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.