Thursday 19 November 2015

Wall Art for the Entrance of a Community Center- Pune.

A couple who run a community center in Pune requested if I could spruce up and add some colour outside the entrance of their home before Diwali. So I happily did. I painted my own version of giant morning glory flowers and bright orange butterflies. Total painted area was approximately 6.5 feet height x 13 feet width.

Traditional Vegetarian Dishes to try out in Mangalore.

On our way back after a stay in a verdant organic farm in Sullia, we stopped for a day in Mangalore to explore what we could in 24 hours. While I would be writing about Sullia as well Mangalore in the following posts, let me focus on food first. I’ve always enjoyed Karnataka cuisine for its flavours and varieties, and Mangalore was no different. In fact food in Mangalore goes beyond the regular varieties of idli and dosas even for vegetarians like me. If you are in Mangalore next time, do sample these traditional delicacies.
Idlis steamed in banana leaves.
Plantain leaf steamed idlis: Instead of steaming batter in regular idli moulds, the batter is poured into a banana leaf rolled into the shape of a cylindrical holder and then steamed. It was fun to unroll the banana leaf and then dig into cylindrical idlis. We had this as part of our breakfast at New Taj Mahal café.
Mangalore buns
Mangalore buns: This was a true delight to the taste buds. These buns are not baked but are deep fried. Ripe bananas mixed with the dough lend it a mildly sweet taste. These airy, light and fluffy banana puris are served with coconut chutney and sambar. We had this for dinner at a restaurant called Chutney (Hotel Deepa Comforts) and also when are bus stopped enroute Pune.

Biscuit Rotti
Biscuit Rotti: This popular Mangalorean snack is neither a biscuit nor a rotti but an equivalent of a kachori, crisp on the outside and with stuffing inside. The stuffing was made of fried and flavoured grated coconut. We had this as part of our breakfast at New Taj Mahal café.

Ambade: These are fritters or vadas made from ground black gram batter. It reminded me of medu vadas but in a spherical form. It was absolutely delicious, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and bursting with flavours of curry leaves, green chillies, ginger and black pepper.
Neer Dosa
Neer dosa: This is a melt in the mouth soft dosa with a silky smooth texture. As opposed to the regular dosas made out of rice and black gram, this dosa uses only rice and coconut. This was served with coconut chutney too. Wish restaurants in Pune served this too. This one is surely on my try-out list.
Banana podi
Banana podi: These are scrumptious but very oily banana fritters or bhajjis. This is made from the delicious Nenthra pazham abundant in coastal Kerala and Karnataka. I’ve had this in Kerala and my grandma used to make this too.
Special Gadbad.

Pabba's special.
Pabba’s ice creams: Ice-creams, need I say more. But the specialty of Pabba’s is in the variety of flavours and sundaes and milk shakes they come up with. We had the special Gadbad sundae, which had scoops of butterscotch, strawberry and vanilla ice cream interspersed with layers of jelly and fresh and dry fruit. Another one we tried was Pabba’s special where we chose the chikku, butterscotch and roasted almond flavours of ice creams, topped with black currant, chocolate, honey and dry fruits. Need I say they were lip-smacking!!

Image taken from
Nenthra pazham: If you’ve never tasted this variety of banana, make sure you do in Mangalore. It is typically longer than the green bananas with a fruit that has a slight orange and peach tint of colour. This banana is used for making fritters/bhajjis, halva and even kheer/payasam.

Yellow coconuts
Yellow coconuts: The bright yellow of the coconuts on the road side caught my attention. Although I was told that the taste of the coconut water would be no different from the green ones, I still wanted to taste it for the colour J And I did, and you may too if you like yellow!

Filter coffee

Filter coffee
I never miss a chance to wash down my food with a steaming cup of filter coffee and there were plenty in Mangalore. Coffee tastes as delicious from a cup and saucer as in a traditional tumbler and bowl ! 

We spilt our breakfast, lunch and dinner between two restaurants. One was Chutney, in Hotel Deepa Comforts on MG Road. The place is air-conditioned which could be important as Mangalore could get very sultry. The other restaurant was New Taj Mahal cafe in Kodailbail. It's a no-frill restaurant where there is no menu card. On , people had reviewed the waiters as being very rude, but luckily our waiter was very sweet and even gave suggestions and explained the dishes. I had done some research on traditional Mangalorean cuisine so I knew what to ask for. Or else they would just recommend dosa and idli in the absence of a menu card. Other recommendations for traditional vegetarian Mangalorean cuisine which we got from the locals but couldn't visit were Janata Deluxe, Woodlands, Ayodhya and Kudla Rasa Prakash! Will surely visit these on my next trip if there is!!

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Volunteering for Wall-art at Bhujodi, Kutch.

One of the reasons I went to Kutch was with the idea of volunteering for wall-art. I didn't know how and where but just knew I wanted to and that I would! Luckily the Director of Khamir, Meera, put me in touch with one of the more influential people in Bhujodi village, called Chaman Bhai, and I was all set for my wall-art there.

I went around with Chaman Bhai exploring different options of walls which could be painted and also talking to the village people about what they would like to see on the wall. I wanted an expansive canvas for wall-art and finally found one: the facade of the house belonging to Dayabhai Ala, an award winning weaver. The wall was painted with an advertisement of JK Cement which I got white washed. There was also a notice board on the wall and it was the main wall of the village where people would gather for important meetings and to read instructions/notices, etc, on the notice board.

The wall was 22 feet wide and 13 feet height and I completed that in 4 days. At the end of it, each muscle of mine was sore, and I had tanned 5 shades, but every bit was worth it. I stood on a drum to paint the upper parts of the wall, with a constant buzz of inquisitive children, village elders and wandering cows, who tried to chew the cardboard box in which I had kept the paints, twice.

Bhujodi is a village entirely of handloom weavers. And they also follow the legacy of the 15th century saint-poet, Kabir. So some of the motifs they wanted on the wall was Sant Kabir, a loom, a doha of the saint, and the motifs used in weaving which is typically geometric patterns, as you will see in the images. The doha the village people wanted was 'Patta toota daali se, le gayi pawan udaye, abke bichhde kab mile, dur padenge jaaye', which means leaves fall from trees and the wind carries them far away, and that is the way of life too. In the earlier days, the weaver community  had a symbiotic relationship with the nomadic Rabari community of shepherds. The shepherds would provide wool for weaving to the weavers and the weavers would in turn provide temporary shelter to the nomads. So I also incorporated motifs of the nomadic tribes in the wall-art. Let me take you through the images.

The completed wall. 

Vankar Dayabhai Ala, the house owner and award winning artisan/weaver.

Peacock and bird motifs used in embroidery by the nomadic Rabari community.

The Rabari herdsman with a camel and goat. The cactus represents the vegetation of the region. 

The Tree of Life made with weaving motifs. 

Sant Kabir and his tanpura. 

Add caption

The sun and the clouds.

Sant Kabir's doha, Patta toota daali se, le gayi pawan udaye, abke bichhde kab mile, dur padenge jaaye, which means leaves fall from trees and the wind carries them far away, and that is the way of life too. 

The loom. 

That's me beaming that the mural is finally over. 

Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Wonders of Abdominal Breathing.

If you’ve met me in the last one year, chances are you would have received an unsolicited lecture on abdominal breathing. I can ‘see’ some of you smiling! I thought I must share this with a wider audience as this may benefit some others as it has benefitted me. It was 2 years ago that my husband and I learnt Kriya yoga. While I don’t practice the entire breathing sequence, what stuck to me is abdominal breathing which is used in Kriya yoga.

So let me tell you how I discovered this magical tool which is available anywhere, anytime and free of cost! Last year in November, I was diagnosed with dengue and was hospitalized. Although I knew about belly breathing, it did not occur to me how it had benefitted me until I was discharged from the hospital. In the hospital, my husband stood by my bedside asking me to take deep breaths through my stomach. Though I was weak, I did as much and for as long as I could. As soon as I was discharged from the hospital I was up and about. I did not feel excessively weak as is the case with dengue cases (which I realized much later). I was discharged on 25th November evening and 27th early morning at 5 am I was off with my husband to attend the Passing Out Parade (POP) at the National Defense Academy (NDA). My Mother thought I was crazy. But that was an event I was looking forward to for many months and I was feeling well enough to go.

People who came to visit me at home were surprised when I myself opened the door and was helping my Mom in the kitchen. They expected to see me bed-ridden. Exactly a week after I was discharged, we met two dear Army friends. The gentleman remarked that he couldn’t believe I was in the hospital just last week as he had seen many able bodied Army men look like zombies for 2 months after a dengue attack. Another hilarious incident happened when 2 weeks after returning from the hospital, my brother-in-law from Chennai, decided to pay a surprise visit to see how I was recuperating. I had just returned from a jog and was cooking breakfast when he came. He looked really confused about my condition. My Mother kept informing me of people who even two months later enquired very sympathetically about my health.

It was then I wondered about why I had literally and almost instantly sprung back to good health. The answer was clear: Belly breathing! Since then I have been practicing belly breathing for all ailments and physical and emotional too and giving unsolicited lectures on it to unsuspecting people ;-)
Whether it’s an itchy throat signaling the onset of fever (in my case), or a headache, or even indigestion or feeling stuffed after overeating, I do abdominal breathing and I’m back to normal. In May sometime, I went for a jog without a warm up (don’t ask me why), and suddenly while jogging I felt a shooting pain on my right calf muscle. I had to stop and limp back to my house. For 2 days I went around limping and no amount of stretching or pain balms helped. I don’t know why but only on the 3rd day it occurred to me that I should try belly breathing. I did and next day onwards I was walking normally and 3rd day onwards I was back to jogging. I was surprised! Now my husband too had a knee injury from running since January and medicines and Physiotherapy wasn’t helping too. So after breathing had cured me of my severe catch on my leg, I asked my husband to try that for his knee. Without exaggeration, the pain which had been with him for 5 months disappeared in less than a week’s time!

Even right before my Himachal trip, just a week before, I had sprained my right ankle by missing a step. As soon as I fell down, my first thought was, “Gosh my trip is in 6 days”. Almost instantly I remembered the abdominal breathing and did that almost continuously. And needless to say, I did go on my trip, walked a lot, climbed trees, etc. My ankle did feel wobbly at times and I pacified it with breathing.

Fast forward to 2 days back. On Thursday, last week, I cut my tongue while eating, and it was very painful. I saw that there was a boil like growth where it was painful and I had slurred speech on Thursday and Friday. I was worried about how I would host guests who were visiting the next 2 days. I decided to try the breathing on the boil. I sat down and did a 100 breaths and went about my work. Suddenly while talking to my husband, I realized I wasn’t slurring and there was no pain. I rolled my tongue on the roof of mouth and still no pain. The boil had disappeared! This was really a miracle!

Another important and remarkable recovery was that of my Father-in-laws’. Around two years ago, he was diagnosed with the first stages of Parkinson’s disease. And when he came to visit us in Pune last year in August, he was already around 10 months into the illness and had been on medication for the same. My husband taught him belly breathing and insisted that he must do 100 breaths each day without fail. And within two months there was no trace of Parkinson’s!

Even when I’m emotionally disturbed or angry or even when I sense anger/frustration rising in me, I just breathe and I’m fine and able to be more objective about the situation. And yes, breathing has made me happier!

Now-a-days, I breathe through the belly whenever I remember and I’m conscious of it, like, while I’m typing this. If I am not regularly breathing through the stomach, I sit down and do belly breathing for as long as possible, sometimes for upto one hour. Whenever I have tried it, it has worked and I am still discovering its benefits with each passing day.

How to do it: Doesn’t matter if you are sitting, standing, sleeping! Just take deep breaths through the belly. It means, feel your belly expanding and contracting with each breath. For any ailment in a specific part of the body, you need to use your imagination a bit. For example; if I am having knee pain, I imagine my knee breathing in and out, although I continue breathing through the abdomen. If you find it difficult to imagine this, place your palm on the ailing part and breathe through the belly, at the same time bringing your awareness on that part of the body.

I remember in one of Lobsang Rampa’s books, he had mentioned that pain in any part of the body occurs because of a lack of oxygen supply to that part. May be that’s why bringing one’s awareness to that part and breathing through the abdomen works so well. I also remember a scene from the movie ‘Black Swan’ where Natalie Portman goes to the doctor for a strain in a muscle and the doctor tells her “Breathe into it” (into that part of the body).
Even babies and Rishis naturally breathe through their abdomen. Maybe we need to re-learn the natural way of breathing. It surely has helped me. Try it out and do let me know if it helps you!

Sunday 18 October 2015

Why I Like to Travel Solo.

Romancing the Clouds in Korigad Fort.
Every solo traveller, worth his or her salt, especially a female, has a post on her blog about why they travel solo. My first solo trip was to Jammu in 2011. My husband was to go on a 10 day official trip abroad. Being a free lancer, I didn't have any issues about leaves and such. Accompanying him wasn't possible on that trip. So, I called a friend working in the Army, who was posted in Jammu and off I went. There was a lot of resistance from my parents who said that a Jammu was a terrorist area and it wouldn't be safe to go. When I think of it, I still laugh. But I’ll reserve that story for another post. Let me tell you very candidly what my reasons for travelling solo are.

Profusion of Beauty.
  • My husband has a regular job so cannot take long leaves. And I’m a believer in slow travel. My travel is not about ticking things off on a check-list of must-do’s in any place. It’s more about soaking up the place, being with Nature, enjoying the food and being touched by the hospitality of the people. And this cannot be done over weekend trip you know or even over 3-4 days. That’s why all my trips have been for a minimum of 10 days. But after returning I always feel I could have extended that.
  • Now, I may sound like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. But, my inner world itself is so rich and colourful that I don’t crave company. When I’m travelling my sense perceptions are heightened and every leaf, flower, ray of light, ant everything else is alive for me. It’s like, I enter a world I’ve created where everything talks and interacts. The beauty of everything is amplified manifold and I just want to lose myself in its beauty without any interference. Need I say more, if I need human company?
Soaking up the sunset at Udaipur.
  • I never get bored alone, so that works in my favour. If I may add one more seemingly audacious line, I like my own company the best and never tire of it!! I know I sound like a snob, but that’s true. Even in my school days, after returning from school, I used to spend long hours, alone at home till my Mother returned from work, and those memories are the best when I wrote poems, let my imagination run amok and felt truly happy.
  • Before I started solo travel, I had travelled in groups. I realized that in groups, everybody is talking or busy taking photos and after returning I realized I hardly experienced the place itself fully. The ‘being in the moment’ and soaking it up was disturbed by distractions by the other group members.

  • If you observe some huge groups that travel, you will notice the amount of noise they make without revering the surroundings. It’s not their fault really. Being in a group makes one give in to that ‘mob psychology’. I've been to monasteries and forests and I absolutely detest big groups making noise, talking loudly, hooting, singing (cheap) Bollywood songs, etc and desecrating the place. So I like to travel solo to keep away from these as much as possible (unless I'm going with an environmentally conscious group of people, like I did for Kaas and Bhimashankar).
  • When I travel solo, I have the liberty of going at my own pace, without having to worry about anything else.

  • I'm usually the quietest when commuting from one place to another. That is the time to observe the world as it passes by while being seated in a train/plane/vehicle. I detest small talk and it drains my energy. So travelling solo gives me that time and space to be myself and be charged by the visual inputs.
  • Reading all this may make you think of me as a people hater. But in my defense, let me quote Lord Byron:

"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, 
 There is a rapture on the lonely shore, 
 There is society, where none intrudes, 
 By the deep sea, and music in its roar: 
 I love not man the less, but Nature more, 
 From these our interviews, in which I steal 
 From all I may be, or have been before, 
 To mingle with the Universe, and feel 
 What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

Friday 16 October 2015

Bhimashankar Forest Trail: In Search of the Giant Squirrel.

The Giant Squirrel: Photo by Shweta Ramappa.
One of the benefits of living in Pune is its proximity to forest reserves within driving distance. The forests enchant me like no other place. The sunlight streaming in through multiple shades of green, the twisted, gnarled roots and branches, flowers in a thousand hues, a perpetual orchestra by the birds, and so many interesting creatures that reside there, the forests make me feel at home.
Multiple shades of Forest green!
We decided to make a one day trip to the Bhimashankar Forest Reserve, which is located at around 3100 feet above sea level, in the Sahyadris, in Pune district. We went with The Western Routes, and such a fulfilling trip it was. Even according to Jayesh, the founder of TWR, it was the most amazing trip. For the first time, he said, in all these years and times he has visited, he as well our group were fortunate to see all the main species of beautiful creatures that inhabit the Bhimashankar forest, namely, the Malabar Giant Squirrel, the Bamboo Pit Viper, Blue Mormon butterflies, The Atlas Moth,  the Hawk Moth and the Moon Moth, all in a day! 

The Bhimashankar Temple.
We were doubly lucky as we also got to enter the 13th century Bhimashankar temple which houses one of the sacred 12 Jyotirlingas. I had read on that on weekends, one has to wait in queue for almost four to five hours to enter the temple.

Beautiful carvings of deities on stone.

And we were going on a Sunday. I'm not an avid temple goer as such but have a fascination for ancient ones. The forest reserve is beyond the temple and when we were passing by, we noticed there was no queue at all. So we quickly went and paid our obeisance at the sanctum sanctorum. The entire temple is made of stone, although it’s not a monolith. The interiors are also made of stone with simple yet beautiful carvings of deities and temple motifs. Photography wasn't permitted inside, so there are no photos of the interiors.

An Indian Gargoyle. 
The main temple and sanctum sanctorum is believed to have been built in the 13th century in the Nagara style of architecture, and the structure above the sanctorum and other extensions were built by the Peshwa minister Nana Phadnavis in the 18th century.

Statue of a Rishi.
Outside the temple, we saw many vendors selling roots and herbs collected from the forest. For many villagers who live on the fringes on this forest, selling these herbs and roots is their livelihood.
Medicinal herbs, roots and leaves being sold outside the temple.

This is a medicinal giant onion called the 'rankanda' or the Wild Onion.
There were also various stalls selling flowers, sweets and items for offering the deity. 
These flowers are called 'Tadtadi' and last a couple of years without drying. 

Items to be offered to the deity being sold outside the temple. 

Various kinds of milk cakes and pedhas being sold. 
Mighty pleased with our luck, we had a spring in our walk as we proceeded to the forest. A few steps beyond the temple, is the origin of the Bhimashankar river, which flows through Karnataka and Telangana before entering the Krishna River. The area around the origin of the river was strewn with garbage. After wading through this eye sore, we were in for a visual feast inside the forest. 
The Blue Mormon Butterfly: Photo taken from Delson Roche
Even before entering the forest area, Blue Mormon butterflies flitted past us gracefully as an indication of more beauty that awaited us inside. The Blue Mormon is commonly found in the Western Ghats and is also the state butterfly of Maharashtra. As is my wont, upon entering a forest, I did a mental jig and a hi-five with the forest fairies. And lo behold! When I took my first picture to capture the green trail, I was thrilled when I saw these two blue blobs of light. They look so beautiful! This was a good sign, I thought to myself!
My favourite picture with two blobs of blue light. 
The entire trail passes through lush greenery, a million shades of emeralds, jades and green dipped in sunlight. We were accompanied most of the time by the sound of the gurgling water from the river and its streams that criss-crossed the forest. 

You may like my post on bird watching in Sarmoli.
An old stone carving of a deity near a stream.
Right from the beginning we were on the lookout for the Giant Squirrel, for that was the main reason why we had come. 
A large nest of the Giant Squirrel: Photo by Omkar Nikam
We saw huge nests of the Squirrel but not the creature itself! Jayesh had told us to watch for sounds resembling the shooting of pellets, for that is the sound they make when threatened. We decided to keep walking and watching out. When we had crossed a stream and walked ahead, Shweta, one of the members of TWR informed us that she had spotted a Bamboo Pit Viper  just near the stream and it was slumbering. 
The beautifully pleated trunk of a tree. 
We were far ahead but like excited children who had been promised boxes of Ferroro Rocher, we gleefully retraced our steps, keeping our fingers crossed that the snake would still be in snooze mode. Luckily it was! It was a juvenile snake but so beautiful with its leaf green scales and yellow underside. Like paparazzi, a few members of our group shot away with their fancy lens at the napping snake, which was quite oblivious to its new celebrity status. But five minutes into the photo-shoot, it opened its eyes wondering about the ‘funny humans’ who had disturbed its siesta!!
A closer look of the Bamboo Pit Viper: Photo by Shweta Ramappa.
A few more yards ahead, there was sudden hushed excitement. We had spotted the Giant Squirrel. Now, the Giant Squirrel is a herbivorous, large squirrel found on the Westen Ghats in India. It is called ‘shekru’ in Marathi and is the state animal of Maharashtra. It is arboreal, which means that unlike some animals which may occasionally climb trees, these squirrels live on trees and may only occasionally come to the ground to forage for food, if at all. 
The cutest!! The Giant Squirrel nibbling away at a fruit. 
The first sight of this squirrel sent a shiver of joy through me. It is incredibly cute, with a rust-red-brown body, two small flaps of velvet for ears and an off-white furry tail, a little longer then the length of its body. This one was nibbling on a fruit high up on the branch. The paparazzi was again at work! After spending some time with the first squirrel we saw, we proceeded ahead. We saw many squirrels thereafter, each, invariably nibbling away at some fruit. One squirrel that we spotted was just about 15 feet away, on a low branch. It was nibbling on a fruit, looked up at us, from time to time and nibbled away thinking we were not much, worth giving attention to! 

The Karvi flower which blooms once in 7 years. 
We saw purple Karvi flowers which bloom only once in seven years. I didn't know these grow in forests too and had thought it was unique to Kaas. Different kinds of fungi made me stop and marvel at Nature’s infinite beauty. 
Fungus on a log of wood resembling a cluster of crystals. Photo by Shweta Ramppa.

Water collected in a bracket fungus. 
Another interesting insect was the Jewel Beetle. My college campus abounded with these insects and I used to spend long hours gazing at them on the pretext to studying in the garden. With an iridescent green with tinges of yellow body and a bright orange belly, it is indeed a gorgeous self-propelled jewel.
The Jewel Beetle. 
After walking in the forest for four hours, we went to the Blue Mormon resort for lunch. After we had finished eating, the staff of the resort alerted us about an Atlas Moth which was resting in the backyard. We scampered to where it was resting. 
The Atlas Moth. 
I had seen the Atlas Moth earlier too in The Rainforest Retreat in Karnataka. Atlas Moths are amongst the largest with a wingspan reaching upto 12 inches. They have stunning intricate patterns on their wings and live only for upto two weeks of spreading their wings.

The Moon Moth. 
Just as we were satiated with the Atlas Moth, another staff member informed us about Moon Moth, named so, maybe because of its soothing moon-like appearance. There were other brilliantly patterned moths on the same wall of various colours and sizes.
Talk about Aztec prints on a moth!! 
Feeling deeply grateful to the main forest creatures that presented themselves to us, we left in the evening with contented hearts, smiles on our faces and cameras full of pictures. It was indeed a memorable trip. 

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