Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010 - Prayer & Wishes!!

(pix courtesy Google images)
Oh God! As another new year dawns i have a prayer in front of you...

Let there be no 26/11 this year, Let there be no Arushis or Ruchikas or Rajus this year, Let there be no Nitharis, Let there be no opportunistic politics this year, Let there be no corruption this year, Let there be no deaths due to Nature's fury this year, Let there be no sick reality shows this year, Let there be no ice melting on the glaciers this year, Let there be no pollution this year, Let there be education for all kids on earth this year, Let there be more respect for feminity and old age this year.

If not all, atleast the below ones...PLEASE!!!
Bring Love and Peace for humanity. Make people more humane. Give everyone their share of Food, Shelter, Education and Clothes.
As it's said "PRAYERS GO UP, BLESSINGS COMES DOWN", Kindly join me in praying for a better future.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Road to the Valparai-A December road trip-II

As we travelled towards Pollachi all but me and driver were sleeping and I was saying to myself - "Valparai, here we come......."

Travelling through the winding roads of kerala heading towards into tamilnadu, the views were stunning. Series of mountains, coconut palms, flowing rivers, paddy fields all were blowing my mind. we could see so many Kerala buses coming in from Tamilnadu to provide transportation for people from Pollachi to Trissur. On the way we bought some fresh Nendrampazham (a cousin of banana with which chips are made) and sevvazhai (red banana). All along, i was never a fan of these fruits because of a different kind of smell n taste they have. But, to my own surprise this time they were tasting awesome and sweet. I was thinkin probably since we bought in kerala its tasting fresh n natural.
We proceeded towards Tamilnadu and as we entered the state, we could see all the paddy fields dwindling in numbers and the lands were filled with more of coconut palms. Lack of profits or lack of water not sure of the reason. We got down near a roadside tea shop and had a hot cuppa of chai. Nothing tastes like a road side tea during such trips. Everyone woke up and as usual my niece started off her next round of question sessions. Kids, i have to mention have such curiosity to know about almost everything and anything. I was wondering how she observes things and follows it up with so many questions until she gets convinced about the whole topic of discussion. Even sometime i ran out of patience and say "pesamaa vaa, driver uncle-ku otradhu kashtam" (come silently! driver uncle wud find it difficult to drive (if u keep talkin)). Immediately questions would follow, "Why driver uncle would find it difficult? Will he not be able to drive the car? will the car wont work?" I would feel better were the previous set of questions. But all in all it was real fun talking to these kids. After we finished our tea break, we headed towards pollachi, which was never near. As i had mentioned in my prev post the plan was to visit Azhiyar dam and then head towards monkey falls before starting the ghat section to goto valparai. But, our plans went little haywire, thanks to the delay @ Guruvayur and the subsequent waterfall effect we reached Pollachi by around 5pm in the evening. The stretch of road from entering Pollachi and to head to theValparai road was heavily filled with traffic and at one particular spot a bridge was relaid. This meant we have to take a U turna and go in a different direction pretty much retracing our route for over 2-3 kms. Driver was irritated and was cursing himself "If i had known would have turned there it self". After few enquiries along the way to get to the Valparai road we managed to hit the right road and started towards it. As we crossed the Azhiyal dam, the time was already around 6:15pm and the sun had already gone down hence we decided to give it a skip and see it on our way back. As we started the Valparai ghat section we had a superb view of Azhiyar dam from the back side and we didn't wanna miss it and hence got down and took few snaps around that spot.
As we headed further on the Ghat roads, the roads started to wind like a pit viper slithering across a smooth surface. we were all completely silent with everyone busy looking outside the beauty of nature. Then we saw a board "Monkey Falls", the driver stopped there and we got down and went up the rocks for a few feet and then we saw a beautiful small falls falling from a height of 50-60ft from top. In this trip i realized that in Valparai one can see many many such jungle streams falling off the cliffs and present itself as a stunning waterfalls. As we reached the monkey falls we went up and took some snaps and the late evening stopped us from venturing into the falls which was pretty much deserted barring few energetic youg fellaws who were in a state of bliss under the cool waters that gush down from the rocks. With all these happenign around a huge number of monkeys were sitting along as mute spectators. No wonder this falls is named after them as you can see so many of them sitting , jumping and going around with their usual pranks.
After spending some time there we headed further towards the hills. It was already getting darker and darker. All we could see was hazy view of forest on one side and valley on the other side. We started to climb the bends. Valparai is on the top of these Parambikulam Sanctuary and one has to travel over 40 hairpin bends before you can reach this very small mountain hamlet. Our driver seemed very experienced in ghat section, effortlessly he maneuvered the bends one by one as we were fixed with the view of valley and Azhiyar dam below. As we reached the 9th hairpin bend, i was literally shouting at the driver to stop. I have always read that this 9th hairpin bend offers you a fabulous view and as heard we saw the board sign "Loam's view point". I went down with my canon thinking would the light be enough to click some pictures. As i went to the view point i was totally speechless looking at the valeey below. I could think of anything but to keep looking down at Azhiyar dam covered by high mountains and Pollachi town slowly getting lighted up with so many coconut palms. Awesome sight it was. Then all the others joined and i managed a clicks with less lighting.
After 10 minutes of viewing, we started again to venture onto the remaining bends. We were totally awed by the sheer beauty of the route and the forests around. With the skinny crest of the moon on top we were driving around the hairpin bends. the only light was that of the car head lights and the only sound was that of the various insects in the forests making those eerie noise. Nothin can make your mind so blank like a soul stirring Illayaraja's music or Nature's beauty. Finally we managed to get over all of the 40 hairpin bends and reach the top. We stopped at a place called "Rottikadai"(Breadshop) and made a local call to our guide who'd done all arrangement for our stay and sight seeing. In Valparai only BSNL has their lines and no our service provider is available. This meant we had no means of comunication to outside world other than those yellow one-Rs coin telephone boxes which're fixed in almost every roadside shop in Valparai. Our guide "Mr.Jebaraj" asked us to come on the same road towards the town for another 2 km where we'd cross a bridge and then he would meet us there. I started telling the car number but he said "not required will get you folks". We trusted him and went ahead. It was pitch dark barring the head lights, not a life on the road, sounds of various insects or animals i wasnt sure offall over outside. Gave a eerie feeling. Finally we crossed the bridge and then saw a flash light pointing at our vehicle. We got down and there he was our organizer who shook hands and said lets see the accomodation and come. We both went down few steps and entered a house and one more fellow came out of the house. Jebaraj introduced him as the owner of the house which he rents out for home stays. We three went to the first floor and then what i saw was a proper 2 bedroom house with all furnishings. I was told these are their part time income by renting out houses for tourists. Trust me, with the rates that's something for part time business. But, with no proper hotel or accomodation in this reserved forests, national sanctuary hill side it's worth a bargain.
Then we walked back all the way where my parents and sister were waiting with the luggages. As we all moved towards the place with the luggages i coudn't miss that my dad n mom were struggling to get down and up the steps. So i decided to ask Jebaraj if he can arrange something else. As i went to him, he said "tomorrow you all can change to another 2BR portion on the top just near the road it self, this would avoid them walking this long". Probably he had noticed what i noticed too. I asked "Is it available today?" He answered "it's already night and you're not gonna go anywhere now. Moreover again making them walk all over is not a good idea". It made sense to me as well and we all agreed to change the next day. This place was very nice and cozy with all facilities. The organizer then ntroduced our cook for the 2 days and then he said he would send someone as guide to accompany us the next day for sight seeing. I was already getting excited.

When i visited Valparai the previous time almost 7-8 yrs back, it was freezing cold out there. But this time all to my embarrassment it was not so cold at all.My family members were making fun of me as i had urged them to bring all winter clothing stuff with so much of build up. I was trying say to them that probably in the morning we'd feel the cold. As i was trying to convince them with my logic, the cook brought freshly made chappathis with aalu curry and some rice and rasam. We all started to eat like crazy as we were really hungry. Everyone relished the chappathis, the rice and rasam had me and mom only as the takers. Finally once we were done, we all decided to retire. But my niece had other ideas. She came to me and started asking me if we both can play. I was like "no ways" then tried to convince her to goto bed by saying tomorrow have to get up early and goto see places and probably wild animals. Listening to me she got excited and was getting to her questioning best. "What animals?", Where they would be now?, when they'll come? what they would do if they come. Will they come here? and a series of such questions meant i had to literally carry her to my sister and asked her to make her sleep. Probably due to travel and tiredness she obliged too. She went silently to her mom and slept off. We all slept off as well.
Morning was relatively cold. Got up at around 6:30am and woke others up too and once everyone got themselves ready our guide "Shijul" had come along with our cook who had brought us fresh morning coffee. He was suggesting a morning walk along the woods as there is some possibility of spotting wild animals (if lucky even panther). I was little sckeptical and asked him "you mean panther?". "Yeah, yesterday saw a panther cub very nearby" came the reply in a flash. I was thinking its the typical strategy any guide would use to woo the tourists. Nevertheless we all got ready and started the morning walk. There was a small mountain stream nearby the cottage where we stayed and there were a few geese happily fighting and washing themselves in the stream. My niece was so excited and started some rhymes about duck n duckling. For her this was the best wild animal she can imagine. She was pretty much satified about the trip for having seen the geese which she had no chance of seeing in Chennai.
Sun was coming out just then, with cold breeze, other than the sounds emanating from the forest and no other sound whatsoever greeted us. As we walked along the road, Shijul was telling stories about wild sightings and about the unpredictable weather of Valparai, how the forests are conserved here. He was mentioning if someone even kills a snake which enter their house, the forest gaurds are entitled to book a case and send them to jail. One thing about shijul was that he would not end any topic without touching panthers. The reson being the panther sightings have become so so common among the locals of valparai because of the sudden explosion of their population in and around there. He was also mentioning that the steps we took to go to our room was a regular panther trail and after dark people won't come out or venture on the roads. The kids and small domestic animals are strictly house arrested after dark it seems.

One thing that have to be appreciated here is that the locals have pretty much understood that they're the ones who have taken the wild and not the animals when they pay a visit to their homes. The walk was so pleasant in the fresh air, no human noises around just the nature at its bounty. After lived in the pollution when you breathe such fresh air, your lungs find it little difficult to adjust, that's what i felt when i had a funny feeling as i walked and started panting. All of us were enjoying the walk and the wild stories Shijul was elaborating. It was about how the wild elephants can chase people no matter how fast they run, about how the elephants smell rice and dhal's smell being cooked or being stored in the ration shops and come towards it and damage the buildings and enter to eat them. How panthers chase wild dogs to kill them were some of the interesting stories.
We reached a bridge and decided to sit there for a while and turn back towards our cottage. As we sat we could hear the sound of a jungle stream nearby very clearly and Shijul told it was the same stream that flows near the cottage. He said if one wants to take bath there is a slope nearby where some might take bath. I was tempted but didn't press further ahead. On the way back we were able to spot a Malabar giant squirrel. Oh boy! was it cute and furry. These shy animals run away as they hear the faintest of noise. We saw quite few awesome flowers in the wild blossomed with so much different colors. As we neared our cottage, we heard a strange whistling noise, it was a perfect tune. Our guide informed us that it's the Malabar Whistling thrush which stays on top of the high trees and whistle like that. Really i was stunned if a bird can whistle in such a wonderful tune. It was not one of those vague sounds but a perfect rhythmic tunes. We tried hard to find them perched on top of these high trees but couldn't.
After taking bath, we had nice breakfast, idly and pongal. Then by 9:45 we had started off for our sight seeing. Our first spot was Balaji temple which was a privately run temple on one of the numerous estates that make Valparai. As we entered the estates the view was breathtaking. It was like a big green velvette carpet across thousands of acres. There was only 2 colors that were prominent, the green from the land and the blue from the skies. We went through the "Nadumalai" and "Akkamalai" tea estates. Couldn't take our eyes off the windows. At the distance we could see the peaks covered with lush green lawns of the Grass Hills. After 30 odd minutes we reached the Balaji temple. There was a security checkpost and cameras are not allowed and if someone wants to take snaps it needs to be smuggled inside. I failed miserably in this and had to keep the camera inside the vehicle itself. From the security checkpost one has to walk(climb) for close to 1 km on a steep path to reach this magnificient temple. My parents had to struggle but managed confidently. As we reached the temple entrance the sight was stupendous. Temple facing us, tea estates on the left and awesome mountains with variety of colors on the right. The cool winds were pushing us and the sounds of leaves from the trees and a distant waterfall gave a magical experience to all of us.
We stayed there facing the wind for 10 minutes before our guide urged us to move on. So we decided to enter the temple. Outside the entrance of the temple, there was a big lawn with various colored rose plants and other flowering plants gave a colorful welcome to the visitors. The temple was more like a one big hall with granite flooring. In the centre the sanctum of Lord Balaji (ala Lord venkateswara of Tirupathi). To the right of the God, the sanctum of Goddess padmavathi and a passage to go around the sanctums. The walls were fitted with plain glasses so one can have a fantastic view of mountains from inside as well. Outside the main hall, there was a separate shrine for Lord hanuman and then there was a small children's park fitted with various play equipments. All in all the temple was maintained so well. Once finished with the darshan, we came out and wanted to stand for another few minutes on the entrance where the breeze was blowing our minds.
Finally we decided to move on to the next spot. We were able to easily climb down and reached the spot where vehicles were parked.
--To be continued--

Friday, December 25, 2009

"Thulabaram" - A December road trip - I

After a brief hiatus back to posting :-)
(photo courtesy Google images)
A long pending offering "Thulabaram" for my niece at Guruvayur temple paved way for a 3-day trip with my family. The plan was to goto Guruvayur, near Trissur(Kerala) and have darshan of lord Guruvayurappan (Krishna) and also offer the "thulabharam" for my niece and then venture to Valparai and Top Slip near Pollachi. Well, the stage was set to travel for 3 days and after lots of planning and analysis in the internet decided the route plan, booked tickets in tatkal and blocked rooms for stay.

On friday night we took the Nilgiri express from Chennai Central. The train started in time but then was delayed by around 45 minutes to reach North Coimbatore. Upon reaching the station we headed towards the taxi stand and our driver was waiting for us with the Toyota Innova which we had pre-booked. We all got in and started towards Guruvayur (139kms). We started by around 5am in the morning and headed straight towards Palghat(40kms). Upon reaching the border checkpost we paid the permit (300Rs) and entered into the God's own country. Early morning fresh breeze hitting your face and speeding through countryside has always fascinated me, it was no different this time either. After an hour we reached which is famous for the shops that sell fresh n hot banana chips. We had idly n coffee for breakfast and then proceeded further towards Trissur(60kms).
All these days i was thinking that Trissur is in the plains but to my surprise the route had so many small n medium sized mountains filled with greenery everywhere and lots and lots of paddy fields. Also, there were so many coconut groves as far as the eyes can see. Oh boy! Watta sight it was. The route to Trissur was filled with greenery whichever side you see. two things i have to mention here - one, the people in Kerala have adapted themselves to live amidst the nature without harming it too much. Most of the houses you see would be in the middle of so many trees and bushes. They have not destroyed the greenery to develop the structures. Second, the architecture of houses. Though these are small towns, the houses they have built are all aesthetic, architectural beauties. You can see sequence on awesomely designed houses both contemporary and typical keralite style elevations all along the route.
We reached Trissur and headed towards Guruvayur (39kms) and finally reached there by around 8:30am. We had already booked couple of rooms at Gokulam Resorts on the west mada. Guruvayur town is planned in such a way that the temple is at the centre and surrounded by four madas (North, East, South & West) around it and all the other roads start from these four madas. We were literally going in rounds around the temple in search of our hotel. When we reach East nada someone will guide us to South nada and when we are in south nada another person would drive us to north. for almost 30 minutes we were trying in vain to get to west nada. Our driver was getting restless and finally we managed to call the hotel folks and get a landmark (Chavakadu road junction) and got to our hotel.
The hotel Gokulam Resorts, was clean and cozy. We got ourselves refreshed and then started towards the temple. In guruvayur, only hindus are allowed inside the temple premises. Gents have to wear only Dhothi and only towel (or angavasthiram) to cover the body. Ladies are allowed only with Sarees. This means a strict no no to even salwar suits & Chudis, leave alone the jeans, long skirts and other modern trendy fashion stuffs. In a way it looks so fresh and divine when you see everyone in dhothis and sarees. Since, it was sabari mala season we had expected some crowd in the temple, but what we saw there was beyond our imagination. As we entered the temple there was a ladies queue which serpented for a long distance. With the typical middle class mentality, we thought it was the common darshan and of course we'd be going in special darshan. We went to offer thulabaram for my niece and stood in the line. For people who don't know about thulabaram, it's a practice to offer God various items varying from rice to bananas to ghee to even money or gold on one plate of the balance equivalent to the weight of the person who is offering. While my sister, mom and niece stood in the line, me, my father and my brother in law waited near the window and were looking at other people offering various items equivalent to their weight sitting on one side of the huge balance. When my niece's turn came, she sat in one side happily and on the other side we had offered bananas. Here, we do not have to carry any item, they have everything there and all they do is calculate the weight and keep the items accordingly on the other plate and they collect the money for that. Finally after spending 30 odd minutes we were done with the offering.
By this time we had enquired a bit about special darshans and to our horror we were said there are no special darshan concept its all common. One side we were little disappointed but on second thoughts i felt its justified to have darshan of the lord this way by going one among the thousands without any differentiation. Then, we suggested my sister and mom to stand in the ladies queue and we all went to the other common queue. At around 10:30 am we stood in the line which was running to almost a kilometre outside the temple. We were told that between 11:30 and 12:30 there was some puja and hence the darshan would be stopped during this time. Hence, we were little worried that we should be able to finish the darshan before 11:30. Initially it moved real fast and we thought we'd finish the darshan in an hour. But then by around 11, we were stuck couple of rows before entering the temple premises and the clock started ticking and touched 11:30am. There we were stuck for the next 1 hour outside the temple.
During this wait, i was admiring the temple itself, built with lots of first class burma teak wood in the typical and exemplory kera architectural style. The roof was made of pure copper designed like terracota tiles. The wooden balconies and mural paintings on the walls all gave a real magical touch to the temple. Unfortunately no electronic gadgets, cameras, mobiles allowed and hence couldn't capture it all.
(photo courtesy google images)
Finally by around 12:15 the queue started moving again and we managed to entr the temple premises and made to wait there again for another 15min. By around 12:35 the sanctum santorum opened for public and we started to move in the queue and managed to have a wonderful darshan of Lord Guruvayurappa(Krishna) by around 12:40pm. The God was small(as he shoud be 'coz Krishna here is supposed to be a baby) and was covered with sandalwood paste. When we came out it was 12:45pm. I was thinking for this 10 min darshan we had to stand for almost 3hrs but all worthy enough.
We stright went to Ramakrishna lunch home, just outside the temple finished our lunch and then bought fresh banana chips and few other items and got back to hotel. Originally our plan was to head straight from Guruvayur to Valparai(200kms) en route the Chalakudi-Athirapally falls through one of the dense rain forests in India. Trust me, if there are any top 5 must travel routes in India, this would find place in that list anyday anytime. But, since the darshan at guruvayur was delayed we would not be able to take the route and see Athirapally waterfalls on the way and then reach valparai all before dark. This particular road has this dense rain forest(reserved forest) and hence not safe after dark with all wild animals prowling so casually. The forest rangers close the checkpost after 6pm. Finally, we decided to goto pollachi (121kms) and then visit Aliyar dam and monkey falls on the way to Valparai. Our next pit stop was Pollachi, and the route was realtively on the plains with lots of mountains, couconut groves and paddy fields on both sides. The paddy fields all along the route with the tall mountains covered by clouds in the background was an awesome treat for eyes. No wonder they call this region as the "rice bowl" of kerala.
As we travelled towards Pollachi all but me and driver were sleeping and I was saying to myself - "Valparai, here we come......."
--To be continued--

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