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A Few Good Things

"Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." – Ibn Battuta

A Few Good Things

Category: Short Breaks (Page 1 of 4)

Discovering Madanapalle & The Satsang Foundation – Sri M

A short 3 hr drive (120 Km from Bangalore) is the town of Madanapalle.Head to old Madras Road and after the 1st toll near Hoskote take a left and get off the highway.  Madanapalle is  famous for its mangoes, fruits  and vegetables and is  the biggest tomato market in Asia. Horsley Hills the highest point of Andhra – a hill station is just 25 km from here. Set in the midst of the E Ghats, rocky hills and lakes the landscape is rustic and captivating. If you leave Bangalore at 5 AM you can be blessed with a divine view of the rising sun as you drive into Madanapalle.

This is also the place where Rabindranath Tagore translated  “Jana Gana Mana ” from Bengali to English and set it to music in  1919 to the now familiar tune.Madanapalle is also the birthplace of Jiddu Krishnamurti the famous Philosopher, Writer and Speaker

My purpose of visiting was to stay at the Satsang Foundation – the HQ of Spiritual Guru Sri M. Sir is a living Yogi, a spiritual guide, social reformer and educationist. I had read his autobiography about 6 years back and met him at a discourse on Karma Yoga. His presence was electrifying. My first two visits to the Satsang Ashram were day trips. It was during my last visit (Thanks to a good friend for making that happen) that I had the joy of meeting him in person. He suggested that I  visit the Ashram frequently . This was my first trip where I spent 2 days at the beautiful ashram.

Its a small and divine ashram. The centre piece is the Shivalaya – which is a serene place housing a statue of Ganesha , Shiva Linga, and the Sri Yantra besides a beautiful peepal tree. This is where the group meetings and the functions are held.

There are two energised meditation rooms – the Babaji meditation room even in the summer heat felt cool and comfortable. These are powerful centres and a 30 min session here feels like meditating for  hours.

The rest of the Ashram has rooms , a dining hall, a meeting room and the administration office. The rooms are spacious, airy, clean and functional. Bathrooms have W Toilets and hot water. Many who revere Sir as their Guru have built their houses in the Ashram. Sir also has his house here. The Foundation  runs a school and a healthcare centre that are alongside. This is not an Ashram where you will be woken up with devotional songs nor are there evening Bhajans. The place was almost empty – its a place to go within and connect with your inner self.

The Satsang Vidyalaya – provides free, high-quality, multi-lingual education to rural children from the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh. I met the school principal as he was waiting at the gate welcoming the students. It was a joy to see the high energy students trooping in  – some walking , some cycling and some running in at the last minute, all of them stopping by and greeting us Good Morning . The school was spotlessly clean. Most of the teachers have a Masters degree , many are B Ed and one of the volunteers is a microbiologist from Harvard. The students are mainly from the local Lambada community.

The Satsang Swasthya Kendra is a very well stocked, well managed centre. Run by an efficient doctor and her competent  team – the place is spotlessly clean and feels like it was inaugurated yesterday. But its been there for over 5 years delivering excellent service to the local community.

The ashram also has a woman self help centre – but it was closed and I couldn’t visit them. The Admin office has an excellent stocks of DVD’s and Books – Sri M communication is simple and lucid and his explanations of the Upanishad and Bhagwad Gita is a joy to listen. I stocked myself with almost all that they had to offer.

The food at the Ashram is simple and Sattvik. You will love it.

I spent a lot of time at the Ashram – but I also had time to go with Dr Priyam and her team to the villages nearby. Our first visit was to a mobile health camp run by the Govt of Andhra with the Piramal foundation. I was impressed with the process and the efficiency with which this camp was run. Cheers to the committed team of doctors and their support staff.

Our second visit was to the Satsang rural school that imparts education to about 30 children. This is located 12 km from the Satsang Ashram. This is where you see the difference between city children and the rural kids. There was so much joy and happiness in the little things they had. Intelligent , sharp kids with great life skills – but sadly at a disadvantage from day 1. The Satsang foundation has clearly identified the two pillars for India to succeed – Education & Healthcare, without that India cannot progress.

I also found time to visit the local village market (Tue is the day to go) and eat the tastiest Idlis and Vadas at CAM’s idli. Needless to say a plate of idli , Vada and Dosa cost me less than Rs 50/-.

A 20 min drive from the Ashram is a beautiful Shirdi Sai temple on the Kadiri Byepass road. Its spotless clean and has a live “Dhuni”.

Places I could not visit

Mallaiah Konda – which I was told is a beautiful place with an ancient Shiva temple. This is a hillock located off the road from madanapalle to Bengaluru. This is a hillock with a large monolith at its peak. On top pf this peak is a temple of Mallikarjuna Swami (Shiva). One can reach this place by taking a left turn near Vempalli village, while travelling from Madanapalle to Bengaluru. Luckily, the place is still pristine even though it is located near the town. It offers beautiful views of Madanapalle town. One can also see the surrounding Mahamalleshwara hills. The flat area found on peak of the hillock is an ideal location for stargazing during clear nights – best in summers.

Obalesh Temple: A Vishnu temple located on the same road, but still farther towards Bengaluru. This place is located inside the state of Karnataka very near to the border it shares with Andhra Pradesh. It belongs to the rayalapadu panchayat. Unlike the malliah konda, this temple is not on a peak, but is nestled between two tall hills. A good place for silent contemplation. Every Saturday bhajans happen in the temple from morning 7 to 10 am. There was another Vishnu temple I saw atop a hill from the Ashram – this is a trek with about 600 steps.

Rishi Valley – Once a drought ridden valley, but now a throbbing forest. Thanks to the Krishnamurthi foundation which has taken upon itself the task of afforestation in this valley and has done it successfully. Rishi valley is famous for the School. but, deep inside the valley one can find pristine locations, which I feel, equally deserve the fame. One such location is the Enugu Mallamma cheruvu. A natural percolation pond. One can enjoy a swim in the pond and also enjoy the view of surrounding hills.

Peepal Grove School (PGS) – a residential school run by the Satsang Foundation – It is one of the few schools providing alternative education in India.

There is also an organic farm close by that merits a visit. Horsley Hill may be worth exploring – I am told that during weekdays its empty.

The weather in Madanapalli is excellent between Oct & Feb. Summers can get hot. The area gets only a few showers every year and water is a challenge. There were no power cuts when I was there and I was told that things have got a lot better in the last few years. The network is decent – Airtel 3G works but Jio doesn’t.

 

For more details : http://satsang-foundation.org

 

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Discovering Kolavara Heritage and the sights enroute

The Equation – 54 Hrs , 1054 Kms ( 400 Km Ghat Roads) , 5 Ancient temples 1000 – 3000 years old , the beauty of Malnad, Discovering Kolavara Heritage and the lovely W Ghats – All of this for Rs 8000/ person.

This was the second trip that Subhashish and me were making ( our first was to Chidambaram and Kumbakonam in 2017 Feb) – and we accomplished a lot between Fri 2.30 afternoon when we left E City and reached Bangalore at 11 PM on Sun night.

First the key discoveries 

  • A wonderful homestay nestled deep in the W Ghats at Malnad – the Kolavara Heritage was the find of this trip. Thanks to Bharti & Ravi for letting us know about this lovely place.
  • There is more to Hoysala temples than Belur & Halebidu – we discovered two amazing temples , well maintained , almost empty buzzing with energy
  • After “Roti – Kapda – Makan” the buzz word for elections over the last 10 years has been “Bijli – Sadak – Pani”, looks like we have accomplished our goals on that front. We zipped past 1000 Km across remote regions and the road condition was excellent. The bathrooms were clean and we never had electricity or water problem anywhere. For 2019 Modi needs to coin a new slogan. Finally our temples are sparkling  clean and very well maintained. The Sringeri temple is spotlessly clean and so were all the others that we visited.

Lets start with Kolavara Heritage – a beautiful heritage property that is managed by the family over the last 180 years. Nestled deep in Malnad its about 350 Km from Bangalore ( a 7 hr drive ) and 2 hrs from Chickamgalaur. A lovely homestay with 6 rooms in a 25 acre plantation of Rubber , Pepper and Arekanut.

The whole ambience of the place is pure and pristine and there is an eye for detail on every single thing. The rooms are simple and functional but tastefully designed . The food is local and very very tasty. Service is excellent. This is a great place for all types of people. Its a great place for Digital Detox – you have everything but Mobile Signal.

  1. The honeymooners and stressed out folks who want to just relax and enjoy the soulitude amidst nature
  2. The Nature lovers who want to go on treks and lovely drives ( Jog falls is only a 100 Km away)
  3. Religious and spiritually inclined ( Sringeri is a 1 hr drive and Hornadu a 2 hr drive)

All of this is very reasonably priced at Rs 2750 / person / night inclusive of Breakfast / Lunch / Dinner – now that is a steal at times when places like Orange County in Coorg charge you 30 K / night for a room. A great place to come as a group they have rooms in different configurations – 2 Beds , 3 Beds , two rooms joined together for a family of 4 and even a 6 bed combination for larger groups.

We loved the place – and I am sure I will keep coming back here again and again to discover all the enchanting things in and around Kolavara Heritage. A big thank you to Nishchal & Vathsalya for hosting us and managing this place so well. For more details visit www.kolavaraheritagehomestay.com, Phone – 94803 30033

The second big discovery was two ancient Hoysala temples enroute. Most people when travelling to Chickamagalaur will visit Shravanbelagola, Belur & Halebidu. While these are beautiful and crowded places people are not aware that the Hoysalas built nearly 100 temples and many of them are in and around Hassan. (http://www.belurhalebid.com/hoysala-temples.php)

We visited two such rare jewels.

The Lakshmi temple at Doddagaddavalli ( a small village located off the Belur Hassan highway) is one of the oldest Hoysala temples. A Chatuskuta – 4 shrines it houses the main Shrine of Kolhapur Lakshmi and the other 3 are of Kali , Shiva and Vishnu. This is the only shrine where you have a life like statue of “Baital” in front of the kali shrine.  We visited this temple at 545 PM ( left Bangalore E city at 2.15 and drove straight here) – it was wonderful to be here with the setting sun. We had the temple to ourselves with the priest and were able to go inside the Sanctum Sanctorum and do our own private Arti.

The second temple we visited on our way back to Bangalore was the Veeranarayana Temple at Belvadi. This temple has three beautiful deities – Veera Narayana, Venugopala Swami and Yoga Narasimha. Large sculptures in shining black Saligrama with exquisite levels of intricacy – the priest mentioned that as per ASI the Lord Krishna statue here is considered the most beautiful sculpture all across India. The temple also has a  unique architecture – on March 23rd during equinox the rising sun casts its rays on the main deity crossing 7 doorways – demonstrating the level of perfection in design that the ancient rulers. The temple is almost always empty and if you find it locked call the priest who lives next door ( Prashant – 90350 41518) – he was very knowledgeable and his family has been managing this temple across generations. Both temples can be accesses thru Google Maps.

During this trip we also visited two important shrines – the Sharadamba temple at Sringeri and the Annapoorneshwari temple at Hornadu. 

The Sharadamba temple at Sringeri was consecrated by Adi Shankara around 800 AD. Its a 1 hr drive from Kolavara Heritage ( 4 hrs from Hassan and 2 1/2 Hrs from Chickamagalur). Majestic and spotlessly clean the complex houses 3 Temples – the main temple of Sharadamba ( Goddess Saraswati) , a Shiva temple and a temple decidtated to Adi Shankara. We were lucky to find it almost empty and had a great darshan. The deity of Sharadamba is majestic and full decked up exudes divinity and energy that is all encompassing – its a sight to see. They also serve lunch from 1230 – but we left at 1030 ( we drove straight from Hassan – leaving at 5.30 AM , reaching Sringeri at 9.30 AM )

The Annapoorneshwari temple at Hornadu is said to have been installed by Sage Agastya. Its a long drive – winding roads and took us 2 1/2 hrs from Kolavara to reach. Managed by a family trust its nestled amidst verdant hills. We reached at 12 – worried that the temple may have closed but were lucky – this is one of the few temples that does not close in the afternoon. On the contrary they have a special Arti at 2.30 with maps lit – we could not stay back to see this , but our hosts at Kolavara Heritage said that was a must attend (Tickets for this come at Rs 500). We did not miss the Prasad here – lunch was a sit down meal of piping hot rice, sambar and payasam and it was very tasty.

For other temples in the vicinity : https://www.sringeri.net/pilgrim-info/other-temples-nearby

The drive from Hornadu to Bangalore is almost 9 Hrs – including a 1 hr stop at Belvadi and a few small breaks for coffee. The entire stretch of roads after Chickamagalur is winding thru the ghats going up and down – this can affect even the strongest of stomachs. So be careful when driving with kids.

Parting Notes

We covered a lot in 54 hrs – this was all the time we had , but this itinerary is a 3 – 4 day trip. Plan for at least 2 days at Kolavara Heritage.

Spend a night at Hassan – that breaks the long drive – we stayed at Mallige Residency a lovely spanking new property – nice rooms and they have a pure veg restaurant. Rates were very reasonable at Rs 2750 for two http://www.malligeresidency.com

Sep – Feb is the best season to travel to Malnad , the rains can be severe , it would be wonderful to be here in Sep after the rains when the hills would be lush green and Jog Falls would be brimming.

Here is a list of things you can do at Kolavara Heritage ( All drives distance are 1 way)

  • 1/2 day trip to Sringeri 34 Km 1 Hr drive, there is a temple dedicated to the rain god close by called Kigga
  • Kundadri Hills – ancient Jain temple 38 Km 1 Hr drive – sunset view point
  • Agumbe – the forest with the largest concentration of King Cobras – Sunset View – Very close to Kundadri Hills. Agumbe also has connections with Malgudi days
  • Trek to Jamalie hills – 1 Hr trek from Kolavara
  • Kavale Durge – 1 /2 day trek
  • Plantation walk 45 min – 1 hr
  • Visit Poet Kuvempu birth place – 30 – 45 min ( 10 min drive from Kolavara)
  • Kochadri Hills – Original Deity of Mookambika is located – 72 Km
  • They have a swimming pool – a small one and bikes to ride around
  • Plan a trip with a few families – it would be more fun as a group.

Distances and Drive times 

  • Bangalore – Hassan 165 Kms – 3 Hrs ( Excellent food joints on the route – recommend Swati Delicacy 100 Kms from Bangalore , while driving from Bangalore comes on the other side)
  • Hassan – Chickamagalur – 65 Km – 1 hr
  • Chickamagalaur –  Kolavara Heritage, 100 Km – 2 1/2 hrs
  • Kolavara Heritage – Udupi – 85 Km
  • Kolavara Heritage – Managlore – 140 Km

 

And one last thing on the history of Kolavara and mythology associated with it

View of a room at Kolavara

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Kurunji Estates – Lovely Home stay in Kodaikanal

This blog is not just about the beautiful homestay Kurunji Estates at Kodaikanal but also the power of positive energy in a team. I am a strong believer that if your energy balance is right everything works out well – against all odds. And if your energy system is blocked – then the best of planning doesn’t help.

We had planned our 3rd annual get away at Briar Tea Estate, Meghamalai – a beautiful home stay amidst tea gardens in Theni district. A place so remote and so beautiful its been on my ” Must visit ” list for a long time. Bookings were made months in advance – but a fortnight before when I was checking for directions found that the last 40 km road was totally broken down and would take 3 – 4 hrs. We ended up cancelling this and the kind people refunded us 100% ( against their standard policy) . We then tried a remote log house called Kuteeram at Chickamagalur – but the property owner never sent us a payment link or responded to messages and calls ( I am glad this did not work out as there was a political clash in that area during our travel days) and finally by sheer coincidence we got lucky the 3rd time and booked Kurunji Home Stay at Kodaikanal thru Saffron Stays.

Saffron Stays is a portal that lists excellent Home Stays all over India – the experience of booking and follow through was excellent and very professional (https://www.saffronstays.com).

It was not just the booking – Other things went wrong too . The Sat / Sun / Mon Holiday had to be changed to Fri / Sat / Sun in the last minute , flights got delayed and even a UBER pick up from Bangalore airport was delayed by 30 min – and we finally left Bangalore at 2 PM. Add to this Cyclone Okhi was wreaking havoc on the TN / Trivandrum coast and there were heavy rains and wind lashing in the Kodai hills. It was against this backdrop that we started off for a ~ 500 km journey , driving into the hills at night with an ETA of 11 PM.

But then when you have positive energy in the team – all of these vanish. We were greeted with blue skies and sunny days and a wonderful holiday.

The roads to Kodai are excellent – and even with pouring rain we managed 80 – 90 km/h on the wet stretches and 120+ km/h on the other stretches. Two short stops at 4PM and 8 PM was all we had – but the long journey melts when you have a good vechile (Innova) and more importantly good company. This stretch across Salem – Karur doesn’t have branded eateries on the way and the quality of restrooms are disappointing.

As we drove up the hills at 9.30 PM we saw many a large oak on the ground but fortunately nothing blocked us and as we reached Kodai to pay the entry toll the electricity  came back in the town. Google maps was accurate and we walked into the warm and homely Kurinji estate at 11 PM for a wonderful and tasty meal. This home stay is a large 1930’s Thanjavur Bungalow with 8 rooms . It is maintained by Natarajan and his wife. The property is owned by Advani Orlikon and till recently was a company guest house. It has been opened to guests in 2017.

 

A 9 acre property it is rustic and peaceful. Clean , warm and homely. Hot water , heaters , neat towels , customised food as per your choice , a nice big TV , Carrom …. perfect place to come as a group or with a few families and friends. It is affordable as a double room costs Rs 5000/- + tax and the food is very reasonable.

At ~ 7000 feet Kodai is one of the highest hill stations in India. The drive from the foothills to the top is almost 75 Km and takes 90 min ( this when the roads were empty). Like most Indian Hill Stations there is nothing much to do in Kodai – barring the regular boating , horse riding and a few frequently visited spots. This was my 3rd trip to Kodai and thanks to Cyclone Okhi Kodai was empty and all to ourselves but we stayed away from the touristy spots. (All we did was a walk by the lake)

But we did visit two off beat places

The Kuzhanthai Velappar Temple (A temple of lord Muruga)  has three thousand years of history and was consecrated by his holines Bhogar. Its in a small picturesque village clued Poombarai – 20 km from Kodaikanal.

Bhoganathar or Bhogar was a highly evolved Siddhar and is considered to be the guru of Babaji. (http://palani.org/bhogar-biography.htm). Its a small but highly energised temple – no crowd.  Located in the Palani hills it is considered a sub temple of the main Palani temple. It was again a coincidence that I visited the temple on the Karthikai function

15 km from this temple is a the beautiful Mannavanur grass lands and a pristine lake – the location for many a film shoot. This place is beautiful – fresh air , almost empty and you can soak in pristine nature. The place also has a central govt sheep research centre. Lucky sheep.

Visiting these two places is a day trip – depart Kodai at 9.30 after a heavy breakfast and you are back at 3,30 for tea and snacks – we skipped lunch as the breakfast was heavy. After a tasty snack of Pakodas and Chai – which was perfect in this weather we headed out for a long walk to the Kodai lake and were back by 7 PM to enjoy the warmth of the lovely fireplace.

It was Dec and just after heavy rains – but Kodai was barely 10 Degrees. Not very cold. The effects of Global warming are evident. The same place 20 years back would have been close to Zero.

The next day we left at 10 AM making a few stops to buy some fresh carrots.

A lunch stop at Karur at Shiva Muruga and a short tea break at Adyar Anand Bhawan a few hrs before Bangalore and we were back home at 7.30 PM. A great break and thanks to the divine powers and the positive energy of the team, everything worked out perfectly.

We will keep the tradition going, so 2018 is back to the Himalayas and we have been talking about this place called Narkanda in Himachal – again a beautiful homestay with cherry farms at 9500 feet. And 100 km from there is Sarahan. One of our team mates visits this place every Dec – so he knows that area like the back of his hand. Its tempting and we don’t know if we can wait till Nov 2018 !

Finally a big thanks to Natarajan and family and Saffron Stays for making this trip a successful one.

 

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Tiruchi Temples in 3 Days

S Indian and specifically Tamil Nadu is a treasure house of Temples. Having covered Chennai, Kanchipuram , Mahabalipuram, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam and Tanjore – Tiruchi and Rameshwaram were the two prominent ancient cities in our pending list. And we finally covered Tiruchi extensively in 3 days.

A few things that made this trip very satisfying 

  • Amazing ancient temples thousands of years old – architectural & spiritual masterpieces – very well maintained
  • Good Hotel centrally Located – and great food
  • Excellent people all thru – from the drivers , porters , staff at restaurants , people at the Temple, companions in the Train – we met good human being all through our trip
  • Excellent weather ( It was pouring in Chennai as the NE Monsoon had just started – but Tiruchi 330 Km was pleasant and cloudy)
  • But the biggest WOW moment to me was discovering the Samadhi of the great Saint Patanjali who wrote the Yoga Sutras – Nobody knows about this – in an ancient temple in a small village in the suburbs of Tiruchi – more of that later.

So if you plan a trip to Tiruchi this Blog will be useful 

How to reach – where to stay

16232 Mayiladuthurai Express is the only Train from Bangalore to Tiruchi. It covers the ~ 350 KM distance in over 8 hrs reaching Tiruchi Junction at 4 AM. (return timing is more convenient – Dep Tiruchi at 8.30 PM and reaches Bangalore Cant at 5.06 AM) – It has one 2nd AC coach so book in advance.  Tiruchi has 3 Stations – Tiruchi Fort, Tiruchi Junction ( TPJ) and Srirangam – this train stops at the first two stations. We got off at TPJ and reached our hotel KVM Hotels ( WWW.kvmhotels.com) by 5 AM – a 20 min drive. Its a new hotel with good rooms , excellent food and centrally located at Amma Mandapam, Srirangam. A well maintained double occupancy room is Rs 2300/-  inclusive of a sumptuous breakfast. It has 24 hrs check in – check out.  Its a pure veg hotel.

Plan for Day – 1 

After a tasty breakfast we started our day at 9 AM and headed to the Branhmapureeswarar Temple at Tirupattur a 20 min drive. This is an ancient temple ( please note all temples here are 100o years or older) dedicated to Lord Shiva – its unique as it has a sanctum of Lord Brahma in a meditative pose – people come here to change their fate for the good. This is also the temple where you will find the Samadhi of the great Sage Patanjali.

 

If you sit quietly for a few minutes next to this Samadhi you can sense the energy of the place. I am glad that this Samadhi continues to be a secret – that protects the sanctity and energy in this zone. But it is indeed a shame that in todays era of communication – hardly anyone knows of the Samadhi of Patanjali in India.

But there was more to come in this remote corner – a km from this temple is another ancient temple The Kashi Vishwanathan temple – This temple houses the Jivasamadhi of Sri.Vyagrapada,the saint with feet of a tiger. The priest informed me that the idols here are as old as 3500 years and praying here is the equivalent of going to Kashi. (This blog gives more details on this energised temple – http://drlsravi.blogspot.in/2012/05/sri-kasi-viswanatha-temple-at.html)

On the way back we stopped at the Samayapuram Mariamma temple – By now it was 12 noon and we headed back to Tiruchi City to visit my mothers school ( she passed out in 1955 and was visiting Tiruchi after more than 60 years – This is the same school from where defence Minister Niramala Sitaraman passed out many years later) followed by lunch at Sangeeta’s and then we headed back for an afternoon nap.

We set out at 4 PM after tea and headed to another iconic temple – the Jambukesawarar and Akhilandeswari temple at Thiruvanaikaval – a short 1 km from our hotel.

This temple is significant – Its an ancient Shiva temple dedicated to the Water Element. I had Visited Kala Hasti in 1996 (Air) and over the last 20 years had visited Chidambaram (Space) , Thiruvanamalai (Fire) and Kancheepuram ( Earth) – and I was excited to complete the Pancha Bhoota circuit.

The temple is massive and the Shiva Linga has water oozing out from below. The Sanctum Sanctorum is small – do take the Rs 10 ticket that allows you enter the final enclosure. The temple architecture has evolved over 1000’s of year and it is a majestic temple.

A 10 min walk from the Shiva Shrine is the Devi Shrine of Akhilandeshwari – a very powerful goddess . This shrine closes at 5 PM and reopens at 6 PM – and we reached at 5.05 PM – so we had an hr to sit in the quiet space there and meditate ( fortunately the temple was empty with just a few people). After a very satisfying day we headed back to the hotel for dinner and rest.

Plan for Day – 2 

The morning of day 2 was reserved for the grand and impressive Ranganathaswami temple at Srirangam. A masterpiece. It is the largest functioning temple in the world with a perimeter of 4 kms, occupying an area of 156 acres. Its a temple town and there are many Agraharas ( houses and communities) within the temple town.

 

Its spotlessly clean – thanks to the late CM Jayalalitha ( who was the MLA from Srirangam) and the Chairman of TVS Venu Srinivasan who have painstakingly restored and cleaned this temple – some say they cleared 65,000 tonnes of sand , debris etc from inside the temple over a few years. Recently UNESCO awarded the temple for its restoration work.

There are over 70 shrines inside – and it can get as busy as Tirupathi on some days but were were lucky to have it almost empty. The Rs 250 special ticket took us to the main Sanctum devoid of lines and we had an excellent Darshan. There was no pushing and haggling for money , the priest asked us to stay calmly for a great darshan.

I was fortunate – this was the 3rd viewing in 1 month  of  Lord Vishnu Vishnu resting on Shesha in the sleeping position – other recent ones were at Madhya Ranga in Shivanasamudra and at the famous Padmanabhaswami temple in Trivandrum.

Nobody knows how ancient this idol is – some say even Lord Rama came and prayed here – but the temple complex was developed by multiple kingdoms starting with Cholas. A lot of restoration has happened in the last 10 years making it a sight worth visiting.

A ten minute walk leads you to the Devi Shrine – and most people will head back after this. But do make a point to visit the Ramanujar Sannidhi . You will have to ask for this. Its a shrine dedicated to sage Ramanujar and his body is mummified with saffron and Camphor in a meditative pose. A very impressive Sage – he is big and saintly.

On an empty day it took us about 2 hrs to have a nice relaxed visit of this temple post which we headed to the Samadhi of Sadhguru Sri Brahma. Sadhguru of Isha fame talks about his life as Sri Brahma in his previous life. This is a small samadhi next to the highway and you would come here only if you are an Isha Follower.

A 15  minute stop here and we headed to the city to visit a few more locations my parents had frequented 60 years back and then for lunch at Ajanta’s. ( the lunch at Sangeeta was far better)

Driving the bylaws of this ancient city we reached our next stop – the Rockfort Temple , the most iconic temple at Tiruchi. Its a 20 min climb – and fortunately the weather was pleasant at 2 in the afternoon to walk barefoot up this rocky outcrop. Enroute there are a few more temples – but they were closed in the afternoon.

 

This completed our morning circuit and we were back in the room by 2.15 PM.

At 4 PM we headed to an ancient Murugan temple at Vayalur located in a scenic village and were back by 6 PM at our hotel.

Plan for Day – 3

We headed out at 8.30 AM to the Malai Koil or Erumbeeshwarar Temple – again an ancient Shiva temple on a small hillock  with a lot of mythological significance. The Shiva Linga here is made of mud and hence not washed with milk and water.

On the way we stopped back at the Jambukesawarar and Akhilandeswari temple at Thiruvanaikaval where the 12 Noon Puja is famous.  Lunch was at an Iyengar mess run by a Brahmin family – a simple homely affair.

We had the evening free to ourselves – but the other famous sites to visit were far away ( if you have an extra day try and visit these places )

  • Viralimalai – 40 Km , famous for a Murugan temple and a Peacock sanctuary
  • Sri Kokarneshwar temple
  • Sittanavasal

Sittanavasal is a rock-cut  monastery or temple. Created by Jains,  it is called the Arivar Koil, and is a rock cut cave temple of the Arihants . It contains remnants of notable frescoes from the 7th century. The murals have been painted with vegetable and mineral dyes in black, green, yellow, orange, blue, and white. Paintings have been created by applying colours over a thin wet surface of lime plaster. Many evolved saints are said to have meditated here. Sounds beautiful – but its a full day trip. 

I went back to the Samadhi of Patanjali and Vyaghrapadar and was back by 6PM – well in time to pack up , settle our bills have an early dinner ( Note in temple towns Dinner is Tiffin) and head to the Station for our 8.30 PM Train. As we headed back it started drizzling – but the rain gods had been merciful to us.

We had an excellent driver – so reach out to him if you are travelling to Tiruchi , Ramesh – 98434 35991. It make s a lot of difference to have a local with you to navigate the town.

A big thanks to all the people who helped us plan the trip – we would have missed. a lot of things if not for their valuable inputs. We left on Mon night and were back home on Fri morning – 4 nights , 2 in the train and 3 days at Tiruchi – the total trip cost was Rs 25,000 for 3 people inclusive of 2nd AC , 2 Rooms , Car , Food  etc – that is very reasonable considering that in the recent past we spent 30K a night at the Taj Coorg.

Small towns are nice , people are simple , down to earth and trustworthy. Its just the weather – Tiruchi boils in the summer , Nov to Feb is the only time you can expect pleasant weather. the Cauvery that has flown for millions of years is on the verge of drying – the impact of the last 50 years has been severe my mother was able to see the change in her lifetime. Lets just hope that the rivers revive and Sadhguru’s Rally for Rivers is a grand success.

So that completes Tiruchi – we enjoyed it thoroughly, which gets me planning for my next trip to the historical town of Rameswaram.

 

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“Baevu – The Village” Nature Retreat near Bangalore

A few years back I had discovered Shreyas – a lovely nature / Yoga retreat at Neelmangala and called it Bangalore’s best kept secret. This week we discovered another gem ” Baevu Village” on Kanakpura Road – 2 hrs drive from Bangalore.

“Baevu” in Kannada means Neem Tree and this 30 acre property has over 1000 Neem Trees. Its a green eco spot with over 800 Mango Trees and a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, paddy & ragi grown in an organic farm. Set in a scenic landscape surrounded by hills and forests its an oasis of greenery and tranquility.

The property recently opened and is still undergoing expansion. Currently it has 10 cottages ( 12 more are planned shortly). A Cowshed is under construction which will provide fresh milk products with the farm produce. And a Spa + Conference rooms is also in the works.

Baevu Village is in the heart of rustic Kanakpura and designed to melt in with the local ambience. The Cottages are designed with a rustic look using materials that the locals use. The Taps and buckets are brass , switches are the old black round ones, the food is an excellent fare of a wide variety of S Indian dishes, the furniture is homely and blends  in with the rustic look of the houses and the property.

The entire property is run on Solar power with 105 panels generating 30,000 KW. This is a unique property – and if you are a nature lover like me in the quest of quiet places don’t miss this one.

This property scores high on all counts and with a little bit of effort from the owners can make it to the coveted Relais & Châteaux list

  • Design / Architecture / Landscape – 10 / 10
  • Service – 10 / 10
  • Value For Money – 10 /10

Its owned by the Avani group (Shashidhar a Builder and his wife a Landscape architect) – the property has been designed in consultation with a Swiss Architect.

As you walk around the property you can stand below the Neem Tress and hear the buzzing of the bees and numerous birds chirping and singing, watch the squirrel and the chameleon darting away and admire the massive Papiya’s and the freshly grown Bhindi’s & Tomatoes. You can see natures bounty without Urea and pesticides. That is reflected in the quality of the food – which is fresh and tasty.

The property is surrounded by the Karadi Gudda & Banantamari Reserve forests and there are nice short treks ( 2 hrs ). We did a morning trek starting at 7 AM and back by 9 AM. A short ride followed by a 30 min trek to a summit for a great view – we also spotted stones that looked like Menhirs from Asterix. The summit has a small rock cut image of Narasimha and local villagers pay their respects regularly here.

You also have activity in the retreat – TT , Volley Ball , Mud Volley Ball etc. The plunge pool is beautiful and the changing rooms are clean and awesome. Its perfect for a 1 night stay.

The rates are reasonable

  • Couple Cottage – 6722
  • Family Cottage – 8000
  • Extra Adult – 2990

We stayed in a. family cottage – its very spacious and can easily accommodate a family of four.  Comes with a nice sit out and a very large bathroom. Just be careful to not bang your head as the doors are low height like in olden days

Rates are inclusive of Taxes an all 3 meals (Breakfast , Lunch , Dinner , Tea , Coffee etc). If you want to order add ons they are not expensive (Veg Pakoda 90 , Masala Omlette 60 …. ) – the menu consists of Veg & Non Veg . There is no bar but you can carry liquor for consumption in the room.

We went in mid March on a full moon night ( Surprisingly all my travels happen around full moon nights – and I never plan it that way) – days were warm but it was very cool in the evenings. We will definitely plan a trip after the rains when the greenery will be all over and the water from the hills will flow and fill up the ponds.

But do add this place to your must visit weekend getaways in Bangalore.

PS – They also have a day visit program where you can leave Bangalore early have breakfast , lunch , roam around , spend time in the pool – all of this for Rs 905/ person

Other Information

  • Contact Details – Divya Kare – + 91 94482 86415
  • Website – http://www.avanileisure.com/baevu-home.php
  • Avani group has two other properties around Bangalore – Angana a 3 acre property near the Ravishanker ashram and Panchwati a wedding destination again on Kanakpura Road.
  • Google Maps will locate the place – roads are excellent – budget 2 hrs
  • Phone connection is decent you will get Edge connection – No Wi Fi
  • No TV in the rooms , No AC

Suggestions for improvement 

  • Please provide Coffee Tea before 630 – for early risers like me waking up at 430 and waiting till 630 for a cup of coffee was a sore point (Or keep a coffee machine in the room)
  • Keep Yoga Mats in the room
  • You need to plan some more activities so that people can spend at least 2 days – else your traffic will be restricted to Bangalore locals
  • Lunch and dinner was excellent – explore augmenting your breakfast menu with some more options ( the retreat was almost empty when we stayed – 3 / 10 rooms – and that may have been the reason for limited options at breakfast)
  • Please improve your website – the current one is not doing justice to this amazing property

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Chidambaram & Thiruvanamalai from Bangalore

I have been on the temple circuit since Dec 2016. Varanasi – Sarnath , then Kancheepuram and now in Feb 2017 a wonderful trip to Chidambaram & Thiruvanamalai.

The Thillai Nataraja temple at Chidambaram has been on my bucket list for long. Its an ancient temple – with many mystical stories around its history & architecture. This is the only temple that depicts Lord Shiva in the Nataraja pose performing the Ananda Tandava (“Dance of Delight”) as the supreme being who performs all cosmic activities.

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Chidambaram is one of the five Pancha Bootha Sthalams, the holiest Shiva temples each representing one of the five classical elements; Chidambaram represents akasha (aether) –  I have been to 3 others – Kalahasti – Air, Thiruvanamalai – Fire, Kancheepuram – Earth, which leaves the 5th one representing water – the Jambukeshwar temple which is in Tiruvanaika near Tiruchi. The Shiva Linga here signifies the element water.

For more details on the Chidambaram Temple read this link http://www.chidambaramnataraja.org/about_temple.html

Getting to Chidambaram  

We left Bangalore at 6 AM and reached our hotel in time for lunch at 1.45. (375 Kms) Two stops – one at 8 AM for breakfast and gas just before the NH  bifurcates to Chennai & Salem and the second stop at around 11 AM about 80 kms after Salem. The road is good and barring two small stretches where we were struck for 20 min we were zipping all along. My friends Mahindra XUV is an excellent road warrior – stable and safe and it was even better than my Innova.

We stayed at the Lakshmi Vilas Heritage – a beautiful property with 16 rooms in a village about 15 Kms south of Chidambaram. A large property with lots of greenery, a nice pond and a 150 year old temple in its compound – and very affordable too (4 K / Night for double occupancy inclusive of Breakfast and Wi Fi). Food is good – simple and homely and they serve both Indian and a few continental dishes. Its managed by a few good people – so don’t expect 5 Star finesse. Rooms are nice – more than basic with AC , TV , Nice big Bathroom , Hot Water 24 by 7.  You don’t need anything more. The good thing is – the hotel is away from the crowded streets of Chidambaram and is located only 45 Kms from Kumbakonam. So its easy to cover the temples to the South of Chidambaram from here.

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The Main Nataraja Temple at Chidamabaram 

A large temple it was built by king Paranthaka Chola in 5th century BC and constantly renovated by future Chola and Pallava kings. It is said that to worship Nataraja in this temple Adishesha took rebirth as Patanjali. In addition to the main Nataraja statue the temple also has a Shiva linga in Crystal stone and one in Ruby. The Sanctum Sanctorum has a golden roof with 21600 leaves that denotes the no of breaths we take every day. The 72,000 golden nails stand for the “Nadis’ or nerve junction points in our body,

Unique aspect of this temple is that it is managed by 300 Priests and their families. There is no Trust / No Govt Interference / No Mutt – over thousands of years the ancestors of the Priests and their families have been managing the temple. These priests are dedicated wholly for the temple and do not perform any other activities. The temple is  neat, well organised , there are no VIP Q and special tickets like Tirupathi. But if you want a good Dharshan close to the Sanctum Sanctorum it helps to know one of the 300 Priest Families.

We were lucky to be introduced to Natarjamani Deekshitar by a friend – and that really helped us to get an excellent Darshan – once in the evening at 4 PM  and later at 6 AM in the morning when the temple opens. You can also reach out to them if you need help ( Phone – 04144 – 2276544, Mobile – 9487313933 , Their house is located right next to the temple at 107/A East Car street, Near Rich Rich Shop behind Sowju Textiles)  The priests do not demand any fees – but they manage their families with the donations we make.

We were extremely happy with both our visits and had an excellent Darshan and temple tour. the morning visit at 6 AM when they open the temple is highly recommended. The ringing of bells , Dumroos, the procession , all of this with the opening of the Sanctum Sanctorum is a high energy event.

The temple is large but you can complete the darshan and the tour in 1 hr easily ( We were lucky to be there on a week day when the crowd was very light) – don’t miss the Prasadam – its extremely tasty and available for a very reasonable price. There are no dress codes – so you can be comfortable in Pant / Shirt or Dhoti Kurta. While entering the Sanctum Sanctorum you need to remove your shirt. Recommended that you stick to Indian Wear.

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We finished our Darshan and temple tour by 6.30 PM and walked around the temple before we landed up at Sri Krishna Vilas for Dinner. the food is outstanding and the rates are very very reasonable. We kept coming for most of our meals during our stay here. This is also on East Car street right next to the Priests house

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We finished day – 1 by 830 PM and headed back to the hotel. day – 2 was to be a busy day.

Day – 2 we started early. We left our hotel by 6.30 AM. Our first stop was the Gangai Konda Cholapuram temple. A Grand temple built by Rajendra Chola I, the son and successor of Rajaraja Chola, the great Chola who conquered a large area in South India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Sumatra, Kadaram (Kedah in Malaysia), Cambodia and others at the beginning of the 11th century A.D. It occupies an important place in the history of India. As the capital of the Cholas from about 1025 A.D. for about 250 years, the city controlled the affairs of entire southern India, from the Tungabhadra in the north to Ceylon in the south and other south east Asian countries. The architecture of this temple is comparable to that of the Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjore.

Located South of Chidambaram about 20 km from our Hotel on the way to Kumbakonam – budget 45 min at this beautiful and grand temple. More famous for its architecture than its divinity.

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Our next stop was a jewel in the crown. A small temple tucked in the middle of a village. It took us 45 minutes to reach here thru narrow by lanes of villages.  Melakadambur is a village located 31 kilometres (19 mi) from Chidambaram.  The Arulmigu Amirthakateshwarar Thirukkoil was constructed by Kulothunga Chola and is more than 1000 years old. This Sivalinga is Self-manifested or Swayambhu Linga. The temple is small , was totally empty and is buzzing with energy. We loved it. Don’t miss this temple if you go to Chidambaram.

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It took us about 40 minutes to get back to Chidambaram for Breakfast and by 9.45 AM we were heading towards Sirkazhi to visit the Brahma Parameshwar temple. The town also has a famous Perumal temple but we skipped that and headed to the Vaitheeswaran temple close by. The temple is open till 1.30 and we made it there by 12.30. A big crowded temple – you can feel the energy of the temple if you sit in a corner quietly for some time.  This temple is famous for curing ailments and outside it you will find many ” Nadi Astrologers” who will predict your past very accurately – we stayed away from them , as it sounded a tad bogus.

After a long morning we headed back to our hotel and reached by 1.30 in time for a sumptuous meal. All that you see in the photo comes for Rs 200/- .

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After a few hours of rest we headed out at 4 PM to another spectacular temple the Sri Mushnam temple which is dedicated to Lord Vishnu in his Avatar as a Boar. A Massive temple – no crowds – and we were able to complete our darshan in less than 20 minutes.

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From here we headed to another ancient temple – the Perumal temple at Kattu Mannar. A 30 min drive from the Boar temple. Again an ancient temple with a lot of mythology associated with it – but the temple has seen better days. Our hotel was 8 Kms from here and we reached by 7.45 PM. It was a long day and we had covered a lot of ground – 6 temples and over 200 kms of driving. A simple dinner of Phulka Rotis , Dal , Sabji , Curd , Rice – and we sat outside in the Charpoy admiring the full moon before heading to bed by 9.30 PM.

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Day – 3 we start early and reach the Priests house by 5.45 AM for the morning Puja at the Thillai Nataraja Temple. This is a must visit. The Sanctum Sanctorum opens by 6.30 AM for public viewing and a grand ceremony is held every morning. The Puja gets over by 6.45 AM.

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Our next stop was the Thillai Kali temple – the Consort of Thillai Nataraja , located just 850 M from the Main Nataraja Temple . A small temple it houses Kali as Amman and Rudra Kali in her angry form. The temple was decked with lemons and I asked the Priest the significance of lemons and Devi temples – he had no answer – so thats some homework for me to research.

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After breakfast we headed towards Kumbakonam. From Chidambaram the Darasuram Temple – a UNESCO world Heritage site was about 60 Km ( from our hotel 45 Km) – and it took us 90 minutes to get there. Lovely architecture and exquisite sculpture is the hallmark of this massive Shiva temple.

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Kumbakonam is full of temples and I have covered most of them in my visit a few years back. But to give my friend a flavour of the city we drove around the town to the Uppaliappan temple – a large Vishnu Temple in the outskirts of the city. After a darshan here we reached Swamimalai for lunch at the beautiful Indecco hotel – another Heritage property. We had stayed here when we had travelled to Kumbakonam some years back – if you are travelling to Kumbakonam do stay here. (https://vak1969.com/2012/02/17/kumbakonam-tanjore-3-day-trip/)

It was tempting to travel another 45 Km South to the Brihadeswara temple at Tanjore but we decided to keep that for a future visit with Tiruchi and headed back to our hotel to reach by 3.30 in time for a nice cup of tea. A few hrs of rest and then we walked around the property visiting the 150 year old temple in its premises and strolled by the village market. Dinner by 8 PM and we were off to sleep by 9 PM – the next day we were heading to Thiruvanamalai and needed an early start.

Day – 4 We head to Thiruvanamalai 

We left at 6.15 AM and reached Thiruvanamalai at 9 AM – the 120 KM distance has good roads ( single lane) and being a Sunday morning the roads were empty. There are many eating joints opposite the Ramana Ashram and after a quick breakfast we reached the Ashram. Its a beautiful place – full of soothing energy. A Temple dedicated to Arunachala, Ramana Maharishi’s Samadhi , a Meditation Hall and a lovely Library form the main complex. They also have a room where he breathed his last and a nice cowshed. The Ashram has many peacocks and birds and was buzzing with people – mostly foreigners. This is a place of self discovery – so there is no routine / workshop / sessions that are held to engage the visitors or those staying here. They have rooms to stay – but getting a room is difficult especially between Nov & Feb. We knew one of the Trustees at the temple and he promised to help us get a room at the Ashram during our next visit. Mani uncle walked us thru the campus and took us to the point from where we started a 40 minute trek to the Skanda Ashram & Virupaksha Cave. Its a easy trek – rocky and takes you to two caves where Ramana Maharishi meditated for almost 20 years. The caves are beautiful and full of energy. In 5 Minutes I could sense the the energy equivalent of what I had after 6 days or 60 hrs of my Vipassna meditation – thats the power of these caves.

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You can come back to the Ashram or walk along and reach the Arunachala Temple. This is the Shiva Temple dedicated to Fire. Its massive and very well maintained. Being. Sunday it was very crowded so we decided to come back in the evening – temple is open from 5 AM to 9.30 PM.

We stayed at the Sparsa hotel – a beautiful property full of greenery and with excellent rooms. If you don’t get a room in the Ashram stay here – its as peaceful and serene as the Ashram. Rates are very reasonable (Rs 5500 / night for double occupancy inclusive of breakfast) – after lunch and a few hrs of rest we headed back to the Ashram at 4 PM. A Drive around the Hills                “Girivaram” – normally people walk these 18 Kms – considered very auspicious.

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Between 4.30 and 6.30 PM  we stayed at the Ashram – there were talks and Vedic Chantings going on and after a hr of meditation we headed to the Temple reaching there by 7.30 PM. Everything is close Sparsa to Ashram is a 5 min drive and Ashram to Temple is another 5 min drive. Mornings and late evenings are the best time to go to a temple – its cool and relatively empty. By 7.30 the temple crowd had reduced and we got excellent Dharshan in less than 20 minutes. They have a normal Q and a 20 Rs Q.

View of the temple from the trek to the Virupaksha Cave – admire its size and symmetry.

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Happy and satisfied we headed back to the hotel and reached by 9 PM after a simple dinner.

Day – 5 We head back to Bangalore. We left at 5.15 AM and reached E City at 8.30 AM. Be careful of the road you take – the shorter route as shown by Google Maps is a bad road full of potholes. After you reach Singarpet take a right and come via the Tirupattaur outer to Bardur and Krishnagiri where you  meet the Chennai Bangalore 6 lane expressway. We reached the Expressway at 7 AM and were at E City by 8.30. Thats good timing given that this is a 180 Km distance.

 Thu to Monday we had travelled 1200 Kms – a low cost trip the per person expense was less than Rs 15,000/-  thats 3K / day. (All my previous holidays were almost 20 K / day). Everything worked like clockwork – Roads were Good , Google Maps was perfect, food was good, the Rooms were nice , there was hardly any crowd wherever we went , the weather was excellent, the people we met were nice and friendly from the waiter at Lakshmi Niwas to the French Sita at the Q in Thiruvanamalai – and by divine grace we got the contacts to the Priests at the Chidambaram temple as we were driving, we had made no attempts to get the details. Mani Mama at Ramana Ashram helped us with the right directions to Bangalore else we would have been stuck in a pothole road taking a few extra hrs to reach Bangalore.

Many of the temples we visited had just completed their Kumbhabhishekam – and its very auspicious to visit a temple within 40 days of the Kumbhabhishekam. All in all a very satisfying trip. I had wonderful company and that made the trip even more delightful – with two people sharing the driving load and the costs it becomes so much more easier to do these trips in a. cost efficient manner.

Kumbhabhishekham is a  temple ritual that is believed to homogenize, synergize and unite the mystic powers of the deity. Kumbha means the Head and denotes the Shikhara or Crown of the Temple (usually in the Gopuram) and Abhisekham is ritual bathing. On the appointed day and at an auspicious time, the Kumbha is bathed with the charged and sanctified holy waters in the sacrificial pot and, by a mystic process, these pranic powers trickle down a silver wire and enter the deity installed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. The deity, which was until then only a granite sculptured stone image, is believed to transform into a vibrant and vivid living representation of the deva with innate beatitude, grace and grandeur, conferring divine blessings on all devotees.

Few Tips

  • Travel during the weekdays – its a lot easier – lesser crowds , easier to get rooms.
  • Nov – Feb is the best time to travel – Summer can be extremely hot 45 Degrees +
  • Visit Temples early Morning or Late Evening.
  • And lastly if your room mate snores like crazy carry ear plugs or some cotton – it works and helps you have a peaceful sleep

 

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Best of Kanchipuram in 10 hrs

Kanchipuram – The golden city of 1000 temples (Currently about 125 are in good shape),  is just 71 kms from Chennai. Its an irony that I have been travelling to Chennai  multiple times every year for the last 20 years but have never been to Kanchipuram. Most tourists go to Mahabalipuram not realising that the Pallavas Capital – Kanchipuram is equally close.

Its a sheer coincidence that within 10 days of visiting Varanasi (Kashi) I was at Kanchipuram. Many regard Kancipuram to be the second holiest city in India after Varanasi. Its in the list of 7 sacred cities of India (the Mokshapuri cities – it is believed by living or death in these cities you get liberation from the cycle of birth and death). The similarity between Kashi and Kanchipuram is not just in the piousness and the temples but also in the world famous silk sarees that they make.

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Kanchipuram was under Pallava rule from 6th – 8th century , followed by the Cholas and then the Vijaynagar kings. Many of the amazing temples were built by the Pallava in the 6th and 7th century and still stand majestically in great shape. While most Hindu Temples in South India are Shaivite or Vaishnavite bastions , Kanchipuram has divided itself into Vishnu Kanchi surrounded by the Vardarajan Perumal Temple and Shiva Kanchi surrounded by the Ekambaranath temple while the Kamakshi Amman temple stands in between as a place of Shakti worship.

Kanchipuram has over a 1000 temples and you can spend weeks visiting them – but then there are a few that definitely merit a visit.

We left Chennai at 530 AM and reached our first stop – The food Temple – Saravana Bhawan, on the Chennai Bangalore Highways just before Kanchipuram by 7 AM.(Lakshmi Narayani Complex, NH-4,Banglore Highway | Near Meenakshi Medical College). Lots of parking , spacious , clean toilets – and the standard high quality veg breakfast of piping hot idli , Wada and Pongal – was a good start to a great day.

1st Stop –  Ekambareshwar Temple ( Budget 45 min on a week day not crowded)

6AM – 1230 PM & 4 PM – 8.30 PM 

Most famous Shiva temple of Kanchipuram – considered to be one of the oldest in the country. Here Shiva is worshipped in the form of an Earth Linga. One of the rare temples where no Abhishekam is done on the lingam.  One of the tallest temples in S India the Gopuram soars to a height of 192 feet. The temple is spread over 20 acres. As per Legend Shiva was enraged with Parvathi and sent her packing to earth. She prayed at this temple spot under a mango tree for many years by making a Shiva Linga out of the sand of the Kamba River. Finally Shiva came to earth and stayed with her at this Temple. To this day people worship the mango tree. The 3500 mango tree is believed to produce 4 types of mangoes from 4 branches that stand for the 4 vedas.

The temple compound also has a Vishnu Shrine – Nilathunda Perumal – which is revered as one of the 108 Divya Desams. The temple also has two large tanks. The temple was originally built by the Pallava king and later enlarged by the Chola and Vijaynagar kings. Well maintained – neat and clean it was empty on a weekday we visited – and we could cover it well in 45 minutes.

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2nd Stop – Kailasanathar Temple ( Budget 30 – 45 Minutes) 

9.30AM – 1230 PM & 4 PM – 6 PM

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This temple was built by the Pallava king Rayasimhan in the 8th century. It is perhaps the largest surviving sandstone temple in the world and is considered the oldest structure of Kanchipuram. Looks very similar to the shore temple – but the distinguishing feature are the panels on the walls depicting the life of Shiva.

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The temple is unique in its architecture and is viewed more as an architectural beauty than a holy place. When we reached at 920 the temple was closed and the priest was expected only by 930. Legend has it that “Poosalar Nayannar”  a Shiva devotee decided to build a temple – but due to lack of means he built it in his dreams. The day of the consecration of the Kailasanatha temple clashed with that of Poosalar’s imaginary temple. Shiva came to the King and his dreams and asked him to change the date of the Consecration as he would be first visiting Poosalar’s temple given the devotion and passion with which he has built his temple of dreams.

3rd Stop – Kanchi Kudil (Budget 15 – 30 Minutes)

Opens at 930 AM

Its a traditional Mudaliar house that has been preserved like a museum. They also serve a traditional Lunch if you order in advance ( Veg & Non Veg) at 350/ plate – Contact A Udhayakumar – 9941138703

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4th Stop – Kanchi Kamakshi Temple (Budget 60 Minutes)

5.30AM – 1230 PM & 4 PM – 8.30 PM

India has 3 main cities where the Goddess Shakti is worshipped – Kanchipuram holds the most important rank amongst the three. The 3 powerful goddesses are Kanchi Kamakshi , Madurai Meenakshi and Kashi Vishalakshi.

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The Kamakshi temple is an ancient one and was built in its current state by the Cholas in the 14th century. Spread across 5 acres the sanctum is gold plated. While the goddess Parvati is seen standing in most temples she is found sitting here in a yogis posture – Padmasana  and is referred to as Parabrahma Swarupini. She has four arms and is seen holding a bow, a lotus, a parrot and a sugarcane.

It is believed that Kamakshi was originally a Ugra Swaroopini and Adi Shankara on establishing the Sri Chakra personified her as Shanti Swaroopini. The temple structure is complicated and when we visited in Dec 2016 – it was undergoing renovation.

You can reach very close to the sanctum sanctorum and get an excellent Darshan of the powerful deity. Fortunately the day we visited it was not crowded.

 

5th Stop – Vardaraja Perumal temple  also known as Devraja Temple (Budget 45 – 60 Minutes)

7AM – 12 PM & 3.30 PM – 8 PM

Dedicated to Lord Vishnu this temple is located in Vishnu Kanchi a short drive from the Kanchi Kamakshi temple. The main temple here is Lord Varadaraja who is seen standing and facing west. It is considered a very holy site for Vaishnavites. It was built immediately after the Kailasanatha temple by Paramaeshwaravarman Pallava in the 7th century. The majestic Gopuram with its intricate carvings is a sight to behold.

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The 100 pillared hall is the unmistakable legacy of the Vijaynagara rulers. The unique features of this temple are the lizards carved above the sanctum that are plated in gold. A large temple spread over 20 acres. Very well maintained.

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5th Stop – Vardaraja Perumal temple also known as Devraja Temple (Budget 45 – 60 Minutes)

6th Stop – Shankaracharya Mutt (Budget 30  Minutes)

One of the Mutts established by Adi Shankara – for the religious Tamil Brahmin its a rare honour to visit the Mutt which is home to the Shankaracharya of Kanchi. We stopped by for 30 min – steeped in rituals and tradition it may be very religious but sadly it lacked spirituality.

 

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7th Stop – Lunch at another Saravana Bhawan – in the Main Kanchipuram city

We were lucky as the temples were almost empty we reached the Saravana Bhawan at Gandhi Road for lunch. We had made good time and we reached by 12 noon. The City is clean and well maintained. None of the temple we were hounded by priests for extra money neither were there VIP Q’s .

For the ambitious post lunch you can travel to Mahabalipuram. Chennai – Kanchipuram – Mahabalipuram form a Triangle. But we decided to head back. Our timing was great and we were back home by 3.30 in the afternoon well before the traffic rush.

Kanchipuram can get very hot in the summers – best time to visit is between Nov – Feb. 

If you have the time and energy here are a few other temples you could visit

  1. Ulahalanda Perumal temple
  2. Kumara Kottam Subramaniam Swami temple
  3. Kacchapeswarar temple
  4. Chitragupta Swami temple

And visit some stores for the Original Kancheepuram silk sarees

The driver we engaged was excellent – Raju owns a well maintained clean Innova. You can contact him at + 91 9941404541 or +91 8939756776. He is efficient and professional.

For those travelling from Bangalore its best to plan an overnight trip. Leave Bangalore by 10 AM and reach Kancheepuram by 2.30 3. Check into the GRT hotel – freshen up and start your temple tour by 4 PM when the temples open for the evening Darshan. Complete a set in the evening and do the rest the next day morning 6.30 – 9.30 AM. Have Breakfast – check out and leave by 1030 AM to Reach Bangalore by 230 – 3.

Regency Kanchipuram by GRT Hotels

Address: 487, Gandhi Road, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 631502.

Contact No: 044-27225250

E-mail: reservationskanchi@grtregency.com

 

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Benares & Sarnath in 48 Hrs

Kashi & Sarnath in 48 Hours

It competes with Jerusalem for the tag of the oldest city – but clearly no city can compare with it for its mix of Mythology, Religion, History, Art and Culture. It’s the summer home of Lord Shiva – throw a stone you will hit an ancient temple and walk a furlong you will find an Ashram.

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From Baba’s & Aghoris, Saints & Sufi Mystics, Silk Weaving to Shehnai, Pan, Desi Ghee sweets, Good tasty affordable food and lots more – it’s all packed in the 8 km stretch across 84 Ghats and in the narrow by – lanes of this ancient city.

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Sarnath is a stone’s throw away – a mere 15 kms. While Varansi the hub of Hindu Religion is steeped in ritual and tradition – Sarnath symbolizes Buddha with its peace and tranquil atmosphere. This is where Buddha after his enlightenment gave his first sermon to his 5 disciples. This is where the first Ashok Chakra was built with the Sarnath Stupa. This is where the 11th Jain Tirthankara was born. Sushruta, the great surgeon and author of the Sushruta Samhita, the Sanskrit text of surgery, lived in Varanasi and practised medicine and surgery sometime during the 5th century BC. Tulsidas wrote his epic poem on Rama’s life called Ram Charit Manas in Varanasi. Several other major figures of the Bhakti movement were born in Varanasi, including Kabir and Ravidas. Guru Nanak Dev visited Varanasi for Shivratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism.

From Shiva to Buddha, the Jain Tirthankara’s, Kabir, Lahiri Mahasaya, Dr Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pt Ravi Shankar, Shehnai Maeestro Bismillah Khan , Pt Madan Mohan Malviya (Founder of IT BHU) and many more – the city definitely has contributed a lot. And all of that comes from the rare energy that the city possesses.

Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev explains this beautifully in his video on Varanasi –  Benares is not a city it’s a Yantra. There is a science by which the temples were built in a certain pattern to accentuate the energy. On the banks of the holy Ganga the city was designed in such a manner that anyone who came here never wanted to go back. He even says that it’s a celestial city that sits on Mahadevs Trishul – in a different plane from most cities.

But sadly a lot of that is lost. The beautiful architecture of the rock temples is covered with gaudy layers of paints, the city chokes in its crowded by lanes and you really need to dive deep past this muck to get a breath of fresh air and feel the energy of the ancient Varanasi. But this energy is so powerful that there are places where it still does touch you and that’s what attracts tourists and pilgrims in droves.

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Can you cover all of this in 48 hrs – yes you can and here is a plan to get going.

Indigo has a direct flight from Bangalore to Varanasi. Departs at 11.15 AM reaching at 1.45 – our flight was delayed by 30 min. Our guide Manoj was at the airport to receive us ( and he was a godsend – we owe the success of covering so much ground to him) – the journey from the airport to our hotel near Assi Ghat in Varanasi was a mess. About 30 kms it took us almost 90 min. (Hopefully 2017 should get better as Modi Ji is getting a expressway constructed that should let you zip in less than 30 minutes). Typical E – UP town, small shops, dusty, crowded roads – it’s like how the Durgapur – Calcutta Grand Truck road used to be in the 80’s. it’s a sore sight and I did get a tad worried on what the next 2 days had in store for us.

We reached our hotel – a small boutique property “De Bouginvilla” located in a nice residential area very close to Assi Ghat. It’s a new property less than 1 month old – small and efficient – Rs 3500/- night, inclusive of breakfast & Wi Fi. (P 3/6, Lane no. 15, Ravindrapuri, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221005).  Suited us perfectly. http://debougainvilla.com. (Other options you could consider as recommended by our Guide – Alka Guest House, Ganapati Guest House & Benares Haveli – all properties with room rates within 5K)

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Day – 1 : We started around 4 PM

A quick cup of tea and we were ready to leave. In Dec the sun sets at 5 PM and we were starting out at 3.45. It was cold and in Varanasi you walk – so get yourself a good pair of walking shoes. You share the narrow alleys with Cows, Dogs, Bikers and fellow pedestrians. There will be garbage and dung – so look around as you walk. The city has over 23,000 temples but there are a few that you cannot miss – The Kashi Vishwanath Temple, The Kedareshwar temple , and the Kal Bhairav Temple – these form the 3 Main Temple Complexes. Mythology says that these 3 temples are perched on the 3 points Shivas Trishul.

We spent a few hrs walking around the by lanes of the old city and immersing ourselves. Stopping by a chai shop for a warm cup, looking at temples as they popped out in every nook and corner. We walked past the Vedshala – where the young kids were being trained in Yoga and Vedic Sciences and general studies. Right next to it was the ancient Kedareshwar temple and we stopped by for Lord Shiva’s blessings for a successful trip. As per mythology praying at the Kedar temple in Kashi is 7 times more effective than the main temple at Kedarnath.

(http://varanasi-temples.com/category/shiva-temples/main-shiva-temples/kedareshwar/)

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From here we headed to Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening Ganga Arti. This is also called the Rajendra Prasad Ghat. The arti starts around 6 PM and continues for about 30 minutes. Fire, Drums, Bells clanging, large crowds – it’s definitely a must watch. No tickets. But come early for a prime spot – you won’t be as lucky as PM Modi and Abe to have a decorated area cordoned off for you.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Shinzo Abe witnessing the Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat, in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh on December 12, 2015.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Shinzo Abe witnessing the Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat, in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh on December 12, 2015.

After the arti we walked along and visited the ancient Brihaspati temple (http://varanasi-temples.com/category/shiva-temples/other-shiva-temples-a-d/brihaspateeshwar/) and headed for dinner to “Keshari” near Gadoria Chowk. A sumptuous meal (After our breakfast at home – all we had was an Upma in the Indigo flight and a few cups of tea and we were famished) – and we headed back to the hotel – day 2 was to be a long one starting at 5 AM.

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Day – 2 : We start at 5 AM

We were up by 4 AM – had a nice bath and took off on a cold foggy day at 5 AM with Manoj. We had an option of going to Assi Ghat and seeing the morning Arti – which is very different from the evening Arti (Mantras / Music / Yoga etc) or to start with the temple tours. We preferred to start the day with a trip to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple. One of the 12 Jyotirlingas ( The second one I was visiting within a month after the recent trip to Jageshwar , I missed the Jyotirlinga near Ellora a few months back). This temple has been destroyed a few times by invaders including once by Aurangzeb but has been rebuilt.

Past multiple narrow by lanes we finally reached the temple (you need to leave your bags, belt, cell phone) before you enter the temple. We were lucky – there was no crowd and got a great Darshan of the Swayambu and were able to sit quietly near the sanctum sanctorum for a long time. ( Visual is a Google Image – we were not allowed to take our Phones inside)

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The temples in Benares are not large like the S Indian ones. They are small and located in the heart of the city – no open gardens / courtyards. If the temple could have spoken it would have screamed like an American “Give me Space”.  Its jammed in the midst of houses, shops, lanes. There have been endowments from Maharaja Ranjit Singh so parts of the architecture have a Sikh design and the main temple pyramid is covered with 900 kg of Gold (Wonder if the ascetic god Shiva would have appreciated that). Fortunately, nobody bugged us – no tickets for special darshan, no Q’s for Prasad – that was a pleasant surprise in all the temples we visited. All the Temple premises are clean and well maintained.

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Immediately after this we visited the Annapurna Temple nearby and then as we were heading to Manikarna Ghat we stopped by a beautiful Nepali Temple (Almost all temples in Varanasi are dedicated to Shiva or Devi barring the Sankat Mochan temple which is dedicated to Hanuman). The Nepali temple was originally made of wood with intricate carvings but has now been restored and is a mix of Red Bricks and the original black wood. It’s a beautiful temple with a great view of the Ganges and the rising sun.

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A five-minute walk to Manikarna Ghat (This and the Harishchandra Ghats are the only two Ghats where cremation services can be done). Its messy and not a nice site so see the dead bodies burning. For people who work here its business as usual. Right next to the Manikarna Ghat is a Kund and a small Shiva temple which is almost submerged. This temple is supposed to be older than the Kashi Vishwanath temple – but few come here. (Note that women are not allowed to visit the burning ghats).

We took a boat and crossed over to the other side of the Ganges. Our Guide was worried – hardly anyone does this trip. But I wanted to visit a Aghori – and there were a few camping on the other bank of the Ganges.  The Aghoris path to enlightenment can sound gruesome. They worship the Devi, follow Tantric Rites, conduct their prayers at midnight and eat even dead bodies. The Aghori we met was from Tiruchi and he was training a few more – he seemed down to earth and spoke well. The tent was full of skulls and as we were speaking one of the disciples dropped something in the fire – the Aghori explained that was the heart of a Pig which they had sacrificed yesterday and this would form their next meal with rice soaked in the blood of the pig. Each one has his own way to get to Nirvana – clearly this is not my way and I walked out educated and aware of the Aghoris.

The morning was still foggy and it was admirable on how the boatman could get us to Panch Ganga Ghat. The water of the Ganges was surprisingly warm and clean and our guide asked us to cleanse ourselves with the holy water before we headed to the next set of temples.

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It’s a steep climb from the Panch Ganga Ghat and we headed to the Kal Bhairav temple.

This is one of the oldest Shiva temples in Varanasi, India. Situated in Bharonath, this temple has great historical and cultural importance in Hinduism. The temple is dedicated to one of the fiercest forms of Lord Shiva and wears a garland of skulls and carries a club of peacock feathers. The word “Kaal” means both “death” and “fate”. It is believed that even death is afraid of “Kaal Bhairava”.

A quick darshan here – again it was empty and nice. By now we were famished and thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast of Hot Jalebis and Kachoris freshly made. (Madhu Jalpan , Keshyam Kanhaiya Chitra Madndali Bas Phatak)

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By now it was almost 945 AM and we took a Battery Auto to our hotel for a 15 min rest and to pick up the address for our next destination – the revered Sage – Lahiri Mahasya house. He was the saint who was initiated by Babaji to Kriya Yoga in 1861 at Dunagiri and his family still maintains that tradition. ( 31/158 Madanura Lane, Garudeshwar Mohalla,  Chowsatti Ghat)

Lahiri Mahasaya’s house is quiet and empty and is a great place to sit quietly and meditate. Lots of energy here.

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Right next to this is a small guest house – Shivakashi Guest House. Very affordable.

Morning was dedicated to visiting Ashrams so from here we headed to the Kabir Mutt ( en -route picking up some Bhang from an authorized Bhang Shop) – a calm and quiet place.

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Next stop was the Silk Weavers market or Muslin Market. A great place to understand how the famous Benarasi Silk sarees are made and also to get some great deals.

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By now it was noon and we headed to Annapoorna for lunch (J12/16A, Ram Katora) . We had covered a lot of ground since 5 AM – but we still had a few more things to cover which was planned for the last phase.

A trip to the famous BHU – that was on the other side of the city and took us a good 1 hr to get there by Auto. The university is beautiful, green and clean – very well maintained. Right in the heart of the campus is a lovely Birla Temple. We had chai and tried out a very sweet local dish called “Lavang Lata” – it was really sweet.

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We could have walked the 3.5 Km from here to the Main Gate or Lanka – but we preferred to take an Auto and headed to the famous Sankat Mochan Temple. Famous recently for the bomb blast from 2011 – because of which there is more security and you need to leave your cell phone / bags etc at the entrance) – This is a Hanuman Temple – the only Non Shiva / Non Devi temple we visited.

And then on the way back to the Hotel the last stop was at the Adi Shakti Durga temple.

We reached our room by 5 PM – and as we summarized with Manoj what we had covered there was a sense of joy that we accomplished a lot in almost 24 hrs.

All this would have not been possible without Manoj. You cannot do Varanasi without a Guide and if you are planning a trip give a call to Manoj Yadav at + 91 9935956290. He was a godsend. I had initially booked Varanasi Tours – they were charging Rs 1600/- person for a 3 hr walking tour. We would have paid double and not covered even half of what Manoj showed us with the Varanasi tours. I am so glad that they cancelled in the last minute and I was able to connect with Manoj by pure luck.

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A nice warm shower and then we strolled out to ” Kshir Sagar” the most famous sweet shop of Benares to sample a few . On the way back stopped by a local Pan shop and picked up a few ” Original Benarasi pan” and headed back to the hotel for a simple dinner. We slept like a log that night.

Day – 3 : We start at 630 AM

The last day was dedicated to Sarnath. About 20 km from our hotel. The driver was there promptly by 6 and we headed out on a very foggy morning with visibility less than 20 feet. On the way stopping by for a simple meal of Kachuri & Jalebi ( Cost us Rs 75 for 3 people). We are at Sarnath before 745 AM.

Sarnath is a Village – its green and quiet. No hustle & bustle of Varanasi. This is where the enlightened Gautama gave his 1st sermon to his 5 disciples. There is a main temple built by the royal family of Ceylon at this spot. The place also has a pipal tree similar to the one at Bodh Gaya.

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Right adjacent to this is the Sarnath Stupa – a massive structure of solid bricks and rock with a lot of carving. This was built by Ashoka and this complex was excavate in the early 1900’s and renovated by ASI. Its in excellent shape – large gardens , very calm and quiet , very well maintained. The same complex also had the Ashoka Chakra which is now housed in a. well maintained museum next door.

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Sit down in a. corner and go back 2500 years to visualise the splendour of this place. This is not Mythology this is History.

The Thai’s, Japans, Nepalese, Burmese , Sri Lankan Governments have also built a few beautiful temples in Sarnath and they are worth a visit. Especially the Thai and Japanese ones and the Bajra Vidya temple. The Thai temple has a 180 feet Buddha statue – the tallest in India.

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And the Japanese temple which is made of wood

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Next to the Sarnath Stupa and the main temple is a Digambara Jain temple dedicated to the 11th Jain Tirthankara and thats definitely worth a visit.

You can complete all this and the Museum comfortable by 11AM and head back to the Airport. Most people stay at Varanasi and drive to Sarnath as its so close. We were back in Benares by 12 noon for a rushed lunch at the Taj Vivanta at Cantonment (All the big hotels Taj / Radisson etc are located in the Cantonment area which is a good 7 – 8 kms from the Ghats) and made it to the airport just in time at 115 to catch our 2.15 PM back to Bangalore.

We reached at 2.45 on Saturday  and the return flight was on time – in 47 hrs we had covered a lot of ground and there was a sense of satisfaction – Mission Accomplished. It was great to have my Brother In law for company and I hope we can do more of these in the years to come.

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Other Points to Note 

  • Best time to travel is Nov or Feb / March ( Dec / Jan can be very foggy and cold, and summers can be very hot, during the rains the river swells up massively)
  • At the Kashi Vishwanath temple there is a 630 PM Saptarishi Arti – which is supposedly great – try attending it, we couldn’t
  • We hunted for some classical program, Quawali / Mehfil etc – unfortunately none of that exists. So beyond temple hopping , street food and walking – entertainment options are limited
  •  Its a friendly and warm city and the people are nice – though the dialect is rough and tough. We found the place safe.
  • Trivia – how did the name Varanasi emerge from Kashi & BenaresTraditional etymology links “Varanasi” to the names of two Ganges tributaries forming the city’s borders: Varuna, still flowing in northern Varanasi, and Assi, today a small stream in the southern part of the city, near Assi Ghat. The old city is located on the north shores of the Ganges, bounded by Varuna and Assi.In the Rigveda, an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, the city is referred to as Kāśī (Kashi) from the Sanskrit verbal root kaś- “to shine”, making Varanasi known as “City of Light”,[6] the “luminous city as an eminent seat of learning”.[7] The name was also used by pilgrims dating from Buddha’s days.

 

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Kumaon Nov 2016 – Part 2 (Mystical Dunagiri – Full of energy)

Dunagiri – Mystical, Rustic , Charming  & Energizing

Tucked deep in the Kumaon – Dunagiri is a small hamlet far far away.  Its picture perfect – and thankfully not exploited by Tourism. It took me 3 1/2 hrs  to reach Dunagiri from Binsar. (Dunagiri to Kathgodam is 4 1/2 – 5 hr drive 125 km). The roads are winding , empty, with great panoramic views. Its lonely and nice.

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If I recollect right I first heard about Dunagiri from the book “Apprentice to a Himalayan Master”  by Sri M and later in “Autobiography of a Yogi” By Paramhans Yogananda. For some strange reason the name stuck and I have been interested in visiting.

This is where Mahaavatar Babaji had initiated Lahiri Mahasaya to Kriya Yoga almost 150 years back. And a lot of Babaji followers came to Dunagiri to visit the caves.

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But there is more to Dunagiri than the Babaji Caves. There is a lot of Mythology associated with the place. According to the local tradition the town has been regularly visited by sages who established their ashrams here in the midst of nature. The Ashram of Garg Muni (Brother of Dronacharya)  was at Dunagiri. After his samadhi he became an underground river “Gagas” which is the source of many rivers in that area. Dronacharya is also supposed to have meditated for many years here.

Sukhdev Muni’s (Son of Ved Vyasa) was born enlightened . The “Sukha Devi Temple” is built at the site of his original ashram . Bharata the son of Shakuntala was supposedly born at this ashram. Hanumans quest for the Sanjeevini brought him to Dunagiri and the hills here are supposedly full of herbs and plants with magical healing powers. The Panadavas also spent a part of their time here in Agyatwas at a place called “Pandava Kholi”.

Dunagiri is home to an ancient Durga temple. The priest and an Old Naga baba I met at this temple told me that this temple is from the Treta Yuga and has phenomenal energy. This is the seat of Durga Ma. Like Vaishno Devi there are two “Pindis” that are “Swayambu’s” and the neighbouring forests are full of Leopards – the Devi’s vehicle. It is believed that the Divine mother has 9 forms – some for knowledge, wealth , health etc – but the Dunagiri Devi is considered to be the Godess of the Yogis.

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Folklore says that over 1000’s of years many have come to Dunagiri to visit the Durga Devi Temple and meditate. The Naga baba said that he has experienced Hanuman , Kripacharya, Ashwatamma and many more immortal souls visit the temple – he says “ you can’t identify them but their energy can be experienced”.  Even Shankaracharya visited the temple. The Naga baba also mischievously smiled and said that below the goddess was hidden “Amrit” and he was trying to figure out how to lay his hands on it. The temple is very clean and well managed – maybe I was lucky it was almost empty.

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At the temple I was lucky to get Darshan of  “Baba Dhanvantari Giri or “Bhatkoti Baba”. A solider from the Indo Pak war – he left it all to become a Naga Sadhu. And the brief interaction I had with him was very powerful. I wish I could have spent more time with him.

How does this translate to a common man. Whats the experience you get.

I am a layman – but I could experience the vibrations and energy at Dunagiri – there is so much energy that it is difficult to meditate. For some strange reason I was waking up at 3 AM every day without an alarm – and the Resort owner told me that was common.You need less sleep and food. The rarefied air at 8000 feet , the positive energy of so many great souls , the flora and fauna – it feels like you are the door step of heaven.

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Two other must visit places are the “Babaji Caves” and “Pandav Kholi”. Babaji Caves is a nice 45 min trek while “Pandava Kholi” is a steeper 90 min trek (Both one way). The trek is thru dense forests – totally empty and desolate –  in spite of being a Capricorn mountain goat I struggled.

Babaji Caves is deep – the driver cum guide told me that his grandfather had walked 2 ½ kilometres deep inside the cave. But currently its closed at the tip and you see less than 25 feet of the cave. The place is serene and I was lucky to have it to myself for an hr.

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Legend has it that “Pandav Kholi” is the place where the Pandavas spent some time during their Agyatwas period. Its located at 8800 feet. The car drops you at a point nearly 6200 feet and then you start the steep 3 km trek. When you reach the top – you are treated to some amazing views and a simple lunch at the Ashram. This is the ashram of “ Balwant Giri Maharaj “of the Juna Akhada – who attained Samadhi many years back – but his “Dhuni” is still kept active.  “Bhatkoti Baba” who I met at the temple was his disciple.

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The 3rd place to visit is “ Manasa Devi “ Temple . This is a day trek – I could not make it – but was told that the views enroute are beautiful.

The 4th place is “Sukh Muni Ashram “ and the  “Sukha Devi” temple. This is the place where Sukh Dev Muni had meditated. This is a short 1 km trek from the resort where I was staying

I stayed at the Dunagiri Retreat. It’s very rustic and spartan. Think of it as an high end Ashram.

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Basic rooms, hot water, simple veg food. Nothing fancy – but functional – it works. The rooms are designed with local architecture – thick walls with mud that keeps the room warm. The bathrooms are large, wood flooring , bright and spacious. Western style toilet and 24 hrs water supply. In all 14 rooms spread across a vast expanse. The Retreat also has a Pyramid for Yoga and meditation – and it accentuates the already strong energy at Dunagiri.

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The landscape is wild and when you first reach you may be disappointed on how unkempt and disorganized the place is. I felt that if “Monika from Friends”  was here she would have got really busy.

This is like an Ashram – lot of time for self discovery – there is no room service, no TV, patchy Internet at the main building, 3 G in some places. But somehow time moves on quickly – I never felt bored across the 3 nights I spent here.

There is reliable electricity supply – but when the current goes occasionally – its blackout – No generators. No water lines – so everything is conserved from rain water – so use water sparingly.

Dunagiri Retreat is unique. I have been to many places – but none like this.  It does attract a certain audience. It’s the base for many Retreats thru the year that include….Chi Gong by Pragata  (http://pragata.org – Coming up in April 2017), Yoga Camps by Claire Kerrigan & Jane Craggs and even a Sufi retreat by Nirupam Ryan. Followers of Babaji and those wanting to visit the Devi temple.

Its not a family holiday with a fire place and music. Its a spiritual enclave. Its a taste of heaven.

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The food served is simple, nutrition and very tasty. Fresh and juicy “Muli’s” , Spinach , potatoes  plucked from the kitchen garden and served piping hot. Its so tasty – and filling. Even the water packed with minerals is rejuvenating. Milk is so sweet you don’t need to add sugar to your tea and coffee.

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The owner Piyush Kumar is a semi mystic – a MNR Allahabad (REC) engineer from 1986, who went to the US and worked at the World Bank. Came back set up his own Software firm in India and then left it all to settle down in this hills. His partner Kate is a Phd in Vedic Astrology. She is spot on with the stars and her predictions. She can be contacted at www.Drkatyjane.com or katy@drkatyjane.com.

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It’s a large property – spread across 25 + acres and is in the midst of the forest.Wild animals frequently visit the jungles nearby and at times even the property. Every morning I opened the door – peeping out quietly hoping that leopard would be siting there.

As in the hills the flora and fauna is full of medicinal herbs. There are amazing views you can get of the Sunrise and the Sunset. There is peace and quiet , tranquility and a strange sense of affection develops to this place. I liked it.

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Piyush the semi mystic owner told me that this is the only place in the world where the “Ashta Vargha” a group of 8 rare herbs grow together. The locals believe that the power of the mythical Sanjeevini is still grounded here. Many cancer patients have had miraculous recoveries just by living here for some time. If you are a believer in energy and its healing power then this is the place to be.

I asked them whats the common thread that connects the people who come to Dunagiri.  Its people looking to connecting the dots, people on different phases of their spiritual journey. Anyone who visits here finds direction , finds tremendous inner peace. 

And yes in 3 days I was feeling lighter and at peace. I wonder what ten days would have done.

And as I drove down and reached Delhi & Bangalore over the next 24 years – I felt that its us who have created Hell out of this beautiful planet. Nature has bestowed us with fresh air , rivers , mountains  – that is Heaven , and we have created a hell called “Metro cities” out of them. All across the hamlet of Dunagiri I did not spot a doctor or clinic – life is tough , winters are cold , but Mother Nature takes care of you. The locals are happy and contended.

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I pray that this heaven on earth stays as it is and I get an opportunity to come back again and again.

http://www.dunagiri.com

Piyush Contact :  + 91 98102 67719

Driver Madhusdan : +91 97569 30090

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Kumaon – Nov 2016 (Part – 1 Mary Budden Binsar)

Uttarakhand is truly Gods own land. So much of natural beauty – and thank God its still rustic & natural. The state can be split into two broad areas – Garhwal ( Rishikesh & Upwards – Uttar Kashi / Gangotri / Kedarnath / Badrinath) & Kumaon – Nainital / Almora / Raniket / Binsar / Dunagiri..

Garhwal with its famous 4 Dham Pilgrimage route is more crowded. Its easily accessible from Dehradun and there are multiple flights from Delhi to Jolly Grant. Kumaon is accessible from Kathgodam – the last railway junction before the hills.

This was my 7th trip to this beautiful state. Mary Budden Cottage was on my bucket list for long – so when we were planning an all boys getaway in the hills – it was an easy choice.

Getting there

Getting to the Mary Budden property from Bangalore was a 24 hr journey – Flight to Delhi, the night train from Old Delhi (Jaisalmer – Raniket Expresss leaves at 1030 PM  and arrives at 530 AM) and then a 4 hr drive to the property in Binsar (110 Kms). We consciously took the night train so that we could be at the property by 10 AM Vs the Shatabadi which would have got us in only by 3.30 – 4 PM thereby losing a precious day. Old Delhi Railways station is a mess – and if you are a lady travelling alone think twice before taking this night train. One can also drive from Delhi to Binsar – but thats a 9 – 10 hr long drive. The drive from Kathgodam is great – excellent road – no U Turn and pin bends. Considering that we do Bangalore Mysore 135 Km in 4 hrs – this 4 hr journey was a breeze.

Geo Highlights & when its best to visit 

The property is at an altitude of 2100 metres ( ~ 7000 feet , most Hill stations Ooty, Darjeeling, Simla, Mussoorie are at 7000 feet) and is deep inside the Binsar wildlife sanctuary. After you cross the sanctuary entrance you drive nearly 12 km to get to the estate. Roads are great all the way from Kathgodam – just the last few kms inside the sanctuary are dirt roads. The sanctuary is 47 sq km , dense evergreen forest – mainly Oak, Pinewood and Rhododendron. Animals that inhabit these forests are Leopards, Wild Boar, Barking deers, Mountain Goats , Porcupines etc.

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Best Time to visit is Spring  – March end / April – thats when the Rhododendron trees are in full bloom making the forest a carpet of pink and red. May / June is also a good time when the apple orchards and fruit farms in nearby Ramgarh are ready for plucking. July / Aug / Sep is Rainy season – best to avoid. Oct / Nov is again a great time to visit. Dec / Jan can be very cold with over 5 feet of snow. Its mid Nov when we visited and it was sub zero at night and early morning – we needed 4 layers. Snows from Mid Dec – at times till early March. Feb is a bad time to visit – its dark / gloomy / cloudy and rains.

About the Property 

There are two properties – the main one which is the Mary Budden estate and a second one that is unique – The Daler Village homestay

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The main property is spread across five acres, on the slope of a hill, facing a large verdant valley. Its one of the 5 estates inside the Binsar Wildlife sanctuary. All these estates date back to the British era and post the formation of the sanctuary no new real estate development is allowed. The property has a 100 year+ history and Mary Budden a missionary was the last British resident. The current management took it over in 1990 and it has been offered as a home stay to guests for the last 6 years.

The minute I walked in I could sense energy balance. Its Rustic, Serene and peaceful. You can hear the sound of silence. and yes there is Crisp Fresh air …..

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There are two cottages – the Heritage Cottage which is originally over 100 years old but extensively renovated and the contemporary Rhododendron Cottage that was built recently. Each Cottage has a dining, front room and 3 bedrooms. We picked the Heritage cottage – it seemed more homely and cosy and was perfect for the 3 of us. The Rhododendron cottage rooms are bigger and there is more sunlight – but you may miss history and nostalgia. Its a trade off and we went for Heritage. There is also a beautiful Suite right next to the library below the Rhododendron Cottage. In all 7 rooms – and we were lucky – we had the whole place to ourselves.

The designs are rustic, lovely fireplace, cozy furniture, nice big open verandahs, lots of books and pictures lining the walls. Very British – except for the stiff upper lip and the butter scones.

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The 5 acres are well designed – with enough open spaces. So you can have breakfast in a corner, take the steps down for lunch in another, watch the sunrise from one place and the sunset from another and gaze at the sky filled with stars. Lots of places where you can huddle around a fire. The sunrise and the sunset are a sight to watch – don’t miss it. And this is one place where you can actually see a zillion stars sparkling in the sky. Thats mesmerising –  a star studded sky each with so many planets – and they say we can see less than 1% of the stars in our galaxy with the naked eye. The vastness of the Universe , Infinity can be visualised when you sit quietly and stare at the sky and the sparkling stars. And thats a great antidote to melt the ego that we build over the years.

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The food is delectable and the service is outstanding. Indian, Kumaoni, Continental – the Chef and his team churn out a wide variety of very tasty food that is served with class. Ensure that you ask for one Kumaoni meal – Lai Ki Sabji , Bhat Ki Dal , Kumaoni Aloo, Kumaoni Raita , Kumaoni Chicken , Ragi Ki Roti with Gur (That was a surprise – I thought Ragi Mudda was a Karnataka staple). Most of the food is sourced from the hills and is fresh. They also grow some herbs and veggies in the property.

Deep inside the Forest –  there is no electricity or water connection – so everything is designed in a environment friendly manner. Solar power and rain water harvesting takes care of most of the needs. A generator is a backup. Solar power works fine and the water we got for our bath was boiling hot. But conserve electricity and water when you come here.

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The Daler Village Home stay is unique and I strongly recommend you plan a one night stay here. It has two rooms that are beautifully designed. Great views and total Soulitude. No Internet , No TV , Just greenery and peace. You get fresh veg food cooked as per your choice.

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How to keep yourself busy 

Start by watching the sunrise and do some Yoga in the verandah. Have breakfast and you are ready to step out at 9 AM. There are a few lovely  treks that the property organises

  • A short trek to a temple nearby – 1 hr
  • Zero Point Trek for great views of the snow capped mountains – Nanda Devi , Trishul , Nanda Kot, & Pancha Chuli – 2 Hrs
  • Myoli Walk – 21/2 Hrs
  • Daler Village Walk – 4 Hrs ( Combination of Walk / Drive and Time at the sister property in the village)

You can do a day trip to Jageshwar – leave at 9 and be back by 430. Jageshwar houses a 1000 year cluster of 125 Shiva Temples including the 8th Jyotirlinga. On the way you can stop by the Ramkrishna ashram and visit the Chitai temple. On the way from Kathgodam to the property you will cross the Neem Karoli Baba ashram at Kainchi – so that can be visited while coming or returning. Munsiyari is about 120 Km from here – and thats a base if you want to serious trekking and climbing. The Sanctuary has no jeep rides etc to spot animals – the only way to explore is by foot. And you need to be a brave soul to do that.

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The Cottages have a lot of books board games and there is a Library with a TV and TataSky (No TV in the room). There is no intercom – so ring a nice hand bell if you need assistance.

This is a getaway that is perfect for three nights –  Two at the main property and one at the Daler Village . They allow kids but I am not sure how much they will enjoy – unless they are evolved kids who love nature and books. If you are coming with kids come as two families and take an entire cottage. You can also go birdwatching and  spot over 250 species of birds – best seen again in March / April.

Other Points

  • They have Wi Fi that works 90% of the time and the bandwidth is good, 3G signal is active.
  • Rates are inclusive of all Meals / Tea / Pakodas etc
  • Cottages can accommodate 2 families with 2 kids each , they don’t rent out the third room if two rooms are booked.
  • Wooden flooring can be slippery so don’t walk in your socks.
  • You conserve water so take bath in buckets – don’t forget your toothpastes etc – the nearest shop is a long way away.
  • If you love dogs great – they have two lovely dogs. The younger one is very affectionate and will always like to be near you.
  • Don’t expect a Spa & a Gym here – this is all about being with Nature
  • Food is great – but they don’t serve liquor – so get your own stuff.

In Conclusion 

I have been many to off beat properties – thats slowly becoming my expensive hobby (Check out my blog A Few Good places – https://vak1969.com/2016/01/24/a-few-good-places/) – and this is high up in the list in term of experience & service.

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Places like this are run on passion and not for commercial benefits. Managing a property like this deep inside a forest totally cut off requires a lot of effort – and running this efficiently is kudos to the owner, the manager and the full team. Its classy and it is expensive ( ~ 350 $ / Night) – but when on a holiday you want everything to be perfect as you are building memories for life.

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The occupancy is low – and its mainly foreigners. Maybe the owners should not call it a Home Stay as that conjures images of a few rooms in a property where the owner lives. This is designed like a cottage but is professionally run like an up market exclusive boutique resort. We stayed at a Home Stay in Vermont many years back – Sleepy Hollow, and there are many Home Stays in Coorg – clearly Mary Budden  does not qualify to the traditional definition of a Home Stay. Even the next stay at Dunagiri would qualify close to a Home Stay (More of that in the next blog)

Mary Budden has been on my bucket list for a few years and it has exceeded expectations. We came as a group of three friends and I am sure that I will be back here with my family soon.

My friends left for home with the promise that we would do this once every year in offbeat properties like Mary Budden but I continued my Himalayan journey going deeper into Kumaon – to mystical Dunagiri ( 4 Hr drive from Binsar) . More of that in the next blog.

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Contact Details 

www.marybuddenestate.in

www.dalarvillagehomestay.in

Sheetal – Manager / Mountaineer / Trek Guide / Host Par Excellence : +91 9711171350

Car pick up at Kathgodam  : Madhusudan + 91 97569 30090

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