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Friday, December 23, 2011

Heliconia Rostrata

We derive a great deal of pleasure in watching our kids grow. The Wandering Mind has discovered a sculpture at Badami  depicting the four stages of childhood – first when the child is sleeping all the time, then, he begins crawling, then he stands, and finally, he does all sorts of gymnastics!. A similar feeling is also associated with our pets. The plants in our gardens are no exception.

Some six years back I brought few plants of Heliconia Rostrata (Lobster Claw) as they were not obtainable at this place. After two years they started flowering and I was thrilled to see them grow. In the recent years because of over growth of a Shivali/Night Jasmine tree I had to remove all other smaller plants beneath and transplant them in earthen pots. I specially bought a wider cement pot (24”) for planting Heliconias. They are there and new shoots are coming up but they refused to bear flowers during the last few years.

For the five years the monsoon was erratic and the rains were inadequate. Fortunately this year it was not so. We had very good rains and my Heliconias probably sensed this and happily started bearing flowers.

I tried to capture their stage wise growth  and they are here:

This last one seems to be the end of it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Mountain Ebony

I am fond of flowers and the specie we shall be talking about is quite common in India. When it is common, what could be the purpose in bringing out a post on that. Not because the buds are used to prepare pickles or that the bark of the tree has medicinal properties. The reason is simply my vested interest. I happened to click some photographs while I was at Coimbatore. I came across a different kind of Mountain Ebony (Bauhinia Variegata) hitherto unknown to me which looked very attractive. I wanted to show it to my folks driven by a sort of  childish instinct in me.
This kind of Yellow as also White are very common

In India alone, there are around a dozen varieties and some of them turn into creepers as well. The tree is medium sized and has a brown bark which split vertically. The flowers could be either white, yellow or red. All these varieties are found through out India. They are grown in gardens as ornamental trees. It starts flowering during February/March and by May fruits could be seen. The leaves are split into two parts and generally  both the parts remain folded together. Once the leaf is opened up, it would resemble a Camel’s foot and it is also called so.

In view of its medicinal properties the bark is used in Ayurveda for treating blood related problems, skin diseases, itching, boils, eczema etc.
In India the names we get are: Sanskrit = Kashchnar, Hindi = Kachnar, Marathi = Koral/Kanchan, Gujarati = Champakanti, Bengali = Kanchan, Telugu = Devakanchanamu, Tamil = Mandarai. Kannada = Keyumandara, Malayalam = Mandaram, Punjabi = Kulad.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

An Unspiritual Pilgrimage - Jagannath Puri

On the eastern shores of India and in the State of Odisha (Orissa) there lies an important pilgrimage centre of Hindus known as Puri or conversely Jagannatha Puri, being the abode of Lord Jagannatha. Puri is also considered as the cultural capital of Odisha. It was established by Adi Shankaracharya, the spearhead of Hindu renaissance during the 8th century CE. We went there along with our families. For the ladies, the purpose of the visit could have been a sort of pilgrimage but the men folk were there for sight seeing, fun and frolic. It was an endurance test as we needed to keep the women folk in good spirits. We made Bhubaneswar as our base camp. After our breakfast on a sunny morning we hunted and hired a station wagon kind of a vehicle and proceeded to Puri, which was at a distance of 70 kilometres.

The road led us through the country side but the rural settings of that part seemed a little bit different. Being in the coastal region there were coconut and  Areca nut palms at the far end of paddy fields. They were not as dense as we find in the western coast of India. The breeze coming from the paddy fields though had a nostalgic smell. Amidst the rural settings there was a way side restaurant (Dhaba) surrounded by shady trees. We thought of replenishing our tummies and parked our vehicle inside. The food, after some deliberations/consultations was settled for and duly ordered. Tables and chairs were laid out beneath the trees and we rested for more than half an hour by which time the service started. The quality of food was better than what we expected.

My nephew Girish checking up in front of the restaurant
When our lunch was over, we stayed for some time more and then proceeded to our destination. Around 2.30 pm we were at Puri. Our stay was pre-arranged at a holiday home of a reputed Bank but when we reached there, the caretaker was nowhere to be seen. The women looked tired and decided to enjoy a nap in the sofas at the reception. On our part we started hunting for the caretaker. The gentleman arrived after some time and we were at our wits end when he announced that no rooms have been booked for us. Immediately we contacted the local officials of the Bank over our cell phones. Hearing us speaking to the higher ups in the hierarchy, he offered to provide the much needed accommodation but in the meantime he too received phone calls which made him to apologise offering some alibis. We got three Air-conditioned rooms which were quite up to the mark. The holiday home itself has a beautiful building very close to the sea. We rested in our rooms till 7.00 pm in the evening and then proceeded to visit the Jagannatha temple for which Puri is famous.

My niece Gouri imitating Kate in Titanic on the terrace of the holiday home
Since that was not my first visit, I cautioned all to refrain from conversing with or entertaining the Pandas (the priests) and that I shall take care of them. My apprehensions were not ill-founded. Soon thereafter Pandas started playing their tricks. They exploit the gullible. They offer to conduct special rites/rituals very close to the deities. In the process the innocent devotees are made to part with heavy sums of money in the name of pleasing the lord thereat. Since I am conversant with Oriya, the local language, I made it very clear to them that we have done that 6 months back and do not intend to have anything performed on our behalf at this juncture. After freeing ourselves from those lechers we proceeded to the Sanctum Sanctorum which is otherwise quite large. We met with the symbolic idols of Balbhadra, Jagannath and Subhadra made of jack wood timber which do not have any semblance with Gods of Hindu pantheon. Some of the Pandas were seated very close to the deities as if they are there to provide salvation. After coming out we also went around the temple which has a huge campus with lots of smaller shrines. Since it is an 11th century temple, the sculptures are really beautiful, but then one is not allowed to take a camera or a mobile phone inside. After this courtesy call on Jagannath & Company, we returned to the holiday home where our dinner was waiting. Before going to bed we had decided to visit the beach before sunrise next day.

Although before the day break, we had our bed coffee but since our rooms were apart, it took some time for all to get ready. The Sun God obviously can’t wait for us. We ran to the sea shore. The Sun was quite above the horizon still the cool sea breeze was very comforting. A small boat was lying in the sands. Children pulled it nearer to the waters and by that time the owner turned up. The kids including the grown ups could negotiate a deal with the boatman and he was too willing to take them to some distance. The ladies started agitating and shouted at them. They were dissuaded from venturing into the sea. While we were walking towards our children, we came across a beautiful piece of sand art,  probably the creation of a sand artist, Sudarshan Patnaik. Puri is also famous on that count. Sudarshan Patnaik is acclaimed internationally. He has exhibited his talent in several countries and won several awards.
Poor Mumtaaz - Who could have made her a Shurpanakha
The art piece stated above was the portrayal of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (creator of Taj Mahal) and his lady love Mumtaaz Mahal. A small replica of Taj Mahal made of marble was also placed behind symbolically. Seeing all this my brother got excited and started his own creation. With effort he could build something looking like a fort. Finding him sitting in a ditch his wife queried as to what is he digging up. He retorted “a grave for myself”. His wife continued “and what about me”. Sensing trouble, if this continues, I requested his wife to desist from further questioning.

There is a legend about sand art at Puri. There used to be a great poet named Balram Das who lived in the 14th century. He was the author of “Dandi Ramayan”. A car (Chariot) festival takes place at Puri around July every year. Balram Das, during one such festival, tried to climb up the chariot to pay his obeisance to the lord but he was abused by the Pandas and made him to climb down. He was grieved and with a heavy heart headed for the sea front (known as Mahadadhi). There  working with the wet sand, he created the images of the three deities namely Balbhadra, Jagannath and Subhadra and started praying whole heartedly. It is said that all the three deities who were being carried in the Chariots during that particular festival just vanished and were so pleased with the devotion that they appeared before Balram Das live. People believe that the sand art form has its roots there. Anyway we may dismiss this simply as a myth. After all we do come across children exhibiting their creativity whenever they find time to play with sand. Yet another legend is that of Lord Rama, who at Rameswaram created a Shiv Linga out of sand and prayed.

A child playing with sand - He has made a Buddhist Stupa
After enjoying the sea breeze for some time, we started returning. The women folk were insisting to have a morning audience with Lord Jagannath. We had to succumb but again with an advisory with regard to the Pandas. We spent our time loafing around the market. Fortunately they joined us after an hour or so. Perforce we had to give them company for their marketing needs. Primarily there were several kinds of handicrafts on sale. There were brass/bronze items on sale. A tall lamp interested us but the cost seemed prohibitive. After finishing off the shopping spree, we straightaway headed to a hotel to have some breakfast.  Thereafter to our holiday home as the warmth was becoming unbearable. We all were perspiring profusely. After lunch we returned to Bhubaneswar visiting Konark Sun temple en route.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Anaimalai Tiger Reserve

We had planned to visit Ooty (a hill station in Tamilnadu, India). I was all alone but my brother Sreenivasan was coming along with his wife Sitalakshmi. After we had our breakfast, we readied ourselves and occupied our seats in the car which was to be  driven by my brother. After positioning himself, my brother announced that we shall be returning late at night and will have dinner en route. I was puzzled as we can not do justice to our visit unless we are at Ooty for a minimum of a night and two days. Since there was an urgent meeting the next day, my brother was in a dilemma. He then suggested to visit “Anaimalai Tiger Reserve” which was relatively nearer. I was happy for the alternative placed before me and readily agreed. This was going to be my first ever visit to that place.

Anaimalai (Elephant Hills)  is at a distance of around 60 kilometres south of Coimbatore. At 40 kilometres distance there is a town known as Pollachi  and from there we were to take a right turn for Anaimalai. Incidentally Pollachi boasts of a  whole sale Jaggery Market which is supposed to the largest in Asia. Similarly the Cattle Market over there is the largest in South India.
As a matter of fact Anaimalai is a part of the Western Ghat Mountain Ranges and if one goes further down, “Anamudi” is the highest peak in India (South of Himalayas) with a height of 8842 feet. Anaimalai itself is only 8oo feet high but is surrounded by ever green forests. Although, it is a reserve for Tigers,  they are very limited. On the other hand hundreds of Elephants roam around. Anaimalai hills are known for their abundant wildlife. Eravikulam National Park, Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary,  and the adjacent The Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in these hills are well known for elephants. Numerous wildlife species can be seen including elephants, gaur, water buffaloes, tigers, panthers, sloth bears, pangolins, Black-headed Orioles, crocodiles, Green Pigeons, civet cats, Dhole, Sambar and 31 groups of endangered lion-tailed macaques., Birds seen include Pied hornbill, Red Whiskered Bulbul and Drongo. The hills are also a trekker’s paradise.

On reaching Pollachi, we took a right turn towards Anamalai which was around 16 kilometres away.  The entire route was dotted with dense Coconut Groves spaced with paddy fields and the mountain ranges smiling at you from  a far distance. After driving a stretch of 7/8 kilometres, we came at a check post with a welcome gate. The sanctuary/reserve starts from here. There was also a hoarding of the “Parambikulam Wild Life Sanctuary” which was on the same way but a little farther from the place we were heading to. Near the check post, a lady was selling some locally produced fruits. We bought some Sapodillas/Cheeku (Manilkara zapota) which were very sweet and tasty. Further journey saw us through some plains followed by winding ghats (Mountainous region) having thick bamboo forests.

Around 12 Noon, we were at “Top Slip”. This place is called so, for the large sloppy ground which  was being used for storing Teak Wood logs and then rolling them  down to reach the bottom of the hill. All private vehicles are supposed to remain parked at this place and for travelling beyond that point, one needs to hire vehicles from the Forest Department. They have a small information centre with a tiny museum for the benefit of tourists. The forest staff have their living quarters built there. They also run a Canteen which serves food and beverages to tourists.

There are two distinct categories of visitors here. The first category consists of people coming here for picnicking and fun. The second category belongs to those who are of serious kind and come here to understand the forests, its flora and fauna and the wild life. Their visits are always pre-planned. They get cottages/vehicles booked in advance for their period of stay. Since we fell under the former category, we started exploring the possibilities of moving around the jungles. We were told at the information centre that a van takes people around but since on that particular day, the number of visitors was too small, the van facility was kept in abeyance. There was, however, an option of taking the Elephant ride. Perforce, we had to settle for it. The Elephants were not immediately available as they were already on their rounds. Nevertheless, we got our tickets booked paying a sum of Rs.400/- and proceeded to fill our bellies at their Canteen.

After replenishing ourselves, we just roamed around. There my brother came across some boars in the backyard of the canteen. When we reached the information centre for the second time, my brother questioned the Ranger over there “Are those pigs, the wild ones”. The Ranger, with all seriousness, replied “Yes, they are wild boars but come down because of easy availability of left over food”. So we were happy to learn that we could at least see some wild life. Thereafter, I wanted to enlarge my own knowledge base and inquired about the kind of wild life found there. We were told that there are around 368 (that’s what I remember) Elephants and 18 Tigers apart from Panthers, Gaurs, Blue Bulls, Lion Tailed Monkeys, Large Mountain Squirrels etc. Further, they have some 100 Elephants in their own farm. They are let loose in the morning to roam about in the jungles and they come back in the evening. If one wants to see them together, one has to be there before 8.00 A.M.

Soon the Elephants were ready to take us for a ride. For all of us, it was going to be our first experience in life. After climbing a platform, we were on the cradle like thing on the Elephant’s back. We proceeded deeper inside. Nothing worthwhile came across except for few Macaque (Lion Tailed) Monkeys and large Squirrels. They vanished from our sight within minutes without affording any opportunity of capturing them in our cameras. The jungle view all around was very pleasing though. After half an hour, the Elephant was turned back and in fact we  very much wished to come back not being in a position to withstand the painful jerks. Soon we were at the platform which saw us boarding the Elephant but only to get down with a sense of relief.

While returning home, it dawned upon me that the month of April was not quite productive for visiting a place like this.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


By PN Sampath Kumar
Concluding Part

Our stay in Colombo was taken care of by the Colombo Dock Yard. The Guest Relations officer of the Guest House helped us immensely in chalking out the trip.

Colombo has traditionally been one of the major commercial hubs in the sub continent from at least mid 19th to mid 20th Century which has attracted professionals from all over the places including India. Colombo has a rich maritime tradition; the tea, cinnamon and other spices from this land are even now very much sought after all over the world.

Colombo City Road drenched in rain
Colombo Railway Station
Current day Colombo is a modern city trying to regain its glorious past. There is a sigh of relief among the Sri Lankan people at the end of the internal conflicts. At last peace is returning back. Under a proper leadership, this land has the potential even to overtake Singapore in the very near future.

Colombo is the best place to shop items like gems (sapphire is mined from a place called ‘Ratnapura’) and readymade clothes. Sri Lankan tea, painted masks and batik works are also in high demand. Though coconut is a local produce, costs SL Rs.45/- (Indian equivalent of around IN Rs20, which is high by the Indian standards). Similar is the case with locally cultivated vegetables, rice and pulses.
Coconuts on sale
Masks displayed in a shop
Galle face hotel
Slave Island Area
“Peta” is the main market place where one can bargain  any item under the sun. There are good shopping malls which are relatively costly. Galle Face Road is the business centre and the beach on one side of it is the weekend escape for the families. National Flag is hoisted here. This is where the major hotels (including our TAJ Samudra) are located and also most attacked place in Colombo by the extremist elements. Adjacent to this is the “Cinnamon Gardens” the posh residential area. Places like Slave island are home for government and commercial offices.
Lord Ganesha kept inside the Monastery worshipped by Buddhists
Ganga Ramaya Monastery

Murugan (Karthikeya) temple
Colombo is the home for the Ganga Ramaiya Buddha Vihara, a Buddhist monastery, a couple of famous Hindu Temples dedicated to Kartik and Shiva, a mosque and a Portuguese church.

Sri Lanka has a number of world class beaches. Selecting a couple of beaches to visit during a short visit is difficult as there are quite a number of them to choose from. We took the coastal route through the west coast to reach  Galle, the southern most point in Sri Lanka. The railway and road go side by side and was pleasure watching sea on our right throughout.

Sea on our right while going
In between, we passed through a village (in the sea coast) of carpenters specialised in making Sri Lankan Furniture. They still make those wooden easy chairs and rocking chairs which has market all over the world. These carpenters are excellent artisans who also made excellent masks and craftwork. En route near Hikkaduwa beach, we visited one mask museum  dedicated to promote the works of the artisans.
Masks Museum

Hikkaduwa beach
Hikkaduwa beach is one of the famous tourist destinations around 60 miles south of Colombo. It was about 10 am in the morning, the most horrible time possibly to visit a beach. The sudden rain added to the spoilsport. No wonder, the beach was deserted.

We ran into a building, having “Hikkaduwa Diving School” written on top. The inhabitants there offered us to take to sea to show us the famous coral gardens and the underwater world. We readily accepted in exchange of SL Rs. 1500/-, which according to our driver was a good deal.

A couple of Kilometres into the sea, has in stock the most beautiful views of the underwater life. We get a good view of the underwater life through the glass bottom of the boat. It was fascinating to watch flower like corals in different designs (cabbage coral is one of them) and shapes and the multi coloured fishes swimming in group. I found it difficult balance myself to take proper photographs. Sea was rough. We turned down his offer to take us to go further to watch dolphins.

The effect of dreaded Tsunami would have been even more severe had there been no Coral reefs in the coastal sea. Incidentally, it was in Hikkaduwa, the devastating tsunami overwhelmed a passenger train killing some 1,500 passengers.

Half an hours journey from Hikkaduwa brought us to Galle. This town is also known for the devastating Tsunami which killed thousands. Galle is a decent town having Railway station and a good Cricket Ground (international cricket is played here). Portuguese and later Dutch built Fort and maintained their control over here. Ruins of the Fort and a functioning light house are the major attractions. The town and the antique shops resembled our own Fort Cochin Area. Yes, both the places are sharing similar history. Galle was the ancient seaport. Cinnamon is said to have been exported from Sri Lanka as early as 1400 BC.
Galle Fort gate
An Old Building inside the Fort
Galle Fort
A Lane inside the fort
A Light House at the Southern Tip
The "modern" history of Galle starts in 1505, when the first Portuguese ship was driven there by a storm. However, the people of the city refused to let the Portuguese enter it, so the Portuguese took it by force. In 1640, the Portuguese had to surrender to the Dutch. The Dutch built the present Fort in the year 1663. They built three bastions, known as "Sun", "Moon" and "Star". The British took over the country from the Dutch and preserved the Fort unchanged, and used it as the administrative centre of Galle.
Unawatuna Beach
Three miles further south East is one of the 12 best beaches in the world (at least that is what they claim this to be). “Unawatuna”, the 4km expanse of palm-fringed sand is a paradise for all those who enjoy the silence of the sea and dive deep into the blue waters of the ocean. There is a reef protecting the beach, which makes it perfectly a safe haven for bathing. Other major attractions of this southern beach include shallow waters for swimming, and diving.
Unawatuna Beach
It is the most favoured beach for all those looking for some exciting water sports like scuba diving or snorkelling, which, of course, we did not venture into. We spent bathing floating and swimming in this beach for about 3 hours. It was only in the evening our son readied to leave this beach. This, according to me is the best beach that I have taken bath.

Unawatuna Sea
Unawatuna Sea
Post Tsunami, for about a couple of years, there were nobody ready to return to this place. Many of them migrated to central Sri Lanka. Only in the recent couple of years, tourism has started picking up, thanks to the efforts of the government and also the interest shown by the international tourists.

Back in India, after a fortnight, we checked once again what all places we missed to visit in Sri Lanka. Definitely Trincomale, the famous harbour of the British (Thirukkonamalai in Tamil, famous for the Shiva Temple, as important as Rameshwaram or any other Jyotirlingas), Kathirkama (Kataragama), the historically important Skanda Kumara (Kartik) Temple in the southern Sri Lanka, a couple of very good beaches in the East, “Yalle” National Park, Adams Peak, and the disturbed North. Now that the shipping services are restarted between Tuticorin and Colombo and another one due from Tuticorin to northern Sri Lanka, a second trip to this land is thinkable. That is the beauty of some places; you tend to visit again and again, like your home town.