Nilgiri Journals Part 4 – Busy Days in Kotagiri

...and the best is the one you get from an open toilet
The view from an open toilet

Day 1 – A bus parks noisily behind me honking at me unnecessarily as it does so. A passenger jumps, whips out his willy and pisses into the valley below. Two more people slither out and follow his lead. 5 young boys (who probably think I don’t know Tamil) are staring at me and are wondering in hushed whispers which country I’m from. I stare back, they blush, laugh and walk away. Another man jumps out from his vehicle and relieves himself. Standing in the middle of this frenetic activity, I’m trying very hard to ignore the stench of urine and garbage and focus my attention on the magnificent landscape in front of me because this open toilet cum dumping ground opposite the Kotagiri bus stand commands the best views to be had in the town.

The Wesley Church
The Wesley Church

Day 2 – After spending an entire afternoon in peaceful solitude on the steps of the Wesleyan Church, I walked down the steep steps that lead from the Church to the little village of Kannerimukku. Here, in the 1880s a Mr. John Sullivan had the brilliant idea of building a bungalow, growing tea and kick-starting a tourist industry. It is now an impeccably maintained building that looks as good as a well-restored film print and is taken care of by an ex-Hindu scribe Dharmalingam Venugopal, who has also penned a guide-book on the Nilgiris. I didn’t meet him but I met M and G, the friendly Badaga brother and sister who showed me around the little museum whose “before-after” exhibits and picture galleries with shots of Indian politicians looking at the building were livened up only by M’s scrambled, incoherent yet enthusiastic commentary.

Sullivan's Memorial in Kannerimukku
Sullivan’s Memorial in Kannerimukku

Later, M (who was certainly a bit inebriated) took me to his home, served me awesome coffee, discussed football and Badaga rituals, introduced me to his kids who were just back from school, showed me off proudly as a “friend from Bumbaai” to all the people we met on the way and offered to hang out with me for the rest of my days in Kotagiri. His sister seemed embarrassed and apologized for her brother’s “openness”. I didn’t know what to say and mumbling some thank yous, walked back to Kotagiri.

Tengumarada village
Tengumarada village

Day 3 -The wind was lashing my face with what seemed like a lot of wrath and anger but I was finding it very hard to look away from the spectacular landscape that lay before me. On my left were the Talamalai Hills beyond which one could see the villages of the Mysore Plateau. Down below was the village of Tengumarada, remote and isolated, hemmed in by the walls of Talamalai on one side and the winding Moyar river on the other. The women who ran the tourist café seemed bored and started filling me with anecdotal information like how Bharathiraja, the Tamil film director, loves to shoot in Tengumarada. In front of me rose the insurmountably tall Rangaswamy Pillar and the Rangaswamy Peak which fell steeply to the plains below where the waters of the Moyar river had been dammed to form the Bhavani Sagar reservoir. This was the Kodanad view-point, among the best of its ilk. During a conversation with an idle forest guard, I mentioned that the views were somewhat hazy and he advised me to come at dawn when they are much clearer. I mulled staying at the desolate Deccan Valley View Hotel near the view-point but couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. Lonely nights in a lonely place are just not my thing.

The Kodanad Viewpoint
The Kodanad Viewpoint

The view was still extraordinarily beautiful though and as I was taking in its beautiful extraordinariness, a Gujarati family led by a patriarch trotted up purposefully. He was a businessman who had lived in Coimbatore for the last 50 years and certainly preferred the life there compared to the one he had in Ahmedabad when he was a young man. He spoke to his wife in Tamil but in Gujarati to his brother and sister-in-law and gave me crucial life-lessons (in Tamil) – “Marry a girl who wants to live here, not in Mumbai”, “Better still, take a girl from here, get married and show her to your parents. It’ll be a load off their shoulders”, “Youngsters these days think sex is everything, but you have to love first”, “We Indians are still backward and afraid when it comes to making moves, that’s why rapes happen so often nowadays”, “When we were young, the women used to do all the household work. They used to get a lot of exercise. Now, everyone has a maid in the house thanks to feminism and all that. That’s why they’re so weak. Women of my generation would fight back boldly.” etc. etc. He promptly took his leave when his wife yelled at him to get back into the car so they can go shop for tea in Kotagiri.

The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri
The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri

Day 4 – I took a walk to the Longwood Shola which is one of the only shola forests that exist close to Kotagiri. As I walked in some general direction, I thought I had lost my way. So I asked a gentleman who was just parking his car where the Forest Office was. After enlightening me of its location, he asked me if I’d like to have some tea. So, instead of going ahead and taking a nice walk in the forests in good weather, I spent the whole afternoon drinking tea and talking to him. He was a pharmacist and Kotagiri being a small town where everyone knew everyone else very well, started filling me in on unnecessary details about the life of the owner of my guest house. After a few hours of idle gossip about his family life, adventures in Sharjah and Dubai, more cups of tea, plans for the new house he’s building, some cookies, lunch, a tour of family albums and a lot of other nonsense, I bid farewell. It had started raining by now, very heavily too, and it was getting late. Yet, I soldiered on to the Forest Office, met C, the super-friendly caretaker of the Forest Rest House there and drank more tea with him. He laughed when I said I wanted to see the Longwood Shola saying I should have been there earlier because the whole track would be covered with leeches after the rains. I told him very quickly about my little time-wasting session with the gentle pharmacist and he shook his head and agreed to take me on a little tour. We walked for a little while inside the thickest forests I’d walked this side of Taman Negara and C very excitedly showed me some Malabar Giant Squirrels, leopard tracks, bison shit, porcupine squills, some mynas and some red-whiskered bulbuls. I’m definitely going back to Longwood Shola someday.

I wouldn’t have made any of those trips if my stay at the “Heavenly Stay” had been truly heavenly. It was a little lodge-like place, very clean, overlooking a not-very-busy road but the hammering noise from the construction site next door made sure I didn’t spend any time in my room during the day (the nights were quiet and peaceful). At 750 Rs. a night, it was also the most expensive place I’d stayed in the Nilgiris with little of the homely atmosphere that even an institution like the YWCA managed. The family was friendly and helpful enough but I wish they were visible more often. D, the care-taker, was among the more annoying people I’d met. If I spent even a couple of hours in the room during the day, he would either look very suspiciously (I don’t know why) or very pitifully (because I was alone). His typical “Good morning” message went something like this – “Good morning (beaming smile). So what are you doing today? It must be very sad being alone, no? Where are your friends?” My trips out of my room were primarily a way to convince him that I was “doing something” in Kotagiri and was “happy”. And, just for that, thank you, D! Caveats aside, it certainly is a good value place to spend time when you’re in Kotagiri.

Climb a few meters above Heavenly Stay to Luke's Church and you get this view
A small, clean, open and charming place, like all hill stations ought to be

Kotagiri is the smallest, cleanest and the most pleasant of all the Nilgiri Hill Stations. It doesn’t have the polluted haze of Coonoor and Ooty and the people (even D!) go out of their way to be open and friendly. My favourite haunt here was the Friend’s Bakery which was hugely popular with locals. It had a little café where the evenings were spent discussing World Cup matches, politics, DMK-AIADMK wars, movies –why Rajnikant is awesome, why Vijayakant is awesome, why Tamil movies are the best movies in the world, gossip – why so-and-so person working in the PWD didn’t get his pension, how this man was ruining his family by piling on debt, more gossip and more politics. In a way, it made me feel warmly nostalgic for the small Himalayan towns and villages in that, in many ways, the people in these hills weren’t so different from the easy-going, affable people one encounters in the Himalayas. Once the altitude drops and the population rises, the smiles start to disappear and the faces appear more tense and unhappy.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 3 – Coonoor Days

The rest of my days in Coonoor were spent relaxing in the upper storey verandah of YWCA Wyoming and drinking a lot of tea. A colonial building over 150 years old, now converted into a guest house, it’s probably as good a deal as one could get in the hills. My room, which would have cost an arm and a leg in more business-minded hands, cost only 414 Rs. It was the perfect place to linger without the pressure of making the days count and the fear of losing my bank balance. My regular visitors were the house sparrows and red-whiskered bulbuls that chattered endlessly in the green surrounds. One day, a herd of gaur (wild bulls) made their way into the pastures of the property compound. Another day, V showed me bear’s paws marked on the building wall. It was a wild and remarkably peaceful setting, in perfect contrast to the cacophonic mess of Lower Coonoor Town.

A Gaur grazing in the compound
A Gaur grazing in the compound
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Marks of a bear’s paws (if V is to be believed)

By the end of my 3 weeks in the YWCA, I had come to know everyone who lived and worked there. V, who worked at the reception, was a Coonoor boy and would march me off to his favourite eateries in the town. His suggestions were unfailingly good. So, thanks to him, I got to taste the masala varkeys and biscuits at Crown Bakery (the oldest bakery in the Nilgiris, possibly even in Tamil Nadu, still run by the same family from 1880), veg rolls at the New Bangalore Bakery on Mount Road and the twisted varkeys and Nendrampazham (Plantain) chips at the New Indian Bakery near the bus stand. He also made me go to Hotel Ramachandra on Mount Road, which became my favourite restaurant in all of Nilgiris, to gorge on their biryanis and parottas that were served with spicy curry and watery raita and wash it down with splendid coffee from Tamizhagam. I made a trip all the way to a small bakery in the Barracks area called Needs only because V told me it was the best black forest cake he had ever tasted and he wasn’t far off the mark on that one either.

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The dirt track to my home in Coonoor!

G, the cook at YWCA, had worked at the Fernhills Palace with the Mysore Maharaja and had a knack for making one crave for even basic dishes like chappati and dal that were cooked simply yet tastefully (and with a lot of pride!). His meals were always delicious and healthy and made sure I never got sick when I was there. S, one of the security guards, had served in three wars for the Indian Army, got hurt multiple times and yet was having to work post-retirement to earn a living for himself and his family because the pension he received was a pittance. V’s principal obsession was tracking prophecies and conspiracy theories and his many weird, surreal youtube video recommendations kept me entertained days on end. Thanks to V, G and S’s appetites for long conversations, my days at Coonoor were never lonely and when I left, it was with a feeling of sadness and a promise to return some day.

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The Wyoming building

The evenings were invariably spent in a couple of cafes in the Bedford area. My personal favourite was Dew Drops, a cafe which served supremely well-brewed tea and succulent snacks like cheese sandwiches, veg cutlets and uh, stuffed capsicum. This was a new place but seemed to have already developed a loyal customer-base. It was a convenient stop-over for my trips to the Bakers Junction where I shopped for locally-made jams, bread, honey and Acres Wild cheese.

Sim's Park
Sim’s Park

Apart from gastronomic excursions and the jaunty ones I wrote about in the previous post, my only trip out in Coonoor was the one I made on the first day, to the beautifully wild Sim’s Park. After getting exhausted wandering its many labyrinthine tracks for hours, I settled down for a meal at La Belle Vie, known for its French cuisine. It’s housed in an old colonial bungalow nestled amidst tea plantations on a cliff-side that commands a stupendous view of the valley below. These were early days, so I still wasn’t jaded looking at tea plants everywhere. I wish I had just looked at the view and left though because the food was an inedible, expensive and oily mess. I know nothing about French cuisine but I’m pretty certain they don’t dunk their veggies in 3 inches of oil. When I narrated my Belle Vie ordeal to V, he told me of an old French couple who had gone there after hearing rave reviews. The exchange went something like this –

“Did you like the food?”

“It was okay.”

“So was the food really French?”

“A little bit, yes. The names were French, the food very Indian.”

I felt vindicated.

The best thing about the restaurant is the architecture...
The best thing about the restaurant is the architecture…
...and the views from it
…and the views from it

My favourite place in Coonoor though wasn’t Sim’s Park or Dolphin’s Nose or Lamb’s Rock or the Tea Museums. The place I loved the most was the terrace of the Ayyappa temple that served as a short-cut for the steep yet peaceful hike from Lower Coonoor to the YWCA. It was an ideal location to break the journey which worked both as a rest-stop and as a place which gave unobstructed bird’s eye views of the Lower Coonoor town below.

Sitting on the steps on the terrace, I could spy on a hundred roof-tops, get a perspective on the urban mayhem down below, listen to the chaotic symphony of honking cars, hooting trains, the hammering and drilling of construction work and the chirping of countless red-whiskered bulbuls and oriental white-eyes and watch the clouds decapitate the hills in the distance as they find a way through the valleys enveloping entire villages in opaque mist in the process, and all of this in good privacy. Barring the few who used the stairs of the temple to cut across to the town, I had the whole place to myself. I never took my phone or my camera with me when I went there and it was a blessed relief to be disconnected, if only for a short time, from the trigger impulses of checking and clicking and being busy.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 2 – Being an account of two days spent around Coonoor

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The view from Lady Canning’s Seat

Of the 5 weeks I’ve spent in the Nilgiris so far, 3 have been in Coonoor. Thanks to ennui, laziness and the peaceful confines of the YWCA Wyoming, only two days out of the 21 were spent traveling around the town and they too happened only because of coincidentally timely visits by a few friends.

One of them was a drive around Wellington with A and P (you know who you are if you’re reading this), through the military area and the golf course, to a little puddle with paddle boats they called the “Wellington Lake” and then to a nice property they had stayed at called Tea Nest which had big rooms, friendly staff and delivered gorgeous views, sprawling tea estates, massive hills in the distance, good tea and a story about a bear that likes to pay a visit every now and then.

The cloudy drive to Dolphin's Nose
The cloudy drive to Dolphin’s Nose

The other was a trip with D to Dolphin’s Nose, Lamb’s Rock and Lady Canning’s Seat two days before I left the town for good. We could see nothing but walls of clouds around us when we were on our way and I began to think it was a terrible idea to do the trip in that weather. But thankfully, once we reached Dolphin’s Nose, some of the mist had cleared and while the views were still somewhat hazy, one could see all the way down to Mettupalayam and Coimbatore in the plains below. M, our rickshaw driver, insisted that there was a map of India imprinted in the landscape somewhere. I squinted hard but couldn’t see anything so cartographically precise but when he started getting agitated and directing my eyes to every hazy outline decipherable below, everything I saw started resembling a map of India in one way or the other. I pretended to see whatever he wanted me to see to get rid of him momentarily and break out of bizarre illusions.

"They haven't evolved much, have they?", says the monkey watching humans litter
“They haven’t evolved much, have they?”, says the monkey watching humans litter

While we were standing there admiring the view and ignoring resident primates and trigger-happy tourists, M started telling us about a traumatic incident he witnessed a few years back. He had come here with some gullible tourists and was showing them the landscaped map of India. A young couple were sitting on a rock behind the view-point having what he felt was a leisurely chat. Suddenly, the boy (of the couple) walked down calmly and jumped into the valley below. I asked him if this is what passed for “suicide point” in this area and he laughed and said that the suicide point was on the other side of the hill where even more gruesome events were known to happen. I discovered that vertiginous suicides were one of M’s pet obsessions when he tried to convince me that Lamb’s Rock was so named because a certain Mr. Lamb jumped from his eponymous rock, which is utter nonsense as I learned from a little google research later.

Stopping jilted lovers jumping over
Stopping jilted lovers jumping over

Our next stop was Lady Canning’s Seat and I could already sense a fidgety impatience in M when he started playing loud Tamil songs and telling us that there was nothing to “see” there. But we wanted to tick all the boxes, so up we climbed the desolately mossy steps to a “seat” that was scratched and scribbled with notes of people who must have wanted to record their memories in stone. D wondered why it was called “Lady Canning’s Seat” to which I cunningly replied that it must have been because a Lady Canning sat there. We had the whole place to ourselves and the clouds were doing a ballet in the air waltzing over the villages and estates below creating a dreamscape that stays in your head long after but is impossible to photograph (with my limited skills anyway)

Watching reptiles at Lamb's Rock
Our reptilian friends at Lamb’s Rock

We then merrily hopped towards Lamb’s Rock, where M issued a stern warning to us to make it quick because we were going regularly over the “time limit”. But Lamb’s Rock proved to be the place we lingered the most, not because of the views, which were just a slight variation of the views you get from Dolphin’s Nose, but because I started developing a sudden interest in herpetology. Down on the rocky cliff were many multi-coloured reptiles basking in the sun safe in the knowledge that no human being would be stupid enough to venture where they were. After spending an inordinately long time watching and taking pictures of the many lizards on the rocks (some extremely well-camouflaged), we remembered M’s grumblings and hustled back.

More herpetology
More herpetology

M’s rickshaw started rebelling against him as it sputtered and stuttered to a halt. He rather somberly shut the music down and started focusing on solving the problem at hand while we were solemnly contemplating walking the 8 kms back. D had foreseen this much earlier but we hadn’t done anything about it. Would our inaction bite us in the ass? Fortunately for us, M solved the problem soon enough and we romped home.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 1 – Getting there

The beginnings
The beginnings

There is a 3 year old kid emptying his bladder in the seat next to mine. His brother is busy jumping from one cabin over to the next, screaming every time he does a hop. Their mother seated diagonally opposite is juggling between taking pictures of her son’s adventurousness on her smartphone, scolding her younger ‘un for soiling his neighbour’s pants and exchanging itinerary notes very loudly with another family. Her bored-looking husband, sitting glumly and despondently opposite to me, has just finished eating a packet of jam roll and drinking a cup of tea he was conned into buying at the chaotic stall at the station by enterprising vendors who told him nothing was available in the jungles beyond where the train was going. He vengefully dumps his plastic wrapper and foam cup outside the window so they could join millions of their cousins littered among the green slopes of the valley we were slumbering through.

In the adjacent cabin, another big family from Chandigarh has a septuagenarian patriarch boasting about the devious means he used to convince the ticket collector to give him a first class ticket for a second class price so he could join his noisy family in the same coach, a remarkable feat where he saved a princely sum of 100 rupees. A group of young college boys and girls have taken over another cabin and their atonal cacophonic screams and wails could have killed many an endangered species in the forests outside.

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This wasn’t an ordinary train. This was the more than 100-year old UNESCO-certified world heritage mountain railway from Mettupalayam to Ooty which offered an opportunity to travel by the old romantic way of getting to a destination, behind a chugging steam engine on a narrow-gauge track. It’s a trip every guide-book tells you to do when you visit South India. When I successfully booked the only seat available on the train a month ago, I felt triumphant and for days dreamed of the quiet valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, of the dense forests with hundreds of endemic bird-calls and of the hooting steam engine that would transport me to a different place and time. The imagination, as always, trumped reality.

Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove
Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove

Was it worth enduring all that mayhem to take a supremely hyped up and romanticized mode of travel to reach my destination? In a way, yes. For one, the ticket cost 25 Rupees. And as the train wound up through the forested valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, I whipped out my Sansa Clip Plus mp3 player, started listening to Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, drowned out the ambient noise, began ignoring my cantankerous neighbours and started enjoying the journey. The names of the stations, Hillgrove, Runnymede, Adderley, belonged to another, more oppressive (now faux romantic) time and so did the pace of travel as the train jogged along for 3 hours to traverse the 17 kms to Coonoor. We would get down at every station, drink some tea, dutifully brandish our DSLRs to take pictures and get back in. Some of the scenery was spectacular and different in perspective from the ones you would get from the road that you could see winding down below. There were bridges so high you felt as if you hovered in the air. As the jungles got thicker, the air got cooler and clear streams flowed hundreds of meters below. Thanks to the altitude, there was a nip in the air and every now and then, an expansive landscape would open up where one could see miles and miles into the plains, making me (almost) forgive the kid who peed on my pants.

The view from Adderley
The view from Adderley

So yes, I’m glad I took the train. Will I do it again? I’m not so sure. Maybe once in a lifetime is more than enough.

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It’s all about the view in Yercaud

A view from Yercaud

After spending a year on the coast and the cities of the plains and enduring the resultant heat and dust, it felt great to head back into the hills again. As the bus wound its way into the Shevaroy Hills from Salem, the air felt crisper with each of the 20 hair-pin bends that wound their way through the forested slopes. But the minute the bus screeched to a halt near the market by the Yercaud lake, I was swept over by a wave of disappointment. There was garbage strewn everywhere I looked around and loud Tamil film music was blaring from (very) loud-speakers amid the chaotic squalor to the rhythm of non-stop honking traffic. The only consolation was that the air was, if not cleaner, certainly cooler.

I walked around looking for a place to stay and after being rejected by a whole line of hotels for being a solo traveller (excuses ranged from “manager is on leave” to “where is your recommendation letter?” to “sorry, we only take tourists”), I went up to the lonely, decrepit, over-priced and depressing Tamil Nadu Hotel. It was a cheerless, inflexible and downright rude Government-run hotel. During my 3 days there, I could see only a couple of couples in the entire sprawling complex and yet, the manager insisted that the season was booming and asked me to leave if I wasn’t willing to pay the extortionate rates they were charging for their extremely basic rooms. At the end of a lot of haggling where I lost and he won, I coughed up 1100 rupees per night for a dank, mouldy, cob-webbed room with a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned for weeks. There was a little verandah that over-looked a terraced lawn that was strewn with rum and vodka bottles and a fabulous view of the dusty, broken windows of the buildings to the left and the right.

To avoid getting too depressed at my sordid fate, I took a walk around the lake. It was supposed  to be one of the very few natural lakes in the hills of the south but one that somehow managed to pull off the stupendous feat of looking kitschier and uglier than its more popular artificial cousins in Ooty, Kodaikanal and Mount Abu. The road that sloped along the lake started off with a touristy cluster of stalls selling omelettes and chai opposite the “Deer Park” and soon became an open gutter that one had to dodge to walk further to the part where the sweet odours of a massive open garbage dump welcomed anyone who dared to walk that far.

But one had to walk that far to reach the point where the road bifurcated up into the newly constructed Botanical Gardens that lead to a series of viewpoints, first the Children’s Seat, then the Gent’s Seat and finally the Ladies’ Seat that showed spectacular views of the towns of the plains and the hills and the valleys beyond. I spent hours just lounging there, taking siestas in the afternoons, speaking with the odd tourist or two who was up for conversation, listening to Bach and Sabbath on my earphones or reading books on my Kindle. In the evenings, a chilly breeze and the cacophony of a hundred bird-calls lifted my spirits and everything that had to be endured to get here felt entirely worth the trouble.

Another view from Yercaud

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A break in Kallidaikurichi

Back in the village (Explored 12-05-2013)

Four years ago, I had travelled to my village in Tamil Nadu after more than a decade. It wasn’t the village I knew or remembered, having transformed or “developed” into something of a shanty-town over the years. The clear waters of the Tambaraparani river, the source of drinking water for much of this region where people used to bathe and swim, was an unrecognizably muddy and polluted mush that was being used to wash a line of trucks. The main road, whose structure remains intact from the days of the Chola kings who built it, was now a noisy, honking mess.

Nevertheless, after a few weeks of experimenting with extreme low budget travel, where many a room was shared with the roaches and the rats, it felt good to be back with my grand-parents in their ancestral house. One evening, we went for a ride to the fields we owned near Singampatti. After wandering for a couple of hours, watching the many herons and egrets and the odd migratory crane gliding over the paddies, I found it to be a perfectly rewarding sort of de-tox from the troubles and hassles of backpacking. And boy, what a view!

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Tracking Spirituality in Thiruvannamalai

“I like him the best of all the old gurus but I don’t need him”, bellows an old American man to a young German girl at the chai shop opposite the Ashram. At Shanti Café, a bearded man dressed like a rabbi is giving a sermon to a group of faithful backpackers about the beauty of mundanity and the triumph of positivity over negativity. One young boy with beaded dreadlocks has the temerity to point out the poverty and garbage that he saw everywhere in India and the “rabbi” cuts him short vehemently saying, “Beauty! It’s all beauty! You are ugly, everything else is beauty! Look at the garbage like you would look at rose petals and smell it thinking you’re smelling expensive perfume and you’ll know it’s all beautiful! It’s all in your head!” At the Mango Tree café, a young Japanese woman is clutching a book by Paul Brunton called “Inner Reality” and explaining her newfound spiritual connections to a tall Indian man with curly hair who’s dressed like a Rasta. “I feel like, I’m reborn, you know? In Yoga, guruji says…” In the table next to them, there’s a raging debate going on about materialism, “At the end of the day, isn’t money just a piece of paper with numbers on it?”

Thiruvannamalai, the chaotic temple town with its holy hill (they call it Mount Arunachala but since it’s only 800 meters high, calling it a “mountain” seems a stretch), a massive temple complex and the renowned Ramana Ashram was guru-made for these new-agey neo-spiritual scenes. I hadn’t planned to come here. After 7 days of croissants and hot coffee at Pondicherry, I knew I wanted to leave but didn’t know where to go. I decided to go to the bus-stand and take the first bus that went anywhere. That bus went to Thiruvannamalai.

After wandering for a bit, I found a room at the Arunachala Inn, which was right next to the big temple. For a pilgrim lodge, it was surprisingly clean and well-appointed. The speakers in the hallway sang the Tibetan Buddhist hymn “Om Mani Padme Hum” which made me go WTF every time I entered or left my room. It also brought back nostalgic memories of Spiti, Ladakh, Sikkim and Tawang. In the blistering heat and choking traffic of the Tamilian plains, a part of me wished I was up in the mountains of the North staring at endless spaces at high altitudes.

I wasn’t allowed inside the big temple because of irrational rules that don’t let people wearing shorts go inside (when asked to point out where such rules are stated in Hinduism’s labyrinthine scriptures, I only received befuddled, angry reactions and I knew I had to leave when both a watchman and a priest pointed wrathfully at the exit and yelled “Get out!”) So I went to the Ramana Ashram, run by the same religion as the temple, where I was allowed to walk around wearing the same clothes that so scandalized the people at the temple.

The area around the Ramana Ashram was a little bubble of peace and quiet amidst the chaos of the rest of Thiruvannamalai.  With its sea of white faces, a peaceful vibe that feels a world away from the India most Indians live in and all the religious paraphernalia and the orientalism that go with these, it was a no-brainer that a backpacker scene was expanding here. There’s yoga, organic café’s, spiritual bookshops, Western-oriented menu’s serving everything from pancakes to pastas, Indian dishes with their spice quotient tuned down to zero, an ashram that’s internationally renowned and all the utopian and idealistic conversations that go with these. It’s no different from the scenes I had encountered in Rishikesh or Pushkar or Varanasi and after just a couple of hot and sweaty days here, attacked by the hostile, narrow-minded people of the temple on one side and the fake Western-style infatuated spiritualism on the other, I knew I had enough. It was time to leave for the hills where the pleasures are simpler, the altitude is higher, the air is cooler and life, easier to cherish.

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Gluttony in Pondicherry

One of the pleasures of coming to Pondicherry is hopping from one café to the next, either sipping a lovingly brewed cup of coffee or munching a sublime croissant that melts in your mouth or gorging on freshly made pancakes. I should say, though, that the best food I had here was not in a fancy café but at the busy South Indian restaurant Surguru. Some days, especially on week-ends, it gets so packed, there’s a long queue waiting to get in, always a good sign. Now, I have had my fair share of dosas, “meals” (the South Indian version of the unlimited thali), idli’s, parottas and filter coffees but nothing quite compares to the quality you get here. Unlike the infamous Saravana Bhavan, the food isn’t oily, looks hygienic and is as tasty as Tam food gets. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a list of places where I enjoyed other kinds of food –

Baker Street – Being impossibly absent-minded about most things in life, I have lost many an expensive item on the road. A mobile in Sri Lanka, another in Goa, a portable stove in Zanskar, spectacles in Vientiane, a bag in Chiang Rai, countless room keys and dozens of other very important things. If it wasn’t for the friendly and honest people at Baker Street, I would have added a Kindle to the list. So, thank you, people who run Baker Street, for keeping my Kindle safe and returning it back to me. On the food front, you get great croissants, quiches, salads and all manner of French-like things here. I heard it’s very crowded usually but it was empty both times I went. The desserts were positively yum too, especially the flan and the eclairs. Nice place to put on a few kilos.

A quiche and a croissant in Pondicherry

Arokya – Although I find much of what passes for “organic” tasteless and insipid, I do have a tendency to go for healthy sounding meals every once in a while. You would think a place like Pondicherry, the land of ashrams, yoga and Auroville would have more of these but Arokya is a pioneer, being the only organic-themed restaurant in Pondy (according to Sundar who runs it) and I’m very happy to say that they make healthy food without making you feel like you’re eating tasteless gruel. The veggie soup wasn’t great but the main course was delicious. The carrot paniharam which was accompanied by sambar and chutney was delightful and so was the nine-grain chappathi that came with a helping of vegetable kurma. I washed it all down with a mixed fruit juice that was ever so slightly sweetened with sugarcane.

Zuka – Everything here screams chocolate and how! Zuka is a cosy little café that values quality over quantity and although my hot chocolate felt more like having a shot of whisky than a mug of beer, it was still the best hot chocolate that I can remember having in a long time. The last one was in the (also) ex-French colonial town of Luang Prabang. The hot chocolate here comes with bits of chocolate in little chocolate thimbles so you can make your drink more chocolatey. Did I mention they do good chocolate here?

Hot chocolate at Zuka

Le Café – This one wins purely for the location on the promenade facing the sea, which makes it possibly the most popular café in the city. Sip on well-brewed filter coffee with the crowds and enjoy the fresh sea breeze from the Bay of Bengal. It’s open 24 hours, so perfect for the ones who wake up at 5 in the morning and go jogging on the Promenade.

Kasha ki Aasha – A rooftop place run by local ladies that makes piping hot pancakes that are a world away from the imitation banana/honey pancakes you get on the backpacker trail made by Nepali cooks. I have never been to France but the Frenchman who lives next to me at my guest house swears it’s as authentic as it gets. The coffee is fantastic too, served with a lot of love and a few smiles. It’s the perfect place to spend a hot afternoon reading a book and if you don’t have a book, there’s free wi-fi to make sure you don’t get too bored.

Coffee at Kasha ki Aasha

Cafe Xtasi – If Pizza is what you crave for, this is where you should go. This place has a menu with a whopping 7 pages of pizzas with just about every permutation, combination and ingredient that you can think of. The breads come out of a wood-fired oven that lies outside the air-conditioned dining area in public view so you know what you’re getting is the real thing.

If anyone’s been to Pondicherry and has more suggestions, do let me know! I’m here and always willing to eat.

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Somewhere in the middle of nowhere

By the Kargiak river, Zanskar

I took this shot while resting my legs during the long walk from Lakong to the village of Kargiak on the trek from Darcha in Himachal Pradesh to Padum in Zanskar. The mountain that looms in the background is the Gumbaranjan, the most prominent and unique geographical feature on this part of the trail, a massive granite peak that stands alone, higher than anything else in visible range.

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Getting out of Sarahan

A glorious greeting

Most people travel to Sarahan for the spectacularly located Bhimakali Temple and I was no exception. That’s all I had wanted to do, spend a day or two in the serene surroundings of the temple guest house and move on to more exciting things in life, like a short trek in Kinnaur or home-stays in Spiti. Only, I ended up spending a week at the Bhimakali Temple out of sheer inertia.

The village of Sarahan is a dull cluster of dhabas, hotels and a few shabby under-construction guest houses set around the temple. Apart from the odd pack of Israeli backpackers and a Bengali family or two, there was a feeling of desolation here that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere in the Himalayas. Although the views from my verandah were fantastic and living within the grand architecture of the temple precincts was a unique experience, things were beginning to get depressing. I started feeling sad and angry for not getting a move on especially when it was so easy to get a move on with buses leaving regularly for the places I wanted to go.

Bhimakali temple at Sarahan

But the baba had an explanation for it. I was “meant” to have stayed longer than I wished to because I had no choice in the matter. We were “meant” to have met at the temple and he was “meant” to be there to show me the right path. He looked ancient, with a long scraggly beard that extended all the way down to his waist. He was so skeletal in appearance that I felt he grew his beard that long just to cover his bones. He was upset about his previous disciple deserting him on the way to Kedarnath leaving him to fend for himself and I started to get the impression that I was being measured up as a replacement.

I accompanied him for a walk into the forests, him effortlessly walking barefoot, me in my Coleman boots struggling to keep pace. After expounding much on the Upanishads and mythological lore, a lot of which flew over my head, he advised me to do a trek to the lofty peak of Shrikhant Mahadev and said, “I have been to all the abodes of Lord Shiva but none have the ability to make your blood freeze, your feet bleed, your inner systems growel like the Shrikhant Mahadev. At this time of the year, the snow would bury you up to your neck and treacherous crevices could open up at every turn. If you harbour evil thoughts, you will certainly be swallowed by the mountain. But if you have a pure soul, the grace of God will keep your body warm and show you the way. I can help to purify your soul. You can spend months here in these beautiful mountains and get your soul cleansed with the beautiful air and a good diet of fresh fruits and herbs. If you take care of me well enough, we can go climb that mountain together.”

The Shrikant Mahadev Peak from Sarahan

Feeling a little (unjustifiably) creeped out, I told him politely, “I don’t have the faith or ability to live like you do but am highly thankful for your offer to take me into your fold. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run because a friend is waiting for me in the village to take me to Rampur. Again, thank you and good-bye!” I scurried down to my room in the temple guest house, packed my bags and hitch-hiked in a milk van out of Sarahan into Kinnaur.

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