Shantiniketan: Red Earth

The Master himself

Tagore did most of his writing under this tree

Sunit, Toto driver-guide

A Santhal village

Sonajhuri Forest

A Noble laureates’ refuge, Tagore-Vishwabharati-Shantiniketan are inextricably linked.

Essentially a university town it has a homely feel, students from around the world giving it a special flavour.

There is no public transport. You either commute by E Rick or cycle or walk. For a nominal Rs 500, the ubiquitous Toto takes you everywhere. Driver cum guide, Sunit knew people & places & had facts on his finger tips. He showed me around at a leisurely pace every day. Tribal villages, Kankalitola, Surul, Kopai, Vishwabharati, Amar Kutir, Srijan. Cool wind in the hair & face, where’s the hurry after all.

The trip happened after a year of waiting & watching. Waiting for the right time so as to avoid both summer heat & winter rush. The Poush Mela – Durga Puja crowds too. Zeroed in on the monsoons therefore, when the heavens descend in a celestial downpour, creating magic everywhere.

It’s the last day of June. The last day also of my stay and I’m still waiting for the rains. For the skies to open & the magic to begin. Unlucky me!

“Not so,” corrects the Toto-wallah. “You are not unlucky. But ‘His’ blessings are missing.

One and the same thing I thought but to him there was a clear difference.

Shantiniketan is three hours from Calcutta. I prefer to drive down from Durgapur instead in just an hour & half. Rain or no rain, rural Bengals’ flat, lush green countryside, forests, water bodies & fields are guaranteed to mesmerise. A pretty good road too which was a surprise, as was the eight kms stretch of forest along the way.

I am staying at a traditional mud villa. An architectural style particular to the place. The outer walls, decorated in what has come to be known as Shantiniketan art, depict local flora & fauna & carved panels & doors show scenes from folklore. Sadly, very little of it survives.

The interiors are modern & comfortable. It has wifi that works and splendid cuisine, Bengali & Santhal both. As authentic an experience as one can expect.

Coming in late Friday I decide to sit back & enjoy the quiet beauty of the place. The sole reason for being there in the first place.

Khoai Shaniberer Haat’ is lined up for next day. A weekend market where artisan & connoisseur interact in the hope of a meaningful transaction. Spread across a vast swathe of forest land, goods sold range from handcrafted jewellery & textiles to musical instruments & leather-ware. Watching sellers bring in stuff on mo-bikes & accept payment via portals like ‘phone-pe’, was quite an eye opener. A result of being so out of sync living in the city

Under a canopy of Sonajhuri trees, tribals decked in finery dance to the beat of cymbals & drums. A plaintive cry rings out from somewhere. A Baul, his Ektaara tugging at the heart strings as he belts out a tune. I roamed about soaking in the scene. Munching on ‘Jhal Muri’ – a puffed rice concoction I was having for the first time. There is always a first time.

Everyone liked & noticed my pink umbrella-hat. The tribals especially who inspected it minutely to understand how it worked. Would try replicate it, they said. Sell it for nothing less than Rs 200, I advised. A start-up hopefully.

Owl motifs & figures abound. Here an owl, there an owl, everywhere an owl-owl. In most parts of our country the owl stands for stupidity. In Chinese culture however it is a symbol of ill omen. A bird of wisdom in the West, it’s significance here was largely unclear. Being animists, tribals worship nature. This night bird too is worshipped.

Kankalitala temple on the banks of the Kopai is one of the 51 Shaktipeethas. A little out of town, it was a huge disappointment. “Never again”, I swore. How often have I said that before? I never seem to learn.

The terracotta temples at Surul are a delight however. Over 300 year old they are privately owned & are being restored by artisans brought in from Murshidabad. Skilled craftsmen working on it for six months & will take another six to complete. “They are like family” says the Thakur who hired them.

(Surul, Supur & Itonda, are the three places that have temples made of terracotta.)

Wandering into a Santhal village I chance upon a film crew shooting a Bengali serial. And further down the neat row of mud huts is Lipis’ studio. An alumni of the Faculty of Arts Baroda, her creations are lovely, the ceramic studio a piece of art in itself. One of the joys of solo travel is meeting people, encounters that add value & make for a memorable experience. Here was a qualified young person who had chosen to live & work among tribals in a remote part of the country. No doubt enhancing their lives as well.

Most of us have phobias. We harbour unfounded stereotypes. A stereotypical Bong to me was one into music, art & culture. Rabindra sangeet, rosogolla, fish. Not off the mark completely but to that I shall now add ‘lottery’. Seeing is believing.

Who doesn’t love a sudden windfall? But this was something else. Lottery tickets from all over bought & sold everywhere. Within the precincts of Kankalitala too. The temple was a disappointment I said. Not so the sight of diehards seeking divine intervention. Young & old, high & low. All come here. Buy lottery tickets, bow in prayer & leave. Beaming & smiling. Prayer answered ? As if. Wish fulfilled? Almost.

Easy come, easy go.

Roads Less Traveled

Approaching Jammu

Aren’t books just marvellous? Terrific companions that kick start dreams. Inspire. I put down ‘The Savage Hills’ to be assailed by a savage urge – to dash off to Bhaderwah/Kishtwar (J&K).

“It’s the wrong time of year” said everyone. “In November it’s neither green nor white”

So be it. Brown is beautiful. And, it’s doable.

In no time was I flying across snow capped mountains into Jammu, an ordinary but prosperous town with neat, low roofed houses and a lot of cars. A taxi mafia unfortunately holds it in its grip. Life could be that much easier.

The hotel overlooks a historic gurudwara that is said to have given shelter to Rani Jindan, the last queen of Punjab. The effect is soothing. Pleasing too the sight of young girls on the move, a sizeable number having joined the work force. Food – tastes also look to be changing. While pasta may not as yet have replaced ‘rajma’ it is slowly making a dent. Never mind if it looks & tastes nothing like the original.

Under the shadow of Covid, shopping either for jhumkas, panjiri or saffron (regular Jammu staples) is completely out of the question. I therefore hit the road, the Jammu – Srinagar highway to Bhaderwah 190 kms away. It’s a 4-5 hour drive, network connectivity is poor, there isn’t a toilet on the way.

Into the Pir Panjals & beyond, past Gujar huts, grassy meadows and valleys. The Chenab giving company upto Pul Doda where one takes the turn for Bhaderwah. It’s a smooth ride on a good road, the Niru flowing alongside. We make brief halts at soldier homes, the first in Udhampur & another later in the day. Necessary breaks that uplift and stir for these are martyr homes. Each having sacrificed a loved one for the country.

Arriving in freezing cold to the warmth & welcome of a village home we are seated around a crackling bukhari, sipping salted tea, chatting. Inexhaustible travel tales that continue around the dining table and into the night. Dinner’s a simple, homely spread of rajma beans, rice, Karam saag & rotis. Rounded off with a saffron rich rice pudding. Never before have I had either salt tea or Karam, a green leafy vegetable and local delicacy. And never has rajma-chawal tasted better. Something to do with the air, water or cooking perhaps.

It’s time to hit the sack. I’m handed a hot water bottle that my host insists I use, along with the quilt & blanket. “Temperatures drop you see”

This is a landed family, educated and well – to – do. It is also a ‘joint’ family. Soon to be a thing of the past. A much loved matriarch rules the roost sharing space with three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren – a well knit, harmonious whole who chat, eat, pray together.

I get talking to the youngest daughter in law. Madhu is pretty and shy. She is 22 and has been married two years.

How was it growing up in these environs? Was she allowed to follow her dreams or coerced into matrimony? Does she get time to herself or does she feel cabined and cribbed within these confines?

“No, No” she replies laughing.

She had aspired to be a nurse & married only after becoming one, rejecting several suitors in the meantime. Happy & contented she did not feel restricted in any way.

“I have ample time for myself…….After a girl marries the husband’s family and home become hers.”

A young widow at a J&K policeman’s home
Local tawa – upturned at the edges
Temple Bhaderwah
River Chenab

The next day we are on the road again. To Kishtwar, a 2-3 hour drive. Without a place to stay, I had considered giving it the go by but Providence willed otherwise, the army as always, coming to the rescue.

Resting on a plateau Kishtwar is surrounded by stark, barren, humps of mountain. Dark & foreboding the mountains loom large, the Chenab flows quietly by and in the valley beyond lies Kashmir.

The military post located some distance away from town is a nice little perch. Literally at the back of beyond it has everything from piped water to solar heating. I have always wondered at the soldiers ability, not only to adapt and make-do but create and transform. Not to speak of hospitality that is legendary.

It was heartening to see them live that way, jungle mein mangal – a far cry from the not so distant past when basics like water and electricity were hard to come by.

“Absolutely,” concurred the Captain. “My father was a JCO. I remember filling buckets of water before leaving for school. We were without electricity for an entire week once. This in Agra mind you, not some far flung, God forsaken place.”

Cheers! Here come drinks and snacks.

Kishtwar is known for its 2 S’s – Namely sapphire & saffron. Did I buy some? Not a chance. Curiosity alone brought me here together with the opportunity and urge to connect with real people.

The little pleasures of life. The wonder of it all. Travel ultimately is about people and places. It can touch you in strange ways

Here comes the bride

Rajasthan On the Rebound

In Bishnoi land. Pic says it all

Staying home-bound is doable for just about 6 months. Impossible after that.

Wave 2, ‘21 had us boxed in but a window of opportunity had to appear. And it did. April – July was hard, come August, bags packed, vaccinated, I was raring to go.

Pushkar for the umpteenth time.

Once, never enough. Never, during the cattle fair either.

An eight hour drive across rain washed countryside, beyond the Aravalis.

(The Monsoon I am convinced, is the best season to travel. In the plains at least. Not winter, as many believe. The sun being quite harsh then)

What’s not to like about a heritage hotel with rooms overlooking the sacred lake, a view of the Brahma temple and hills along the periphery?

Where dawn is welcomed with a chiming of bells and sun bid adieu in a crescendo of drums.

Kailash & his son are ‘nagara’ players who regularly perform outside Sunset Cafe, where everyone meets to catch up over ‘chai’ & watch the sun go down.

Essentially a one-lane town, Pushkar is full of bookstores, rooftop cafes & hair braid parlours. As famous for Gulkand – Malpua as it is for pandas & sadhus. One of whom took me on rather zealously, wanting to know if I did not see the difference between Brahmin & Bhangi. His words alas, not mine.

“None. To my mind” was the reply. An upper caste advantage emboldening the retort.

And did I detect something akin to Covid effect in the little town’s sulk at the loss of tourists?

Why then had people suddenly become so apathetic & uncaring?

Don’t ever remember seeing littered ghats either (the reason for that altercation with the panda)

Less than 8 kms away is another Holy of Holies. Ajmer Sharif. Corona or not the crowd is knee deep and almost everyone is without mask. Time to scuttle and scoot, for if the virus doesn’t get you beggars and touts certainly will.

The magic hour

Jodhpur is four hours away. The drive through dull countryside and semi desert vegetation. A grey monsoon sky completed the picture. Or saved the day?

Everyone makes a beeline for the charming, ‘old’ town with a clock tower. It’s historic gullies and lanes crowded with heritage havelis & step-wells. The magnificent Mehrangarh looming above it all.

This time however the old vibes were missing. The flavour gone. Abandoned by travellers, shops & cafes closed, without the regular hustle and bustle the place was dead.

Apologising profusely, I checked out after a single night & moved to a great place near the Circuit House.

One word that best describes Jodhpur is ‘order.’ A strange term in the context of an Indian city but I cannot think of another with its mix of history, heritage, beauty, modernity – ‘order’ and ‘discipline’.

The Royal Estates are managed by a Trust headed by the Maharaja. The great Gaj Singh. Be it the many palaces & museums, the Mehrangarh Fort or the royal cenotaphs (Jaswant Thada). Or even the gardens at Mandore. Each exceptionally well maintained, traveler friendly. Signages, ramps, lifts, bins, toilets, kiosks – everything in place.

Move about freely, without fear of harassment. There isn’t a beggar or tout in sight.

Pushkar happened simply because it was along the way. The prime attraction, the Bishnoi villages near Jodhpur. The entire trip planned around it.

The Bishnoi’s love of environment is well known and well documented. They stood up to a Raja’s diktat ordering the felling of trees. The year 1730 when 363 villagers were killed endeavouring to protect trees. Making the ruler retract. At the forefront was Amrita Devi, hugging a tree, proclaiming, “a chopped head is cheaper than a chopped tree.” The episode, the inspiration for today’s ‘Chipko’ movement. Not to forget the more recent killing of a black buck that sent Salman Khan to jail. For Bishnois, environment is everything.

The main villages are Khejarli, Guda, Kankani, Rebari, Salawas and Singhasni. Each known for a particular trade. Inhabited by about 2500 families.

Guda has a lake, home to myriad bird & fowl, the Great Indian Bustard, Brahmi Duck & Siberian Crane among them.

Guda Lake

Khejarli has the martyrs memorial, a tribute to Amrita Devi and her companions. A man-made oasis of green in a landscape of Keekar, Pathar and Kankar. Populated by trees, mainly Neem, Peepul and Bargat, squirrels and birds abound and peacocks strut about vainly. A cool breeze picks up and blows. Bird-calls fill the air.

Step-Well, Old City, Jodhpur

Jaswant Thada, Cenotaphs

Village Kankani

The Khejarli Memorial

Khejarli

A road trip from Delhi to Udaipur. Return by air. Kumbhalgarh and Ranakpur enticingly along the way.

The route should have been – Jodhpur-Ranakpur-Kumbhalgarh-Udaipur – along the national highway but an oversight made me do Kumbhalgarh ahead of Ranakpur. Resulting in a choppy, four hour drive across State Highways. A lucky mistake that took me into the interiors. Inside villages nestling in the lap of the Aravali. The mountain high and mighty. How high, I had quite forgotten.

Kumbhalgarh has the world renowned fort with incredibly long – wide walls. A wonder, no less than the Great Wall. If only it was better managed. I had expected a lot and felt cheated of what could have been a memorable experience. Spending a night there was another mistake. It gets noisy because of visitors who come solely to drink ( Gujarat, next door having banned liquor)

Village Narlai would have made a better stay option.

The Kumbhalgarh Fort

On to Ranakpur and it’s architectural wonder, the 15th century Chaturmukhi Jain Temple in the middle of a forest. It is a lovely drive (90 minutes) through villages with stone huts. Where custard apples grow wild.

It’s impossible to capture the beauty of this wonder in marble. The Derasar has 80 sculpted domes, 446 columns and 1444 intricately carved pillars. There is one without any carving at all. An artistic imperfection to ward off the evil eye. Also, no two pillars are alike.

As in most Jain temples there is a Rayan tree inside. Data apart, what truly touches a chord is the pillar inscribed with Emperor Akbar’s Din- Ilahi. A late 16 century addition.

Ranakpur was a fitting finale to a wonderful trip, ending with the satisfaction of knowing it was worth it.

Entrance to Chaturmukhi temple

Pillar No: 13 Akbar’s ‘Din Ilahi’

Wave 2

mice and men

holed up

inside

alone.

scurrying

dark

passage ways

afraid.

scouring

love

food

air.

as mice shall they the

distraught desert

or

fighting beat down

the scourge.

Keep

hope afloat.

Shekhawati Calling

Mandawa Haveli
Khejri Trees
On Celestial call
Spot the deer. IPhone image
Bangle shopping
Sheesh Mahal, Samode Palace
Rain water harvesting

Tough times. Tough calls. The lockdown was precisely that. What d’you do but crawl indoor & wait it out. Surfacing afterwards to revive & restore.

Between Covid waves 1 & 2 was Shekhawati. Logam! Off I go, taking chances but playing safe. Balance is everything. Pick up – drop off at the door step. Sanitised car 24×7, the driver never removing his mask.

The entire region was contagion free. Which was surprising ‘cos India’s first case of Covid had shown up here. Coming in from Jaisalmer, a group of itinerant Italians took suddenly ill. Realising it was the deadly virus the whole of Mandawa went into a tizzy. But that was March ‘20. Come October – November & lucky me. All about taking chances. Striking when hot.

Samode was the first port of call. I was booked at the ‘Bagh’ not ‘Palace’ which is everyone’s favourite. About 5 hours from Delhi I arrived to be shunted away – upgraded to Samode Palace because I was the only guest. A story repeated everywhere. As a people Rajasthanis are too decent & polite to turn anyone away. A guest least of all, especially a woman. I turned out to be the sole occupant at every castle, mahal & haveli. Welcomed and upgraded everywhere. Dining alone, was like being seated at a banquet after all the guests had left. This too had its moments.

Fairy castle – like, Samode Palace is stunning, grand & opulent. It is the namesake village in its midst that saddens & shocks. At total variance one wonders how such a beauteous Palace can co-exist alongside squalor & dirt and ruins that hark back to a splendid past.

Two nights at Samode & onwards via Sikar to Nawalgarh – a 2 hour drive.

It is the gateway to Shekhawati, a semi arid region bordering the Thar, known for its havelis, murals, frescoes, chatris, wells & Sati Mata temples. A visit to Poddar Haveli Museum is a must. A small & dusty town, a short walk around was an eye opener in that beauty parlours & girls on 2 wheelers were far removed from my idea of interior Rajasthan.

Mandawa is about an hour away from Nawalgarh. It boasts an 18 century fort castle & exotic havelis. I was booked at ‘The Mandawa Haveli’. Built in 1726 it has retained its original structure, design & ambience. It was like living in an open – air art gallery, part of the joy of waking up each day being to open ones eyes to countless murals & frescoes. Fading colours & threadbare rugs notwithstanding, the place spelt comfort. It was old world and – elegiac.

A word about the frescoes. Painted over an extended period of time most have religious themes or scenes from the epics. There is folklore & festival – Teej & Ganghor – and scenes from everyday life. Signalling the coming of the British, later murals depict white men & women in formal western attire. The advent of the motor car, rail carriage etc all captured in art & colour. My personal favourite was a birthing scene showing a group of women help one of their kind in labour. I also liked the Krishna series. There was Krishna on the telephone. And Krishna with the Gopis, making out with one or the other while a disgruntled third looked on. All this within the confines of a coach.

Most of the havelis are empty & dilapidated. The ones in Sikar have been demolished I’m told, to make way for – of all things – malls.

It is quite possible to suffer haveli fatigue. The best thing then is to venture out into the adjoining villages & get a feel & taste of the ‘real’ India. The countryside anyway is beautiful, especially from the window of a moving car.

‘Khejri’ along with Keekar covers a wide expanse of landscape. The ‘Khejri’ has multiple use, every part meeting a need. It’s fruit – kair sangri – a desert bean grows in clusters, the leaf is fodder for camel – cattle & the dry branches take care of farm boundary & fuel. The tree looks particularly beautiful when pruned – and that is often.

Enroute to Alsisar I stop at the Rani Sati Mata temple in Jhunjhunu. It is one of the oldest of its kind. I do so out of curiosity. Wondering what makes for the kind of faith & belief that persists.

Simpler to respect another’s feeling by far than try figuring out something clearly beyond comprehension.

Stopped for a wayside meal too. Not the regular lal maans – safed maans, gatte what have you. This was simple, homely fare. It was vegetarian & it was delicious. The meal consisting of bajra roti, batiya, khichri, Kaddi, Kaachra sabzi, lasava pickle, chilli – garlic chutney & peda.

Alsisar stood out like a redoubtable outpost. The stone ‘mahal’ magical, its tinge of pink matching the colours in the horizon. Remote & quiet both village & castle cast a spell.

A jeep safari that last evening was the perfect end to a beautiful day. Speeding cross country across low dunes in an attempt to spot black buck, deer & sambar, then watching the sun go down over steaming hot mugs of coffee. There was a quiet thrill to it all.

One of several wells
Mandawa Haveli

The Grand Haveli, Nawalgarh
Don’t miss the ‘Khejris’

Locked:Down Not Out

Swami Rampuri Maharaj

Sankatmochan Temple Hanumanchatti

Yellamma

2020 is the inauspicious year of the Bat_Man. A virus mutated in the badlands of Wuhan traveled from bat to man, grounding entire populations, halting the world in its tracks, forcing it to perceive itself anew- vis-a-vis life, work, travel.

Luckily for me, the year began quite auspiciously. Or so I think. Holiday, Dec’19 went into ‘20 & beyond, right up to Feb. Which is why the sledge hammer impact of a complete travel ban thereafter, fell with gentler effect.

The first month of the New Year had been spent loitering in and around the Cormondal coast. And here was I, relishing every moment, nine months later.

Coming to think of it, very little time is spent on ‘actual’ travel. I’d say only about 3-4 months a year – in real terms that is. One is however in perpetual travel mode, either planning journeys or savouring them, recalling strange encounters and reliving every nuance of an experience, much like poetic emotion,“recollected in tranquility”

I still want to know why that very interesting sadhu at Hanuman- Chatti did not give me the ‘hanuman chalisa’ he had so obviously brought out to give. It’s been 5 years but the thought continues to rankle. Just what was he thinking?

In Covid enforced solitude Eva comes readily to mind. Slim as a reed, she trudged the streets of Karaikudi because, “I want to lose weight……..”

“Do you watch Guru Dutt” she once asked.

I had heard of the French obsession with Guru Dutt. How they loved and admired his work just as the Russians did Raj Kapoor – Nargis-‘Awaara’ I had not however realised the extent of their fascination until Eva broke into song,”jaane woh kaise log the jinko pyaar se pyaar mila………”

It wasn’t merely song & tune, she understood the meaning.

Travel is not – nor ever can be, about ‘places’ alone. It comprises a gamut of imponderables and in-variables that come beautifully together. Take a visit to the Kanchi temple for example. The one that has a thousand and one lingams. This ancient temple is built around an even older mango tree. And mango, leaf and tree get incorporated in the famous Kanjeevaram weave. Temple hopping – imagine, not 1 or 2 but 1008 lingams – and shopping is interesting and fun but nowhere near meeting & interacting with real life characters.

Long black hair & glossy skin, Yellamma was a beauty, except that she often came across unkempt & untidy. Touching a delicate chord, she gave me her reason one day. She did not feel like doing anything, let alone dressing because she had been unable to get over the loss of a dearly beloved daughter. She had 3 sons she didn’t care about. They weren’t any good, much like her good for nothing husband. She had absolutely no desire to live.

Sharing ones private life & thoughts with a total stranger is to give wholly & completely of ones self. The rarest of gifts. Thank you Yellamma.

Or take Erica for that matter. She was from Sweden, a country I had visited the previous year. I ran into her at an Udupi restaurant in Pondicherry. Seated across from me, she was debating what to order, plying the hapless waiter with impossible queries.

What is Dosa? What is Uthappam? What is Idly?

What was each made of ?

Remembering the courtesy extended to me in her home country, I had of course to intervene and help. After that, we met practically every evening, walking the promenade or watching the waves hit the shore.

Foremost among modern, open & free societies, it was interesting to learn Sweden too had its share of MCP’s.

Erica’s marriage broke up because her husband had badgered & pressured her into starting a family. This, when the two had a pre nuptial agreement to the contrary.

With lockdown eased and ‘work from home’ the new norm, young people especially are already on the move. And ‘home’ mind you is anywhere and everywhere. Not only where heart but essentially where WiFi is. Ask the unencumbered Single already on the go, scouring the countryside from Goa to Manali.

Mention Covid to village folk around Manali and come face to face with pure, unadulterated innocence – not lost. They will look at you in wonder and ask “why ?….. are there no Gods where you come from?”

Eyes shut, an unbelievable image hovers into view. It is an expression of yearning & hope. And of regret and envy too.

Walking the African wilds is dear friend Kitty. Alone and unafraid. Staff in hand, among the lions.

You live only once but –

Would I?

Could I?

Dare I?

In another life, perhaps.

Village, Upper Manali

Covidiot 2

Saala Covid! Did a Pinjara Tor today. Visited the parlour & had a complete makeover. And does it feel good? You tell me – after 75 days of staying locked indoor.

The only way forward. Not being foolhardy of course but going by rules, taking care. The bastard likes a good fight. Give it to him. Once again………It feels good.

The salon itself was thoroughly & elaborately sanitized. By the hour, many times over. An elegant space. Unlike a hospital, it looked & felt beautiful. The hair stylist was delighted to have me return, as was I, surrounded by friendly, young, cheerful faces.

To look presentable is to be battle prepared – always. It’s half the battle won. So, on to tomorrow & tomorrow. And tomorrow.

Corovidiot

We are in it together. For a long haul to boot. No mistake. So stay home, stay safe. Live to tell the tale. Today’s young will have something for their little ones. Spinning yarns. Of how a virus in far away Wuhan travelled from a bat to a human lung.

Like the many WhatsApp jokes – No Ming Ling. Who the hell is Social Distance Singh?- contagion literature of value too will emerge. Song, story & cinema, in an outpouring of creativity.

One thing’s certain. No one is coming through unscathed.

I am home bound & confined to a dull unused-to-routine that needs must be adhered to.

No way to live. But this is serious man. Seriously!

Household chores are interspersed with yoga – meditation. Also music & books to relieve & enliven.

Doing utensils by the sink I peer out at a clear blue sky. My window to the world outside. Something’s changed. Something’s changing.

On the 12th day of lockdown an unfamiliar cry rends the air. Like wheeling back in time to small town India, a vegetable vendor passes by. Delivering fresh veggies at the door step. At a fair price, what’s more.

We’ll get by, I think. No work. No pay but the poor are slowly finding ways. An auto rick pulls up another time. Passengers no more, the guy has decided to sell. Innovation? Tell me some more.

It’s been peacefully still & quiet. The cacophony you hear is birds. Loud & shrill. Dear, noisy, quarrelsome little creatures.

A sudden roar shatters the sky. Airport’s shut I thought. It’s a lone flight transporting someone somewhere. Stranded travellers perhaps.

A myriad feelings flit through the day. Of gratitude. And guilt. More of the latter. Keeping migrants in mind, specifically. Did they have to leave the way they did? To the imagined safety of faraway homes that just might be unwelcoming. Something would have worked out here. If only they had stayed.

There is a beggar at the gate. The first in years. Three children in tow, he actually rang the bell. What should I pass him through the bars? What should I say?

Everything inside is in limbo.

The country’s watching ‘Ramayana’.

Rameshwaram

Meenakshi Amman, Madurai

The train halted in the middle of the night. To my surprise it was Madurai. Not my destination. I got off nevertheless. On a whim, just like that & spent the next 48 hours frequenting ‘Meenakshi Amman’, overwhelmed by the architecture, beauty & ambience. Her memory undimmed all these years.

Madurai. Repaving work around the temple

In Madurai once again, the city looked unchanged. On the face of it at least. More traffic & crowds but tight security. The queue at entry points long & serpentine, reaching the Sanctum Sanctorum takes anything from 2 – 3 hours. This on a normal day. A measure of the change in four decades. As beautiful & resplendent as ever, there were no to & fro trips this time. Just a ‘quick’ darshan of the Fish Eyed One, then off to Rameshwaram.

Agni Teertham
Lands End Dhanushkodi
Rama Padam, Rameshwaram

Driving by the clean & open countryside was a welcome change. Soothing palms, fronds & paddy fields that kept increasing closer to the sea. Rameshwaram too had changed – but slightly. It was larger, dustier and smelt old – as always. An ancient town, the Ramanathaswamy temple is at its heart. Another marvel of architecture, it would have been wonderful to capture the perfect symmetry & alignment of the sculptured pillars but photography is not allowed. Just as it is not in Meenakshi.

The town is said to have 62 water bodies/tanks/wells or teerthams as they are called. 22 within the temple complex itself – water being an essential of ritual.

Less than 5 kms away is another smaller temple, purported to have the footprints of Lord Ram. 25 steps up the ‘Rama Padam’ plus another 20 to the terrace & you have a perfect birds eye view of the town – the Ramanathaswamy towering in the distance.

I asked a wandering sadhu about the footprints. I thought them too small. He laughed, calling it artistic imagination. License. But seriously …… Coming from a sadhu? “If this is how He is remembered so be it. ‘Ram ka naam‘ kept alive, whatever the way. It hardly matters”

25 kms away lies Dhanushkodi, a fishing village that the Tsunami all but wiped out. Marked by a pillar with an Ashoka emblem, it is Lands End. Beyond the Gulf of Mannar lies Sri Lanka, 8 kms as the crow flies. And connecting the two is what used to be Adams Bridge. Today’s Ram Setu, visible from land & air. A narrow sandbar, Dhanushkodi has sea on either side, the waters of the Indian Ocean & Bay of Bengal mingling here. There is an old church that survived the tsunami, a post office & a police post. The one hour trip costs Rs 1500 by taxi & Rs 60 by bus – buses available every half hour. The parking is about 500 metres short, one has to walk up to Lands End.

It was lovely at last to find a clean, un-littered beach & stray cattle that did not feed on plastic. I actually saw a cow searching for edibles inside a polythene bag. And junking it thereafter. The result of properly feeding animals I suppose – a common practice in these parts.

Ex President Kalams’ house-turned-memorial is a prominent landmark. Rameshwaram remember, is where he was born & brought up. The common mans’ perception of him therefore, telling & revealing. Said without any pride but great regret & repeated over & over again was the lament that the President had done no one, including himself any favours. “He did nothing for his family. Could have given them good jobs at least…….”

Tch Tch…… Indians!

Pamban bridge
Dhanushkodi
From atop the Rama Padam
Dhanushkodi: Remnants of the church

Chettinadu

Where is Chettinadu? I am frequently asked.

Locate Karaikudi (district Thanjavur) on a map of Tamil Nadu. It is the area around it. 72 villages. Karaikkudi & Puddukottai being the large towns.

First impressions always count. Driving in, the countryside looks green & prosperous. This being the rice bowl that produces lentils too. It is the aesthetics however that catch the eye. Most homes have brick tiled roofs & hand made ceramic- pottery of exquisite shape & design still in use.

Karaikudi’s antique market at Muneeswaran Kovil has 17 shops stocked with a variety of interesting bric-a-brac. Cultural & household items of everyday use down the ages. One needn’t buy anything. One is not expected to either. Just scour around happily and enjoy it all.

The region is well known for cotton handloom. The ‘Kaandaangi’ sari its specialty – A checked weave in earthy colours, the border & pallu have traditional design.

More than anything else it is the food – the spicy/tangy, lip smacking cuisine now popular all over India. I had the most delectable chicken kurma – ragi roti combo. It was out of the world. Also because the chicken was not a broiler.

Most people come here for its heritage architecture. A mercantile & trading community, the Chettiars earned large sums & built stately mansions, decorated with the best from around the world. Unlike royal palaces built with public funds elsewhere, these were built with the owners own hard earned money.

Kanadukathan, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Karaikkudi, has ‘Annamall’ a Chettinad palace that you can admire from the outside. There are others one can enter paying a small fee. ‘Aayiram Jannal Veedu,’ the house with a thousand windows. Or ‘Periya Veedu’ on a one acre plot. It has a hundred rooms.

Village Athangudi had several. Also a factory making hand made tiles with local material – cement, sand & glass.

Built on several acres, nobody today lives in these mansions. They are empty palaces showcasing opulence of a rare kind: Belgian glass chandeliers, Carara marble, ivory & teak from Burma, Japanese & Portuguese tiles.

Not only are the Chettiars ultra rich, they are also great philanthropists. It was therefore heart breaking to find a wretchedly poor family where a twelve year old dropped out of school to take care of a bed ridden mother. Her 15 year old sister – the sole bread earner.

Hand made Tiles
Teak-Ivory pillars
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A thing of beauty
Portuguese Tiles
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12 year old Selvimari