Tag Archives: Tamil Nadu

Solitary Shores: Offbeat Beaches in India

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This summer, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go off the beaten beach to uncover some lesser known sandy stretches across India

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India’s extensive coastline is blessed with large swathes of spectacular beaches. Be it the Konkan coast of Goa-Maharashtra, the Karavali coast of Karnataka or Kerala’s Malabar coast, India’s western side is lapped by the calm Arabian Sea. The slightly rougher eastern coast hemmed by the Bay of Bengal too has its share of beaches – from West Bengal, Odisha and Andhra down to the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu.

However, with a 7000km long coast, some hidden gems have escaped the mainstream, that’s if you know where to find them! Beat the summer heat and crowded hotspots at these truly offbeat beaches…   

Kannur Thottada beach

Thottada, Kannur (Kerala)
While South Kerala is renowned internationally for its beach destinations like Kovalam, Varkala and Mararikulam, the relatively untouched Malabar Coast to the north has its share of secrets. Kannur’s cluster of beaches include the popular Meenkunnu and Payyambalam in the north to Thottada and Ezhara in the south. Thottada, with its serene backwaters and cliffs, retains the vibe of old Kerala, prior to the influx of tourism. Stay at beachfront homestays and feast on excellent Moplah cuisine – pathiris (assorted pancakes), fish curries and kallumakai (green mussels). At Kannur Beach House, go on a backwater boat ride with Nasir while Rosie stirs up delightful local fare. Stay in a renovated handloom factory at Costa Malabari with fresh seafood prepared home style. Just 10km south, skim the surf in your vehicle at Muzhappilangad, a 5km long drive-in beach. Watch fishermen draw in the morning catch and gaze at golden sunsets silhouetting Dharmadom Island.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Calicut International Airport, Kozhikode from it’s a 110km drive up to Thottada Beach, just south of Kannur.

Where to Stay
Kannur Beach House Ph 0497-2836530 www.kannurbeachhouse.com
Costa Malabari Ph 0484–2371761 www.costamalabari.com
Chera Rocks Ph 0490-2343211 www.cherarocks.com

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Nadibag, Ankola (Karnataka)
Uttara Kannada is well known for its beach haunts like Gokarna and Devbagh in Karwar, though few pay attention to the small coastal town of Ankola wedged between these two popular tourist getaways. The Poojageri River meanders through the forests of the Western Ghats, before it finally meets the sea at an idyllic place called Nadibag (River Garden) in Ankola. Few tourists come here, barring locals who climb the hill to catch the sunset, pose for selfies on the rocks or wade in the surf. The twin sights of the sea on one side and a picturesque lagoon on the other, as the sun goes down makes it an unforgettable spectacle. Ankola doesn’t have any fancy resorts, so Gokarna is the closest place for creature comforts.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Hubli (145 km from Ankola via Yellapur on NH-63) or Dabolim Airport, Goa (132 km via Karwar on Kochi-Panvel Highway).

Where to Stay
SwaSwara, Om Beach, Gokarna Ph 0484-3011711 www.swaswara.com

Bhogwe Beach from Kille Nivti IMG_2865_Anurag Mallick

Bhogwe, Malvan (Maharashtra)
The coast of Malvan in Maharashtra was once Maha-lavan, a ‘Great saltpan’ from where sea salt was traded. As the Karli River empties into the Arabian Sea, the beautiful strip of land between the river and the sea is Devbag or ‘Garden of the Gods’. Both, the river and the jetty are called Karli, so the place on the far side (taar) was called Taar-karli! While the scenic confluence developed into a hub for adventure sports, Bhogwe, located south of Tarkarli, has thankfully managed to escape the attention of most tourists. The best way to explore this stretch is by boat, which deposits you at Bhogwe Beach, a long swathe of untouched sand, before continuing the journey past Kille Nivti fort to Golden Rocks, a jagged ochre-hued hillock, that dazzles in the afternoon sun. Make sure to carry water and a picnic hamper. Relish excellent Malvani cuisine while staying in bamboo huts on a hill overlooking the sea or at Maachli Farmstay about 5km from the coast.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Mumbai and Dabolim Airport, Goa (123 km via Kudal).

Where to Stay
Aditya Bhogwe’s Eco Village Ph 9423052022, 9420743046 Email arunsamant@yahoo.com
Maachli Farmstay, Parule Ph 9637333284, 9423879865 www.maachli.in

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Laxmanpur, Neil Island (Andamans)
The Andaman and Nicobar islands are a much desired getaway for most beach lovers. Though only 32 of the 572 islands are inhabited, much of the usual haunts like Port Blair and Havelock Island are overrun by tourism. Yet, Neil Island, an hour’s boat ride from Havelock in Ritchie’s Archipelago, is relatively unexplored. Most of the local agricultural produce comes from the tiny island of Neil, pegged as the ‘Vegetable Bowl of the Andamans’. A lone metaled road cuts through the lush foliage to quiet beaches like Sitapur, Bharatpur and Govindpur, though it’s Laxmanpur that takes your breath away. Divided into two stretches, Laxmanpur 1 or Sunset Point offers stunning views and snorkeling opportunities and has comfy beach dwellings. Laxmanpur 2, dominated by a natural rock bridge, divulges secrets of the marine world at low tide. As the waters recede, local guides take you around salt pools inhabited by fish, eels, sea cucumbers and clams. Forget scuba, snorkeling or glass bottom boat rides, you can marvel at the variety of corals on a leisurely morning walk! See stag horn corals, finger corals, boulder corals and colour-changing corals from close quarters before the tide swells and hides them from sight.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies direct from Chennai and Kolkata to Port Blair (2 hrs), from where a ferry transports you via Havelock (1hr 30m) to Neil island (1hr).

Where to Stay
Sea Shell Ph +91-9933239625 www.seashellhotels.net/neil
Tango Beach Resort Ph 03192-230396, 9933292984 www.tangobeachandaman.com

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Tharangambadi (Tamil Nadu)
While the Coromandel coastline has popular beach destinations like Mahabs (Mamallapuram) and Pondy (Puducherry), few stop by further down the coast at Tharangambadi or ‘The Land of the Dancing Waves’. The Danes leased this small coastal village from the Thanjavur Nayaks and transformed it into a trading colony called ‘Trankebar’, eventually selling it to the British. The erstwhile summer residence of the British collector, renovated by Neemrana into the Bungalow on the Beach, has rooms named after Danish ships that docked at Tranquebar. Located on King Street between the Dansborg Fort and the half-sunken 12th century Masilamani Nathar Temple, the bungalow is the perfect base for heritage walks around the coastal town. Explore the Danish cemetery, Zion Church, New Jerusalem Church, Landsporten (Town Gate) and The Governor’s bungalow, all built in the 1700s. Watch catamarans set out for fishing in the early rays of dawn as you enjoy India’s only ozone-rich beach with the option to stay at Neemrana’s other properties nearby – Nayak House and Gate House.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Tiruchirapalli International Airport, Trichy (160 km via Kumbakonam)

Where to Stay
Bungalow on the Beach Ph 04364 288065, 9750816034 www.neemranahotels.com

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Talpona-Galgibaga (Goa)
With over half a century of being in the crosshairs of tourism, there are few secrets in Goa. Arambol, Ashwem, Morjim, Agonda; all the once offbeat haunts are now quite beat! But in comparison to the busy beaches of North Goa, the south is somewhat quieter. However, it isn’t till you drive south of Palolem near Canacona just short of the Goa-Karnataka border that you find a stretch that’s truly remote. As the Kochi-Panvel highway veers away from the coast, two lovely beaches line the tract of land where the Talpon and Galgibag rivers drain into the sea. Named after the streams, Talpona and Galgibaga beaches are indeed offbeat sandy stretches that few people visit. Since Galgibaga is an important turtle nesting site, tourism infrastructure is thankfully restricted. There are only a few stalls on the beach, making it one of the last undeveloped beaches in Goa where you can soak up the sun without hawkers pestering you with sarongs, beads or massages. Stay in a quiet riverside homestay at Talpona or in a Portuguese villa converted into the boutique hotel Turiya, which offers spa therapies and excellent local cuisine.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Dabolim Airport, Goa (76.5km via Margao)

Where to Stay
Rio De Talpona Ph +91-78759 21012 www.riodetalpona.com
Turiya Villa & Spa, Canacona Ph 0832-2644172 www.turiyavilla.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of JetWings magazine. 

 

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Cherry on the Pi: Pondicherry’s most charming hotels

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The erstwhile French enclave of Pondicherry was the filming locale of Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick the most charming boutique hotels for a delightful holiday.

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Palais de Mahe
CGH Earth’s new boutique hotel, a yellow and white, high-roofed colonnaded building echoes French colonial architecture. With 18 luxury suites overlooking a swimming pool, an Ayurveda spa and long arched verandahs lined with leafy planters, the hotel is a stone’s throw from the Promenade. The terrace restaurant’s delightful Indian fusion cuisine made with fresh catch and vegetables, ensures why people return for their pan-seared fish masalas, beef steaks and tangy daals laced with piquant spices.

4, Rue Bussy (LBS Street) Ph 0484 3011711 Email palaisdemahe@cghearth.com www.cghearth.com Tariff Rs.13,200; 18 rooms

The Promenade
Located in the heart of the French quarter overlooking Pondicherry’s beachfront, this luxury boutique hotel was once the old Railway Station building. Associated with one of India’s top fashion brands Hidesign, this stylish hotel has a French colonial exterior with ultra-modern minimalist interiors. The rooftop restaurant Lighthouse offers a great view of the Pondy skyline and the sea.

23, Goubert Avenue Ph 0413 2227750 www.sarovarhotels.com
Tariff Rs.6,750-Rs.8,500; 38 rooms

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Le Dupleix
The 18th century French villa, converted by Hidesign into a designer Heritage Hotel, is named after Francois Dupleix, the Governor of Pondicherry. Stay in ultra-modern penthouses with private terraces or cozy heritage rooms with the smell of aged wood, evocative of a plush colonial life. Dine on Mediterranean or Pondicherry cuisine at the gourmet restaurant under a mango tree in the courtyard. The Governor’s Lounge bar has embroidered artwork by Jean Francois Lesage and a richly carved wooden ceiling commissioned by le Dupleix.

5, Rue de la Casserne Ph 0413 2226999, 2226001 www.ledupleix.com
Tariff Rs.5,200–10,200; 14 rooms

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Maison Perumal
The first CGH Earth initiative in Pondicherry’s Tamil Quarter holds all the old world charm of a traditional Franco-Tamil home. Blending stark simplicity and antique furniture with a dash of stained glass vibrancy, the 2-storeyed 200-year-old mansion’s rooms retain a sense of warm sepia-toned familiarity of a lived-in home. Attentive staff and a flavourful menu at the gallery cum in-house restaurant set around the inner courtyard accentuate the irresistible charm of the place. Explore the hidden heritage of Pondy on quaint rickshaw rides or cycles.

58, Perumal Koil Street Ph 0413 2227519, 9442127519 www.cghearth.com Tariff Rs.8,360; 10 rooms

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Villa Shanti
An elegantly restored 19th century home run by Sylvain Paquiry with a grey and white façade, Villa Shanti manages a seamless blend of tradition and modern aesthetics. A newly added wing, vertical garden and airy well-lit rooms set around a green courtyard promise a pleasant boutique hotel stay. Signature dishes made with fresh farm products are procured and prepared by the chef himself, and served in its roomy chic restaurant and café bar.

14, Rue Suffren Ph 0413 4200028 Email s.paquiry@lavillashanti.com www.lavillashanti.com Tariff Rs.7,000-11,000; 15 rooms

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La Maison Tamoulle
Formerly known as Calve Hotel run by WelcomHeritage, the 150-year-old Chettiar bungalow has been recently taken over by Neemrana. Its French rebranding literally means ‘Tamil bungalow’ as the Chettinad plaster, Athangudi tiles, pillared columns and stained glass windows suggest. The thematic rooms are named after the navaratna (nine gems) and the delectable mix of French and Baroque elements with vernacular architecture is echoed in the in-house restaurant that serves great Creole and Indian cuisine.

Old No.36, Vysial Street Ph 0413 2223738, 2224103 www.neemranahotels.com Tariff Rs.3,000-5,000; 10 rooms

Gratitude
Painstakingly restored over three years in collaboration with INTACH, the 150 year old bungalow suffused with Anglo French furnishings is the perfect writer’s retreat. With no TV, it’s ideal for creative people seeking quietude. Long-term stays are possible at reduced rates. The house is entirely a non-smoking zone and the terrace has daybeds with attached yoga and massage rooms. The in-house La Boutique de la Maison Gratitude has exquisite vintage jewellery, clothing in natural fabrics, bags and clutch purse; all limited edition pieces.

52, Rue Romain Rolland Ph 0413 2225029, 9442065029 www.gratitudeheritage.in Tariff Rs.4,000-6,200; 9 rooms

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Hotel de l’ Orient
An old Tamil home rebuilt by the French in the 1760s that once housed the Department of Education, the Neemrana hotel proudly retains the old name Instruction Publique at its entrance. Rooms overlook a foliaged central courtyard with Carte Blanche restaurant specializing in excellent Creole cuisine.

17, Romain Rolland Street Ph 0413 2343067/68/74 www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,000-7,000, 16 rooms

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Hotel de Pondicherry
A 170-year-old French townhouse, later converted into a boutique heritage hotel, has rooms named after former French governors and Tamil luminaries. The Dupleix suite opens into a terrace. Antique teak beds, Thanjavur paintings and sepia tinted photographs transport you to a bygone era. Though no food is served, the French cuisine restaurant Le Club is located in the tropical garden to the front.

38, Rue Dumas Ph 0413 2227409 www.hoteldepondicherry.com Tariff Rs.3,000-5,000; 12 rooms

The Dune Eco Spa where no two rooms are alike IMG_0632_Pondy-Anurag Mallick

The Dune
Run by Sunil Varghese and Frenchman Dimitri Klien who has a keen eye for art, recycling, and environment, this ‘Lost Paradise’ is set in a sprawling 35 acre organic farm and flower garden with a private 700 m seafront. No two rooms at The Dune are alike with a wide range of eclectic and individualistic arty villas and suites with reclaimed doors and windows. As the manager says, ‘Apart from the staff, everything else in antique’! Enjoy healthy organic meals at FUN (Food U Need) Restaurant, sizzling seafood at The Seaside Bar, rejuvenating therapies at Veda Spa, besides outdoor games, cycling, boating and rural experiences like milking cows and farming. The Artists in Residence programme makes it a popular base for international artists while proceeds from the Artyzan Shop & Design studio fund school fees for underprivileged children.

Pudhukuppam, Keelputhupet (after Pondicherry University) Ph 0413 2655751, 9364455440 www.thedunehotel.com Tariff Rs.5,500-Rs.17,950; 50 rooms

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Mango Hill
A French-run hotel on a hill planted with mango and cashew trees located between Pondicherry and Auroville, Mango Hill has a quaint brick and pastel feel. Rooms have a private terrace with sea-views and Thai style cottage rooms with sit-outs overlook a pool. Organic home-grown vegetables, fresh fish, cured ham, pâté and cheeses produced in-house are stirred into lovely dishes in the open kitchen. Owner and cheese-maker Marion Ducret conducts workshops (Ph 8098809089, Email cheeseyclass@gmail.com) and the hotel has a dairy room, cold rooms and a large wine cellar. The weekday Swim n Lunch offers visitors pool access and lunch at Rs.490.

Old Auroville Road, Bommayapalayam Ph 0413 2655491-3 www.hotel-mangohill-pondicherry.com Tariff Rs.2,500-3,750; 25 rooms

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Villa Helena
The colonial heritage guesthouse started out as an annex for Roselyne Guitry, a perfumer from Burgundy to store her collection of antiques. Currently owned by Benjamin Passicos, the century old building has a lush courtyard, open-air lounge with planters’ chairs, large rooms furnished with antiques and colonial furniture and the in-house Satsangh Restaurant.

13, Bussy Street Ph 0413 2226789, 4200377 Email villahelena@sify.com
Tariff Rs.2,800-3,000; 7 rooms

Villa Christophe
A boutique guesthouse in a restored 19th century villa with rooms with floral themes (Jasmine, Hibiscus and Frangipani) and equally beautiful bathrooms. Breakfast is charged at Rs.250/head.

5, Surcouf Street Ph 90258 17351 www.villachristophe.com Tariff Rs.3,000-3,500; 3 rooms

Le Reve Bleu & The Pink Ambassador owner IMG_0532_Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy_Pondy-Anurag Mallick

Le Reve Bleu
Literally ‘The Blue Dream’, this small budget guest house is run by a quirky French woman Christelle, know locally as the lady with the pink ambassador. The Tamil home comes with 6 rooms and a common kitchen-cum-hall on the ground floor for breakfasts, discussions and evenings. It’s quite popular among French backpackers.

95, Montorsier Street Ph 9894802333 www.lerevebleu-pondy.com Tariff 1,200; 6 rooms

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 7 October 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/where-stay-puducherry/

10 magical drives from Bengaluru

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From the Western Ghats to the Deccan Plateau and the Karavali Coast to Coromandel, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY hit the highways of South India to seek out ten scenic drives from Bangalore

Searching for some great drives around Bengaluru? Look no further than this handpicked list of destinations across regions, themes and geographic zones with everything you need to know – where to stay, what to eat, how to get there, distances, midway stops and what to see en route. Presented in increasing order of distance from Bangalore, take these scenic routes across Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa.

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Sakleshpur
Swathed in plantations of coffee, cardamom, pepper and areca, Sakleshpur is the scenic gateway to the Western Ghats. Straddling the passes on the town’s outskirts is Tipu Sultan’s strategic fort Manjarabad. Shaped like an eight-cornered star radiating around a central hillock, the climb is difficult, but offers superb views all around. The 56.8 km Green Route from Sakleshpur to Kukke Subrahmanya, dotted by 58 tunnels, 109 bridges and 25 waterfalls used to be a stunning trek along an abandoned railway track until it was recently converted into broad gauge. Now you can hop on to a train to soak in the natural beauty of Bisle Ghat, home to India’s most spectacular rainforests. From the scenic Bisle viewpoint one can see the mountain ranges of three districts – Kumara Parvatha (1319 m) in Dakshina Kannada, Puspha Giri (1712 m) and Dodda Betta (1119 m) in Coorg and Patta Betta (1112 m) in Hassan district. For a misty drive, head north to Chikmagalur and the Baba Budan Giri hills to climb Karnataka’s highest peak Mullaiyanagiri.
Stay: The Radcliffe Bungalow at the 1000-acre Ossoor Estate 3 km before Sakleshpur off the highway is a charming colonial era plantation bungalow with 3 rooms, red oxide floors and open to sky bathrooms. Run by Plantation Escapes, they also have an 8-room property near Chikmagalur called Mist Valley. www.plantationescapes.com
Distance: 221 km (4 hrs)
Route: Take the Bengaluru-Mangaluru highway or NH-48 via Nelamangala, Kunigal, Hassan and Channarayapatna

Pitstop: Kamath Upchar after Channarayapatna
En route: Drowning church of Shettihalli, Gorur Dam, Hoysala temples at Mosale, Nuggehalli besides Belur-Halebid

Guided Jeep Drive Through Coffee Plantations

Pollibetta
As the winding road climbs the ghats of Coorg, the glossy green coffee bushes and pepper vines present a soothing sight. In monsoon, blankets of mist wrap the rainforest and waterfalls are at their torrential best – be it Abbi and Hattihole near Madikeri (Mercara), Chelavara near Kakkabe or Irpu near Srimangala. Go on a guided Bean to Cup plantation tour with Tata Coffee, enjoy a round of golf at the 9-hole course, grapple with rapids while whitewater rafting at Dubare and Upper Barapole rivers or hike to vantage points like Kotebetta, Mandalpatti and Kabbe Pass. Base yourself in any of the colonial-era bungalows around Pollibetta run by Tata Coffee’s Plantation Trails and feast on traditional Kodava cuisine like koli (chicken) and pandi (pork) curry and monsoon staples like kumme (mushrooms), bemble (bamboo shoots) and kemb (colocasia) curry.
Stay: Stay in premium heritage bungalows like the century old Cottabetta or Thaneerhulla, Woshully plantation bungalow or plantation cottages like Surgi, Thaneerhulla, Yemmengundi or Glenlorna, which offers the rare view of a tea estate in coffee county. They also run the Arabidacool heritage bungalow near Chikmagalur. www.plantationtrails.net
Distance: 230 km (5 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Srirangapatna, turn right onto the Mercara highway and after Hunsur, take the left deviation towards Gonicoppa (look out for the Plantation Trails sign), drive on to Thithimathi and turn right at another sign to Pollibetta, 9 km away.
Pitstop: Maddur vada at Maddur Tiffany’s or puliyogare, pongal, Kanchipuram idlis and Brahmin Iyengar snacks at Kadambam, Channapatna
En route: Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, KRS Dam (Brindavan Gardens) and Namdroling Golden Temple at the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe near Kushalnagar.

Vythiri Resort rope bridge IMG_1686_Anurag Priya

Lakkidi
Perched at an altitude of 700 m atop Thamarassery Ghat, Lakkidi squats on the western border of Kerala’s hilliest district Wayanad. Located just 5 km from the tourist hub of Vythiri, it is one of the highest locations in the district. The winding Thamarassery–Lakkidi Ghat road, often shrouded in mist and fog, is called the Cherrapunjee of Kerala. Stop by at the freshwater Pookot Lake and the Chain Tree, which pays tribute to the spirit of a tribal chieftain who showed the secret way through the passes to a British officer but was treacherously killed. Head to the district headquarters Kalpetta for Wayanad Splash, a monsoon carnival with mud football, crab hunting, offroad drives and other rain soaked adventures. Hike to the heart-shaped lake at Chembra, Wayanad’s highest peak or take part in cross country cycling, treks and other adventure trails with Muddy Boots.
Stay: Laze in rustic themed tree houses or pool villas at Vythiri Resort, an eco friendly rainforest hideaway landscaped around a gurgling mountain stream. Pamper yourself with rejuvenative Ayurveda therapies, delicious Kerala cuisine and leisurely forest walks. www.vythiriresort.com
Distance: 290 km (7-8 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Mysuru and NH-212 on the Kozhikode Road via Gundlupet, Muthanga, Sulthan Bathery and Kalpetta
Pitstop: Jowar roti, yenne badnekayi, neer dosa and North Karnataka delights at Kamat Madhuvan on the southern outskirts of Mysuru on the Kozhikode Road
En route: Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary and the Jain Temple at Sulthan Bathery that Tipu Sultan used an ammunition dump.

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Coonoor
Take a drive up the hairpin bends of the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains for a magical sight of tea plantations that stretch for miles. Escape the bustle of Ooty to quieter Coonoor for drives to stunning viewpoints like Dolphin’s Nose, Catherine Falls, Kodanad and Rangaswamy Pillar. For an offroad experience, drive to Red Hills and Avalanchi or take a 4-wheel jeep ride past Glendale and Nonsuch Estates to Pakkasuran Kote with ruins of Tipu Sultan’s fort. Stay in a plantation bungalow while trekking downhill past Toda hamlets and Hillgrove Railway station. For a lazy slideshow of the hills, hop on to the Nilgiri Mountain Railway that covers the 26km uphill climb from Mettupalayam to Ooty in just under 5 hrs, crossing 16 tunnels and 250 bridges.
Stay: Tea Nest Coonoor on Singara Estate Road is a quiet nook overlooking tea plantations with rooms named after tea varieties, a seven-course tea-themed menu and the odd gaur among the bushes. They also run a private 2-room planter bungalow called Tea Nest Annexe 1 km down the road, besides the ethnic Kurumba Village Resort in a spice plantation on the Connoor-Mettupalayam Ghat road www.natureresorts.in
Distance: 285 km (7-8 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Mysuru, NH-212 till Gundlupet and NH-67 till Theppakadu. The route via Gudalur (right of the Y junction) is 30 km longer with less hairpin bends, though the left route via Masinagudi is more scenic with 36 hairpin bends
Pitstop: JLR’s Bandipur Safari Lodge has decent buffet lunches or try South Indian fare at Indian Coffee House Hotel on NH-67 at Gudalur
En route: Wildlife at Mudumalai National Park, Bandipur Tiger Reserve or Kabini

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Agumbe
One of the rainiest places in Karnataka, Agumbe is significant for many reasons. With a mean annual rainfall of 7,620 mm (300 inches), it is often described as the Cherrapunjee of the South. The sleepy rain-soaked hamlet served as Malgudi in Shankar Nag’s TV adaptation of RK Narayan’s nostalgic tale of Swami and his childhood. It is home to Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) founded in 2005 by herpetologist Romulus Whitaker dedicated to the Indian Cobra. One could visit Agumbe just to see the ‘Top of the Ghaut’ milestone erected by the British to mark the distance from ‘Shemoga’. Or marvel at the sunset from the viewpoint. But one of the biggest incentives is Mr. Nayak, the vada seller at Agumbe Forest checkpost who dispenses vadas with wisdom, stocking books of literary interest, for which regular patrons drive for miles.
Stay: Not too far from Agumbe near Thirthahalli is the quaint Kolavara Heritage homestay, a Chowkimane (traditional home) in a working plantation where you can enjoy Malnad cuisine and nature hikes www.kolavaraheritage.com
Distance: 357 km (8-9 hrs)
Route: NH-4 till Tumkur, NH-206 via Tiptur, Kadur, Tarikere, Bhadravati bypass, Shivamogga bypass, Thirthahalli
Pitstop: Chattambade and vadas at Mr. Nayak’s roadside stall at Agumbe Check-post and meenina oota (fish meals) at Mandagadde, midway between Shivamogga and Thirthahalli
En route: Sringeri temple, Mandagadde Bird Sanctuary and Kannada poet laureate Kuvempu’s birthplace Kavishaila

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Pichavaram
Spread over 2800 acres off Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast; Pichavaram is one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. It first shot to fame with MGR’s 1975 film Idhaya Kanni and more recently served as a dramatic backdrop for Kamal Hassan’s Dashavataram. Navigable by boats that weave in and out of narrow canals lined by overgrown mangrove roots, it is a paradise for nature lovers. An early morning boat ride from the Arignar Anna Tourist Complex is ideal for birdwatching. And once you hit the ECR or East Coast Road, extend your itinerary by driving north to the erstwhile French enclave of Puducherry and the ancient maritime Pallava capital of Mamallapuram. Or head south to Tharamgambadi or Tranquebar, once a flourishing Danish outpost with stunning Scandinavian churches and a seaside fort.
Stay: Hotel Sardharam have a decent property in Chidambaram with great food and also run Pichavaram Eco Resort overlooking the boat jetty at Pichavaram backwaters, besides a Chola-themed heritage hotel Lakshmi Vilas near Veeranam Lake www.hotelsaradharam.co.in
Distance: 366 km (9-10 hrs)
Route: NH-7 via Electronic City, Hosur to Krishnagiri, NH-66 to Tiruvannamalai and onward to Cuddalore
Pitstop:
Adyar Ananda Bhavan at BP petrol pump in Chinnar, between Hosur and Krishnagiri
En route: Arunachaleshwara temple and Sri Ramana Maharishi Ashram at Tiruvannamalai, Gingee Fort, Nataraja temple at Chidambaram

Vivanta by Taj Bekal Exterior

Bekal
Remember ‘Tu Hi Re’ from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and the rain drenched fort where it was shot? That’s Bekal, the largest and most well preserved fort in Kerala built by Shivappa Nayak in 1650. Kasaragod, Kerala’s northernmost district has the highest concentration of forts in the state, highlighting the importance of trade in the Malabar region. Follow the fort trail to Chandragiri and Hosadurg nearby, feast on local Moplah cuisine or take a houseboat ride in the Thejaswini river and the serene backwaters of Valiyaparamba.
Stay: BRDC (Bekal Resort Development Corporation) has facilitated a string of premium resorts like Nileshwaram Hermitage and The Lalit, though the pick of the lot is Vivanta by Taj Bekal. Spread over 26 acres near Kappil Beach, stay in laterite-lined villas inspired by kettuvallam (houseboat) motifs with private plunge pools, signature therapies at Jiva Grande Spa, besides honeymoon packages and vow renewal ceremonies. www.vivantabytaj.com
Distance: 368 km (9-10 hrs)
Route: SH-17 to Mysuru and the old Mysuru-Mangaluru highway or NH-275 via Madikeri, Sampaje, Sullia to Jaloor, and SH-55 via Adhur and Cherkala to Bekal
Pitstop: The renovated East End Hotel in Madikeri is a great place for keema parathas, meat ball curry, though for firewood roasted akki roti with pandi curry stop by at the dingy yet delicious West End Bar on the other end of town.
En route: Omkareshwar Temple, Raja’s Seat and Gaddige in Madikeri, Malik Dinar mosque at Kasaragod

Munnar monsoon IMG_8985_Anurag Priya

Munnar
With most beaches out of bounds during monsoon, the beauty of Kerala in the rains is best experienced in the hills. And what better haunt than Munnar, located at the scenic tri-junction of moon aaru or ‘three rivers’ – Mudrapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala? Watch the mist roll over the mountains from your perch as you sip a steaming cup of Kannan Devan Hills chai. Drop by at the tea factory to trace the journey from leaf to cup as you explore the colonial summer hideout of the British through excellent short drives. Go via Mattupety Dam and Echo Point to Top Station or via the scenic lake of Devikulam to Bison Valley. Visit Eravikulam National Park to spot the Nilgiri Tahr or head to Anamudi Peak, at 2695m the highest point south of the Himalayas.
Stay: Tiled roof stone cottages built using rocks from the property, Mountain Club is a picture-postcard resort at Chinnakanal 21 km from town adjacent to Club Mahindra. It has an excellent multi-cuisine restaurant, coffee shop and an infinity pool overlooking Anayirankal Dam. www.mountainclub.co.in
Distance: 478km (11-12 hrs)
Route: NH-7 via Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri to Salem, via Avinashi and Udumalpet onto Munnar Road
Pitstop: Besides Adyar Ananda Bhavan midway between Dharmapuri and Thoppur, there’s all day dining and a great value lunch buffet at GRT Grand Estancia at Salem, besides Hotel Chinnis at Perundurai
En route: Mettur Dam, Bhavani temple,
Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary

Kundapura DSC04826_Anurag Priya

Toodhalli
Ever heard that thing about not eating fish in months that don’t have an ‘r’? May, June, July and August is the monsoon period when fish usually spawn, hence the old adage. But if you were to drive up the Karavali Coast to Karwar, there are several places to drop anchor. Kundapura, a town known for its legendary cuisine, boasts iconic dishes like Kundapur Chicken, Chicken Ghee Roast, Chicken sukka and neer dosa, with enough variety to keep one docked for days. Drive up further to Sai Vishram Beach Resort in Baindoor, perhaps the only non-alcoholic pure vegetarian resort on the coast. But for the best culinary and wellness experience drop by at Wild Woods Spa, which offers rare delights like jackfruit idli and dosa, wild mushroom curry, bamboo shoot curry, pathrode, spinach dosa and the signature dasola yele (Hibiscus leaf) idli.
Stay: Besides Blue Waters at Kundapura and Sai Vishram at Baindoor, Wild Woods Spa & Resort at Toodhalli, 7km from Shiroor checkpost, is a great place to enjoy the rains. A mountain stream encircles the botanical retreat that offers wood and stone cottages, exotic cuisine and spa treatments. www.wildwoodsspa.com
Distance: 496 km (12 hrs)
Route: NH-48 to Mangaluru via Shiradi Ghat and head north on NH-17 to Kundapura, Bhatkal and beyond. If closed for renovation or road repair, take NH-4 via Tumkur, Chitradurga, Davangere to Harihar and turn left via Siddapur and Jog Falls to reach the coast at Bhatkal. Or take NH-48 to Hassan and NH-234 via Belur and Mudigere to Charmadi Ghat, Belthangady, Karkala and Udupi.
Pitstop: Shetty Lunch Home in Kundapura is legendary for its sukkas, ghee roast and the eponymous Kundapur Chicken. Stop at Kwality on NH-17 for Bhatkal biryani (they serve only chicken)
En route: Stunning coastal views, waterfalls like Jog, Arshinagundi and Apsarakonda, coastal pilgrim trail from Udupi, Kukke Subramanya, Kollur Mookambika, Murudeshwar, Idagunji to Gokarna and Jain circuit of Moodbidri, Karkala, Varanga and Bhatkal.

Turiya Spa Canacona Goa_Amit Bhandare

Palolem
Driving through Goa in the rains, especially the rich hinterland, is the perfect foil to the frenetic beach activity of the high season. Away from the secluded coast and the sore sight of fishing boats shrouded with palm fronds and blue tarpaulin, the green of the lush countryside is so bright it hurts your eyes! Explore the quiet south with trips to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary on the Goa-Karnataka border, the stone cut temple of Tambdi Surla, a railway track hike or adventure bike ride to Doodhsagar waterfall or white water rafting on the Surla Mhadei river.
Stay: A tastefully renovated century old Portuguese villa in a quiet colony of Canacona, Turiya Villa & Spa is named after the fourth state of consciousness and is a great place to relax with lovely homestyle Konkani food and an in-house spa that offers Ayurveda, body and beauty treatments www.turiyahotels.com
Distance: 559 km (12-14 hrs)
Route: NH-4 via Tumkur, Chitradurga, Davangere to Haveri, via Yellapur to Karwar and up the coastal NH-17 to Canacona
Pitstop: Thatte idlis at Bidadi, Sri Kottureshwara or Old Sagar Hotel in Davangere for benne dosas and Amrut Restaurant and Shwetha Lunch Home in Karwar
En route: Chitradurga Fort, Yana Caves (Kumta-Sirsi route), Tagore Beach Karwar

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as a monsoon special on 15 July 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/10-magical-monsoon-drives-bengaluru

Faith Accompli: 10 Quirky roadside shrines in India

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Bullet Motorcycle temple, Aeroplane Gurudwara, Traffic Ganesha to Visa Hanuman, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick out 10 quirky roadside shrines in India

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India is a country that takes religion quite seriously. As if 33 crore gods in the Hindu pantheon were not enough, there are temples dedicated to seers, saints and larger than life figures. Actors are often idolized – there’s an Amitabh Bachchan temple in Kolkata, a Khushboo shrine at Trichy and a Namitha temple in Tirunelveli. Politicians too have ardent followers – a Mahatma Gandhi temple at Bhatra village in Sambalpur to a cardboard temple in Karimnagar dedicated to Sonia Gandhi, an MGR shine at Thirunindravoor, Chennai or a proposed Mayawati temple at Natpura in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region. Actor Manoj Tiwari takes hero worship to a new level with a Sachin Tendulkar temple (because he’s the ‘god of cricket’) in his hometown Atarwalia in Bihar’s Kaimur district. Forget humans, there are shrines for animals too. Rats are deified as ancestors at Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke in Rajasthan while dogs turn into gods at a unique canine temple at Ramnagar in Karnataka’s Channapatna district! Here we showcase some truly offbeat roadside shrines in India…

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Bullet Bana temple, Pali (Rajasthan)
Nobody can deny the cult status the Royal Enfield motorbike enjoys in India, but a shrine dedicated to the 350 cc Bullet? Bang on the NH-65 highway via Rohet to Jodhpur stands the roadside temple of Bullet Banna or Motorcycle Baba. It is in memory of Om Singh Rathore of Chotilla village, who died here in a motorcycle accident in 1988. The cops took his bike to the police station, but the next morning it went missing and was strangely found parked at the crash site. Each time the bike was impounded, it returned on its own to the accident-prone spot. Believing it to be divine will, locals built a temple in Om Banna’s memory with his Bullet enshrined alongside his garlanded photo. Travelers stop by to light incense sticks and pray for a safe passage.

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18 bata 2 temple, Naldehra (Himachal Pradesh)
In the hills, it’s not unusual for shrines to crop up at accident prone areas and treacherous spots. However what makes this Naldehra shrine unique is its name – ‘Atharah bata do’ or 18/2. It is believed that in a tragic crash some years ago, a bus went over the precipice resulting in eighteen fatalities and only two survivors. The temple that came up on the dangerous curve thus got its strange appellation.

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Chain Tree, Vythiri (Kerala)
In Kerala’s hilly district of Wayanad, beyond the misty ghats of Lakkidi near Vythiri, just off the NH-212 stands an unusual tree in chains. It recounts the tragic tale of Karinthandan, a young tribal who guided a British engineer to find a safe route through the treacherous Thamrasseri Ghat. He was killed equally treacherously. It is said his troubled spirit began haunting travellers and often led to accidents. So a puja was performed by a priest to pacify his soul which was then chained to a tree. The iron shackles still drape the branches of the famous Chain Tree as tourists drop by for a quick picture. While on trees, the nature temple of Chingan Chira, 10 km from Kollengode in Palakkad district, deserves mention. With a canopy spread over 2 acres, the cluster of banyan trees looks eerie with wooden houses and offerings dangling from it. Adding to its strange mystique are blocks of flat stone with grinders, mortars and pestles placed around it. Devotees drop by on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays to perform pujas, sacrifice fowls and prepare thanksgiving meals to the deity. It is a popular spot for shooting films, videos and the odd wedding album!

Traffic Ganesha Bengaluru

Traffic Ganesha, Bangalore (Karnataka)
The Ganesha temple on Kasturba Road in Bangalore is known by many local names – Vahana (Vehicle) Ganpati, Traffic Ganesha or Accident Ganesha. Though the temple is believed to be 600 years old, for the last 60 years, motorists have been bringing their new vehicles for blessings of an accident-free life. After all, it has royal approval! As per temple priest Subramaniam Deekshit, the Maharaja of Mysore Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar was travelling in his Rolls Royce from Mysore to Bangalore, when his car broke down nearby. Forced to abandon his vehicle, the king started off on foot and saw the roadside temple. On performing a puja here, his Rolls Royce mysteriously sputtered to life. This happened a few times. Even the Diwan of Mysore, T Ananda Rao, after whom the Anand Rao Circle is named, stayed at Cantonment and regularly prayed at the shrine. When TVS opened its showroom in Bangalore, it brought its new chassis and vehicles for puja. With the opening of the Benz and Nissan showrooms on Kasturba Road, the practice caught on. The belief that an accident can be averted if you perform a puja is so strong that people come in the thousands for vahana puja during Ayudha Puja. Two-wheeler owners believe that they would upgrade to a car and small car owners think their aspirations to buy a bigger car would be fulfilled. Whether the vehicle is old or new, a cycle or a Merc, Traffic Ganesha’s fame only increases each year.

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Jaswantgarh Memorial, Near Sela Pass (Arunachal Pradesh)
Maha Vir Chakra Jaswant Singh of 4 Garhwal Rifles laid down his life during the 1962 war, fighting the Chinese Army for 72 hours along with two other soldiers. He was eventually caught and hanged at the same place where the Jaswantgarh Memorial now stands, 14 km from Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh. Besides a garlanded bronze bust of ‘Baba’ Jaswant Singh, the war hero’s belongings are also enshrined – his Army uniform, cap, watch and belt. An earthen lamp placed in front of the portrait of Jaswant Singh burns round the clock. While the rifleman may be no more, his six caretakers from 19 Garhwal Corps believe Babaji’s spirit lives on. He is served bed tea at 4:30am, breakfast at 9am and dinner at 7pm. They make his bed, polish his shoes, deliver the mail sent by his admirers and even clear the mails the next morning after ‘he has gone through them’. They change his bed sheets every Tuesday. Besides serving Baba, the soldiers manning the unique shrine also help needy travelers along the hazardous mountain road.

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Betaal Mandir, Mithbav (Maharashtra)
Maharashtra too has its share of strange shrines – be it a Shiva temple at Kunkeshwar built by shipwrecked Arabian sailors as thanksgiving or Pune’s Khunya Murlidhar temple whose foundations are soaked in blood. Even as the idol was being consecrated, a feud took place outside between the Peshwa and Dada Gadre, a local moneylender, leading to its strange name. Across the Konkan region, it is not unusual to find village shrines of gram-rakshaks, like the Shreedev Upralkar Prasann near Sawantwadi. Echoing the tale of Wayanad’s Chain Tree, the shrine is dedicated to a dhangar (shepherd) who revealed the passage through Amboli pass to the British and thereby got killed. He became the custodian of the passes and once when the British attacked the region, his spirit protected the people. Speaking of spirits, the small Betaal Temple by the road near Mithbav beach is much revered. The wandering spirit is invisible to the human eye. It is said, every evening, his palki (palanquin) carried by his ganas roams the area for an hour. People avoid going near his shrine around 7, else they get possessed, pull their hair and go mad. The madness is abated only after the god is appeased.

Ayyanar shrines Tamil Nadu

Keeranur Ayyanar (Tamil Nadu)
Though Tamil Nadu has many celebrated temples of the Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas, the roadside shrines of village deities called Ayyanars are quite fascinating. Often seated with a sacrificial sword in hand or shown riding horses or elephants with a retinue of lesser gods and attendants, the deities act as guardian of the adjoining village – as rainmaker, protector of the fields and night patroller of the village borders. As votive offerings, people donate terracotta horses lining the pathway leading to the shrine, usually located in the shadow of a sacred tree or grove. Perhaps the best example can be seen off NH-210 at Keeranur, 25km south of Trichy on the road to Pudukottai in Chettinad.

Aeroplane Gurudwara gateway

Aeroplane Gurudwara, Talhan (Punjab)
Punjab’s Doaba region, the fertile land between the two rivers Beas and Sutlej, has over six million natives settled abroad, with at least one member from each family staying overseas. Many of them owe their overseas stint to Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara at Talhan village near Jalandhar, better known as Hawai Jahaz or Aeroplane Gurudwara. Just off NH-1, a gate capped with a British Airways aircraft model leads to a road lined with shops selling toy planes of Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Canada and other international carriers. These are not souvenirs, but offerings to the gurudwara in the hope of going abroad! The inner sanctum on the first floor of the century-old gurudwara has several plane models in neat rows. Because of the lack of space, the gurudwara committee has started distributing the toys to underprivileged children.

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Visa Hanuman, Ahmedabad (Gujarat) & Hyderabad (Andhra)
Lord Hanuman is often considered by some as the unofficial god of encroachment. One day suddenly someone may find an udbhav murti that’s manifested itself magically or after a dream. Some just have to place a Hanuman statue or idol and within no time a small shop and a cluster of buildings will come up around it. But Hanuman or Balaji is no ordinary god. In the narrow by-lanes of Desai-ni-pol at Khadia in Ahmedabad, a Hanuman shrine guarantees 100% visa approval for any foreign country. Himanshu Mehta, priest and caretaker of the 250-year-old temple elaborates on this amazing feat. Once eight applicants had their visas approved on Diwali eve after seeking Lord Hanuman’s blessings. The temple is packed on Saturdays, with nearly a thousand ardent devotees filing their appeals for his consideration. Similar is the tale of Chilkur Balaji Temple, popularly known as Visa Balaji. Located on the banks of Osman Sagar Lake, 17 km from Mehedipatnam near Hyderabad, the temple of the Visa God is perhaps the only one in India that does not accept money offerings or have the ubiquitous hundi for donations from the devotees.

Anicut Hanuman of the 19th Vent, Trichy (Tamil Nadu)
There are Hanuman shrines on hillocks, at crossroads and by the river, but a temple in a dam, now that’s a first! Situated 15km from Trichy, the Grand Anicut or Kallanai (kal means stone, anai is dam) built by Tamil king Karikala Cholan 2000 years ago with unhewn stone is believed to be one of the world’s oldest man-made dams. At its base lies an unobtrusive Hanuman temple that has been there for 200 years. A stone tablet in one corner has an engraving of Lord Hanuman on one side and an 1804 inscription by British captain JL Calddell. Despite several attempts, engineers of the East India Company could not complete building the 19th vent of the dam. It is said that Lord Hanuman appeared in a British officer’s dream and instructed him to build a temple for him at the spot. Brushing off the bizarre dream, the officer didn’t act upon it but was soon accosted by a troop of monkeys. Strangely, the local mason too reported receiving a similar vision. Fearing further disruption of the dam work, the officer conceded and a temple was eventually built at the 19th vent. Work magically resumed thereafter and jinx was broken. Today, despite the force of River Cauvery’s waters lashing through the temple and perilous water levels in the rains, the tiny shrine still stands in defiance, almost echoing the indomitable qualities of its God.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 March 2015 in National Geographic Traveller online. Read the story here: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/web-exclusive/web-exclusive-month/india-shrines/

Trichy on the Rocks

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While Trichy is synonymous with Rockfort, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a weekend break around the city to discover a world of cave shrines, rock edicts and exquisite wall murals IMG_8649 Vijayalayacholeswaran Shiva temple atop Melamalai in Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

The stone fortress of Rockfort rises 273 ft above the flatlands of Tiruchirappalli, dwarfing hills, monuments and church steeples. Dated to be 3,800 million years old, it is one of the oldest rocks in the world. Located 10km from the airport south of the Kaveri River, Rockfort is visible from every corner of the city and is an iconic symbol of Trichy. With Ganesha temples at the base and summit and a Shiva shrine hewn out of rock in the Upper Fort, Rockfort is easily the city’s favourite perch. Yet, the rocky landscape all around hides an older history etched in stone…

We drive 15km northeast of Trichy to the Grand Anicut or Kallanai to see one of the oldest dams in the world still in use. Built by Chola King Karikala in 2nd century AD, the 1,080 ft long, 60 ft wide dam and its ancient network of canals irrigates an astounding one million acres (4,000 sq km) in the fertile delta. The design served as a template for British engineers to build another bridge over the Coleroon one and a half millennia later, proof of its timeless ingenuity. There’s nothing to see at the dam site besides the king’s statue and a pavilion, so we head to Karikala’s glorious capital Uraiyur (Woraiyur), presently a suburb subsumed into the city. IMG_8324 Uraiyur Nammalvar sub-shrine murals-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

It has a stunning troika of temples – the Panchavarneshwar Shiva temple and the Vekkali Amman shrine where the Chola rulers prayed for victory before setting out to battle. At the Kamalavalli Nachiyar Kovil, the smell of pigeon droppings hangs in the air as we enter the Nammalvar sub-shrine. Vibrant murals of Narasimha and the avatars of Vishnu line the plain rock walls. Uraiyur went into decline until Vijayalaya Chola revived the dynasty as the Imperial Cholas in 850 AD.

The priest tells us of a temple built by Vijayalaya Chola that served as a prototype for the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur, inscribed as a Great Living Chola Temple in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Before he could say ‘Narthamalai’, we were driving south to the cluster of nine hills that holds some of the longest edicts and oldest rock-cut cave temples in South India.

IMG_8642 Vijayalayacholeswaran Shiva temple atop Melamalai in Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

At the hillock of Melamalai, we trudge past a green pool with a rock-cut shrine visible only when the water recedes. From afar, we are magically drawn by the vimana (spire) of the Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple peeping over the hillcrest. Patches of green fields rebel against the starkness of the rocky trail as the 20 min mild hike ends at the stunning Shiva temple. The likeness to the Big Temple at Thanjavur is unmistakable – the pyramidal spire and the stone cupola at its apex, were like genetic traces passed on from parent to child.

On the opposite side snug at the base of the hill is Thirumerkoil, a cave temple on a platform decorated with elephants and mythological creatures like makaras and yalis. Lining the inner chamber’s northern wall are a dozen bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals. It’s a vision to behold; as if the gods had descended from the skies and were frozen in stone. In the adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram, a nandi and dwarapalas (gatekeepers) guard a massive linga. We return slowly, stopping at an Ayyanar shrine in a little grove, marked by terracotta horses that locals offer to protective village deities.

IMG_8767 Melamalai Ayyanar shrine at Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

Kadambarmalai is another noteworthy hillock on the far side of town. Rainwater had collected in natural cavities creating tarns or small ponds. On the southwest base, facing a water-filled trench is a 1400-year-old temple hewn into the hillock. Two sets of inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II are etched on the hillside, comparable to Ashokan Rock Edicts. We continue to Sittanavasal, a 2nd century AD rock-cut cave temple and Jain monastery. Protected by a blue grill, a few steps lead to the cave with bas-reliefs of a Jain acharya (teacher) and Parsvanath, the 23rd tirthankara sheltered by a five-hooded serpent.

On entering the dark meditation chamber, we are amazed by its deep, resonating acoustics. Despite the flashlight, we can barely discern the detail of mural art in mineral colours– a lotus tank with fish, geese and elephants swimming, a man in a loincloth plucking flowers on the ceiling and the images of a dancing girl, a king and queen on the pillars. Sittanavasal is a fine representation of the early painting traditions of South India. IMG_8490 Eladipattam stone beds-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

On our way out, an ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) board marked Eladipattam catches our eye. A hundred steps cut into the western side, lead to the hilltop. We follow the railing as it descends east to a natural cavern where 17 rock beds are carved into the floor, each smoothened over time. A raised headrest serves as a stone pillow. Centuries ago Jain ascetics performed penance at this rock shelter overlooking the plains below, as mentioned in Tamil Brahmi inscriptions dating back to 2nd century BC. Now, stray couples and friends come to seek a quiet moment in these hills where dragonflies and butterflies flit in the afternoon sun.

It was twilight when we reach the hilltop Murugan temple at Nachandupatti. At its base, we enter the dark Malayakovil to see its beautiful idols by lamplight and the stunning blue and ochre paintings on the ceiling. A sudden shower prompts us to head back to the comfort of our bed at Trichy’s Sangam Hotel. With a twinge of guilt, we think about the austerity of stone beds, before sleep takes us to a land where geese glide on water as fish and elephants splash in a lotus pool… IMG_8190 Malayakovil murals-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

FACT FILE

Getting There
Uraiyur is 7km from town to the north. Take NH-210 (Ramanad Road) towards Pudukkottai, cross Keeranur and after Ammachattiram, turn right for Narthamalai, 37km south of Trichy. Continue via Keelakkurichi to Sittanavasal, 10km away. Head to Nachandupatti for Malayakovil and visit Pudukkottai en route to Trichy.

Where to Stay

Sangam Hotel
The 90-room centrally located hotel recently underwent a swank makeover. Good pool, excellent South Indian food and helpful staff who can arrange local tours.
Collectors Office Road, Trichy Ph 0452 4244526 sangamhotels.com

Chidamabara Vilas
Just off Tirumayam Fort, the century-old heritage home is Chettinad’s most opulent hotel. Vintage hand-operated pankhas (fans) above four-posters with carved wooden posts, rich drapes, gleaming pillars and Athangudi tiled floor spell luxury. Relish Chettinad delicacies in an interactive kitchen.
TSK House, Ramachandrapuram, Kadiapatti, Off Thirumayam Fort Ph 04333 267070, 9585556431 chidambaravilas.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Tiger Tales, the in-flight magazine of Tiger Air.

A Shore Catch: Shopping along the East Coast

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY net a bounty of traditional local crafts on a trip down India’s eastern coastline from West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu 

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Ancient India’s eastern coast was dotted by flourishing emporia selling gold, ivory and silks – from the Mauryan port of Tamralipta (Tamluk in Bengal) to centres of the Kalinga Empire (Puri and Konark in Odisha) and Masulipatnam (Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh) to great Tamil seaports like the Pallava maritime capital of Mamallapuram, the Roman trading town of Poduke (Arikamedu) and the Chola port of Kaveripoompattinam (Poompuhar). Over time, the coast drew all the major colonial powers – Dutch (Pulicat and Nagapattinam), English (Chennai), French (Yanam, Pondicherry and Karaikal) and Danes (Tranquebar). Centuries later, a drive down the east coast still throws up many surprises for those looking for a bargain.

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Digha (Bengal)
Though Digha is famous for its seashell ornaments, terracotta figurines and handicrafts, it’s also known for a regional specialty. Madur mats, crafted by the Mahishya weavers of Midnapore from Madhur Kathi, a thin soft reed that grows in swampy areas, come in several colours and can be used as floor mats, beach mats and table mats. They are also available as runners, coasters, curtains, cushion covers, bags, purses, baskets and furniture. Another popular mat is the Sitalpati (cool mat), typically made by Kayasthas out of Mutra cane, ideal for the hot climate. The more glossy and fine the texture, the better the mat. As per local folklore, the best Sitalpati is so smooth that even a snake cannot glide over it! The area behind old Digha beach is a great place to browse for pearls and shell accessories. Besides beach bags and handicrafts made of jute, shops also sell other Bengal staples like Kantha embroidery, silk and cotton saris, batik fabrics and Shantiniketan printed leather bags.

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Puri/Konark (Odisha)
The seaside towns of Puri and Konark are great places to buy conches, seashells, corals and semi-precious stones. Puri’s main road Bada Danda, New Marine Drive Road and Swargadwara at the southern end of the beach are a shopper’s delight with miniature stone sculptures, metal craft, bead and bamboo works, wood carvings, silver filigree work, sea-shell items and rows of shops selling exquisite Sambhalpuri ikkat saris and fabric. The 35km Marine Drive from Konark to Puri is dotted by stone carvers who churn out exquisite pieces of Lord Buddha, Ganesha and Hindu deities, ideal for the home or beautifying the garden.

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Odisha is best known for its Pattachitra tradition (painting on cloth), closely linked with the worship of Lord Jagannath. Chitrakars, earlier based around the Puri temple but now centered in the crafts village of Raghurajpur (11km north of Puri on NH-203), depict stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and themes of Radha-Krishna, Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra. Tala-pattachitra, etchings and illustrations done on palm leaf, are also popular. Don’t forget to pick up the colourful appliqué work lamps and wall hangings of Pipli (36km from Puri, at the junction of Konark Road).

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Vizag (Andhra)
Andhra Pradesh has a rich artistic tradition and Visakhapatnam (Vizag), the state’s second largest city, is the most important shopping address on the coast. From pearl and gold jewellery, Bidri ware, uppada pattu cheeralu (silk saris) to handicrafts, you’ll find them all on Vizag’s Main Road stretching from Jagadamba junction to Old Post Office. Besides Eastern Art Museum and Girijan Co-operative Society, there are several shops on Vizag’s main tourist precincts of Ramakrishna Beach and Rushikonda Beach as well as Dabagardens road.

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The government run Lepakshi showroom (Ph 0891 2508037 http://www.lepakshihandicrafts.gov.in) is the best place for wood carvings and handicrafts like Kondapalli, Yetikippaka and Nakkapalli toys, Nirmal paintings, Kalamkari work, Banjara embroidery, brass artware, leatherwork and Bidriware. Pochampalli and Narayanpet saris also sell like hot cakes here.

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Chennai/Mamallapuram (Tamil Nadu)
Kanjivaram silks, Chola bronzes, Tanjore paintings, brass lamps, stone sculptures, sandalwood carvings, metal artefacts and gold jewellery; Tamil Nadu is simply a shopper’s paradise. Chennai has an enviable number of hi-fashion & furniture boutiques like Fuschia, Rehane, Ambrosia and Amethyst. Strike a good bargain for junk jewellery with hawkers around The Marina and Besant Nagar. For saris and textiles, there’s Nalli Silks, Khadi Gram Udyog and Tamil Nadu Handloom Weaver’s Co-operative Society (Co-optex) and for jewellery visit GRT & VBJ showrooms.

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On ECR (East Coast Road), don’t miss the Cholamandal Artists’ Village at Injambakkam (8km from Chennai) for some great artworks by contemporary artists, or DakshinaChitra, which showcases a fine collection of South Indian arts and crafts. At Mamallapuram, pick up stone sculpture at the Artist Village and hippie clothes and souvenirs on Ottavadai Street. Further down the Coromandel Coast, buy hand-woven mats at Thaikkal (10km south of Chidambaram on NH-45A). Just across the Kollidam bridge, the highway is lined by thatched shops selling vibrant korai pai (grass mats), cane swing chairs and baskets.

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A good place to buy handicrafts is Central Cottage Industries Emporium and Poompuhar, run by Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation (Ph 044 28521271 www.poompuhar.org). It has 16 showrooms across the state, including several on the coast – Chennai, Mamallapuram, Cuddalore, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari.

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Pondicherry
This delightful beach town teeming with shops and boutiques has a dizzying range of products that leaves one spoilt for choice.  The signature handmade paper, incense, handcrafted jewellery, garments and organic products are on sale at Auroville’s boutique outlets – La Boutique d’Auroville and Boutique D Auroshri on Jawaharlal Nehru Street, Kalki on Mission Street and Auroville Visitors’ Centre (Ph 0413 2623450 www.maroma.com).

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Go boutique-hopping in Pondicherry’s French and Tamil Quarters for door and window frames, ornate pillars, antique furniture and other surprises at charming showrooms like Cottonwood, Touchwood, Hidesign’s Casablanca and La Maison Rose. Artyzan Design Shop and Studio at The Dune Resort (Ph 0413 2655528. www.artyzan.org) has an eclectic array of attractive beaded fashion accessories, key chains and pouches by a fair trade brand promoted by Children of the World-India Vocational Academy.

Also Read: The 9-yard Indian sari
https://redscarabtravelandmedia.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/the-indian-sari-unravelling-the-whole-nine-yards/

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2012 issue of JetWings magazine.

Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary: Nature’s Own Abode

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ANURAG MALLICK visits the valley between Tamil Nadu’s Anamalai Hills and Kerala’s Nelliyampathy Hills to spot the Parambikulam Frog, Asia’s largest teak tree and other natural wonders

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The dime-sized frog with bloodshot eyes stood still as it contemplated its next move while two pairs of eyes peered at it intently. My guide held up his palm animatedly, as if he had just been asked by a child to freeze momentarily. Then very slowly in a thick Malayali accent, he mouthed the words ‘Pa-ram-bi-kul-am Fro…g’ and twitched his eyes in that direction. It was enough to send the tiny amphibian scurrying into the foliage, but not before a few photographs had been clicked.

We were deep within Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary at a forest camp at Kuriarkutty on the banks of the Parambiar River. Here Dr. Salim Ali had spent 3 years (1936-39) watching hornbills. In commemoration, a bird’s gallery and audiovisual programs marked the Salim Ali Bird Interpretation Centre. It was on hallowed ground we had seen the Parambikulam Frog (Tomopterna parambikulamana), a creature so range specific, it was endemic to the sanctuary.

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There was good reason why Parambikulam made it as one India’s 39 claimants to the UNESCO World Heritage tag. Located just south of the Palakkad Gap in the Western Ghats, it has been the scene of many scientific rediscoveries. Koori (Haplothismia exanulata), a saprophytic plant occurs only in heavy monsoons during the ‘climatic climax’, when weather conditions are ideal for its growth, yet its dependence on ideal conditions makes its life span tragically short. After a long gap, it was found here in 1951.

The park boasts 285 such rare, endemic and endangered plants, 1438 flowering species and 81 species of orchids. The rivers teem with 47 fish species, including the endangered Mahseer and Garra surendranathanii, a ray-finned suckerfish endemic to the Chalakudy River. After seeing the park’s namesake species we retired to our Treetop Hut overlooking Thunakadavu reservoir with a great sense of achievement.

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The next morning we set off on a wildlife safari to Sungam range, the forest track leading us 6.8 km to the Pride of Parambikulam – the Kannimara Teak. Literally, the ‘first tree’, the lone 450-year-old specimen dated back to a time when natural teak forests covered the entire area. Rising up to 48.5 m with a girth of 6.57 m, it took five people with arms outstretched to encircle it completely. One of the oldest and largest ‘natural’ living teak trees in the world and the largest in Asia, the tree was awarded the ‘Mahavriksha Puraskar’ by the Indian Government in 1994.

During the 19th century the British had felled most of the original teak forests for timber by exploiting local tribal labour. Massive tree trunks were taken to the ‘top’ of the mountain slope and allowed to ‘slip’ down into the river, the practice eventually giving the place its name. Top Slip currently forms the tourism zone of Tamil Nadu’s Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary on the eastern slope of the Western Ghats. In 1905, a more efficient system was devised. The Cochin Forest Tramway directly transported teak from Parambikulam to Chalakudy before shipping it to the rest of the world from Cochin Harbour as Cochin Teak. Ironically, it was the revenue generated from Parambikulam teak that led to the development of present day Cochin Port.

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Contiguous with Anamalai Sanctuary, the undulating park spread around seven major valleys and three river systems, dammed at Parambikulam, Thunakadavu and Peruvaripallam under the Par-Alayar Project in the 1950s. The 20.6 sq km reservoir harboured several aquatic fauna, including muggers, which often looked like sun-dried logs peeping through the water. Besides rowboats and bamboo rafting on the reservoirs, the active Forest Department organized a daylong Parambi Cruise in a Tribal Bamboo Houseboat, with on-board snacks and packed lunch.

The forest road climbed up the hillside to Dam View, a scenic vantage over the deep blue waters of Thunakadavu bracketed by Pandaravarai (1290 m) and Kuchimudi peaks. Valley View offered a sweeping glimpse of the picturesque Parambiar Valley, marked by the peaks of Kalynathy (1385 m) and Karimala (1439 m), the park’s highest point. We took an exhilarating boat ride in the reservoir to Veetikunnu Island, a cane forest bungalow located on a hilly islet (kunnu) of veeti (Sisam or Dalbergia latifolia).

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For the true wildlife enthusiast, there was no dearth of things to do at Parambikulam with eco-tourism packages like overnight camping inside the forest, Full Moon Census or hiking 8km to an old Inspection Bungalow for Thellikal Nights. Guided treks included the Kariyanshola Trail, Hornbill Watching, Pugmark Trail and the scenic Cochin Forest Tramway Trek to Muthuvarachal.

Driving around Parambikulam was always rife with the possibility of a gaur, the park’s mascot, crashing through the undergrowth or a chance leopard sighting. Home to an impressive faunal array, Parambikulam harboured 39 mammalian species, including tiger, leopard, jungle cat, fox, bear, elephant, gaur, Nilgiri tahr, pangolin, loris and primates like bonnet macaque, Nilgiri langur and lion-tailed macaque. Of the 274 birds, Black-capped kingfisher, Broad-billed roller, Black woodpecker, Ceylon frogmouth, Malabar pied hornbill and Small pranticole were notable species. 

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The park was home to four adivasi communities – Kadar, Malasar, Muduvar and Malamalasar, who had been resettled in six colonies. Their indigenous knowledge made them critical partners in the eight EDCs (Eco-Development Committees) at Parambikulam. Even today, the scattered dolmens (flat memorial stones) of the tribal headmen still stand testimony to a time when man and beast lived in harmony in these forests.

Where to Stay

The Forest Department at Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary offers a wide range of accommodation options (Rs.2,500-5,000/day for 2-5 people). The two scenic Treetop Huts with double beds and attached baths in the reserve forest area overlooking the reservoir at Thunakadavu and Parambikulam are much sought after and have to be booked in advance. Elephant Valley Lodge at Thunakadavu and Bison Valley Lodge at Parambikulam have three double rooms each. Tented Niche, seven Swiss-style tents lie in a shady grove at Anappady. Anappady also has a Mahseer Dormitory for 40 people while Tiger Hall at Parambikulam can lodge 20; ideal for backpackers.

Birdwatchers can stay at the Salim Ali Centre at Kuriarkutty, which has a hall for 10 people. For a little privacy try Vettikunnu Island Nest on Parambikulam reservoir, a secluded island accessible by boat with stay in a renovated wireless station (6 people). Bay Owl Shed at Bagapallam, Tahr Shed at Vengoli and Cane Turtle Shed at Thuthanpara accommodate five people each. Overnight camping is possible at Sambar Machan at Kuriarkutty, Peacock Machan at Vengoli and Cheetal Machan at Anakal Vayal with five beds each. Two guides accompany the group and arrange packed food for a fee.

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Bookings

Ecocare Centre, Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, Anappady, Thunakadavu (PO), Via Pollachi, Palakkad, Kerala 678 661. Ph 04253 – 245025, 245005 Email bookings@parambikulam.org www.parambikulam.org

Entry Fees & Charges

Gate timings 7am – 6 pm (entry closes at 4pm)
Vehicle Fee Rs.50 (Light), Rs.150 (Heavy)
Entry Fee Rs.10 Indians, Rs.100 Foreigners, Camera Rs.25, Video Rs.150

Where to Eat

Being a wildlife preserve in an isolated pocket, eating options are few and basic. Parambikulam, the last settlement where the road ends, has a few eateries and Hotel Everest (Ph 04253-277 235) is the pick of the lot. South Indian staple like idli and dosa are on offer for breakfast while meals with fish fry and chicken curry are popular for lunch and dinner. It’s best to order food in advance. Sree Hotel (Ph 04253-277 217) and Sri Lakshmi Hotel (Ph 04253-277 234) are other options.

What to Buy

The Eco-Care Centre at Anappady sells park memorabilia like T-shirts, caps, picture postcards and stickers as well as bottles of honey and jam.

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FACT FILE

Location: Situated in South East Palakkad, Parambikulam lies in the valley between the Anamalai ranges of Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s Nelliyampathy ranges of the Western Ghats.

Area: 643.66 sq km: 390.89 sq km Core Area (Critical Tiger Habitat), 252.77 sq km Buffer Zone

Altitude: 600 m to 1438 m above sea level

Climate: Mostly cool and damp interspersed with light to heavy drizzles around the year. Heavy rains lash the sanctuary between June-August. Eastern areas get more rain during Oct-Nov. Temperature ranges from 15 C to 32 C and drops substantially at dawn and dusk.

When to go: Unlike other parks, in the rains, the Forest Department also organizes Monsoon Tourism from June-August, though the best time to visit is September to March.

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Getting There

By Air: The nearest airport is Coimbatore, 100 km away, also an important rail link.

By Rail: The nearest railway station is at Pollachi, 39 km away

By Road: Parambikulam is 98 km from Palakkad. There is regular bus service from Pollachi (6 am, 3 pm) to Parambikulam via Anamalai (2 hrs) and Top Slip (11:20 am). From Palakkad, drive south to Kollengode, get on to Pollachi road and turn right from Ambrampalayam towards Anamalai, Sethumadai, Top Slip, Thunakadavu and Parambikulam, each place 12 km from each other. The Parambikulam Office Headquarters at Anappady is 4 km from Top Slip. The nearest petrol pump and ATM outlet are at Vettaikaranpudur, 23 km from Anappady.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the Sep-Oct 2012 issue of Saevus Wildlife magazine.

The Hills are Alive: Top 10 escapes of the Western Ghats

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From waterfalls, peaks, wildlife parks to plantation escapes, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY choose their Top 10 spots in India’s Western Ghats across five states

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UNESCO recently recognized the Western Ghats as a World Heritage Site due to its great biological diversity and exceptional natural beauty. Running parallel to India’s western coast 30-50 km inland, the Ghats are spread over 1,40,000 sq km in a 1,600 km long chain of mountains interrupted only by the 30 km wide Palghat Gap. 39 sites across Kerala (20), Karnataka (10), Tamil Nadu (5) and Maharashtra (4) covering 7,953 sq km have been chosen in seven wildlife sub-clusters – Periyar, Anamalai, Agasthyamalai, Nilgiri, Talacauvery, Kudremukh and Sahyadri. Here’s a selection of waterfalls, wildlife parks and exotic hill escapes…

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Dudhsagar
The milky waters of the Khandepar River, a tributary of the Mandovi, plummet 310 m from a lofty ridge bisected by a railway track and a fairytale bridge. Straddling the Goa-Karnataka border deep within Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary (Mollem National Park), Dudhsagar (Ocean of Milk) is India’s fifth highest waterfall. The Vasco-Madgao-Londa railway line runs right near the falls, accessible from Castle Rock (near Tinai Ghat in Karnataka) or Collem (6 km off Mollem, 57 km from Panaji). The 12 km trek from Collem follows the railway track but the cross-country dirt track ride cuts across streams. Local bikes charge Rs.300/head for a return trip in monsoon (Jul-Sep), while jeeps ply in November. Stay at Dudhsagar Resort near Mollem checkpost.

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Amboli Ghat
In the dense mist, crystal water gurgles from Shiva’s ancient cave shrine of Hiranyakeshi, a source of the Krishna River. Perched at 690 m in the Sahyadris off the Konkan coast, this eco hotspot turns magical in the monsoon with seasonal waterfalls and incredibly high rainfall. Teeming with over 300 species of rare plants like basket karvi or aakara (Marathi for eleven) which flowers once in 11 years, Amboli became a British outpost on the road from Vengurla port to Belgaum for garrisons in Central and South India. It is believed that a dhangar (shepherd) who guided the British along the treacherous pass was killed after revealing his secret. Today, he is worshipped as the village guardian at a small shrine on Amboli Road near Sawantwadi (28 km). Stay at Whistling Woods Amboli with naturalist and reptile expert Hemant Ogale for a rewarding experience.

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Baba Budan Giri
The highest mountain range between Himalayas and Nilgiris, Baba Budan Giri is the birthplace of coffee in India. Worshipped by Hindus as Chandradrona Parvatha, where Dattatreya, Sage Atri and Anusuyya performed penance in a cave, it is also revered by Muslims as the grave of a mystic and his disciples. In 17 century Baba Budan went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and was captivated by the tantalizing aroma of coffee in Yemen. As the story goes, in 1670 he smuggled seven coffee seeds in his robes and planted them in this corner of Karnataka. From here the coffee plant, a closely guarded Arab secret, spread across India. Trace the journey from berry to cup at Chikmagalur’s Coffee Museum, climb Karnataka’s highest peak Mullayyanagiri (6,314 ft) or trek from Baba Budan Giri to Kemmannagundi via Galikere. Stay amidst nature at plantation estates like Nature Nirvana, Hunkal Woods and Villa Urvinkhan.

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Coorg
With one of the country’s best-maintained national parks at Nagarahole, the highest density of devarakadus (sacred groves) in the world and the source of South India’s holiest river Cauvery, Coorg is indeed special. It is the largest producer of coffee and honey in India, besides spices like cardamom and pepper. Scenic plantations, charming estate bungalows, and riverside resorts coupled with irresistible Kodava hospitality and cuisine make it a favoured holiday spot. Trek through wild tracts in Pushpagiri, Brahmagiri and Talacauvery wildlife sanctuaries, scale Coorg’s tallest peak Thadiyendamol, visit waterfalls like Irpu, Abbey, Chelavara and Mallali or go white water rafting with Southern River Adventures on the Upper Barapole River. For other adventure sports, contact Crimson Eye and Jungle Mount Adventures.

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Wayanad
Tilt the Rainmaker and its cascading seeds emit the sound of water. Swing the Binsi, a reed instrument for a whistling note. These astonishing bamboo products from Uravu near Kalpetta capture the tribal legacy of Wayanad. Trek past the Stone Age engravings of Edakkal Caves to the top of Ambukuthy Range, watch dholes chasing deer at Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary or search for the Wayanad Laughing Thrush at Muthanga. Scale Banasura Hill overlooking India’s largest earth dam from Banasura Island Retreat or Silver Woods. Spot gaur in the hikes around Fringe Ford, a wild 500-acre plantation at Makkimala or DTPC’s Tea County near Mananthavady. Climb Chembra Peak (2100m) and get pampered at Sunrise Valley and Meenmutty Heights while exploring waterfalls like Meenmutty and Soochipara.

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Nilgiris
Home of ancient hill tribes, the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains) transformed into the summer retreat of the British in South India by 1827. The 46 km ride from Mettupalayam to Ooty in the heritage Nilgiri Mountain Railway presents stunning views. Studded with churches, lakes, botanical gardens, tea estates and viewpoints, Ooty’s elite clubs laid down the rules of snooker. Climb Dodda Betta (8650 ft) or drive from Ooty to the stunning lakes of Emerald, Avalanche, Upper Bhavani, Parson’s Valley and Porthimund into Mukurthi National Park. Explore the joys of farm life at Destiny Farm and Acres Wild, an organic cheese-making farm. Wallwood Garden, Kluney Manor, Regency Villas and Savoy (Ooty), La Maison and Sunshine Bungalow (Kotagiri), boutique luxury stays at O’land Estate and De Rock (Coonoor) and bungalows run by Serendipity and Glendale are ideal colonial-style getaways. For wild honey, beeswax balms, Kurumba paintings, Toda shawls and agro products hop over to Green Shop (www.lastforest.in).

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Athirapally
Famous as the locale where Aishwarya Rai cavorted under a 42m high waterfall in Guru and Ravana, Athirapally’s adjoining Vazhachal Forest is the second most bio-diverse area in Kerala. As the only place in the Western Ghats where four endangered hornbill species can be seen, the International Bird Association declared it an Important Bird Area. The forest harbours the Lion-tailed macaque, Malabar squirrel, Malabar Giant turtle and Cochin Forest Cane turtle, among other endangered species while the Chalakudy River supports an enviable count of 104 species of fish. Besides Charpa (3 km) and Vazhachal Falls (5 km), drop by at the Forest Information Centre, museum and showcase of rare medicinal plants. Stay at Rainforest Athirapally where each room offers an undisputed view of the 220m wide cascade and visit a tribal settlement at Pokalappara for wildlife sighting and tapioca-fish meals smoked in bamboo.

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Silent Valley National Park
One of the best-preserved tropical evergreen rainforests in the world, the 90 sq km park forms the core of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Named after the absence of cicadas, Silent Valley’s geographic isolation allowed it to evolve into an ecological island. Topping the list of 960 flora is the giant tree fern Dinosaur pulpan dubbed as a ’50 million-year-old living fossil’. The park’s flagship species, the lion tailed macaque lives in the towering Culinea trees. After a long crusade against a hydroelectric project, the fragile zone was declared a National Park in 1985. Mukkali, the park’s entrance, is unique as all three species of Crow butterflies can be found here – common crow, double branded crow and brown king crow. A 23 km jeep ride takes visitors up to Sairandhri where a 30 m high tower offers panoramic views. A 1½ km walk leads to a rusty steel bridge on the Kuntipuzha River. Stay at the Mukkali Forest Rest House or thatched tribal huts at Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge, named after the peak that dominates the park.

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Nelliyampathy
The majesty of Nelliyampathy Hills (3,500 ft) slowly unfolds along the mountain road from Nemmara, winding past 10 hairpin bends towards Kaikatty. It was the Maharaja of Cochin who leased vast tracts of dense jungle to the British for tea cultivation. Soon Nelliyampathy oranges were being exported to Buckingham Palace. Today, the derelict Victoria Church stands on a lonely cliff surrounded by forests and tea estates. A short walk from AV Thomas tea factory is Kesavanpara, a rocky escarpment overlooking Poothundy Dam. But the ultimate adventure is the 18 km jeep ride from Pulayampara to Manpara (Deer Rock). If you survive the bone-breaking drive over boulders, visit Suicide Point near Seethargundu, Katlapara Waterfalls, Karapara Dam and Karassuri viewpoint. Stay at Ciscilia Heritage and Whistling Thrush Bungalow while chasing butterflies and endemic birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher, Broad-tailed Grassbird and Nilgiri Pipit.

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Parambikulam
The 450-year-old Kannimara Teak, believed to be the largest in Asia, rises up 48.5 m. With a girth of 6.57 m, it takes five men to encircle the giant. Not all of the park’s treasures are easy to see – the tiny Parambikulam Frog, the endemic fish Garra surendranathanii to the saprophytic plant Haplothismia exanulata. Wrapped around three dams that create a 20.6 sq km reservoir with Karimala Peak (1439 m) as the park’s highest point, Parambikulam is a scenic park. Eco-tourism packages range from jeep safaris, bamboo rafting, birdwatching and guided walks to overnight camping inside the forest. Trekkers will enjoy the Kariyanshola Trail while the Cochin Forest Tramway Trek showcases relics of the British timber trade. Stay in treetop huts overlooking the reservoir, Swiss-style tents or a bamboo hut on Vettikunnu Island, accessible only by boat.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of JetWings magazine. 

Trunk Call: 10 Unusual Ganesha shrines of India

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In celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY criss-cross the country in search of extraordinary shrines dedicated to Ganesha, the Elephant God 

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Ganpatipule, Konkan Coast (Maharashtra)
According to legend a local cowherd’s cow had stopped giving milk but would spontaneously offer milk only at a particular spot on the reef, leading to the discovery of the swayambhu (self-manifest) stone image of Lord Ganesha. Since it was found by the pula (sandy dune), the place was called Ganpatipule. Once a year the surf comes up to Lord Ganesha’s shore temple as if to touch the feet of the idol in reverence. The unique west-facing temple is built in such a way that in the months of February and November the sunrays fall directly on Lord Ganesha’s idol. Devotees whisper entreaties into the ears of the large brass mouse before offering their prayers inside. The temple is located at the base of a hill believed to be shaped like Lord Ganesha, so pilgrims do a pradakshina (circumambulation) of the entire hill along a paved path.

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Siddhi Vinayak Temple, Mumbai (Maharashtra)
What used to be a small 3.6 m x 3.6 m shrine is today the richest Temple Trust in Mumbai. The filmy rags to riches story of Siddhi Vinayak in Prabhadevi is quite like the meteoric rise of a street kid to superstar. Consecrated in 1801, the original square brick structure with a domed shikhara (spire) was built by contractor Laxman Vithu Patil for Deubai Patil, a rich childless woman who thought it would benefit other barren women. Over the years, news of its siddhi (wish-fulfilling powers) spread like wildfire and patronage from politicians and film stars catapulted it to fame. The temple grosses nearly Rs.50 crore every year. The inner roof of the sanctum is covered in gold while the wooden doors donning a silver carved mantle are carved with intricate images of Ashtavinayak or eight manifestations of Ganesha across Maharashtra – Moreshwar (Morgaon), Siddhivinayak (Siddhatek), Ballaleshwar (Pali), Varadavinayak (Mahad), Chintamani (Theur), Girijatmaj (Lenyadri), Vighnahar (Ozar) and Mahaganapati (Ranjangaon).

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Ranthambhore Ganesh ji (Rajasthan)
Atop Ranthambhore’s historic 1000-year-old fort is a unique temple of Trinetra Ganesha, the three-eyed god in a slab of bright orange. Every day, the Lord receives 10kg of mail from across India and the globe. Traditionally people send the first wedding invitation card here for the Lord’s blessings. As per folklore, the first wedding invite sent here was Lord Krishna and Rukmini’s marriage, roughly dating the temple to 6500 years! So what happens to all the wedding cards? The envelopes are recycled for giving prasad and the cards are cleared periodically! The annual Ganesh Mela wreaks havoc on the ecology of the tiger park when over 1 million pilgrims visit the Ganesh Temple over 3-4 days. Located in the heart of the park, it makes a mockery of the recent ruling on making core areas no-tourism zones. According to tiger expert and wildlife photographer Aditya Singh of Ranthambhore Bagh ‘This number far exceeds the total number of tourists that have visited the park since it was declared a national park in 1980.’

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Karpaga Vinayakar Temple, Pillaiyarpatti (Tamil Nadu)
One of the most popular Ganesha shrines in Tamil Nadu, this rock cut temple is dedicated to Valampuri Vinayakar, a large Ganesha seated in padmasana (lotus position) with a gold-fronted trunk bent to the right. Carved from the rocks against which the temple is set, it is the idol’s black appearance that gives the shrine its popular name Karpaga Vinayakar. Believed to be 1600 years old, the temple’s northern tower was erected by the Pandya kings while the Nagarathar community, who renovated it in 1284, added the eastern tower and an adjoining mandapam. The ceiling of the hall is painted in vegetable dyes and bears old inscriptions while ornate sculptures adorn the pillars. The place itself is called Pillaiyarpatti after Pillaiyar or Lord Ganesha.

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Rockfort Ucchi Pillayar Temple, Tiruchirappalli (Tamil Nadu)
Though Vibhishana and Ravana were on opposite sides of the Ramayana war, their failed quest to take the Lord’s supreme form back to Lanka is almost identical. After killing Ravana, Lord Rama gifted Vibhishana an idol of Lord Ranganatha, cautioning him that it would take root wherever it was placed. Though an ardent devotee of Rama, Vibhishana was Ravana’s brother and an asura (demon), so the gods entreated Lord Vinayaka to stop him. On his return to Lanka Vibhishana passed through Trichy and seeing the beautiful Kaveri River, wished to take a holy dip and perform his daily rituals. Lord Ganesha appeared as a young cowherd and offered to hold the idol while he bathed. The moment Vibhishana stepped into the water Vinayaka put the idol on the sandy banks. A livid Vibhishana chased after him, but the nimble cowherd ran up a hill by the riverside. Vibhishana finally caught up with the boy and hit him on the forehead. When the boy revealed his divine form, Vibhishana apologized and left empty-handed to Lanka. Thus the rock where Lord Ganesh escaped became the Ucchi Pillayar temple or ‘Lord Vinayaga on the hilltop’ and the place where the idol took root became the Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple at Srirangam. Steps tunneled through the rock lead to the Ganesha temple on the hill, accessible by another steep flight of steps carved on the rock face, offering panoramic views of the Kaveri and Kollidam rivers.

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Manakula Vinayagar Temple (Pondicherry)
This is the epic tale of a shrine that defied the might of the French in their own backyard. Dedicated to Lord Ganesha venerated as Vellakaran Pillai, the temple was constructed five centuries ago, long before the French arrived at Pondicherry. The name is derived from the old kulam (pond) on the western side of the temple that used to be full of manal (sand) blown in from the shores. On several occasions, French missionaries attempted to raze the shrine, but ardent worshippers saved it from destruction. Each time the idol was hurled into the sea, it would magically return. Today, the temple stands defiantly rooted at the same spot in the heart of the French Quarter. Various manifestations of Lord Ganesha adorn the inside walls. The 18-day Brahmotsavam and Ganesh Chaturthi are grand celebrations. Be sure to give a coin to the temple elephant Lakshmi in exchange for a friendly pat on your head from her trunk as blessing!

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Madhur Maha Ganapathi Temple, Kasaragod (Kerala)
Located on the banks of the Madhuvahini River 8km northeast of Kasaragod, the spectacular Madhur temple was built in 10th century by the Mypadi Rajas of Kumbla. Though Lord Shiva is the presiding deity, it is his son who draws the crowds. Lord Ganesha’s idol is not made of stone or soil but some unknown material; hence all abhishekas (oblations) are done for Ishwara. The temple has an imposing structure with its gables, copper plate roofing and wooden statues. During his invasion of Malabar, after conquering Kumbla, Tipu reached this shrine intent on destroying it. Overcome by fatigue, he quenched his thirst from the temple well and underwent a divine change of heart. He left the shrine unharmed, except a mark left by his dagger on the intricate woodwork. The temple well’s water has no frogs or fish, tastes good and is said to possess medicinal and curative properties. Another highlight is the Moodappa Seva, a special festival where Maha Ganapathi’s large figure is covered with moodappam (sweet rice ghee cakes) but no matter how much you stack up, it’s never enough. A very costly affair, the festival was last held in April 1992, and earlier in 1962 and 1802.

Sasive Kalu & Kadale kalu Ganeshas, Hampi (Karnataka)
Hampi, the glorious capital of the Vijayanagar Empire is home to many shrines and unusual sculptures, including two unique Ganesha idols. The 18-ft monolith Kadale Kalu Ganesha is the largest Ganesha statue in Karnataka. It dates back to 1440AD and a 24-pillared temple was built around the idol later. In 1565, invading troops of the Deccan Sultanate broke the stomach and trunk of the idol, suspecting that it contained hidden jewels. As a result, the split stomach bore a resemblance to the two halves of a gram seed, lending the name by which the statue is known today. Nearby is the Sasive Kalu Ganesha that gets its name from the likeness of the rounded toes to mustard seeds. This 9-ft high, richly carved Ganesha was built in 1516. Behind the image is an outline of a woman as if she is strapped to Ganesha’s back, symbolizing Parvati as the eternal protector of her son.

Idagunji, Honnavar taluka (Karnataka)
At the end of Dwapara yuga, Sage Valakhilya and other rishis were performing a yagna at Badrikashram for the removal of doshas (sins or malefic effects) in Kaliyug, but faced many hindrances. Sage Narada then instructed them to go to Kunjavana on the banks of the Sharavathi where the divine trinity had once prayed to vanquish the asuras. Later the trinity and Lord Ganesha visited the site to bless the sages and the elephant-headed god asked all the divinities to leave behind a portion of their goodness for the benefit of mankind, which were deposited in the sacred tanks Chakratirtha and Brahmatirtha. Since the sacred kunj (garden) was located on the left bank of the river (eda means left), the place was called Idagunji. The panchakhadya or special prasad of this temple is quite famous, as are the Ganesha masks made out of vetiver (khus).

Ganesh Tok, Gangtok (Sikkim)
In a land synonymous with Buddhism, a shrine to the elephant God is rare. Located 7km from town on the Gangtok-Nathula Road and perched at 6,500 ft on a hill near the TV tower, Sikkim’s Ganesh Tok temple is fascinating. Like the Hanuman Tok shrine but much smaller, Ganesh Tok offers a scenic view of Raj Bhavan, Gangtok town and Mount Khangchendzonga. Space inside the temple is so cramped that devotees have to creep in on all fours to have darshan of Lord Ganesha. 

We did start the Fire: Sivakasi’s fireworks industry

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ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Tamil Nadu’s legendary Pyro Town Sivakasi to see how fireworks are made and why a tiny village became the largest firecracker hub in India

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The distinct smell of crackers clings to the night air as we drive in. ‘Welcome to Pyro Town’, proclaims a wayside board. We are in gandhaka bhoomi or the sulphurous land of Sivakasi, which accounts for 90% of India’s total fireworks production, 80% of all safety matches and 60% of total offset printing solutions. In a roadside shop, the list of luminaries on the fireworks boxes is mind-boggling. In remote Sivakasi, blissfully unaware of copyright infringements, everyone from Asin, Britney Spears, Marilyn Monroe, Harry Potter, Superman, Spiderman and WWF wrestlers hawk the wares. Baby bump or not, Aishwarya Rai was still the universal favourite.

In the lobby of Bell Hotels, the only decent hotel in town, we bump into Mr. ASP Arumugaselvan of Kaliswari Fireworks, who gives us a brief overview on how this nondescript town became a booming centre for fireworks. Earlier, Calcutta was the main hub as chemicals and metals unloaded at its port from European countries encouraged a small-scale industry of Bengal lights and fireworks for festive and religious occasions. The first tubris (flowerpots) were fashioned out of mud and inter-street tubri competitions are held in Bengal even today! But production of fireworks was restricted by the British due to fear of anarchist activities. In early 20th century, Mr. Dasgupta started a match factory in Calcutta with small, semi-automatic machines imported from Japan to develop coloured matches, crackers and fountains.

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Around the same time, Sivakasi was reeling under drought and famine, forcing two enterprising cousins, A Shanmuga Nadar and P Ayya Nadar, to head for Calcutta in search of better prospects. There, they stumbled upon the Japanese match factory next to their lodge. After learning the craft for eight months, they returned to Sivakasi and established a factory with raw material and machines imported from Germany. When mechanized production proved costly, they adopted Gandhiji’s swadeshi mantra and call for cottage industries. The brothers switched to manual production using cheap local labour and set up individual factories in 1926 – Kaka Match Industries and Anil Match Factory, with crow and squirrel as their symbols.

In those days, plain phosphorus sticks were used to strike a light and Swedish Match had just established WIMCO (Western India Match Company). Through experiments and books on chemistry, the brothers developed safety matches and colour matches, which were being imported from Europe and Asia. In due course, other entrepreneurs applied match-making techniques to produce fireworks, thereby triggering the birth of a second industry. Since labels were sourced from Mumbai and Chennai, KSA Arunagiri Nadar established a litho-printing unit in Sivakasi in the 30s. The introduction of offset was the genesis of a third industry.

Sivakasi had a clear advantage over other places. Its all-year-round dry and sunny weather made it ideal for these industries to flourish. Damp weather and moisture not only affected the crucial drying process of fireworks, but also crinkled the paper, making it difficult for printing. Today Sivakasi has a matches, firework or printing unit in every nook and corner, thus earning the sobriquet Kutty (Little) Japan. Little do people know that Sivakasi also provides customized solutions like practice bombs, smoke screens, powders and fuses to the Indian Army and its Ammunition and Ordnance factories. The local fireworks industry is estimated to be Rs.2,000-3,000 crore. But it was a chain of unconnected events that led to Sivakasi’s rise as India’s fireworks capital.

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When a Central Excise Duty was levied on matches in 1934, people diverted their energies towards fireworks. Until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, there were only a few units in Sivakasi, but the obstruction of firework imports during wartime boosted the indigenous industry. In 1940, the Indian Explosives Rule introduced a new system of licensing for the manufacture, possession and sale of fireworks, paving the way for the first organized factory. By 1942, other companies like National, Kaliswari and Standard Fireworks set up shop. With the end of World War II in 1944, the renewed import of raw materials helped expand the market. People who worked under the two Nadar brothers – be it a typist, worker or accountant – eventually set up their own units with their blessings.

Mr. Arumugaselvan elaborates ‘Kaliswari, one of Sivakasi’s oldest companies, was started by A Shanmuga Nadar with the famous Cock brand. The first bomb produced at Sivakasi was the ‘Atom bomb’ and everything evolved slowly through trial and error. Now R&D has come in and major companies have pyrotechnicians or chemical experts and permanent mixers. In smaller factories, an outsourced person visits between 8-10 am to prepare the chemical mix while others do the filling and packaging. A person may join as a clerk, move to a desk job, graduate to a computer and if he has the aptitude, go on to handle sales. Though people have stuck to the industry for long, the loyalty factor has changed. Earlier, if someone had three children, all would join the fireworks industry. Now, two go out for better opportunities, while the one who looks after the parents, joins the industry.’

‘Earlier, usage was centered only around Diwali, but now it has spread to other festivals like Holi, Dussehra and occasions like marriages, birthdays, deaths, new year’s, events, politics and cricket. The overall hike in usage has led to a year-round season catering mainly to the domestic market. With enough local demand, there’s no fear of globalization,’ he quips. ‘Though China and Italy are world leaders in fireworks with a machinery-driven approach, India is labour-intensive. If a worker has small palms and another has bigger palms, the way they roll the explosive will be different. How a pinch of salt affects the flavour of food, the manual nature of the job affects the colour, sound and bursting capacity of the explosive. This manual element has been eliminated in overseas industries. People prefer the precision of machines and have specific demands. Every bomb or cracker promises certain intensity or duration; if an aerial display is supposed to last 10 minutes, people expect 10 minutes.’

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‘Consumption patterns are different too. Abroad, people don’t burst crackers individually, but witness community firework displays held over bay areas. It’s a spectator sport. But in India, it is participative. The average guy wants more bang for his buck. Only if there’s a loud noise, there’s mazaa in it. In comparison, a cracker emits less sound than a train or flight. During Diwali, it’s winter in North India. Due to the thick mist, the smoke from fireworks gets trapped, so pollution charges levied against us are exaggerated. However, we’re trying to address both issues of noise and air pollution. Of course, it’s a risky industry. Over the years errors have come down drastically. But a small slip from unlicensed units is enough for the media to raise a hue and cry about the whole industry. If you go by the number of road accidents every day, the PWD minister ought to be arrested daily!’

On the challenges and problems faced by the industry, Mr. Arumugaselvan laments, ‘Sadly we don’t have a hub. Restrictions on transportation and explosive rules on shipping and aircrafts have hampered the industry’s growth overseas. There’s no electricity supply in manufacturing units out of fear of a short circuit. Despite 99% literacy in Viruddhnagar, unlicensed set-ups employ uneducated people and their carelessness leads to mishaps. Licenses for up to 12 sheds are granted from Madras, but for more than 12 sheds, one has to go to the central office at Nagpur. Officers from the Explosives Department and Factory Act people come for regular checks.

Often, suspensions are imposed and due to harassment, we lose many days of production, leading to shortages. There’s also a dearth of skilled and unskilled labour. Since all the units in Sivakasi are essentially offshoots of two or three original companies, people are highly egotistic. There’s no co-operative society, hence no representation at the state or central level. That’s our biggest drawback.’

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At Lakshmi Agencies, an exclusive showroom for Vinayaga/Sony Fireworks, T Ganeshan is candid, ‘When we started this shop in 2002, we made only Rs.4 lakh in the first year. The demand was only for sparklers, chakras, anars, but the increase in living standards has led to flashier fireworks. Sky outs (colourful designs and explosions in the sky) are in great demand. Today, this little outlet does Rs.80-90 lakh annually. I’ve seen an abnormal growth in the industry. Now, we receive orders from Chennai, Madurai, Tanjore, Nagercoil and Hosur on the phone! Though Standard, Kalishwari and Ayyan are pioneers in Sivakasi, we’ve tied up with China and learnt new things from the West.’

‘Today, Sony Fireworks has a turnover of Rs.70-80 crore and is Number 1 in Sky Outs. Our Rainbow Smoke and Confetti explosions are used in films and Bollywood shows. Each year, new products and designs are introduced based on latest trends. Our young MDs, Mr. Karvanan and Mr. Ganeshan, with strong chemistry and marketing backgrounds, have brought in fresh thinking and new technologies. After KBC caught on, we introduced ‘Magic Show’, with fake Rs.500 and Rs.1000 notes bursting with each explosion. Now that’s called literally blowing up money’, Ganeshan chuckles.

Firework factories are divided into specialized units that manufacture Paper Caps, Ring Caps, Serpent Eggs, Bombs, Rockets, Sparklers or Fancy Items. The compound wall is usually 100 m away for reasons of safety. Due to lack of space inside town, explosives factories have spread across a 20 km radius around Sivakasi – Tiruthangal, Servaikaranbatti, Kumaralingapuram, Vellur, Kavalur, Ammathur, GN Petti, etc. The only company located inside town is Bharat Fireworks started in 1923. But we are off on a factory visit to Standard Fireworks, India’s largest fireworks company, with 47 factories, a fleet of 200 buses, a massive godown, offset printing units and a Mega Store.

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At Unit A in Mela Amathur, Manager OP Mummurthy greets us warmly. ‘This unit started two years before I came from Palayamkottai in 1981. It’s hard to imagine this 60-acre patch shaded by neem trees was once an arid, undulating field covered by veli karvalai (scrub)’, he shakes his head. Has anything changed since then, we ask? ‘Earlier, we made small items like sorsa-vedi, kurvi-vedi, bullet-vedi, giant-vedi, lakshmi-pataki, krishna-pataki, tukda, yali; all improvised with gunpowder, newspaper, cardboard and string. But now it’s only fancy items.’

Today, this single unit employs 340 people, of which 280 are women. Women make roughly Rs.100 a day, while men get Rs.150 because of heavier workload. Chemical mixers, who work lesser hours, also make Rs.150 as it’s a high-risk, specialized job. Four buses ply daily and work starts at 8 am. In a mixing shed behind mounted walls, a stipulated amount of masala is prepared, enough to be used in a day, otherwise the chemical decomposes and becomes unstable. With 55 sheds, each having four workers, this unit churns out 26 varieties including sparklers, flowerpots and fancy items. The unit works at a brisk pace to meet its daily target of 250 assorted boxes. Each firework is unique with its own chemical formula and shell.

As per safety guidelines, not more than 25 kg of explosive masala can be prepared at a time. At a drying platform, masala is dried on 3 mm thick rubber mats till noon everyday; doing it directly on the ground poses a danger of explosion. Only brass implements are used as iron may cause combustion. Each worker handling gunpowder and firework mix wears a rubber apron and headscarf for protection. All must customarily wear cotton. Peppered through the premises are sand buckets, water troughs and first aid boxes. Safety showers are installed in case of fire accidents, besides a siren and a wind balloon to indicate the direction of wind. While fire engines are stationed 5 km away, a water tanker is on standby for dousing larger flames.

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At the sparkler section, ladies deftly stack and tighten 10½ inch long copper-coated wires in a 17X18 wooden grid. 600 such frames are churned out each day. A human chain passes the frames to and fro as they are dipped into a grey chemical paste, before being sun-dried for an hour, until the next two coats are applied. Some frames are taken to a man seated with a pile of shiny powder who flings magnesium alloy to create the crackling variety. At 2 pm, the sparklers are picked out of the frames and women swiftly pack them into sets of 10, which are further bundled into sets of five. 40 such bundles are put into cardboard cartons, punch-stapled and loaded onto bullock carts for transportation.

In the flowerpot section, women busy churn out ‘Happiness’, a pink-wrapped cylinder that creates a whistling sound. The chemical mixture is spooned into the outer tube – black gunpowder at the bottom to provide lift and colour pellets on top for show. The inner whistling tube is filled with whistling chemical and a wick, and the tube is packed with sawdust. Both ‘Happiness’ and ‘Splendour’, a violet-coloured tube that produces a crackling sound, are manufactured with Chinese technical collaboration.

In the Tower Pot section, large pyramidal flowerpots are being pierced with a brass needle as another worker fixes the wick with black chemical goo. On an outdoor table, a lady pours fasting solution into a bowl of dry powder and gently stirs it as if preparing batter for a brownie. In another shed, ladies pack Mini Fountains in plastic packets like assorted candies. Elsewhere, the deodorant-sized Jade Flower is being packed into cartons of five and three 18” long cylinders are twirled together to create a Magic Tree. A lady supervisor oversees the operations of five sheds and 15 watchmen guard the facility at night.

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At 12:30 pm, the gong is struck, announcing lunch. Women slowly pour out of their sheds and unhurriedly clean their hands with industrial soap and coconut oil. With foreman S Kannan in tow, Mr. Mummurthy cajoles the workers as he leads us to the office for tea and biscuits. ‘You have to be strict, yet keep them in good humour. Not only must we look after employees, we also decide on the mix and what has to be made everyday. The chemicals used are more or less the same – Potassium Chlorate, Sodium Nitrate, Barium Nitrate, Strontium Nitrate, Sulphur, PVC Resin, Charcoal, Metal powder and Aluminum powder. But every company has its trade secrets and only years of experience leads to unique mixes. All our raw material comes from sister concerns like MEPCO (Metal Powder Company) at Tiruthangal.

When asked how it feels to be in this industry, Mr. Mumurthy beams, ‘While all my friends work in Government jobs, I am proud to be in this exciting line. The management looks after me well and there’s career growth.’ What about the risks? ‘Every industry has risks. 20 major mishaps have occurred in Sivakasi in the past 10 years and they happen mostly in unlicensed factories and units that flout safety and child labour norms. But all of Sivakasi gets a bad name. A safety officer is permanently stationed on our premises and there’s ESI (Employee State Insurance), PF and medical cover for everybody, besides a monthly health check-up. Due to stringent guidelines, 45 out of Sivakasi’s 600 units were shut down recently and their licenses revoked.’

And what about the bananas? ‘Bananas?’ His eyes follow our gaze to the big clump in the corner. ‘Oh that!’ he laughs uproariously. ‘We give bananas to our employees at lunch time and after the day’s work as it is believed to cleanse all impurities in the system.’ We return to the comfort of Bell Hotel, opened to cater to buyers from North India who would come thrice a year to Sivakasi and find no good place to stay or eat! We meet the Singh brothers, sons of the legendary A Chelladhurai, who started Standard in 1942 with NRK Rajaratnam. ‘Standard has taken strident steps on the global stage. We did a JV with Phoenix in 2001 to set up three units in China and won top honours at an Intercontinental Competition in 2008. Yet, our real achievements lie elsewhere – we provide employment to over 8000 local women and give opportunities to the disabled. Our father considered opening a women’s college in Sivakasi as his greatest achievement.’

As we drive out of town, we notice the number of educational institutions established by fireworks companies. Sivakasi has moved on and good work is being done, but people don’t look beyond the stereotype of child labour. In a fitting goodbye, fireworks light up the night sky. It’s 7 pm and factories were testing the day’s production for defects. We realize in Sivakasi, it’s Diwali everyday…

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as a Diwali special feature in the November, 2011 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine.