Auroville

A post on a short duration road trip that we did in April of 2012. We had planned a last-minute getaway in Auroville near Pondicherry and had to go to Chennai later for a friend’s wedding.

Journey
On a Friday evening we started from Bangalore around 5 PM. Our overnight halt was at Ramana Residency Hotel in Thiruvannamalai which we reached around 9 PM. After a sumptuous breakfast at Hotel Kanna the next morning we started towards Auroville around 10 AM. The road was excellent. On the way we stopped to watch the Gingee fort which has been a witness to many bloody battles. Today the ruins are surrounded by lush green fields. A Black Drongo arrived on the scene promptly and posed for us. We managed to reach Auroville around 12 PM.

Red yesterday, Green today. Gingee for you.

Black Drongo

Auroville Township

Auroville is an experimental township located a little north of Pondicherry. Auroville’s intent is to have people from multiple cultures, nationalities and sensibilities live together in harmony and peace without being affected by religion, politics and the likes. Auroville is governed by the Auroville Foundation. This foundation, and not individuals, owns the properties in the township. More details on Auroville can be read on the wikipedia. The roads within Auroville are private and in many parts are not paved dirt roads. Cycling is a common mode of transport within the township.

Roads within Auroville

Visitor Center is the nerve center of this township and any visitor will begin from here. If you want to stay at Auroville, there are a set of guesthouses, of different budgets. You will find the guesthouses listed at www.aurovilleguesthouses.org. We chose the Afsanah Guest house based on our preference and availability.

Afsaneh Guest House
The place looked promising in the pictures online and it lived up to our expectations. The architect Poppo has designed the whole place marvelously! The whole setting blends well with the surrounding. The elegant Japanese cottages were a delight with lots of space. The decor was impressive. Another highlight of the architecture is the impressive Lotus pond next to the dining area. The only thing that we didn’t like here was the bland food that we had here for our breakfast.

By the wayside

Afsanah in Auroville -The perfect getaway

Japanese cottage - Afsanah Guest House

Battered and Weary

Water Lily

Camouflaged frog

Afsanah Guest House premises

Dining Hall - Afsanah Guest House

We had a good time watching birds from the terrace atop the dining area. An early morning walk within the property yielded sightings of a few birds. The sightings included Black Drongo, Yellow-billed Babbler, Rufous Treepie, Loten’s Sunbird, Jungle Crow, Greater Coucal, Common Iora and White-browed Bulbul. We need to head back here someday and spend more time.

Loten's Sunbird

Greater Coucal

Jungle Babbler

Matri Mandir

The Matri Mandir which translates to the temple of the mother is dedicated to the mother of the Aurobindo Ashram. It is located in a huge open space and can be seen from the highway itself at certain points. It looks like a massive golf ball that is golden in colour. There is an inner chamber for meditation where entry is restricted. Visitors can walk around the garden but it was closed when we went. We had to be content gazing at it from outside the fence.

Matri Mandir

Eat-outs
On the day of our arrival here we headed to the Visitor’s Center for our lunch. The restaurant here serves some awesome European food! The desserts were a delight too. For dinner we headed to Roma’s Kitchen but decided to stop at Tanto’s Pizzeria on the way instead. Our choice proved to be right as the Pizzas were delicious. The desserts were also good here.

ECR drive
We started from Auroville around 12 PM and took the East Coast Road (ECR) to head to Chennai. The road was good and scenic as a result of which our drive was pleasant. We saw the Bay of Bengal at regular intervals when there were no obstructions. Other notable views were that of the Salt Pans and Backwaters. This road passes through Alamparai Fort and Mahabalipuram. We did not stop anywhere as we had to reach Chennai by evening. Need to head back here some day was the thought in our minds throughout this trip.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

 

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Shettihalli

A post on a weekend outing to a place which had been on my wish-list for a reasonable amount of time. A monument that has withstood the ravages of time. That is the Rosary Church at Shettihalli! It stays submerged in the waters of the Hemavati River reservoir built near Gorur in Hassan District during the monsoon period. Here is the link for finding the church on Google Maps.

Withstanding the ravages of time and tide

Journey

We started from Nelamangala around 9.30 AM. We were near the road to Shettihalli by 12 in the noon. As we wanted to be in Shettihalli in the evening around sunset, we decided to drive till Sakleshpur and have lunch there. On the way we spotted quite a few Indian Rollers, Pied Bushchats and a Black-winged Kite.

Indian Roller

The terrain changed as we entered Sakleshpur. The dry land gave way to lush green hills. We had a sumptuous meal at Ossoor Restaurant next to Ossoor Coffee Estate in Sakleshpur. As we were heading back to the car after lunch, we spotted a Scarlet Minivet couple on a tree nearby. They seemed to be nesting there. We decided to head to the Manjarabad fort as we were too early for Shettihalli.

There was a huge crowd near Manjarabad. We decided not to head to the fort as it would be literally useless to climb and not be able to have a peaceful time. We drove back towards Shettihalli. The road was not so great as we approached Shettihalli. On the way we stopped wherever we saw birds. Sightings included Plain Prinia, Purple Sunbird, Black Drongo, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Long-tailed Shrike, Rufous Treepie, Greater Coucal, Common Iora, Spotted Dove, Green Bee-eater, White-cheeked Barbet, Cattle Egret and the Red-vented Bulbul.

Fields of Gold

Purple Sunbird (Male)

Purple Sunbird (Female)

Chestnut-headed Bee Eater

Rosary Church

This church was built by French missionaries in the nineteenth century. It was built in the European Gothic style very elegantly. In the 1960s the Government relocated the surrounding villages for the purpose of constructing a reservoir across Hemavati river to supply water for the nearby areas. Since then the church lies submerged in the water. Every year it is visible when the water level recedes. The church has an elegant charm to it though it is in ruins. It is hard to imagine how it might have looked in its heydays.

Ruins basking in the sunlight

Once a church, now a picnic spot

Planning a future with the past as witness

We took a brief walk around the ruins. There were a group of men who seemed to be drunk and creating a ruckus all over the place sadly. They marred our visit here. We decided not to take a coracle ride across the water. We walked away from the church and settled at a spot close to the river further away. A juvenile Brahminy Kite was hovering above us. We then spotted a River Tern, Pied Wagtail and a Common Sandpiper.

Brahminy Kite (Juvenile)

River Tern

The ruins looked so charming as the sun set beyond the hills far away and the moon rose above it. Flocks of Little Cormorants were flying back home. It was time to call it a day and we were on our way back by 6 PM. We stopped for dinner at Kamat Upachar resturant near Chennarayapatna. It was 11 by the time we reached home.

Capturing the eye in the sky

Eruption at Sunset

An idyllic sunset

The golden orb sets

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Madurai

This post is on the most impromptu long distance trip that I have ever done. There are times when surprises crop up and this was one and a pleasant one at that. I am not very religious, but it was as if Meenakshi Amman wanted an audience with us. I am talking about our trip to the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Madurai had always been on my wish list. We were in Madurai for exactly one day. Chitra who is a very good friend was driving down to Rajapalayam which is 2 hours away from Madurai to shoot a wedding on a saturday in December last and we decided to join in till Madurai.

Journey

We started from Bangalore at 6.30 AM on a foggy morning. We managed to cross Hosur and stop for breakfast at Shree Krishna restaurant a little after Hosur around 8 AM. We ended up spending around 45 minutes as our food was served late. Traffic was pretty reasonable and we did not manage to go fast till we crossed Salem. After this the drive was a breeze. There were hardly any vehicles and we zipped through the awesome highway. After crossing Karur and Dindigul, the hills which were bathed in sunlight loomed into our view.

We reached Madurai around 1 in the afternoon. Nagesh had booked a room at Hotel Madurai Residency the previous day. So we headed towards the hotel which was located close to the Meenakshi temple. The hotel had a rooftop restaurant on the seventh floor from which there was a good view of the city as well as the gopurams of Meenkashi temple.

Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace

As this was a last-minute trip, I had not managed to spend time finding out about the places to visit. One of our friends Lakshmi who is an avid travel blogger helped us in this regard. She told us not to miss the Thirumalai Nayakkar palace. The palace was built during the 17th century and the construction took 15 years of time. In its hey days the magnificent palace was considered to be one of the wonders of the south. Today only a quarter of the original palace is intact. The remaining three-quarters of palace were destroyed and today the place has been eaten up by houses and shops. The King Thirumalai Nayak hired an Italian architect to build this palace. He wanted the palace to be the grandest in South India.

The entrance to the palace is via the courtyard which is flanked by huge pillars built using the mud from the Mariamman Tank in Madurai. The ornate walls and ceiling of the palace adds to the grandeur. The frescoes that adorn the top of the pillars are majestic. The two main sections of this portion of the palace were the Swarga Vilas and the Ranga Vilas. Swarga Vilas faces the courtyard and was the place where the King would be seated with his family and the general audience would be in the courtyard. Ranga Vilas was the dance hall. Today it serves as a museum of artifacts. We had hired a guide and he explained about the palace to us. He informed us that the song ‘Kehna hi Kya‘ from Maniratnam’s movie ‘Bombay‘ was shot here.

Pillars of Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace

Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace

From pillar to pillar

Ornate roof of Nayakkar Palace

Swarga Vilas in Nayakkar Palace

Ranga Vilas in Nayakkar Palace

The palace is open from 9 AM to 5 PM. There is a light and sound show at 6.45 PM in English and the next show is sometime around 8 PM in Tamil. As we were pretty impressed by the palace we decided to watch the show. The content of the entire show proved to be boring. However we sat through till the end just to watch the lit palace. We felt that there was no story as such to entertain for such a long time. But I would still recommend it just to watch the lighting. Another point to note is that this place seemed to be infested with mosquitoes at least when we were there. We repented that we had left behind the mosquito repellant in the hotel room.

Lit up Symmetry

Multicolor Pillars

Meenakshi Temple

The 16th century Meenakshi Amman Temple was one of the contenders in the top 30 nominations for the new seven wonders of the world. People from all over come to Madurai to visit the temple. We decided to visit the temple early in the morning around 6.30 to beat the crowd. The temple has 5 main towers. There is one large tower on each of North, West and South directions while the East has two towers. Apart from these there are four smaller towers. We entered the temple via the North tower. The towers are very colourful and adorned with idols of gods, animals, demons and dragon like creatures. We hired a guide to go around. Normally at temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati you need to visit the Shiva shrine first. But here Goddess Meenakshi (literally translates to the one whose eyes are in the shape of a fish) has to be prayed to before Lord Shiva. The sacred temple tank also called as the lotus pond is serene. The architecture in the passage (especially the pillars in the shape of horses) had a striking resemblance to Vijayanagara architecture.

Madurai Meenakshi temple

South Gopuram of Meenakshi Temple

Corridors of the Madurai Meenakshi Temple

Madurai Meenakshi Temple Courtyard and Gopurams

Paintings on the roof at Meenakshi Temple

Vijayanagara Architecture at Meenakshi temple

We headed inside to pay our obeisance to Goddess Meenakshi. The darshan would be at 7.30 AM. We purchased the entrance tickets and stood in the queue for a little over half an hour as we were early. People were let inside in batches and fortune had it that we were right at the front of the line (in our batch of people). The idol of the Goddess is of black stone and has a charm of its own. We next went into the shrine of Lord Shiva, called as God Sundareswar in this temple. Here again we managed to get a glimpse of the idol from close quarters.

We then proceeded to the huge monolithic Ganesha idol. The idol is believed to have been found buried in the ground below Mariamman Tank. While digging this place to get the mud for construction of the Nayakkar palace, the idol was found and reinstated in the temple. There is a sculpture depicting the marriage of Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Shiva with Lord Vishnu handing over the Goddess (legend has it that Meenakshi is the sister of Vishnu). Another statue worth mention is that of the King Thirumalai welcoming people to the temple along with his two wives. There is an idol of Nandi too with a golden flagstaff nearby. Both the main Shrines have gold gopurams which can be partly seen from a certain point in the courtyard near the North tower as well as from near the lotus pond.

Vishnu handing over Meenakshi to Shiva

Meenakshi temple at Madurai

Nandi at Meenakshi Temple

Ganesha idol at Meenakshi Temple

We then went to buy some prasadam. As we were buying only Laddoos, the guy at the counter asked us to try some vada too. We bought vadas to eat there itself. And the Vada turned out to be extremely lip smacking. It was hot, crispy and just melted in our mouths :) We decided to skip going for breakfast to Meenkashi Bhavan restaurant which had been recommended by a friend and settled for more vadas and sweet pongal which was also very delicious.

What else to do in Madurai

We had the “Jigar Thanda” which is a popular drink in Madurai. It was super delicious. We felt that it was molten Kulfi with a dollop of solid Kulfi and some Kishmish sprinkled in it. Unfortunately we forgot to take a picture in the excitement of having it and the shop was closed when we went back the next day :(

We bought Madurai Cotton Sarees from one of the shops near the North tower of the Meenkashi temple.

The older area at the city centre is congested with very narrow streets and the traffic is too unruly and chaotic. We did not attempt to walk here though both the temple and the palace were pretty close to our hotel.

Some of the other places that we saw were the St.Mary’s Cathedral and the Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam (Mariamman Tank) which had dried up completely. The Mariamman Tank is the biggest in Tamil Nadu. We decided to skip the Gandhi museum as we did not want to exert ourselves too much.

St. Mary's Cathedral in Madurai

Mariamman Teppakulam in Madurai

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Hills of Kumaon

A journey to the hills is always refreshing. A post on an exciting and memorable journey to the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. This was our third visit to Uttarakhand the first two being to Mussoorie and Valley of Flowers. This was our first visit to the Kumaon region. More specifically we went to the lake district of Nainital.

Journey
We took the afternoon flight from Bangalore to Delhi followed by the overnight train journey to Kathgodam which serves as a gateway to Kumaon. The Ranikhet Express was bang on time and we reached around 5 AM. We had booked rooms in Club Mahindra Dancing Waters Resort at Naukuchiatal which was around 35 kms from Kathgodham. The resort had arranged for a cab to pick us up. We reached Naukuchiatal just as it was getting light.

Club Mahindra Dancing Waters Resort
This resort is located midway up a hillock overlooking the Naukuchiatal lake (which gets its name due to its nine corners). A 5 minute walk leads on to the lake. The rooms are cozy and well furnished. The garden is very colourful.

Club Mahindra Dancing Waters

Playground

The staff was a delight throughout our stay and made us feel at home. The food in the restaurant was also good and the Head Chef would drop by to talk to all guests and take their feedback and inputs. The front desk people were friendly especially Manoj and Varsha who was cheerful and giving us tidbits of information about the place that she had gathered from guests since she herself had come to Nakuchiatal recently. Alok from the travel desk was also helpful in arranging transport to places that we wanted to visit. Arun who waited upon us most of the times in the restaurant was another cheerful person who did his job to perfection I can say!

We got a room on the ground floor overlooking the garden. It was a pleasure for us to sit on the divan next to the french windows and watch birds in action from the comforts of our room! We sighted the Himalayan Bulbuls, Blue Whistling Thrush, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Grey Bushchat, Verditer Flycatcher, Streaked Laughing Thrush, Grey-hooded Warbler, Scarlet Minivet, Grey Treepie, Oriental White-eye and the Red-billed Blue Magpie.

Naukuchiatal
The place gets its name due to the large Naukuchiatal lake. It is a popular local belief that a person who can spot all the nine corners of the lake together will attain salvation. The waves in the lake change direction at different times of the day. Colourful boats and Shikaras adorn the lake. The lake is adorned by hills and looks serene.

Which boat for you?

We took a boat ride along the lake for half an hour.The boatsman was an old gentleman of seventy who claimed that he was the oldest and most experienced (sabse sayana in his own words). He showed us the corners of the lake and mentioned that the water levels had gone down this year due to a not so effective monsoon.

Experience

Leaning over

Solitude

We had seen the beautiful Hanuman temple en-route the resort. It was just a 5 minute walk away and we spent some time here. It is hard to miss the towering statue of Lord Hanuman. The temple complex is pretty large and has multiple shrines dedicated to various other gods and goddesses. There is an artificial cave in addition to all this. The whole place has been done up very nicely. This temple has been constructed by Mauni Ma who is a disciple of Neem Karauli Baba of Kainchi. An elderly gentleman told us that Mauni Ma has been on a vow of silence for the last 60+ years and she is around 95 years old.

Hanuman

A walk in the hills is very soothing. We went along the road up the hillock that goes past the resort towards the lake. We passed by a beautiful house belonging to an admiral. The garden was dotted with marble statues and filled with colourful flowers. What a place to stay! The view of the lake was great along this stretch of the path and we stopped for a brief while near the KMVN Parichay guesthouse to watch birds. The KMVN hotels and guesthouses are located at very good spots and not too hard on the purse. Overall a good option to consider for any trips to this region! The trail ended at Lake resort next to KMVN which seemed a good place too.

Bhimtal
A short drive of around 7 kms from the resort leads to Bhimtal town named after Bhima of Mahabharata. It is a belief that Bhima had visited this place during the vanvas or exile period.The Bhimtal Lake is huge with an aquarium on a tiny island in the centre. An ancient Shiva temple is located on one side of the lake.

Approach

Parking Lot

Headed back

Drawing a line

Alice fell through here into Wonderland

On a hillock near the lake is a butterfly research centre and museum. A room of a 150 year old British Bungalow located in the Jones Estate houses a huge collection of butterflies and moths. The Smetacek family has been into butterfly collection and research since 1949 when Victor Smetacek a retired Forest Councillor arrived here from Germany. Today Peter Smetacek (the grandson of the founder) and his wife Rajini Smetacek continue to do the research. Rajini explained about the various butterflies and moths ranging from beautiful to poisonous to largest to smallest.

Saattal

Saattal is a collection of seven lakes which are named after various characters from the Ramayana. It is more popular as a tourist destination as compared to either Bhimtal or Naukuchiatal. Saattal beyond just the lake is considered one of the birding hotspots and you may have read about birding around Saattal in one of my previous posts. Given that the place was crowded, atleast relatively speaking, we did not spend much time here beyond the cursory stop to take in the scenery. Some of the “activities” here were a little funny including a farcical zip-lining near one of the bridges on the lake, especially for us having done the real deal at Jodhpur. Near Saattal lake was the Saattal estate within which we spotted a large cross. What a final resting place for someone!

Activities at Saattal lake

What a final resting place!

Ghorakhal
Ghorakhal is a quaint little town near Bhowali whose name translates to a pond of water for horses. We went to visit the famous Golu Devata Temple here. Golu Devata is the mythological god of Kumaon region and believed to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva. The temple seemed to be filled with brass bells of various sizes. An old man in the temple courtyard told us that people have been tying bells here for more than a hundred years. When the wishes of the devotees come true they come back and offer the bells. There is a shop at the main entrance to the temple where bells can be purchased.

Bells adorn every available spot

Mukteshwar
The town of Mukteshwar will be familiar to all Jim Corbett fans as he mentions them in some of his stories. It gets its name due to the 350 year old Shiva temple located here. It took us close to two hours to cover the 54 km distance from Naukuchiatal. The town is surrounded by dense forest. Some old British houses and a Church can be seen here. The Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) is also present here.

A house on the edge

A unique feature of the terrain here is the overhanging cliffs next to the temple complex called Chaulli ki Jaali. We took a walk in the wooded area next to the temple along with a guide to go watch some nice views. There are a lot of Deodar trees here. For the real adventurous lot there is rock climbing near the cliffs. Apparently the local women who are childless have to pass through the bizarre opening in the cliffs and nets are spread around to prevent any falls during the annual fair.

Sinister plans?

Chaulli ki Jaali

For the foodies a good place here is the Bisht Mishthan Bhandar where one can inform an hour or two in advance and get some home cooked food. We tasted Bal Mithai and Choklate which are famous sweets of Kumaon and they did not fail to disappoint us.

Choklate being prepared by Bishtji

Nainital
Nainital is a famous hill station of Kumaon. It is believed that Sati’s eyes fell on this place by which the place got its name. Our first stop here was at the view-point just outside the city on the road to Pangot. We reached around 10 AM by which time the fog and clouds had built up hiding the Himalayan peaks behind them. We then walked on for nearly a kilometre to reach the snow view-point. On the way we saw lots of tiny birds like Warblers and Tits chirping. Devoid of tourists as the season was yet to begin this place looked so empty. We climbed a small hillock to get some views of the surrounding.

After spending some time here we headed for a cable car ride that took barely 5 minutes and dropped us on Mall Road. It was lunch time and we were glad to see that the restaurant that I wanted to go to was right next door to where we had gotten off the cable car. Sakley’s is an old and popular restaurant famous for its pastries and momos/dumplings. Started by a Swiss confectioner and then acquired by an Indian family this restaurant has two other branches at Gurgaon and London. The pastries lived up to their expectation and we had a sumptuous lunch.

As the crow sees

Sinful Blueberry Cheesecake

We took a walk along the banks of the Naini Lake. Hawkers were busy trying to sell clothes, toys and other nick knacks. The Boat House had an elegant look and members of the Nainital Boat Club can avail the facility of yachting in the lake. Overlooking the lake is the Bara Bazaar and the Tibetan Market which is the place for shoppers to head to. Nearby are Naina Devi Temple and the Masjid. An old cinema house called Capitol Cinema can be seen though I doubt if it still serves its original purpose.

One fine day at Naini Lake

The chosen one

We visited the temple and paid our obeisance to Goddess Naina Devi. Then came some shopping for the famous candles of Nainital. We then crossed Mall road in search of Mamu Halwai shop to taste Bal Mithai for which it is famous. The narrow roads of the old city had their own charm and we enjoyed the walk. The Bal Mithai was an ample reward for our walk.

Naina Devi Temple

Next on the cards was the St.John in the Wilderness Church which is the oldest church in that region and built during the British era. Today the church wears a some what dilapidated look but is beautiful nonetheless. Opposite the church is the elegant British era building housing the High Court.

St. John in the Wilderness

Gagar
A tiny village in Ramgarh Orchards en route Mukteshwar. The Nanda Devi and Trishul Peaks can be seen from here and a sneak peek into the Yamunotri and Gangotri peaks is also possible. When we went to Mukteshwar we reached this village around 11 AM and managed to barely see a small portion of the peaks as clouds and sunlight had already engulfed them.

Our driver advised us to come back early in the morning around 5.30 AM and catch a glimpse of the peaks before and after sunrise. We followed his advice and were duly rewarded. It was a heavenly sight! We spent close to 3 hours gazing at the beautiful scene.

Folds of earth

The mountains bring peace

The fruit trees in the orchards along the slopes of the hillock in this village are in full bloom during Spring (April till June). ApplesOrangesPeaches and Walnuts grow here. We only got to see the dried up trees. The area was rife with Birds and we enjoyed watching them. A Verditer Flycatcher seemed to be watching the Himalayan peaks from atop a tree!

Jungliya Village Road
We went on the road to Jungliya village which is a deviation off the main road close to the resort. The winding road up the hill resulted in beautiful views of both Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal lakes as well as a distant view of Nainital city.

A tale of two lakes

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Kumaon Birding Diaries – Pangot and Around

The second post on birding in Kumaon region of Uttarakhand state. This time it was Pangot, Binayak and Timlapani which are beyond Nainital and nestled high up in the hills. This one day trip led us to some amazing places which we would not have heard of, let alone going there, if not for birding. The unparalleled beauty of some of the places that we saw will remain etched in our memories forever. Makes us so thankful to our avian friends! As mentioned in my previous post on Saattal, we stayed in Naukuchiatal and our birding guide was Sunil whom we found through Birdingpal.

Pangot

Pangot is a small village situated beyond Nainital. Our cab arrived at 4.30 AM as it would take us one hour to reach Nainital and we wanted to be near Pangot by sunrise. We picked up Sunil from Nainital around 5.30 AM and proceeded towards Pangot. The view-point just outside Nainital proved disappointing as it was foggy and the clouds blocked a view of the Himalayan peaks. We crossed Pangot and headed towards Binayak high up in the hills. Our first sightings were that of Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and the Grey-winged Blackbird. Light was pretty bad and we managed to get only a record shot of the Thrush.

Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush

The hills looked so enchanting with fog rising up and the clouds rolling over seemed to envelope and engulf the hills. We felt lucky that we had come to this out of the world place solely because of our birdwatching hobby. Completely off the tourist radar, this place is a total contrast to the crowded hill stations.

Envelope and Engulf

Clouds roll over

Binayak

As we went past Binayak, we saw a couple of Eurasian Jays foraging on the road. We stopped the car and Nagesh got out slowly and started walking ahead. One of the Jays seemed so fearless and came closer and closer inquisitively it seemed :) It posed beautifully for the camera! Visibility was improving gradually but the fog kept rolling over at regular intervals.

Eurasian Jay

Down the winding road

At the next spot where we stopped there were plenty of birds. Sightings here included Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Hill Partridge, Ultramarine Flycatcher and Rufous Sibia. We saw plenty of women walking along the path to climb the hills and cut grass. As the birds would have got disturbed already by the arrival of the women, we decided that it was no use going further up.

A touch of light

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker

Rufous Sibia

All in a day's work

On our way back we waited at a spot frequented by the Pheasants. While we heard the Koklass pheasant loud and clear from down in the valley, no amount of craning our necks gave us any clue as to where the pheasants were. Disappointed we started walking back. The surroundings looked so ethereal. Brightly colored flowers are abundant in this state in the wild. They enhance the beauty of the hills.

Lavender delight

Two colors

Hiding

As the fog gradually blocked our complete view, we stopped at a tea stall between Binayak and Pangot. There were plenty of Yellow-breasted Greenfinches flitting about right next to the stall. We were shivering as it was so cold and the tea really helped us to keep warm. As we were sipping tea, a guy arrived in a jeep and told Sunil that we had just missed a very good sighting of the shy and elusive Koklass Pheasant. Apparently it was on the main path and stood confused for a good five minutes looking at the jeep. What an opportunity had been denied to us! But then that is birding for you. They, i.e., the birds, decide when they can be seen and when not!

Yellow-breasted Green Finch

We went back to Pangot to have some breakfast. We stopped at Raj restaurant which seemed to be the one and only general store cum restaurant in this tiny hamlet. We had some amazing Maggi and tea here. There were a handful of huts and a tiny post office.

Timlapani

Our next destination was Timlapani which can be reached by taking the only other road (path really!) in Pangot off from the main road. On the way we spotted Scarlet Minivet, Black-headed Jay, Grey Bushchat, Ashy Drongo, Long-tailed Shrike and the Himalayan Woodpecker.

Black-headed Jay

Ashy Drongo

Timlapani is a small hamlet. There is a waterfall here and a small shrine next to it. The view was spoilt by some men washing carpets used at functions. Probably the running water on the road made their job easier. As we walked along the cluster of houses we spotted a Siberian Stonechat, Streaked Laughingthrush, Himalayan Cuckoo, Common Babbler and Common Kestrel. Every home here had some ferocious looking dogs who did not like our entry into their territory. They followed us for some distance and then decided that it was safe to let us be.

Siberian Stonechat (female)

Streaked Laughingthrush

On our way back to Pangot we saw Red-billed Blue Magpies foraging on the road. As we stopped and started walking towards a cluster of trees we sighted a Great Barbet. Further up we saw a Grey-headed Woodpecker and a pair of Brown-fronted Woodpeckers. The fog was rising again and we decided to head back.

Great Barbet

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Brown-fronted Woodpecker

We stopped briefly for some tea at Pangot. Nagesh sighted a Black Eagle for a brief moment soaring high up in the mist. Sunil decided to give a shot to Kilbury. But the visibility seemed to be worsening. There was absolutely no activity at Kilbury. The place looked so beautiful bathed in fog. Naini Lake was also engulfed by the fog and we got a beautiful view of it as we went towards Nainital. We reached Nainital by 3.30 PM and were back at Naukuchiatal around 4.30 PM. A good day of birding had come to an end!

From Darkness to Light

Naini Lake

Nainital

On the next day we went with our family to Nainital. Our cab driver suggested that we go to the view-point which is on the Pangot road and then walk on the trail to the Snow View point which is nearby. We could then take the cable car down to mall road where he would be waiting for us. Nagesh had left his 400 mm lens which he uses for birding in the car and was carrying his other lens. As we walked on the trail to Snow View point we saw plenty of bird activity in a cluster of trees next to the path. There were lot of tiny birds like Tits and Warblers. Nagesh repented not having got his lens and rushed back towards the car. Unfortunately by the time he was back all the small birds had gone away. However there is a silver lining in every cloud. In this case he got a Streaked Laughingthrush and a Black-headed Jay at extremely close quarters. He also got a picture of the Bonelli’s Eagle which glided past the clump of trees and disappeared from view the next moment.

Streaked Laughingthrush

Black-headed Jay

Bonelli's Eagle

Bird Log

Common Name Species Family
Thrush, Chestnut-bellied Rock Monticola rufiventris Muscicapidae
Blackbird, Grey-winged Turdus boulboul Turdidae
Jay, Eurasian Garrulus glandarius Corvidae
Woodpecker, Rufous-bellied Dendrocopos hyperythrus Picidae
Partridge, Hill Arborophila torqueola Phasianidae
Flycatcher, Ultramarine Ficedula superciliaris Muscicapidae
Sibia, Rufous Heterophasia capistrata Timaliidae
Greenfinch, Yellow-breasted Carduelis spinoides Fringillidae
Minivet, Scarlet Pericrocotus flammeus Campephagidae
Jay, Black-headed Garrulus lanceolatus Corvidae
Bushchat, Grey Saxicola ferreus Muscicapidae
Drongo, Ashy Dicrurus leucophaeus Dicruridae
Shrike, Long-tailed Lanius schach Laniidae
Woodpecker, Himalayan Dendrocopos himalayensis Picidae
Stonechat, Siberian Saxicola maurus Muscicapidae
Laughingthrush, Streaked Garrulax lineatus Timaliidae
Cuckoo, Himalayan Cuculus saturatus Cuculidae
Kestrel, Common Falco tinnunculus Falconidae
Babbler, Common Turdoides caudata Timaliidae
Magpie, Red-billed Blue Urocissa erythrorhyncha Corvidae
Barbet, Great Megalaima virens Megalaimidae
Woodpecker, Grey-headed Picus canus Picidae
Woodpecker, Brown-fronted Dendrocopos auriceps Picidae
Eagle, Black Ictinaetus malayensis Accipitridae
Eagle, Bonelli’s Aquila fasciata Accipitridae
Tit, Green-backed Parus monticolus Paridae
Warbler, Grey-hooded Phylloscopus xanthoschistos Phylloscopidae
Treepie, Grey Dendrocitta formosae Corvidae
Bulbul, Himalayan Pycnonotus leucogenys Pycnonotidae
Pheasant, Koklass (heard) Pucrasia macrolopha Phasianidae
Pipit, Upland (heard) Anthus sylvanus Motacillidae
Francolin, Black (heard) Francolinus francolinus Phasianidae
Tit, Black-lored Parus xanthogenys Paridae
Parakeet, Slaty-headed Psittacula himalayana Psittaculidae
Flycatcher, Verditer Eumyias thalassinus Muscicapidae
Pheasant, Kalij Lophura leucomelanos Phasianidae
Laughingthrush, White-throated Garrulax albogularis Timaliidae
Wagtail, White-browed Motacilla maderaspatensis Motacillidae
Dove, Oriental Turtle Streptopelia orientalis Columbidae
Dove, Spotted Spilopelia chinensis Columbidae
Drongo, Black Dicrurus macrocercus Dicruridae
Minivet, Long-tailed Pericrocotus ethologus Campephagidae
Tit, Black-throated Aegithalos concinnus Aegithalidae
Thrush, Blue Whistling Myophonus caeruleus Turdidae
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Kumaon Birding Diaries – Saattal and Around

This was our first trip to Kumaon. Almost all species that we sighted were first timers for us. We stayed for a week at Club Mahindra Dancing Waters resort in Naukuchiatal. We had arranged for birding for two days at Saattal and Pangot with Sunil Kumar whom we found on birdingpal.

Naukuchiatal

The resort and surroundings itself had many birds whom we watched daily. As soon as we got our room, a pair of Himalayan Bulbuls came outside our window. It was a treat watching the couple who seemed to be having a gala time. The other birds that we saw here were Black Kite, Blue Whistling Thrush, Scarlet Minivet, Grey Treepie, Grey Bushchat, Oriental White-eye, Grey-hooded Warbler, Verditer Flycatcher, Streaked Laughingthrush and Dark-sided Flycatcher. On the day that we left a group of Red-billed Blue Magpies came to bid us farewell.

A little tete-a-tete. In conversation with a flower

Black Kite

Scarlet Minivet

Grey Treepie

Female Grey Bushchat

Grey-hooded Warbler

Dark-sided Flycatcher

Red-billed Blue Magpie

Coincidentally the Ruskin Bond book on Legends and Folk tales of India that I had taken with me during the trip had an interesting folk tale about the Blue Whistling Thrush. Having seen this bird I could relate to the story which goes like this. It was a hot summer day and Lord Krishna was wandering in a dense forest. He found a nice place near a stream and slept off under the shade of the trees. He was woken by a tuneless sound being played by someone on his flute. He was annoyed to find an urchin boy dressed in rags trying to play his flute. Since it was a sacred object that belonged to him he cursed the boy to suffer for 10,000 years. The boy pleaded and told Krishna that he was a fan of him and intended to learn music from him. Krishna felt bad for the boy but there was no way in which he could revoke the curse. He consulted Lord Brahma and reduced the effect of the curse. The boy would always try to play a tune but he would never be able to complete it. The boy begged that he be allowed to stay forever in the forest as it was dear to him. Krishna agreed and the boy was transformed into a Blue Whistling Thrush. The Blue colour being attributed to Krishna! This explains why the Thrush starts off a tune beautifully but stops in between as though it forgot the tune.

Blue Whistling Thrush

Gagar and Ramgarh

Gagar is a tiny hamlet on the road from Bhowali to Mukteshwar and an hour’s drive from Naukuchiatal. We went there early in the morning around 5.30 AM to try our luck and catch a glimpse of the Himalayan peaks. We were duly rewarded with beautiful views of the peaks getting lit by sunlight during sunrise. A lone Verditer Flycatcher seemed to be giving us company in watching the peaks as it was perched atop a bare tree facing the peaks. A Black Eagle was soaring high up in the sky and we managed to get a brief glimpse before it glided down the hill. We stopped for breakfast at a village close to Ramgarh. There were plenty of birds around. The sightings included Rufous Sibia, White-tailed Nuthatch, Great Barbet, Whiskered Yuhina, Oriental White-eye, Common Sparrow, Russet Sparrow and Grey Bushchat. A group of Rhesus Macaques were also seen on the road.

Rufous Sibia

White-tailed Nuthatch

Great Barbet

Whiskered Yuhina

Rhesus Macaque

Saattal

Our guide Sunil arrived promptly at our resort at 5.30 AM to pick us up for birding around Saattal. He had arranged for an Alto car for us. Off we went on a day which proved to be memorable though at the end of the day Sunil was a bit dejected as we had not managed to see too many species. We were nevertheless happy to have gotten to see so many new species in a single day. A few words about Sunil. He is very knowledgable on birds and having been born and brought up in Nainital, knows the area like the back of his hand including the right spots to go for birds! He was super friendly and wonderful to get along with! It was a delight to go birding with such a wonderful person.

Our first stop was on the road that leads to Saattal. We watched the sun rise and light started getting better. Till then we had heard the chirping of birds but not been able to take pictures due to low light. We sighted Crimson Sunbird, Grey Bushchat, White-throated Fantail, Himalayan Bulbul, Grey Treepie, Great Barbet, Black Bulbul, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Black Drongo, Verditer Flycatcher, Scarlet Minivet, Grey-hooded Warbler, Black-lored Tit and Slaty-headed Parakeet.

Black Bulbul

Brown-fronted Woodpecker

Black-lored tit

As we approached Saattal we saw 2-3 Kalij Pheasants duck for cover. These birds are extremely shy and seldom venture out for long in the open. We just managed to get a glimpse and some shaky pictures. Sunil spotted a Bar-tailed Treecreeper which was brilliantly camouflaged against the tree bark. A solitary Slaty-headed Parakeet was perched high atop a tree. Throughout our birding we saw plenty of these Parakeets but did not manage to get pictures as they were too fast.

Bar-tailed Treecreeper

We stopped near the Hanuman tal just before Saattal lake. After a brief walk we crossed a stream and sat on rocks near the water waiting for the birds to arrive. According to Sunil around 50 species of birds could be seen here. But we were not so lucky. We spent a good 2 hours here. The birds that came here were the Green-backed Tit, Ultramarine Flycatacher, Verditer Flycatcher and the Oriental Turtle Dove.

Ultramarine Flycatcher

Verditer Flycatcher

Oriental Turtle Dove

We walked a bit into the woods around Hanuman Tal. Sightings here were of a Common Kingfisher, Dark-sided Flycatcher and an Ashy Drongo. We sighted a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher too but it was a fleeting glance only.

Common Kingfisher

Ashy Drongo

A walk in the Saattal estate proved to be in vain as we did not see any birds. We decided to have breakfast and go to Chanfi. Breakfast was lip-smacking Parathas at Humble restaurant near the fork in the road leading to Saattal while coming from Bhimtal.

Chanfi

On the way to Chanfi we stopped near a stream. The area was wooded on both sides of the road and teeming with birds. We saw the Red-billed Blue Magpie, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Greater Yellownape, Striated Laughing-thrush, White-crested Laughing-thrush and a Blue Whistling Thrush. A Slaty-backed Forktail and Grey Wagtail were foraging for food in the stream. As we were about to head back to the car we saw an Asian Barred Owlet. It was very cute and made Nagesh run around from one side of the road to the other like a tennis ball before he managed to get its picture :)

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Greater Yellownape

Striated Laughingthrush

White-crested Laughingthrush

Slaty-backed Forktail

Grey Wagtail

Asian Barred Owlet

The next halt was at Chanfi. The village was scenic and we walked by the banks of the river. As there was a noisy group near the river, all birds seemed to have gone away. We managed to spot only a Scaly-breasted Munia and a Red-vented Bulbul.

Kainchi

The last place for the day was Kainchi. We walked into the wooded area around the Kainchi Dham temple. We saw the Plumbeous Redstart, Spotted Forktail and a Brown Dipper in the stream. A Besra landed on one of the trees as we were walking. Further up the path were cabbage fields that had been abandoned by the people due to the prevailing Langur menace. The Langurs were present and running around. We spent some time here and saw a Grey Bushchat at close quarters. A good day of birding had come to an end. We were back at the resort by 4.30 in the evening ready for tea and food!

Plumbeous Water Redstart

Spotted Forktail

Brown Dipper

Besra

Gray Langur

Grey Bushchat
Bird Log

Common Name Species Family
Bulbul, Himalayan Pycnonotus leucogenys Pycnonotidae
Thrush, Blue Whistling Myophonus caeruleus Turdidae
Minivet, Scarlet Pericrocotus flammeus Campephagidae
Treepie, Grey Dendrocitta formosae Corvidae
Bushchat, Grey Saxicola ferreus Muscicapidae
White-eye, Oriental Zosterops palpebrosus Zosteropidae
Warbler, Grey-hooded Phylloscopus xanthoschistos Phylloscopidae
Flycatcher, Verditer Eumyias thalassinus Muscicapidae
Flycatcher, Dark-sided Muscicapa sibirica Muscicapidae
Laughingthrush, Streaked Garrulax lineatus Timaliidae
Magpie, Red-billed Blue Urocissa erythrorhyncha Corvidae
Sunbird, Crimson Aethopyga siparaja Nectariniidae
Fantail, White-throated Rhipidura albicollis Rhipiduridae
Barbet, Great Megalaima virens Megalaimidae
Bulbul, Black Hypsipetes leucocephalus Pycnonotidae
Woodpecker, Grey-headed Picus canus Picidae
Woodpecker, Brown-fronted Dendrocopos auriceps Picidae
Drongo, Black Dicrurus macrocercus Dicruridae
Parakeet, Slaty-headed Psittacula himalayana Psittaculidae
Tit, Black-lored Parus xanthogenys Paridae
Pheasant, Kalij Lophura leucomelanos Phasianidae
Treecreeper, Bar-tailed Certhia himalayana Certhiidae
Tit, Green-backed Parus monticolus Paridae
Flycatcher, Ultramarine Ficedula superciliaris Muscicapidae
Dove, Oriental Turtle Streptopelia orientalis Columbidae
Kingfisher, Common Alcedo atthis Alcedinidae
Drongo, Ashy Dicrurus leucophaeus Dicruridae
Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Culicicapa ceylonensis Stenostiridae
Yellownape, Greater Picus flavinucha Picidae
Laughingthrush, Striated Garrulax striatus Timaliidae
Laughingthrush, White-crested Garrulax leucolophus Timaliidae
Forktail, Slaty-backed Enicurus schistaceus Muscicapidae
Wagtail, Grey Motacilla cinerea Motacillidae
Owlet, Asian Barred Glaucidium cuculoides Strigidae
Munia, Scaly-breasted Lonchura punctulata Estrildidae
Bulbul, Red-vented Pycnonotus cafer Pycnonotidae
Redstart, Plumbeous Rhyacornis fuliginosa Muscicapidae
Forktail, Spotted Enicurus maculatus Muscicapidae
Dipper, Brown Cinclus pallasii Cinclidae
Besra Accipiter virgatus Accipitridae
Eagle, Black Ictinaetus malayensis Accipitridae
Sibia, Rufous Heterophasia capistrata Timaliidae
Nuthatch, White-tailed Sitta himalayensis Sittidae
Sparrow, House Passer domesticus Passeridae
Sparrow, Russet Passer rutilans Passeridae
Yuhina, Whiskered Yuhina flavicollis Zosteropidae
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Mashobra

A post on a trip down the memory lane. The small village of Mashobra in Himachal is not commonly known but it is a hidden gem of importance. It is one of the Presidential retreats. The first time we heard about this place was when Club Mahindra opened their new resort here by renovating the historical Gables Hotel. We decided to head here for a week in July of 2009. The main draw for us was that this place is around 30 kms outside the bustling city of Shimla.

Journey

We took the morning flight to Delhi and reached around noon. After having lunch at my aunt’s place, we took the evening Shatabdi train to Chandigarh where we would stay overnight. We took a Cab sent from the resort the next morning to head to Mashobra. It took us a good 5-6 hours to reach there. An alternate would have been taking the Shatabdi right up till Kalka and then the Shimla-Kalka toy train.

Gables Mashobra

Club Mahindra Whispering Pines is located in the quaint village of Mashobra. The Gables Mashobra hotel which had hosted the British during the days of the Raj was refurbished by Club Mahindra into the resort. One set of rooms in the resort face the valley and offer splendid views of the pine forests and the distant peaks of the Himalayas on a clear day. The rooms were beautifully done and we felt very comfortable during our entire stay. We had the luxury of watching the sun rise over the valley from the comfort of our bed thanks to the huge windows facing the valley. The food was also good and our appetites were fully satisfied.The staff did a good job of making some creative towel art almost every day.

Club Mahindra Whispering Pines

A view from the window

Waiting

View of HImalayan peaks

Sunrise

Walk amidst the Pines

We went for a walk around the resort on one of the evenings. There is an old church in a clearing on a small hillock amidst the pines opposite the resort. The church is surrounded by beautiful decorative flowering plants. The giant trees might have been centuries old. It was a pleasant experience to walk amidst their shade. We waited for sunset and were duly rewarded. The Sun looked so red and the sunset was beautiful.

Church amidst the pines

Red evening

Hatu Peak

This peak near Narkanda is 3400 mts above ground level. A 3 hour drive from Mashobra. The final stretch of climbing up Hatu peak was extremely adventurous as the road was extremely narrow and winding. Only one vehicle could pass at a time and we were praying that no other vehicle comes on the opposite side :) As we were early we were the only ones at the top of the peak. The views from the top are majestic and the drive was worth it. A small shrine was being built there when we went.

3400+ mtrs high, the world is a different place

Near Narkanda we saw a few Apple orchards. Unfortunately due to a delayed monsoon, the apple crop wasn’t its normal self that particular year.

Apple Orchards

Hatkoti

The farthest place that we went to during this trip was the village of Hatkoti which is 100+ kms from Shimla. This village has an ancient temple complex dedicated to Goddess Durga. The route that we took was Shimla-Rohru road that passes through Theog, Kotkhai, Khara Pathar and Hatkoti. The terrain kept changing throughout this route. We passed through greenery followed by rain shadow areas that were totally dry. Lunch was at a dhaba in Khara Pathar and the food was so delicious. It took us almost 4.5 hours to reach Hatkoti.

Driving up (or down!) the hillside

Livin' on the edge!

The temple is located amidst lush green fields and the Pabber river runs behind it giving the whole place a picturesque look. The temple complex has a main shrine and a series of smaller shrines in the courtyard. The architecture is from the Gupta period and there are no records as to when this temple was built.

Hatkoti Temple Complex Entrance

Hatkoti Temple Complex

Viceregal Lodge

The Viceregal Lodge atop the Observatory hill in Shimla was built by the British in the late 19th century to be used as the Viceroy’s summer residence since Shimla was a popular summer retreat from the Northern plains. After India gained independence the place did not get used much by the Indian presidents. So Dr S.Radhakridshnan donated this building to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study where today post doctoral students especially majoring in philosophy study and reside.

Viceregal Lodge aka Indian Institute of Advanced Studies

A section of this building is open to the public via a guided tour and houses some important artifacts dating from the pre-independence era. The most notable being the round table where the partition of India was formalized. The building is surrounded by lush green gardens and houses trees such as maple and pine. The views of Shimla are nice from here.

Table of Partition

Sankat Mochan Temple

Sankat Mochan temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman is located on the Shimla-Kalka highway. You get very good views of Shimla from the temple courtyard.

Sankat Mochan Temple

Floating in the clouds

Christ Church

The second oldest church built in North India by the British in the late 18th century. Christ church is an iconic landmark of Shimla. This postcard church is located in the heart of the city on the Mall Road. The interior of the church is equally beautiful with the stained glass windows, memorial plaques and the pews.

Christ Church on the Ridge

Mall Road

Like with many other hill stations in the Himalayan belt, Shimla too has a “Mall Road”. The hangout place for the people of Shimla. This is the place to be if you want to be a part of the hustle and bustle of this city. We spent some time walking around here.

Bustling Mall Road

Fire Service on Mall Road

Chail Palace

About 40 kms from Shimla lies the quaint Chail Palace built by the Maharaja of Patiala. Today it is a resort and a small section is open for public. The world’s highest cricket ground is located nearby.

Chail Palace
 

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Goa Beyond the Sun, Sand and the Surf

One of the most touristy places in India. The mini state of Goa where the crowds throng mainly for the beaches and the parties. However there is much more to Goa than these. A fact known to very few is that all the temples of the family deities of our GSB (Gowd Saraswat Brahmin) community are in Goa. We visited Goa for 3 days in March of 2010. Though this was more of a religious visit, we managed to go around North Goa and experience what the place has to offer.

Journey

As all trains were running full on the weekend when we travelled, we had booked a cab for this trip. We left Bangalore early in the morning around 6 and reached Goa around 4 in the evening. The route that we took was BangaloreTumkurShimogaSagaraKumtaKarwar-Goa. A very scenic route this one was. The lush green dense forests of the Western Ghats, the Sharavathi River Valley and a glimpse of the Arabian Sea as well as the Kali River at Karwar were some of the highlights of this route.

Sharavathi Valley

Kali river at Karwar

Damodar Temple

Our trip started with a visit to Shri Damodar temple located in Zambaulim village in South Goa. Lord Damodar (one of the names of Lord Krishna) is the family deity for my parents’ family. The architecture of the temples in Goa is very different compared to those in other parts of South India. Every temple has a beautiful deepa sthan (Tower which is typically lit with earthern lamps or diyas in the evenings). The murals on the walls of the compound looked beautiful. The temple wore a deserted look as a fair had just ended. Most of the people who had gathered had already left. After paying obeisance to the Lord we had a cup of tea along-with some fried snacks in a small shack outside the temple. The sweets in one of the shops next to the shack looked attractive and we did some buying here.

Damodar Temple, Zambaulim

Sweet vendor at Damodar temple

Mahalasa Temple

Shri Mahalasa Narayini Temple in Mardol is one of the most popular temples in Goa. Goddess Mahalasa also called as Mhalshi is the Mohini Avatar of Lord Vishnu and our family deity. We stayed in the rooms in this temple complex. I was awestruck by the beauty of this temple. The Goddess is considered very powerful. Even the Portuguese (when they ruled Goa) supposedly believed in the power of the deity. The story goes that they used to get suspect criminals to the temple and ask them to ring the bell at the temple if they were really innocent and a truly guilty person would not dare to do that. The verdict of this was accepted in the court of law!

Mahalasa Temple, Mardol

Deep Stambh at Mahalasa Temple in the day

We were lucky to be there during the weekend as we got to watch the idol of the Goddess being carried around the temple in a Palakhi or a Palanquin. The colourfully lit deepa sthambh gave the place an ethereal look in the night. It was a pleasant place to laze around. Not to forget the delicious food that we savoured here for each meal. The best way to beat the heat during summer in Goa is to have some Kokum Soda.

Mahalasa Narayani

Deep Stambh at Mahalasa Temple

Looking up at the lit deep stambh

Kokum soda

Mangueshi Temple

One of the largest and richest temples of Goa. The Mangueshi temple is dedicated to Lord mangueshi (an incarnation of Lord Shiva). This temple is located in Mangeshi village which is very close to Mardol. Notable patrons of this deity include the likes of Lata Mangeshkar whose family hails from here.

Mangueshi Temple

Navadurga Temple

Navadurga stands for the nine forms of Goddess Durga. The Navadurga temple is located at Madkai town in Ponda district and about 30 minutes away from Mardol. One of the striking features of this temple are the beautiful pillars.

Navadurga Temple

For those interested in taking a virtual temple trail across Goa, here is some useful link that I found.

Panaji

Panaji aka Panjim is the capital of Goa. We spent some time sauntering here near the waterfront. The streets were dotted with lovely homes and shops. The bridge across Mandovi river could be seen from afar.

India Post at Panjim

Fishing boats on the Mandovi

Pleasure on the Mandovi

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church

A beautiful and immaculate white church which has been used as a location in movies. This church is also one of the oldest churches in Goa and dates back to the 16th century.

Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church, Panjim

Visiting the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church

Inside Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church

Mandovi River Cruise

We went on one of the many cruise boats that ply the Mandovi river in the evenings. To watch the lit city while cruising along the river enjoying the traditional dance being performed by local students was a nice experience.

Lit cruise boats on the Mandovi

We had booked the North Goa Tour starting at Panaji offered by the tourism department. The below places were covered as part of this tour.

Coco Beach

We took a motor boat ride from Coco Beach to try and spot some wild Dolphins. We almost gave up on this as we had not sighted anything for almost an hour. Some of our co-passengers on the boat, especially one i-live-in-the-instant-world lady, were very irritating and started harassing the poor boat guy as they hadn’t seen any dolphins. Phew! They didn’t even seem to understand that these were wild dolphins and wouldn’t come out just because the people in the boat were waiting for them. As we were leaving back for the shore lady luck smiled on us. We spotted some dolphins. They were giving us a brief glimpse every now and then for about 5-10 minutes before they disappeared under the water. Now the complaining lady had a new problem. She had not managed to either see the dolphin or get a picture of it as she was concentrating more on the camera. Divine justice :)

On our way back to the shore we spotted a lone Seagull flying across. We also saw the prison and the palatial mansion of Jimmy Smuggler. Fort Aguada could also be seen at a distance.

A bungalow on the beach

Fort Aguada from Coco beach

Fort Aguada

Fort Aguada is a 17th century fort built by Portuguese. Aguada in Portuguese means Water. The place got this name as it was used for supplying water to the ships passing by it. The fort overlooks the Arabian Sea. It is a popular location for shooting movies.

Fort Aguada

Some more places

A few other places that we visited during this tour were

  • Vetal Maharudra Temple – We visited the Vetal Maharudra temple in Mulgao.

Vetal Maharudra temple

  • Mayem Lake – We stopped at the GTDC resort overlooking the Mayem Lake for lunch. The lake was nothing spectacular and we felt that the restaurant was over priced for the quality of food offered.
  • Anjuna Beach – We spent some time at Anjuna Beach walking and watching the waves crash against the rocks. The water had a reddish tinge here.

Anjuna beach

  • Calangute Beach – This was the last place that we visited as part of the tour. Calangute beach is very popular amongst tourists. It was overcrowded and like any normal beach.
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Hampi. Beyond the ruins.

Hampi. The name brings to mind ruins in stone from the Vijayanagara Kingdom. Music in stone. But Hampi is not just about the Vijayanagara Kingdom and its ruins. Hampi has a side to it that not many know or realize. It has a lot to offer to anyone who loves nature. This post is about the flora and fauna of Hampi.

We heard about the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary for the first time when a new Jungle Lodges resort was opened at Kamalapura near Hampi. We decided to go there with a group of friends towards the end of October 2010 for 4 days. That was going to be enough time to visit the sanctuary as well as explore the ruins of Hampi. I wrote separately on the ruins and if that is what brought you here, here is the link to that post.

JLR Sloth Bear Resort

The resort situated at Kamalapura is set at a very peaceful location. One of the things we liked about the resort was that it has been put in place without altering the “feel” of the surroundings. There are no “artificial” manicured lawns etc. The staff were all wonderful and very helpful. The cottages, like with all JLR resorts were large and spacious. Not exotic by any means but perfect for a peaceful time.

JLR Sloth Bear Resort Hampi

Birds around Kamalapura

We had a surprise in store for us during the whole of this trip. The birds that we saw here will remain in our memories forever. The resort itself is home to quite a few birds. We were welcomed to the resort by Common Hoopoes who seemed to be quite at ease perched on the arch at the entrance of the resort! A Long-tailed Shrike posed for us when we opened the balcony door of our cottage!

Long-tailed Shrike

A Rock Agama near our cottage was almost invisible as its colour blended with that of the rocks and soil around providing it with an excellent camouflage.

Rock Agama

Special thanks to Mr.Virupaksha who was our Naturalist at the resort. He helped us to spot quite a few birds. He took us for a drive along the Tungabhadra Canal at Kamalapura. It was heavenly for us as we had just gotten into birding at that time. The terrain was so different and very rocky with quite a lot of huge boulders.

Virupaksha the naturalist at JLR

Flight towards light

Crimson Rose Butterfly

The first colourful bird that we spotted was the Baya Weaver by its nest. We spent some time observing these.

Baya Weavers

A Common Kingfisher came nearby and seemed oblivious of our presence. Suddenly Virupaksha excitedly called Nagesh and said that a Red Avadavat had just flown by and must be somewhere close by. The two of them went in search of this lovely bird and managed to find it! We also saw a Tricoloured Munia close by.

Common Kingfisher

Red Avadavat

Tricoloured Munia

As we went ahead we spotted the majestic Pied Kingfisher gazing at the canal. What a beautiful bird!! We were seeing it for the first time. A White-throated Kingfisher was also spotted perched atop a tree by the roadside.

Pied Kingfisher

White-throated Kingfisher

Few of the other birds that could be seen were the Red-wattled Lapwing, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Purple Heron, Jungle Bush Quails, White-browed Wagtail and Grey Wagtail. A Water Monitor was sighted for a few seconds and disappeared as soon as it realized our presence.

Red-wattled Lapwing

Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark

Purple Heron

Jungle Bush Quail

White-browed Wagtail

An interesting sight was of a solitary Little Cormorant basking in the sun amidst a group of Cattle Egrets!

Odd one out

We stopped by a small bridge and spent some time soaking in the sights. A flock of Green-bee Eaters were fluttering nearby. We spent some time enjoying the beautiful sights.

Tungabhadra Canal

A Damselfly feeding on what seemed to be a worm kept us engrossed in watching it. As we walked on a path near the canal off the main road we sighted a Shikra. An old and huge tangled tree at the end of the path revealed the presence of a Common Hawk-Cuckoo, more commonly called the “Brain Fever Bird” after it’s distinctive call which seems to go “brain fever… brain fever…”.

Dragon Fly Feasting

Shikra

Asian Koel

We went on a morning birding walk with Virupaksha on one of the subsequent days. The rains had caused a break in the canal flooding the stretch we had visited on our first day here. So we went on the other side of the canal where we had not ventured before. We sighted Indian Silverbill, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Common Kingfisher, Common Sandpiper, Indian Robin, Common Tailorbird and Indian Pond Heron. A Crab also came along our way.

Silverbill

Common Sandpiper

Indian Robin

Common Tailorbird

Crab

Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary

The Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary is home to the Sloth Bears found in this region. This region is believed to have been the mythical Kishkindha of Ramayana which was inhabited by Jambavantha who was a bear and helped Hanuman to fight against Ravana. The sloth bears here are believed to be the descendants of Jambavantha. This is not a widely known fact as compared to the ruins of the Vijayanagara Kingdom.

We set out to the sanctuary late in the afternoon and passed through some lush green fields on the way. We spotted a Black-winged Kite, Indian Roller and a Cattle Egret on the way.

Black-winged Kite

Cattle Egret with Feed

The hills were looking magnificent far away. You need to climb a watch tower in order to spot the bears. Salt licks have been placed at many locations within the sanctuary to draw the bears from their lairs. There are huge hillocks with caves opposite the watch tower. This is the home of many bears. It may be unbelievable, but bears can run very fast and apparently the only way one can escape them when being chased is to run in a zigzag manner or run down a slope. We waited for more than half an hour but there were no sightings. In the meantime we saw some beautiful Painted Spurfowls wandering nearby.

Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary

Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary

Painted Spurfowl

When we had almost given up any chance of sightings and were about to leave, I suddenly spotted a bear with a cub following it walking towards the watch tower. All of us were very excited and our joy knew no bounds. It felt nice to see a bear in the wild in its own natural habitat. A far cry from watching a bear in a tiny cage (in a zoo) with hardly any space for it to move. I have seen bears in zoos looking very tired and bored which is a sad thing! These bears walked around for a while before heading back to their home in the hillock. This was not the end for us. Three more bears came out to meet us! This encounter with the bears brought back sweet memories of listening to the story of Goldilocks and the three Bears in my childhood days :) Our day was done!!

Sloth Bear

Birds of Hampi

Virupaksha came with us to Matanga Hill to help us spot the endangered Yellow-throated Bulbuls which inhabit the rocky areas around this hill. There was a rough path to climb the hill and we followed Virupaksha as he scanned the area for the presence of the Bulbuls. He and Nagesh went further climbing rocks while the rest of us waited on a landing. While they were looking for the elusive bird that was scurrying away when they tried to get close, the bird caught me by surprise. It landed very close to me on a bush and sat for a good 5 minutes maybe. Though I had a camera with me, unfortunately I didn’t click the shutter :( It then went back to its original spot and allowed Nagesh to get some pictures.

Yellow-throated Bulbul

Some of the other birds that we spotted in the surrounding area were Red-vented Bulbul, Common Hoopoe, Grey Wagtail and Yellow Wagtail. Rose-ringed Parakeets were found aplenty in the Vijaya Vitthala temple complex. We missed spotting the Plum-headed Parakeets which are supposedly found near the elephant stables.

Red-vented Bulbul

Bird Log

Common Name Species Family
Bee-eater, Green Merops orientalis Meropidae
Bulbul, Red-vented Pycnonotus cafer Pycnonotidae
Bulbul, Yellow-throated Pycnonotus xantholaemus Pycnonotidae
Cormorant, Little Microcarbo niger Phalacrocoracidae
Cuckoo, Common Hawk Hierococcyx varius Cuculidae
Dove, Laughing Spilopelia senegalensis Columbidae
Egret, Cattle Bubulcus ibis Ardeidae
Heron, Indian Pond Ardeola grayii Ardeidae
Heron, Purple Ardea purpurea Ardeidae
Hoopoe, Common Upupa epops Upupidae
Kingfisher, Common Alcedo atthis Alcedinidae
Kingfisher, Pied Ceryle rudis Cerylidae
Kingfisher, White-throated Halcyon smyrnensis Halcyonidae
Kite, Black-winged Elanus caeruleus Accipitridae
Lapwing, Red-wattled Vanellus indicus Charadriidae
Lark, Ashy-crowned Eremopterix griseus Alaudidae
Munia, Red Amandava amandava Estrildidae
Munia, Tricoloured Lonchura malacca Estrildidae
Parakeet, Rose-ringed Psittacula krameri Psittaculidae
Robin, Indian Saxicoloides fulicatus Muscicapidae
Roller, Indian Coracias benghalensis Coraciidae
Sandpiper, Common Actitis hypoleucos Scolopacidae
Shikra Accipiter badius Accipitridae
Shrike, Rufous-backed Lanius schach Laniidae
Silverbill, Indian Euodice malabarica Estrildidae
Spurfowl, Painted Galloperdix lunulata Phasianidae
Tailorbird, Common Orthotomus sutorius Cisticolidae
Wagtail, Grey Motacilla cinerea Motacillidae
Wagtail, White-browed Motacilla maderaspatensis Motacillidae
Wagtail, Yellow Motacilla flava Motacillidae
Weaver, Baya Ploceus philippinus Ploceidae
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Hampi

A post about one of the most coveted places that have been in my wish list since childhood. This place is a testament to the glorious days of the Vijayanagara kingdom which was a very powerful and wealthy kingdom in the 16th century. Hampi it is!

The land which was ruled by the great king Krishnadevaraya and also home to Tenali Rama who graced his court. Many a childhood day has been spent listening to the stories of this witty pair who were South India’s equivalent of Akbar and Birbal. In fact given that they pre-dated Akbar and Birbal, if you believe in re-birth, maybe they were reborn as Akbar and Birbal respectively!!

Hampi was renowned for its riches as well as the rich culture and played an important role in the history of Southern India for a little over two centuries. The place fell into despair after the death of Krishnadevaraya and was plundered by the deccani kings towards the end of the sixteenth century. Today only the ruins are left. Hampi today is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Stone Chariot

Hampi is located on the banks of Tungabhadra river. On the other bank of the river is the town of Anegundi which predates Hampi and is believed to have been the mythological city of Kishkindha of Ramayana fame where the Vanara army which included Hanuman was put together to rescue Sita from the clutches of Ravana. The fact seems plausible given the rocky terrain.

Journey

We took the Hampi express from Bangalore around 9 PM and reached Hospet which is the nearest railway station at around 7 AM. We had booked cottages at the newly opened Daroji Sloth Bear Resort owned by JLR (Jungle Lodges and Resorts) group. The resort is located at the village of Kamalapura which is 30 minutes away from both Hospet and Hampi.

Virupaksha Temple

The sprawling Virupaksha Temple complex in the middle of Hampi Bazaar near the base of Hemakuta hill is probably the only place to have escaped the plunder of the invaders and left almost intact. Our guide told us that this was due to the presence of the Varaha (Wild Boar) sculptures in the temple which was a bad omen for the Muslim rulers who plundered Hampi and they therefore left this temple alone. Even today the temple is a place of worship. While the main deity is Lord Shiva there are small shrines dedicated to Goddess Bhuvaneshvari and Pampa. This temple pre-dates the Vijayanagara kingdom.

Virupaksha Temple

One of the key features of the temple is the Ranga Mantapa which was added during the reign of Krishnadevaraya. This ornate hall has pillars with beautiful carvings. The walls and ceilings are adorned with paintings depicting scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Puranas. It is a pleasure to see such intricate and beautiful artwork. The artisans were definitely highly skilled and very creative.

A pinhole camera effect has been created out of stonework to reflect the main tower from within the shrine dedicated to the revered sage Vidyaranya who laid the founding stone for the Vijayanagara kingdom. An unusual sculpture of a triple headed Nandi is another interesting sight here. An elephant near the entrance of the temple blesses visitors and can be fed.

Sasivekalu Ganesha

Literally translates to Mustard Seed Ganesha :) A giant monolithic statue of Lord Ganesha at the southern part of Hemakuta hill flanked by an ornate mandapa enclosure.

Sasivekalu Ganesha

Kadalekalu Ganesha

Literally translates to Bengal Gram Ganesha :) It is called so due to the belly of the idol resembling a Bengal Gram that has not been split. This fifteenth century monolithic statue of Lord Ganesha on the northern side of the Hemakuta hill stands about 4.5 meters high. It is housed within a mantap having ornately carved pillars.

Kadalekalu Ganesha

Hemakuta Hill

Hemakuta hill has a few shrines and a gateway with two storeys. There is a path leading towards the Virupaksha temple. Climbing this hill gives a bird’s eye-view of the surroundings.

View from Hemakuta Hill

Krishna Temple

This sixteenth century temple was built during Krishnadevaraya’s reign to commemorate his victory over the rulers of the present day Orissa. Only a part of the Gopura still exists. The remains of the vegetable and flower markets of Hampi can be seen opposite the temple.

Krishna Temple

Lakshmi Narasimha Temple

This dilapidated temple surrounded by Plantain fields houses the 6.7 meters high monolithic statue of Lord Narasimha, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The arms of the idol have been broken and the face has also been damaged. Even the roof over the idol is gone. The idol of Goddess Lakshmi which must have been seated on the left lap of the idol has also been destroyed. Only the right hand of the idol of the Goddess remains.

Ugranarasimha Temple

Badavi Linga Temple

A giant 3 meter tall monolithic Shiva Linga is also present in an enclosure next to the Narasimha idol. The sanctum of the Linga is always filled with the water from Tungabhadra river. This temple got its name as it was commissioned by a poor peasant woman and “Badavi” means a poor woman in Kannada.

Badavi Linga

Zenana Enclosure

This high walled compound encloses a series of structures. The whole enclosure was meant for the ladies of the royal family and was supposed to have been guarded by eunuchs. Only foundations of the palace that once stood here are left.

Zenana Enclosure

Lotus Mahal

This beautiful double storeyed structure within the Zenana Enclosure is reasonably well-preserved. It is symmetric and built-in the shape of the lotus after which it is named. While the foundation is a typical example of the Vijayanagar architecture, the upper section is influenced by Islamic architecture. The structure is designed such that natural air-conditioning could be achieved to ward off the severe heat in this region during summer. Watch towers can be seen at all four corners of the enclosing fortifications.

Lotus Mahal

Elephant Stables

This is a fifteenth century structure consisting of eleven chambers used for housing the elephants of the royal stables. The domes are symmetric and of various shapes. The style of architecture is Indo-Sarcenic.

Elephant Stables

Vijaya Vittala Temple

This is one of the grandest temples of Hampi. The path leading to this temple is dotted on both sides by the ruins of the fabled Hampi Bazaar where precious gemstones used to be sold right in the open. Every nook and cranny of this temple has a story to tell. This magnificent temple complex has been a witness to the grandeur of the Vijayanagara Kings. The world-famous stone chariot is housed here. This is the first picture above in this post.

Another remarkable feature of this temple is the dancing hall with the fabled musical pillars. Each stone pillar can produce a different sound. Two of these pillars were removed by the British archaeologists (from ASI) who discovered the ruins of Hampi to figure out what lay within the stones and produced the music. To their surprise they only found stone which had been hollowed out within. Such is the magic and ingenuity of the artists who built this wonderful edifice which is the pinnacle of the Vijayanagara style of architecture. This area has been cordoned off to protect what is left of the pillars. There are a few similar pillars in another section of the temple where one can listen to the music emanating from stone.

Vijaya Vittala Temple

Mahanavami Dibba

This pyramidal structure stands almost 8 metres tall and is a place of royal splendour. The Dasara festival spanning over ten days used to be the chief festival celebrated in the Vijayanagara kingdom. The King used to be seated on a pavilion high up from where he could oversee the celebrations. There are steps to climb this pavilion on the front side. However the King used to take a special staircase from the rear of the pavilion. There is a Roman aqueduct near the pavilion. Another notable structure here is a stepped tank which is a remarkable piece of architecture.

Mahanavami Dibba

Matanga Hill

We went here mainly to sight the vulnerable Yellow-throated Bulbuls. This hillock has a giant Nandi idol at the base and some ruins scattered all over. A small Hanuman shrine can be seen as you climb up. Some huge rocks had paintings over them. Not sure if they were ancient. It seemed more likely to be modern tribal art.

View from Matanga Hill

Walk along the Tungabhadra

We went on a walk along the banks of the Tungabhadra starting from Virupaksha temple and ending at Vijaya Vittala temple. The banks of the river are strewn with rocks and boulders. Ruins can be found all along the way. Lots of idols have been discarded here. This was supposedly the place where sculptors and artisans practiced their skills before starting on the actual work! Even the opposite bank had huge idols.

Terrain

There are small temples and shrines along the way. Hundreds of small Shiva Lingas could be found at one of the places where we stopped for a brief while.

Lingas on the Tungabhadra bank

The locals use the coracles to ferry people to Anegundi which is on the opposite bank of the river. The agility of the locals can be seen by the way in which they are able to navigate through the boulders so effortlessly.

Tungabhadra

As I have said above, Anegundi on the opposite bank of the river is supposed to have been the Kishkinda of Ramayana. We saw what is believed to be Sugreeva‘s cave at the end of our trail. Nearby is a small pond with lot of beautiful Water Hyacinths called Sita Sarovar.

The King’s Balance can be seen while approaching Vijaya Vittala temple. It is said that the Kings used to be weighed on special occasions against gold and other precious stones which were then distributed amongst the Brahmins.

King's Balance

Malayavantha Hill

We went here on one of the evenings to try to get some fabled sunset shots of Hampi. Alas the weather was gloomy throughout our stay and continued to be the same. The clouds took away all our hopes. We went to the Rama temple at the top of this hill where the bhajans are sung throughout the day. We spent some time sitting here on the rocks watching dusk set in.

Malayavantha Hill

Pattabhi Rama Temple

This temple is very close to Kamalapur. Its off the normal tourist trail and we were the only ones when we went there. The temple complex is pretty large and has some beautiful halls with lot of pillars.

Pattabhirama Temple

Queen’s Bath

The bathing place of the royal family probably. This structure has a big pool at the centre surrounded by corridor with balconies. The roof is domed and has beautiful patterns painted on it.

Queen's Bath

Octagonal Bath

This ruined structure in a slightly desolate area must have been the bathing place for the commoners. It is octagonal in shape thus giving it the name.

Octagonal Bath

Hazara Rama Temple

The word Hazara literally translates to thousand. Aptly named so as the temple has a unique panel of carvings of scenes from the Ramayana all along its walls including the exterior wall of the temple complex.

Hazara Rama Temple

Where to eat: Mango Tree Restaurant

This place was highly recommended by a couple of friends when I was planning the trip. It turned out to be quite a pleasant experience to have lunch here. The approach to this restaurant is through a banana field and they have outdoor seating arrangement facing the river. The food was pretty good. All in all a great place to unwind after a tiring day of walking amidst the ruins!

Way to Mango Tree restaurant

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