Friday, October 23, 2015

Alleppey A Floating Paradise!

The placid canals and backwaters, massive amount of palm and coconut trees dotted along the backwaters, traditional homes, rich green paddy fields and banana plantations aptly defines what natural beauty is. Kerala is the perfect place to unwind while sipping coconut water and gorging on excellent sea food. Of course a mere mention of Kerala and the first thought that crosses our minds are the houseboats giving you a glimpse of Punammada Lake.

The houseboats on Punnamada lake, which is a part of the longest lake in India- Vembanad, are a pretty sight adding a lot of charm to Alleppey, no wonder it has been named, Venice of  the East. These traditional looking massive built house boats that are in abundance provide all the creature comforts in a luxurious way and complete the whole Kerala Backwater experience making it a pretty sight but cliche. But this most often chosen option of enjoying the Kerala life comes with its own hindrances or loopholes- Traffic jams due to their sheer numbers, docking the boats all of them cramped together at one place at night, limited movement which means less exploration and the food options are not much.

We thought instead of opting for a houseboat it would be best to travel like the locals and take a ferry ride to catch a glimpse of their daily routine. The ferry ride helped us understand how on a daily basis it positively touches millions of lives. We passed through villages that had no roads, saw multiple small channels breaking from the massive backwaters and leading to even smaller and more beautiful villages. Some of these channels were so narrow that they could only be accessed by canoes.

The journey offers breathtaking views of paddy fields, the beautifully scattered churches and schools, the iconic post office and in a true sense we understood how massive and beautiful the backwaters of Kerala are.

It was an awesome sight to see the massive ferry stop on either sides of the banks for locals to alienate and reach their homes. The ferry definitely rules the waters here and it pretty much reminds you of the bus journeys on the road with so many left and right turns combined with a couple of U turns. The ferry clearly wins over the buses as they do not have to face traffic jams, it is an absolute free way! To our astonishment this mighty vessel managed to venture into small and narrow canals with as much ease as a small canoe would have.

Also, from the ferry you can witness various birds from egrets, cormorants to kingfishers busy hunting for fish and some even gracing your camera by posing for photos. We even saw an eagle resting on the compound wall of one of the houses in a village totally comfortable with so much activity around and completely at peace, making us realize once again how awesome and beautiful nature is. She feeds us when we are hungry, quenches our thirst, helps us travel. The least that we should give back is the respect that she deserves.

Since we were in Alleppey to attend the most awaited event of the year- the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, we got excited to see multiple teams prepare for the boat race set to happen the following day. The serene and calm town of Alleppey completely transforms and gives a feel that you are on the sets of action flick 'Fast And Furious.' Every year on the second Saturday of August, the government of Kerala conducts the prestigious 'Nehru Boat Race Festival.' We would definitely rate witnessing the teams sweat it out and practice as the highlight of the ferry ride.

This whole awesome package of a two and a half hour ferry ride with the locals from Alleppey town jetty to Pullicunno church came at an all inclusive price of  INR 15 per person.

We were left speechless when we saw the church on the banks of the water providing a picturesque view. This church with its Portuguese style architecture shot to fame thanks to the Tamil movie "Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa," parts of which were shot in this beautiful church. The church was so peaceful and we were the only visitors, it has a calming aura around it that makes you fall in love with this place almost instantly. We decided to get back by bus and it took us only 40 minutes to reach Alleppey town. If you are short on time or do not wish to take the local ferry there are frequent local buses that ply from Alleppey town to Ramankary with tickets priced at INR 22 per person and as always you have the luxury to hire a cab too.

The best way to explore any place is take a stroll around and you never know what might catch your attention. While walking towards the beach, we came across these beautiful bridges and canals that made us stop and appreciate the beauty all around us.

Alleppey Beach, a beautiful stretch of white sand and deep blue waters, is an ideal destination to watch the sun set in the horizon. It is not way too crowded giving ample space for an evening stroll. Kids and adults can enjoy camel ride and there are couple of eat outs to treat your taste buds. The hot fried peanuts and the view of the sunset makes one's life just perfect, indeed, small things in life give such great pleasure.

The Alleppey lighthouse is also worth visiting. We got to experience Kerala monsoons when we were at the lighthouse. It was a perfect moment with the panoramic view of the massive beach and rail tracks, the thunder of the clouds followed by mighty downpour. Note that the lighthouse is closed on Mondays.

Our enthusiasm to try out Kerala's authentic food had us all pumped up and we were not disappointed at all. Kerala's authentic food will satisfy even the best of food critics. There are plenty of restaurants to dig into for authentic Kerala cuisine and the meals includes Fish gravy, traditional fat red/white rice, two varieties of vegetable curry, sambar/rasam, Morekolambu, buttermilk, pickle, papadam and sweet. The best restaurants to try out the meals in Alleppey are 'Thaff' and 'Brothers.' In Thaff, do try out the chilly fish fry and the parota with chicken curry. If you are uncomfortable with the traditional fat Kerala rice do enquire if the hotel serves the normal thin rice.

For other delicacies like appam or parota, puttu, kadala curry, chicken curry, 'Creme Corner' restaurant is an ideal choice. The perfect way to finish your lunch or dinner would be with piping hot cup of 'Kattan Chai.' If you love sandwiches and puffs  head to 'Himalaya Bakers' that serves a wide variety of baked goodies and cookies to choose from.

The ideal way to commute within Alleppey would be by autos. The auto drivers were such gentlemen, they did not over charge us even once nor did they refuse to go to any part of the town. This was so much in contrast compared to other touristic destinations where they tend to burn a hole in your wallet.

We were fortunate to have the luxury of viewing lotus flowers in a small artificial pond right in front of our sit out bloom to the early morning sun rays. At the same time, we witnessed a darter dip and swim in the pond, and then bask in sun, providing company to the kingfishers perched on the palm trees making it one of the most beautiful mornings. This blissful experience was possible at  the 'Palmgrove Lake Resort.'

Set on the banks of Punnamada lake, this resort has great aesthetics with comfortable and cozy rooms. They offer 24 hour running hot water and free WiFi. Their service was top-notch. Though we did not try the food at their restaurant, we did go for a cup of Kattan Chai which was excellent. The flip side of this beautiful location was that we had to spend a little more to commute.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Ellora Caves & Aliens Love Affair Remains A Mystery

Ellora Caves See it To Believe It!

Many regions of Maharashtra are known for their basaltic rock formation due to ancient volcanic eruption creating layered landscapes called Deccan Traps. Spread across a stretch of more than 2 km, Ellora Caves, also known as "Verul Leni" by the locals, were chiseled out of the Deccan Trap and comprise of 34 caves. These caves were built between 5th - 11th century AD under the dynasties of Kalachuri, Chalukya and Rashtrakuta.

It is not just the architecture, the sculptures and the craftsmanship, but also the fact that these caves are dedicated to three different religions in one premises that makes them even more unique. A site that stands as an example of Buddhism ( Caves 1-12), Hinduism (Caves 13-29) and Jainism (Caves 30-34) thriving in the same complex speaks volumes about the secular harmony that was prevalent during ancient times. We seem to think that with passing time we have progressed by leaps and bounds, but have we actually? In the so called "modern times" riots/wars happen in the name of religion every now and then, which is mostly a political drama rather than any religious sentiment.

Apart from Secularism, the other fact that hogs the limelight is of course the Kailasa Temple (Cave 16.) This is the only cave that has been chiseled vertically from top to down. It is said that ten generations worked on it relentlessly and it took more than 200 years for completion. Every sculpture carved here is not merely for aesthetics but has a significance. The elephants and the pillar of victory standing in the courtyard reflect Rashtrakuta's supremacy and power. The figures of Snaka-Nidhi, Padma-Nidhi and Gajalakshmi in the courtyard symbolize their prosperity, and the figures of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati symbolize Purity, Devotion and Knowledge respectively.

Standing at Kailasha Temple, we wondered how such monumental and exquisite caves, sculptures, meditation halls and residential quarters were carved out to perfection with no modern tools. Many questions lingered or actually troubled us as we struggled to find answers. Was this mountainous task humanly possible when even in today's time with all the modern tools and technology it would be impossible to carve out such a monument. Even if they were able to chisel out the rock, it would mean close to 400,000 tons of rock that was chiseled out, so where did the waste go? Why are we not able to find any traces of the waste near the site like in other man made monuments. The sculptures were carved from what was seen around rather than imagination so are the carvings of humanoids carved around the caves not just a coincidence but pictorial facts?

A closer look and we can spot numerous passages that are blocked or are way too narrow that it is impossible for any adult human to pass through. That leaves us questioning that if humans were not able to go through the passages, how did they manage to create them. If these were not humanly possible, did they have help from aliens to construct this monolithic monument with flawless precision. And did those passages lead to an underground city like Derinkuyu discovered only in 1960. An Aerial view of the Kailasha temple shows the four lions carved at the topmost floor symbolize an X mark, which leaves us wondering if it was some source of identification or communication with extra terrestrial beings.

With no answers to these theories, we let the mystery linger in our heads and moved on to explore the other caves. The layout of the pathway is such that it leads you straight to Cave 16 after you pick up your entry tickets. One would spend most of their time here as every nook and corner of this monument has splendid carvings each portraying a wonderful story. As we stepped out of Cave 16 to our right were caves 17 to 34 & to our left were caves 15 to 1. One of the caves (Cave 10) has strong resemblance to the Ajanta Caves with a Buddha statue carved on a Stupa with rib like carvings on the ceiling. Cave 5 has a huge hall, with carved benches for seating during ritual recitations and Cave 11 was the residential quarters for the monks.

Cave 15 has carvings of ten incarnations (Dashavatar) of  Lord Vishnu, one of the panel depicts the death of Harinyakashyap by Lord Vishnu in Narsimha (man-lion) form. Cenuries ago, even before Darwin was born the Hindu Scriptures have put forward the concept of "The Theory Of Evolution" in the form of Dashavatar.

Cave 14 and 17 focus on the carvings of feminine divinities emphasizing their importance during ancient times. Cave 32 has an exquisitely carved lotus flower on the ceiling.

Some of the sculptures on the caves portray the passion for love, there are carvings of  people engaged in the best form of trance- the act of lovemaking. The concept of erotic art was never looked down upon or considered a taboo as it is considered today. Every emotion was given importance and so was love, they were not ashamed of it as they considered it art. However, it is disappointing that we shy away from discussing sexuality and sensuality labeling it vulgar and the same land that gave the world 'The Kamasutra' now does not even believe in providing sex education to children.  

It would take anywhere between 3 to 4 hours to have a complete tour as you would be covering a few kilometers by foot. In the same premises there is a canteen that serves basic food and refreshments. These caves too are open for public from 9 am but do keep in mind that they are closed on Tuesdays.

If you have not been here we highly recommend you plan your next vacation to these wonderful monuments.

Ajanta Caves