Wednesday 9 September 2015

Kaas Plateau- Maharashtra's own 'Valley of Flowers'.

When I read about the damage that hordes of tourists have done to the Kaas Plateau, I thank my stars that I went there 5 years ago, in September 2010, when there weren’t many visitors there, (at least when I visited) and when there were no entry fees or fencing around the flowers. For the uninitiated, Kaas plateau is in Satara district of Maharashtra, India and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every year towards the end of the Monsoon season, in September and October, for around 6 weeks, the plateau transforms itself into a carpet of flowers of various hues. No wonder it is called Maharashtra’s own ‘Valley of Flowers’.
Image taken from Naturelyrics
I had travelled with a team which is into environment conservation, called Sprouts Environment Trust.  So that is what made the trip entirely pleasurable. To know why the plateau blooms only during this period, to know that some flowers bloom once in 8 years, to understand the flora and fauna of the region and marvel at Nature’s infinite intelligence and beauty. If people go as regular tourists without knowing the background of the place, like most do, they may end plucking the flowers there, sitting and lying on the flowers, in the process, trampling them, to get the best photo-op, and so on and so forth.

This has happened, and that’s why the government has restricted the number of visitors to 2000 per day and imposed an entry fees of Rs 10 and put up a fencing all along the main areas.

Image taken from Nature Lyrics

The flora of the kaas plateau is very unique to the area. And here’s why. The plateau is largely formed of porous basalt rock which is covered by a thin cover of soil (about an inch) formed due to erosion. Most of the water gets drained off due to the porosity of the rock. That is why there is no vegetation all-round the year. At certain places where water gets accumulated because of the uneven surface is where the flowering plants grow. At the end of the 6 weeks, when the flowers and the plants wither, they decompose and form manure for the next year’s plants and flowers to grow and bloom. That is why extensive plucking of flowers by tourists has damaged the eco-system. Each flower is important even after it withers, for it holds the life for the next season’s bloom.

Surreal sunset
It is said that there are around 850 species of flowering plants in Kaas, including many medicinal varieties, with many in the endangered category. The rich biodiversity of the place includes butterflies and moths, migratory birds, reptiles and mammals. The laterite rock layer allows a rich variety of fungi, lichen, ferns and mosses to thrive.

Image taken from TOI 
We were lucky to see the Karvy flowers (Carvia callosa) in bloom that year, as it blooms only once in 8 years. We saw different patches of the plateau bathed in different hues. Some areas were an endless purple, some glowed with yellow, and some other patches were pink and white. Around late afternoons and evenings, the entire landscape acquires a surreal look with the mellow golden sunlight lighting up the existing riot of colors.

The windmill project at Chalkewadi

Some tips if you are visiting Kaas:
1.    It is advisable to go with a group/team of environmentalists/ botanists/ conservationists/ or people who can help identify the flora and fauna of the region. Trust me, it enhances and enriches your trip manifold.
2.    Do not pluck flowers and be careful not to trample flowers in the process of getting a good photo-op.
3.    Please do not litter and carry a bag in which you can throw trash and bring it back with you.
4.    Use a camera with a good macro function to capture the splendid flowers in close-up.
5.    Carry a light jacket or shawl as it gets a bit chill in the evenings.
6.    Wear good walking shoes as you will have a walk around a lot.
7.    If you are travelling solo, carry a book on the flowers of Kaas which will help you identify the plants and flowers.
8.    The flowering season starts from September to mid-October so plan your trip accordingly.
9.    Go on a weekday if possible to avoid the crowds.
10.  Last but not the least, feast your eyes and soul on Nature’s beauty.

If you plan to go:
-          If you plan on staying overnight you will have to stay in Satara as there is no accommodation up on the Kaas plateau
-          Other nearby places to visit are the Thosegar waterfalls and the Chalkewadi windmill project around 24 kms from Satara.

Friday 4 September 2015

A Day in Mysore

In 2014, during my trip to the Rainforest Retreat near Madikeri, where I went as a volunteer, I decided to stop over for a day in Mysore to explore the city. I was there only for 24 hours, but tried my best to squeeze in as much of the culinary and cultural delights the city has to offer. So in case you visit Mysore, here's a rough guide you can use to get your way around. 

Sagu dosa at Vinayaka Mylari
8.30 am- Head out for some lip-smacking traditional breakfast at Vinayaka Mylari at Nazarbad road. I had sagu dosa served with coconut chutney served on banana leaf and washed it down with delicious filter coffee. Things had started on a great note. Before arriving in the city in the morning, I had got in touch with Royal MysoreWalks, a team that conducts guided heritage, food and cultural walks and tours in Mysore. 

The softest idlis from Vinayaka Mylari. 
Thaali from Dasaprakash.

9.30 am : Ananth, a very cheerful and interesting guide with the Royal Mysore Walks, enlightened me on how various important world events are connected to Mysore, and little known aspects of Mysore's history that includes the Tamil Nadu CM, Jayalalitha's grandmother being the first woman graduate in Mysore, and how upon losing a war, the British took Tipu Sultan's young sons , aged 9 and 7 as war hostages!! He had also carried vintage photos from Mysore's past. It was interesting, when at the 125 yr old market, he held up a 100 yr old photo so that we could compare the past and present.  The sight of the Free Mason's (Secret Societies) building piqued my curiosity! Also the RMW requires a minimum of 2 people for the tour in which case the fees would be Rs 600. I travelled solo and there was no one else who had booked, so I paid double.

Haalbai- a sweet made with rice flour, coconut and cardamom. 

The market, then and now. 
11.30 am – You could visit the Mysore zoo, which is one of the oldest zoos in India. Entry charges are Rs 50. Although I hate the idea of animals being kept in the zoo, I was a bit relieved to see that all the animals and birds looked healthy and had ample space to move around unlike some other zoos I’ve been to where animals look depressed and almost famished. I saw giraffes, rhinos, white tigers and a host of other animal and bird species.

Endless cups of frothing filter coffee. 

Chow chow bhath- a serving of Upma and sheera- a staple Karnataka breakfast. 

1 pm - Mysore has some lovely eateries which offer traditional Mysore food. Check my post on what to eat in Mysore. I headed to Dasaprakash for their thali. I wanted to sample the food for which the late Wodeyar Maharaja is said to have visited this restaurant sometimes. The thali comprised chapatis, rice, rasam, brinjal curry with gravy, masala rice and another non-descript vegetable. It wasn’t that remarkable but I loved the kheer/payasam was which was made with rice, coconut milk and jaggery.

The Mysore Palace from outside. Photography is not allowed inside. 
Dahi vada.

Vanilla ice cream from Brahmin's Soda factory. 
2.30 pm - Head to the famed Mysore palace and be charmed by the royalty and also escape the afternoon sun outside. It’s a sprawling palace so leisurely stroll inside the three storied structure designed by the English Architect, Henry Irwin. You’ll get to see sculpted pillars, a golden throne embedded with jewels, paintings and shrines. Photography is prohibited inside the palace premises. The palace is illuminated on Sundays, Public Holidays as well as during the Dasara Celebrations with 97,000 electric bulbs.

4 pm- if you are an art aficionado, a visit to the Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery will be worth your time. On display are original paintings of the legendary painter Raja Ravi Varma. Did you know he was the first artist to give a popular face to Indian Gods and Goddesses through his paintings? Prior to that people worshipped statues, sculptures and miniature paintings. And he also designed the sari as we know it today and the way women almost throughout the country drape the sari today is fashioned on how he draped the Goddesses and women in his paintings. The museum also displays possessions and souvenirs of the Mysore royal family such as rare musical instruments, Japanese art, and other memorabilia.

The Sarasaparilla soda
5.30 pm - For a quick refreshment head to the Brahmin Soda Factory for ice creams or fruit salads. It’s a small place which gets cramped with people seated facing each other like in a train coach. I had the ice cream and also Sarasaparilla juice which is an extract of the roots of a plant by the same name and is believed to have health benefits. It was very refreshing and more like flavored water.

The flower lane at the market.

6.00 pm - You could explore the 125 yrs old Mysore market with different lanes dedicated to different items like fruit, vegetables, flowers, etc. Nothing gives you a taste of the pulse of a place than its old markets abuzz with people, flies, aromas, colors and textures. In the corner facing the main road you’ll see Guru Sweet Mart. Ever wondered the origins of the famed sweet Mysore pak?. This is your answer. This shop was started by the descendants of Kakasura Madappa, the royal chef, who made the Mysore pak for the then king in the early 1900's. The fifth generation of the inventor of the Mysore pak still runs this shop. For a place which has such a legend attached to it the shop is ridiculously small, just 5 x 5 feet. The Mysore pak itself didn't taste great and was a let down. So please do taste before you buy 2 kilos, which I happily did assuming it would be great.

The fifth generation of the inventor of the Mysore pak. Great great grandson of Kakasura Madappa who made the Mysore pak for the then king.

The original Mysore pak shop.

And entire lane dedicated to bananas in the market. 

A special Mysore banana called nanjangud rasabale. It was buttery and melt in the mouth and delicious. I bought half a dozen for my husband too.

7 pm- Either head out for the light and sound show at the Mysore Palace which lasts for 40 minutes and narrates the history of Mysore Kingdom, the rule of Wodeyars, etc through the combination of sound and light. Or else head to the Cauvery Handicrafts Emporium, which is run by the government and has many branches across the city to take home gifts and souvenirs. I bought some lovely bookmarks made of and carved on sandalwood and some Mysore Sandal soaps and sandal scented incense sticks. You are in the sandalwood capital after all!!
Set Dosa at Hotel Siddhartha.
8.30- Head out for sumptuous dinner at Hotel Siddhartha. I ordered a set dosa which was spongy and came with coconut chutney, coriander chutney and sambar. Never the one to say ‘no’ to filter coffee, I ended my meal and my trip to Mysore with a frothing cup of steaming coffee. It was time to head to my hotel and leave for home the next day. 

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Wednesday 12 August 2015

Journey of a Handwoven Piece of Fabric- Photo story

In the few days that I spent at Bhujodi, during my Kutch trip, painting a wall outside  the award-winning Master weaver Dayabhai Ala's home, I had the opportunity to observe how the shawls and saris that we adorn ourselves with, evolves from the thread to the beautiful fabrics ready for use. Here's the photo story....

At Bhujodi, in Ashok bhai's house, bundles of thread are bought by the kilo from Ludhiana..This one is merino wool thread..

The strands of thread are separated so that it doesn't get entangled.

                  A closer look..

Water being boiled for the starch..

The starch used is that from wheat..

The separated thread is then dipped into the starch..

The entire length of the thread..

 The drying process starts early in the morning to benefit maximum from the sun..

 The whole family gets busy with the drying process..

The threads are then combed to separate the strands again..

The special comb..:-)

The dried and starched thread is then spun onto a bobbin which is then used on the loom

 The master weaver at work.  The shawls/saris are either dyed after being woven or in some cases the thread is dyed and then woven.

And finally they are ready to fly to new homes and closets..:-)

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Wall Art at Just-Being Counselling Center.

Last week, I did a wall-art with a Mathematician friend, in a counselling center, Just Being, ( They expressed their desire to have some blue in the art for its calming effect, so we drew a mermaid, dolphins and other water elements.

Friday 24 July 2015

Monsoon Trek to Sudhagad

I had been postponing going for trekking for no particular reason, ever since coming to Pune. Then last Saturday morning, I thought to myself, "It's either now or never". I browsed through the Pune Hikers calender and zeroed in on 2 treks, one to the Torna Fort also called Prachandagad and the other to Sudhagad. I called up both the organizers and was told both treks are graded 'easy'. That was important because my muscles must have got atrophied due to lack of serious treks and trails in the last 7 years. I confirmed my presence with both organizers and luckily that day being Eid, it was a bank holiday so I was told I could make the payment in person. I woke up at 4 a.m the next morning with only around 4 hours of sleep after a late night dinner. I sat for the first 5 minutes swinging between trekking and sleeping more. Luckily I chose the former. The next dilemma at 4.05 in the morning was to choose between Torna and Sudhagad. I sat and browsed for 10 minutes reading up more about both and realized that no other trekking group had listed Sudhagad. So it was Sudhagad, I got ready and left home at 5.30 a.m. 

Sudhagad is located in Raigad district, and as we descended the ghats and approached Thakurwadi which is the base village for the trek, I could sense the air getting heavier with moisture, as Raigad is closer to the coastline. Shivaji Maharaj, the warrior king of Maharashtra and my childhood hero is said to have made Sudhagad as one of his main bases. It also happens to be a replica of the Raigad fort which was Shivaji's headquaters.

We reached Thakurvadi, a small village with a few houses scattered and malnourished men, women and children around. After a short brief, we started our climb at 10.30 am. The trek passes through amazing landscapes, dense foliage, giant trees, gnarled roots, twisted creepers, chirping birds and above all, right at the top, at 2030 feet above sea level, you get to swallow clouds..:-) We started trekking at 10.30 a.m and wound up by 6.45 p.m with a half hour lunch break. That's around 7.5 hours of continuous walking on rough terrain. Luckily I've been jogging since a few months and didn't find the trek difficult. Of course, once I sat in the bus, drenched to the bones (I had not carried a change of clothing and it had rained heavily on and off), my legs throbbed with pain due to the cold!! 

Sudhagad seen from the base village Thakurvadi

giant leaves...
The photo below was taken on a rusty and rickety ladder and short bridge connecting two cliffs of sorts, with the ground many meters below. The bridge was shaking as we walked on it, it was drizzling but so as to not give this excellent shot a pass,  I slowly pulled out the camera with my shaky hands and clicked this..:-) 

Can't see me shivering, can you? 

The various shades of green was so refreshing....

The buffalo with blue horns said' Hi'
 Once we reached the top, I noticed these white lines criss-crossing everywhere. On looking closer I noticed that these white lines were translucent and were sandwiched between the black rocks. At many points they intersected  and formed triangles like the picture below. The triangle appeared like a vortex into another realm to my hyperactive imagination..:-) I decided to stand in the centre of each triangle hoping for something extra ordinary! Well nothing remarkable happened but I was anyways immensely happy walking in the clouds. The first few triangles I stood on, I released a fervent wish into ether. For the subsequent triangles, I just decided to focus on my inner silence and be in sync with whatever I was experiencing- sheer beauty and happiness..:-)  

Just as there were these translucent crystalline lines, there were also while clumps of crystal scattered everywhere..:-)

A 'wada' or housing colony from Shivaji's era. The current owner of this house is a priest in a nearby anciant Shiva temple and offers food to trekkers and travellers.

The surreal landscape....

Our eyes can never tire of such beauty...

The 'nandi' outside the Shiva temple..

all the rocks, stones and pebbles were covered with bright green moss..:-)

The trees stood adorned with bright, beautiful creepers...:-)

A water reservoir which used to provide drinking water to the troops and residents of the fort..

walking alongside the rampart of the fort..

The secret escape route which piqued my interest..:-) The steps were very steep, slippery leading to a short dark tunnel...

 .....and then to a small exit. One had to crouch to come out...

We walked for long in the clouds. Words cannot to justice to that experience..:-) It also rained heavily for some time and the rains at the top with the strong wind literally and figuratively blew me away..:-) 

In the picture below are tombstones for the soldiers.

This 3.5 yr old kid was the star attraction in the group. He is only 3.5 yrs old and has already completed 6 treks. He was accompanied by his father. He walked all the way up and down and his father only carried him where the steps were steep or when there was too much water anywhere. He kept us entertained with his innocent and curious questions. 

This is the main entrance to the fort, viewed from top. Like all other entrances of Shivaji's forts, this one too is concealed and not entirely visible from the front, unless you go closer. It was constructed so as to make it difficult for enemies to get to the fort and buy the soldiers more time to prepare.

The main gate up close...

On the corners of the entrance is the carving of this mythical animal crushing 2 elephants under it's feet. It symbolized that no matter how strong the enemy was, Shivaji's troops were ready to crush and defeat them.

This is called the Takmak- Tok, a cliff from where prisoners were pushed to death. I wondered why they chose such a beautiful place to mete out such a harsh punishment. But anyways, the view was lovely and we could see clouds rising from below and engulfing us.

Right at the edge..!!

I saw this cute little calf on the way back and one of the other members in the group who has a farm in Chennai said the calf is just 2 days old. I wanted to go and hug the calf but decided against it because it's mother was nearby..! 

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