Close Encounters with the Wild

It was our third visit to Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. (You can read about our first here and here) Shruthi, Ashwin and little Shristi (who were visiting us from the US) joined us along with other family members. We needed a couple of SUVs to carry us all to our favorite Jharana Lodge. After the welcome drink (refreshing), lunch (delicious) and watching a few resident male Turkeys woo a female (noisy and endless), it was time for one of our favorite parts of visiting a jungle – Tiger Safari.

We’d booked 2 jeeps into the core area. No sooner did we enter the Jungle than we spotted a couple of bears foraging on grass and insects. They were huge and it seemed funny that they were feeding on bugs instead of something that would suit their bulky frames!

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While we were too busy describing the bears to one another, we barely caught sight of a Leopard, who crossed our jeeps and made a leap into the thickness of the Jungle, before we managed to click a picture of him.

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We were on a roll! Thanking Goddess Luck, we drove on, now wishing we spot the Big Gun, a Tiger. By the shimmering lake, basking in the winter sun, who do you think we spotted?! No, not a Tiger, but a huge Crocodile!  We were exhilarated!

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There’s something about visiting a jungle- all your senses come alive! There’s nothing to distract- no phone calls, messages or TV. If you stay longer, your sensations are only heightened. You’ll listen to the warning call of a Sambar deer and know that the Tiger is around. You’ll see pugmarks on the ground and figure out which direction he’s gone. You’ll smell the carcass of a dead animal and prepare yourself to the possibility of spotting him. Digression aside, Luck favored us once again.  Around a bend we spotted a couple of Tigers with their prey. One of them was tearing at it (It looked like the limb of a Deer) , while the other seemed to have had his fill. This one stretched and ambled down towards us.

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He sharpened his claws on the bark of a Tree and sat upon a stone wall. He was close enough to give us a high five! The other one finished his lunch, licked his paws and regally made his way towards the ‘throne’ the other Tiger was seated upon. We learnt that they were 2 brothers- Tarachand and Chota Matka, the cubs of Choti Tara and Matkasur. It was adorable to watch them pat one another and unwind after a hard day’s ‘work’!

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A long queue of Jeeps and Tour buses had formed by now and the cubs seemed to be enjoying all the attention! We had taken several trips into the jungle before and went on multiple trips thereafter- into both the Core and Buffer areas, but never did we experience such a spectacle! It was a First Day First Show for Shruthi and Ashwin and they were absolutely elated!

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Prasad and I had to manage the kiddos who were all loaded into our jeep and now were clambering atop its railings to get a better view of the cubs. Their excitement (and ours) knew no bounds! We’d spotted almost all of the Big 5, except Wild Dogs, on a single trip! Did it lessen our enthusiasm to continue exploring the jungles of India? Not at all. It has only intensified our passion for Wildlife and Nature.

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So long, wilderness…

– Manasa.

PS- Photographs were taken by Shruthi and me..

In God’s Own Country

When we planned our 3-week trip to India for my cousin`s wedding, we decided to include a trip to Kerala as well. I wanted to show my country to my husband, mother-in-law and our friend, Guido, who were traveling with me. My parents too agreed to join us. I checked many tour packages on make my trip, yatra and other websites, and after a lot of discussions we decided to go ahead with make my trip. The trip was to be for 6 days and the itinerary would include Cochin, Munnar, Thekkady, Alleppey and Kumarakom.

Our package included hotel accommodations, breakfast, the return airfare and a private car for getting around. It costed us around INR 30,000 (around USD 440) per person.

We flew from Bangalore to Cochin (an hour long flight). At the airport, we were welcomed by the manager of the transport company who showed us our car and the driver who would be driving us around for the entire trip. We were slightly disappointed with the car even though it was a 6 seater Innova. There was not enough space in the back seat. Thankfully, everyone took turns sitting there.

We drove from Cochin to Munnar, a 4 hour drive. On the way we stopped to check out the Cheeyapara waterfall while enjoying some juicy raw mangoes and pineapples sliced and mixed with chili powder, which were being sold by a roadside vendor.

Cheeyapara Waterfalls
Cheeyapara Waterfalls

After driving for another hour, we stopped at a Spice garden, where we took a tour accompanied by a guide who showed and explained the characteristics and benefits of different herbs and spices grown in Kerala like cloves, cinnamon, tulsi, hibiscus, eucalyptus etc. It was quite interesting. We could even catch a glimpse of the beautiful Valara waterfalls from the garden. (Entry to spice garden costs INR 100 per person).

On our driver’s recommendation, we pre-booked Kalaripayattu and Kathakali shows (An hour long show each which costs INR 200 per person per show) and an hour of Ayurvedic massage (We chose full body massage with steam which is INR 1800 per person) at the Punarjani Traditional Village. Our rooms were booked at the Misty Mountain Resort. After checking in and freshening up, we headed out to watch the shows. I must say, they were truly mesmerizing! At the beginning of the act, an actress showed the main facial expressions of a Kathakali artist called the ‘navarasams’. It was followed by an enactment of a story. Though we couldn`t understand what the story was about, we enjoyed the colorful dresses, the actions and the music. It is similar to South Canara`s “Yakshagana”,  except that in Kathakali, the artists do not speak. Kalaripayattu is an old and traditional form of martial arts. We were amazed to watch kids and young men showing different ways to tackle the opponents.

We ended our first day in Kerala with a relaxed massage which each of us enjoyed!

Munnar- View from our hotel
Munnar- View from our hotel

The next day we drove around Munnar. I’d never seen so much greenery in one place! Even my Swiss family was awed to see such beauty.

Munnar
Munnar

We visited Eravikulam National park located along the Western Ghats in Munnar. Anamudi (Elephant face), named because of its shape, at 2,695 meters, the highest peak in India south of the Himalayas is inside this park.

(Entrance to the park is 90 INR for Indian Nationals and 370 INR for foreign nationals!!) From the entrance, we were taken in a bus around the hill to a certain height. From there, we were free to walk around the hill. This region has the highest viable population of Nilgiri Tahr (Mountain Goat) in the world. Tea plantations and other variety of flora surround the region. The views are breathtaking!!

They say that wild animals like tigers and elephants abound in the underlying forest, but we are not allowed to enter as it is a restricted area. I highly recommend visiting this park for its stunning views.

A Mountain Tahr
A Mountain Tahr

A short drive from there, we visited the Kannan Devan tea museum. It was small but we learnt about the company’s history, what procedures the pluckers employ and the processes the leaves undergo to make Tea. We walked out of the museum relishing cups of tea. (Entrance fee is 90 INR per person)

Munnar Tea Plantations
Munnar Tea Plantations

Later we stopped at the Mattupetty and Kundala dams.

Next day, we drove to Thekkady. It was a 3 hour drive and we stopped at all the scenic spots to have some nice pictures clicked. As we drove from Munnar, the scenery changed from green hills and plantations to brown mountains.

Way to Thekkady
Way to Thekkady

We went to Periyar national park. (Entrance tickets cost 25 INR for Indian Nationals and 300 INR for foreign nationals plus there is an additional cost of 50 INR for the car as well. This ticket does not include boating). Periyar is pretty huge and vehicles are allowed only until a certain point. As you walk around, our ancestors will greet you, and by “ancestors” I mean “monkeys”; one even tried to jump on Mike! We bought our tickets for boating inside (it is 125 INR per person). The hour-long ride was amazing!

Boating at Periyar National Park
Boating at Periyar National Park

After the ride, we checked into our hotel “Michael`s inn”. The rooms were quite big and tidy. In the evening, we went around the small town, looking for souvenirs and gifts to buy for family and friends.

It is a 4 hour drive from Thekkady to Alleppey and we drove early in the morning, after breakfast at the hotel. We reached our houseboat by noon. The boat had upper and lower decks. There were 4 rooms in the lower deck and 2 in the upper. We were allotted 3 rooms and another family (who hadn’t arrived yet) the rest. Our rooms were quite spacious. There were 5 men to serve us food and care for our needs. There was a dining hall in the upper deck. As soon as we reached, we were served a glass of fresh juice followed by a delicious lunch. Later, we were taken on a short ride around the Punnamada lake.

Houseboats in Aleppey
Houseboats in Aleppey
Room inside Houseboat
Room inside Houseboat

After the ride, the boat was brought back to the original location to pick the other family who had finally arrived. We were again taken on a 3 hour ride around the lake. It was pure bliss. After a hectic schedule with family functions and travelling, this was just  what we were looking for, some unwinding time. We spent all that time reading, chatting, watching the birds fly and relaxing. We stopped at a small island, got down and walked around enjoying the beautiful sunset. Over dinner, we sat together and discussed the functions we’d attended, our present and future….

Chilling on the Houseboat
Chilling on the Houseboat
Enjoying the Sunset
Enjoying the Sunset

The next morning, the houseboat drove back to the pickup point as we enjoyed our breakfast. From there, our driver drove us to Kumarakom. (Houseboat was included in our tour package)

Our hotel in Kumarakom, “Ashirwad Heritage”, was again a nice hotel with spacious rooms. After checking in, we drove to a city called Kottayam, which is 20 km away from Kumarakom. It is similar to Mangalore or Bangalore, busy with traffic, lots of shops around. We bought some freshly-made banana  and jackfruit chips (famous in south India). We were mostly looking for authentic Kerala stores, but we found very few.

We took another boat-ride on the backwaters of Kumarakom (What?! Kerala is famous for its backwaters my dear!). We booked a whole boat for 900 INR (which can accommodate up to 8 people) for a one and a half hour ride. We drove a small part of Vembanad Lake spotting birds like Kingfisher, heron and even a water snake.

Backwaters of Kumarakom
Backwaters of Kumarakom

Next morning, we left early to Cochin, from where we would be flying back to Mangalore. Sadly, we couldn’t visit the beautiful Jewish Synagogue or the famous Dutch palace in Cochin as our flight was scheduled for noon and we did not have enough time. In the limited time we had, we went to Lulu Hypermarket and St. Joseph’s church.

Kerala… What can I say… The beauty of the land, its culture, the people truly makes it God’s own Country. We simply fell in love with it!

God's own Country
God’s own Country

Points to consider when visiting Kerala

  • Better drink tea rather than coffee as Tea is widely grown here
  • If you want to include Kumarakom in your itinerary, better make it a half day trip, as there is nothing much to see. Instead visit Cochin.
  • It is hard to find Vegetarian restaurants in smaller cities. You’ll have to make do with Veg/ Non-veg restaurants.
  • Please try to leave it as clean and green as you’ll find it.
  • Do try to stay in a houseboat for atleast a night, even if it is a bit expensive. It is totally worth it!
  • Our driver was good as he showed us a lot of places. Make sure you choose a good car and a driver.
  • And last but not the least, do inquire what all your travel package covers. We didn’t know ours didn’t include the entry tickets to various parks! Shop around (a lot) before you finalize the package!

Cheers,

Madhurya

Bidar Fort and Guru Nanak Jhira Sahib

Way to the Bidar Fort

Before going to the Black Buck Resort, we visited the Fort in Bidar. The Entrance was free and open for all. Even vehicles could be seen entering the place without a fuss. No one seemed to be looking after the more than 30 monuments within the Fort.

The Entrance

As we walked inside, a man claiming to be a guide, asked us whether he could show us around for Rs. 500. We thought it was too much and said so. Actually he didn’t look qualified enough to be a Guide. He began bargaining with us, coming down to about 300 bucks. We ignored him and walked on.

The entrance was huge with heavy, aesthetically-pleasing doors (with a few sections broken). There were mostly-destroyed, partly-worn-out monuments and relics all around us. We couldn’t make out what was what. There were no maps or markers around the complex to help us. And there was no authority we could inquire. As if he knew we would reach this helpless state and seek him out, the guy calling himself a “guide”, was just hanging around nearby. And this time, he agreed to a fee of Rs. 200. Some information (not credible though it might be)  was better than no information at all, I thought.

Within the Fort

It was hard to follow him as he spoke too fast, but he told us what certain buildings were used for- Stables for Horse, Prison Cells, Court, Guest Rooms etc.. And a bit about the Architecture and the History of the place. Probably built by the Chalukyas in the year 977 AD, the present-day Fortress was rebuilt by Ahmed Shah of the Bahamani Dynasty using red laterite stone (in abundance in the area) in the year 1428 AD. The Architecture is mostly Persian-style. (Source : Wikipedia and our “guide”).

Takht Mahal, maybe?

Bidar Fort apparently has a number of monuments within the fortress complex. Prominent among them are the Rangin Mahal (“Painted Palace”), so called because of its elaborate decoration with coloured tiles; the Takht Mahal, or throne room; the Jami Masjid (“Great Mosque”) and the Sola Khamba Masjid (“Sixteen-Pillar” mosque), according to Wikipedia, but sadly, we didn’t enter any of those.

Rangin Mahal?

I wish I had done more research before visiting the place. I’d have demanded to know where everything was and asked to be taken inside. All I did was walk around, clicking pictures and admiring the beauty and the serenity of the Fort area, without a clue whether we were passing the Rangin Mahal or the Jami Masjid. It was August 15th, our Independence Day, but at that moment I felt least patriotic for the kind of Country I lived in, that didn’t honor its rich heritage and ensured its preservation for future Indians to enjoy.

Beautiful but poorly-maintained

The “guest room” had been closed, but the guide asked us to enter through the back door (which might have been a window, not sure, because it was too narrow.) and one could climb down a couple of storeys (?!?!) into rooms where (apparently) there was enough lighting and ventilation. Prasad came out drenched in sweat, but full of admiration for the ingenuity of the builders centuries ago. I thought it wasn’t right, going where one’s clearly not supposed to go, but HE didn’t mind; He was too happy to have seen an Engineering marvel!

Closed "Guest room"

We were told some “facts” like “this is where a scene from the movie “Dirty Picture” was shot” and some such. But we thanked the guy anyhow; He hadn’t exploited or harmed us. We paid him and explored the place by ourselves for a while. The weather was good and the long leisurely walk was energizing.

Perfect Weather for a walk

Wow! Let me try that pose!

The next day we visited the famous Gurudwar called the “Guru Nanak Sahib Jhira”. At the Resort we’d learnt the story behind this religious shrine – Guru Nanak visited Bidar between 1510-1514 AD on one of his missionary tours and seeing the plight of the residents who didn’t have proper water supply, shifted a stone and removed some rubble from underfoot, all the while praying, and out sprang cool and fresh water, which flows even to this day.

Entrance to the Gurudwar

We went inside, covering our heads with scarves, and spent some quiet minutes with the other devotees.

Looks Cute, doesn't he?

Later, we bought some Kadas for the kids and Roasted Corn-on-the-cob for everyone from the stores lined outside near the entrance.

It’s only after we returned home, did I realize how little we had seen. Not only had we missed looking at a number of monuments from up close at the Bidar Fort, we had also skipped a viewing of the Amrit Kund, the holy spring at the Gurudwar. How could we?!

Anyway, Bidar isn’t too far from Hyderabad. We’ll probably visit again. But…

The Big Fat lesson I learnt from this experience is that I need to thoroughly research a place before visiting, especially while traveling in India.