Blessings!!!

It was a beautiful day when we decided to head towards the Satapada side of the beautiful Chilika lake. Little did I realise that I was in tryst with history and spirituality. Well yes, I was aware that I would be going down the Srikethra road, Puri but the knowledge of the heritage and that too of this small places was absolutely unknown to me. That is when the elders and people in the locality share their expertise. As we took the outer road bypassing puri, we got onto the road to Chilika, Satapada. 20161006_091244I was surprised with the quality of the road that we drove on. The Odisha government seems to have really maimage031de the roads comfortable & driver friendly. The drive on these beautiful road is flanked by coconut trees and lush paddy fields. It was that time of the season when the paddy fields were filled with lily. They gave the place a beautiful combination of white and green.

A drive of 20 kms from the Shree Jagannath temple, we came up to a small
bustling Odisha village of Bentapur at Brahmagiri. The main road divides the village of Bentapur and the hoarding will guide you to the temple. The temple which is hardly a 300 meter drive  of the main road, through a small lane enough for two small cars to pass through.

The narrow lane opens up as we come close to the entrance of the temple which seems to have been bathed in white. The architectural design is similar to that of the Shree Jagannath temple at Puri. One could say this to be a miniature version of the main temple.

I parked my car and paid Rs 30/- for parking in front of the temple. There is not much space though to park anywhere there.

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There is a folklore which takes us back to “Satya yuga” where Lord Brahma prayed for Lord Vishu on top of a hill. Being mighty pleased with the way Lord Brahma worshiped and prayed, Lord Vishu asked him to build a four armed idol made of single black stone carrying his four symbols.. Sankha, Chakra, Gada & Padma (Conch, Disc, Mace & Lotus) and since Lord Brahma prayed on this hill top, it came to be named as Brahmagiri (Hill of Brahma).

There are many mixed stories that have emerged with regard to the name and establishment of this temple. One speaks of its connection with North of this country, which brings Rajasthan down here all the way to Puri as the rulers of Alwar, Rajasthan who are supposed to have built this temple and hence the name, Alwarnath or Alarnath.

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While there is another that talks about the high priests from the south, prior to Shri Ramnujacharya, known as Alvars had come down to perform the puja and hence the name Alvar-natha or Lord of Alvars.

This temple as per records was built by King Madan Mahadev in 1128 AD.

It is said that, when Lord Jagannath goes into Anavasara (Two weeks of rest when the lord gets high fever) and is not accessible to anyone. This happens just after the annual bathing ritual (Snana yatra) during the months of June / July every year. During this period, the devotees go to “Alarnath Temple” and get his blessings. The crowd really swells up during those fourteen days.

31280812052_ff353db71f_oOnce you get into the sanctum, one would be mesmerised by the beautiful four handed pitch black Idol. When the crowd is less, the priest also does talk about the folklore of the lord having burnt his thumb and some places on his chest as hot rice milk pudding (Kheer) had fallen on him while HE was trying to have it. It had slipped and fallen over HIM. The priest did remove the flowers to show us the spots. Today the Kheer is the prasad that one could get in the morning and evening hours.

It is said that this idol has resemblance to that of Lord Krishna except that this idol also signifies aggression and protection at the same time.

30618118693_fbf4c089a3_oThe expanse around is beautiful and quite. There are some old stone carvings that seemed to have fallen off. The sculptures do talk about the beauty and grandeur of architecture and craftsmanship of that era.

There is a Goddess Lakshmi temple inside the same compound. It is said that the idol was dug out by a local priest from a nearby place and placed within the same compound as 31425511925_79714a23be_oShe being his consort. The idol has a very peaceful look and one could be mesmerised by being in its mere presence.

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu being a great devotee of Krishna and that of Lord Jagannath, has a temple next to Lord Alarnath’s sanctum. It is said that when Sri Chaitanya lay down to pay his prayers, the stone below him melted by his sheer power.

As we stepped out of the temple, on the left is Brahma Gaudiya Math. It houses Lord Chaitanya, Sri Sri Radha Krishna & a small idol of Alarnath. There is a cow shed which is managed by the ashram too.

As we left the place after a couple of hours being there, the idol and the mesmerising aura stays with you for a long time…

I was counting my blessings to have had another opportunity of pure Bliss!!

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Fort Art!!!

“Expect the unexpected!!”

fortkochi-1The word fort raises so much expectations and imaginations of what could be there. I too had an imagination of huge walls, fortification, palatial place … Well, all that was about to happen when we stepped into the ferry to go to Kochi Fort, a small island off the mainland.

As we stepped out, we were welcome by the beautiful Chinese nets that adorn the shoreline of Fort Kochi island. They seem to be a symbol of Kochi, standing there fabulous against the beautiful cloud cover and the ever present Arabian Sea… As we walked further into the fort area the realisation dawned in that there is no more of a fort existing and there are only remains of those classic era in the form of few monuments spread across the island. Today there are many beautiful shops and restaurants that cover the expanses of the island.

As we walked further, I was stunned with what caught my eyes. It was an expression offortkochi-2 love, emotions, life and most important to me was.. an expression of freedom… All that was spread and beautifully captured on the walls of various houses and shops. Letting people and artists use these empty spaces to express their feelings and emotions in an open public canvas. It was just not one wall that was let to get decorated rather there were walls all through out the space that we walked around.

fortkochi-3On one where there was the expression of freedom and free thinking, there was another talking about an emotional connect. Some showcased the modern trend of love to that of just geometrical graphic designs to express the elephant inside.. There were more of metaphorical connections that one could think off as we walked across the streets and feel awe around.

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Free Birdie

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Life and Fun

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Get those colourful wings on..

It is a delight to see how beautifully these walls have been used as a form of expressions. I had never expected Fort Kochi to be a such a beautiful treasure-house of art work in an open frame… It was like peeking through the Veil..

Such an incredible place and incredible art… Imagination flew along with me as we caught the ferry back to the main land..
What mesmerizes me is how do people get such beautiful creative ideas to express.??

Chausathi Jogini – Mahamaya

Sixty and four are the instruments of enjoyments that tempt the individual soul (jiva). Sixty and four are the divisions (kalas) within jiva; Sixty and four are the chambers of jiva’s chakras; Sixty and four; where Shiva-Shakti reside.”

– Thirumandiram V. 1418

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India has been and am sure will continue to be a land of radical thoughts and beliefs. It is a country that has been a confluence of beliefs and existence of them in different places and almost at similar times. Many had emerged, caught onto the believes of peoples and with the advent of a newer system, many of ancient traditions went away into oblivion until they were researched and practiced in pockets.

Odisha, the eastern state of India has not only been an historical place but also a place where the cultural and religious beliefs have come into existence. Buddism, Saivaism, Jainism, Shaktaism and later Vaishnavism have been prevalent for many years here. It is well known that the worshiping of Mother Goddess is an integral part of the Hinduism, but  it also branched off into Shaktaism for its uniqueness and Tantric practices. The cult was prevalent from the 9th century AD to 12 century AD and flourished well as people started to look out for different ways to connect with the all mighty. To me, it does symbolise the diversity and the openness to not only believe but also practices of different cultures was open and accepted.

Bhubaneswar or Ekamra Khetra (as it was known earlier) has been a seat for Devi (Goddess mother) and Tantric Pujas. The evidences can well be seen in some of the temples that were created and the idols prayed.

One such symbol of Devi puja is the “Chausathi Jogini” (64 Jogini) temple on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar at Hirapur. A temple dedicated to the “Women who possess magical  Powers”. It is well said that, a true Jogini is one who is an enlightened woman possessing exuberant passion, spiritual powers and deep insight.

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In India there are close to 12 such temples that have been discovered and ASI has taken over to protect it. The one at Hirapur is the smallest of all. All the Jogini temples are circular in nature and do not have a roof (hypaethral). They are open in nature.

I had spent my childhood at Bhubaneswar but never knew about this place, it was only while researching about some other locations, I accidentally stumbled upon this beautiful open temple. They say, “when the lord calls, you visit”. It was exactly that, after close to 2 years of planning to visit this place, I visited “Chausathi Jogini” temple. It had poured the previous night and as we started for the place. The place turned out to have had a good wash and ready to receive us. We crossed the small bridge over the Kuakhai river and entered the paddy fields.

The directions are very clearly laid out and the roads are very good though narrow. The temple is surrounded by some lush green paddy fields. It was as though guarding the temple from outsiders. The smallness of the temple took us by surprise but once you enter the temple you would largely be struck by the beautiful sandstone sculptures.

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Betal

The entrance would be 5 feet in height and has a small vestibule guarded by two Betals on either side. On the inner sides as you enter the place you will find 64 Yogini sculptures. The temple would be around 30 feet or so in diameter with a square mandap (Platform) in the centre.

 

Each sculpture is so so different from one other. They not only seem to represent the various avatars but are so feministic in their nature. Some have beautiful faces while some have taken up animal faces. The hairdos and the ornaments are also unique to each one, wether it is the armlet, anklet, bangles necklace or even the earrings. All the avatars are standing on top of either an animal or a musical instrument. Each symbolising a significant nature of the avatar. Some of the avatars are Rudra (Ferocious) while some are calm. Some faces are human whiles some have animal heads.

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The 31st idol is “Mahamaya” which is the main idol and is prayed daily. She is the only one who is ten armed goddess among the 64 idols. During the Dusshera Puja there are special rituals that are done here. On the Dusshera day, even today there is a sacrifice in this temple but that is of a Fish. A symbolic of appeasing the goddess. Interestingly at Yogini 61, there is no idol. It seems to be the same one at some of the other yogini temples too. I felt it depicting that “No Form” is also a “Form”… I have seen such earlier at Belur and some other temples in southern India too.

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Puja performed for Mahamaya

At the centre of the temple is the mandap is also called the Chandi mandap or yogini mandap. It is said that there was a lord Shiva idol as Nataraja which was worshiped in the centre. This image of Lord Shiva is also called Moha Bhairav. There are four Bhairavs at the four pillars of the mandap. This is also considered as the seat for Tantric puja & rituals.

 

The outside of the temple is guarded by two dwarapals and on the outer wall are the nine Katyayanis. The Katyayani are standing on a smiling severed human head. Some have swords while most of them have an umbrella cover held by one of their helps.

One could feel the goosebumps with the energy that this place could generate. The power of women in its urga or ferocious form is a testimony of the times when women power and its importance was way significant that what it is now.

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Once you step out of the temple area, you are welcome back to the peaceful quite village banyan tree and the pond. As if all the energy source is stabilised by it. We tried to leave the place twice but every time there was something there that held us back and we returned into the temple. What could have been a fifteen minute exploration and prayers, turned out to be more than an hour.odisha-412

I am a novice into spirituality but I am really mesmerised by the bold acceptance of that era to depict and present a different aspect of life. An era where equality might not have just been stated but would also been practiced and respected.

We left the place with lots of peace and bliss. It also taught me what acceptance of different beliefs could do to human beings. It would help in exploring the non existent me within me for sure.

Odisha offers one so much to explore that, the more I discover.. I realise how less I know about this beautiful eastern state of India… Really Incredible Odisha and certainly Incredible India!!!

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Sublime ecosystem – Chilika

 

odisha-325Chilika, the shallow brackish lagoon on the south eastern part of Odisha, today is an integral part of the state. A distinctive landmark that is not only well established from tourism perspective but also is well know for its “Tiger Prawn” cultivation worldwide. A landmark that was once a maritime hub with a rich history, today largely remains a source of livelihood through tourism and prawn cultivation. This pear shaped lagoon stretches 64.3 Kms across Puri, Khurda & Ganjam districts of Odisha. Apart from being a support to the human livelihood, this natural beauty is a mother to the 225 species of fish ecology and it hosts 160 different species during peak migratory season.

This was my second visit to this beautiful lagoon. My first trip was some 11 years ago from Berahmpur side. The vastness was what pulled my interest. This time I was more excited as I wanted to see the beautiful lake from the Puri side. Also, this part of the lake has the lesser known Irrawaddy Dolphins. The fascination drove us down to visit the place once again.

Well, how much early that I think of starting, still ended up leaving only by 7.30 am from Bhubaneswar. The newly laid outer ring road is very smooth to drive and is a toll road today. The stretch of 135 kms took us 4 hours with some stops in-between for breakfast and at Alarnath Temple on the way.

It was a beautiful drive, also which cut off from the Puri main road. on our way we could see the great Jagannath temple. The Puri – Satapada road is filled with lilies on both the sides. It was a sight to see, awesome will be an understatement.

As we entered the Satapada area, we were almost chased down by a biker. He waved his hand vigorously and wanted us to stop. I slowed down the car to a stop, as I rolled down the window I realised that he was one of the local guys trying to get people for the boat rides. If one is not careful you could actually end up paying a higher price. The IMG_20161106_214234.jpggovernment owned boards are much cheaper and better which is near the lake boating point. We left him and trusted on the GPS to guide us to the spot. We were welcome by a small toll booth who showed us the way forward. We finally happened to reach at the lake boating area by 11.30 am. As we happen to get down there were a bunch of fishermen odisha-213community guys got hold of us positioning their deal for a boat ride. Though hesitant to pick it up we managed to get a good deal for three hours, which included Dolphin viewing, Rajhans island and Muhana (The lake mouth meeting the sea). We stacked up our ration of water, juices and snacks and went ahead to the boat designated for us.

After having exchanged the pleasantries our boats man pushed the boat into the main water. It was really unexpected of us that we would see the Dolphins within five minutes into the lake. It was a family of three that came up the surface and then ducked into the water. They were swift and moved very rapidly. Catching them on camera once needs to understand the patterns in their movement. Finally I managed to get their bums shot. It was an real beautiful experience to see them.

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Irrawaddy Dolphins

These dolphins are so different from that of the regular ones that one sees and reads about. According to a census in 2010 there are only 156 dolphins in Chilika. Hope the number have gone up now rather than nose diving.
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After our beautiful rendezvous with these mammals we headed off on a solitary trip to Rajahans Island. Chilika being spread over such a huge water space, there happens to be many small islands and water ways are a very strong mode to move from one island to another, as well as connecting it to the main land. One would also see the intricate spread of fishing nets either for catching the fish or prawn. These nets also become a good hunting ground for birds to get their hunger satiated.

20161006_123044By the time we reached Rajhans island it was already 1.00 pm and we were exhausted odisha-296because of the sun heat and the water around. But the breeze happened to be a good solace in the whole drive.

Rajhans was a small beautiful island, in-between the lake and the sea on the other side. The heat was really strong and the Akashiya shade was a real solace. Oh must say, the beach gave a feeling of odisha-298peace and was an amazing place for doing some great photo shoot. We spent close to 20 mins there before we headed back to our boat for our return. For the heat and the hunger that had caught us by now, we decided to skip the lake mouth. The sea shore at Rajhans was reassuring enough for the day.

We reached back at the shore in another 45 mins and that was a killer of time. Exhausted and parched. Was wondering how our boatsman managed to stand in that hot sun all this while and we the delicate lot even under the tarpaulin sheet were feeling the heat. Well nature has its own way of balancing it I suppose. The cool breeze made us to catch up with couple of winks before we reached our destiny.

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Lunch stop after the ride

The hungry souls finally got satisfied with a feast on awesome fresh sea food catch. You name it and it was there and the food was of local flavour which was finally topped up with some delightful pan (beetle leave).

Though the journey back was in the cool air condition of the car but the heart was left behind in the pristine waters of Chilika, as if it beckoned us to come back again and be a part of that wonder….

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Some experiences:

  • Avoid the touts trying to lure you in for a private trip.
  • Cover you head with caps and wear loose cotton clothes. 
  • Carry loads of drinking water while on the boat.
  • Carry fruit juices and not aerated drinks. You could juices near the boating area.
  • Liquor is not allowed on the boats.
  • Try to get a covered boat
  • There are no proper restrooms around
  • Food for vegetarians could be a challenge
  • Swatch Bharat… the place is relatively clean, try and keep it that way.

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Chuk Chuk…

A traveler am I and a navigator, and ever day I discover a new region within my soul
– Kahlil Gibran

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The multi wheel carriages running on two tracks carrying many dreams, ambitions, sadness, love, apprehensions and what not that a human being could go through has always been a fascination for me even in this flight era. Someone recently at office asked me as I shared that I will not be at Office for the following week,

He: oh!! so you are flying off on Friday??
Me: No.. Catching the train in the evening..
He: Really, it is a long journey.. 20 hours.. It will be tiresome. You should have caught the flight, save time.
Me: (Smiling) Oh, I did not think it that way. Yeah it would take time but I would love every moment of it with my family. It is full “FAMILY TIME!!”.

He was not sure, what to say after that and we both had a good laugh..

It’s really a treasure trove for me every time I get started with my train travel plans.

Right from the moment, I book the train tickets, the wait and the anticipation is on the rise. Anticipation for the remembrance of childhood memories, a sense of freedom and a desire to meet and talk to strangers.

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The Indian Railways, is one of the longest and the most complicated rail networks of the world. From the first train that got launched in 1853 when am sure, people would have been looking at it with awe and admiration then to the latest high speed trains that are getting experimented from Delhi to Mumbai and many. The awe and admiration still remains the same. The network today runs over 115,000 Kms across carrying millions of passengers daily. There are many known and unknown interesting facts that the Indian Railways throws up.

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Technology todays has helped us avoid the jammed up railway ticketing counters but the fight to booking the tickets still runs high. Can’t complain when you have more than 13 lakh tickets being booked in a day through IRCTC portal. Just imagine the amount of traffic that IRCTC would be facing for these bookings.

As I have grown over the years the accessibility to AC coaches have become a part of life and the travels are becoming more and more comfortable. Having said so, I do miss those lovely moments when I would wake up to the sound of a chia wala (Tea vendor) or the smell of a hot snack at any railway platform. The beauty is that, each station has its own brand and popularity. I remember once catching a local train from Sambalpur to Bhubaneswar years back, and the train stopped at Boinda station. People jumped off the train as it came to a halt to have the very famous local bara and Aloo chop (Vada & Potato balls). (I am already  salivating as I share this.) This station is a junction and people literally have their breakfast in the morning as the train halts for 15 – 20 mins. Post the breakfast is the hot cup of tea on those small clay pots which are now very common in the Eastern part of the country.

Or the Bread Omlet at Vijaywada station as the train to east from Chennai halts in the morning hours. Am sure, each of us have a wonderful connection with many of these stations. It makes you feel closer to home.

Well, the pantry services is no different experience which one goes with. Now the services have improved and are way better off, though a long way to go. Train journeys tend to become gastronomic journeys too. Remember my childhood days when my mom would pack up tiffin boxes and snack packs for the travel to last for 18 hours. The moment the train leaves the station, there is an auto trigger for the hunger to kick in. So what, if I had had my breakfast or lunch or dinner just before we left home. 🙂

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Enjoying the breeze

The longer the journeys is towards home, the more the impatience as the destination gets closer. I tend to move myself away from my seat and stand at the door. The fresh breeze hits harder as the train chugs along. My mind pushes the train harder to fly on those lovely tracks as the rice fields fly past me. During this month’s travel, I was standing with my son at the door (who was there for the first time) and I could see the excitement in him and the nostalgia that it created for me. Off course one needs to be cautious and careful but this today has become a part of life no matter if the train is long distance or local train. The freshness that this experience leaves is heavenly.

As a child going in the sleeper class coach during rainy season was a delight. I would be chasing the rain drops as they would crash against the shut glass window pane and run down to meet the other water droplets. Dreams get created and smiles tend to appear at the corner of the lips.. then and even now it does so, no matter how old one gets.
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Indian Railways, with what ever shortfalls that it has.. it does not matter once you are on the train. Someone rightly said and I have seen it happening, “It is a beautiful journey where strangers meet and become friends to part again and may be to meet again”.

There are so many stories that one can go on and on. There is an unending list one shares in these journeys with not only the passengers but also the caterers, the TT, vendors at the station. All hoping to have a moment of fleeting emotion to be shared with.

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Train Bridge over River Godavari

Rightly said and with all love, I do connect with the same tag line of Indian Railways,
“Lifeline to the nation”

Every journey is worth living for!!! … Can’t wait for the next trip….

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Col Saheb Island – Munroe

Calm and deep, is what it feels
Green and blue, are the hues it shows
Meandering as is, interwoven with life
Nature and people, love these sides

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It was after spending the day with the Stallions, we headed out for our one day trip to the boat ride that we had planned. Boat rides, one normally connected with that of a typical Kerala boat and we were no different. The meandering road took us down to the ferry place. This ferry services connected two sides of the land which was well connected by train services and road. The road services were cut down by nearly 20 Kms, which was a big thing as the roads are so serpentine that a few person could throw up.

As we took a right turn at one of road which was running beautifully next to a canal and coconut trees, we reached a dead end. This is where the road met the open expanses of water. The ferry boat from here would take us to the other end, where out beautiful boat ride was to begin. As we reached we realised that we were a wee bit slow. The ferry boat just left our end of the the Ashtamudi lake and moved to the other end. We got down from the car and enjoyed the calmness and non hurried atmosphere. Father and son, got into the mode of posing, sitting on the road next to the bank where the boat had left and enjoying the breeze. Least that I realised that my wife had got shooting us (It was a good surprise when I was going through the pics 🙂 )…

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Kollam-105As our ferry came back, people got on to it and then slowly the loading of three cars, a mini truck and close to 15 bikes got on. It took us 5 minutes to go to the other side of the lake. The place we reached was the Munroe Island. One of the Island that got naturally created by the backwaters. The area was formed by the Asthamudi lake (Astha mudi – Eight coned). It is a beautiful wetland ecosystem.  This place also got its name from the British Colonel

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Train line connecting the Island

Munroe who was a resident of the erstwhile Travancore district.Kollam-143

We again got into the meandering roads before we reached our man who was going to be our guide, Mr. Regu further. As we got down, the first predicament was that our language. With all the question mark my partner started in hindi:

She: Apko hindi ata hai (Do you know Hindi?)
Mr. Regu: Madamji, humko ata hai. Hum hindustani hai. Hindi rastrabhasha hai (Madam, I know Hindi, I am an Indian and Hindi is our national language).

The moment he finished, we all burst into laughter and that is it… He took us on a small foot path serpentine through the banana plantation. He deftly handed us over to his oars man, stating us to come back by 1 pm. While doing that Regu said to us.

Aapko jaldi ana tha, bahut jagah ghum sakte the. Late ho gaya abhi. No problem, enjoy and  Lunch ke liya aa jana. (You should have come early, could have gone to many more places. You came in late. No problem, enjoy and come back for lunch)

 

Kollam-175We smiled as we got into the small canoe kind of boat. Not the typical Kerala boathouse and we got to know why as the journey started.. To begin the rain Gods said, let me sprinkle some Kerala water on you.. It was such a bliss feeling as the boat moved and our old oarsman handed over the umbrellas that he had for such occasion. It seemed very normal for him. We were all speechless for five minutes as

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Our oarsman

the boat started to more. All forgot about the scare we had with water and the shake of the water. We were all immersed in the true beauty of the nature. It was simply pristine.

As we moved more into the natural canals, realised what all this country has. It was a water system that was the life line for the people over there. People would park their boats at the side of the canal and got the nearby grocery shop to pick up their daily things. The coir industry is an industry that thrives side by side. Kollam like any other place in Kerala does have a thriving coir industry and coir products being produced in the back yards. We parked our boat for a tea break and also stopped to lay our hands on making coir ropes. It was really a delight to see how a simple single coir strand could turn out to be a strong rope that could hold any weight.

After spending some time and our expertise in making ropes we got back onto the boat for the further boat ride. One could see the beautiful ecosystem as to how the birds and people Kollam-227have co-existed there. We saw many white headed eagles that seemed to be thriving on the fishes there. It is so difficult to describe the beauty that surrounds you there. Our oars man took us from a big canal into the small canals under the foot bridges. There is fish cultivation along with Paddy and off course coconut cultivation in the area. We stopped near one of the paddy fields where our oarsman gave us fresh coconut to drink without a straw. It was really a good balancing act trying to drink. As we kept moving from one canal to another, we could see the livelihood around. People would smile and wave back. They were so used to seeing new faces. Our oarsman would go on exchanging his news with folks as they cross each one house after the other.

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As we ended our trip the rain gods again showered on us to treat us good bye. But, out journey was yet to be over. Mr. Regu, picked us from there and took us to a small boathouse for a lavish typical Non Vegetarian lunch. For a change this was complete sea food lunch. We had, Kareemen fish fry, Kareemen fish curry, Crab masala, Prawn curry,

vegetable, Kerala rice and butter milk. It was a mesmerising food. I had never hogged food the way I did that day on the boathouse. We invited Regu to share the Lunch with us, we had a very a fun filled time. His Malayalam dialect Hindi was the beautiful highlight. An army guy after having served the country now is focused on giving a customer delight. He has a small stay home where one could stay for days or weeks or months. Simple people with a very friendly approach. That defined who he was.

We came back from Munroe island with loads of freshness. As we drove back, my body was in the car and in the flight back to Chennai but my mind lingered over the water canals and the mesmerising freshness of silence and air. It was one to stay long with me..

Kollam-239We left the place and kept chatting about the various little things we saw… Hard to believe we have such beautiful places and branding has not happened much. It is really an incredible country having some spending places to explore…

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Love it all!!!

 

Charred Ivory :(

Steamy flavoured “Kashmiri Pulav”, blissful “Dragon chicken” (Indian style sweet stir fry shredded chicken) and to top it up was the “Gajar ka Halwa” (typical carrot sweet dish). All served at the beautiful exotic Taj.The beautiful aroma and the delightful colours would lift the spirits of any person. My son was on all his enthusiasm and vigour to get digging into his plate and there I was with my eyes stuck on the “Cashews”…

I seem to have been transported to the recent visit of the cashew factory at Kollam, Kerala. I was all excited to see and know more as to how the cashews are sent to its customers. It was around 1.30 pm that we reached on to a deserted road leading to these huge gates of a Kollam-301factory. As the gates opened we were into a place of cold silence. We thought that it was a holiday that day but then a view at the polythene packets resting right next to the wall and the slippers which seemed to be guarding them was the testimony that people are there. But where were these people??

Our driver went inside as we were left wondering what is next!! That is when I could see our driver calling us to come over to a place that looked like an office. We met Manoj, the supervisor of the place. He was neatly dressed and seated in his office with piles of notes and paper. I could not see any computers, in this machine era. It seemed as though they trusted the old system more than the systems. He said, he will guide us on this “Cashew factory” tour..

Kollam-257Just adjoining the office place onto the left hand side was a godown filled with sacks of Cashew nut. Beautiful Green and brown coloured nuts oozing out from the sacks. The first thought was wow.. “All this from Kerala” and he was prompt in saying.. “No Sir, this comes from Ivory Coast. Indian supply is only for 3 months and not more than that. So we import Cashew nuts”. And here I was in  thought that “India was self sufficient in this”. A quick google search made me realise that Maharastra, Tamil Nadu & Odisha lead in Cashew production in India. Kollam-256Kerala is at a meagre fourth. And, India contributes to around 28% of the world’s cashew supply.

This particular factory seems to have found it cheaper to import it from Africa rather than from Indian states.

Well from there these cashew went into a furnace where they would be heated up to help the nut cases loosen up and the main fruit to be easy to come out. These furnaces were manually managed. The oil that comes out of these nuts was sticking onto the walls of the furnace and giving it a sticky pitch black look. That place even though was not functional one could feel the heat to be atleast 20 degrees more than the surrounding. To me it looked

like a murder site in the dark alleys.

From here on the charred cashews are taken up for manual deshelling. It was really a dingy site with atleast 40 – 50 women hunched on one side of the room manually breaking open

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Deshelling of Cashews..

the nuts and on the other side were the men who were using the manual machine to open the shells. Both seemed painstaking and laborious. There is no automated way of deshelling, one had to go the manual way. What stayed very sad with me was the working condition. The air seemed still and suffocating under the asbestos sheets. The human voice was also lost out in the sound of cracking shells.Kollam-268Kollam-272

The women folk seemed to be from Kerala locals while the men were up up north and east. Many of them had there for the last 4-5 years and now fluent in Malayalam. These young boys were happy to send back money home and did not mind the environment as long as the money came in. They helped us also put our hands to work. While doing so, they did tell us to be careful of the oil coming out of the cashew as that could destroy the nails if not cared for.

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Removing the cashew oil

One of them was oiling his hand well to ensure that the Cashew oil did not stick to his skin. These men were doing all this work without any gloves.

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Cashew shells & Cashew

Once the deshelling is over, the brownish looking cashews move to be heated up again. And can you believe the shelled cases are used to heat up the same furnaces that are used to loosen them up. No external resources used to burn the furnace,  all self sustaining.

As one moves to the heating area, you are welcomed into a room which is constantly Kollam-276maintained at 100 degrees. And the furnace was even more. Stacks of Cashew trays are pushed into the furnace by this gentleman who is the only man managing it day in and out. Lifting and tying his lungi, he was back to his work with a smile. His shirt was his second skin. His beautiful smile did not even tell the heat and strain he was bearing on. I tried to push the cart into the furnace, I had a second bath and realised it was not an easy job at all, like the way he made it look like.

Once these cashews are cooled down, they move to the cleaning area. It is here that one see more light and air flowing. The supervisor of the room had his chair up ahead in the room, right between the two rows. He would walk up and down just to keep an eye on the women working. He was the only male member in the room filled with women. These women would segregate the cashews based

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Heated Cashews

on them being full or split or broken or smaller broken pieces. When we started interacting, there was giggle on the floor as if that was their fun time. But, none stirred from their places. Some sat on armed plastic chairs, while some on plastic stools hunched up. Towards the fag end of the room there were women seated on the floor too. They seemed more comfortable that way. The cashews were neatly stacked into different baskets and moved to the next room for final inspection and cleaning.

In the next room which was equally well lit, women were busy cleaning the cashews, some where scrapping the skin of the cashews to look ivory white. The deftness with which they worked on that said all about their skill. We tried our hand on one and by the time we ran the small knife for the second time, the cashew broke into two. There was a giggle and laughter looking at our clumsiness. These women were so friendly that they never would give a feel that they are unhappy. Some of them came from long distances every morning and return back in the evening.

As we stepped out of the room, our eyes felt on the shed next door and we realised that there was another similar set up for cleaning and a bunch of women ran to that side with crates full of hot cashews to be cleaned. In between the two sheds was the rest room, the stink could make one run away.

From here the cashews moved to the final packing area far away from this factory. There they put the cashews through the final inspection and hopped into big polythene bags. They are vacuum sealed with nitrogen air to protect the precious product before being sold. These were sold in the local and international markets at high prices. We also managed to pick up a 1 kg bag of cashew.

As we moved away from the factory, what remained with me was this smoked bellowing factory and the gleeful happy faces inspite of all the odds that they faced. All this to ensure that the end customer happens to get a shining white full Cashew to enjoy his or her “Kashmiri Pulav” or “Gajar ka Halwa”.

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Stallions!!

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Flip around & laugh
Double jump & giggle
Hip hop & roll
Fly high & a high five

Early morning at the beach is like a recharge for the fluttering soul. It was a beautiful bright morning on the Quilon beach when we had just settled down to the serenity around. Quilon beach has one of the choppiest beach, and one could still find calmness to recharge 16 - 1oneself. As I turned around, I found two friends lying down on the beach with one holding a piece of paper which looked like a letter.. This fellow would fold it and keep it in the pocket and then again remove it to read it.. It took me back to the times when some of these papers were a treasure to hold on to, unlike today.

As the time went by, we got up and started walking towards the other end of the beach to feel the expanses of Arabian sea. With every step we felt the sea was welcoming us with a bigger roar.. One could just soak it all in. We walked almost close to the ship that had broken down five years back and now is docked on the beach. the waves were splashing against it giggling at the fate that this beast of the sea was at. It was a beautiful sight.. Having walked for more than a kilometre we decided to do an about turn and return..Kollam-86

A high flip at a distant that caught my eye and I turned to my partner to share a point of admiration just to realise that she was already walking up to that group of people doing the flips and summersaults. With me and my camera, the actions began to rise and I started my shoots. With her discussions, got to know that these bunch of people were just kids. The youngest of all was 15 years while the eldest being that of 19 years..

When asked what they are doing, none of them hesitated to state that they were practicing dance and wanted to be “Back Stage Dancers”

That made us more curious and asked, why back stage, why not in the front.. Pat came the response, “Sir, there is more dance in the back stage and we love to dance. Yes we do participate in dance competitions”.

That statement intrigued us more and we went questioning..

Us: So who is your coach?? where is your master?
Kids: We do not have a coach, we train ourselves

Us: Train Ourselves!! mean?
Kids: Madam, we believe in team work. No boss here, anyone has good idea and we take that up”
(And here in office, we are creating structures to have work done with fun.. The kids were pushing me to think beyond now!!)

Us: Where do you compete and perform?
Kids: We perform on TV, many a times and we participate in local competitions. You should come during Onam, it is lots of fun. Do come and see us perform!!

The beauty was that, two would answer and the others would be doing their practice.. This photo and discussions were like normal thing. We continued and the kids kept coming back to respond 🙂

Us: You all stay close by?
kids: No sir, most of stay in atleast 2 kms away. All are from different places. None of us from Quilon area. Some of us work too, so early morning practice and then we are off to our work or school.
(They are teaching me what hard work and passion means!!! I was stunned!!)

Us: So what do you call your gang as?
Kids: STALLIONS!!

Impressed we asked them can you do a small show for us they all giggled and said, “Sir, there is no music”..

“So what ever you guys can do, would love to do a small video”, we asked and they were more than glad to show their moves… A beautiful practice.. https://youtu.be/E5UJtwqlq3U

At the end we said, we would love to have a selfie with you all. So that when you get famous we could remember you all..

One of them ran and grabbed his shirt for the pic… “So far all practice.. now the time to do the branding and that should be done well”..16 - 1-2

As we moved from that high energy place, I learned a lot and more so was running high on our energy levels.. Fully charged and were carrying extra batteries 🙂

They were really the Stallions, filled with Passion and energy to go beyond they current situation. Live the moment and share the energy that could ignite anyone…

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Sea Witch

Curled and hanging
Lapping against the water
Calling to come close
Sharing the tenderness in its lap!!!

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220 Kms to the south of Chennai as you drive down past the old French colony of Pondicherry, one would normally miss out this quite place filled with Mangrove forest… PITCHAVARAM.  It is 10 kms before Chidambaram.. This is the Sundarbans of South and undoubtedly one of the largest in India.

Happened to find this place accidentally while scouting about Chidambaram and Cuddalore. It really was a big surprise and not many of friends even had an idea of any such place. It felt like, the little brother of Sundarbans which I have been planning to

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Roots of the trees…

travel to for a while. We reached there by 8.00 am and were asked to wait. The place is pretty a clean and well maintained by the government. We opened our breakfast box, though there is a canteen but that was also not open and we were not sure of what we could get. Finally at around 8.30 am the counter opened and we were the first ones to pick the tickets. We paid Rs 275 /- for an hour ride in the mangrove. But once we got in we negotiated another one hundred bucks with the boatman and that was a good deal actually for an additional 30 mins ride.

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The fruit

One of the most terrible thing was that none of us realised the heat that the place would generate and we had missed our caps or umbrella in the car, thank God that we had our water bottles. The 400 mtrs of open sky was a killer, till we reached one of the canals. The sun was at its best show and we felt being steam baked at 37 degrees. Well the moment the boat turned into the mangrove canals it was a heavenly feel. He took us from one to the other and it was as if the time had stood frozen. One could see the beautiful roots of these majestic trees hanging everywhere as if a witch has had a bad hair day, but somehow looked very pretty and lovely. We were also cautioned about our head banging against any tree root, some of the roots ends were pointed too.

Our wonderful boatsman parked the boat against one of the mangroves intertwined trees Logo-5and we were at our best behaviour, climbing onto these amazing tree and it felt like being on a swing. One after the other, we got onto the these strong trees and did our photoshoots and had a good energizer. It is an amazing feeling and with a boatsman giving you the confidence that the trees are secure, we moved from one root to another. It was an amazing feeling.

The trees are so well integrated and spaced out to create close to 4000 odd canals right across the 39 sq kms place. There were plenty of amazing birds that inhabit that place.

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Fisherman, waiting for a good catch

The local community also uses this place for its livelihood by fishing in these waters while big directors create some amazing movies like “Dasavatharam“.

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The government has got a small guesthouse in the middle of the forest too, that one could book and stay overnight. It is a plan for some other time. As of now, we left the place with some amazing chillness and channelled memories…

Incredible India!!!

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Travel Scare – Perceptions!!

It was my first time travel to Europe and more so to fashion and cultural hub, Paris. As usual a lot of my friends had given me a cautious warning about the thugs and petty thief prevalent in Paris, more so you are all alone there…Dup-500

“Be careful about your passport and money”

Oh boy!! I was almost clutching and checking on my pockets for my passport and purse the moment I landed at CDG airport. Felt being foolish and stupid doing that… Anyway, the tape recorded had started playing and I was dancing to its tune. I found out about the metro and got in. The moment I sat down, it seemed everyone was waiting to snatch my little money and the passport. As the train chugged along, I was distracted by the beauty of the nature outside and i stopped playing the record. But with every stop, it would come back.. “Do you see that white guy looking like a thug?? That black guy, that asian.. oh boy!!”..

Dup-452As the train stopped at “Gard du Nord”, I stepped out with my luggage and tried to talk to someone, who outright said, “No English” and I lost in French translation.. blinking.. Someone, spoke to the cops and made my way out of the station. As I stepped out, I felt I was back in India, with the litter and beggars stretched out. I held my luggage tighter after zipping up my jacket… I even avoided making an eye contact with any one, till I realised that my GPS was out and what worked was only the map that I had printed out with the route.. But, “Which is north and east, the paper could not move like a compass”.. Grr, Sid… take hold of yourself and ask!!” That seemed to have woken me up somewhere, and I started asking every passerby… after some five attempts one guy seemed to know english and he helped me… I literally started running through the deserted lanes… the words kept coming back again… “Your PASSPORT, your MONEY”… After running for close to 1 1/2 kms, I reached the nearby metro close to the hotel I was to check in. And that place was swarming with people who were trying to sell cigarettes to things that seemed inappropriate.. Couple of them approached and I ran as if I was on a mission of being invisible and not to be traced.

Dup-480Well somehow I managed to reach my hotel and once in the room, took stock of what had happened and why?? That late evening I again stepped out and just wandered around the streets. Realised that

  • I was over-reacting. Yes I needed to be guarded but not to the extent of panicking. I was asking for more trouble.
  • I lost out on enjoying the space around me and the beauty of the place. I had some moroccan food that evening that I did not even notice.
  • While returning back, I realised how beautiful Gard du Nord station was. I paused and took some pics, soaked in the beauty and walked towards my train to CDG..
  • I have a choice of saying no, taking action rather than playing simply to the tune of my head, which seems looking for trouble rather than looking for some beauty around.

I must say that, I really learnt the choice that day and it helped me in the next few days that I stayed and roamed around the place.. It is amazing!!! more was the Choice of clearing the scare… that is more perception driven than reality.

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