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Ambalappuzha, Kerala: Divine and Beautiful

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India travel is truly an incomplete affair without the dose of myths, spirituality and rituals. Ambalappuzha situated about 14 kilometers south of Alappuzha in Kerala, and is mainly popular for its Krishna Temple and more for prasadam offered here- the known paal-payasam, sweet rice served with milk pudding.

Mythology stories say that Lord Krishna himself, in the appearance of a sage, once gave challenge to the king of the land on a game of chess. In case the king looses, he had to pay ‘a few grains’ of rice. However, the rice grains were to be laid on the chess board in some defined order – one grain on the first square, two on the second, and so forth with each square adding grain’s worth twice previous square. Without giving much thought, the king quickly agreed unsurprisingly lost.

Soon after realizing that the real tact in the whole scheme of the prize, the king startled, thinking that the final result would empty not only his but his neighbor’s granaries too. Krishna, the ever-pardoning Lord reveled his true form and finally agreed to help King via installment scheme, where king will have to serve paal payasam to devotees each day, till the debt was paid-of.

This famous Prasad is still served each afternoon in Ambalappuzha temple. Well, the Prasad isn’t the only element of interest of the temple. Just south of temple, there is a sacred room called as Guruvayur Ambalam, the holy shrine of Guruvayur. It was in this sacred room where deity of Krishna installed in Guruvayur was brought to for safe keeping during the invasion led by Tipu Sultan in year 1790. Also, the Kunjan Nambiar, the satirist poet, spent his early years at the temple. The temple served as venue for his first performance of thullal.

As we approach the banks of Punnamada Lake about 3 km east of Ambalappuzha, the sun lowers itself into the western horizon. The prime attractions here are black granite statue or some remains of Buddha. Buddhism was an important religion in Kerala near 200 B.C to 800 A.D until the awakening of Hinduism came into its actual royal form.

A Strange serenity soon gets broken by the mooing of a cow from some nearby farmhouse. Soon the sun starts setting and the lake starts sparkling up in hues of gold, red and orange, making it truly the land of Gods.

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Alampur: The city of Temples

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The tranquil little town of Alampur in the state of Andhra Pradesh is often called as “City of Temples”. Nearly 200 kilometres from Hyderabad, and 25 kilometres from Kurnool, the placid Alampur is home to the ancient Navabhramma temples, dating back to the 7th century.

The town came under the influence of several dynasties: the Badami Chalukyas, the Shatavahana Ishvakus of Nagarjunakonda, the Rashtrakutas, the Kalyani Chalukyas, the Vijayanagara Empire, the Kakatiyas and even the Qutub Shahis of Golconda. Formerly known by the name Halampuram and now as Alampuram, the beautiful city is a treasure house of art and history.

The Badami Chalukyas ruled over Alampur for about 200 years from mid of 6th century and given credit for building the 9 Bhramma temples. The whole temple campus was built on Tungabhadra River’s west bank, amidst what once must have been lush green fields, now all destroyed by floods of year 2009. The confluence of River Krishna and River Tungabhadra near Alampur owns itself an honour of holy site. Well, it all comes with a little shock that the scenic landscapes were a source of inspiration for sculptors here.

The spectacular Nava Bhramma Temples stand evidence to the exceptional architectural skills that prevailed during the times they were built. All these temples don’t follow the Dravidian style and possess shikharas (spires) that are curvilinear in shape. There’s an extensive use of wall niches, ornamented screen windows, multi-tier pediments, base blocks and porch columns. Huge guardian images called as dwarapalakas are beautifully carved on either side of the entrance. The base block unfolds many mythological stories via carvings.

As you’ll enter narrow gate of fort’s huge wall, a huge doorway will lead you to shrines. Right on the ceiling of Mahadwara, you will encounter beautifully carved sculptures of trinity God’s – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.

Just to the left, there’s Taraka Bhramma temple and to right Swarga Bhramma temple. Taraka Bhramma temple, at present partly in ruins, possesses southern style of architecture and has a porch and sanctum sanctorum too. On the other side, Swarga temple is much more evolved and well-preserved temple. It includes of 8 dikpalakas, the caretakers for each direction: for east, Indra, for west, Varuna, for north, Kubera, for south, Yama, for south east, Agni, for south west, Nirurti, for north east, Isana and for north west, Vayu. All the dikpalakas are well-placed in niches with ornate designed pediments and flanked by well proportioned mithuna couples represented in amorous postures.

On the west of Swarga Bhramma is Padma Bhramma. Partially in ruins, it’s almost similar to Swarga Bhramma shrine. And to the southeast of Padma Bhramma is Garuda Bhramma.
Bala Bhramma is a main shrine and serves as a place for worship since seventh century. Regular prayers are held here. Then there are Vishwa Bhramma, Arka Bhramma and Vira Bhramma temple, all of them standing in a line. Arka is mostly in ruins. Vishwa is well preserved and portrays epic stories, while Vira is just similar to other holy shrines, with not much unique feature.

Though it may appear that all the temples look more or less same, still the details in architecture and art are indeed exploring.

Fishing for peace in Himalayas

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I and my gang of friends forever look for recreational places in hills, serenity and harmony quotient subject to alter depending on the season and our inclination to adventure. Well, this time around, we all found a bit of both in the small town of upper Dharamshala – McLeodganj.

As always, we commenced our journey from Delhi in a super deluxe bus and it was a peaceful one for most part of the 12 hours that it took to reach McLeodganj, I was asleep. On arrival, for once we were stunned to find its first look which resembled like a mini Paharganj in all its small by-lanes and people walking in every direction, looking confused as all were.

We checked into the hotel that we first saw on the main road opposite to bus stand. The hotel was quite comfortable and of course affordable. The climate for most part of our stay was quite soothing, sometimes even repressing us to wear half sleeved clothing, till it rained, which it did once, forcing us to switch to wear woolens overnight, but then at last it’s the pleasure of the volatile valley weather.

The place that would most appeal to an art enthusiast is just a few kilometers downhill towards Dharamshala that leads to the Kangra museum, which boasts of a fossil of the tooth of an elephant dating a million and a half years ago as well as some miniature Kangra paintings that are quite a feast for the eyes.

For those wanting to learn about power of meditation and take short course on visions, there is this ubiquitous sounding ‘Asho’ ashram that conducts such kind of courses. The town houses a wide variety of restaurants and cafes for eternally starved people like us. Moon Peak café and Chocolate Log rates the highest on my palate contentment list. Moon Peak café is perfect for a wonderful breakfast of freshly prepared salads and sandwiches, clubbed with a panoramic view of the Kangra valley on side of the café’s sitting area.

Another must-see is Bhagsu waterfall. An adventurous walk up to the waterfall’s mouth and a sit by it side is amazing feeling. Discovering the entire valley by foot and simultaneously carrying small souvenirs from the local market can be unparalleled feeling.

McLeodganj is truly a paradise. The place has lots and lots of untouched beauty. In all, make sure you carry enough warm clothing, no matter what the season is. Also, a handy map of the town to ensure lesser bedlam can make your holiday a fabulous one.

But most important of all, one thing of utmost importance is the perfect travel partner.

Kerala: A strip of land called home

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My last month visit to Kerala was truly a lifetime experience. Till date, my view point of the place was all a little negative and weird.

Yes, I was wrong.

Lying off the Malabar Coast, the lovely backwaters of Kerala are a harmony in green; palm-fringes, yellowish green banana trees, emerald paddy fields and all around the changing, shifting lethargic channels of canals and lagoons.

In the mid of all this waters, there are beautiful villages and towns, stretching along narrow strips of land, some of them just few metres across, where people have built their tiny huts and live their lives to the beat of the ebb and flow of the enormous tides of the vast Arabian Sea.

A day in a God’s Own country Kerala begins with a dip in brackish water while the washed clothes, placed on clothesline, calmly dries in the tropical breeze. Females share some early morning gossip while standing outside their tiny beautiful huts built in knee deep waters while children behind them march off along the narrow strips of land to the nearest school, white ribbons gleaming off swinging plaits.

All around, canoes slip off towards sea tides carrying fishermen to their daily jobs or women making their way to visit a neighbouring village. Any long journey means to wait under a red coloured flag for a National Waterway Boat No. 3.

People here are never alone. To accompany them is the nature everywhere; there are mudskippers, crabs, turtles in water and numerous species of birds flying high in the skies and sitting on trees. At dusk, I witnessed a whole tree taken over by a pioneer group of cormorants, all provoked and angry against a gleaming sky.

I came here for just two days, but ended up staying for a week almost. During my stay, I learnt to judge the time by the passage and direction of the sun via stormy sky. And as I stepped out of my Ketuvallam and started going away from Vembanad Lake, I felt that I was leaving behind a strip of land that I could call my new home.

Laad Bazaar, Hyderabad

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In the ancient city of Hyderabad, at the roads where history, culture, prayer and indulgence converge, lies Laad Bazaar. A lively street which begins at famous Charminar’s foot, Laad Bazaar is not just a part of Hyderabad history perhaps also a locality where culture thrives. As per locales, the bazaar was set up the former ruler Mohammad Quli Qutub Shah as a shopping destination for guests attending his daughter’s wedding. The proud father named the Bazaar after his beloved daughter Laad. And till date innumerous Muslim brides and grooms come here to shop for their wedding trousseau.

Laad Bazaar serves as a shopping destination of women of all religions, cultures looking for mellifluous bangles. The place is not at all a good hunt for voyeuristic tourist looking for some memento. In fact Laad Bazaar is for all those who love to travel and experience places like a local and for those who desires to see the single largest lac and stone bangles market of the country.

There are very few places in Hyderabad that are as much popular as this market. Shops in Laad Bazaar have been around for decades now; some of them even a century old, hence finding men of three generations running a store here is not un-common. Street side racks, showcased stores and push-carts, everywhere you will discover mind-boggling display of variety of bangles. Shopkeepers here are always keen to narrate stories of Laad Bazaar. Well, one of them is actually true which says that it’s one of the only places in the country with more than 40 bangle shops under one roof. With cost ranging from Rs.6 to Rs.10, 000, the bazaar holds bangles for everyone, from little kind to glamorous celebrities. Gossip hosts, the shopkeepers will make conversation spicy while convincing the guests to buy them.

One of the kinds is lightweight bangles. Locals claim that a single sneeze can send them shooting 6 feet in the air and a laugh can blow them 8 feet away. Adding interest and pepper in their trade, many have christened certain bangles with interesting names like Jeena teri gali mein – meaning living in your streets and Shehensha kada- King of bangles.

While you’ll stun at the variety on offer, one variety that will definitely mesmerize you with its shimmer is the expensive and beautifully hand-crafted lac bangles, made by experienced craftsmen whose families are into this trade since ages. With hundreds or even thousands of glittering colourful stones embedded into them, these bangles are a pleasure to look and wear. The process of making bangles is truly a time-consuming and delicate affair, as amazing as the end product itself. And in case you have a keen desire to know how your bangle became so pretty, you can always request the shopkeeper to take you to his workshop to see how bangles are made.

Though bangles are the main limelight in the market, in reality Laad Bazaar is not just about what you can purchase there. It’s mainly about the experiences of life you go through in this lane, for here you’ll encounter true-blue locals who reflect their heritage like obsolete couture costume. Warm, friendly and gracious, they are ever ready to talk to strangers, offer them a drink and share stories of their live which the visitors can carry back as memories. So, if you are really keen to experience Hyderabad’s culture, it’s hospitality, Laad Bazaar should be destination choice.

Kanyakumari: Before Sunrise

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Six in the early morning, I stumble out of my hotel room lethargically and saying to myself that this all will be worth the effort. Yes, I am finally in Kanyakumari, arrived just few hours before as part of a tour package from Madurai city. The tour promised one full day of temple sightseeing around the town, breakfast, lunch and fairly good amount of shopping time. But that’s not the only reason I chose this tour, it’s the cheapest means of transport that I can avail from Madurai city to Kanyakumari. Moreover, its promise to get us in the town by early morning for the prime attraction, the Sunrise, was what attracted me to the tour.

Kanyakumari has gathered itself an impressive tourist industry especially around sunrises and sunsets alone. Numerous hotels and tours participate in the race to offer best views. The tourist season is in April, when on a full moon’s night one can have a glimpse of both sunrise and sunset side by side. What makes this exclusive is the “V” shape coastline that offers striking panoramic views of the converging Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean that settles around the coastline. On reaching the beach, our first stop, I abandoned my fellow travellers and the boring guide to get myself soaked in the warmth of sun.

So, I am at the beach exactly at the right time, before the breakdown of dawn. Soon, the black curtains of the night transforms into brilliant pinks, with shades of red, orange and purple. To admire the sunrise and changing patterns of the sky, I took small breaks during the trek.

As a child, I always admired Kanyakumari, as it being popular worldwide as royal tip of India and also as an exit into the grand beyond. Soon, I saw the welcome of the new day waking up the calm streets with its warmth. The fish market by the beach side started gaining rush and buzz and the fragrances of the freshly cooked breakfasts invited me. Well, starting my day at this end point of my country wasn’t a bad idea at all.

Soon the day passed away leaving a kind of emptiness in my soul. Something really fascinated about the place that’s asking me to see the place once again in nearby future.

Discovering Medak

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Medak FortLocated about 100 kilometers north-west from the Hyderabad city is a town of Medak, steeped in history and ancient charm. Originally known as Siddapuram and later as Gulshanabad, Medak attained immense strategic importance under Kakatiya reign between 1083 and 1323. Today, the town is known for its architectural marvels like ancient fort and a relatively modern Medak Church, the fienst examples of Gothic styled architecture.

The Medak Fort, referred as Kila by the locals, is a fortress built on a small hillock. The fort served as a vantage point for the Kakatiyan kings. It was built somewhere in 12th century during the rule of the Kakatiyan monarch, Prataparudra II.

The fort boasts about its amazing architectural inheritance. Originally, it was built as per typical Hindu style; however, some modifications and additions were done by the Qutub Shahis, thereby, adding Muslim glimpses to it. Just a little above it, there’s mosque built during the regime of Qutub Shahi. The views and landscapes are simply breathtaking from this point. The roofs of most of the houses here are tiled. It also has several lakes and water bodies around it. Farmers winnowing the yields can be seen during harvest times.

To make it more impressive and stunning is the absence of tourists. The ruins, with stoned walls and wild vegetation growing all over, it truly gives that mystical look to the town.

Medak is also home to largest Catholic diocese in Asia and 2nd largest in world just after Vatican. The Medak Cathedral’s towers are nearly 173 feet in height and this striking landmark is one of the finest example Gothic architecture in the country.

Built out of white granite, with floors made with Italian tiles and stained glass windows, the magnificent Gothic styled structure can accommodate about five thousand people at one time.

A road trip to this scenic town Medak will surely charm you with it plethora of landscapes and culture that alters gradually, highlighting the pleasure of journey and destination.

A visit to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

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Chirping of birds on a rooftop has always been successful in captivating my attention and often leading me to follow their hopping. Birds, the colourful flying creatures have always remained really close to my heart since my childhood days. I personally believe that birds are one of the best creations by nature. The small, colourful birds with melodious voices are truly fascinating.

So, to enjoy the best glimpse of this mysterious creature I recently visited Keoladeo National Park, popularly known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary situated in Rajasthan. It’s amongst the world’s best wet land ecosystems that support more than 350 birds’ species. The rich collection of birds makes the place a true paradise for bird lovers, a perfect spot for bird photographers and of course a research platform for Ornithologists.

To enjoy this mystic place to the fullest, I arranged a room for me and my friend Subu in the Bharatpur Forest Lodge. The lodge is situated in the mid of the sanctuary which offers simply magical views of the forest. The very next morning after having our breakfast me and my friend took our cameras and dived deep into the woods.

No vehicle is allowed in this place; therefore the place can be only visited approved cycle-rickshaws that function inside the park or via an electric van. But for me and my friend the favourite way was to explore it was on foot following jungle trail. In the middle of the jingle the serenity of nature is shattered via bird’s cacophony. It’s really tough to identify any particular bird’s sound among all this noise.

We wandered here and there following one bird after another. I tremendously enjoyed this colourful and energetic hide and seek game with birds. Each time I tried to pay attention on one particular species, very soon the concentration was shattered by another beautiful bird which came nearby making a melodious sound.

Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is home to huge varieties of birds. Few of them are Spoonbills, Pelicans, Flycatchers, Wheatears, Hawks, Buntings, Warblers, Ibis, Larks, Pipits, Cranes, Grey Herons, Eagles and several more.

In the middle of the sanctuary, there is this lovely pond which is the main attraction and center stage for all the birds’ activities. Truly, the visit to the sanctuary is the most fascinating experiences of my life till date. While seeing many species of birds, you can also get involved in fun activities like playing, singling, dancing and eating here. Until it started becoming dark, we both friends stayed back at the pond to enjoy the roosting of birds. It’s the time when birds returns to their respective nests in evening time and in groups they make really loud noise. It is the best time to watch so many species at one time.

What not to take on your India Trip

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Once, while in Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, I made up my mind to discard some of my baggage. For about 3 months continuously I had been carrying around two stupid heavy bags and now one of them had to go. I decided to fill one of the bags with my important items and remove the unwanted goods and gift them to some grateful beggar. Well, surprisingly, on that particular morning I faced hard time finding a beggar, I must have been the only person in this country desiring eagerly to be begged from – yet for hours there was no one to hear my pleas. When I finally encountered one, he extended his hands in heartfelt prayer; he was totally amused and annoyed when I handed over him my whole bag. Before the man could complain me, I quickly turned my back and ran.

My weighty hardship had, in part, been caused by fictitious advice from a supposedly authoritative help book. It instructed to carry such things like a mosquito net and an extra sheet and – even a sink plug.

1. Mosquito nets: In one hundred hotel rooms, from North to South, I hardly found anything to hook the thing on to. Moreover, mosquitoes in India is just a over hyped statement and I hardly encountered them in such numbers that they would disturb or interrupt my sleep.

2. Sheets: Well, a very small fraction of Indian hotels would lack sheets; hence carrying them in your luggage would be unnecessary.

3. Sink and Bath plug: People in India hardly prefer to take baths in tubs. So, customarily, your hotel room won’t be equipped with such a self-indulgent foreign item. Well, as for the sink, if there is no plug – so what!

4. Perfumes: Good colognes or perfumes are a total waste of space. In tropics, you tend to sweat more; hence fragrances don’t permeate into the skin.

5. Expensive Lighters: Don’t ever take an expensive or treasured lighter when on your India trip. The first thing is that they aren’t allowed on board Indian planes. In case custom officials do not get them, then some thief might take it.

6. Shampoo and Conditioner: It’s better to invest in a sun cream instead of large or medium sized shampoo/conditioner bottles. Indian products are just fine and you buy them easily in small amounts in sachets.

7. Pillows: An inflatable pillow is truly a useless item. In case you choose to travel by train in AC class, you will surely get pillows. Even on flights, you get pillows. If you use one on the beach, you’ll like an idiot.

8. Beach ball: Another inflatable piece of wastage. You can’t play soccer with it; a strong gust of wind will soon take it half a mile away. For beach fun, Frisbee is a better option.

I hope the list would help ease you from a lot of unnecessary weight during your next India trip. Enjoy light!

Kumbhalgarh fortress: Known for its massiveness and Imperial display

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People who still aren’t satisfied by ancient and royal fortress of Northern India- Kumbhalgarh fortress is your place.

Hardly, a two hour drive from the Lake City Udaipur through the scenic back drop of lovely Rajasthan hills will take you to Kumbhalgarh, a 15th century Mewar fortress whose boundaries extends for 36 kilometers at an altitude of 1900 meters. Well, all these numbers will give you an idea about what I actually like about Kumbhalgarh – that it’s massive, really massive.

Few say that the top of the palace offers a view of sand dunes of Tahar Desert, but as per my personal exploration you can certainly see the breathtaking extension of the fort itself. World’s second longest wall after Great Wall of China (about 6223 shorter than the Chinese splendor) surrounds the region containing the palace, the birthplace of famous Maharana Pratap, and more than 360 ancient temples, few of which still alive are still standing tall.

Either it’s the size of this ancient site, or simply the fact that most of the tourists in this region end up on popular Mount Abu, but it never seems to be crowded in Kumbhalgarh. Moreover, it also assists if you are ready to take a bit of heat and go there in first half of the day. Many tourists love to combine Kumbhalgarh and Ranakpur in one-day travel from Udaipur, and tend to reach the fort in the noon.

Another thing is that, a walk around the fort will certainly keep you busy. All that spaces, those temples and rooms, and slopes will surely entrap you with its charisma and make you more curious to discover a little more, to get to next group of temples, to walk a little more along the wall. And soon you’ll find yourself so lost in the fort and its massiveness that even the other tourists taking your pictures instead of the fort won’t affect you much.

All those who easily get charmed by this kind of a place, Kumbhalgarh is simply magical.