Thursday, February 28, 2008

Travel - A pilgrimage... Concluding Part 4 (Vittal-Hassan-Shravan Belagola-Halebid-Belur-Bangalore-Mumbai)

The time had come now to embark upon the most dreaded part of the journey. From Vittal had to reach Hassan to visit Shravan Belagola, Belur and Halebid. There were two routes to do so. One was via Charmadi Ghats and the other via Shiradi Ghats and both the Ghat roads were reputed to be a challenge for offroaders, so it was a matter of choosing between the devil and the deep sea. After a lot of consultation and advice received on various auto and travel forums, decided on the route via Shiradi Ghats. We left Vittal in the afternoon at 1430hrs, after attending an important religious function in the temple that was followed by a sumptuous prasadam lunch. The road, right upto the Shiradi Ghats, though two laned was good. Had to crawl all along the Shiradi Ghats after which again the road was good right upto Hassan. Took us four hours to cover 151kms and checked in the Hotel Sri Krishna at 1900hrs. This Hotel is clean and convenient. Next morning we decided to visit Shravan Belagola before visiting Belur and Halebid to ensure that we did not have to climb up the steps in the hot sun. We checked out at 0815hrs after an ‘Idli Vada’ breakfast in the in-house restaurant, got on to the Mangalore Bangalore highway, and at Chanarayapatna took a right to reach Shravan Belagola at 0900hrs – a distance of 50kms.
The signage throughout is good. Parking at the designated parking lot costs Rs.20/- and the police ensure that everyone parks in the right place, thankfully. Everything is very organized out there. Since it has a religious significance, one has to climb it barefoot. At the base there is a stall with attendants where, for a small price, you can leave your footwear against a token and can climb assured that it is safe. There are people selling socks too if you wish to protect your feet. Next to it are clean pay and pee toilets and areas to wash your feet before and after the climb.
It took us about 30minutes to climb up the 600+ steps to reach the top. You may hire the services of palanquin bearers who will cart you all the way to the top for a nominal fee.
At the top we were breathless as a result of the climb and the panoramic views apart from the giant monolith towering over us.
Shravan Belagola is an important Jain pilgrimage center. Incidentally, in the Kannada language, Bel means white and kola means pond.
The white pond that is alluded to is possibly the pretty pond at the bottom of the hill. The giant statue of Gomateshwara (17meters high) is situated on the summit of Indragiri hill.
It was carved out of a single block of stone sculpted by Aristanemi in 981 AD and Chamundaraya, a General and minister of the Ganga King Rachamalla installed it in 983 AD. Regarded as one of the largest monolithic statues in the world, it symbolizes renunciation, self-control, and subjugation of ego as the primary steps towards salvation. The naked Digambara form of Bahubali represents complete victory over earthly desires. The statue came to be known as Gomateshwara, which in local parlance means ‘a handsome young man’.
The sheer size of the statue does not permit any devotee to bathe the entire Gomateshwara statue everyday hence only the feet are washed. However, every 10 to 15 years, when there is a favorable conjunction of the stars and planets, the entire statue is bathed in milk, honey and herbs and is called Mahamastakabhisheka.
The monolith stands in a compound surrounded by a colonnade sheltering additional Tirthankara images.
The sacred Chandragiri hill with Chamundaraya Basadi with manastambha on the top. The photograph is taken from the Indragiri hill on which the Gommateshwar idol stands. After taking in all the views and blessings, we raced down in 15minutes and moved back towards Hassan to go to Halebid. Reached Halebid, 81kms away in 90minutes, at 1230hrs. Halebid was the capital of the Hoysalas until it was destroyed in the early 14th century after attacks by the Delhi Sultanate.
The Hoysaleshwara temple survived the pillage but it somehow managed to remain incomplete even after 87 years of uninterrupted construction.
The temple is dedicated to Shiva and has two enormous Nandi bulls at the entrance.
The intricate architecture of ancient times and the meticulous craftsmanship is nothing short of Divine.
There are carvings inside, outside and on the roof of the temples!
There are plenty of stories depicted on the panels all round the temple and are interpreted by local guides to suit the interests of their clients! After spending an hour there and talking to some research students who were busy replicating the art and the architecture, we moved on to Belur which is just 23kms away. The road connecting Belur to Halebid is single laned and it took us 30minutes to cover the distance. The parking fees at Belur and Halebid are Rs.30/- each. Since both are temple premises, footwear is not allowed, and if you reach there in the afternoon socks are advisable as the stone tends to get extremely hot in the afternoons. Bittiga, the fourth and mightiest monarch of the Hoysala dynasty, was converted from the Jain faith to the Vaishnava faith by the sage Ramanuja. The king changed his name to Vishnuvardhana and built temples with great vigor and dedication. In order to commemorate his victory over the Cholas in the battle of Talkad, he built Belur Temple in 1117 A.D. His queen Shantala, though a Jain by faith, was noted for catholicity of her religious outlooks.
She was a well-known dancer and on one of the temple's brackets her dancing pose has been sculptured in the most ornate and in exuberant style. The most outstanding temple in Belur is the Chenakeshava (handsome Keshava), a monumental edifice that took 103 years to build, possibly because of the intricate details and the myriads of friezes and sculptures that embellish the temple walls.
It is about one hundred feet high and has a magnificent gateway tower (gopuram), built in Dravidian style.
The main temple, surrounded by a group of subsidiary shrines, stands in the center of a rectangular, paved courtyard along the perimeter of which are ranges of cells fronted by a pillared veranda. The main temple has a pillared hall (navaranga). The extensive hall is supported by forty-six pillars, each of a different design.
The Narasimha pillar it seems could be rotated at will, but not now. :)
The Hoysala kingdom that flourished in these parts of ancient India between the 11th and 14th centuries is widely acknowledged as the 'crowning glory' in Indian architecture. After reveling in the splendid historic art ambience for an hour, we had to return to the present to satiate our hunger at Mayura restaurant outside the complex. Simple, airy and clean. Left Belur at 1530hrs and reached Malleshwaram in Bangalore at 1900, a distance of 220kms. Enjoyed our stay in my in-laws house for a few days and was privileged to be driven around and then regrettably had to end the vacation. While in Bangalore visited the HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) Museum. Somehow it gave the impression that it was more of a botanical garden than a museum for aircrafts. They had proudly displayed the trophies that they had won in horticulture and of course the flowers were beautiful.
Unfortunately, the aircrafts were left dusty and forgotten.
The drive back to Mumbai with an overnight halt at Belgaum was uneventful but pleasant.
Back to the grind.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Travel - A pilgrimage.... Part 3 (Agumbe-Sringeri-Horanadu-Vittal)

Was looking forward to some real nice mountain drives and sure enough was not disappointed as we set out for Sringeri from Agumbe. The weather had been consistently pleasant and carried on being lovely all the way.
The road from Agumbe to Sringeri, winding through the Ghats was pretty good and enjoyable. Covered the distance of 30kms in 45minutes. A huge parking lot awaited us at Sringeri. There were plenty of Lord Ayappa devotees on their pilgrimage traveling in vehicles of varied sizes. They could be easily identified as all of them were dressed in black and the vehicles were heavily garlanded. The Jagadguru Shankaracharya Mahasamsthanam, Dakshinamnaya Sri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri, is the first and foremost of the four Peethams established by the renowned 8th century philosopher saint Sri Adi Shankara, the principal exponent of Advaita (non-dualism). The Divinity of Knowledge, Goddess Sharada, installed at Sringeri by Sri Adi Shankara, graces the Peetham as the presiding deity. According to legend, Adi Shankaracharya is said to have selected the site as the place to stay and teach his disciples, because when he was walking by the Tunga River, he saw a cobra with a raised hood, providing shelter from the hot sun, to a frog about to spawn. Impressed with the place where natural enemies had gone beyond their instincts, he stayed here for twelve years.
The Sharada temple, dedicated to the Goddess of learning and wisdom, has grown from a simple shrine dating to the time of Adi Shankaracharya. In the fourteenth century, Vidyaranya is said to have replaced the old sandalwood image with a stone and gold image. The temple structure itself continued to be made of wood until the early 20th century. After an unexpected fire that damaged the structure, the current structure was built in the traditional south Indian (Dravidian) style of temple architecture. The Vidyashankara temple was built in commemoration of the pontiff Vidyashankara, around 1357-58 A.D. It was built by Vidyaranya, patron saint of Harihara and Bukka, the brothers who founded the Vijayanagara Empire. The niches in the temple have a number of sculptures from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythologies. The temple combines Hoysala and Vijayanagara architectural features. This temple also features 61 images carved in bas-relief, of various scenes from the puranas.
Buddha is depicted as one of the incarnations of Vishnu here. The main temple hall features 12 pillars designated for the 12 signs of the zodiac and the windows and doors along the temple walls are arranged in such a way that the sun's rays fall on each of them, in the order of the solar months. The 'garbha-griha' has a linga called Vidyashankara installed in the memory of Guru Vidyatheertha.
At the entrance of the temple complex, on the left there is this beautiful wooden structure. The details of this ‘heritage structure’ are there on a board.
The temple administration has built guesthouses for devotees who wish to stay. There are many private lodges also available in the vicinity. We had many miles to go and Horanadu to visit, so off we went, on the scenic route flanked by tea and coffee estates on either side all the way to Hornadu.
Took us almost two hours to complete the 80kms journey as we stopped often on the way to admire and capture the beautiful sights. Sri Annapoorneshwari Temple is an ancient and revered shrine located in the picturesque surroundings of Horanadu. Everyone who visits the Horanadu Annapoorna temple is provided with a vegetarian meal irrespective of his or her religion, caste or creed. Before entering the temple to pay your respects to the Goddess, the temple authorities exhort you to have lunch! But seeing that there were not many people in the queue for darshan we decided to skip lunch and visit the Goddess first. Male visitors to the temple have to remove their shirts and preferably cover their shoulders with a towel or a shawl as a symbol of respect and humility. The main deity of Annapoorna is made of gold and looks beautiful. It is said that a person who seeks the goddess' blessings would never have any scarcity for food in life. It is also believed that Lord Shiva was once cursed and that this curse was reversed when the Lord visited Goddess Annapoorna and sought her blessings. Feeling blessed, we made our way to our car to move on to Vittal, where we would stay for a couple of nights in our house. On the way, we passed Kudremukh – the township for the iron ore miners. And on the winding roads of the Western Ghats via Karkala and Mudbidri (been there done that) we cruised in the cool climes to reach Vittal at 1700hrs, covering a distance of 140kms in three hours. Vittal is a small town in the Puttur Taluka of South Kanara district of Karnataka. There is a beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Ananteshwar where people from far and near come to seek blessings. There is also a ‘Naag Katte’ outside the temple, which is worshipped daily. Our stay in Vittal was blessed with lovely weather and views so lovely that words cannot possibly justify.
While in Vittal I also fulfilled an old desire of visiting the village ‘Ammembal’ from which we derive our surname.
It is an extremely small place, just about 4sq kms. Visited the local ‘Somnatheshwar temple’ there but could not get inside as it was closed for darshan. The days flew by and we had to move on yet again to Hassan and Bangalore via ShravanBelagola, Belur and Halebid.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Travel - A pilgrimage... Part 2 (Belgaum-Agumbe)

Left Belgaum at the decent morning hour of 0740hrs, after a hearty breakfast of huge idlis downed by some aromatic filter coffee, at the in-house restaurant of Hotel Ramdev. Tanked up just before getting on NH4 to be on our way to Agumbe. The weather was very pleasant befitting a chilly January morning and the drive comfortable right up to Harihar where we had to turn off the highway towards Shimoga. From the turnoff, the road was reduced to a two-lane tarmac with a few potholes thrown in as bumpy surprises. The traffic volume was low and mostly that of tractors and trucks.
Reached Shimoga at 1330hrs having covered a distance of 314kms in six hours. Saw a decent looking restaurant and parked for lunch. The menu mentioned ‘Palak Rice’ along with ‘Dahi Rice’. I love Dahi Rice but had never heard of Palak Rice so decided to try it out so called for one of each. Both were delicious and they also served a couple of glasses of hot ‘Rasam’, which was slurpicious. All this for a mere Rs.70/-. Feeling contented we set out again on the two laner onwards towards Agumbe via Teerthahalli. The bamboo forest all along kept the weather nice and pleasant. Unfortunately, the greenery had faded. It was lovely when we had passed through it in August last year. The rains had painted the forest bright green. However, even now, it was pleasant enough to keep the paths through the forest cool and refreshing. We passed through Teerthahalli at 1530hrs having covered a distance of 63kms in an hour and twenty minutes from Shimoga. The market place at Teerthahalli was very crowded. Seemed it was a ‘market day’ and the whole village and neighbouring villagers was out there to trade their goods. It was only later, in Agumbe that we learnt that the ‘Teerthahalli Jatra (fair) had just started and would last for a couple of days. We maneuvered through the crowds and got back on to the road to Agumbe, which was just 33kms away. The 45minutes drive to Agumbe brought back memories of our fears as we had passed through the place last year. We were repeatedly told not to stop anywhere on the Agumbe ghat, especially if yours is the lone vehicle on the road. We were also advised to look for other vehicles and travel along with them like a convoy. All this as, apparently, there was a huge amount of Naxalite activity in the area and the Naxals would stop vehicles and rob/harm random vehicles passing through. We had zipped through and counted our blessings for the safe passage then. And we had done it to avoid the terrible condition of national highway17 between Mangalore and Mumbai, which actually is a beautiful coastal route to travel on. But we had suffered enough on the way to Mangalore and were in no mood to get our body aching and the car damaged. We had preferred to take our chances with the feared Naxals! While web surfing, chanced upon a blog that spoke very highly about Agumbe and its surroundings and there were quite a few references by people who had visited and stayed there. That got me thinking ‘why not’ and zeroed in on the accommodation offered at the ‘Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS)’ an NGO established by the famous Romulus Whittaker who also runs a snake/crocodile research centre in Chennai. Checked out the location of ARRS on Google earth and thought no further. It was in a small clearing in the forest, away from the main road. The ARRS is managed wonderfully by a young man Mr.Gowrishankar, ably assisted by Mr.Prashant who lives in the Agumbe village. For accommodation, one has to get in touch with Mr.Gowrishankar, who insisted that since they do not want noisy vacationers frequenting the place, would like to have nature lovers as guests. Having convinced him of my bonafides, managed to get a couple of nights booked in this heavenly place.
Drove into ARRS at 1615hrs and as I shut off the engine there was total silence. Just some birds chirping, that’s it. Gowrishankar was there to receive us and he showed us to our cottage. The exterior of the cottage was done very tastefully and looked very pretty. The interior was very basic – a couple of cots, chairs and a very clean bathroom. Very airy and filled with natural light. The ARRS was powered by solar energy so no television. Our cell phones also died due no network coverage. The only phone connection was BSNL cdma that existed in the ARRS main cottage. It was the lifeline for people in and around Agumbe who had a snake encroaching on their premises. On receiving an SOS, he would rush in his jeep to ‘rescue’ the snake and release it in the forest on the ARRS premises. Around 1730hrs Gowrishankar had to go to the village and offered to take us to the house made famous in the ‘Malgudi Days’ television serial.
We met Kasturi akka – the owner of the property – who offered us some wonderful ‘Masala Kurmura (puffed rice)’ and ‘Kashaya (hot herbal brew)’. Spent the evening chatting with her and learnt that she rents out rooms on the upper floor of the now famous ‘Malgudi Days cottage’ Dinner at ARRS was at 2030hrs and we would all have it together in the beautiful dining area. Over dinner, Gowrishankar explained why snakes thrived in Agumbe.
A) In South Kanara, the snake is revered and the King Cobra has temples devoted to it. B) Agumbe has the second highest rainfall after Cheerapunji hence the climate is perfect for the King Cobra to proliferate. Next morning, after a hearty breakfast of eggs on toast, at around 1030hrs we set out to visit Parshwanath Chaityalaya on Kundadri hill. It is located 18kms away and 320metres above Agumbe which itself is 600metres above sea level. Kundadri hill is in fact a single gigantic monolithic rock formation with various outgrowths.
This place is also a Jain pilgrimage centre.
Kundadri, named after the Jain monk Kundakundacharya who is said to have practiced severe penance here, throngs with Jain Pilgrims during Makar Sankranti.
The single lane road that climbs up is steep and has a dozen hairpin bends. An awesome drive. There is a small parking lot on top from where you climb up a dozen steps to reach the temple - a Vrushabha Teerthankara Jain basadi said to have been built in the 17th century.
The views from the top are breathtaking. After spending a few minutes of absorbing the beauty, we head back. Next on the agenda was the ‘Sunset Point’. We were advised to be there by 1700hrs, to ensure ringside seats of the spectacle. The sunset per se is not spectacular but the view of the valley at dusk and the festive atmosphere is.
Made use of the multi photo ops offered and traced our way back to ARRS for an early dinner. After a restful night, we were treated to some wonderfully delicious ‘Neer Dosas’ for breakfast. Departed from Agumbe towards Sringeri, Hornadu and Vittal with hopes of returning, maybe during the monsoons to commune some more with nature at its best. Finally may I add that all the locals whom I spoke to averred that the Naxals do not attack anybody at random but only those whom they perceive as enemies of the common man. It was their fervent hope that Agumbe grows as a tourist destination boosting their economy.