Mesmerising & captivating Chandratal Lake

It has been a long gap from the blog, for almost twenty days owing to a dream trip on my loving bike to some dream destinations of Lahaul & Spiti. Whatever one may say, it is one trip that for most of the travellers will rank quite high above any other in terms of sheer thrill and adventure. And so was it for me. So, basic motive of the trip was to  attend the Naropa 2016 but than it was always just a pretext. Biking to Leh was the implicit story. And, first highlight of the journey was indeed the Chandratal Lake. It was a dream fulfilled. Just the image below can tell it why. Isn’t it.

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Located in Himachal Pradesh at an altitude of 4270 metres, this is one of the most popular and visited high altitude lake in India. Its captivating beauty has made Chandratal a popular destination for trekkers and campers. This natural lake is about one km in length, half km in breadth at its widest part and has a circumference of 2.5 km. The total area of the wetland is about 49 ha. The lake owes its name either to the fact that it is the source of the river Chandra, or by virtue of its crescent moon like shape. It is surrounded by the mountain ranges of Moulkila and Chandrabhaga. You can images of few of the peaks of Moulkila range below.

The clean water of the lake with small marshy patches around attracts many migratory birds. Important species among them are Snow cock, Chukar, Black winged stilt, Brahmni duck, Golden eagle and Chugh, Hoopoe, Yellow Headed Wagtail, Jungle crow, Blue rock pigeon, Common rose finch, Black Redstart, Short toed Eagle, Common Sandpiper, Teal, Magpie Robin etc. The important wild life species found in the region are Marmota Bobak, Snow leopard, Red fox, Snow wolf, Capra ibex, Blue sheep and Lynx etc. Migratory birds were yet to arrive when I visited the lake and to spot the other wildlife, one has to be extremely lucky.

I paid my first visit to Chandratal, immediately after reaching the camp in the afternoon. Lake is said to look quite differently during different times of day. These are few images from the afternoon-

But then, the real charm of the lake is in the early morning when water is more still and light is just perfect for water to reflect the surroundings. The reflections of peaks and mountains around the lake in the crystal clear water of Chandratal is simply magical.  You can see for yourself.

The first set of images are just before the sunlight touches the lake-

And then, see just how the view transforms, as soon as the sunlight is all over there on the lake-

You can just be there for hours or even more… lost in the fascinating atmosphere. But as soon as the day rises and wind starts blowing, the stillness of the water is disturbed and reflections start getting blurred. That is why, you don’t get any reflections post afternoon.

Staying: A lot has changed in the past few years around the Chandratal region. Adventurers now have plenty of staying options and all of them are camps. Until a few years back, there used to be just a few tents at the camping site. But now there are more than 150 tents in all run by different camping operators. Tents are good, clean and cosy and with various size options. Operators also provide meals and breakfasts. Most of the prices of the tents included meals (preferably breakfast and dinner).

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Weather: At this altitude, it has to be cold- whatever time of year you go there. In the peak season time, it could be warm in the day when the sun is out, but things change rather quickly as soon as sun sets or even when there is a cloud cover. It can be chilly when the wind blows. At this altitude, there can be a snowfall at anytime of the year. So, never drop your guards… never. See, even in September I had a lot of frost deposited on my bike the next morning and stored water on the campsites had a layer of ice over them.

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Chandratal is one of the wetlands in country which have been included in Ramsar Convention, hence there is no activity allowed around the lake. Camping sites are good three kilometres away from the lake. Then there is a parking lot around one and a half kilometre before the lake. From there, one has to trek to lake. Alternatively, one can also trek directly from the camping site to the lake. And probably that’s all for good. We need to save the ecology of the place.

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How to reach: Reaching Chandratal is only possible when Rohatng-La or Kunjam-La is open for traffic. Adventurers going to Lahaul or Spiti valley try their best to be at Chandratal, as it is something not to be missed. While going from the Manali side, 16 kilometres from Rohtang Top is Gramphoo. Here roads divide for Lahaul and Spiti valleys. Around 48 kilometres from Gramphoo is Batal. Around two kilometres from Batal after crossing river Chandra, there is another diversion. One of the road takes to the Spiti Valley via Kunzum Pass, which is 14 kilometres from this junction. Another road on the left takes to Chandratal which is 12 kilometres from this junction. Alternatively, one can reach Spiti via Shimla and Kaza and then reach Chandratal after crossing Kunzum pass. Road from Gramphoo to Chandratal via Batal on Manali side and then  from Losar to Chandratal via Kunzum pass on the Kaza side are bad and be prepared for some dirt tracks, boulders. It can be quite challenging drive on this route, specially when there are lots of water crossings to negotiate. If you are early in the season, then quite a fair amount of snow will also be there. So be prepared according to the weather and timing of the visit.

Trekking: One can trek to Chandratal from Kunzum pass directly. It is roughly a eight kilometre trek. Then there is also all-famous three day trek from Surajtal (from where river Bhaga originates) to Chandratal (from where river Chandra originates).

When to go: As I said, approaching Chandratal depends completely on the opening of two passes – Rohtang and Kunzum.  That happens in early June and lasts till end of October.  Actually, closing of roads depends on snowfall. Roads can get closed earlier, if there is an early snowfall. September is probably the best time to go. During August-September you can find the meadows around the lake and camping sites, carpeted with various types of wildflowers.

(You can write to me if you need any further details.)

Vagabond in Spiti : Kee Gompa

Kee (Key, Kye or Ki) monastery or gompa commands one of the most iconic views associated with Spiti valley.  It is considered to be the biggest monastery in Spiti valley. It is one of the highlights for anybody and must-visit place for any adventurer or tourist coming to Kaza. Kee gompa is one of the top monasteries in the region which include Tabo, Nako, Dhankar and Kungri (in the Pin valley) to name a few.

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Kee monastery is ahead of Kaza. Once you move pass the Kaza town along the spiti river, after couple of kilometres or so comes a diversion. There is a bridge across the river that takes to Loser and Kunjom pass. Loser is 56 kms from this point and Kunjom top is 78 kms.Kee Gompa2

One has to move ahead on the right side of the river towards Kibber and Kee. The view is spectacular and the road slowly drifts away from the river and climbs towards the mountains.

Once you reach the Kee (Kye) village than you get the first view of the monastery overlooking the village, perched on a small cliff.

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Moving ahead, there is another diversion, one on the left leads to Kibber village and on the right is Kee gompa. The view keeps on getting amazing- of the gompa as well as the Spiti valley below. The road to Kee from Kaza is generally good in condition, may be because of the high tourist value of the monastery.

 

The monastery of Tibetan Buddhism is located at an altitude of 4166 metres above the sea level. The monastery is more than thousand years old founded in 11th century. Despite being in such a tough terrain, this monastery along with other monasteries of the region has a history of attacks by the invaders and clashes among the different buddhist sects. Walls of the monastery are covered with paintings and murals developed in Chinese influence. It also houses a wide collections of ancient murals, manuscripts, and images. Monastery now belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism.

This monastery celebrated its millennium in 2000 when a new prayer hall was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama.  Besides this new prayer hall, there are four old prayer halls in the monastery. The monastery is so big that it can house around 450 lamas. Normally close to 150 lamas will always stay in the monastery. Even nuns stay here. The main monastery has three floors. Then there are different complexes for monks to stay, study and other activities.  It is a big teaching centre for lamas. There is also a cafeteria for the tourists.

Vehicles can be parked right at the entrance of the monastery. One has to keep sufficient time to move around, view the complex and enjoy the mesmerising landscape. Monastery holds its yearly festival normally in July every year. The monastery has already found its way into bollywood movies (Highway).

Kee Gompa also has facility for travellers to stay in lama quarters at a very nominal charge (around 200 Rs along with meals). That’s thoroughly enjoying and engaging. Gives a first-hand experience of the lives of the monks here. Worth it, but then you need to have some time in hand.

Four great apes on verge of extinction

Its not a good news for al nature lovers.  We are constantly pushing more and more species towards extinction- animals as well as plants. The Eastern Gorilla – the largest living primate – has been listed as Critically Endangered due to illegal hunting, according to the latest update of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species released on Sunday at the IUCN World Conservation Congress taking place in Hawaiʻi.  Eastern Gorilla is considered to be one of our closest cousins.  Actually four out of six great ape species are now Critically Endangered – only one step away from going extinct – with the remaining two also under considerable threat of extinction. IUCN Red List update makes us realize just how quickly the global extinction crisis is escalating. Conservation action does work and we have increasing evidence of it.

Eastern Gorilla.  Critically Endangered. Photo: Intu Boedhihartono
Eastern Gorilla. Critically Endangered. Photo: Intu Boedhihartono

IUCN Red List update also reports the decline of the Plains Zebra due to illegal hunting, and the growing extinction threat to Hawaiian plants posed by invasive species. Thirty eight of the 415 endemic Hawaiian plant species assessed for this update are listed as Extinct and four other species have been listed as Extinct in the Wild, meaning they only occur in cultivation. The IUCN Red List now includes 82,954 species of which 23,928 are threatened with extinction.

Sumatran Orangutan. Photo: worldwildlife.org
Sumatran Orangutan. Photo: worldwildlife.org

Mammals threatened by illegal hunting
The Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) – which is made up of two subspecies – has moved from Endangered to Critically Endangered due to a devastating population decline of more than 70% in 20 years. Its population is now estimated to be fewer than 5,000. Grauer’s Gorilla (G. b. graueri), one subspecies of Eastern Gorilla – has lost 77% of its population since 1994, declining from 16,900 individuals to just 3,800 in 2015. Killing or capture of great apes is illegal; yet hunting represents the greatest threat to Grauer’s Gorillas. The second subspecies of Eastern Gorilla – the Mountain Gorilla (G. b. beringei) –is faring better and has increased in number to around 880 individuals. Four of the six great apes – Eastern Gorilla, Western Gorilla, Bornean Orangutan and Sumatran Orangutan – are now listed as Critically Endangered, whilst the Chimpanzee and Bonobo are listed as Endangered.

Plains Zebra is Near Threatened. Photo: Jean-Christophe Vié
Plains Zebra is Near Threatened. Photo: Jean-Christophe Vié

The once widespread and abundant Plains Zebra (Equus quagga) has moved from Least Concern to Near Threatened. The population has reduced by 24% in the past 14 years from around 660,000 to a current estimate of just over 500,000 animals. In many countries Plains Zebra are only found in protected areas, yet population reductions have been recorded in 10 out of the 17 range states since 1992. The Plains Zebra is threatened by hunting for bushmeat and skins, especially when they move out of protected areas.

Bay Duiker is Near Threatened. Photo: Brent Huffman
Bay Duiker is Near Threatened. Photo: Brent Huffman

Three species of antelope found in Africa – Bay Duiker (Cephalophus dorsalis), White-bellied Duiker (Cephalophus leucogaster) and Yellow-backed Duiker (Cephalophus silvicultor) – have moved from Least Concern to Near Threatened. Whilst the populations of these species within protected areas are relatively stable, those found in other areas are decreasing due to continued illegal hunting and habitat loss.

Good news for Giant Panda and Tibetan Antelope
This update of The IUCN Red List also brings some good news and shows that conservation action is delivering positive results.

Giant Panda has improved to Vulnerable. Photo: Martha de Jong-Lantink
Giant Panda has improved to Vulnerable. Photo: Martha de Jong-Lantink

Previously listed as Endangered, The Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is now listed as Vulnerable, as its population has grown due to effective forest protection and reforestation. The improved status confirms that the Chinese government’s efforts to conserve this species are effective. However, climate change is predicted to eliminate more than 35% of the Panda’s bamboo habitat in the next 80 years and thus Panda population is projected to decline, reversing the gains made during the last two decades. To protect this iconic species, it is critical that the effective forest protection measures are continued and that emerging threats are addressed. The Chinese government’s plan to expand existing conservation policy for the species is a positive step and must be strongly supported to ensure its effective implementation.

Tibetan Antelope also improved to Near Threatened. Photo: Ahsup
Tibetan Antelope also improved to Near Threatened. Photo: Ahsup

Due to successful conservation actions, the Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) has moved from Endangered to Near Threatened. The population underwent a severe decline from around one million to an estimated 65,000-72,500 in the 1980s and early 1990s. This was the result of commercial poaching for the valuable underfur – shahtoosh – which is used to make shawls. It takes 3-5 hides to make a single shawl, and as the wool cannot be sheared or combed, the animals are killed. Rigorous protection has been enforced since then, and the population is currently likely to be between 100,000 and 150,000.

Greater Stick-nest Rat is Near Threatened. Photo: Hj Aslin
Greater Stick-nest Rat is Near Threatened. Photo: Hj Aslin

Other conservation successes include the Greater Stick-nest Rat (Leporillus conditor), endemic to Australia, which has improved status, moving from Vulnerable to Near Threatened. This is due to a successful species recovery plan, which has involved reintroductions and introductions to predator-free areas. This unique nest-building rodent is the last of its kind, with its smaller relative the Lesser Stick-nest Rat (Leporillus apicalis) having died out in the Twentieth Century. The resin created by the rats to build their nests is so strong that they can last for thousands of years if they are not exposed to water.

(Source: IUCN)

Thailand makes Visa on Arrival costlier

Thailand Visa

Indians love Thailand and one of the reason has been Visa on Arrival facility. Hence they can just buy the tickets, pick their passport and head to airport for one of their favourite destinations. Its still the same, but it is going to hurt more to your pocket now as Thailand has just doubled the Visa on Arrival fees. The new fees gets effective from 27 September 2016. So, all those who had planned to visit Thailand during this autumn break or puja holidays, will have to shell out some extra money.

Ministry of Interior of Thailand vide a order No. 30 B.E. 2559 (2016) dated 1 July B.E. 2559 (2016), has said that it is going to increase its VoA fee from 1,000 to 2,000 THB. The new fees is just about 3850 Indian Rupees (as on today’s exchange rate). Tourists from Andorra, Bulgaria, Bhutan, China, Cyprus, Ethiopia, India, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Romania, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan are entitled to apply for VoA at 42 designated immigration checkpoints, which will allow tourists to stay in the country up to 15 days.

42 designated immigration checkpoints in Thailand to apply for the VoA are as follows:

1. Suvarnabhumi Airport, Samut Prakarn

2. Don Muang International Airport, Bangkok

3. Chiangmai International Airport, Chiangmai

4. Phuket International Airport, Phuket

5. Hatyai International Airport, Songkhla

6. U Tapao Airport, Rayong

7. Mae Sai Immigration Checkpoint, Chiangrai

8. Chiang Saen Immigration Checkpoint, Chiangrai

9. Chiang Khong Immigration Checkpoint, Chiangrai

10. Betong Immigration Checkpoint, Yala

11. Sadao Immigration Checkpoint, Songkhla

12. Samui Airport, Surat Thani

13. Sukhothai International Airport, Tak Immigration Checkpoint

14. Bangkok Harbour Immigration Checkpoint, Bangkok

15. Sri Racha Immigration Checkpoint, Chonburi

16. Mabtaput Immigration Checkpoint, Rayong

17. Nong Khai Immigration Checkpoint, Nong Khai

18. Samui Immigration Checkpoint, Surat Thani

19. Phuket Immigration Checkpoint, Phuket

20. Satun Immigration Checkpoint, Satun

21. Krabi Immigration Checkpoint, Krabi

22. Songkhla Harbour Immigraion Checkpoint, Songkhla

23. Chiangrai Airport Immigration Checkpoint, Chiangrai

24. Surat Thani Airport Immigration Checkpoint, Surat Thani

25. Sattahip Harbour Immigration Checkpoint, Chonburi

26. Khlong Yai Immigration Checkpoint, Trat

27. Pong Nam Ron Immigration Checkpoint, Chanthaburi

28. Aranyaprathet Immigration Checkpoint, Sakaeo

29. Mukdahan Immigration Checkpoint, Mukdahan

30. Tak Immigration Checkpoint, Tak

31. Padang Besar Immigration Checkpoint, Songkhla

32. Su-ngai Kolok Immigration Checkpoint, Narathiwat

33. Nong Khai Immigration Checkpoint, Nong Khai

34. Bueng Kan Immigration Checkpoint, Bueng Kan

35. Phibun Mangsahan Immigration Checkpoint, Ubon Ratchathani

36. Tha Li Immigration Checkpoint, Loei

37. Nakhon Phanom Immigration Checkpoint, Nakhon Phanom

38. Nan Immigration Checkpoint, Nan

39. Ban Prakob Immigration Checkpoint, Songkhla

40. Khuan Don Immigration Checkpoint, Satun

41. Tak Bai Immigration Checkpoint, Narathiwat

42. Bukit Tal Immigration Checkpoint, Narathiwat

 

 

Vagabond at a cruise : Super Star Virgo

Cruises are always fascinating. Its a different world. Indians love cruise and every year a large number of Indian tourists go to different cruise hubs in Asia like Singapore and Dubai exclusively for cruise experience. Indians have often missed a home cruise, despite a few attempts. Now Costa cruise has announced a cruise from Mumbai in the coming season and lets hope it changes things to come.

Singapore has been one of the topmost cruise destination in Asia, until Dubai came up with the biggest cruise terminal of all. Star Cruises has been one of the favourite Asian cruise lines for Indians, which had tailor-made itineraries and amenities suited to them. But there are many strong competitors and number of cruise operators. Every year scores of Indian tourists will be flying to Singapore, take a cruise for 3-4 days and fly back. Singapore has a big cruise terminal and it looks almost like an airport terminal and actually functions like that with similar operations

Singapore Cruise Terminal
Singapore Cruise Terminal

Cruise is a journey and a destination. Its indeed a journey in luxury with huge modern cruise ships being a floating town in themselves, with everything on offer. Only thing is feeling of being on ocean for a longer period of time. If you are comfortable with it, cruise can be thoroughly enjoying and relaxing. Also because they give you a lot of options to spend your time in your own way. Similar experience for me on board Super Star Virgo from Singapore for a three night cruise in Strait of Malacca, touching three countries on the way.

So here is the first look of Super Star Virgo and above the ship you can see the Singapore Cable Car which runs from Harbour Front Tower 2 to Sentosa.

Once on the board, that is how the crew welcomes you with a poolside dance, its entertaining.

Safety first, so immediately after coming to ship there is a necessary security drill to tell all the passengers about safety tips and about emergency evacuation procedures.

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Best places to relax on a cruise are of course poolside. The ship has pool and a kids pool. It also has a water slide, part of which pops out of the ship onto the sea (minor thrill). There are many restaurants (as per cuisine), shopping plaza, playing area, bars, discotheques and much more.

Being from media, we also had a chance to interact with the Captain and his first officers at the ship’s command room itself. Learnt a lot about running of the ship from the master himself.

Cruise ships have many categories of rooms on different decks to suit different budgets and taste, some interior rooms, some with ocean view windows and even bigger suites on the upper decks with balconies towards sea. How deep is your pocket!

Cruise have a variety of entertainment programmes for the evenings- shows, musical programmes, fashion shows and even Las Vegas style cabarets (where you are not allowed to take any form of recording or shooting gadgets). In leisure time people in groups enjoy themselves.

Besides, there are also off-shore excursions. Ship will be cruising in night and during day it might anchor to a port for people to go on land and enjoy some sight seeing in another city for few hours. They plan some excursion itineraries too. But these excursions are optional and chargeable. Otherwise, one may choose to stay put on the ship and relax. Or one can manage the land excursion by oneself as well.

Enjoying views from the top deck itself is a fun- day or night. Being on a vastness of sea is a different feeling altogether. You have options to sunbath, read, relax, sleep and socialise.

Finally back to the home port, Singapore after a delightful trip.

I haven’t put any statistics here as they all are available online on respective websites.

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September is spectacular with fun & fervour!

NaropaThis September month is special. Has some very different types of events in store. Top of them is Naroda festival in Ladakh in the north and in down south the last of season’s boat races in the month of Onam. Monsoon is still pretty there but to mark the beginning of the long Indian festive season we also have Ganeshotsav as well Ramlila from Ramnagar. There is lot more besides them. Choose your bit, while we have a look at them.

Ladakh

Lets start with Ladakh which has two reasons to go this month. First one is-

Naroda Festival in 2004
Naropa Festival in 2004

Naropa, Kumbh of Ladakh: It could be one of the reasons of the lifetime to visit Ladakh, whomsoever have missed it so far. Another one for all those who have. Billed as the “Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas” and “Ladakh’s Largest Buddhist Festival in History”, the Naropa festival takes place once every 12 years. It’s celebrated by the Drukpa Order of Himalayan Buddhism in honour of their 11th century patron saint, Naropa. The festival includes performances by prominent Himalayan artists and  Bollywood celebrities, as well as an elaborate spiritual ceremony and public display of the holy Six Bone Ornaments that belonged to Saint Naropa.

When: September 16-22, 2016.

Where: Hemis Monastery, near Leh in Ladakh.

Ladakh FestivalLadakh Festival : This one is  the yearly event. This year Ladakh festival will be continuing the spirit of Naropa. The main aim of organising this festival in the month of September is to extend the lean tourist season in the region and also to represent and propagate the rich cultural heritage of the area. The grand success of the festival and the tremendous response from both foreign and home tourists is due to the rich cultural heritage and variety of other attractive programmes like traditional Polo match and Village archery. The famous monastic dance in the monasteries including exhibitions of invaluable Thankas and other Ritual Instruments of the monasteries. The tourists have the opportunities to see the entire traditional cultural programme of the region like Traditional Folk dance and songs of different parts of Ladakh. The grand achievements of the Ladakh Festival are noticeable of the significant increase in the arrivals of tourists during the lean tourist season of the year.Ladakh festival is celebrated from 20th to 26th September, every year in Leh and its villages. The inauguration ceremony of the festival takes place in Leh on a large scale with a procession of several cultural troupes from different part of the region which traverses through Leh Market. There is dancing, singing, traditional music, people wearing colourful traditional Ladakhi dresses. It comes to end at the Polo ground. The festival is for 6 days with regular celebration in various villages including archery, polo, and masked dances from the monasteries and dances by cultural troupes from the villages. There are musical concerts too. Best part is, that this is one of the best time to go to Ladakh region, just before the onset of winter.

When: 20th to 26th September 2016

Where: Leh, Ladakh

Kerala

Kerala is land of all seasons but we still have many reasons to visit ‘God’s own country’ this month. Last three of the season’s snake boat races will take place this month and also the all important festivals of all Keralites- Onam.

Aranmula-Boat raceAranmula Boat race: Last of Kerala’s boat races of the season. Aranmula has got a unique place when it comes to the cultural imaginings of Kerala. The boat race held annually on the Uthrittathi asterism (as per the local Malayalam calendar) during the Onam festival is one the cultural hallmarks of this land. Teeming with rich tradition and rituals immersed in splendor, the Aranmula Uthrittathi boat race is considered more of a ritual than a race. Legend has it that a devout Brahmin vowed to offer all the requirements for the Thiruvona sadya (the grand traditional feast on the day of Thiruvonam) at the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple. Once, the boat known as Thiruvona Thoni carrying these offerings was attacked by enemies. In order to protect the Thiruvona Thoni people from neighbouring areas sent their snake boats. Later on, this practice evolved into an offering to Lord Parthasarathy in the form of a snake boat race, held on the Uthrittathi day, which eventually became popular as the Aranmula Boat Race.

When: September 17, 2016

Where: River Pamba in Aranmula, District Pathanamthitta, Kerala

Getting there: Nearest railway station is Chengannur, about 11 km while nearest airport is Thiruvananthapuram International Airport, about 117 kms.

Payippad_boat RacePayippad Boat Race: Two days before the Aranmula boat race, takes place this legendry boat race. This one is in the northern part of the state though in all famous Alappuzha district. A regatta to commemorate a legend associated with water. The legend is about the installation of the idol in the Subrahmanya Swamy Temple, Haripad. The legend says that the villagers once had a vision, which directed them to a whirlpool in Kayamkulam Lake where they discovered the idol of Sree Subramanya. Held annually on the Payippad River, this boat race is noted for the largest participation of snake boats after the Nehru Trophy boat race. The boat race is marked by synergy, speed and rigour. Thousands swarm to the banks of Payippad River to celebrate the event. So if you can’t make it to Aranmula, then try to be at Payippad. There is another biat race on the same day- Sree Narayana Jayanthi Boat race at Kumarakom, one of the best beach resorts in Kerala.

When: September 16, 2016

Where: Payippad backwaters in Payippad, District Alappuzha, Kerala

Getting there: Nearest railway station is Haripad, about 5 km while nearest airport is Cochin International Airport, about 85 km from Alappuzha.

Kumarakom Boat RaceSree Narayana Jayanthi Boat Race: The annual boat race at Kumarakom is different from the other famous boat races of Kerala like the Nehru Trophy race and the race at Aranmula. While the others are either ritualistic or competitive events, the Kumarakom boat race is held in remembrance of the great social reformer, Sree Narayana Guru’s visit to the village. Records say that Sree Narayana Guru, the great social reformer of Kerala, visited Kumarakom in 1903. He reached the village in a boat from Alappuzha, accompanied by a procession of boats. During the visit, the guru established a temple of Subrahmanya (Sree Kumara Mangalam Temple) in Kumarakom.  Sree Narayana Guru’s visit is commemorated by the villagers, irrespective of caste or religion, during the annual boat race. The boat race is conducted on Sree Narayana Guru Jayanthi Day, which usually falls in August / September (the asterism of Chathayam in the Malayalam month of Chingam). A grand procession of country boats carrying the portrait of Sree Narayana Guru, from the Kumaramangalam Temple to Kottathodu, is held on this day. Around 55 years ago, this ritual paved the way for a boat race with Kottathodu as the venue.

When: September 11, 2016

Onam is festival of the year for everybody in Kerala. There are many occasions to mark the ten day festivities.

Athachamayam-Festival-at-TripunithuraAthachamayam: A cultural gala that marks the beginning of the ten-day Onam festival in Kerala, is a rare chance to enjoy almost all the folk art forms of God’s Own Country. Athachamayam is conducted every year on the Atham asterism of the Malayalam month Chingam (roughly August/September), at the historical town of Thripunithura near Kochi, Ernakulam district. The festival, which is celebrated to commemorate the legendary victory of the Raja (King) of Kochi, is also an occasion to witness almost all the folk art forms of Kerala.  A colourful procession, which is part of this festival, reminds the customary procession of the king along with his entourage to the Thripunithura (Thripoonithura) fort. This was also the occasion for his subjects to greet the king and see him very close. The procession, though without the king, still retains its majestic charm, and is conducted in a spectacular manner. Caparisoned elephants, varieties of folk art forms, floats, and musical ensembles together form part of the procession. Onam, the most popular festival of Keralites can be traced to the primitive harvest festival and also to the myth regarding King Mahabali – the benevolent ruler who brought peace and prosperity to Keralites.

When: September 4, 2016

Thiruvonam_DayThiruvonam: Don’t you find it interesting that in spite of centuries that passed by, various rulers having ruled the land, the mythical King Mahabali enjoys a popularity that no other ruler can boast of! Yes, we are talking about the festival of prosperity and joy – Onam – the festival of Kerala. The greatest charm of Onam lies undoubtedly in the coming together of the Malayali folk to welcome the mythical king on his imaginary annual visit to the land. The ten-day long festival begins with atham asterism in the Malayalam month of Chingam and culminates grandly on the day of Thiruvonam. The households bubbling and bustling with energy is a sight reserved during Onam days. As per mythology, King Mahabali decided to leave for the nether world, failing to keep his promise given to Lord Vishnu who came in the guise of Vaamana. As for the delicacies of Onam one would wish it to go on and on. Payasam (the traditional Kerala dessert), the show-stopper among the Onasadya (the sumptuous feast) is itself of plentiful variety. It is very interesting to watch how kids make every festival their own. Children dart in the neighbourhood in search of flowers to make floral carpets (pookkalam) that adorn their courtyards. Traditional arts and games throbs the rustic ambience of villages. The inevitable swing is a unique feature of this festivity. There are many Onam special programmes conducted across Kerala including Kerala Tourism sponsored programs all over the state.

When: September 14, 2016

Where: All over Kerala

Getting there: Kerala has two international airports- Thiruvananthapuram International Airport at the state capital in south Kerala and Cochin International Airport in the northern part of the state.

 

pulikaliPulikali: Ever seen a procession of tigers on two legs? Well, we are not talking about any carnival inside the circus tents. The event takes place at the Swaraj Round in Thrissur district of Kerala. Pulikali, or the fun and frolic of tigers, is an event that has become synonymous with the festival of Onam in Kerala. The tigers are not real ones but men dressed and painted as tigers.  As part of the performance, groups of local men would have their bodies and faces painted to resemble tigers. Apart from the true colours of a tiger, one would also come across other colours and patterns and even the facial features of lion on the bodies of performers. The make-up is time-consuming and it is quite a labour to undo the make-up, which is mostly done with oil paints. The theme of the performance is playing hide-and-seek with a hunter wielding a gun. The event generates a great deal of excitement both for the spectators from near and far and for the performers.

When: September 17, 2016

Not related to Onam but there is another reason to go to Kerala this month besides boat races and Onam.

Neelamperoor_PatayaniNeelamperoor Patayani: ‘Neelamperoor Patayani’ is a spectacular event that falls in the Malayalam month of Chingam (usually August / September). Visiting Neelamperoor Palli Bhagavathy Temple during the time of annual patayani festival is a colorful treat to the eyes. The patayani celebration at this temple is said to have a history of around 1700 years. The word patayani literally means rows of army. Though patayani is performed in a number of other temples in Kerala, the one held at Neelamperoor is unique. Kettukazhcha (display of deftly decorated effigies) is what makes this festival stand out. A grand procession of huge effigies of swans and other legendary and mythical characters are brought in. The making of the effigies of swans is locally known as annam kettu. At night the ambience is set by a colourful procession carrying the effigies of mythological characters like Bhima, Ravana, and Yakshi, which is a spectacular sight.

When: September 29, 2016

Where: Palli Bhagavathi Temple, Neelamperoor, Alappuzha

There are few other events from around the different corners of India. Lets have a look at them as well.

Ganapati Bappa Moriya

Ganesh-ChaturthiThe spirit of this festival is contagious. Biggest annual occasion for most of Maharashtra and Marathis elsewhere. It has been filmed so many times in Bollywood that it needs no introduction. Perhaps the most filmed festival after Holi in films. Of recently the constant media coverage of ten day celebrations has made many of those Ganesha temples popular among non Marathis as well, maybe it Siddhivinayak or Lalbaugcha Raja. But celebrities and celebrated temples have changes the complexion of the festival too much. To enjoy traditional festivities join a family celebration. This is the day when Lord Ganesha is brought home and given his seat for ten days’ pooja. Weeks or even months before Ganesh Chaturthi, artistic clay models of Lord Ganesha are made for sale by specially skilled artisans. They are beautifully decorated and depict Lord Ganesh in vivid poses. Also called as Vinayak Chaturthi this is the day when mythologically Ganesha was born. The main sweet dish during the festival is the modak, a dumpling made from rice flour/wheat flour with a stuffing of fresh or dry-grated coconut, jaggery, dry fruits and some other condiments.

When: September 5, 2016

Where: All your Marathi friends

Ramdevra Fair

RamdevraSituated about 12 kms to the north of Pokhran, the village of Ramdevra known after Baba Ramdev, a Tanwar Rajput and a saint who took Samadhi (conscious exit from the mortal body) in 1458 AD. He had miraculous powers and his fame reached far and wide. Legend goes that five Pirs (saints) from Mecca came here to test his power and after being convinced, paid their homage to him. Since then he is venerated by Muslims also as Ram Shah Pir. The Hindus regard him as an incarnation of Lord Krishna. Near the village, there is a tank known as Ramsar tank which is believed to have been constructed by Baba Ramdev himself. A large step well, the Parcha Baori is also situated nearby. Baba Ram Dev believed in the equality of all human beings, both high and low, rich and poor. He helped the down-trodden by granting them their wishes. Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner constructed a temple around the ‘samadhi’ in 1931 AD. Rice, coconuts, churma and wooden horses (toys) are offered to Ramdevji by the devotees. A large fair is held here from Bhadon Sudi 2 to Bhadon Sudi 11 (August – September) which is attended by lakh of devotees who come in large groups from far and wide. Irrespective of their caste, creed or religious affiliations, these devotees throng the shrine dedicated to the saint. These groups organise night long singing of bhajans and kirtans to pay homage to Baba.

When: September 3-12, 2016

Where: Pokhran, Rajasthan

Getting there: Ramdevra village lies about 12 kms. from Pokhran in Jaisalmer district. Pokhran is connected to Jodhpur by a metalled road as well as by Rail. Ramdevra can be reached from Jodhpur and Pokhran by bus. Jodhpur has an airport.

EAT, DRINK, MERRY! at Ziro

Ziro festivalZiro Festival of Music is probably the most fun outdoor music festival in the country. So far ZFM has featured stellar acts from around the world including Lee Ranaldo & Steve Shelley (SONIC YOUTH -USA), Lou Majaw, menwhopause, Shaa’ir n Func, Whirling Kalapas, Sky Rabbit, Peter cat recording Co, Guru Rewben Mashangva among others. This edition will be over four days and will feature top indi acts from across the globe as well as the best folk musicians from the North East. Ziro is primarily home to the Apatanis – simple, friendly and hospitable people with an interesting culture and legacy. They are a non-nomadic, agrarian tribe who share a responsible relationship with nature. Apatanis cultivate permanent wet land cultivations instead of dry land cultivations which involves burning forests. Ziro valley is lush with paddy farms and is known for its unique paddy cum fi sh cultivation where using traditional irrigation methods, farmers rear fish in the knee-deep water. Keeping them company are the adorable, shy, and harmless Indian Bisons. All visitors – Indian and foreigners – to Arunachal Pradesh need special permits to enter the state. Indians need an Inner Line Permit (ILP) and foreigners require a Protected Area Permit.

When: September 22-25, 2016

Where: Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh

Getting there: Ziro is the district headquarters of Lower Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh (India) and is situated 167km from the capital, Itanagar. It is one of the oldest towns in Arunachal Pradesh in a valley at a height of over 5500 feet above sea level surrounded by misty mountains. The nearest airport is Tezpur. However, flights to Tezpur are often cancelled without reason. The best option is to fly to Guwahati and do the road journey.  The nearest railhead is North Lakhimpur by Arunachal Express from New Bongaigaon. Direct buses are available from Guwahati, Itanagar and North Lakhimpur.

Glorious Ramnagar Ramlila

Ramnagar685Varanasi has always been a magnet for the spiritual, the religious, for holy seers and for the hippies. During the ten days of the Dussehra, the city becomes famous for its Ramlila, often considered to be the one of the oldest and perhaps grandest ramlila in world.  Fifteen kilometers from the main city lies Ramnagar, where the Ram Leela is enacted in a unique manner. Unlike the rest of the country, where the enactment is done on single stages, here in Ramnagar the whole town is transformed into a large Ram Leela ground, structures are built and different spaces represent different locations in the story.  The whole Ram lila takes place over a month. For a month, Ramnagar is transformed into a giant stage for the story of Ram to unfold. Permanent structures and parts of the town within a five-kilometre radius are named after places mentioned in the epic, and different episodes of the lila are enacted at different venues every day. On most days, the Ramlila moves – the cast, the Kashi Naresh, audiences and all. Sometimes, the movement is within a larger venue. Sadhus coming to Ramnagar from all over the country during this time and reciting Ramcharitramanas are called Ramayanis and the audience follows the performers all over town.  Even though thousands of devotees, bystanders, tourists throng the town during this month, it is incredible to note that most of the recital is done without the aid of any loudspeakers, electric lights or mikes, and the audience maintains a hushed silence throughout the Ramayani recital. Audiences move around from one location to another in order to see the one of its kind Ramlila. The crowd ranges from a few thousand for some episodes, up to a lakh for episodes like Ram and Sita’s wedding, Dussehra (when a 60-feet high effigy of the Raavan is burnt), Bharat Milaap, and the coronation of Ram (the most auspicious episode). On the day after Dussehra, Varanasi celebrates the Bharat Milaap festival, which commemorates Ram’s return to Ayodhya and his reunion with younger brother Bharat.  This takes place at Nati Imli, and thousands of people flock and gather to see Ram meet Bharat.  People wear tilak on their foreheads and garland the brothers. Watching the entire scene from the background every year is Kashi Naresh (former king of Varanasi) in his regal attire and finery.

Date: 15th September-16th October 2016

Venue: Ramnagar, Varanasi

 

 

ऊँ at the Colombo World War Cemetery!

Every city has some hidden gems that normal tourists are unaware of. Every city also has a fabulous history whose all aspects are not known to us. What you need to do is to travel like a local and let yourself soak in the atmosphere. Many a times, while travelling to some secluded, not so popular places, you might not find tourists around you, at least not as much as you would find at popular tourist destinations. But that would be a good chance to know about the insights of culture and history of a place.

DSC08020That’s what happened to us in Colombo. Sri Lanka or erstwhile Ceylon shares a lot with India, in terms of culture and history. Britishers, after controlling whole of India, also occupied Ceylon in early 19th century. They controlled the whole Indian sub-continent as a single territory. And as history says, all the occupied territories of the Britishers fought for them in the Second World War against Germany. Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were stationed in Sri Lanka. They were also joined by 7th Australian Division and 1st African Division.

A journey to the colonial destinations of Sri Lanka brought us to the Commonwealth War Graves at Colombo-Jawatta. This cemetery is in honour of those soldiers who laid there lives while fighting for the British and allied forces in the Second World War. Commonwealth War Graves cemetery is right besides (or inside the campus of) Jawatta Cemetery, which is a Muslim cemetery belonging to the Trustees of the Jawatta Mosque. Jawatta cemetery is the biggest one with 625 headstones of war soldiers, laid on a one and a half acre plot of land. Its peaceful inside. The cemetery is maintained by National Botanical Gardens Department.

DSC08006The entrance to the cemetery incorporates the Memorial Tablets commemorating over 300 men who died while serving in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), whose graves either could not be found or, if found, could neither be permanently maintained nor (for religious or other reasons) moved to cemeteries where their maintenance for all time would be assured.

What we found most interesting that the Liveramentu Cremation Memorial also stands within this cemetery and commemorates over 150 men of the Hindu faith who died while serving in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and who were accorded the last rite required by their religion – committal to fire. So it was very surprising for us to find ऊँ (Om) and ऊँ भगवते नमः (Om Bhagvate Namah) inscribed on the grave stones inside the cemetery. A first such instance witnessed by me.

As per information by Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in addition there is also a memorial commemorating 28 Italian prisoners of war who died during 1939-45 and who are buried in Sri Lanka, stands within this cemetery. There is also a section dedicated to the Muslim soldiers from middle-east and African countries.

There is another Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Colombo at Borella. It contains War Graves (including those of a German soldier, a German merchant seaman, a German interned civilian and an Austrian nursing sister); and a War Cross is erected. There are now over 60, 1914-1918 and nearly 300, 1939-1945 Commonwealth war casualties commemorated in this site. 4 casualties of the 1939-1945 war are unidentified.

DSC08008As history says, there was an air raid by Japan on Colombo on Easter Sunday (5th April) of 1942. Few days later there was an attack on Trincomalee too. All these lives were lost in these attacks and few other were killed when there ships were sunk. Trincomalee and Kandy also have such cemeteries. Family members of these war soldiers from across the world come occasionally to pay there homage to them.

DSC08009How to reach

Commonwealth War Graves is located 1.5 kilometres from the centre of the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Torrington Avenue in the direction of Jaawatte. The war graves plot is in the rear left corner of the municipal cemetery.

Waiting for gates to open!
Waiting for gates to open!

The opening hours of this cemetery are 07:00 – 16:00 every day. There is no resident caretaker so the cemetery cannot be accessed outside of these hours. Actually, when we reached there, we too had to wait for the caretaker to come with the keys and open the gate as it was locked and there was no other tourist.

DSC08021Srilankan capital Colombo has an international airport and closest Indian Airport Trivandrum Airport in Kerala has non stop one hour flight to Colombo operated by Sri Lankan. The return journey between Trivandrum Airport and Colombo Airport hardly costs 16,000 Rs. There are also flights from Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai to Colombo.

World through my eyes