December 24, 2013

A Traitor's Tomb - Ghulam Ali's Tomb at Srirangapatna

(This article was published in Deccan Herald - Spectrum on 24-Dec-2013)

We literally asked as many people as possible in Srirangapatna for the tomb of Ghulam Ali. No one had heard of him and almost all pointed us towards either Gumbaz(the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan and his family) or Dariya Daulat Bagh(Summer Palace of Tipu Sultan). Tired and battered we rested for a nimbu-soda(aerated soda with lemon) outside the Gumbaz and asked the soda-wallah if he knew anything about the tomb. And what followed next was the spurt of knowledge from this road-side vendor from whom we least expected.

He claimed that Ghulam Ali or famously known as Langda or Gumchi, was a traitor and no one worshipped, let alone care for him. He was buried under a dome-like structure where pigeons flocked and littered the entire place with their excreta. The soda-wallah was careful enough to point that no pigeon drop would even a spoonful at Gumbaz whereas we would find buckets of excreta at the tomb of Ghulam Ali. He also told us that the place was cursed and no one, not even the muslims, visit there. Nevertheless he was pretty excited about the prospects of we visiting there and asked us to venture there with care. His directions to the tomb were carefully etched in our memories now and our adrenaline levels shot upto new levels, as we picturized the non-decrepit structure housing the remains of Ghulam Ali.

As we drove along the mud road, padded with paddy and sugarcane fields, we soon saw a structure overlooking the paddy fields on the right. The ruins were clearly visible and the large dome clearly demarcated the green fields from the blue skies.  As we drove along the road, laden with crushed grass and dried up sugarcane, we soon stumbled on a gate which was otherwise to be the entrance to the structure. A few dogs came running by and we were too scared to leave our car. The mystery surrounding this place increased as we saw the canines standing between us and our goal. Determined not to back out, we shoo-ed them away and shouted for someone to open the door. A watchman emerged with whom we had to haggle a lot to let us in.

View of the tomb from the kuccha-road

Entrance to the Tomb of Ghulam Ali, Srirangapatna

We were enthralled by the structure that was standing in front of us. Highly decrepited, and shrouded with foliage and an air of mystery, the dome looked imposing despite being in shambles. The structure was built in two levels and had beautiful crafted mini-minarets at the corners. The arches at both levels were classic of Islamic architecture.  It was disheartening to see the overgrowth all over the structure and we had to placate ourselves not entering it for the fear of getting bitten by a snake or some rodent or insect. Parts of structure seemed to have been vandalized or fallen down with the brick work being exposed in what looked like an otherwise very strong building. The dome has a stronger linear demarcation compared to the Gumbaz and also is bigger than the latter.

I was in for a larger surprise when I started doing the post-travel research to know more about Ghulam Ali and why he was called as a traitor and to know more about this tomb. Loads of research on the Internet and the experience of Prof.Karimuddin of Srirangapatna helped in crafting a story around this entire episode and his persona.

Ghulam Ali was the head vaqeel of Tipu Sultan and was also the home minister under his Kingdom of Mysore. He also is supposed to have led a delegation to Constantinople and also faced Viraraja of Coorg in the battle of 1789. He was also to travel to France, but did not end up going. Given all these, he definitely sounds a person of immense importance but what was interesting was the fact that he was called a ‘traitor’ by the locals. It is believed that Ghulam Ali stole many gifts from his travels which were supposed to be for Tipu and the Kingdom. Ghulam Ali was even jailed for it and was released later due to the magnanimity of Tipu. He was also given a substantial pension by the Britishers post their siege of Seringapatanam and hence it is very much possible that he had federated with the British. Locals call this pension as ‘namak-haram’ pension.

Ghulam Ali's Tomb

Next was to understand why he was called ‘langda’. The painting by Robert Home on “The reception of the Mysorean hostage princes by Marquis Cornwallis” depicts Ghulam Ali seated on a silver palanquin while all others are seen standing. Though there is a claim that he suffered from sciatica, Prof.Karimuddin points out that Ghulam Ali did not want to stand during the reception in the court when Tipu approached it, for he believed that Tipu was much younger to him and did not mandate the respect. He feigned a false limp and created an excuse in such a way that he did not have to stand when the King approached.

The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis, 26 February 1792 , by Robert Home
Source : BBC

Next quest was to understand the importance of the structure in itself which looked beautiful in this scenery. It is believed that Tipu had this constructed for his parents initially, but the experts pointed out that the architecture had some remnants of Shia style and hence was not suitable for a Sunni Muslim like Tipu. Also, the river Kaveri had almost flooded the structure once. Because of this, Tipu moved his plan for the tomb to the present day Gumbaz and later Ghulam Ali bought this from him.

Closeup of the structure

A note by John Thomas mentions that Ghulam Ali was a Senior Mysorean military commander and lived from 1758 to 1863 and died in 1863 at the age of 105 at Krishnagiri and is buried there. This claim seems to be put to rest by Prof.Karimuddin who did mention that Ghulam Ali did die somewhere else, but his body was interred under this present day decrepitated structure and not in Krishnagiri. Sunni muslims have a distinction between the tombs of male and females and here too destiny seems to have played its game, as the tomb of Ghulam Ali resembled that meant for a female. This theory puts the rest to the fact that the tomb was not constructed by Ghulam Ali for his wife (and hence no resemblance with the love story of the Taj Mahal). We also found three bodies buried in the same compound with no enclosing structure and with no epitaph and sans ornamentation of their tombs. These are the relatives of Ghulam Ali.

Tombs of relatives of Ghulam Ali

The quest for Ghulam Ali and the secret behind his tomb finally seemed to have found an end as the stories and the folklores around him started making sense. The structure still stands isolated from the tourist frenzy and away from any hussle-bussle in a private farm. With parts of it crumbling due to the travails of time and sheer neglect, this beautiful structure will soon be part of the earth.

December 23, 2013

Crater Lake at Lonar, Maharashtra

(This article was published in The Hindu's supplement Metro Plus on 14-Dec-2013)

A meteorite weighing 2 million tones and approximately 100 meters in diameter, travelling at a speed of 18 kilometers per second crashes onto Planet Earth. This impact, in the present day  village of Lonar in Buldhana District, Vidharbha region of  Maharashtra is believed to be equivalent to a 6 megaton bomb. Did this phenomenon obliterate life on Earth during the Jurassic era or was it just one of the many meteorites that crashed into our planet at regular intervals? Scientists claim that this was probably a Martian meteorite that crashed just 50,000 years ago. They classify this crater as a Hypervelocity Impact Crater that has been formed in Basalt rock, a one of its kind with the terrain resembling the Moon’s surface. A recent discovery of a particular bacteria (‘Bacillus Odysseyi’) from the crater site resembles or probably is the same as the bacteria reported by the Odyssey spacecraft on Mars’ surface.

Many theories have been proposed and dismissed regarding the origin of this crater, but agnostic of all, here I was standing at the rim of a crater, gaping at the breathtaking view in front of my eyes, on an overcast day. This should be one of the most important landmarks in the Geological Map of India. Water had collected at the base of the crater and had formed a lake. The greyness of the skies reflected in the water in the lake, and the lush green foliage all around were only the two colors that were visible today. I had managed to sneak past a broken fence and there lay an unobstructed view of this magnificent crater. 

Lonar Crater Lake
Earlier in the day, I had arrived at Aurangabad Main Bus Stand at 3am and took another bus to SIDCO bus stand from where buses operate in the Vidharbha region. Luck favoured me, and even before dawn had broken. Another connecting bus to Sultanpur and I finally arrive at Lonar at 9am after another short ride. I assumed that I would be one of the first visitors given the early arrival but soon was proved wrong as I stepped past the official entrance to the lake. A temple like structure with what looked like a perennial stream of water from a snout greeted me. Many pilgrims were already there taking a quick bath under the clear waters. My first view of the crater-lake was from here, at the Gomukh Temple, as I could see the lake ensconced from all sites by a tapered landmass with rich overgrowth.  Approximately 15 temples dot this crater-lake, near the base and also along the rim and at higher elevations. Looking for alternative higher vantage points I glanced upwards only to see people busy with their morning ablutions. 

Gomukh Temple. Check out the snout at the mid-bottom and the stream gushing out

I walked on the road surrounding the crater rim looking for a vantage point for a complete panoramic view of the lake and this is how I ended up at my interim resting spot. There was nothing else to be done from this point than just soak in it and savour the scenery. The chill breeze was the only companion that I had for the time being, before a herd of buffalos came by and sat under the shades of the bushes. The crater is supposed to be 1.8 kilometers in diameter, 7 kilometers in perimeter and 150 meters deep. It is not difficult to imagine the  whole act of the meteorite crash at this very place given the setting. 

I headed towards the village wherein I was told of a beautiful temple that also had a record of the cause of this crater. Opposite the village school, Daitya Sudan temple wore a non-descript look and stood guarded by a 2 feet wall and lots of foliage around it. Sitting on top of a pedestal, the architecture resembled that of a Hoysala temple, but the comparison ends there. The roof looks unfinished and there are no ornate pillars inside the temple. A weak wooden door separates the outer world from the inside of the temple. 

Daitya Sudan Temple
Interior of Daitya Sudan Temple
There are three chambers inside, with the first chamber having a naked ceiling with the brickwork visible supported by huge arched pillars devoid of any sculptures. Darkness pervades the sanctum sanctorum and only a torchlight is of help for now as there is no electricity to power the tubelights inside. The ceiling looks like a patchwork of bricks and the walls are devoid of any murals. A 4-foot tall idol of Lord Vishnu sits alone in the darkness inside the sanctum-sanctorum. There are no signs of any worship or rituals being performed to the idol. The entrance to the sanctum-sanctorum has some carving on the door frame made of stone. A small frieze on the top of the ceiling in the middle chamber shows a deity crushing an asura by his foot. And this purportedly was the origin of legends of why this place was called as Lonar. 

Lavanasur(In Sanskrit, Lavana means salt and Asura means demon), a demon, used to terrorize the people in this region. He had a special boon, which made his death to be unlike those of the ordinary. Lord Vishnu took on the responsibility of eliminating him after the requests from the people in the region. Lavanasur hid in a lake covered by a hill. Lord Vishnu kicked the hill away and twisted his toes by placing it on the demon’s navel and the oozed blood became the reason for the saltiness of the water. The crater symbolizes the demon’s navel while the shore is his body.

Though the temple looks extremely well preserved from a few meters away, on closer inspection, one sees that almost all the sculptures on the exterior walls are broken. Most of them have lost a limb or leg, and none of them are in complete shape.  Some of carved figures on the exterior walls are evocative of erotica showing couples in different sexual practices. There are also different deities, apsaras and humans in different forms on the walls, all of which are broken. It was extremely disheartening to see the state of the exterior walls.

Exterior Walls of the Daitya Sudan Temple

The crater-lake place has also been referenced as Panchapsar Sarovar, which was sage Mandakarni’s ashram in the Dandaka forest in Ramayana. The sage stayed in the waters of the lake for 10,000 years and consumed air alone.  Legend has it that Lord Indra, threatened by the sage’s devotion and ascesis, sent five of his apsaras to distract the sage and cause a hindrance in his prayers. The apsaras ended up being his wives and serving the sage. And hence the pond became known as Panchapsarotataka(‘Lake of Five Nymphs’).  
Many broken. Amorousity!

Slaying of the Lavanasur inside the temple - on one of the sides of the ceiling. Was lucky to spot this in the utter darkness inside.

The lake also finds mention Ain-i-Akbari. Ain-i-Akbari is the third part of Akbarnama and records Akbar’s empire, in the form of the modern day gazette, and mentions that Lonar lake with its brackish water was used for making glass and soaps yielding substantial revenue.

In the modern world, the crater-lake has been a subject of immense interest to the geologists and scientists. NASA has conducted many experiments here. Despite being fed only from rains, the water is extremely salty. A plaque reads that the pH value of the water is 11 which is extremely high. But there are fears that the behavior of the water is changing due to the pollution from the village and the water seepage from the nearby farms. Water mixed with fertilizers and chemicals is changing the alkanity of the water, and also the gradual increase in the inlets to the crater-lake is causing the water level to rise, in the lake and changing the behavior even more; not to mention flooding the temples near the lake. The sides of the crater-lake are supposed to be extremely diverse with different birds and animals inhabiting it. Listing the crater at Lonar in a World Astronomical Monuments roster along the lines of World Heritage Sites would be extremely useful in safeguarding and furthering research at this beautiful geological structure.

December 02, 2013

Ship Building Town of Mandvi

(This article was published in the Deccan Herald's supplement Sunday Herald on 1-Dec-2013)

I got down from the bus in the middle of the night to be greeted by a chill breeze. The bus-stand wore a non-descript look in the darkness of the night and there were only 3 passengers along with me who got down from the bus. The small bus-stand with its flickering tubelights and a few people sleeping and snoring on iron benches looked like a scene from a documentary movie. My spine yearned for some rest and I joined the sleeping brigade after I found an empty iron bench. Uncomfortable as it was, getting up was the best thing to do.

Deserted roads with the sodium-vapour lamps greeted me as I walked outside the bus-stand. The deathly silence and the chill breeze were my companions as I walked along what appeared to be a main-road in this town, searching for lodging options for the night. Roaming the streets in the darkness of the night was something that I had taken a liking to during my travels, but I was not prepared to absorb what I was going to witness next. It was a full moon night and as I walked more, silhouettes of some structures with their shadows extending to the road, appeared on my left. The silhouettes were huge and I couldn’t take my mind off them. With not a soul in sight, I wasn‘t sure if I had stepped into Mordor and was to be introduced to the flying Nazguls. Fear was normal under these circumstances and I was no Elf to hide it. Faster strides were automatic, and I soon stumbled on a board that advertised of a hotel. It was locked and I had to bang the door a couple of times before I woke up the caretaker of the hotel who offered me the only vacant room which I graciously accepted and retired.

The morning wake up call came not from the chirping of birds but from a few people talking loudly outside my room. As I stepped outside the hotel, I saw huge ships on the other side of the road, almost touching the road. On the other side, the whole length of the road was littered with huge wooden ships. I had never seen such a scene in my life. Curiosity had always been my best friend and stumbling on this town by chance was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, if not for anything else, I would just watch these ships being built and spend a vacation. A cup of hot chai was perfect to watch the scenery unfold in front of me while the sun slowly rose.

Soft dhokla being sold on a pushcart was an added bonus for breakfast. I gobbled up a few plates, followed it up with one more round of chai as I kept watching this scenery. I crossed the road and stood agape in front of one of these ships. This was the first time I was standing eye to eye in front of a naked ship made of wood. The structure had no decorations or paint, but only planks of wood joined together by what appeared as almost a foot long nails. It was as if this giant pile of wood was commanding me. I circumambulated it and saw an opening by the side. Few workers were working inside the ship and I requested their permission to get inside.

I was transported to a totally different work in here. This was a dreamland made in wood. The huge hollow space inside the ship despite its emptiness had its own aura. Saws, hammers and nails, the size of which I had never seen before, were being used to construct this practical art in wood. A ladder was kept in the middle and appeared to connect to a different world.  I slowly ascended it and was taken to a different level inside the ship. This level, again was completely empty and a ladder alone stood in the middle of this emptiness. I ascended that too and was presented to the deck of the ship. I could almost see the whole ship building yard from here. Many ships were being constructed, while some were being broken down. Some with a rich layer of algae on it looked abandoned. The half-broken ones looked extremely terrifying, as if lighting from Zeus or the hammer of Thor had broken the ship into two.

I stepped out of this ship and walked along the perimeter of the ship-building yard. Small temporary houses next to these ships looked like rats in front of giant monsters. I still had not seen any crane or heavy vehicle inside the ship building yard. A quick chat with a laborer resting there told me that this was a very old ship building yard and primarily ships are constructed out of wood and almost all the tools are used by hands. Despite the outer world using the newer generation of tools, this community was sticking to the age-old tradition of building wooden ships by hand. Though many ships were being used for domestic purposes like fishing in the deep sea, they had an active export industry and were building ships for many foreign clients.

In the evening, I returned and walked till the end of the yard. A watchman suddenly stopped me and told me that I was entering a restricted area in the port and cautioned me not to take any pictures. I promised him and went till the end of the jetty. Sun was slowly setting down along this west coast. There was absolute stillness but for the lashing of the waves on the jetty. I could see a few small boats and catamarans returning back to the shore from here. I felt like the last man standing at the tip of the Earth as the orange and red hues covered the western sky. The watchman signaled me to get back and I found another spot along the yard from where I could see the moon rise slowly and illuminate the whole ship-building yard.

I could remember Soren Kierkegaard’s words when he writes “People commonly travel the world over to see rivers and mountains, new stars, garish birds, freak fish, grotesque breeds of human; they fall into an animal stupor that gapes at existence and they think they have seen something.”  After visiting this town, I am not sure whether I can claim that I had one of the unique experiences ever, but the first sights of the ships casting their shadows in the moonlight was etched into my memories forever.

Did I forget to reveal the town’s name? Well, tucked along the westernmost part of India facing the Arabian Sea, lies one of the most beautiful and uncharted spots, often seen missing on the tourist's map, is the ship building town of Mandvi, in the state of Gujarat.

November 19, 2013

Ashwatthama's Revenge

The character of Aswatthama in the Mahabharata has always fascinated me. It was interesting to read the character analysis of Aswatthama in the book 'The Difficulty of Being Good' by Gurcharan Das. Though the other chapters in the book were equally captivating, I found the one on "Ashwatthama's Revenge" to be of high calibre and of immense importance in the present societal scenario(s).

A quick intro to Aswatthama:
- Son of Dronacharya and Grandson of sage Bharadwaja; and hence a Brahmin(and not a kshatriya)
- During Mahabharata, Yudhishthira tells a lie that Ashwatthama is dead['Ashwathama hathaha kunjaraha' -- In Sanskrit "Ashwathama hathaha" means 'ashwathama is dead' and "kunjaraha" means 'elephant'. Yudhishthira utters 'kunjaraha' slowly so that Drona cannot hear it] and this causes Drona to drop his arms(as his son has been killed) and descend his chariot and meditate. Dhristadhyumna decapitates Drona then.
- Actual fact : An elephant called Ashwatthama was slain by Bhima. Yudhishthira had to tell this lie(at the instruction of Krishna) for there was no other way to defeat Drona. Angered by this lie which led to his father's death, Aswatthama swore to kill the Pandavas. At night, he spots an owl ambushing crows sleeping on the trees. He gets an idea and decides to attack the Panadava's camp at night; he kills all the children of the Pandavas who were sleeping inside the tents. It is said that Ashwatthama had the blessings of Mahadeva(Shiva) and hence this was possible.
- Arjuna and Ashwatthama are the only two to have the knowledge of invoking a Brahmastra; this was taught to them by Drona. Drona did not teach Ashwatthama to withdraw the weapon as he felt that a brahmin would never have the use of invoking the weapon.
- When Pandavas came searching for Ashwatthama, post the massacre of their children, the latter invoked the Brahmastra and Arjuna did too. The clash of the two weapons was suitably stopped by Vyasa(as it would have led to total annihilation), but as Ashwatthama did not have the knowledge to withdraw his weapon, he directed it towards the womb of Uttara(Abhimanyu's wife) who was pregnant - to end the dynasty completely.
- Ashwatthama was subjected to a curse(his Prarabdha karma).
- Curse of Immortality : "he will carry the burden of all people's sins on his shoulders and will roam alone like a ghost without getting any love and courtesy for 3000 years. He will have neither any hospitality nor any accommodation; He will be in total isolation from mankind and society; His body will suffer from a host of incurable diseases forming sores and ulcers that would never heal"

This post is by no means my attempt to understand and research Ashwatthama better, but is to highlight some of the notes from the chapter which is to be used for further analysis.

From 'The Difficulty of Being Good' by Gurcharan Das on the subject of "Ashwatthama's Revenge"
  • legitimacy of retributive justice
  • He is intent on revenge though he is aware of of its terrible karmic consequences
  Truly, if killing my father's murderers,
  The Panchalas, as they sleep in the night, means
  Rebirth for me as a worm or a moth, I shall
  Suffer it gladly.
  • The Mahabharata has been called 'an epic of revenge' and Ashwathama happens to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time
  • Vengeance has the power of an instinct. The 'lust of vengeance' and the 'thirst of revenge' are so powerful that they rival all other human needs.
  • vindictiveness damages the core of the whole being
  • If the good person suffers, then the bad person should suffer even more : this is an idea that seems embedded in the human psyche. Consciously one denies it, of course, and proclaims piously, 'I'm not the sort of person who holds grudges'. Yet one unconsciously applauds when the villain 'gets what he deserves'. Wanting to punish a villain or seeing him punished is ubiquitous in literature, movies and politics. 
  • retribution is useful because it brings a 'profound sense of moral equilibrium impelling us to demand that people pay for the harm that they have done to others'
  • punishment on the grounds of social control: it provides an incentive for a normal person to comply with laws, helps reduce crime and thus maximizes human welfare
  • according to Jean Hampton : the aim of punishment is not to avenge wrongdoing or to inflict pain and injury on the offender but 'to annul the offender's claim of superiority'
  • doctrine of proportionality is consistent with human intuition - Exodus 21:22-25
  • The rod of Punishment is to applied differential and according to Law, not haphazardly; Punishment may be censure, imprisonment, gold, expulsion, severing limb from body, or execution. Banishment, death and the various corporal afflictions should not be imposed for any trivial reason. - Mahabharata XII.122.40-42
  • Forgiveness is the strength of the virtuous
  • to fight is easy, but to forgive is difficult. To be patient is not to be weak, to seek peace is always the wiser course.
  We who were the conquerors have at last
  been conquered by the foe...
  How can we call it victory when we are the ..
    - Mahabharata X.10.9
  • forbearance vs forgiveness : while forgiveness  suggests a degree of 'self-righteousness', forbearance points one in the direction of the classical virtue of magnanimity. The magnanimous person is forward-looking and does not differ the 'victimization; complex of the forgiving person.
  • Nicomachean Ethics
  • The word 'jehad' is rarely found in the Quran but is referred to 199 times in the Hadith, which was written 2 centuries after the death of the Prophet.  The Wahabis interpreted Jehad to mean a holy war, even though it had actually mean 'striving'; a Mujahideen was originally not a holy warrior but one who strives.
I want to point out that revenge is an extremely dangerous weapon, and request you not to form any kind of opinions based on the notes above. 'Revenge' and 'Punishment' are to be understood and analyzed in different contexts and are extremely complex topics; the path of 'peace' and 'love' is to be always followed. Am in the process of understanding Mahabharata and its characters based on commentaries and perspectives from different resources and it always keeps puzzling me and leads me to explore and research more on this topic.

November 13, 2013

Book Review : 'The Good, The Bad And The Ridiculous' by Khushwant Singh

Encounters In India and Land Beyond over a Scotch

The Contents read a list of names spanning two pages - back to back. Some names stuck a chord whereas some were completely new. My eyes involuntarily searched for 'Mahatma Gandhi' and I jumped to the page number to read it. Some blurbs:
He took a vow of celibacy in his prime, but without consulting his wife, which I think was grossly unfair. He would sleep naked beside young girls to test his brahmacharya. He could be very odd.
And thus the stage was set for reading this book that contained the profiles of  many prominent people while he opens up a closet full of facts that are not widely known :) Having read Jug Suraiya's 'The Great Indian Bores', it always fascinated me to read opinions of prominent people from other equally great people - those who have been in 'their' circles.

In the Introduction, Mr.Singh states:
I am a voyeur and a gossip. I am also very opinionated.
..and this set the mood even better. I love people who are opinionated; because they generally have very 'strong' opinions on things they believe in and do not try to be politically right; and hence Mr.Singh does not fear criticism when he states uncomplimentary things about dead people.

Perspectives are more interesting, enthralling and captivating than Narrations. And especially when the perspectives are from one of the most prolific writers whose life has spanned multiple generations(almost a century!), then it carries a lot of credibility along with interesting innuendoes. If the perspectives are spewed with sexual escapades and with frequent usage of the word 'bosom', then you are all the more sure that the author has to be no one else but Khushwant Singh saheb.

'The Good, The Bad And The Ridiculous' is Khushwant Singh's presentation to us of what he had to undergo while meeting many famous and not-so-famous people during his lifetime. His opinions are candid and the felicitousness of the prose makes some of the characters jump out inspite of the verbiage spanning just a few pages.  We are looking at a book that spans 200 pages with 35 characters being commented/profiled upon. That does not leave a complete character analysis of each one of them, but some extremely witty lines interlaced with the Author's smugness.

He is outright blunt in rejecting or expressing his animosity to certain people - like Advani; whereas, he also hides his inclination towards some, in the veil of 'ambivalence' - like Indira Gandhi. The biggest piece is not on his relatives or political leaders, but his boss - VK Menon; followed by a close second of Giani Zail Singh. The shortest is on Promita Bedi - like her streak on the Juhu Beach. The author's perspectives give you an introduction to even those whom you have never even heard of before - especially to the non-baby-boomers.

This book will be a great gift to your grandfather or dad or uncle who was born around Independence(baby-boomers) and has read and seen those characters either in the newspapers or on the tele. For the gen-x like me, who dig History, this is always an interesting book, for you get an inside peek into the lives of many, from the eyes of Khushwant Singh -- You will not be blamed, as it is Singh sahib who is peeking :)

October 23, 2013

Gaurishwara Temple, Yelandur

( This article was published in the Deccan Herald - Spectrum dated 22-October-2013 )

At a distance of 30kms from Thirumakoodalu Narasipura(popularly known as TNarasipura) lies the town of Yelandur that falls under the Chamarajanagar district. The road from TNarasipura was patchy at a few places and we had to literally slow down to a bullock cart’s pace in order to save the chasis and the shock absorbers of our car. The only saving grace was the lush and green fields on either sides, and soon hit the town of Yelandur. I  had expected this town to be a tiny village sporting a few houses and an old temple ensconced in some corner with an equally patchy road. But I was presented to a thrawling town with a reasonably big bus terminus and pretty vibrant crowd, and that too, early in the morning.

The Gazetteer of Mysore records that the fertile black soil so valuable here that there was not a single acre of uncultivated land, excepting on the hills. In “Mysore and Coorg”  By Benjamin Lewis Rice notes that ‘Yelandur appears to have been the seat of a wealthy principality at the time of the Vijayanagara sovereignty’ which is reinforced by the factor that the region was irrigated by the river Suvarnavati and the rich and fertile soil made agriculture extremely profitable. The hills also contributed to the wealth of the region as they were the home to many valuable trees like sandal, teak etc. But now Yelandur looked like any other small town.

In the present day, roads in Yelandur are narrow but are paved well and just as we crossed a corner, did we notice a small campus with some old structures jutting out a few feet below the road level. One could have easily missed this as there are no signboards or any other clear landmark. The campus houses the Gaurishwara Temple that is one of the few landmarks in this little town. The temple is dangerously close to a corner and any heavy vehicle with failed breaks can easily crash on it and destroy this symbol of our history.

A beautifully carved mantapa, Mahadwara, is presented as soon as one enters via the small(and only) gate into the campus. The temple and the mahadwara face east. Beautiful rings made of stone(with no joins) hang on corners, and hence this mantapa was called as ‘bale-mantapa’(bale in Kannada means bangles). Figures of Vali, Sugriva, Naramsimha swamy adorn the pillars of this mantapa while highly intricate carvings of Andhakasura vadha, Dakshinamurthy, Kalinga-mardana, Shiva, and other gods occupy the exteriors. Lord Shiva wearing slippers with heals and sporting his hair loose, being overlooked by kirthimukha is just too beautiful to be ignored. There is also a motif of a monkey drinking from a coconut.

The majestic mahadwara sets the expectations of an even greater and impressive temple inside the premises, which is only shattered as we step past it. Two temples, without any gopurams, stand surrounded by trees inside the campus. The architecture of these two temples are totally different from the bale-mantapa. Though the bale-mantapa seems to have been inspired by the Hoysala architecture, as can be seen by the running friezes on the exterior walls, the temples sport a distinct Vijayanagara architecture, as can be seen by its simple pillars and lack of any ornamentation. The sanctum-sanctorum is guarded by a wooden door, while the hall outside lacks any walls and is open from all three sides.

On the South side of the campus, a stone with inscriptions in hale-kannada stands in a small pit covered by a small structure. A Nandi, which seems to have been recently painted, sits on top of this structure. It is believed that this temple was constructured by a prince called Singadepa(who was also known as Devabhupala) in 1550AD. They belonged to the Hadinadu dynasty(also known as Padinadu) and were the feaudatories of the Vijayanagara dynasty. The beautiful entrance, known as bale-mantapa, was erected in 1654-55 by  his great grandson Mudduraja(also known as Muddhabhupa).

In December 1807, Yelandur was gifted (as Hereditary Freehold or inam)  to Dewan Purnaiyya for his ‘extraordinary’ services rendered to the Mysore Kingdom. A building, whitewashed in yellow paint, stands at the backside of the temple. This is probably the only highrise in the town and is the bungalow of Dewan Purnaiyya. Yelandur is strategically placed near Coimbatore and Mysore, and with natural riches during its hey days, it is believed that it was an obvious choice for Purnaiyya as he could be close to the Wodeyars of Mysore from here. Restoration and some renovation work was in progress during our visit and hence we couldn’t enter the bungalow.

October 20, 2013

Book Review: Reva EV: India’s Green Gift to the World By Dr SK Maini

(A variation of this review was published in the Business World Magazine dated 23-September-2013)

In the last week of July, BMW presented to the world the company's first electric car that was mass-produced. Called i3, it was priced upwards of 45,000USD and was looking ravishingly neat. And a few weeks before that, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Modors, unveiled the Battery Swap System for Model S that was faster than filling your gas tank. And a part of the World went gaga about them while the remaining still slept in the darkness and continued to ride the gas powered vehicles, let alone know about the other brands of EVs.

In our own backyard, Reva is a very popular name and is sometimes seen as a small animal zipping past the traffic. Though Reva or any other EV for that matter has many challenges for it to become mainstream, the success of Reva lies in the fact that it has continued to remain on the roads and be produced for a very niche market and is priced at one-tenths of the contemporary EVs. Professor Maini in his new book 'RevaEV' goes onto state that Reva has been getting really rave reviews and is not restricted to the Indian roads but is also being exported to a many other countries. What started as a small project in a tools industry has gone onto become an award winning car that has been mainly built using indigenous technologies. During the due course of the book Prof.Maini highlights the various achievements and breakthroughs that were seen during the development of the EV and how managing limited resources made them cost-competitive compared to many other EVs in various segments.

My biggest disappointment with this book would be that Prof.Maini is often seen repeating what he has already stated and continues his paeans on his son Chetan without much going into the emotions. The book, though a quick read, is seen lacking the 'rigour' that could have otherwise made this book an enjoyable read and an object of possession for posterity. Remember that RevaEV is probably one of the biggest achievements in our auto-industry as it was developed purely from inbred technologies and is truly our 'Green' gift to the World. The book lacks the depth that could be gone into some of the challenges that were faced, than merely stating them point wise. Though comparing with Lee Iacocca’s Autobiography would be inevitable and not do justice to the efforts, but Prof.Maini could have used some flavours of the ‘relentless pursuit’ that is often seen in the Auto Industry and given us some splendid insights.

Though the book fails in many quarters, it would be interesting to watch how the technology from EVs are used in other spheres of life and how EVs are molded into over the next decade. Do vanilla EVs have a chance to compete or do they need to rely upon standby gasoline powered engines for longer journeys. Would they command the label of being a 'Glorified Golf Cart' or indeed become an object of mass-consumption? We will wait and watch.

October 11, 2013

Book Review : My Journey by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

You are pretty much hooked when your grandpa tells you a story; for you know that the story is straight from his heart and might have many anecdotes which might lead to other interesting stories and observations. And this is the feeling when you read Dr.APJ Abdul Kalam's new book "My Journey".

A sequel to his previous books, this book is written the usual candid way, but the author has made this book deeply personal - his father, mother, sister, brothers, temple priests , mentors and many other characters who made an impact during his upbringing - figure in different stories.

As Dr.Kalam states, the book is not a linear account of his life, but events in his life that had a deep impact on him and how they taught him various facets of life and made him understand, appreciate and learn from them. Failures, dejections and death are part of life and Dr.Kalam talks about how he managed to tackle the different challenges that kept surfacing during different stages of his life. Talking about each of the chapters in this review would do no justice to the review or the book, as the stories on their own have a lot to teach to all of us alike. The honesty and the candidness in the stories is something that the author has perfected in all his books and that keeps the reader hooked and turn the pages with anticipation to know more.

It is but natural that you develop a sense of new vigour and energy when father-like figure helps you and shares some of their experiences in their life when you are experiencing tough challenges in life. Dr.Kalam is that elderly person who is all guns out in the support of GenX in realizing their dreams but at the same cautioning them of the various speed-bumps that might arise from time to time and how one needs to learn and rebound from these experiences. When his dreams of becoming a Pilot failed and walls closed in on him, a dip in the Holy Ganges at Rishikesh followed by spiritual enlightenment at Sivananda Ashram made him stronger and carry on with his life. He states:
"Each setback teaches us a new facet of life and something about our own responsibilities. When we tackle obstacles, we find hidden reserves of courage and resilience we did not know we had. And it is only when we are faced with failure do we realize that these recources are always there within us. We only need to find them and move on with our lives".
A quick read, that can be finished in just a few hours, but I would request you to read each chapter slowly and soak in the enthusiasm and the humility that Dr.Kalam professes. The simplicity reflected in his life is also shown in the book. During the read, sometimes you slip into a state of nostalgia wherein your think about your childhood and that person that helped you learn something very trivial that is helping you a lot now - you credit them for their efforts and this I believe is what Dr.Kalam tries to stress at various junctures. Be it the sea or the boat or the morning walks with his father or the different people appearing in his life, every thing or person has something to teach us and we should always be all ears and eyes open to learn from them and further our life.

Dr.Kalam ends the books with a quick summary of his Journey from being a boy in the coastal town of Rameshwaram to India's top-most office and says ...
"Hard work and piety, study and learning , compassion and forgiveness - these have been the cornerstones of my life"
In Summary : Highly recommended short read.

September 21, 2013

Rajasthan - Galtaji Ka Mandir or Monkey Temple

(This article was published in The Hindu dated 21-September-2013)

“I want nothing new, if I can have but a tithe of the old secured to me. I will spurn all wealth beside. Think of the consummate folly of attempting to go away from here! When the constant endeavor should be to get nearer and nearer here!” noted Henry David Thoreau in his journal.

Located around 10-20km away from Jaipur, towards the east, along the Jaipur-Agra Highway, it is one of the most beautiful and uncharted locations in Jaipur’s landscape. Earlier in the week, when we asked about the Monkey Temple, we were directed to a lonely small temple at the top of a hillock. Despite the wonderful scenery here, there were just not adequate monkeys for it to be given the title of ‘Monkey Temple’. We searched and searched and finally an auto-rickshaw guy decided to help us and we had to literally ask for directions along the highway to discover this temple. When approaching via road, one visits the Sisodia Rani ka Bagh(gardens laid out by Sawai Jai Singh II) in what seems to be like the gatekeeper to the temple. A few hundred meters of climb along the road, and a beautiful yellow gate lay in wait to welcome us in.

As one enters the temple complex, a huge courtyard with domed terraces on either sides welcomes you. Built using pink sandstone, the temple walls and ceilings have beautiful paintings that resemble a palace. The beautifully carved pillars and the colored walls take one to a different realm altogether.  The walls are laden with frescoes and murals, with many of them losing their charisma with the travails of time and begging for restoration. The temple pavilions and holy kunds make the entire complex look more like an ornate fort or a haveli than a temple.

Along with the majestic architecture of the structures surrounding you, you cannot miss the playful monkeys all around you. The highlights of this temple campus, except for the palatial mansions, are the Monkeys. Close to around 5000 monkeys reside in this campus and entertain the pilgrims and tourists as they roll and play in the courtyards, gardens, pools and by the side of the mountains. The hordes of rhesus macaques and Hanuman langurs have been featured in National Geographic channel's 'Rebel Monkeys' and 'Monkey Theives'. One can spend a few hours just looking at them. Though most of these monkeys are harmless, it is better to avoid carrying food items openly and tempt them

A flight of stairs takes one to the main temple that is constructed in multiple levels. The temple looks like it is sitting between the mountains and is crunched for space. The temple is supposed to have been constructed in the 18th century by Sawai Jai Singh II’s courtier Kriparam Diwan Rao. As Sage Galava is supposed to have performed penance here, the temple took the appellation of ‘Galta’. The holiest of the 7 tanks, that store water, here is also called Galta Kund. A temple of Ramgopal is present here and is it believed that Lord Ram gave darshan to Goswami Tulsidas here.

There is a face of a cow on the wall and water keeps pouring out of it, and hence like many other spring sites, this is called as Gaumukh(Cow's mouth). And hence the water in this kund is believed to be the manifestation of Ganges itself. Water from the natural springs accumulates in the kunds at multiple levels inside the complex. The green color of the water in the kund lends a beautiful charm to the hills that surround it on one side.  A dip in the kund on the holy day of Makar Sankranti(mid January, during Pongal) is said to rinse out the sins. This temple is of immense importance to the Hindus and is an important pilgrimage site. The temple dedicated to the Sun(Surya) is supposed to be second only to the one at Konark. There is a small diya inside the Hanuman temple that supposedly is burning continuously for more than 400 years now.

The entire geography of the site is in such a way that it lends its own unique charm to even the mountains that cast a shadow on the cascaded and rounded rooftops. There is a sense of sereneness in this place that is not present in many temples and the whole campus exudes tranquility. We visited this place again the very next day to soak in more of the scenery and enjoy the calmness surrounded by the rugged landscape of the Aravalli mountains.

Getting There: Galtaji-ka-Mandir is a 10km ride from Jaipur. Take the Jaipur-Agra highway and ask for Khaniya-Balaji.

Staying/Eating: There are no options to stay or eat in or near the Galtaji ka Mandir. Prefer staying in Jaipur and visit the temple by car or auto-rickshaw. Carry some snacks to eat as the place is a perfect spot for picnic, but be careful of the monkeys.

Tip: Prefer leaving Jaipur around 3-4pm so that you can spend the evening in the temple campus.

September 09, 2013

Mallikarjuna Durga and Hogenakkal Waterfalls

(This story was published in Deccan Herald's supplement Sunday Herald on 8-Sept-2013)

Monsoon has been good this year. Arrive it did a bit late but has shown no signs of relenting since then. Dark grey clouds that were a rarity last year are almost a daily phenomenon and the Sun God peeps out occasionally at noon. Many regions of India have been flooding and there is just ‘water, water everywhere’. Newspapers carry the flooded villages on one page and on the other is a beautiful photo of water being released from Dams or the water from the falls cascading down majestically.

One cannot just keep watching from one’s couch and not be a part of this scenery. We decided to drive to Hogenakkal and witness this for ourselves live. Though there were apprehensions of the place being overcrowded and causing chaos in an otherwise stunning scenery, we did take our bets and drove on.

Hogenakkal Falls is on river Kaveri in Dharmapuri district situated around 180kms from Bangalore. Though the route via Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri is rather easy, straight and with good roads, we decided to drive via a more scenic route via Denkanikottai and Anchetty . The hot and tasty pongal at Ganesh Bhavan in Denkanikottai was a perfect starter for the trip and we drove via a narrow road with lush green trees on either sides. This route is also shorter than the one via Krishnagiri. We stopped at a few points and enjoyed the views. Soon we stumbled on Mallikarjuna Durga, a hillock on the right of the road near Anchetty.

There are no clear stairs to the top of the hillock but one can climb pretty easily via the boulders and reach a small temple at the top. We stopped intermittently during the easy climb and sampled in the views. Patches of land were in orange and some were lush green. The land was yearning for a good monsoon before the seeds could be sown. There is Shiva temple at the top. This was closed for renovation when we reached here. There were remnants of an ancient wall on the top of the hillock, but no other signs from ASI informing about the importance of the place. The nandi that was placed outside the sanctum sanctorum was beautifully carved and looked relatively new. The construction workers told us that they were constructing a ‘diya’ on the top  so that a function similar to the one in Thiruvannamalai can be performed here. A few teens who were from a village at the base were enthusiastic enough to talk more about the life there but had no clue about the historic significance of this hillock or the structure on top of it.

The winds were getting strong and it started to drizzle slightly, when we decided to hike down and continue onwards to Hogennakkal, as the rocks become very slippery once wet. The rains played hide-and-seek and soon stopped. The narrow yet scenic roads continued for a few more miles and we soon hit a tri-junction with a Ayannar temple on the side of the road. Ayannars are village gods who protect the village from any evil. The beautiful and large statues of the twin village gods offered a perfect photographic moment. The statues of police with their companion dogs guarding the entrance to the open-air temple was interesting to look at. Cameras clicked and after a quick break we hit on a patchy road that would continue for 10 odd kilometers.

We could spot the river Kaveri flowing at a distance and were wondering whether we would hit the base of the falls or the top. We continued and saw ladies by the side of the road selling fishes lathed in red chillies and spices. We were yearning to hit the waters and after a quick lunch and negotiations with boatmen decided to do a coracle ride followed by massages and soaking in the waters.

One can go in the coracle to the base of the waterfalls when the water levels are low , but since this year the monsoon has been phenomenally great, the boatmen informed us that reaching the bottom of the falls was not allowed, though one can see from the top. An auto was arranged that would take us upstream and then we would float in the coracle before taking us to a view point on the Karnataka side. The view from bridge was simply spectacular and one could see the whole panoramic view of the waterfalls at its best. At a few places the waterfalls wore a muddy look, though bulk of it was like milk gushing out from the rocks. The sound of the water falling on the rocks eclipsed almost everything else and the mist formed due to the thrashing gave an enigmatic look to the whole scenery.

The crowd was relatively less as we had reached post noon and by this time many of the tourists were heading back. We soaked in the scenery and took the coracle to a ghat wherein we would get the best oil massage that this area has to offer and relax our spines and body in the waters.

The weather so far had been great and we enjoyed every bit of it. A few tried their hands at the local cuisine –fishes deep fried in oil and coated with spices and chilly powder whereas a few continued to be immersed in the waters and be transported to a dreamland.

The day was well spent as we drove back again via Anchetty than taking the Krishnagiri route, as we preferred the scenic route to the highway tarmac that would be filled with weekend traffic returning back to Bangalore.

August 14, 2013

Temple Run 1 - Uncharted Temples in Karnataka - Magadi and Mandya Districts

Bannerghatta Road - NICE Road - Magadi Road - Magadi - Kalya - Devarahatti - Basaralu - Hosaholalu - Kallahalli - T.Narasipura - Yelandur - T.Narasipura - Talakkad - Madhyarangam - Shivanasamudram - Kanakapura Road - NICE Road - Bannerghatta Road.

Link :

Temples Covered:
1. Magadi - Ranganathaswamy Temple (closed)
2. Magadi - Someshwara Temple
3. Kalavaripatna or Kalya - Cave temple - Basavanna
4. Devarahatti - Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy temple -
5. Basaralu - Mallikarjuna Temple
6. Hosaholalu - Lakshmi Narayana Temple
7. Kallahalli  - Bhu Varahanatha Swamy Temple
8. Yelandur - Gaurishrava Temple
9. Talakad
    i. Vaidyanatheshwara
    ii. Pathaleshwara
    iii. Maruleshwara
    iv. Arkeshwara
    v. Mallikarjuna
10. Madhyarangam

Other places Covered:
1. Jaggery Factory
2. Magadi Fort - Goat/Animal market
3. Shivanasamudram Falls

Total Distance Covered : 600 kms

Start Time: 5:45 am on 9th August. Friday
End Time: 5:30 pm on 10th August. Saturday

Expenses(for two):
Breakfast - 113
Tea - 26
Lunch + Dinner- 80 +16 + 20 +68
Hotel - 450
Cold Drinks + Water - 163
Pachayat Ticket (Talakkad) - 30
Falls Ticket - 20
Tips and Guide Fees - 40+100+250
Total = 1356
Petrol = 30lt = 30x78= 2340
Total = 3696 INR (or 1848 INR per head)


July 08, 2013

Point Reyes, San Franciso

Mention ‘California’ and the first thought that comes to most people’s mind is the Bay Area (popularly known as Silicon Valley) and the nice, clean and wide roads along with the year long beautiful weather. Though the whole of Silicon Valley and SFO is laden with companies and is almost like a concrete jungle without much foliage around, head 30 miles northwest of San Francisco and you will stumble on one of the best kept secrets in this area. The area famously known as the West Marin County is home to two major national parks the Point Reyes National Seashore and the Tomales Bay State Park. These are some of the amazing natural treasures located at an arm’s length from the hustle and bustle of the San Francisco City.

On a lazy Saturday morning, we decided to drive to what was windiest point on the Pacific coast and what was supposedly the second foggiest point on the North American continent – Point Reyes. On our 4WD we cruised through the freeway only to be stalled by the heavy traffic in SF. After wading through the dozens of traffic lights we hit the freeway again and soon were out into an altogether different landscape. Tall redwood trees made way for a small town which was to be the Bear Valley Visitor Information Center. The Visitor Center gives you an idea about the geography of the place and many other DOs and DON’T’s.  It also educates you about the different wilderness and activities that are available and also about road and trail closures.

And then we were presented with open ranchlands with loads of cows grazing and enjoying the sun. There must be lots of cattle ranches and dairy farms in this area, as the cows looked rather well fed and also all were tagged. Later I came to know that many of the boutique and high end hotels in SFO city have cheese supplied from many of these dairy farms which produce some of the best cheese in this region. The road meandered through the prairies and we hit the end of the road soon.

View of the Point Reyes Lighthouse
The lighthouse at the Point Reyes Station is an absolute beauty. It is located not at the top of the land but slightly below; this I was told was to avoid the fog that often decorates the SFO skyline and the lower perch makes it visible to the passing boats. There is a series of 300 odd steps that you need to climb down. A board forebode: ‘There is strenuous effort required to climb these stairs which are equivalent to a 30-storey building.’  If it is too windy, then the stairs are closed.

An old man, who was a ranger and a guide, and would have been perfect lightkeeper in his hey days was enthusiastic about the technology behind the lighthouse and explained to us in great detail about the optics used and its history. He informed us that it was a first-order Fresnel lens, one of its kind in the world that is no longer operational. This lens is almost 7feet high with concentric rings of glass prisms above and below a central drum. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1975 and there is an automated light, foghorn, and radio beacon just next to the lighthouse now.

The Lens

If you are lucky, you can spot some gray whales that migrate past the peninsula and also can spot Northern Elephant seals return to the Point Reyes Headlands.  Also, also one can hike the full 9.2 miles to Tomales Point and further upto Bodega Bay. During the period from July to October you can also spot the Tule Elk. We were lucky to spot a few of them at a distance.

The park offers a diverse range of coastal terrains, including beaches, dunes, wetlands, streams, and forests, providing great opportunities for picnicking, hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding. It's also home to a wide variety of wildlife, from birds to elk to elephant seals to passing whales.

Getting There: Take your car and start early from SFO, you can easily return by dusk.

Staying/Eating:  Vladimir's, the landmark Czech restaurant, in Inverness, is perfect spot for a quick snack or drink before or after visiting Point Reyes. They do not have any vegetarian options. Pick up some picnic from Inverness before you venture towards Point Reyes.

Tip: Visit the Point Reyes Visitor Center or call them up before you visit to know the timings and any other weather conditions and other event schedules. Pick up some organic produce, like dairy, jams etc, from many of the shops near Inverness on your way back.

(This article was published in The Hindu - Metro Plus on 29-June-2013)

June 09, 2013

Stilt Fishing in Sri Lanka

They sit on stilts and fish farm; command a fee for clicking their charm.

I was expecting a picturesque sea-scape with poles jutting out from the middle of the ocean and stick like figures sitting on them with their fishing rods extended and lots of fishes flying swarming the coastline. But little did I know when I reached Koggala that this ‘art’ of catching fishes was dying fast. This morning, the beach was almost empty with only a few peddlers selling coconut water and some snacks. The poles near the beach were deserted.

As soon as I descended from the bus and headed towards the shore, a man in his mid 50s approached me and demanded 500 rupees before I could take my camera fully out from my backpack. I was taken aback and did not understand at first. I told him that the ocean was free for all and I am free to take photos. He responded back that the 500 rupees was for clicking pictures of the stilts with the fishermen ‘on’ them and advertised more on the beauty of the landscape with people sitting on them than taking a photo of the stilts alone. Five Hundred rupees more and I could sit on the stilt and have a picture of myself taken and also get a feel of this art which is unique to only this part of the world.

Stilt fishing (commonly known as ‘Riti Panna’) requires sitting on a cross-bar (called ‘petta’) tied to a vertical pole that is  3-4meter tall planted on the ocean floor or on the coral reefs. The height of the stilt could be adjusted based on the height of the tides and also the distance between any two stilts was such that the lines of two adjacent fishermen do not get entangled. Two or more stilts could be combined together (called as ‘wata’) so that more than one fisherman can sit along the stilt. Holding the stilt by one hand while being seated or standing and holding the fishing line on the other hand, these fishermen generally spend hours together early in the morning or late afternoon with the hope of having a good catch to feed their family and also sell some in the local market and make a few bucks. Test of one's patience indeed!

Small reef fish like koraburuwa (spotted herring), bolla (small mackerel) and ahalaburuwa (young koraburuwa) about the size of a sardine were the primary members in a catch. The caught fish were often stored in bamboo baskets or the polythene covers which were tied to the poles themselves. Fishing nets are prohibited and so are certain types of hooks. This is an unobtrusive method of fishing, wherein no baits are used on the hooks, for the fishermen believe that any changes in the waters would lead to the reef fish not returning in the next season.  Also, full-moon days are avoided.

It is believed that stilt fishing started after the Second World War when discarded ‘iron poles’ or G.I. pipes were used as stilts in the reef. But soon the practice changed with the use of timber that was cheaper, lighter, durable and also easily moveable. These stilts are highly precious commodities for they are transferred from generation to generation along with particular fishing skills that are unique to each family. Located primarily along the southern coast of Sri Lanka in places like Koggala, Habbaraduwa, Ahangama and Kathaluwa, every reef was allocated to a village or a group of villages to avoid possible disputes between fishermen.

Now, I exactly knew what the fisherman meant when he demanded 500 rupees for clicking a photo, for I quickly understood that this traditional way of living was no longer the only means of survival, for these fishermen were getting better returns from posing for a few minutes in front of the camera. The increasing cost of living, unpredictable environmental conditions, long hours to be spent sitting on the pedestal and depreciating returns were all factors in ‘commercialization’ of this beautiful-yet-tough-art.

[This article was published in Deccan Herald on 6-June-2013]

May 21, 2013

Hurghada, Egypt

The ride from Aswan to Hurghada was different from what we had experienced so far. The city of Aswan soon gave way to tiny villages. The outskirts of the city were scattered with palm trees and the occasional farmer was tilling his land in the blistering heat. The Nile and its tributaries which fed these fields formed the basis of the economy in this vast arid desert country. Wherever you spot the Nile, greenery will not be far. It is said that 80% of Egypt's population lives around 5 miles from the Nile; thus highlighting the importance of the Nile river to Egypt's economy.

Hilton, Hurghada, Egypt
The paddy fields soon gave way to rugged surfaces with interspersed palm trees followed by swathes of barren desert. Sitting at the backseat of an air-conditioned sedan and looking at the expanse of the desert was a different experience. Though the heart always ached to experience this kind of voidness, the associated thoughts of the 'returning back to civilization and family' was the strong witholding force. With almost no one along this stretch of the road and with the moon-like surface on either sides of the road, driving was a breeze and a treat. We finally arrived in Hurghada around 6pm and soon checked into the Hilton beach resort. The lobby of the hotel was pretty crowded and we had our own inhibitions about the standard of Hilton in Egypt. But those inhibitions soon vanished when we had a look at the beautiful swimming pool and then our excellent sea-facing room. The long journey needed a quick shower and then to calm everything down, we went for a stroll along the beach. Though the beach waters were absolutely dark, the gentle chill in the air with the beautiful moon shining high in a starless sky was captivating.

Hurghada, once an unimposing fishing village has been given a massive facelift making it one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in Egypt. It now lays claim to being a total resort destination overlooking the Red Sea, well connected with direct flights from several European cities to the Hurghada International Airport. Scores of hotels, including some of the top-end hotels line the shoreline. It’s a place where you can just decide to put your legs up and relax by reading a book or choose to indulge in the aquatic activities that the Red Sea has to offer. Activities include scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking, windsurfing, para sailing and glass boating to see the breathtaking corals under the turquoise waters.


The promenade dotted with luxury resorts and hotels on either side, is one of the quietest and cleanest stretches, making it a pleasure to go on a stroll in the evenings. The vehicles are then restricted to just one lane. The lane is filled with a motley of shops selling everything from souvenirs to garments to toys, roadside restaurants and peddlers. A little beyond the end of this lane is where the downtown begins. Bargaining is the key to buying here. Tourists are generally taken for a ride with the prices and hence, never settle for anything quoted without bargaining - be it a souvenir or the activities package. Some hotels arrange for a good package for their guests through some reputed operators depending on the activities that you decide to go for.

The Red Sea shoreline in this area is laced with deck chairs of the various resorts, where you will find some sun-bathing, some reading, some sleeping or just staring at the pristine blue waters in front. The Red Sea coast near Hurghada has a plethora of adventure activity centers, each willing to offer you the 'best deal'. You can haggle a lot on the price for each activity. Choosing multiple activities for many people helps you get a better deal. We finally settled for snorkeling (which also included the glass boat ride) and kayaking. We were taken by the speed boat to a place 20 minutes away, the boat slowing down at places for us to see the corals thru the glass bottom. The boat finally docked at a place in the shallow waters where we jumped off for snorkeling. Having taken our life jackets and the snorkeling paraphernalia, we were all set to experience the beauty of nature hidden under the crystal clear turquoise waters. The first sight under water makes you want to pinch yourself to reconfirm that you are in no dreamland. The corals and multicolored fishes take your breath away. The one thing that you do not want to do is get out of the waters onto the waiting boat after the scheduled 20 minute snorkeling act. Half-heartedly we get back onto the boat and are back at the shore for our kayaking jaunt.

Couple kayaking is fun when you take the kayak far away to the middle of the waters, steering clear of the deep and high tide area, and start your rants leaving your partner with no channel of escape. It’s the perfect escapade for synchronizing your paddle movements and also to sit back and relax at times while your partner takes over completely. Even to turn around your kayak requires both of you to be in tandem making it a good team building activity. After wading in the waters for close to an hour, we head back and decide to give the tired muscles a bit of rest before plunging into the temperature controlled swimming pool for a dip.

Red Sea

Hurghada is the place for a perfectly laid-back holiday or an adventure filled one. It’s totally up to you to switch modes and gears to get the best out of this vacation.

How to reach there: Hurghada is well connected by flights from Cairo or if you are flying in from some European city, there are direct flights to Hurghada International Airport as well.

What to eat: Most of the luxury resorts lined up serve the finest spread for breakfast making you forget lunch totally. Step out and try the roadside magnificent pizza at King's pizza without burning a hole in your pocket.

Tip: Red Sea makes a perfect destination for doing PADI certification as the waters are crystal clear and the corals are well preserved and beautiful.

[This article was published in Deccan Herald on 19-May-2013]