17-Mar-2007

Kudremukh to Mangalore

When the rest of the gang left for Bangalore, I returned to the room to indulge in my favourite activity on holidays – watching TV. Having no access to cable in Chennai, all opportunities when one can catch up on the latest Bollywood songs (still Himesh Bhai) and music videos (still vulgar) is used by me with enthusiasm. I lay in bed entranced for nearly two hours.
I had contemplated endlessly on the return leg and had finally decided to hire a cab from Mangalore. My train that night was at 9 and the journey from Kudremukh by car would take just a couple of hours. I had thought of an elaborate plan involving leaving in the morning and checking out Dharmasthala and Kukke Subramanya on the way. Eventually, the cost of hiring a car and more importantly, the fear of Naxalites (supposedly the area has its share) looting a single passenger overwhelmed all other thoughts and I decided to take the local bus to Mangalore. This also meant that I could not do the planned detours and as I lay watching the flickering images on screen, I was happy enough to have a relaxed itinerary.

My bus was at two in the afternoon. By twelve thirty, I had packed, bathed, had lunch and reminded the surly old man at the counter about my rickshaw to the bus stand at least three times. Each time, he showed further indifference and at one fifteen, I planted myself next to the reception with my luggage, pretending to read the newspaper. Then I decided to infuse some life into his interest levels on the rickshaw by informing him I had to buy a water bottle on the way. So when the rickshaw had not turned up by one forty, he got a bit worried. Finally, the vehicle turned up in full speed and like a knight in shining armour, the young driver jumped out and stowed my bag at the back and set off. I tipped the surly old man with whom I had now bonded well enough for him to tell me about the delights of Udipi, his hometown. Two minutes into the ride, we were at a large tree. The driver informed me that this was the bus stand. There were no signs of life there barring the three people standing around desultorily. The driver volunteered to go to the store and buy my water bottles lest I missed the bus. Touched and guilty (I already had a full bottle of water and had used the story as a ruse), I went to the store myself. The driver then instructed the three bystanders to put me in the Mangalore bus. Apparently my inability to speak the local language had been equated with an IQ level too low to board the correct bus.

The bus arrived with ‘Mangalore’ written in big, bold English lettering. Nevertheless, the three locals gestured to me wildly that this was the bus I was to take and instructed the fourteen-year-old conductor to look after me. Hauling my luggage inside, I placed myself behind the driver’s seat. This provided a strategic view of the road and would give first hand info about any Naxals who may care to attack. As it turned out my most exciting challenge seemed to be balancing my suitcase, my bag and my water bottle as the bus winded through various hairpin bends with gusto. I dozed a bit and then began to watch with interest as town upon town passed by with Gomateswara temples. This place seemed to be a major Jain hotspot.

After nearly an hour and a half, we arrived at a major town. I had not heard of the place till then but it was big enough to boast of a DTH operator. We were asked to switch to another bus, which was headed to Mangalore. The conductor, remembering my alleged low IQ, gave me special instructions by gesturing wildly. Along with the other passengers, I rushed to the other bus to bag a good seat. Despite my modest Salwar kameez, I was still sticking out like a sore thumb thanks to my short hair, height, trolley suitcase and other signs of being urban. So when my suitcase tumbled and fell, I heard a louder guffaw than what I had expected. Amused and mortified, I boarded the other bus and sat behind the driver again.

This bus was pretty crowded and was getting more so. One of the prime reasons was the driver’s tendency to stop the bus for any passer by who looked like he might want to go to Mangalore. More often than not, most people simply stood outside their homes, stuck their thumbs out when the bus approached and boarded the bus. I was more than happy since reaching Mangalore early would be mean more efforts to entertain myself and this journey was quite entertaining. We passed through Suratkal and I caught a glimpse of the famous REC (now NIT) where a lot of my friends had studied. The road had been good till this point but deteriorated steadily after this. However, Mangalore was only 30 kms away.

When we reached Mangalore, I waited till the last stop to get off. Then turning to the driver, I asked him directions to the railway station. The driver began to scold in Kannada. I watched perplexed and then asked the conductor for directions, who scolded me too, but in Hindi. I finally understood that both of them were upset that I had not told I wanted to get to the railway station beforehand since it was on the way and they could have easily stopped the bus there. I was touched yet again and began to finally appreciate all the help I had been receiving on the journey. I bade them goodbye, went to the railway station, checked my luggage into cloak and headed back to the city.

My first stop was the Poonja Intl hotel where I had stayed during the Konkan trip in November. I walked into the empty restaurant on the first floor. The curtains were drawn, the air conditioning was off and when my eyes got used to the darkness, the first sight that greeted me was that of a dark Santa Claus approaching me, grinning menacingly. I nearly jumped out of my skin and then remembered it was Christmas. Being an up market place, the hotel had thought to put up decorations and hire a local to dress the part. Upon closer examination I realised that Santa was clearly embarrassed by this alien tradition that involved him approaching strangers and going ‘HO HO HO’. My negative reaction had not encouraged him and distraught, he soon left. I gestured to the group of waiters crowded around a TV and placed the order for tea. The air conditioning stayed off and instead a giant table fan was placed next to me. The waiters also kindly tuned the TV next to my table into a Hindi channel and went off to continue their Kannada movie in a TV at the other end. We were a contented group, doing our own thing.

After hot tea and a wash, I browsed the streets to pick up second hand books and then had dinner at Mangalore’s best restaurant, Palki. The restaurant employees were nice and if they found a young woman dining alone disconcerting, they did not let it show. Being there for the second time and not being a stranger gave the city a charm I did not know it had. Not to mention, the friendliness of most strangers there also made me realise that there was more to the place than gorgeous beaches. My trip was now at an end and I boarded the train happy and content.


Kudremukh

With Sravanabelagola, Belur & Halebid done, the group was a little tired. The early start and lack of sleep added to the torpor. The road was also winding and churning everyone’s insides. For the added touch, we realised the lunch had not been too kind on some of the stomachs All of us quietly listened to the music as we entered the last leg of the journey to Kudremukh. I finally suggested that we walk along the road for a while before getting back into the car. We stopped the jeep close to the edge of the road to see a beautiful view of the sun setting over a green valley. Z got off the jeep enthralled and excitedly began to point out the finer details in the scene to PA. PA took one look at it and then threw up. The journey and lunch had been too much for her. But Z never got over the shock of such a violent reaction to her animated descriptions and was wary about venturing her opinions for quite a while.

When we reached Kudremukh it was around eight. We were staying at the Kudremukh Iron Ore guesthouse – a fairly decent place available to the public at reasonable rates. A couple of cockroaches emerged from our bathroom but the next morning the staff smothered them with generous doses of disinfectants. The restaurant had a limited menu and as our stay progressed we realised it was biased in terms of South Indian food. The staff was not particularly bright but was pretty helpful and once we had all established what was required, they could tell us in clear terms that the stuff was not available.

The next morning, we were all up and ready at seven, ready to go on our trek. The most popular trek in the area is up the Kudremukh peak. This however takes a couple of days. So we chose a smaller trek. The driver dropped us off at the starting point along with our guide. Even though it was December, it was quite sunny. The trekking route was devoid of trees and was instead covered with chest high dry grass in most places. I figured out that if it were so dry at least there would be no leeches. We made our way slowly, watching the hills unfold. Our guide, on the other hand, was completely purposeful and skipped ahead till we lost view of him. Finally, we found him sitting in a thinking pose, looking over the valleys and clearly contemplating some deep and heavy thoughts. When he caught sight of us, he skipped off and soon disappeared again. We were getting a bit miffed. Without thick foliage we were not really getting lost but negotiating some of the trickier areas could have become a little tough.


After a reasonably quick journey, we arrived on top. The highlight of this was a view of the Kudremukh peak, the slag filled lake and a transmission tower. We debated over which part of the Kudremukh peak gave the name to the place (Kudremukh literally means ‘horse face’). We chose not to wonder exactly how ecologically damaging the polluted lake was. And we ignored the transmission tower. Exhausting all possible ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ in about ten minutes, it was time to sit in the hot sun and eat our supply of snacks. The guide had disappeared again as usual and when we found him we decided to leave. The routine repeated itself, with the guide skipping ahead. Being bad at downhill walks, I trailed behind and so did Z. After a while we realised we had taken a slightly different route. We could still see the rest. But the ground beneath our feet seemed to slope very sharply and it was tough keeping our balance. Eventually the rest managed to scream out directions and we found a better path. DA had already sprained his ankle slightly in a similar error of judgment on the slope. While this mini adventure was in progress, I looked up to see that the guide had regained his thinking man’s pose some way off and was blissfully unaware of the happenings behind his butt. A strong urge to kick the very same butt over the hill could not be implemented given the distance. But the idea boosted my morale for quite a while. Eventually we descended upon smaller slopes and the land became smoother. Z and I meandered off and came upon a colony of leeches. Bolting from there was a work of a moment. Obviously no hill in the Western Ghats is entirely free of leeches no matter what the weather and poor Z ended up with two bites.

We reached the base after five hours from start, well ahead of schedule and decided to check out other spots of interest. The immediate concern was to find a spot for lunch. Rather unconventionally, we ended up on a table in the backroom of a tiny all-purpose store. The owner was not using the table and let us use it. This act of kindness generated immense business for him since we ended up ordering plenty of fruits, juices and snacks from his shop to supplement our humble meal of idlis and upmas. One of the nicest things about treks is that food which you do not pay attention to in home environs – theplas, idli, upma - taste really scrumptious.

The first tourist spot was the Hanuman Gundi waterfall. The place had nearly 300 steps leading to the bottom of the waterfall. It was quite crowded but at the bottom we managed to find enough empty rocks to scatter ourselves on. Soaking my feet in the water, I did not notice the tiny spider like insects that were suspended in it. S pointed it out to us, and all of us watched fascinated for a while. The sight was definitely more fascinating than that of the men of Karnataka in swimwear, flaunting their paunches by the waterfall.

The next stop was at the dam. Biju Patnaik had inaugurated it in 1971 when he was the Union Minister for Mines. In the 90s, his son Naveen Patnaik, holding the same portfolio, had inaugurated the next phase. I do hope around family dinners they tell this story since I found it quite interesting. The dam however was not a proud sight, what with muck in one part thick enough to walk on. Infact someone had actually walked on it and left behind footprints. The Kudremukh Township exists primarily because of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company and one can’t complain about the state it is in.

After a full long day, we finally headed back to the hotel and played a quite game of Taboo. The next morning Z and I managed an early morning walk in the mist lifting off the ground prettily. People living on hill stations must be really lucky to be able to wake up and watch nature lifting off the cloud cover from her creations every single day. Still, I am a townie at heart, and it was time to head back. Everyone left for Bangalore by road and I would be going to Mangalore to catch my train from there.



Belur and Halebid

After the romp on the Sravananabelagola hills, it was time to move on to Belur and Halebid. Belur and Halebid are both examples of Hoysala architecture. The Hoysala dynasty had been powerful kings and the temple at Belur had been built to commemorate the victory over Chola kings. Like all great dynasties, this one had its own myths. The most popular one is about how the name ‘Hoysala’ came about. Apparently a boy was about to be attacked by a tiger and some kind passerby alerted him to this fact by screaming ‘Hoy – Sala’. Sala means ‘boy’. As legends have it the boy killed the tiger single handedly and went on to become the founder of the dynasty ‘Hoysala’. There are other versions of the story about the boy actually saving the passerby when he screamed ‘Hoy – Sala’. My favourite myth is that of the locals burying Belur when Muslim raiders from the north attacked. So only Halebid was disfigured. When the attacks were over though, the villagers realised that they had forgotten where the Belur temple had been buried. I bet just the endless speculations on where such a fairly sizeable temple had disappeared and how the taxpayers’ money had been wasted would have kept generations engrossed.

Halebid was our first stop. We piled out of the vehicle amidst a hoard of eager vendors and made our way to the temple complex. Even from a distance, you can make out that the walls are covered in an embarrassment of rich carvings. The temple is constructed in a star shape that is a trademark of Hoysala architecture. The walls have intricate carvings depicting scenes from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and other mythologies. One lovely panel I saw (and frankly among the few where I could figure out which scene was being depicted) showed Kumbakaran in the Lanka war, towering above the rest and about to go off to sleep as per his curse. Sadly the temple was never completed by the Hoysalas even though work had gone on for 80 years.

The inside of the Halebid temple matched the outside in its sculptures. The deities had fine filigree work done on their clothes. Apparently, the stone is Schist, which unlike granite makes such intricate work possible. After a quick tour of the inside, we checked out the famous monolithic Nandi. In true Indian style, contemporary graffiti was plentiful, covering reasonable portions of the Nandi’s rump. It is all very well to tut tut when one hears stories of fanatics destroying Babri Masjids or Bamiyam Buddhas. Honestly though, these silly urges to carve out names on historical works are as disfiguring. To add insult to the injury, the government has been trying to reconstruct some of the broken pieces in the sculptures with cement. All I can say is that they must have had very good reasons to do particularly shoddy work.

Post Halebid, all of us were ravenous and managed to catch a bite before heading to Belur. Belur is an active temple with arthis still being done to the presiding deity, Chennakeshava. We hired a guide, who began a methodical tour with the outside and pointed out various statues. One particularly interesting one showed a 2.5 feet figure of a princess with her leg raised behind her gently and her 0.5 foot lady-in-waiting pulling out a thorn from her foot. Apparently the carving is so fine, one can see the thorn the lady-in-waiting is using to pull out the thorn. The panel was perched on the roof though and we had to take our guide’s word for it. The finesse of the carvings down below however provided credibility. Inside the temple it was pretty dark and with the help of the guide’s torchlight, we saw detailed work of the statue of Lord Vishnu dressed up as Mohini. I fiddled around with my expensive camera cursing myself for the nth time about not having learnt to take nighttime pictures.

After a complete round with some lovely stories, we parted ways with the guide and just sat on some of the steps soaking in the beauty around us. Belur and Halebid are such popular names that you feel tempted to just ignore them as ‘tourist’ attractions. I am very glad I did not do it. And I must say I did feel a little smug that tourist attractions in India are definitely not as banal as the ones I saw in the U.S. couple of years ago. We really have some good stuff!

General tip: Hire a guide. Ideally if you can find a book that gives you info on the architectural details, the trip will be better (I could not find any).