Continuing on this e-visit to Ellora, here is a massive Neem tree. It is growing on the right side as we face the Cave 16 Kailash Temple complex. The straight trunk its vast base are eye catching.. The dense foliage hid its branching and only made it more imposing.
Here is another view ..
Later, I found that this tree is listed as the Kailashnath Neem under the Landmark Trees of India.
Going by the botanical name Azadirachta indica, it belongs to the Meliaceae family. Neem is a common species almost all over India. This is easily the tallest Neem I have seen! I have seen glorious trees at the Qutub Minar. Just proves that there’s more to archaeological sites than the structures.. We only need to look around!
I am joining Parul in her ThursdayTreeLove bloghop. Head over to see some fantastic trees from around the world. Better still, join in!
The carvings at the Cave 16 Kailash Temple at the Ellora Cave complex near Aurangabad convey several thoughts to the visitors. It is imperative to see these along with a knowledgeable guide to fully understand and appreciate this magnificent work. Ellora Caves is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The entrance has three statues which signify that 3 things are necessary to create a structure of this magnitude .. namely knowledge, strength and money.. this is respectively depicted by the statues of Ganesha, Mahishasurmardini and the Gajalakshmi. (As told to us by our guide).
No image can do justice to the site and I strongly recommend everyone to visit this magnificent site.
“Monuments and archaeological pieces serve as testimonies of man’s greatness and establish a dialogue between civilizations showing the extent to which human beings are linked”
This magnificent Ficus is growing at the entrance of the Ellora Cave complex. The winter morning sun streamed in through the leaves and aerial roots creating a pattern on the ground. My humble phone camera was unable to capture the full glory but I think this image gives a general idea!
Our trip to Sundarbans was booked so long in advance that we managed to log three more destinations in the intervening period! There was no scope for travel fatigue as Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide kept interest levels high and if possible even increased them. Yet there was an underlying element of doubt as the area is the home of the swimming tigers.. the Royal Bengal Tiger.
Nurturing these doubts would serve no purpose if I was to enjoy my holiday so I buried them as much as I could as we embarked on the journey in the wee hours of the D-Day. From Kolkata city we travelled to Godkhali – the place where we were to board our boat. The young bus driver treated this drive like a Formula 1 training session, overtaking everything and everyone in sight. This meant close encounters with cattle, villagers and other vehicles irrespective of their direction of motion. The road was infested with buses and rickety three wheeled vehicles that had passengers stuffed inside, hanging outside and even on top! With our destination only 10 kms away, Murphy made his presence felt in the form of a burst tyre. The aforesaid young man showed equal speed and proved his mettle by making quick work of replacing the troublesome auto component – faster than our group leader could summon the rickshaws to take us the final few kilometers…
The jetty at Godkhali is rather unassuming considering that it is the main sourcing point for the islands in the Sundarbans delta. After a quick settling in at our resort we took off for our first glimpse of the jungle.
Our boat which was to be our home for the next 3 days boasted of a kitchen and toilet (I give it 4 stars considering its location) with sufficient space for everyone in our group to get a ring side view of the forest without stepping on each others toes!
ALERT: LONG POST
The Sundarbans archipelago comprises several islands crisscrossed by rivers and channels of sea water. The resulting saline and brackish conditions are ideal for the mangrove trees. (Rather they seem to be the only species growing there along with mangrove associates.) Elsewhere, we always explore the jungle by walking or driving through it, for example Tadoba, but walking among the trees of Sundarbans is not permitted for our safety. Which means the magnificent flora can be viewed only from the boat. While the trees are not tall, yet, in most parts, the Sun barely reaches the jungle floor. It is impossible to see beyond a few meters of the tree line along the sticky shore. The jungle floor seemed to be booby-trapped with several pointy branches poking upwards. These were the ‘breathing roots’, some of which were sharp and pointy while others were rounded. Walking through these was extremely tricky and could be painful as well, something we experienced at the Interpretation Centre. While there are dire reports of islands lost to rising sea levels, we saw some new ones that have risen up over the past decade and still rising. This was due to silt deposition.
The Forest Department has created watch towers and information zones on different islands. Besides introducing visitors to this ecosystem, it is a unique way to sensitise visitors to the difficulties faced by the locals in their interaction with the jungle. Besides the tricky ground, they also face a threat from crocodiles and of course the secretive and much dreaded Royal Bengal Tiger (RBT). We did glimpse a couple of the 17 footer crocs but the RBT eluded us… I am sure we must have been spotted by one of them considering that we spent over 20 hours chugging along the coast. More about the RBT later.
Canopy walk at the Interpretation Centre
Our resort boasted of ecofriendly credentials which meant no paper or plastic or thermacole. It offered almost all creature comforts except perhaps running hot water but I guess being environment friendly meant some sacrifices 😉 Practically it meant being served tea in the good old glass crockery (which evoked a thoroughly pampered feeling) and the tastiest of preparations made from locally grown fresh vegetables. The Nolen Gurer Payesh had us licking our lips and scraping the bottom of the bowl The efficient and ever smiling staff took pride in their work and seemed really happy.
Cottages at the resort
We spent two entire days on the boat. Actually three if you add up two half days as well. Our day began early at 6 am as we boarded our mist-shrouded boat – the northerly winds were the cause said Mr Paul the resort manager. We spent the entire day on board, returning only at dusk. Our guides Nabho and Krishna joined us here. Both were very knowledgeable about fauna and flora. IMHO , info about the latter is often ignored by most naturalist guides but these two were a pleasant surprise. Seeing my interest in trees, they specifically pointed out special species, their distinguishing features etc using the correct scientific terminology.
Getting back to our boat safaris… The resort staff had a detachment on the boat who had breakfast ready for us even before hunger pangs could take our minds away from the Black capped / Collared Kingfisher or many of their feathered brethren who obliged us with prolonged sightings. Now I was quite prepared for something like sandwiches but I was in for a shock. A very tasty shock I must admit. The breakfast was Alu Paratha, Puri, Omlette, Cut Fruit with the most delicious honey from the very forest we were enjoying…. Considering our location, hats off to the team! Naturally we did full justice and lunch was a bigger surprise with a choice of two nonvegetarian preparations! However the humble tomato chutney was the star – so much so that we got copy of its recipe when we said goodbye!
A spread fit for a king!
Again I digress.
Our boat had sitting space in the front and back each with its own advantages. The best spot was to sit cross legged at the bow which gave an eye level view of the banks but I did not take advantage of it as much as I should have. Nabho and Krishna pointed out an Avicennia or Brugeira or Rhizophora but distinguishing them from a distance needed an experienced eye. Instead of their fruits or flowers it was the tree roots that were most eyecatching. As I said before, the silt laden sticky bank seemed to have become a spiky zone due to the breathing roots whereas others created an interesting circular maze at the trunk base. Some trees seemed to wear a striped skirt (formed by their stilt roots) while others had huge buttressed trunks – all aimed to give better support and improve oxygen intake from the saline water. The twice daily high tide created massive sand shifts which meant the trees needed stronger anchors than trees growing elsewhere. This is just one of the adaptation of these amazing trees. We saw some Tiger Palms and the source of their name is a no brainer – its leaf morphology and colour perfectly match with the RBT stripes making it an ideal place for the cat to hide in.
Tiger Palms growing along the bank
Some islands had trees with garlands and Nabho told us it was prayer and offerings to Bonbibi before someone ventured into the forest. The Goddess would protect them from tigers and other dangers. Hindus and Muslims worship her and it is faith that helps them survive in this adverse landscape as they are expected to enter the forest with ‘Khali Haat’ and ‘Pobitra Mann’. We were told that locals never utter the word Tiger because it is believed that to say its name is to call it. The danger is so real that women fast for the entire duration their husbands are out in the forest or in the boat and this can extend for many days.
A local troupe performed the legend of the Bonbibi
A bit about the RBT. This secretive cat has adapted to walking and hunting among mangrove roots and is a good swimmer. This obviously means we had a good chance of spotting the RBT both on the shore and in the water. In other jungles of our country, a water body is the ideal place to spot a tiger but in the Sundarbans, the high tide takes water deep inside the islands. The RBT has adapted to surviving on salty water which eliminated thirst as a reason to come to the water side. We could see the tiger only if it wanted to show itself to us! We passed by several small channels that went deep into the island and I am sure, we would have encountered a tiger if we had ventured into it. However that would need a smaller boat – the kind used by fisherman plus strict rules forbade us from entering inside. For various reasons, the Sundarbans tiger is known to attack humans so I guess somewhere deep inside I was secretly happy at not sighting the great cat. Even if meant seeing gleeful smiles when answering in the negative to the perennial question on our return “Did you see the tiger?”
We were lucky that our boat safari timing matched that of the low tide and wildlife activity. Fauna can be best seen once the bank opens up and hence hopes were high. The elusive Jungle Cat was glimpsed twice. Huge swarms of bees buzzed around our boat but flew off without a bite! Spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Monitor Lizards also found time to take a peek at us! Everytime our boat neared the sunbathing crocs, they would slip back into the water… The thought of having a powerful 17 footer croc (or even a RBT) swimming close by our basic boat ensured no one tried to dip their hands into the water….
A mammoth Estuarine Crocodile Image Credit Rahul Rao , Director at Foliage Outdoors, Pune
The water glittered in various shades of green with the occasional brown tinges. In the period of the low tide we sailed almost in the centre of the channels as any move towards the bank could sometimes get the boat grounded. Combined with the sand shifting we did face that situation a couple of times and recovery was by pushing the boat out with long bamboos.. Our boat did not boast of modern marine technology and the team relied on its inborn navigation skill and sixth sense. However at the day progressed and the tide came up and swallowed the banks and trees and in some cases the entire the island too. In fact, the leaves till the high tide mark were markedly different from those higher up on the tree trunk.
Our safari took us in deep waters where three or more rivers joined. This created a vast expanse of water wherein the bank was almost invisible! Though close to the Bay of Bengal, the roar of the ocean was inaudible. The tide rose and fell silently as if to let the fauna have their say. Most of the time it was just our boat MB Dakshin Rai. Its rhythmic put-put combined with the gentle sway and cool breeze under a warm sun was hypnotic and especially conducive to dozing off…. until there was a sudden frisson of excitement of spotting someone! ……
Peregrine Falcon? Croc? Dolphin? Pugmarks? Tiger? were the anxious queries as all binocs turned to one direction. Cameras clicked furiously till the object of attention decided he had enough of us! The Kingfishers including the Brown Winged were the most obliging and tourist friendly I must say!
Black Capped Kingfisher Image Credit Rahul Rao, Director at Foliage Outdoors, Pune
And how can I forget the Lesser Whistling Ducks who gave us a glorious farewell.. I think there must have been thousands of them along with Northern Pintails and Northern Shovellers swimming in tandem as if escorting our boat out…
Lesser Whistling Ducks Image Credit Rahul Rao, Director at Foliage Outdoors, Pune
Before I forget, most of these only live in pure environments – and their presence is a positive statement about the condition of that ecosystem.
It is a sheer joy to visit and appreciate India’s huge ecological diversity. There were no colourful flowers in Sundarbans, nor did we see the RBT nor could I walk in the forest. From all reports the jungle is a dangerous place. Yet the Sundarbans was simultaneously mysterious, attractive, enticing and chilling. Bewitching indeed!
‘…This is a land half-submerged at high tide: it is only in falling that the water gives birth to the forest, To look upon this strange parturition, midwived by the moon is the know why the name “tide country” is not just right but necessary…..’
The Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav is an annual event in Pune, Maharashtra that attracts classical Hindustani music aficionados from India and overseas as well. Obviously the festival has grown over the years and is continuing even after the founder Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi passed away.
There can be several inspirations for travel – architecture, history, natural wonders, food, bragging points (ahem)… But music too is a huge motivator for people to travel. India with its rich musical heritage has music festivals of repute held across the country. Its an excellent opportunity to hear stalwarts and upcoming artists and see the local sites as well. I can say that with confidence because it was music that took me to Bhopal and I could see Sanchi Stupas because of that visit!
Here is my collation of music festivals around India. Hope it can inspire at least a few travellers! (Kindly reconfirm information about dates and entry tickets before your visit.)
1. The Harivallabh Sangeet Mahasabha
in Jalandhar, Punjab. This
was first held in 1875 and is now held in the last week of December every
year. Entry is free. Here is the programme for Dec 2014.
2. Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav – Held in Pune each year in the first half of December. Usually spread over four days, the performances are held in the evening but the last day (which is always a Sunday) has events in the morning as well. Thus tourists can use the morning hours to visit other places in Pune, join a heritage walk and get some shopping done too! Ticketed entry. This is a link to the schedule for Dec 2014.
3. Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata, West Bengal. Here is the link. http://www.doverlanemusicconference.org/aboutus.html Ticketed entry.
4. Saptak Music Festival in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Held from 01 to 13 January every year. Entry is for members. Here is a link to their Jan 2015 event. http://www.saptak.org/saptakNews 5. Tansen Samaroh at Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh is yet another important event for Hindustani classical music lovers and is a tribute to the maestro Tansen. Here is a link to their 2014 events and the festival will be held from 05 to 08 Dec 2014.
The DD Bharati Channel has live telecasts of some of the above music festivals.
There would be many more such music events in other cities. We would love to hear about those too. Enjoy!
The usual factors for choosing a holiday destination for most of us are the Local Attractions (Music, Arts History, Geography, etc), Shopping, Food, Nature, family/friends (at times this helps in NOT choosing a particular place) and so on. After my visit to Hampi, the presence of a UNESCO World Heritage site has become a big plus in the decision process. This explains why we seized the chance to visit Bhopal.
Located in central India, Bhopal is the capital of Madhya Pradesh state and I had often transited this city during train journeys but had never actually stayed there. Sanchi is located to the north east of Bhopal at a distance of about 45 kms. It is home to the Buddhist monuments – the Stupas that show case Buddhist art and architecture. This is designated as Unesco World Heritage Site. It dates back to some time in the 3rd century BC and was constructed by Emperor Ashoka. After its hey day period, it was ignored and forgotten for several hundred years. It was re-discovered and then explored and developed by British Officers during the Raj. There are plenty of reviews and descriptions of this site available on the internet so I would not like to repeat those. This page on the website of the Archeological Survey of India offers excellent information.
Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi
Sanchi is easily accessible by road from Bhopal. Entry is with a nominally priced ticket and the guard at the entrance politely told us not to eat inside. There is an excellent museum near the ticket hut but I suggest visiting it after seeing the Stupas. Its a very good idea to take services of a local guide as they have an uncanny knack of retelling the history of the place and bringing it alive.
The main stupa (Stupa 1) is said to hold the remains of Gautam Buddha and the other stupas are of his disciples. It is distinguished by its bigger size and by the triple umbrella (chhatravali) on its dome. It has four entrances (toranas) and the southern one is thought to have
been the principal entrance. The
other ones (east, west, north) were built later. Each gateway has two pillars (square with carvings on all sides) and a superstructure of curviform architraves (also carved with different stories).
Our guide brought attention to details inscribed on the pillars which relate the life and preachings of Gautam Buddha and Jataka tales. Parts of the site have been restored. At no site is the Buddha depicted in the form that we now know him to be but he is depicted symbolically. E.g. Umbrella held above the throne, dharma chakra, footprints etc.
If you happen to visit any place near Sanchi do make it a point to go there. It has a serene atmosphere and the Gautam Buddha’s ideas are conveyed in a very subtle manner via the carvings. There are beautiful seats under the trees that are ideal for this purpose. The skills of the artisans in years gone by is humbling especially considering that they did not have the so-called advantage of ‘modern’ technology. Dont miss the stone pillar with a mirror like polish or the huge stones that would have been hauled from miles away and then installed in its position or the interlocking cylindrical stones that form the peripheral boundary of the main Stupa. These are just a few examples. There are many more at Sanchi. .
This site has special walkways for visually challenged individuals and a sign post in braille. This is among the few places that I have seen that offers this facility for the differently-abled.
At the entrance is a small shop that sells some brochures and CDs that have extensive information and history of the site. However they do not have any significant mementos or fridge magnets (I am really partial to those!) which is sad considering that this is such an important destination. I do hope concerned authorities do something to rectify this. Rest rooms are available and there is small shop that sells basic food
items. So do go prepared with snacks or something to eat depending on
where you have travelled from.
Here is a slide show of some of some photos. It only gives a glimpse of the beautiful place and the images probably do not do full justice. Double click on the image for the slide show to open in a new tab… then its possible to read additional descriptions of the photos.
Considering my interest in trees, this blog will be incomplete if I don’t write about the trees I saw there. The most important is the Bodhi tree planted just at the entrance. There are several Khirni trees at Sanchi, all flourishing and their shiny dark green leaves glowed in the cool morning sun. I also noticed a Kalam (Mitragyna parviflora), lots of Bougainvilla and other trees usually used for landscaping. Here is a slideshow of the trees at the Buddhist monuments at Sanchi.
The best way to really know our country is to physically travel and ‘see’ different states. This is especially true for our vast nation with diverse habitats and cultures. We have ‘learnt’ history in school but I certainly do not remember anything more than certain names. The Chalukyas, Vijayanagar empire, all were names that shone from behind a thick mist. As things worked out, I got an opportunity to visit some historical sites, one that I took up eagerly.
Monuments at Bijapur, Badami and Hampi (close to Hospet) all in Karanata are not easily accesible. Our visit ended at Hampi but those who can must include Halebid in their itinerary as well. By easy I mean that one needs to travel by train or air to the closest destination and reach these places by road. Luckily the roads are all excellent, well maintained and one covers large distances easily. These are small towns but the three offer comfortable, clean, vegetarian hotels with helpful and courteous staff. Lack of such facilities have deterred me from visiting places despite being a self professed ‘travel enthusiast’. But this time, I was pleasantly surprised.
(Each of the sites named below are linked to the ASI website for detailed information.)
Gol Gumbaz at Bijapur was one place that I had heard of but never really made any attempt to visit it. Its main feature obviously is its dome, a.k.a whispering dome that is second biggest only after the dome at Rome. Whispering a few words in it causes them to echo up to 13 times and naturally everyone coming there wants to experience this phenomenon. Result.. an ear-piercing continuous crescendo of screams, laughter that is sure to send your head spinning. Its best if you visit early (when the Gol Gumbaz opens at about 6AM) so you can peacefully appreciate the skills of the men of yore who have created this monument. There is a museum on the premises that is said to be excellent but being a Friday, it was closed when we visited. The Ibrahim Rauza is yet another must visit tourist attraction at Bijapur. These monuments are under the care of the Archeological Survey of India and have a nominal entry fee for Indians plus nominal camera charges.
The main attraction at Badami is the cave temples. However between Bijapur and Badami one must visit the Aihole and Pattadakal temple sites which are World Heritage Sites. While these are called temples, most of them are not places of worship any more. When at Badami do visit the Banashankari temple – a peaceful serene temple that was originally said to have been built in the ninth century. We were blessed to get a peaceful unhurried darshan of the goddess – a wonderful experience. Dakshin Kashi or Mahakuta is yet another ancient Shiva mandir. Legend has it that the demons Vatapi and Ilvala were destroyed by Agastya at this site.
A couple of interesting things that I recommend: walk in the underground Pradakshana chamber at the Vitthala Temple, Hampi and walk in the secret chamber at Pushkarni. Both involve walking in the dark but some light does filter in and one can see outlines as the eyes adjust to the low light.
Hampi is close to Hospet (about 12-15 kms), a small yet busy town due to several steel plants around it. If I was impressed by the highways we had travelled on so far, the ones under-construction outside Hospet will be absolutely stunning as and when they are completed. The entire region Bijapur, Badami, Hospet and Hubli is well irrigated and we saw flourishing crops along the highways. Bright yellow sunflower fields were our steady companions all through but the other crops changed from jowar, maize, sugarcane and the Hampi area had plentiful coconut and banana groves growing amid towering rocks. People spoke Kannada but were open to answering our queries in Hindi. We looked forward to tasting north Kannada cuisine (supposed to be different) but found that most restaurants offered Punjabi, Chinese, fast foods …. And we opted for bottled water all through. One crosses the Bhima, Krishna and Tungabhadra Rivers and Kudalsangama is a best place to see the mighty Krishna after its confluence with the Ghataprabha and Malprabha rivers.
A strange observation at Virupaksha… When visitors offer money
to the temple elephant, he ‘blesses’ them with his trunk by placing it on their heads . Yet I saw him
‘refuse’ to do so for a foreign visitor… The mahout returned the coin the lady visitor had offered but I still cannot understand the reason for this denial..
The rock carvings at all these sites are
stunning not only for their intricacy, beauty and symmetry but also as
to how the artisans must have worked back then without the help of the
so-called indispensable modern gadgets. The inverted shadow image of the
main gopuram at Virupaksha temple, Hampi seen in a dark chamber about
200m away as the light streams in from a hole in the wall. The Badami
cave temples have been carved from the top downwards and some free
standing ones were carved from down upwards much as we now build our
buildings. The walls here have carvings that record work of the
artisans who created these magnificent structures. Frescos painted with
natural dyes have stood the test of hundreds of years. The three rows of carved rock channels outside the Navrang mandap in the Vitthala Temple, Hampi was designed to cool its interiors by the water that trickled down. The musical
columns at this site are amazing not only for their artistic
creativity but the scientific thought put in to recreate musical sounds
from solid rocks. Ditto for the water channels at Pushkarni, Hampi.
Badami is also home to monkeys and their presence almost amounts to a menace as they steal food out of our hands or snatch bags, bottles expecting them to contain food. Do not carry plastic bags, plastic bottles when at the Badami cave temples. Ditto at Virupaksha temple at Hampi.
I cannot end this post without mentioning the trees that I identified…
The Vitthala temple, Hampi has a supposedly 160 year old Chafa
(Plumeria) tree (still blooming). The Virupaksha temple has a couple of
Kailaspati trees in its premises and there are two huge Kadamb trees
outside the Mahakuta. The Ibrahim Rauza had massive Thespesia in its
beautiful lawns- much bigger than any I have seen around Pune. These were common around Bijapur but less so in the other towns mentioned here. I noticed the occasional Shirish but Maharukh was commoner around Hospet and Hubli. Sag (Tectona grandis) grew rampantly everywhere in fact, there were what seemed liked dedicated plantations at some sites. The landscaped gardens have some beautiful trees (Sawar, Sterculia foetida, Chandan etc). The
Badami cave temple complex has some lovely trees growing on the rocks –
an effect that we as bonsai enthusiasts struggle to achieve.
When visiting these sites make sure to wear strong, comfortable walking shoes. Carry your cap and sunglasses, sunscreen and drinking water. Its a good idea to take services of a local guide as they have an uncanny knack of bringing these silent stones alive. There is lot of walking involved plus climbing up and down often irregular and long flights of stairs. Keeping some analgesic creams for your joints may be a good idea!
Concerned authorities have worked hard to preserve our heritage. The sites are extremely clean, well maintained and surrounding manicured gardens add to their beauty. By visiting them we can reconnect with history and really know this incredible country of ours.
Its that time of the year again but this time round Punekars are thirsting for rain. The weather has turned cooler, the sky is overcast and often filled with menacing black clouds. Yet there is not a drop of rain (oh well, ok… a few drops), nothing to prove its the peak monsoon month.
July end, August is also the right time to visit Kas, which is Maharashtra’s own Valley of Flowers. Located off Satara, its a lovely stretch that is few kilometers long that is bare and barren all year round. Yet come the rains, the seeds that lie hidden and dormant in the rock crevices and few strips of soil spring to life and live out their lifespan in a space of a few weeks. The plants grow, bloom and disperse their seeds all in a short time span. Hence those keen to view or study these species must visit Kas only in this period. These ephemeral species are found only here (or few grow in other similar geographies in Maharashtra as well).
Now that the Western Ghats are on the coveted list of ‘World Heritage Sites” its vital that we do all we can and more to protect this invaluable natural treasure.
Those considering visiting Kas, please please do not damage the
surroundings, throw garbage, trample on the blooms or even bring them
back home (they will not survive). I am not sure of the status of flowering this year (2012) considering that the rains are playing truant. Here are some images captured in 2011 of the beauty in store.