Friday, December 30, 2011

The French Riviera of the East

La Côte d'Azur de l'Est

In September my bro Hrushi visited me here in Blr. We wanted to have some sibling time together so we set off for the French Riviera of the East. As usual I planned a month ahead, the stay and travel. Our itinerary was like this...

1. Travel by Volvo bus to Pondicherry, reach by evening and spend time on the sea front. 
2. Visit Auroville 
3. Move on to Mahabalipuram, explore the monolithic heritage structure. 
4. Reach Chennai and return by Shatabdhi train to Blr. 

We started from Blr at 9 am, boarded the bus at St. John's hospital, stopping at the food court on Hosur road for breakfast. It was a very sunny day. After a few 10s of kms on the NH7 we took the smaller SH46 passing by some interesting places like Raman Maharshi's Tiruvannamalai and Shivaji's Jinji fort. Those have got added to my wish list.

We reached Pondi in the late afternoon. The Volvo stopped at the city bus stand, we got off the bus and took an autorickshaw to our Hotel, Ginger. The fare is expensive, meter is not used and they charge 40 Rs. for a minimum distance.

At the hotel we freshened up and walked to the Promenade, 1.5 kms of a neat and spanking clean road along the rocky beach of Pondicherry city. On the land, facing the sea are lined heritage structures and statues. The buildings are preserved for their French architecture. The concentration of French culture in this area is reminiscent of the French Colony that is Pondicherry. We walked back and forth on the Promenade and in the back lanes of streets with names like Rue Dumas. The Promenade is actually the Goubert Avenue. The statue of Gandhi is a space where visitors like to sit.

This sea front is lined up with many memorials too like the French war memorial, The Dr.Babasaheb Mani mantapam, beautiful structures like the Alliance Francaise, the lighthouse, the Customs office etc.

We walked around the town tasting fresh bakes from the famed bakeries of Pondicherry. It is a very laid back town and at 9 pm everything is quite and shops close down. We walked back to the hotel and slept tight for the night. 

Next day we were to head to Auroville...

On return from Auroville we decided to check out the Bharati Park with it's Aayi Memorial a pristine white structure in the center and a jogging track around. Later we walked over to see Tapan Bhattacharya's painting exhibition at Alliance Francaise de Pondicherry. That night we had crepes at the inhouse Cafe de Flore and washed down with Cold Coffee to make it a complete Indo-French experience.

One last time we walked down the Promenade across Le Cafe feeling the warm air from the sea. We wished Pondi had more to do. Click for more pics here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

And Memories of Andhra Were Made...

It was the 10th day of our tour and a final one. As soon as I had landed in Hyderabad I had spoken to Radha and Chanda my friends from school. I wanted to meet them and we had decided that end of my tour would be good time to meet. So this day we began by co-ordinating where to meet the two Annites and this was after 25 years! Radha had suggested a coffee place but since she had some meeting to attend she invited us to her office at the Hyderabad University Campus.

But that was at 10.30 am. We had lot of time on hand before that so we requested the driver to take us to the lake front, we meant Husain Sagar which we passed by earlier but had not seen it. Instead he took us to Osman sagar which was quite close to Taramati Baradari where we were staying. This is a lesser known lake but quite an expanse. We enjoyed the waterfront for half hour and then were chased off by cops, as parking was not allowed there. It was very quite but the Hyderabad sun was already glowing hot in the early morning. At evening time it would be more pleasant am sure.

Then we met Chanda and together we went to Radha's office at Gachibowli. Radha Rangarajan, is a Stanford graduate and a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Genetics from the prestigious Rockefeller University. She worked with Dr. Reddy's laboratory before she ventured out into drug discovery on her own. We were always proud of her and she continues her scholastic pursuits for it runs in her family, She is the daughter of Dr. C. Rangarajan after all! I found out she had 2 daughters and was married to Santanu Paul. I had read the story of her wedding here. I told her about it and she eagerly shared more about her family and old times.

Chanda Mukhi had worked with Citibank for 14 years and now is a homemaker. She has a daughter too. It was interesting how both Chanda and Radha's daughters went to the same school, they had bumped into each other a couple of times but only on this day they spent almost 1.5hrs going down memory lane. About all the mischief we did in school, the tug of wars at lunch time, Vidhya Jayaraman's jokes, our trip to Bordi and more. The three of us were very happy indeed and we planned to have a reunion in school soon.

After this we that is Dad and me drove back into the city and decided to lunch at Kamat when we spotted it while driving by. This was the last day in Andhra so one more time my order was MLA Pesarattu, it was a happy me at the end of the meal.
Finally after lunch we decided to spend time till 5pm at the Salar Jung Museum. The Salarjung Museum is the third largest museum in India housing the biggest one-man collections of antiques in the world. It is a very well looked after museum and even after spending 2hrs we did not manage to see the complete collection. There is a room for every theme.

We then decided to go to Kachiguda railway station early and await the train. Any station in India looks less crowded when you are are Mumbaikar. I spent some time reading a book on the platform as I waited. We had a first class booking and as we boarded the train we were in for a surprise, We were given the only Coupe' in the compartment as out of the 10 first class passengers we were the only family! So our trip truly ended on a high note as we settlled in for the night on the train.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Dream Maker's Workshop: 20th March 2011

At 9.00 am we were waiting for the driver to take us to Ramoji Film city, definitely the dream makers workshop. It is spread over 2000 acres and boasts of being the largest integrated services studio. We were staying at Taramati Baradari as we wanted to move around Hyderabad but one can choose to stay in Ramoji city itself if its just a weekend break at the film city. They have the hotel Tara and Sitara on the campus.

I was quite impressed with Ramoji right from the entrance. You walk into ticket counters buy the tickets, then walk into the waiting lounge to catch the shuttle that takes you to the studios. At the entrance you can choose to have some snacks and tea and go for a pee ;).

The entrance of the film studios is a fountain with tile mosaic work and it is called Movie Magic. From here you have to walk around to various venues and shows. The paintings on the entrance prepare you for all the fun in film making. Everything looks glitzy and clean. Yes rarely in India you will find such clean places of entertainment. Along with your ticket is a layout of the film city so take a look at it carefully and check the timing of each show.  Accordingly plan what you want to see and move quickly to these venues. This is India and there are ques everywhere for the shows. 
We first saw the movie magic show, here you move from auditorium to auditorium experiencing how movies are filmed, dubbed, mixed and released. This show is interactive, they pick up 2 people from the audience and dress up a girl as Basanti tangewali from Sholay and the boy helps with creating the various motions of film making. The commentary by the host is very engaging though scripted he manages to keep you excited at the same time involved with the whole process. At the end when the clipping of the chase scene of Basanti by the Dacoits that was part of Sholay is played with the new heroine picked from the audience you clap loudly and cheer!

We jumped on to trail cars to see the Filmy Duniya which is a tour of the seven wonders of the world, Hollywood, Bollywood, The Far East and even parts of Europe in just 20 mins. It is garish and loud and could be avoided if you are short of time.
Few meters from here in the location of the Wild Wild West show. We loved this one as it is full of energy of guns and roses straight from Hollywood movies all with sound effect and filmy fireworks. Thoroughly entertaining as you see a scene from the Wild West enacted in front of you, a bar in a deserted village, looting of the bank and wooing the girl. You must try to get a seat in the front row for this one as we did.
We saw something called the Ramoji Tower and were told you could get a birds eye view of the Ramoji city from there. I gave it a skeptical look, finding no terrace from where you could do that. We anyways went in, sat in the large lift that gives you the feeling of going up the tower and a film started playing in front of us and we were moving at high speed from ground upwards in the Ramoji city. You then realize this is a 4-D experience. The film on the screen takes you over entire Ramoji city the various gardens, fountains, sets and studios etc. Suddenly you are shaken by an earthquake and the film city comes crumbling down in front of your eyes. There is concrete flying in all directions, water pipes are broken, some of it showers on you making you wet, you touch your skin and smile. Just when you do that the mice run under your feet and tickle you and you let out a scary yelp! There is a huge thud and your lift lands on safe ground and you realize you freaked out in this show. As you step out you walk thru the ruins of Ramoji city. I loved this part of keeping the continuity of the experience before you step out into the sunny afternoon of Hyderabad.

We decided to take a lunch break at this point and go over to the food court. There is a lot of choice of hotels too. We had the Chinese platter of rice and noodles combo with vegetable manchurian followed by an ice-cream sundae.
Now refueled and ready for more fun. There was a man walking on slits attracting children. You saw people posing with the various statues of charachters from movies and some movie stars. Nearby was a gas station straight out of Hollywood and a closer look made you smile, it was actually a loo.

Post lunch we attended the Spirit of Ramoji, a music and dance show, it was about unity and diversity in the country and how films bind us through a single passion, besides cricket ofcourse!
We then went to a children's play area called Fundustan, with its colorful large sized imagery and even though we are adults we felt so excited. It is such a sunny place and you see all the children gleaming here as they walk in and out of the mouth of a benign monster, climbing up ice cream cones and yellow corn.
The most thrilling was the Borasura, its a haunted house that makes you clench hands with unknown people next to you and get out of the place safe and yet you don't want to miss the thrill, finally sliding out of the place a breathing a sigh of relief!
We ended the day by hopping on to the vintage red bus and taking a tour around the permanent sets which are scattered across the 2000 acres and is impossible to walk thru them in a single day. There is so much to see the garden where flowers are planted to match the color of the saree of a buxom heroine doing a jig. The train station and a train on rubber tyres!, the village homes and market places. The two dimensional set that looks like an airport from one side and a landmark from the other. The Mughal garden from outside and the inside looks like Vrindavan garden. We passed by a leg garden which was interspersed by sculptures of just legs in a landscaped area. The industrial structure and the disaster sets. Everything was so thrilling. We had spent almost 8 hrs at Ramoji and we had so much still to see.

Here enjoy the virtual tour from your comfortable chair and am sure you will want to visit soon.

The Caravan Station: 20th March 2011

We drove from Vizag to Hyderabad stopping only for lunch in Rajahmundry. Upto Rajahmundry It was a smooth National highway but later the state highway was in a bad shape and it took us a good 14hrs to reach Hyderabad and our hotel Taramati Baradari. We had passed by Ibrahim Bagh when we visited Golconda fort in the beginning of the tour. It is in the Defense neighborhood and has a strange charm even from the outside. 

I was very excited to explore this APTDC hotel as it is a heritage site. Since we reached there at 1 am, we went straight to bed and woke up around 7 am. It was already quite bright outside. Our suite reflected the Nawabi theme with the semi-transparent curtain separating the bedroom from the sitting area. Old style furniture and Nawabi diwans decorated the two rooms.The curtains were glittering silk.The fabric for the diwan was the famous Pochampalli in bright yellow. I was not able to visit Pochampalli in this visit but will do it next time.
Since we had bath and were ready to go out for the day we decided that we would have breakfast at the restaurant and it would be a nice walk around the Taramati Baradari. We realized that it was the day of Rang Panchami. A huge group of people had occupied the restaurant so we were asked to wait and they promised better service. We chose to walk around. I had read that this was a Caravan station with 12 doorways and APTDC attracts tourists to stay here with the stories of Taramati the courtesan whose lilting melodious voice had captivated the Abdullah Qutb Shah, at Golconda fort which is 2kms away from here. The hotel has a nice landscaped garden and some lovely quite and green nooks.We enjoyed our 2 days here thoroughly.
This Caravan station or sarai was completed in 1880. That makes it about 131+ years old. It is really an experience to be able to stay in such places. We climbed up the hill to be able to look down upon the Hyderabad town. On the hill top is a resting shelter with simple design of arches and little coves for the travelers to keep their possessions.
APTDC has renovated the place and in keeping with the theme has added some mosaic work that you can see along the walls framed by the arches.
More of Taramati Baradari here...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Beckons The Submarine Museum: 19th March 2011

This was our last day in Vizag. We woke up to do some sun gazing had a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant looking down at the bay. We were waiting for Vizag to wake up. Meanwhile we packed our bags and moved them into the car. Checked out from the hotel and after seeing the city we were to drive back to Hyderabad. It was going to be a long drive.
The Kailashgiri, is a hill top amusement park created by the Vishakhapatnam Urban Development Association or as it is called VUDA. We  had passed it several time in the last 2 days. So we finally went up the hill to check it out. At 9.00am in the morning on a Friday, we were the first visitors there. The sun was shining strong but the green cover allowed us to walk around. We spotted a film crew setting up a shoot. There is a statue of Shankar Parvati in white surrounded by a landscaped garden and some animal shapes which kids can climb on to or under or into the mouth. There is a rope way and a toy train too but on a weekday there were not many visitors so they were not operating it just for us. Yet we enjoyed the views of the Vizag city down below and the beautiful harbor.
The entrance of the park in an interesting arch it depicted men and women woven together to form a tree trunk. Nearby is the meteorological department but we are not allowed inside.

We then drove along the seashore and stopped a bit at the Lawson's Bay. Vizag has such breathtaking views its hard not to stop.

We drove about 10 kms down the seashore further to Ramkrishna Beach. That's where the Submarine museum is! It is just opposite to "Victory at sea", the memorial that stands proudly to remind us about the 1971 Bangladesh war we won.

"Dive deep in silence, stay underneath while rough outside"

I was very curious to see a submarine on ground. I had only seen them half afloat in the Mumbai Naval base. It did look like a dolphin and submariners are called dolphins too. I had met the flyingdolphin (a submariner and a microlight flier) in Hyderabad so you see coming to Vizag and experiencing the strong Naval culture there was something. I so badly wanted to see the inside of the submarine but it had strange timings and was going to be open only in the afternoon. So we spent some time admiring the INS Kursura from outside and then left for Hyderabad.

We loved Vizag, my Dad calls it Vishakhapatnam and nothing else, both of us were smitten by it. My eldest uncle is ex-Navy and my father's cousin was posted in Vishakhapatnam for a while so you can understand why we went bonkers here. We loved every bit of the sea, the defense ships that we saw in the far. The submarine museum, the kms of the driveway along the seaside, the lovely atmosphere. It is so much like our own Radio club area in Colaba, Mumbai!

This is the Indian Navy's Submarine headquarters!

(While putting together this post I was excited to know that there is a submarine, INS Khanderi named after the island fort of Khanderi that stands in the sea near my village!!)

Finally here is the complete tour of Vizag and nearby places.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Borra Caves An Indelible Experience:18th March 2011

Including visits to Simhachalam Temple, Araku Hills and Valley.

 The Borra or hole that lends the name to these caves

On this day we woke up early to see the sun rise and we were rewarded with a spectacle. It made us meditative and I was imagining myself to be Karna doing his sun worship as described in the novel, Mrityunjay by Shivaji Sawant. It is yet again that spiritual experience of being one with nature you get to experience when away from the chaos of the world.

After a quick breakfast we decided to visit Araku Hills and its natural treasures. I had been reading a lot about the Borra Caves. Especially I recollected a comment by my friend Preeti that these are better than what her parents had seen in the US. I briefed the driver about the day's plan. First to Shimhachalam temple, then Araku hills, Valley and Borra Caves.

It was the month of March and starting at 8 AM from the hotel for a long day in the jungles is not the right thing to do I soon realized. By the time we reached Shimachalam it was very bright and sunny, our car whirring the curves on the hills and suddenly bringing us to a plateau where the temple complex, brought us to a halt. It is one of those exquisitely carved temples, the abode of Lord Narshimha, the lion headed avatar of Vishnu. In the temple a local politician was getting a pooja done so the whole temple vibrated with the auspicious chanting of Mantras. We were not allowed to linger inside. So instead we came out and explored the carving on the temple.
The beautiful pillars with Lions
On the backside of the sanct sanctorium is the carving of Lord Narshimha liberating Hiranyakashyapu from his sins.
"Death shall not meet me neither on earth nor in the sky, neither a man nor an animal shall kill me."

The setting of this temple is awesome, surrounded by the hilltops and cut off from the Vizag city. The best time to be here is early morning and may be dusk.

From here we armed ourselves with some munchies and cold drinks. Yes it was hot and we needed to be hydrated through out the day. We knew we had a long day ahead.

We drove through tiny hamlets and and finally reached the Araku hills. As we reached the point where we had to take a diversion for Borra Caves we decided we would first check out Araku Valley and the tribal museum, and return here.
It was again a bad choice. No matter what the Tourism department tells you. These are places best avoided. The valley was terribly hot at mid afternoon when we reached there and the tribal museum is badly kept. You do not want to be driving thru a jungle plus 40 mins of wilderness just to see this museum. However the always positive me tried absorbing the culture there at the Araku Valley bus stand. This is a vibrant place. The tribals dressed in colorful clothes. They were distinctly different from Andhra people. They had influences of Orissa, as Andhra pradesh shares borders with Orissa. These people speak a dialect that is a mix of Oriya and Telugu.
Notice the saree is draped differently. The population is all dark but see how they take care to protect themselves from the sun.

This was the second disappointing time in this vacation. Don't go to places that claim untouched and beautiful. They lack basic amenities and there is not much to see. I am an explorer by nature and unfazed by wilderness most times. We reached this place around afternoon and not a single decent place for lunch in sight. So we snacked on some fruits we had got along, even my driver refused to eat anything in this place. We headed back to Araku hills, stopping at the highest point to take in the views of the red hills.
I was just crossing my fingers that Borra Caves should not let us down and boy I was so thrilled to keep it last on the day's itinerary.

We came back to the diversion, it mentioned 8kms into the forest from that point. As we drove there we found a APTDC restaurant which  had a hopeless fried rice available but since we were starved we ate it. The gravy they served with it made it palatable and washed it down with some sprite.

As we walked down the stone steps, stopped to read this board that put me at ease, preparing me for the spectacular nature's work I was going to witness in the Caves.
Click the image to read
I caught some lovely sights, of the stream laden with humic acid and limestone. This really got me all excited. The curiosity was being built up.
The Entrance
The decent into the womb of the hill and into the cave
I was completely awed by the entrance itself and I just relaxed and told Dad we would take time to go around the caves. We had bought a ticket for the driver too. He was dumbfounded at the sight because he had seen nothing like it and had not read or heard about it! even though he was from Andhra. At times my pre-planning comes in the way of enjoying such complete pure surprises is what I realized. 

I climbed up and down the caves and narrow steps and ladders built for the tourists. I climbed up the cat ladder that took us to the Shiva linga (actually Stalagmites that locals think is Shvayambhu linga). Many people dread climbing it as it is dark and eerie. The huge pillar like formations of Stalactites gave flights of imagination to the guides who told stories and the visitors got engrossed in it. Some found Mother Mary taking form in those shapes others found Ganapati. It's all in the mind you see.
Mesmerising, Indelible, Awesomeness

As we went deep inside there was a small gap in the rock through which we bent to go to the other side of the caves. It is a breathtaking site. The cave opens into a huge almost stadium sized hall deep in the earth a stone walled hall with natures artwork in progress. This was the innermost part of the cave and we had trekked 350 meters into the depth of the womb of the hill. You get to see the dripping water rich in humic acid and Stalactites being formed even today. This has been going on since hundreds of millions of years and will continue until eternity if man lets it be.

One last time before coming out from the cave I looked up at the huge hole in the hill which is also the ceiling of the cave. I was just so humbled, it was like a huge skylight above us. Both Dad and me exclaimed that it felt like we were experiencing the movie 127 hrs.

APTDC has kept this place clean and free from bats that normally inhabit such places. They have provided lighting that helps viewing of this wealth which would have otherwise been enveloped in darkness. This place is a wonderful experience equally for adults and children, my request is to take your child to such places early in life. They might just find their new passion there...