Kabini Chronicles: Tiger Tales from the Safari

Tigers are hypnotic. Their majestic form and imposing demeanour make it impossible to tear away one’s eyes when in their presence. All one can do is admire their grace, transfixed on their every move.  And no matter how many times one may have seen them before, every new safari generates the same excitement for a fresh encounter and every sighting is met with the same euphoria.  

Every time I go on jungle safaris, I try to condition myself to keep expectations low. I tell myself that spending time in the jungle, amidst unspoilt nature should be an end in itself. Sighting a tiger should not define the “success” of a safari. But whom am I kidding? The hype around the animal is inescapable. 

About an hour and a half into our evening safari in Nagarhole National Park, our jeep’s driver got a call from a fellow driver. A tiger had been sighted. Immediately, we sped through on the dirt track to reach the spot where it had purportedly been spotted. Our hearts were racing with anticipation. It took us about fifteen minutes to get there but we found the spot deserted when we reached. We lay in wait for over an hour, now going a few feet ahead, now retreating back, in search of the elusive beast. Every once in a while, we would get excited by some rustling in the bushes, only to realise that deer or langurs were behind this.  Alas, it wasn’t our day. 

The day had started with a drive to Kabini from Bangalore along mostly brilliant, occasionally bumpy roads. Cruising along on the Bangalore – Mysore highway, we made it there in about 5 hours, including a pit stop for breakfast at Kamat Lokaruchi. 

Delish Breakfast at Kamat Lokaruchi on Bangalore-Mysore Highway

We had booked our stay at the Kabini River Lodge, an erstwhile hunting lodge of the Maharajas of Mysore.

Tents at Kabini River Lodge

The best part about staying here is that it includes two safaris in the package and eliminates the hassle of booking the safaris separately. It is also the starting point for all safaris from Kabini into Nagarhole, meaning that guests from all other properties in the area also need to come here to commence their safaris. The quality and upkeep of rooms here could be better though, especially since the tariffs are not modest.   

Inside the tents – the most flattering angle

After enjoying the delicious and extensive lunch spread, we started the jeep safari at 3 pm. Every few meters, we found flocks of spotted deer busily munching on leaves. A healthy population of prey is a sign of a thriving tribe of predators. If the abundance of deer was anything to go by, the tigers here, numbering around 150, must be a happy and well-fed bunch.        

Abundant Prey at Nagarhole National Park

We also met quite a few elephants up close. Some had long tusks, almost scraping the ground. They seemed unperturbed by close proximity to humans and continued enjoying their leafy diet even when we drew close. Imagine that the dreaded bandit Veerappan was wreaking havoc in these very jungles a couple of decades ago!  

Showing off its Elegant Tusks

During jungle safaris, while most scan the ground, I tend to keep an eye on tree tops in the hope of spotting our feathered friends. We were lucky to spot a flock of Malabar Pied Hornbills and also a White Bellied Woodpecker. Both of these were the first spottings for me of these species and assuaged my disappointment at not meeting the more illustrious inhabitants of the jungle. 

White-Bellied Woodpecker
Pied Hornbill

As the light started falling and it started raining quite heavily, we abandoned our hopes of tiger spotting and turned back towards the lodge. 

I had come across a brilliant advertising campaign by Jim’s Jungle Retreat, a lodge in the Corbett National Park. Their maxim of “seek the tiger, find the jungle” is something I try my best to follow, but it’s easier said than done. We still had one more foray to make into the jungle the next morning, but that was to be a boat safari and tiger sightings on it are generally very rare. 

After a hearty dinner, we retired early for the night. The next day was to begin before dawn. 

The dam on river Kabini, built in 1974, has created a reservoir and backwaters. It is in these backwaters, adjacent to the Nagarhole National Park, that the boat safari takes place. Summers are a great time to spot wildlife on the boat safari when the water recedes, drawing the animals out. In October, with the rains in full swing and the reservoir brimming, our chances of spotting anything were slim.    

The Kabini Reservoir
Osprey spotted on the Boat Safari

We set off on the safari, expecting it to be nothing more than a pleasant boat ride in a lake. I could not have been more wrong. 

Once again a phone call with reports of a sighting. Once again a dash for the spot. But this time we got there just in time to witness the gorgeous form emerge from the thickets. The collective, hushed sigh from a boatload of people when the tiger first came into view was testimony to the awe they inspire. Our boat was less than 10 metres away from the shore along which a mighty tiger was strolling regally! There were no other boats around and our boatsman shut off the engine and kept the boat perfectly still. Left undisturbed, the tiger paced along the shore for a good five minutes, maybe longer. With every step, it seemed to stamp its authority on the jungle with effortless, self-assured grace. Finally, it disappeared behind the bushes, as silently as it had emerged, leaving us all incredulous of our own good fortune.    

An Unforgettable Sighting

Their hypnotic attraction is such that I had begun planning the next jungle excursion before I even got off the boat.  

Mayurbhanj: A well-kept but easily accessible secret

Finally, something good came out of the incessant scrolling on Instagram. Sometime back, I was stopped in my tracks by a photo posted by the gorgeous Bengali actress Mimi Chakraborty. But no, it wasn’t Mimi’s unquestionably good looks that made me pause. It was the shoot location. The Belgadia Palace in Baripada, Orissa. 

Belgadia Palace
Belgadia Palace

A quick search revealed that this was the erstwhile royal palace of the Bhanj Deo dynasty of Mayurbhanj. It’s now been renovated, converted to a boutique hotel and thrown open to lesser mortals. And it looked fabulous. What’s more, it’s a rather accessible 5-hr drive away from Kolkata. 

After following them on the Gram and lusting over the place for a couple of months, we booked to spend the extended Diwali weekend there. 

The road to Baripada from Kolkata is excellent throughout. Most of it is along the national highway and even when you turn away from the highway near Jhargram, it continues to be well maintained and scenic.  

A lovely drive
Driving through the countryside

Upon arrival, we were greeted with fanfare and shown into our rooms. They have a mix of regular rooms and suites. We were travelling as a family of six and had opted for one of each kind.  Now, having stayed there, I would strongly recommend the suites. They are well worth the extra pocket pinch.

The elegant and opulent suite rooms come highly recommended
The short drive to Goaldihi passes through the forest

After a quick lunch, we headed for the village of Goaldihi, a half-hour drive from the palace. We had heard about the Sabai craft practised in the region and this tiny, bucolic village is the best place to see it in practice.

Women of the self help group making baskets with local Sabai grass

Women of the village operate a production facility cum training centre where they spend their afternoons weaving dried indigenous Sabai grass into beautiful objects of utility like baskets, lampshades and purses among other things. This initiative not only helps sustain a traditional craft but also gives some measure of economic independence to the women and supplements their family income. The show is run entirely by women and is a heartwarming example of what grassroots (pun intended) development can achieve. 

Chhau performance at the palace

We got back just in time for a performance of Chhau dance arranged within the palace for the guests. Chhau is a folk dance form practised in Mayurbhanj and contagious districts of Saraikela in Jharkhand and Purulia in West Bengal. The Mayurbhanj Chhau, unlike the form practised elsewhere, doesn’t use elaborate masks. A brief solo performance on incidents from the life of Lord Shiva, accompanied by traditional musical instruments, gave us a flavour of the dance form.   

Tasteful period furniture adorns every corner of the palace

The rest of the evening was spent exploring the palace. The palace and every artefact within it, whether for utility or embellishment, oozes class and is a testament to the fine taste and considerable fortunes of the ruling family. The property is full of Insta-worthy spots. Virtually every corner implores you to pick a magazine and just plonk down on one of the elegant chairs or sofas. I did just that. 

Reading or Posing?

Dinner was a simple but delicious affair. Seated at the head of the table in the magnificent dining hall, for a fleeting moment I felt like an omnipotent monarch myself. We retired early after dinner, for the next day was to begin before the crack of dawn.    

On the second day, we visited the Similipal Tiger Reserve. The forest had been closed to visitors ever since the first outbreak of Covid and had only reopened a couple of days back after 18 months. When it comes to forest safaris, my maxim is to go with zero expectations of any animal sightings and treat every sighting as an unexpected bonus. It was just as well because we entered the forest at 7 am, spent almost 12 hours inside the forest sighting practically no wildlife. 

Joranda Waterfall inside Simplipal Tiger Reserve
Gorgeous Barehipani falls in Simplipal

But driving around the forest amidst the dense foliage with a sense of anticipation is an experience in itself. There are two very picturesque waterfalls – Barehipani and Joranda – inside the forest. Lunch was had in a canteen inside the forest run by a women SHG which had bid for and obtained the tender to the canteen from the forest department. The food was simple but delicious and once again, it was the enterprising spirit of the tribal women running the place that won us over.       

Local delicacy – Patua – chicken smoked in Sal leaves

Another interesting experience was tasting Patua – a local delicacy – chicken marinated with spices and wrapped in sal leaves. It is cooked over a charcoal fire on gauze. The flavours of the fresh sal leaves seep in and combine with the smokiness to give Patua its unique taste. 

The finished product – very flavourful

On our way back, we did something I have wanted to do for a long time. We stopped our car in the middle of the jungle and turned the lights off. It was almost 7 pm and pitch dark outside. Rarely do city dwellers like me get to witness such clear starlit skies. Breathing in the crisp, fresh winter air in total silence and pitch darkness in the middle of the forest was a deeply gratifying experience. 

Practical info: The entry fee to the park is Rs 100 per person. Unlike other national parks, there are no organised safaris. SUVs can be rented from the city and permits are issued every morning to a limited number of vehicles on a first-come-first-served basis at the designated entry gates. Guides are also allocated at the time of entry  Boleros charge Rs 5000 for the full trip to and from Baripada and Innovas charge Rs 6000. Adventurous travellers can also choose to drive themselves. 

Again, after a long, exhausting day, we retired early.  

The next morning I had to wake up to the unpleasant realisation that it was the day of our return.

I made use of the morning in spotting some of the avian visitors to the property. There are common birds like doves and parakeets and less common ones like barbets and thrushes. This was followed by breakfast.  

The one area where the otherwise immaculate property has some room for improvement is in the culinary department. The choices are limited and despite the setting, seem overpriced for what is essentially simple food. Odia food has a very rich legacy and is replete with hidden gems. This felt like a missed opportunity on part of the palace to showcase some of them at reasonable prices. 

An excellent alternative to having in is Brewbakes cafe, just about a km from the palace. They have an extensive menu, delicious food, efficient service and very reasonable prices. It was a delight finding a restaurant this good in a relatively small town.  

Interesting relics of the yore scattered across the property
Those times had different moral codes – Trophy hunting was the norm

But I digress. After breakfast, we got a detailed tour of the property. The tour put the myriad portraits, artefacts and architecture of the palace in context. It was illuminating to learn about the rich history of the benevolent royals and their generous contributions to the common good of the area. The goodwill earned over generations means that the erstwhile royal family, now devoid of their titles, continues to be very highly regarded by the locals.     

And with that, it was a wrap on our time at the palace. With a heavy heart, we bid goodbye to the royal comforts and warm hospitality of the Belgadia Palace.

We could get used to this!

On our way back we stopped at a village called Kuliana, which we had come to know, is home to traditional Dokra artists.  

This pitstop turned out to be the highlight of our trip. We landed up at the doorstep of Sri. Yudhushtir Rana, a very decorated Dokra artist. The septuagenarian craftsman was delighted to have visitors who had come in search and showed off his craft with childlike enthusiasm.  

The Dokra artisan immersed in his craft

First, elaborate statuettes are made using beeswax. The figurines are then covered in clay with an opening on top. Once the clay has dried, it acts as a mould. Molten metal is then poured into the mould. It dissolves the wax inside and the metal takes its place, in effect forming the figurine. It is then allowed to cool and the clay mould is cracked open, revealing the metal statuettes that are then polished and sold. The motifs are mostly religious or scenes from tribal life. 

The artisan’s guileless enthusiasm and sheer pride in his craft gave us hope that as long as ambassadors like him are around, our millennia-old crafts are in safe hands. 

The long drive back gave me ample time to reflect on the many highlights of this short but rewarding trip. Odisha tourism pitches the state as the best-kept secret of India. I couldn’t agree more.     

Misadventures & Musings on Kashmir Great Lakes Trek

Twin Lakes – Vishnusar and Kishansar

Misadventures are inseparable from my trips, much like controversy and the Kardashians, and corruption and Indian politics. From getting my specs stolen by a monkey in a Balinese temple to getting my DSLR stolen in a Parisian church and being locked out of the Airbnb at midnight in Hanoi, misadventures are never too far. 

It was no different on the recent trek to the Great Lakes of Kashmir. As anyone who has ever trekked will concur, the one thing you absolutely need is a reliable pair of shoes. I thought I had one. My pair had faithfully accompanied me on three previous (long) Himalayan treks and then expectantly but patiently hibernated for two years to grace my feet again, what with the pandemic raging outside.

I had spotted signs of distress during the last trek itself but was deluding myself that they had more to give.  Within the first hour of the six-day, 70 km trek, Chetak (as I fondly, ironically, and posthumously christened my shoes) started crumbling. The outer sole layers that provide the much-needed extra grip on treacherous mountain tracks started teetering off and dangling.  Mind over matter, I thought and calmly pocketed the separated soles and soldiered on for the rest of the day. By the morning of day 2, the entire outer sole started coming out making the walk nearly impossible. Without batting an eyelid, our trek leader, Dhaval, pulled some strings (literally) and tied up the pieces. I mentally bowed to him. He was no less than Bear Grylls for me.


That saw me through the next two days, including the venerated Gadsar pass crossing. But by day 4, the strings had done what they could. That’s when Dhaval suggested putting on my socks over my shoes. Out came my faux designer socks and they snugly engulfed what were the tattered remnants of my shoes.

Chetak 2.0: Wrapped up in socks

For a while, my designer footgear became a topic of curiosity, admiration, and even envy among fellow trekkers, guides, and locals alike. But with near-zero grip, I fell often and clumsily on the mix of muck and horseshit that masqueraded as the trail on the final day. I somehow negotiated the 12 km of steep descent with no damage to my bones and only slight damage to my pride.   

Ultimately, a valuable lesson was learned. With ingenuity and fortitude, one can overcome any obstacle but it’s way better to just buy a new pair of shoes and not be stingy.

Base Campsite at Shitkadi

Well, now onto more mundane stuff. Like the trek itself. Indiahikes, the foremost authority on treks in India, calls the Kashmir Great Lakes trek the prettiest in India. That’s high praise and as I soon discovered, well deserved. The trek takes one through three high-altitude mountain passes, lush green meadows, mountain rivers gurgling on their way down, and six absolutely pristine glacial lakes, each prettier than the other.

The trek route has no human settlements and no mobile connectivity. It remains covered in snow for most of the year. In the short window from late July to September, after the snow melts and the passes become accessible, nomadic sheepherders bring up their flocks from the valley below to graze on the ultra-nutritious alpine grass. They are the only humans you will encounter on the trek, apart from army personnel and fellow trekkers.

Nomadic sheep herder

Let me issue some fair warning. Parts of the blog may sound like a love letter to Indiahikes. It’s because they deserve it. Not because they paid me (though I would very much like that).

I can’t possibly document the full itinerary better than Indiahikes already has, so you better read it here. I’ll just stick to a retelling of some unforgettable sights I saw and the reflections they evoked.

Vishnusar Lake

While everywhere you look on a trek in Kashmir gorgeous vistas abound, the first jaw-dropping moment came with the first glimpse of Vishnusar lake on Day 2. The placid, glassy waters of the lake, surrounded by steeply rising mountains on three sides just takes your breath away. The tiredness from the arduous walks instantly evaporates. As I sat next to it, along with my thoughts, I felt blessed to be living that moment.

En route Gadsar Pass with Kishansar in the background

The third day is arguably the toughest and trickiest day of the trek but it is packed with visual delights. We crossed the Gadsar pass on the third day. A challenging 3-hour climb took us to the top of Gadsar pass. At 13,800 ft, it is the highest point on the trek.

The view from the top is spellbinding. Snow-capped mountains play peekaboo with clouds on one side. On the other side, the twin lakes – Vishnusar and Kishansar – appear as tiny specks of turquoise.

View from Gadsar Pass

Once everyone in our group made it to the top, Dhaval assembled us in a huddle that he calls the gratitude circle. Everyone thanked the people who made this possible for them – parents who bred a love for the outdoors from childhood, understanding spouses who encouraged (or at least put up with) the idea of a solo trek, and of course our excellent support team at Indiahikes. It was an emotional moment for everyone. I couldn’t help starting my vote of thanks with a word of gratitude to the scientists behind the Covid vaccine.

Gadsar Lake

Lunch on day 3 was next to Gadsar Lake.  As I sat on a rock next to a gurgling stream, with the majestic lake in clear view, I realized that I would choose simple food with a view like this any day over gourmet meals in fancy restaurants. The sloping meadow that runs all the way down to the lake was peppered with tiny flowers of myriad colours. A flock of sheep languidly munched on the lush grass. All was well with the world. There was nowhere else I would rather be.

Gadsar Lake

Walking onwards from the lake en route to the Gadsar campsite, we crossed a tiny stone hut of a herder. His small boy stood beside his mother and as we waved, he waved back flashing a million-dollar smile. The innocent, heartfelt smile overwhelmed me. I wondered how, in such harsh conditions, with practically no material possessions and hardly any human company, the child could be this happy and contented. I contrasted it with the many contraptions city kids (including my own) have and how little difference it makes to experience happiness. 

Gangbal and Nandkul Lakes

Another high point (literally!) was crossing the Zach pass on the fifth day. The pass faces the mighty and sacred Harmukh mountain. For most of our hour-long stop at the top of the pass, the valley below remained shrouded in clouds. But ever so ephemerally, the clouds parted to reveal another pair of picture-perfect lakes – Gangbal and Nandkul. Okay, I have officially run of adjectives to describe pretty things. I was obviously disappointed at not getting clear views of one of the most spectacular sights on the trek. But I also realized that this mystique of nature is what makes trekking such a cathartic experience.  

The fifth night, at the Gangbal campsite, was our last on the trek. The next day we were to descend down to Naranag and drive back to Srinagar. There was a special surprise waiting for us. After dinner, the ghoda-walas who took care of the horses that carried our provisions came to the dinner tent. With humble utensils serving as musical instruments, they broke into soulful Kashmiri songs. We listened absolutely enthralled and then broke into spontaneous celebratory dancing. It was just another reminder that zest for life trumps material abundance when it comes to finding happiness in everyday life.     

Moideen Chacha- the leader of the ghoda-walas

I can’t possibly write about the trek and not mention what an absolute delight it was to trek with Indiahikes. It all starts from the detailed information you get on the website before you book the trek. They are anal about the fitness requirement for the trek and you are grudgingly thankful for it once you complete the trek without hiccups. The food they serve is delicious, wholesome, and always hot.

Dhaval (Trek Leader), Murtaza Bhai & Aslam Bhai (Guides)

The guides are knowledgeable, competent, friendly, and generous. They have the uncanny ability to magically appear with a helping hand, every time you need them. While I can’t quite wax eloquent about the trek leader on a previous trek, Dhaval, who led us on KGL, was excellent. He led by example, maintained discipline without getting overzealous and we always like we were in very safe hands.

Last but certainly not least, I met a wonderful bunch of people on the trek. This was the first trek where I went without friends. But a group of like-minded individuals, all there for the right reasons, meant that good company and enjoyable, insightful conversations were always at hand.  

The gang

Trekking gets one close to unspoiled natural beauty in a way that’s just not possible through any other means. To everyone out there who hasn’t it yet, give this trekking thing a shot. You can thank me later!

Kochi Chronicles: sights, sounds and tastes of the historic city

The Lonely Planet magazine has just come out with its list of “Top 10 cities to visit in 2020” and an Indian city has made its way to the list. With its rich architectural heritage, vibrant art scene, lip-smacking cuisine and veritable amalgamation of cultural influences, Kochi has truly earned it.   

Sleepy fishing village to a vibrant port city

The fortunes of this nondescript fishing village were dramatically altered when a tsunami devastated the once important port of Kodungallur (Muziris), 50km away, and flooded the lands around Kochi creating an excellent natural harbour in 1341 AD. Spice trade with China and the Middle East flourished in Kochi and began transforming it beyond recognition.

In 1500 AD, the Portuguese found their way to Kochi and established amicable relations with the Rajah of Cochin. What began with trade inevitably ended in conquest. Control over Kochi was later wrestled from the Portuguese by the Dutch in 1663. It was held briefly by the Nizams of Hyderabad before finally settling with the British in AD 1790. It stayed that way until India’s independence in 1947.

The colonial period deeply influenced Kochi’s architecture, culture, food and much more and the influences are in abundant display in modern-day Kochi.

5 must-dos to absorb Kochi

Amble around Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi is a 1.5hr drive from Cochin Airport and about 45 minutes from Ernakulam station.

Discovering Fort Kochi isn’t about a checklist of things to see and do. It is about soaking in the feeling of being in Fort Kochi. For romantics prone to nostalgia, it is easy to visualize nearly 450 years of colonial history unfolding in front of one’s eyes while crossing colonial-era churches, mansions, offices and cemeteries.

Fort Kochi gets its name from a fortification built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century to safeguard their trade interests. It was destroyed by the subsequent Dutch conquerors and only tiny fragments of the actual fortifications now remain to be seen inside the Indo Portuguese Museum. 

The resplendent Santa Cruz Basilica

Start your walk from the Santa Cruz Basilica. While the original church was erected by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, it was used as an arms store by later Dutch colonists and razed completely by the British in 1795. More than a hundred years later, it was re-erected by the Bishop of Cochin and that structure endures to the present day. The exteriors are spotlessly whitewashed in a pleasant shade of yellow. The interiors are decorated with beautiful murals of scenes from the passion narratives. 

St. Francis CSI Church where Vasco da Gama was once buried

Walk onwards to the St Francis CSI Church. This humble monument was the first ever European church in India, erected in 1503, soon after the arrival of the Portuguese. The legendary explorer Vasco Da Gama was buried here briefly upon his death in 1524 before his remains were taken back to Lisbon. 

Dutch Cemetery

Walk further on to the Dutch cemetery which was consecrated in 1724 and now lies in ruins. The gates are perpetually locked but you can peep inside to get a view of the tombs. The tombs of Dutch governors, commanders and officials now lie overgrown with moss and weed. It is a stark reminder of the rise and ebb of fortunes of empires and the agents.

Chinese fishing nets

End your walk through Fort Kochi with a stroll along the seafront, ending near the Chinese fishing nets. Along the way, you can spot the lone surviving canon from Fort Emmanuel, the original Portuguese fortification of Kochi. Chinese traders of the 14th century introduced the fishing nets to Kochi and they continue to be in use even today. It’s also a great spot to watch the sun go down. The fishermen bring their fresh catch in the evening for auctioning and witnessing the orderly chaos of the auctions is a treat in itself.  

Check out Jew Town & Mattancherry Palace

Paradesi Synagogue

All that now remains of the once-thriving Jew town is the Paradesi Synagogue. But then it’s not just any synagogue. Built in 1568, it’s the oldest active synagogue in India. The name “Paradesi”, meaning foreigner, proclaims that the Synagogue was erected by Sephardic (Spanish speaking) Jews, from Europe as opposed to the local black Malabari or Cochin Jews.  

The Synagogue is open to visitors from Sunday to Thursday from 10 am to 2 pm and again from 3 pm to 5 pm. It is closed on Saturdays and in the second half on Fridays. It is also closed on all Jewish holidays. Unfortunately, our visit overlapped with the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and we couldn’t enter the synagogue to see the treasures it holds inside.

Jew Town

The street leading to the synagogue is closed to vehicular traffic is lined on both sides by antique and souvenir shops and cafes. With the gradual emigration of the local Jews, a once thriving community is now down to a handful.

Mattancherry Palace, also known as the Dutch Palace, looks deceptively dilapidated from the outside. But inside, it houses a well maintained museum documenting the history of the Kingdom of Kochi. Built in 1555 by the Portuguese to appease the Rajah of Kochi, it was extensively restored by the Dutch overlords in the 17th century and hence the name Dutch Palace.  

The inner walls are covered in spectacular murals with some dating back as far back as the 16th century. Particularly noteworthy is one that captures the entire story of Ramayana in one contiguous painting with one scene merging seamlessly into another. A painting depicting Maharaasa of Krishna has him employing his eight divine limbs to simultaneously pleasure a multitude of milkmaids. This epitome of erotica is housed, perhaps justifiably, in the basement connected by a steep staircase!

Portraits of Rajahs of Kochi, their stamps and currency and plaques on the history of Kochi complete the informative collection of exhibits.

The palace museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm on all days of the week except Friday. It charges a princely Rs 5 per person for entry.

Witness Kerala’s Traditional Performing arts

Kerala Kathakali Centre is probably the best place in Kochi to get a taste of Kerala’s rich traditional performing art forms. It is a private institute operated by a certain Mr Vijayan. At their auditorium located in Fort Kochi, they host daily shows of Kalaripayattu from 4 pm to 5 pm and Kathakali from 6 pm to 7 pm. One can also witness the pre-performance Kathakali makeup session happening live on stage from 5 pm to 6 pm.

It’s not a one-man job
Kathakali makeup
The final output

In fact, the makeup is as big a draw as the performance itself. The elaborate facial makeup still uses entirely natural pigments following centuries of traditions. It is a mesmerizing experience to witness the transformations of perfectly normal looking men into mythical characters of either gender, even animals if the story demands it! The prominent facial colour signifies the kind of character being portrayed – green symbolizes godliness, black is for evil, white is for spirituality, red for turmoil and yellow denotes a mix of godliness and turmoil.

The performance is spellbinding. The performers challenge the limits of human physiology with the manoeuvring of facial muscles and eye movements. The unsung heroes of the act are the singer and the drummers whose skilful rendition perfectly compliment the performance of the dancers. Stories from Indian mythology are the typical themes of Kathakali performances. We got in early and got balcony seats on the upper level which offer an unhindered view of the stage.

Kalaripayattu is Kerala’s flagship martial art form dating back from at least the 6th century BC. It has been referenced in many Hollywood and Bollywood movies and even has spawned a popular animated show for kids. It would have been a sin to come to Kerala and not catch a demo. But be prepared for flying swords and other nerve-rattling stunts. The accompanying descriptions of each form of combat, the weaponry and associated traditions make for a rich experience.

The Kalaripayattu show costs Rs.300 per person and the Kathakali show is for Rs.350. One can refer their website for updated information and mail kpvijayan@yahoo.com for reservations.

The shows are a tiny but essential glimpse into Kerala’s rich tradition of performing arts. It is heartening to see the traditions being kept alive through the collective enterprise of dedicated individuals like Mr Vijayan and his associates.

Hop across Museums

Kerala draws in droves of tourists, both Indians and foreigners, primarily because of its resplendent natural beauty. But it packs enough of a cultural punch to satiate culture vultures. And there is no better place to get a taste of its rich history and culture than the Kerala Folklore Museum.

Kerala Folklore Museum

Surprisingly, this place flies under the radar when it comes to most tourist itineraries of Kochi. Located about 10km away from Fort Kochi in Thevara, it is the labour of love of Mr George Thaliath.

The private museum has been painstakingly assembled by him with collection efforts spanning over three decades.

The museum building itself has been assembled using antiques and structural elements from 25 dismantled heritage structures. Inside it is a cornucopia of artefacts of historical and cultural significance.

The ground floor has an excellent collection of centuries-old wooden statues collected from various sites in South India. Particularly noteworthy is the wooden gable of a disused 15th century temple. There are Nannangadi, or giant terracotta pots from 1000 BC, in which human bodies were traditionally buried in a crouching position. Also on display are the Manichitrathazhu, which are metal locks with extremely elaborate craftsmanship that were fitted on sturdy jackwood doors in the traditional homes of the elite for providing security and displaying pomp in equal measure.

My interest was kindled in Theyyam, a ritual form of worship popular in Kerala, by the many masks, breastplates and costumes on display. They are elegantly crafted and heavy AF. I couldn’t fathom how it would be humanly possible to even don the full paraphernalia, let alone dance in it.

The uppermost floor is actually a transported dancing hall called Koothambalam, once attached to an ancient temple in Kerala. The massive wooden edifice from the 18th century weighs more than 60 tons and stands without any middle support. On the ceiling are wood carved figurines of 333 gods and goddesses representing the proverbial 333 crore gods of the Hindu pantheon. This is accompanied by 253 mural paintings depicting traditional art forms of Kerala.

What makes the museum truly unique is how such a vast collection has been thoughtfully assembled and maintained by the individual zeal of one person, and now upon his death, by his family, to preserve and showcase the cultural heritage of his motherland. I left the museum determined to spread the word about this marvellous initiative. To anyone headed to Kochi, the museum is open from 9 am to 6 pm on all days of the week and the Rs.100 entry fee is very well spent.

India Portuguese Museum

This museum established through the efforts of a former Bishop of Kochi is housed within the Bishop’s House premises in Fort Kochi.

The basement of the museum has the last surviving remnants of the original Portuguese fortification of Kochi. While there isn’t much left to see anymore, these bare bricks once ushered in colonial expansion in Kerala and subsequently in all of India.

The collection here provides a glimpse into the religious traditions of the period through the historical artefacts. It is open from 10 am to 6 pm, with a lunch break from 1 pm to 2 pm, every day barring Mondays and public holidays. 

Apart from these two museums, there is also the Mattancherry Palace museum of which I have written earlier and the Museum of Kerala which I didn’t have occasion to visit.

Devour Kerala’s Mouth-watering Cuisine

Eating out in Kochi is as much about savouring the flavours as it is about soaking in the charming ambience of its restaurants. The Fort Kochi area, in particular, abounds in heritage bungalows converted into dreamy cafes, bistros and restaurants. Below is a short selection of restaurants we tried out and liked to varying degrees.

Jetty Restaurant at Forte Kochi

Jetty takes the top spot in my recommendation of eateries in Fort Kochi. Housed inside a renovated heritage building that’s now Forte Kochi boutique hotel, the décor here oozes class from every nook. The bright ochre yellow exteriors will deceive you into thinking that you are somewhere in Portugal. But once you dig into your meal you will be brought back to Kerala through the classic eats of Kerala cuisine, are all done to perfection. If you have one meal in Fort Kochi, head here.

Bristow’s Bistro is housed inside the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel. It is the former mansion of renowned British Engineer, Sir Robert Bristow, who played a key role in the construction of the Kochi Port. The stately dining hall is near the edge of the sea and an evening meal here accompanied by the sea breeze and the sounds of crashing waves is a delightful experience. The food is excellent and moderately priced. I can vouch for the succulent Tuna Steak, flavourful Pork Masala and soft and fluffy Appams. It is among the few establishments in Kochi that serve beer, though the choice of brands will be severely limited (as is the case pretty much everywhere in Kerala). 

Kashi Art Cafe

Kashi Art Café This hybrid of a café and an art gallery has been making waves in Kochi’s casual dining scene and justly so. If the tables are removed, you might well mistake it for a rather nice art gallery. That’s until the food is served and you realize that artsy distractions notwithstanding, the food is the real hero and is reason enough to make your way here.

The mustard flavoured chicken served on a bed of buttery mashed potatoes and the juicy skewered prawns come highly recommended.

Tea Bungalow is yet another jewel in the long list of heritage boutique hotels in Kochi and has a restaurant to boot. A tastefully decorated property dating back to 1912, its décor is themed on prominent port towns strewn across the Indian Ocean region. The food at their restaurant is delicious and the service prompt and efficient.

Ginger House draws in droves of foreign visitors led by its backwater-view dining room and prominent mentions in guidebooks. It is located in the Jew Town and like many Kochi establishments, this is also housed inside the eponymous boutique heritage hotel. After being spoiled by the amazing food across restaurants in Fort Kochi, the food here was a big let-down. And if the food was middling at best, the service was absolutely atrocious. The views are lovely but that couldn’t quite make up for the disappointment in the other departments.  

Kochi will delight your eyes, ears and taste buds in equal measure and you will doubtless concur with the curators of the Lonely Planet Cities to visit in 2020 list!

Kareri Lake Trek: Enthralling & Under-rated

As I hung on to dear life, clutching some thorny shrubs, the hundred-odd metres that separated me from the safety of the marked out trail seemed like miles. A miscalculation by our guide during our descent from Kareri Lake had led us to think that crawling across the dry sheer slope of the mountain will be safer than walking over the slippery snow-covered slope. To be fair to him, he negotiated the stretch with the utmost ease. But he had massively overestimated the agility of our stiff bodies that were totally unaccustomed to such nimble manoeuvres. To me, it seemed like accepting an invitation to break a few limbs.   

After an excruciating thirty minutes which seemed like the last thirty minutes of my life, I managed to gracelessly creep and crawl through the stretch and meet the trail. My hands were bruised from the thorny shrubs and my cargos were plastered in mud but I was standing on level ground with all limbs and sense of humour intact.

When I was planning a reunion with a childhood friend over the Good Friday extended weekend, I had resigned myself to the idea of meeting in Goa as a middle ground between Mumbai and Bangalore which are our respective abodes at present. Until he came up with the idea of a short trek to beat the heat. After some frenetic research, the Kareri Lake trek was finalised. It was accessible through overnight travel from Delhi, was doable in a couple of days and was considered to be at its best in April. That checked all the boxes for us.

Day 1: Arrive in Dharamshala, onwards to Kareri village

We had taken the overnight Dhauladhar Express from Delhi on the night before. It dropped us at Pathankot at 8.30 am. From there, Dharamshala is about a 3-hour cab ride away. Cabs are available right outside the railway station and fares can vary from Rs.2000 to Rs.2500 (~$30-35) depending on your negotiation skills. 

Ghera village: Pretty as a postcard

From there we took a bus to Ghera (1.5hr, Rs.35). Kareri Village is about 7km from Ghera. There is no public transport between Ghera and Kareri village. There are some private vehicles which transport locals on a seat-sharing basis for Rs.30 per person but such arrangements can be infrequent. Renting out the full vehicle costs around Rs.500 ($7). Bravehearts may even choose to walk uphill along a “shortcut” which could take upwards of two hours.

Kareri village: Love at first sight

We reached Kareri village just before sundown and fell in love with the place immediately. Small colourful dwellings dotted the hills, herdsmen were grazing their sheep and goat, the fields were lush with a crop of wheat and birdsongs filled the air. How could one not fall in love. We made enquiries about possible arrangements for the trek by calling a few numbers we had come across online. We settled on the deal offered by one Mr Durga (+91 78074 32558) who provided us a tent and two sleeping bags, all meals during the 1.5 day trek and the services of a guide for Rs.3000 (~$42.5).

That settled, we went to have coffee at “Out of the World Café”. It’s really a humble hut with a table and some chairs laid out in the open but that’s about as fancy as cafes get over here. That’s where we met Sam, an intrepid Londoner who had set off on a two-month long solo adventure in the Himalayas, splitting his time between India and Nepal. He informed us that he was put up the Forest Guest House and the rooms there were the best to be expected in Kareri. Our other options were homestays with locals or camping out. We got lured by the prospect of a comfortable bed and hot shower before heading into the wilderness for a couple of days and opted for the Forest Guest House.

The caretaker, Jagdish Ji, is a smooth-talking and slippery fellow but he knows he has the best rooms in town. The Guest House receives no official visitors and the income from letting it out to trekkers earns him a healthy side income. He let it out to us for Rs 700 ($10) for the night and charged Rs150 ($2) per person for dinner and breakfast.

The Forest Guest House

Having found a comfortable place to spend the night in, we stepped out for a late evening stroll. It was a full moon night and the mountains were bathed in moonlight. The snow-capped Dhauladhar was glittering. The Koel’s cooing was being echoed by the mountain. There was a nip in the air. And there was catching up to be done and childhood memories to be recounted. But Kareri sleeps early so we had our dal-chawal at around 8:30 and then tucked ourselves in for the night.

Full moon

Upon our arrival we had learnt that the upper reaches of the mountain, including the lake itself was covered in a thick coat of snow. This was unusual for this time of the year and it got us even more excited for the following day. 

Day 2: Kareri Village to Kareri Lake & return to base camp at Reoti

We woke up to the chirping of birds, a welcome departure from the blaring alarm of the mobile phone which has become de rigueur. Simple things like these make you feel thankful.   

Waking up to this view at Kareri village

While feasting on parathas and tea in the morning, we noticed the approaching outline of a small boy. He came up to us and announced that he was Shabbo, our guide for the trek. On enquiring whether he had been doing this long, he informed that this was to be his second visit to the lake and his first as a “guide”. He had been to the Shiva temple near the lake once earlier with his mother to offer prayers on some religious festivals. Never shy of giving a youngster a break, we wholeheartedly welcomed him into our fold.

All set to start

We started the ascent at 8.30am. The first couple of kilometres were along a paved road that ran through a pine forest. We were beginning to feel that we would slay this. Then things took a turn. We heard the gushing sound of Nyund Nallah and the path diverted from the even, paved road to a trail of steep stone stairs. The ascent was continuous and very steep. There were no interludes of level patches and it was uphill all the way from there on. I was out of breath very soon. My friend was faring only somewhat better.

View from the trail

But the views were more than making up for the toil. The energetic glacial stream carving its way through the mountain, rhododendron trees in full bloom, the snow covered upper reaches of the mountain all came together to create a very picturesque trail.

After 7km of arduous hiking, we reached Reoti at around 11:30am. Kareri Lake is another 6km from Reoti. Most sane people camp here overnight and continue to the lake the next morning. But a hazardous mixture of ambition and naiveté had made us plan to cover the whole trek in a single day, all the way to the lake and back to Reoti by evening.   

With the sound of my panting now drowning out the gushing of the stream, we carried on. Soon after crossing Reoti we began to encounter snow on the trail. Until gradually, the whole trail was enveloped in soft snow. This is where our guide came in handy as the stream we had been following was frozen over and the direction to take was no longer as obvious. While we slipped and fell and made fools of ourselves, our guide seemed to be strolling in a park. At times like these, I feel that we should wear our “avid trekker” tags very, very lightly.  

Snow covered trail

The final stretch towards the lake was beautiful beyond description. All around us was just the purest shade of white and a few daredevil trees that stood tall amidst all this. I had begun to feel that the views of the lake couldn’t possibly be any more beautiful than what we were seeing already. Of course, I was wrong.

Frozen Kareri Lake

When we finally reached the lake at around 2:30 pm, we were overwhelmed by the view. Apart from a tiny patch, the whole lake was frozen. We just sat there feeling humbled and grateful at having seen a sight like this. There is a Shiva temple overlooking the lake. I generally lean towards atheism but at times like these, hands fold up automatically in reverence. Perhaps I was just recognizing that God is but an embodiment of the enthralling nature around us.  

Shiva temple overlooking Kareri lake

Barring us, there were just three other people at the lake. One of them even planned to pitch a tent inside the temple and spend the night there. The very thought of spending a night in a setting like that, with not a living souls for miles around was spine chilling. We wished him the best, envied him for his courage and started our descent.

The descent back to Reoti took us about 2 hours. It was marked by ample back patting and self-congratulations on our accomplishment. And well, to be fair, traversing 19km on a mountainous trail, 13 of them while ascending, is no mean feat for two borderline obese urban dwellers. Apart from the hair raising incident with which I began my narrative, the rest of the descent was unremarkable.   

We were immensely fortunate to have done the trek on a Friday. When we got to the base camp, there were about 50 tents set up and they were overflowing with boisterous occupants. The weekend crowd had descended (well, in this case, ascended) to Reoti to undertake the trek the next day. While we had come across less than a dozen people during the course of our trek thus far, there was a crowd of more than 150, all set to take over the mountains tomorrow. And this was just one campsite. There were a few more, no doubt, with as many occupants. 

We were bundled inside a supposedly “two-man” tent which was small enough to suffocate even a single occupant. We discovered a spider inside the tent but were told that it is par for course and nothing to get worked up about. We entered our sleeping bags and did the sheep counting drill to try and sleep amidst the commotion.

Day 3: Reoti to Kareri Village and back to Dharamshala

We woke up early to start our descent from Reoti. With our heart upbeat but our feet sore from our accomplishments of previous day, we headed back towards Kareri. The descent was pleasant and took around 2.5 hours. While walking down, we recollected how trying it had been to walk up this very same path.

On reaching Kareri village, we should have just hired a vehicle to get us dropped to Ghera. But there is something about treks that awakens the Scrooge in me. It is attributable to a sense of accomplishment on having done it on the cheap. We decided to hitchhike. We started walking along the road to Ghera, confident them some vehicle would soon come by and would be only too glad to offer us a lift. We were wrong. We ended up walking all 7km of the way to Ghera, without a single vehicle crossing us in the 2 hours that it took us. 

On reaching Ghera, we learned that the public bus was to leave only after two hours which would have been too late for us. This time we did manage to find some good Samaritans who agreed to drop us to Dharamshala.

As we boarded our overnight bus from Dharamshala for Delhi, we felt very thankful for how the trip had gone. The weather had been a sport and we had dodged the crowds. We had even managed to emerge unscathed from some precarious situations. All in all, we could not have asked for more. We were going back with a bagful of memories and our sunburns were our only souvenirs.  

Tiger Trails and Beyond in Kanha National Park

Tiger in Kanha NAtional Park

Tiger spotting at Kanha National Park
An Unforgettable Moment

I just got back from a trip to Kanha National  Park with a group of friends and the experience will remain etched in memory forever. It was the first time I sighted a Tiger in the wild and what a sight it was. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

About Kanha National Park

Kanha National Park was created in 1955 and was made a Tiger Reserve in 1973 when Project Tiger was commissioned. Apart from being renowned as one of the best places to spot the big cat, it is also justly famous for its efforts in conserving the hard ground Barasingha. Kanha is the only remaining natural habitat of the Barasingha in the world.

Hard Ground Barasingha at Kanha National PArk
A majestic stag Barasingha – Kanha is the only place in the world to find them!

It can be accessed conveniently through Jabalpur, Raipur and Nagpur. It takes around 3.5 hours by road from Jabalpur, 5 hours from Raipur and 6 hours from Nagpur.  We flew into Nagpur and then drove to Kanha, passing by another one of Madhya Pradesh’s fabulous national parks, Pench, on the way.

Map of Kanha National Park
Map of Kanha National Park (Courtesy: Mapsofindia)

Kanha is roughly divided into five ranges – Kisli, Mukki, Kanha, Supkhar & Bahmnidadar. Supkhar and Bahmanidadar ranges are strictly out of bounds for tourists. Parts of the other three ranges are accessible through Safari vehicles. We stayed at Kisli Log Hut, inside the park area in the Kisli range, courtesy the good offices of a friend connected to the forest department. There are numerous hotels and resorts of varying budgets and quality on the outskirts of the park.

Safaris are open for booking 120 days in advance and sell out very fast. Be sure to book as soon as the booking window opens, even if you decide on your accommodation later. Safaris are available in two slots. Morning Safari begins at sunrise and ends before 11 am. The evening Safari begins at 3 pm and ends before sunset. We managed to fit in four safaris in the course of our two nights stay.

Day 1

A wild boar - an uncelebrated resident!
A wild boar – a rather uncelebrated resident of Kanha!

We had butterflies in our stomachs when we set out for our first safari on the evening we reached. We felt the sheer rush of venturing into the jungle, not knowing what awaited us! Of course, the holy grail would be sighting one of Kanha’s famed tigers. Soon we spotted a Sambar, some Barasinghas, some wild boars and many birds.

A Vulture spotted at Kanha
A Vulture: A very rare sight now due to Diclofenac accumulation

We were already considering it a successful outing when word came in of a tiger that had been spotted in the Mukki range earlier that morning. Our driver sped away to the said spot and sure enough, there were fresh pugmarks.

Tiger Pugmarks at Kanha
Tiger Pugmarks

The time spent chasing the pugmarks, not knowing whether we will be rewarded with a sighting, is loaded with suspense. After trailing the pugmarks for a kilometre or so, we spotted the elusive beast! What a moment it was when I first sighted a tiger in the wild. It is a matter of great fortune and here I was, spotting a tiger on the very evening.

Tiger Sighting at Knaha
First Tiger Sighting at Kanha – Bone Chilling & Exhilarating at once

There were no other safari vehicles around us at that point in time. It was just us and Chhota Munna. It was 15 minutes of unadulterated bliss as we saw him walking on, rubbing himself against bushes and hugging trees to mark his territory. Most people would consider themselves fortunate to get a mere glimpse and here we were, exclusively enjoying his company for a full quarter of an hour. I would be lying if I say that the sheer excitement wasn’t mixed with a little fear but I put complete trust in our driver and guide. After obliging us with sights we will never forget, Chhota Munna made his way into the thickets and we moved on thanking our lucky stars.

Tiger in Kanha NAtional Park
Chhota Munna’s yawn is no less scary than a roar!

After we spotted Chhota Munna, I was overcome with the feeling that I had fulfilled my destiny and could now die in peace. We were heading back to our lodge assuming that we had seen our share of drama for the day.  But we were mistaken. We were still in the meadows of the Kanha range when suddenly the atmosphere became charged with the alarm calls of Cheetals, Langurs and Barasinghas. Every single creature in sight was looking unblinkingly in one direction and making sounds to alert their tribe. And there it was – another tiger – lurking in the meadows. This was clearly more than we had bargained for. There was a moment of tense excitement when it appeared that we might witness a hunt. But after eyeing the pray from a distance for a minute that seemed like an hour, the tiger quietly faded away into the meadow along with the fading light. The deer would live to see another day. We had another story to tell.

An anxious herd of Deer
An Anxious Herd of Deer –  their toes to outrun death

The evening was spent sharing stories, adoring the photographs captured and speculating what Day 2 would bring us.

Day 2

The second day was less eventful but no less enjoyable. Exploring the jungle after having already spotted the tiger is like taking on the world after having attained enlightenment. Not that I have any first-hand experience of what the latter feels like. I guess when you are not hung up on spotting the tiger, you begin to appreciate the other incredible residents of the forest. On the second day, we visited Shravan Tal, a lake which is said to have found mention in the great Indian epic, Ramayana. Dasharatha, the father of Rama, it is said, had mistakenly shot a young boy named Shravan at this spot, thinking him to be a deer. He incurred the wrath of Shravan’s father who had to witness his son died in his arms. The curse eventually became pivotal to the story of the Ramayana.

A male Cheetal tending to itself near Shravan Tal

We also visited a museum which is located close to the entry gate of the Kanha range. It is a small but highly informative museum that captures the history of Kanha National Park, its conservation efforts and interesting details about its residents. The museum screens a documentary which, though dated, is a must watch.  The documentary attempts to sensitise visitors on the nature of challenges faced by the authorities in conserving the forests and the wildlife it shelters. Particularly telling is the plight of the beat guards who patrol the jungle on foot to guard its residents against pernicious human activities. They live under basic conditions in extreme isolation. Every time they go out on their beats, they run the risk of being attacked by the very tigers they are out to protect! The entry gate of the Kanha range is made by putting together fallen antlers of deer and is a sight to behold.

Gate of Kanha Range Made of Fallen Antlers
Gate of Kanha Range Made of Fallen Antlers

Along with numerous Cheetals, Barasinghas, Bisons and wild boars, we also spotted many birds. The birds we saw included Jungle Babbler, Indian Roller, Parakeets (Alexandrine, Rose-ringed & Plum-headed), Red Wattled Lapwing, Coppersmith Barbet, Greater Flame-back woodpecker, Common Hoopoe, Greater Racket Tailed Drongo and even a Vulture. The budding bird watcher in me had a gala time.

Indian Roller
Indian Roller

The tigers eluded us on Day 2 but we weren’t complaining. We spent the evening star gazing.

Day 3

The next day was to be the last of our trip and we all got ready ahead of time so as to not miss a minute of our final safari. We were all hoping for one last glimpse of the tiger on our final day to end the trip on a high. And we were not disappointed! We hadn’t got any scent of a tiger till midway through our safari when we happened to cross a jeep that informed us that Munna had been spotted close by. Our driver immediately sprang into action and off we went on one last chase.

And sure enough, after reaching the designated spot, Munna made an appearance for us, albeit a brief one. It was indeed poetic that the trip that had begun with sighting Chhota Munna ended with meeting his father, Munna, on the last day. There was absolutely nothing more we could have asked for. We turned back towards the guest house and then onwards to Nagpur.

We carried back all the non-biodegradable trash we had generated because, understandably, there aren’t proper waste disposal systems in the jungle and all trash is incinerated. These little things go a long way in preserving the jungles we love so much.

Sunset at Kanha National Park
Au Revoir, not Adieu


I can’t possibly end the story of my trip to Kanha National Park without a word about the guides and drives who take tourists on the safari. They do not just show you around. They go out of their way and try their best to treat you to a big cat sighting. Seeing the tiger defines the jungle experience for many tourists and they are well aware of that. The seasoned drivers and guides spot pugmarks and follow alarm calls of prey to guide tourists to a glimpse of the elusive giant. Just the thrill of the chase is half the fun. The guides know the family tree of the 100 or so tigers inhabiting Kanha at least as well as their own family tree. They can instantly recognise tigers by observing their body stripes. They are extremely proud of the forest they serve and make every effort to ensure all visitors leave happy.

We most certainly left happy. The long drive back to Nagpur was spent reminiscing the many memorable moments from the trip. Two days away from cellular connectivity within the confines of the forest were rejuvenating. The myriad revelations of the jungle were humbling and inspiring. I vowed to come back soon to catch up on my quota of fresh air and dose of sanity.

The Mighty Jungle
The Mighty Jungle

My humble advice to all visitors is to come without expectations of spotting the Tiger. Too many visits to Tiger Reserves are defined by the sighting or otherwise of Tigers. There are enough wonders in the jungle. Let the tiger sighting be an icing on the cake if you get lucky, but do not forget to enjoy the cake itself.

Chhota Munna Tiger walking away at Kanha NAtional Park
Until Next Time

Sandakphu Trek : Kangchenjunga like you have never seen it before!

View of Sleeping Buddha formation of Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu
When seven of us, friends from the engineering days, signed up for a Himalayan trek none of us had any clue what we were getting into. We chose Sandakphu because it is a relatively short trek and is considered to be of moderate difficulty. You know, not so easy that it won’t come with bragging rights. Not so difficult that we repent getting ourselves into it.
Sandakphu is about 35km trek from Maneybhanjan which is the base for the trek. Mane bhanjan (alternatively spelled as Maney Bhanjang or Manebhanjang) is a tiny hamlet in Darjeeling district in West Bengal, on the Indo-Nepal border. The border is a narrow ditch and one can hardly make out any difference in the lifestyles of people on the two sides. They cross over with nonchalance to buy grocery and for work. Maybe I am being simplistic but it makes one wonder why all national borders couldn’t be like this. Anyway, I digress.
If you are a first-timer, the standard prescription for a mountain trek is that you train yourself to be fit enough to run 4.5kms in half an hour. The fitter you are the more enjoyable the trek becomes. Your mind then is on the resplendent scenery and not on the shortness of your breath.
We traveled with Denzong Leisure (http://www.denzongleisure.com/) and paid approximate 9k per head for a group of 7 people. This included transport from and back to Siliguri, all stays, meals and services of a guide. We were moderately satisfied with their services. There was nothing untoward about the experience but we would have liked our tour leader to be more of a man of the world. There are other groups which conduct the trek, like Indiahikes (https://indiahikes.com/sandakphu/), which are favorably reviewed by trekkers.
Trekking route map of Sandakphu and Phalut from Mane bhanjan
Route Map: Mane Bhanjan to Sandakphu (Courtesy: Indiahikes)
We went in May. There are two good seasons to trek Sandakphu. The summer treks happen in April- May and the temperature is usually in the high single digits. The winter treks from October to December see the mercury stay below 5 degrees consistently. We covered the circuit in four days and took the route that goes via Tumling, Kalipokhari and Bikhey bhanjan. We descended via Srikhola. Some trekkers with more time at their disposal proceed to Phalut which takes another day to reach. It is at roughly the same altitude as Sandakphu but takes one further up close to Kanchenjunga.

Getting there

Mane bhanjan, the base for the trek, is at an altitude of 2150m and at a distance of about 80km from Siliguri. It should take you about 3 hours to drive to Mane bhanjang from Siliguri. Siliguri is serviced by the New Jalpaiguri Railway Station (different from Jalpaiguri) and the Bagdogra airport. Bagdogra is connected to Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore & Guwahati by direct flights.

The Journey to Sandakphu

Ancient Land Rovers that operate in Sandakphu
Range Rovers that ply here
Our train to Siliguri was late and hence on the first day of the trek, by the time we reached Manebhanjan, it was too late to trek onwards to Tumling. So we drove to Tonglu that evening and stayed in a trekker’s hut. We drove in an ancient Land Rover. These are pretty much the only vehicle capable of negotiating the terrain. For those who want to enjoy the views from Sandakphu but are not favorably disposed to trekking, it is possible to go all the way up to Sandakphu on these Land Rovers and the drive time is roughly 5 hours.  
The trek is dotted with settlements every 6-8 km, almost all along the border and most have an SSB checkpost. The settlements are no more than about 10 houses which offer basic accommodation and food to trekkers. Basic creature comforts that we take for granted are non-existent here. Who knows, maybe the simple folks of these hills don’t desire these either. One wonders what makes these people chose to stay in such extreme conditions and isolation. Wouldn’t life be a lot easier in a city nearby? It could be a strong sense of rootedness in the land of their forefathers that anchors them to this place. It could be a preference for the slow life. It could simply be a fear of the big city – a case of choosing the known devil over an unknown one.
Morning views of Tonglu on the way to Sandakphu
This dog followed me on my morning stroll in Tonglu
Rhododendrons in bloom near Sandakphu
We were a bit early for the Rhododendrons – they had just begun to bloom
I woke up early next morning to take a walk and breathe in some fresh air. The Rhododendrons were just beginning to bloom. The only sounds I heard here were the rustling of leaves and the fluttering of Tibetan prayer flags that stand in the way of the strong gushing winds. Sometimes I caught the occasional chirping of birds. 

Sacred lake Kalipokhari on the way to Sandakphu
Kalipokhari: The Sacred Lake
We left Tonglu the next morning and proceeded towards Kalipokhari. We covered 15 km on the first day of our trek and were already beginning to feel accomplished. Kalipokhari is a lake that is held sacred by the locals. It is forbidden to take a dip in the lake. As if anyone in the right mind would attempt such a thing, what with the freezing water. The lake plays peekaboo with visitors – visible now shrouded behind a cloud ball the next minute. We again put up at a trekker’s hut there. At night, to keep our spirits high, we tried Tongba. It’s a local alcoholic drink made by seeping warm water through fermented barley. It is of Tibetan origin and is also widely consumed in Nepal. 
Scenes from Tonglu on the way to Sandakphu
The next day we trekked to our summit, Sandakphu which is 7km from Kalipokhari via Bikhey bhanjan. The stretch from Kalipokhari to Sandakphu goes through the Singalila national park. The ascent was steeper than the day before and our bodies had begun answering back. Nevertheless, the splendid scenery along the way kept us upbeat. The last few meters before the summit are always the most difficult. There is a constant feeling of getting there but not quite. The moment when the clouds part to reveal the peak, within touching distance is a moment of unadulterated joy. 
The evening was cloudy and we were robbed of the famous sunset views.
We chose to make the best of a bad situation by heading to Aal. Aal is a half hour walk from Sandakphu. Some trekkers pitch tents at Aal and there are also a couple of trekkers hostels. Most trek guides bunk here. We sipped some more Tongba, a local vodkaesque tipple. We took our turns smoking some very nice and fresh organic matter of very questionable legality. This went along with stories from the seasoned trekking guides. The walk back to Sandakphu was in the fading light of dusk that lent an eerie beauty to the peaks. The sky was lit up in a hundred shades of orange with the drifting white clouds forming a magical background for the silhouettes of the mountains. Throw in some denuded rhododendron branches and pine trees and you have a setting fit for movies. 
Million Dollar Views of the Sandakphu Sunrise
Lovely sunrise viewed from Sandakphu
The first rays of the Sun
We spent the night at Sherpa Chalet, which is among a handful of places to stay in Sandakphu. The grind was over. Well almost. The view we were about to be treated to next morning was the piece de resistance. We woke up at 5am to get our fix of the majestic sunrise. Slowly but surely, the sun’s rays started lighting up Kanchenjunga. We saw the unique “Sleeping Buddha” formation of Kanchenjunga which is only visible from Sandakphu. We got exquisite views of 4 of the 5 highest peaks in the world – Mt Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse & Makalu – all except Godwin Austen. Not all summiteers are lucky to find fair weather that allows such memorable views. We counted our blessings and I made a mental note to do this more often.


Sleeping Buddha formation of Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu
The Sleeping Budhdha: Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu
Homeward Bound
At around 10am on Day 4, satiated with the sights we took in at dawn, we began our descent. We descended through Gurdung to Srikhola. It is a topic of frequent conversation among trekkers on whether the ascent is tougher or the descent. A wise man put it aptly. During the ascent, the descent seems easier and during the descent, ascent feels like the easier bit. We stopped for the night at the riverside village Srikhola, after walking downhill for about 17km. When almost nearing Srikhola, we spotted a house with some country chicken grazing. We picked one up to be freshly roasted on a fire to celebrate our conquest of the peak and a safe descent thereafter.
Roast chicken on barbeque
Our guide Mingma roasted a country chicken for us!
Final Musings!


Somewhere during our descent, we finally came back to cellular network coverage after four days and informed our families of our safety and well being. Being away from the connected life provided a great opportunity for introspection and for attaining peace with oneself. Free from worldly distractions, we also truly enjoyed the company of friends. For some time, it felt like we were back in our hostel days when each other’s company was ample entertainment and no digital diversions were needed. The trek was a lesson in finding contentment in simpler things and being grateful for things that we consider an entitlement. We came back with very tired bodies but perfectly refreshed souls. 
Himalayan trekkers
The victors are posing!