In an aluminum cigar

Flying during the night is tiring, and in the day it is boring. I finished a hefty daytime shot of whisky and depolarized a window to look out of the Dreamliner flying from Delhi to Shanghai. Some time earlier The Family had spotted the unmistakable profile of Everest poking out of the northern horizon. Now I looked down to see a network of rivers. A quick look at the flight map verified that we were flying over the floodplains of Bangladesh, a little north of Dhaka. Somewhere down there, if I knew where to look, would be the village where my grandmother was born.

A Dreamliner’s pace can seem slow, until you try to take a photo. Then you realize how quickly features in the landscape eleven kilometers below you slip away. After putting down my beer chaser, I found our path had curved past the Shan highlands of Myanmar towards Qunming. We were more than halfway to Shanghai, and sitting on top of a sea of white clouds. Time to click through the movie menu again.

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Stopping by a beach on a hot morning

When I was looking for a hotel in Pamban island, one suggestion thrown up by a search was on Aryaman beach. I searched for this beach and found it described in superlatives: silky sand, long beach, beautiful, uncrowded. But it was ten kilometers away from Pamban, on the mainland, so we decided not to stay here. But it sounded like the perfect place to stop after an early check out when we left Rameswaram. Our plan to spend the morning here, eat something on the beach if possible, and then to go on to Madurai.

Sathiamoorthy was excited about it. While driving he told us that it became famous after it was used as a location for a blockbuster Tamil movie. I filed the information away to check on later. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to search out this movie (if you have a clue, please leave a comment). As he parked he said that something should be done to improve the beach. Why, was it dirty? No, there was just no place to eat here.

It is a lovely beach. The sand is indeed silky smooth. The beach slopes very gently into the calm waters of the Palk Strait. It was a hot day; we saw a few families with children taking dips in the sea. Little fish swam in the shallow wate. We spotted a turtle swim away into the sea. But for our tastes the sea was too calm, almost a swimming pool. The lack of waves also meant that there was no breeze. If we’d been here really early, we might have enjoyed a long walk along the beach. You can see in the featured photo how long it is. But it was getting too hot for comfort, and we called an end to our morning. We had miles to go before lunch.

Grand old dump

The 150 year old dump which you can see in the photo above is regularly featured as the most precarious heritage building in Mumbai. It was known as Watson’s Hotel in the 19th century CE, and is now sometimes called Esplanade House. I’m afraid to walk below it, because parts of it do drop off now and then. I’m sure it will collapse this year, but it is not impossible that you could win this bet against me. What fascinates me about it is that it is the oldest cast-iron building in India: older than the Eiffel Tower.

By the air conditioners that you can see, the building is still occupied. There is a store on the ground floor. The heritage council has recommended immediate structural restoration more than a decade back. The municipal council legally has the power to force the owners to start repairs when a building is structurally unsound and has tenants. This has not happened. Elsewhere in Mumbai, owners were sometimes left with strategic pieces of real estate without the encumbrance of tenants when old buildings collapsed.

Enigma, wrapped in Mystery

Every travel blogger, whether hunched over a keyboard or relaxing with a drink, is a little Amundsen struggling across unmapped ice fields, or a closet Schliemann dynamiting a way to their own Troy. But sometimes one fails. Sometimes, one is a luckier Scott, one who lives to tell the story of one’s failure.

My attempt to visit Rumi ka Maqbara in Ujjain was a failure, which resulted in a single photo, the one you see above. When I saw this name in Wikipedia’s list of places to see in Ujjain, I was intrigued enough to search for more. Very little is written about this tomb, and sources even differ on the century of its construction. Is it from the 15th or 17th century CE?

And this Rumi, who was he? Certainly not the Sufi poet Jalal ud-din Rumi, because he is buried in Turkey. After some search, I found a description of late medieval Sufi traditions, called silsila, which lead to something which might be closer to the truth. I knew nothing about Sufism, except for their increasingly popular modern remnants: the songs. Could this be the tomb of Khizr Rumi Qalandar? The Qalandari sect was founded by a Spanish muslim in the 13th century CE, and the Anatolian, Rumi Qalandar, appeared in Delhi in the 13th century CE. He and the Chishti saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki instructed each other in the mysteries of their own Sufi traditions. Khizr Rumi began the Qalandaria-Chishtia tradition of India. He could well be the Rumi whose maqbara I was reading about, because this kind of syncretic Sufism was a very popular alternative to the state supported Islam of Malwa in the 14th century. I can’t be certain about the connection without knowing more about the history of the structure I wanted to see. But if all this speculation is correct, then the tomb could be from the late 13th or 14th century CE.

Google maps has a pointer to this place, and even a photo of the tomb. It looks completely different from the usual Indo-Afghan or Mughal tombs that I have seen. So we decided to drive there, and promptly lost our way. The place is not accurately mapped in Google (the photo is correct), but we came to a Muslim cemetery at the place that Google puts the maqbara. People there knew about the tomb, and gave us precise and correct directions to it. Following their directions, we came to a mound on top of which the tomb, not visible from the road, sits.

Later we found a signboard which correctly points to the tomb. But first we turned to a motorable road up the mound. This was a mistake. We should have parked the car and walked up the mound. After much fruitless searching and querying of locals, glimpses of the tomb from a distance, we came to a very well-maintained farmhouse on top of the hillock. Across fields I could see the tomb. There was no one to ask permission from, so I walked into the farm as far as I could go. A wall and another farm lay between me and the tomb. I clicked the photo that you see, and got back to the car just before it started raining. We decided to circle the mound once more, and this time we found the signboard and the right path. But it had started raining hard, and this muddy path between fields had turned into a gummy slush.

So close! Very reluctantly we gave up. Another time I have to return to take photos of the inscriptions in the tomb, and find someone to decipher for me the riddle of the enigmatic Rumi whose mysterious tomb this is.

Through clouds

The monsoon set in as a yearly phenomenon when the Tibetan plateau was lifted up by India crashing into the Asian continental plate. This was about 50 million years ago, when the earth was a hothouse, and the first ice sheets of the Antarctic were still 15 million years in the future. So, when it comes to descriptions of the monsoon, almost anything that can be said about it has been said already. Every so often I’m surprised by the aptness with which millennium old Sanskrit poems describe the monsoon. The one experience that is new, that perhaps the generations living now are seeing for the first time, is of flying through the weather.

Coming back from work recently, I spent an hour in the middle of rainclouds driven by monsoon winds. There is a constant turbulence, little sinking feelings in your stomach that you learn to ignore. Outside the window is a wonderful show of clouds and light. The poets of these sights are probably beginning their careers now.

The Romance of Travel

Is there a romance of travel? I’m old enough to have spent my youth traveling in trains and buses across the country when it could take a full day to get from Bengaluru to Mumbai, or two from Mumbai to Kolkata. Was that romantic? In hindsight, maybe. Most of the actual travel time was bothersome or boring. Bothersome when you ran out of water, or were trying to find a reasonable lunch; boring when you would stare out of the window at the passing countryside for two hours, framed by power cables in catenary motion.

Later, The Family and I took our backpacks on to state transport buses across the country, getting from one remote temple to another far-away ruin. This was also romantic only in memory. At that time we would cover our faces against the dust, and attempt to make desultory conversation with the couple sitting across us with a basket of squawking chicken on their lap.

On the other hand, when I look out of the window after boarding a flight and see other aircrafts lined up at the gates next to us, my heart still lurches. I forget my papers and meetings for a moment. The possibilities of travel seem limitless. Where are those others going? Indore, Imphal, Incheon? Jodhpur, Jakarta? Khartoum?

Indore plans

Some years ago, The Family and I went for a very short holiday to Mandu. The way lies through Indore. We spent only a couple of hours in the town on the way back. I remember seeing some cenotaphs (chhatris) of the 19th century Holkar rulers (photo below). We walked through a place called the Sarafa Bazar and found it interesting but less than spotlessly clean. Today Indore is ranked the cleanest city in India. There’s an interesting story behind this transformation. It is also something that made us think of going back to see the city.

Perhaps as a result of this clean up, the street food scene in Indore is something that gets lots of attention on blogs. I saw blogs by Selcouth Explorer, the former Dilliwali Taste Memory, the local expert Megha and the wonderfully named Follow the Eaten Path rave about street food, but naming very different things to eat. There is clearly a lot of variety when it comes to street food of Indore. Two places which crop up over and over again in stories about food in Indore are Sarafa bazar, which is apparently open till two in the morning, and Chhappan dukan in New Palasia, which has 56 different food stalls. I guess the question of where to eat will become an issue in Indore.

Historically, Indore rose with the Maratha empire. In the first third of the 18th century the Nizam granted rights to the Malwa kindom over to the Peshwa, who then handed the town of Indore and the district of Malwa to the Holkar chieftains. Indore remained the main garrison town although Ahilyabai moved the capital to nearby Maheshwar thirty years later. The palace complex of Rajwada was built in 1866, after this move. I discovered some photos from our visit (the door above, and the featured photo) which turn out to be of Rajwada. The Family and I have no independent memory of having been here: so I guess we will go back to see it. The Lalbagh Palace, which also seems to be one of the major sights, was built by a Holkar well after the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818. We have certainly not seen this. Nor have we seen the Jain temple made of glass, the nearby Jama Masjid, the three century old Khajrana temple, or the less well-known British era red and white churches.

Indore is the gateway to several interesting places nearby. The Family and I have already been to Mandu and Maheshwar. I visited Omkareshwar a while back. So there are few other places to see nearby. Is Dhar interesting enough to make a one and a half hour drive? If we have to take one trip out of Indore, would we rather go to Ujjain, which has been continuously inhabited since 700 BCE? This means that I have to read a lot more.

A monsoon drive: Dharwad to Goa

I had to decide how to travel from Dharwad to Mumbai. My meeting ended about noon. Then there are three choices: wait the night and take a morning’s flight from Dharwad to Mumbai, fly to Mumbai with a change in Bengaluru, drive to Goa and fly to Mumbai. In this season, right at the beginning of the monsoon, I decided that the third choice would be the most scenic; the route passes close to a very large tract of protected forest as it descends from the Deccan plateau to the Konkan coast by way of the Western Ghats. It also turned out to be the fastest.

We started an hour after noon, and I was told that the drive would be four hours long. I was not inclined to believe that. The map showed the distance to be 163 Kilometers. “Three hours,” I thought to myself, feeling a little annoyed with the driver when he hit a speed of 100 Kilometers and hour right outside Dharwad. I realized that I had no chance of photographing the very interesting road signs that began to appear right after we got on to the highway. The few roadside businesses petered out very soon. The last one that I saw had these impressively large tires. The highway was full of trucks which could have stopped for one of them.

In less than half an hour we had left these establishments behind. In India you are never too far from people. We passed smaller villages every few kilometers. Houses were generally of brick, with roofs of fired clay tiles. They seemed to use hardly any mortar, but often a few walls would be plastered and painted with bright chemical paint. The photo above shows a typical hut. I noticed that huts are generally built in the shade of a large tree. Summers must be killing up in these highlands.

I’d left without having anything to eat. The driver also wanted lunch, but he had a destination in mind. I kept looking out for roadside establishments, but couldn’t spot much. We’d left the farmlands behind, and were in forest now. The abandoned shack that you see in the photo above was typical of business premises in this area. Only a smatter of plastic garbage testified to the fact that it does serve food sometimes.

The beautiful forest took my mind off my fast depleting levels of energy. I like taking stop-motion videos in rides like these. The video above is speeded up ten times. We covered a little more than ten kilometers through the jungle in the part of the video which you see above. The rain was a little intermittent drizzle, and the sun broke through every now and then. The nearly empty road, the watery light, and the green rain forest around us created a magic ambience. I was happy to have made this choice.

Around the midway point we pulled into a larger village called Ramnagar. A small eatery here was the place that the driver was aiming for. He’d told me earlier that the vada pav here was good. I ordered one and found it delicious. Crisp vada covering wonderfully spiced potato served in the usual sourdough pav, with some chopped onions and a garlic chutney. I’m too wimpish to bite into the optional fried green chili. I washed it down with a chai. A family on the road sat at the next table and had a lunch plate; the children asked why there were no noodles in this place. I was still a little peckish. I ordered a second. The driver was still on his chai. I stood outside the shop, taking in the sight of this roadside village as I finished my second vada pav.

We were a little more than halfway, and it had taken us two hours. The road would now rise into the ghats before descending quickly into the Konkan coastland. We started on the rise soon after the break. This was forest land. I saw a Hornbill fly above us, a little ahead. When I messaged this, the instant question that came back was “Which Hornbill?” What a horrible bunch of expert birders I talk to! I didn’t get that good a sighting, but I thought it was a Malabar pied Hornbill. The sighting had come and gone too fast to record. Soon we began to descend. Our snaking path took us repeatedly across a channel of water which grew as we descended. We stopped finally at a point where the road became wider with a culvert and a shoulder. Several cars were parked there, and groups of people were peering at the stream which flowed below the big culvert. Lower down this would apparently turn into the Dudhsagar waterfall. So we were at the beginning of the Mandovi river. The featured photo was taken here: the wooded lowlands are Goa.

The last bit of the drive took us through the charming villages of south Goa. I love this part of the country, but I always wonder about living next to a highway. I see beautifully painted houses, clean, with a little garden in front of it. The village store, the post office, a place of worship, and people striding about on work, stopping for a spot of gossip. We sped through it all. The video above shows part of this drive; if you look at it, watch the villages on the sides of the road. The large bridge that we cross is over the Zuari river. In one drive we crossed both of the main rivers of Goa!

Wild Iris

At altitudes above 1.5 Kilometers, we kept seeing Iris growing wild on the slopes. Dilsher had used these local flowers as borders in his hotel. I sat down with my camera and took several shots of these elegant flowers. It is interesting to see the buds open up. The petals are rolled and twisted inside the buds, as you can see.

When I read up about this, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is called the Graceful Himalayan Iris. A lovely name for a lovely flower. The entry in Flowers of India says that it can be found at altitudes of between 1.8 and 4 kilometers. I’m sure these borders are a little elastic, because I definitely saw some at 1.6 Kilometers. In its wild state it grows in the open, so gardeners will probably have to make sure that it is not planted in shade.

Grass

When you think of Kaziranga, the picture that comes to mind is of rhinos grazing peacefully in open grasslands. This is true. But many other things are also true. There is a lot of water, which hides rare otters and turtles. There are trees and forests. In fact, the silk cotton tree is a pest which is threatening to take over the grassland. There are elephants, swamp deer, tigers, wild pigs, and hog deer.

The gallery which you see here is a little kaleidoscope of images from Kaziranga, each featuring grass. Click on one and scroll through for a larger format, if you wish.