble who lived in the temple during the British rule.

Mahishasuramardhini

Adisesha

And outside the temple complex is another interesting tableau: the village market under the sprawling banyan tree. Fruit sellers, vendors of soda, fresh buttermilk and coconut water, kids hawking picture postcards – everything is geared to the odd tourist who finds his way into Aihole. Every lane I wander into has a few ruins, a cluster of broken temple steps or an occasional intact statue scattered about. In this setting, it is easy to wonder if every large stone lying along the road dates back several centuries.

And then on to Badami. It is believed that Badami gets its name from Vatapi, a demon who lived in the region, and in the manner of all self-respecting demons, terrorised the locals. Why that should be so in a country with enough gods to name all towns and villages, and still have some left over, is of course a mystery. The more likely explanation for the name reveals itself as I near the town; the sandstone hills around the region reflect the colour of almonds – Badam in most Indian languages.

The colour of almond

In Badami, I climb up the hill where the famous cave temples are located. As I huff and puff my way up the steps, I am accompanied by a posse of monkeys who seem to think that they have a right to anything I am carrying in my hand, camera included. They play tag with a bottle of Coke and then, in front of my astonished eyes, twist the cap and drink straight from the bottle. The kids all around, who have been complaining loudly of boredom (these are old temples after all, not the most entertaining places for children) watch enraptured and parents have a tough time dragging them back down the hill.

Badami has four cave temples, each with a beautiful mélange of statues, primarily of Vishnu and Shiva. I almost get a crick in my neck, straining to look up at the ceilings covered with frescoes painted from glorious natural dyes, which even the passage of time has not managed to fade.

The first cave has what is possibly my favourite image from all the temples, Shiva as Nataraja, the god of dance, with 81 classical dance poses carved in a single statue. I know this because I have read about it, but I am just not able to make out more than a few. And so I eavesdrop shamelessly on the guide pointing out the various poses to the couple standing next to me. And on the opposite wall is a statue of Ardhanarishwara – literally ‘the half woman god’ – signifying the primal and equal partnership between Shiva and his consort Parvati; the right side of the statue is an all angled and sinewy male while the left is a soft and curvy female form.

Vishnu in Cave 3

Nataraja

Pattadakal, my final destination, is clearly higher up on the architectural learning curve given the sophistication of the structures here. This cluster of ten temples – one of them a Jain sanctuary – was built between the 7th and 9th centuries when the royal sculptors had honed their skills considerably. It is late evening when I get there and the setting sun casts it golden rays on the temple walls, making the old sandstone gleam as if burnished specially for my visit.

UNESCO site

Today, the Archeological Survey of India does a wonderful job of maintaining this temple complex (along with those at Aihole and Badami). According to a local official, the sculptors managed to bring in the best elements of north and south Indian architecture to this group. Pattadakal also served as the Chalukyan capital for some time, though historians say that it was used mainly during special occasions like festivals and coronations. Indeed, the name itself translates into coronation stone (pattada kallu).

Among the temples, I linger at the almost perfect 8th century Virupaksha, dedicated to Shiva. Built by Queen Lokamahadevi to honour her husband’s victory in war over the Pallavas, it is considered a masterpiece of Chalukya architecture. Later, I spend some time by the banks of the Malaprabha river which flows right behind the temple complex, bearing silent witness to centuries of splendour.

Sangameshwara

Pattadakal

Surprisingly, I am not all templed out by the end of the trip, as I had expected. Each of these towns and temple clusters has been a different experience. And as for the stock guidebook phrase, what can I say? If such magnificence is the stuff of cradles, then bring on more of them.

***
Published in the August issue of Jet Wings, the inflight magazine of Jet Airlines as An Inheritance In Stone.

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