Mahaballapuram in motion

I arrived at noon, checked into a great (and cheap) guesthouse, had lunch, and then managed to see the town and its main attractions before evening.

Mahaballapuram is a bit like Hampi in the miniature. It’s got giant boulders and ancient caves and architecture, and in addition a beach on the Bay of Bengal. It’s also known as “Backpakistan”, as it’s a popular destination for western tourists near Chennai. True to a tourist town, one can buy plenty of “Om wear”: shirts and pants in bright colors with Om symbols and ganeshas (than I’ve yet to see on someone who lives here). Also available are tourist items from toilet paper to trinkets. No shortage here.

Wandering away from the stores brings one to the archeological sites, which seem much more interesting. 

On the beach, there’s the aptly named Shore Temple representing Pallava kingdom architecture. It was built in the 8th century, and per Lonely Planet, “is the earliest free-standing stone temple in Tamil Nadu”.


South of town there are the Five Rathas: monolithic 7th century carved structures devoted to various Hindu gods.


On the west side one will find the majority of structures and carvings. The crown gem is Arjuna’s Penance, carved out on two massive boulders depicting both mythological and mundane scenes.


Back in town, the guest house I picked out was peaceful and tranquil, with basic rooms set around a lovely courtyard filled with trees and jasmine vines. Especially at night, the aroma of jasmine was heavenly.


And this marks the end of my time in Southern India. I’m glad I finally made it here. I would say that the people have been very friendly here as well, and it has had more of a laid back feel to it. Or maybe it’s the sight of all the coconut trees swaying in the wind. But anyway, it’s been an enjoyable visit. Tomorrow I fly back north. Way north. I’ll leave it as a surprise for now. Stay tuned and be well!

The Cherry on Top

Pondicherry, or its pre-colonial name, Puducherry, is like an Indian New Orleans. No small wonder, as it was largely colonized by the French vs the English as many other towns were. So when walking down the streets, there’s a mix of French architecture, coconut trees and other greenery, and lively South Indian colors. Pondicherry is along the Bay of Bengal, and while there’s no big sandy beach, there is a small rocky strip of sand with rocks along the water, and a large walkway where people stroll along in morning and evening time. The adjacent street is blocked off at night as well, making it a merry and peaceful posada.

Here are some pics I took around town.

Gandhiji Memorial


This was not the guesthouse, in case you’re wondering.

I managed to get a room in the prized Park Guest House. Run by the Aurobindo ashram, it sits along the shore and all the rooms face the sea, with balconies as well. The balcony made a great place to do morning sun salutations and meditation. And if one could ever get tired of watching the waves, there’s a peaceful garden to admire and walk in as well.


Morning. At first there’s no distinction between water and sky. All is a blue-grey mist that gets lighter with time. Slowly, slowly, the faintest of pale pink appears as the sky lightens. Soon the pink is reflected on the water as the waves roll in. Then suddenly, a sliver of neon pink-orange sun appears above the clouds on the horizon, and rises, reflected on the water, a giant ball of light. And so the day begins.


While there, I spent much time just wandering the streets and admiring the atmosphere. But I did manage to make it to the ashram itself. The ashram was founded by Sri Aurobindo, who developed his own style of yoga which he called “integral yoga”, and by a French woman named Mirra Alfassa, known simply as “The Mother”. Both have passed on, but the tradition remains strong and the ashram is quite an organization with shops, offices, and guest houses all over town. The main ashram is where Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” are interred, and visitors to the ashram are shepherded around the shrine, to the bookstore, and then to the exit. That’s pretty much it. 

As the ashram guesthouse had no wifi, I looked for cafes that had it available. Very few and far between. I went to one cafe who actually told me that they didn’t give out passwords on weekends. What? Seriously? But I didn’t even ask why. I’ve learned not to. Knowing the (usually very odd) reason doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to get what I want. It’s much easier just to let it go. In the words of Jimmy Buffett, “breathe in, breathe out, move on”. But it was sort of fun trying new places in search of wifi, and even the place that didn’t give the passwords made a great chocolate croissant.

My last evening there was a real treat, as I was able to watch a blood moon rising above the water. As it climbed higher it changed to a bright orange, and appeared like a giant jack-o-lantern. Rising higher, it became ivory, casting a shimmering glow upon the water. And to top it off, a fireworks display right near the guesthouse. It was a great send-off, even though I’m pretty certain it wasn’t just for me.


And for laughs, two last funny pics. 

The first: what may be the ugliest dog I’ve seen in India. I saw him on the beach each day I was there. And before you feel too bad for him, I did see him with a female companion, confirming that love certainly is blind.


And last: This poster appeared all over town while I was there. Interest piqued, I looked up the website. Hmmmm.

The End of the Line

So this is it. The end of the line, so to speak. You know you’re at an outpost when the railroad lines come in perpendicular to the railway station vs along side of it. This is Kanyakumari, the southernmost point in India (at least, the mainland). It’s where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea waters all mix together in a beautiful blue horizon. Giant waves roll in and crash among the rocks, sending white foam into the sky. Small sailboats dot the surface of the water as they catch the plentiful winds. Looking out towards the water, it’s a beautiful place.

The land is a bit less memorable. 

There’s the Gandhi memorial, which was my favorite. It was erected to house where a portion of his ashes were kept in the town before being released into the sea. It’s a peaceful, open structure, 79 feet tall for each year he was alive. Ind in the ceiling there is a circular hole, through which once a year on his birthday, the light streams directly on the inner memorial shrine.

There’s also the Vivekananda memorial rock and shrine, where one can take a ferry out to the rock where he meditated for several days.

And there’s the 133 foot high statue of Thiruvalluvar, an ancient Tamil poet. Built one foot for each chapter in his classic work, Thirukural.

Last but not least, the temple for the goddess for which the town was named. The Kumari Amman Temple, built for the virgin (kanya) princess (kumari) manifestation of Devi.

And sadly, a billion trinket stalls and more trash and pollution than you could pick up in a month.

Of course, I suppose in the states it would either be a beautiful national park (which I admit was how I pictured it before I got here), or in U.S. capitalist fashion, a trendy spot where one couldn’t visit the beach without spending a fortune in a swanky hotel.

So it is what it is, and I’ll share some of the pictures I took of the more beautiful aspects.

While I was here, I also visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace. Having admired Keralan architecture, I read about this place and knew I had to visit. It was totally worth a few hours on local buses.

The palace is a classic example of Keralan architecture and is actually a conglomeration of fourteen palaces, some dating back to the mid 16th century. Perhaps it’s the heavy use of wood, but it reminded me of older Japanese structures. Either way, it was a peaceful way to spend the morning.

Trivandrum and Kovalam: heading farther south

Trivandrum is the capital of Kerala and close to the beach town of Kovalam, so I split this visit between the two cities.

I started out in Trivandrum with the Museum of History and Heritage, in walking distance of my hotel. The museum walks one through time, starting with stone axes and carvings from 3000 to 1000 BC, and progressing up to 17th century in the form of murals. The building itself is in traditional architecture rich in wood carvings and shady porches. By the time I finished wandering there it was late afternoon and I called it a day. It’s much warmer here in Kerala than in the other places I’ve been recently, so I’m taking it easy.

The next day’s adventure was taking a local bus to Kovalam, and wandering around the town and beach. Kovalam beach is beautiful, and although somewhat touristy, has managed to avoid the blaring music of Goa. The sounds of the waves crashing on the sand, fishermen hauling their nets, and happy vacationers fill the air. 


If I had had more room in my luggage, and wouldnt have had to haul it around for five more months, I totally would have been going home with one of these!

After walking for some time, I decided to rent a chair under an umbrella.

Sandy toes, no woes

 Ahhh…now I could put my feet up, watch the waves, and…

“Madam, you want fresh fruit? Pineapple, mango, papaya….”

No thank you.

“I give you good price”.

No!

“Madam, very fresh, I give you good price, not tourist price”

 I ignore the saleswoman, and after a few more tries she goes away. Time to relax.

“Madam, you want scarves? Pure silk, very beautiful, one hundred rupees only.”

No. I don’t want any. 

“Look madam, very beautiful, I give you good price”

Within thirty minutes of sitting on the chair, no less than a dozen persistent vendors came up to me selling fruit, scarves, and carved items. I realize it’s how they make their living, but I have to admit I was getting ready to shout “Bugger off!” at the next one that came by. I took that as a cue that relaxing by the sea was not in India’s plan for me that day. Instead, I gave up and walked away. I found a vendor free restaurant in which to have lunch, and then took the bus back. Enough of Kovalam. It really was a beautiful place though.

On the way back I found a Hindu temple and Keralan style building around a water tank. The temple was off limits to non-Hindus, but I enjoyed the views from outside.


For the last trip I went to the zoo in Trivandrum. I had heard that Yann Martel had based his book, “The life of Pi” on the animals here, and later confirmed that he had spent nearly three months at the Trivandrum zoo studying mostly the tigers. Although I was saddened at the cells, er, enclosures that some of the animals and birds were in, it was probably the only time I’ll be six feet away from a tiger and live to talk about it. It was great to be that close, but I wouldn’t go again.

Himalayan bears
Gaur, a type of Indian buffalo
Pacing the cage

Overall, Kerala was fantastic, filled with coconut trees, peaceful places and great people. I’m now in Kanniyakumari, which is the southern tip of India. You can’t go any farther south from the mainland here unless you swim. More to come….

The Venice of India: Alleppey

My original travel plan was to take a week in all the places I visited, adding or subtracting days as I saw fit. But since deciding on the yoga course I’ve had to prioritize and condense said schedule. While I believe the change in plans will be worth it, this is the third place I’ve visited in a row in which I’ve wished I had more time. However, I’m  grateful I’ve been able to visit here the last two days.

Alleppey (or it’s pre-colonial name Alappuzha) is famous for its canals and backwaters that run through the region, and the houseboats that float along the major canals. The houseboats seem interesting, yet they’re very plentiful, and also take a toll on the local environment.

A more eco friendly option is the canoe trip, which takes a more intimate course through the smaller canals and villages. It’s more wallet friendly as well: A houseboat runs about 6-7000 rupees a night: about $100. The canoe trip is just under $15. I tried to find a kayaking tour, but none were to be found. This was a lovely alternative, and a day well spent. We had a great guide who did the paddling (although we got to pitch in if we wished to), and provide a wealth of information about the local area. Quietly floating along at a gentle speed past houses, villagers and colorful vegetation was a most relaxing way to spend the day. As an added bonus, we were treated to a Keralan meal, traditionally served on a banana leaf.

Kerala has a beach as well, that is a much quieter affair with just a few restaurants and ice cream stands, and no blasting music.

Those are the main attractions of Alleppey. It’s a tropical town that says “Relax, slow down, and don’t take tension”. Definitely worth visiting for a week or even much longer.

Coonoor, continued

My sightseeing in Coonoor started off with the Highfield Tea Company. The HTC is on a plantation in Coonoor, and is open to the public. Tea was imported here to India by the English in the 1800’s so that they wouldn’t have to buy it from China, and could instead make the inhabitants of India grow it for them for a much cheaper price. Hmmm. 


The tea plant, Camelia sinensis, grows naturally as a tree when left to its own devices. It’s kept in shrub form (sort of like a bonsai) to make it easier to harvest the leaves. All teas, whether white, green, oolong, or black, come from the same variety of plant. The difference lies in the part of the plant that is used: the very central smallest part of the shoot for white, young lighter leaves for green, and older leaves for black. Oolong is made by oxidizing the leaves. The finer teas are sold as loose leaf, and the more inferior generally are sold for use as powder or in tea bags. Most of the masala chai in India is the latter version, processed by the CTC method: cutting, tearing, and crushing the leaves. Mixed with the right blend of spices though, it still makes some tasty tea.

Most of the tea produced in this region is bought by the big tea companies, but there is still available for local buyers, or tourists.


After the tea plantation, I visited some scenic lookouts and Sims park in the town of Coonoor. Lots of beautiful scenery, and nice quiet places to just sit and be.



Which was a good thing, because the next day I discovered what a Tatkal train reservation was. I had seen it at train stations and wondered. Now I know. A Tatkal ticket is a last-minute, day before the journey ticket for those of us who fail (or choose not to) plan. Here’s how it works:

One arrives the day before the journey at 0745 to get a numbered request for the ticket, elbowing the rest of the crowd for one’s place in line. But the ticket isn’t given then. Oh no. One has to return 2-3 hours later to actually buy the ticket, this time in an orderly queue by number. Don’t ask me why. But thankfully, the effort paid off, and I managed to get a ticket for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway on the downhill trip to Mettupulayam.

 The NMR is a famous narrow gage railway and is a UNESCO heritage site. It was featured in the Bollywood movie song “Chayya chayya“, in which the crew danced on top of the moving train. For more info on the railway, click here. Click on the title of the song for the YouTube video. For those who are curious, no, I didn’t see anyone dancing on the train. Just spectacular scenery. Enjoy.



Before I end this post, I’d like to give a hearty recommendation to the folks at Sun Valley Homestay. They’ve gone the extra mile to help me around as a solo traveler, the room has been great, and the food so incredible that it deserves its own future post. If you ever come to Coonoor, I would highly suggest staying here!

Coddled in Coonoor

Wow. This place is amazing.

I arrived in Coonoor late this morning after more adventures on a “sleeper” bus. We took off from Bangalore last night, stopped who-knows-where for a sleep break, and then changed from the sleeper bus to a minibus at 0600. This ended up being a good thing, as I was then wide awake enough to see the herds of deer and a peacock as we drove through Mudumalai Tiger Preserve (sorry, no tiger sightings). We then lumbered up the side of a hill through hairpin turns to Ooty, where we were booted off the minibus. 

“But my ticket was for Coonoor!”

“This is last stop. Take local bus over there. Don’t forget your luggage.”

Harrumph. 

So I took the local bus after asking several people which of the ten buses it was, got a rickshaw, and arrived at Sun Valley Homestay.

Wow. With only a minor splurge, I decided on this place for three nights. I ended up with a very large, clean room with amazing views! See the video from the balcony here.

Then I was whisked off to the restaurant where I was treated to a fantastic South Indian breakfast. I’ll post some food descriptions soon, as the food is great here and is worth sharing about.

And then spent the rest of the day wandering around the tea plantation, and enjoying the views while relaxing on the balcony.

Tomorrow I’ll venture back into the town of Coonoor to visit a few sites, but I must say this place has been totally worth the trip here.

And while not restful, in hindsight, the trip was sort of fun too.

Don’t Worry, Be Hampi

Hamp has been a smorgasbord of ancient temples nestled among hills, boulders and beautiful scenery. One could spend a month here and not see everything, but I gave it my best shot in the short time I was here.

For information on Hampi, read here.

I ate breakfasts at the rooftop restaurant, enjoying the morning chanting from the next door temple. I watched the mahouts (elephant trainers) wash the temple elephant in the river and enjoyed the peaceful laid back morning there.

I took a bicycle tour to visit over a dozen monuments, and then walked with a new friend to the Vittal temple, finding our way despite lack of direction, to the stone chariot and the temple.

And in between touristy things, just took some time to relax and enjoy the atmosphere here. I found myself wishing that I had spent a week here vs Goa, but so it goes. I have definitely enjoyed my time here.

And now I have another carrot in front of me: in November, I will return to Rishikesh for a month to do yoga teacher training. In the meantime I’ll travel around the south, and maybe a bit in the north on my way back there. Back to enjoying the journey.


Cheeky monkey. He came into the restaurant and took my (finished) glass to get what he could from it before the owners chased him away.




Caves and Castles: Aurangabad

My plan for visiting Aurangabad was the Ajanta and Ellora caves, and I happened upon a few extras while there.

The Ajanta Caves were built around the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD, and are a mix of monastic viharas and meditation halls. The 28 caves are set in a horseshoe shaped cliff with a peaceful meandering river below. I spent several hours here, admiring the work and the energy of monastics from a long time ago.

The caves from a distance
Pillar and fresco. It’s all a bit dark, unfortunately. No flash allowed.
Cave facade, and a girl that I’m pretty sure is giving me the stinkface!-)

Daulatabad Fort was part of a packaged bus deal. It was a great addition, as the place was peaceful and beautiful. It could have taken a day on its own. Built in the 12th century, it must have appeared as an impressive fortress that would last forever. Now, its walls are crumbling, and nature is taking it back, only adding to its beauty.


Next up were the Ellora caves. These were built later on, in 600 to 1000AD. There are 34 caves in all, including Buddhist, Hindu and Jain. Sadly, as the bus tour was a bit rushed, I only saw about half of them. I saw the Buddhist monasteries, and a few Hindu, including the impressive Kailash temple. But as advice to other travelers, Ellora is close to Aurangabad: hire a rickshaw and stay for as long as you want.

Waterfall at the Buddhist caves
Three-storied Buddhist monastery
Kailash Temple

We also stopped at the Bibi ka Maqbara, also known as the “Mini Taj Mahal”. It was built by the son of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, Azam Khan, as a mausoleum for his mother. Azam’s plan was to make it completely out of marble and have it look like the Taj in Agra. Aurangzeb put the kabosh on that though. Guess he wasn’t quite as enamoured with his wife as Shah Jahan was to his. The building does resemble the Taj Mahal, but on a much smaller scale.


My trip to and from Aurangabad was equally as interesting as the tourist attractions were. The train to and from Mumbai does not do tourist seats, so because I didn’t buy a ticket ahead of time, I ended up in a second class car. It was everything I imagined riding in the non-AC section of India’s trains would be, except it wasn’t so crowded that anyone had to ride on top of the train. There was one guy that went up on the luggage rack though.

The ride back was even more crowded. As the train pulled into the station, what seemed like five hundred people all tried to get into a single train doorway, pushing and shoving their way in. By the time I got to my seat, a family had camped on it, and I ended up across the aisle. Better than the floor, which is where about a dozen people sat. Every few minutes a vendor with various, food, chai, water, or trinkets would step through all the people in the aisles, yelling out what he was selling, to make his way through the car. It was crowded and hectic, yet everyone seemed to take it all in stride. Eventually, I could feel myself doing the same and just enjoying the ride.

Lakeside loveliness 

I took a “sleeper” bus from Jaisalmer to Udaipur, as there was no direct train. I won’t go into sniveling details, but let’s just say that the term sleeper for a bus is even more optimistic than the train.

Despite lack of sleep, I arrived in Udaipur with some energy to explore the city. Udaipur is spread around Lake Picchola, which is about 12 sq. km.. The main tourist spot is the city palace complex, which is Rajasthan’s largest palace. Like many of these grand structures, it was started by one ruler and built upon by subsequent ones. This palace was initiated by Maharana Udai Singh II in 1599.


The museum inside displayed some of the interior architecture, along with articles used by the maharanas. My favorite parts were the stained glass windows, but it was all impressive.


Outside of the city palace, there are peaceful sites by the lake to relax, and I explored these in the afternoon.


Another popular building on the lakeshore is the Bagore ki Haveli, which has a museum with the largest turban, among other things, and at night hosts a Rajasthan culture show. I would highly recommend both for a sampling of local culture.


My last tourist visit was to Sajjan Garh, or the monsoon palace. It’s not very old, as it was built in the late 19th century by Maharana Sajjan Singh. Apart from some scaffolding in various parts, it looks like it’s been largely neglected since then. But it’s main draw is the surrounding scenery vs the architecture. It’s a few miles from town on the top of a hill, and offers endless gorgeous views from the surrounding area. It’s also a favorite place to watch the sun set, with good reason.


Apart from these main attractions, I’ve been wandering by shops, puzzling vendors by being the rare tourist that isn’t interested in buying things, and finding quiet places by the lake not mentioned in Lonely Planet. Overall, it’s been a peaceful visit.