“If Heaven is on earth… IT IS HERE” (Romal Singh at Naadugaani, The Nilgiris District, Tamil Nadu, Southern India, on the 20th of April, 2006)
After almost six long years on Monday the 17th , April 2006, I, Romal Micheal Singh, the youngest of the Laishram-Stanley Parivaar, headed back home to the hills, my only sole-footing of Hope, The Nilgiris, accompanied by the Periyapattinam Rao Parivaar (aka., Deepti, Uncle Dilip, and Aunty Priyamvadaa [Hari couldn’t accompany us : (] ) and my dear Kannaa, Ebenezer Prasad Winston (aka., Ebbie).
DAY 1, The 17th of April 2006, Monday.
We began late much to my own amusement, as Ebbie woke up late! (Not suprising at all…eh?)[A planned departure from my residence at 7:30 am, eventually happened at 8:45 am], and I left home, airbag straddled on my shoulders, clinging to the bike seat for my very dear life, as I made it to the Periyapattinam Residence, braving the now infamous Bommanahalli and BTM Layout Traffic Jams, as a pillion rider in the hands of self-acclaimed ‘Daredevil’ M. Ebbie. Well all whining apart, we reached Destination Aarambham (The Start) at 9:15. (WARNING!! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RECREATE THE INCIDENT JUST NARRATED FOR SHEER RESPECT FOR THE VALUE OF YOUR LIFE. “You Have Been Sufficiently warned!!”[Har har har!!] )
All Packed and ready to leave the Periyapattinams were a delight to converse with, a jolly family, with a dad, who reminds anyone of us of Mr. Vishwajeeth Rai, But, with a far greater range of interests, lucky Deepti Huh?! , and a mum, who is well the sweetest thing I’ve come across in ages…Lucky Deepti Again (envy!). Several ‘Notes-pasted-all-over-the-house-telling-Hari-HOW-TO-DO-THINGS’ later, we moved. Our Vaahanam was a Pretty Qualis which I thought was a Sumo (Duh!) [Well... I’m not Ebbie!!!] And we left the Periyapattinam residence at 9:30 am qui est a la BTM Layout.
A really fast drive, accentuated with introductions, constant recreations of the shooting for NDTV 24x7 the day before, and several FEEBLE attempts at recreating Navdhas PJ Glory (for who can be PJ Raani, But The PJ Raani herself), not forgetting the idyllic mimicking of dear friend Leonard Bar Hunka, got us to our first stop in no time.
Ramanagaram a few odd 30kms south (I guess!) of Bangalore is a sleepy yet beautifully maintained hamlet on the Highway. Home to the now defunct ‘Janapada Loka’, it still runs its ‘Kamat Loka-Ruchi’ Eatery. We stopped there for a delicious breakfast unequalled in terms of the Kannada taste bud. Ramanagaram, one of the few places to hold on to its original Tamizh sounding name (The ‘Nagaram’, which would be ‘Nagara’ in case of a Kannada Origin), is also a centre for Kannada Handicrafts like world famous Channapatna (from the original ‘Chennapattinam’ in the Tamizh), another Hamlet a few KMs down the road. The Breakfast was amazing, from the Kattae (tied) Idlies, uncle had, to the Masala Dosaas we had, which I must say had a much more interesting ‘Masala’ (consisting of Potatoes, Green Peas and Greens), than the Plain seasoned Potato Masala of Bangalore, everything tasted authentic and what could be better than washing it all down with hot cups of Pure Bangalore Style ‘Filter Kaapi’?
The Meal was followed by a very involved shopping spree at a small handicraft Shoppe within the eatery complex. The eatery built into an old Bungalow kind of a setting, created the perfect ambience for any wholesome, truly enjoyable meal. The wash basin held a lizard baby, that I couldn’t get my eyes off, while aunty Priyamvadaa tried caressing ducks. The Shopping however was even more involved, we (as in Deepti, Aunty Priyamvadaa, and me) came across the most cutely crafted wooden bangles, with colours as diasporic as a rainbow. Bhavyaa came to all our minds all at once, and we couldn’t help buying stuff for herJ!
I stared at the Bracelets in my hand and I like them so I bought one. I thought of Phanindra, and wished from the bottom of my heart that he had come for the trip : ( ! The poor fellow must have been getting so damn bored in Hyderabad. Its funny (lol [that’s his pet name too]), how I’ve come to cherish his presence in such short time, very few people have had this effect on me. Uncle reminded us that we had to get all the way to Avalaanchee (written in Tamizh as Avalaanjee), so we hurried out and the journey continued.
We crossed Maddur (home of the famous ‘Maddur Vadaa’), Flew past Mandya, slowed down near Shrirangapatna (Srirangapattinam) and saw the sparkling Kaavaeri flow under us. (I could see why Karnataka and Tamil Nadu fought over the river; it looked gorgeous as it navigated its way around the fort). We soon were within the limits of the Urban Mysore Corporation limits.
Mysore is a beautiful Provincial capital that still hasn’t lost its royal charm. The town (I cannot refer to it as a city as much as the Mysorigas might want me to, because I found it just too small to be one!) seems to have grown around the palace at its centre. Every crossing reminded me of a royal era that the town once lived in. The Chamundi Hill is the home of Devi Chamundeshwari, an incarnation of The Aryic Devi Paarvati, in her Durgaa Form. The goddess is alternatively known as Chamundeswari Amman, to the followers of the Amman cult down south in Tamil Nadu where she is considered to be an avatar of Rajarajeshwari Amman. The hill provides a beautiful backdrop to the town. The Palace architecture however came across as a very confusing style. As much as I was told it was of the Indo-Sarcenic style, I believe there were other styles that influenced the construction too. We couldn’t afford to stop so we continued, almost whirl winding ourselves through the town area. The only other thing to catch my attention was The St. Philomena’s Cathedral, again for its truly outstanding presence and remarkable out of the way hybrid architectural style. We were soon on the outskirts, and a truck caught both Aunty Priyamvadaa’s attention as well as mine, it was named Sri Kaalabhairavar Thunai (in Tamizh). The mention of Kaalabhairavar as a God (previously thought to be a demon) brought up a discussion on Tamizh spirituality that kept me going till the next stop.
We passed Nanjangud without even realising we passed it and stopped on the outskirts of Gundlupet, at a roadside eatery called ‘Coffee Stoppee’, for our lunch. The lunch was well prepared and filling, a typical Kannadiga afternoon meal, with overenthusiastic hosts, who kept asking us if we wanted refills. The eatery was well built, with the cafeteria in an open veranda, with a tiled canopy roof. Clean and white were the moods of the space. Deepti and Ebbie seemed all too involved in a stray cat to notice anything else including the food. Conversations apart, I plucked two Jasmine blooms for Aunty, and regret with guilt to this day, for doing so : ( ! (I was tormented into feeling guilty obviously, by the trio).
The trip from Gundlupet to Bandipur didn’t last all that long, we crossed a town on the way called Hangaala, and another town called Begur (well if that isn’t the most common name for a town in Karnataka [weird, for as far as I understand, ‘Baega’ in Kannada means far and ‘Ooru’ means village.. i.e. ‘Fast Village’?] ), which were both funny to me because of the way they were named and well, Ebbie comes from a taluk in Bangalore called Begur. We began to see The Nilgiris Hills soon after we crossed Begur.
The drive uphill was beautiful, but I couldn’t help but notice on the way, a resort called The Bandipur Wildlife Resort (Jungle Club) just before we reached Mel-Kammannahalli, the last stop before we entered The Bandipur Wildlife Reserve. The resort by NO way was an escape from Bangalore, believe me!! The resort seemed to be like one small Bangalore around 150kms from the city, equipped with cabled rooms with geysers, internet connections and god knows what... what a shame to the adventure spirit! I must however admit that the new Tourism Ministry has sure been on its toes. Other than coming up with a well written (for starters) tagline… “KARNATAKA, One State, Many Worlds” (Nothing compared to “KERALA, Gods own Country”, my all time favourite), its new Yellow Boards with a calligraphed ‘KARNATAKA’, sure are an eye-catcher.
Several Yellow Boards later we entered the park. First we saw dense shrubbery, typical of a scrub forest, and then we came across ‘Propaah’ jungle Vegetation. The Bandipur town at that part of the morning seemed quite deserted, and well so, we just drove right past it. Boring Bandipur ended as we came to the Moyaar stream, on which a bridge stood as the No-Mans Land between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
It was one glorious moment for a Tamizh at heart like me, for beyond that bridge stood home, stood all that I cared for, all that I was. Bidding farewell to Kannada Nadu, I entered Tamil Nadu, and believe me the difference was seen, for within minutes of entering Tamil Nadu territory, we saw our fill of wildlife and greenery. That government ought to be congratulated for its awesome work at maintaining forests. Green, fresh jungle all around us with occasional sights of Deer, Peacock, Jungle fowl, and Wild Boar, left both Deepti and Ebbie at the edge of their seats. I felt some sense of pride surge in me for being part of the district for so long, and being part of its war against poaching. The reward for those times, I reaped now, as I almost felt like I was showing off MY wildlifeJ! We were already in ‘The Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park’ territory, and we soon crossed Theppakaaduh, the Elephant camp (a landmark, anyone who’s been there will remember).
All over one could see signs warning us “NO smoking, plastic, and alcohol” within the park boundaries. The dense vegetation gave way to scrub forest as we left the sanctuary’s borders. We were in Masinagudi in no time (Masinagudi being the outpost kind of town for the sanctuary and also an important town of the Nilgiris), and Uncle Dilip and Deepti, on seeing a garage called ‘Kerala Garage’ began narrating their previous adventures in the area, and how on one occasion, their car gave up while trying to climb up the Sirgur Ghat (A steep ghat [hill], in the vicinity. The signs continued as we left the area, and reached Maavanalla (the Tamizh’ised version of ‘Mahavan-Allah’). A town, which brought back, a whole lot of memories. Of my dad and my school and a campsite called ‘Quiet Corner’ [I showed it to all of them as we passed it], and of its eccentric owner and his rabid dog, and well a whole lot of things that fogged up my mind, with sweet and bitter feelings. Luckily I was brought out of that mood by a quick stop, uncle decided to make on the road. It worsened even further as I remembered daddy telling me he wanted to buy land there and settle down there forever. He never even got to visit it again. We resumed our journey and desperate to get out of the ever worsening cramp I was getting deep down in my stomach, I began to tease poor Ebbie (God! What would I do without him). When nobody noticed, I said a silent prayer that his soul might rest in peace. But the jolly mood was soon back, as we began to climb the famous ‘Fatal 36 Hair Pin Bend Stretch’ ( the Tamizh for hair-pin bend never ceases to amuse me; ‘Kondai Oosii Vilaivuh’).
We crossed several more of those amazing sign boards, till we came across one that took my breath away. The Sign Board said quite plainly in Tamizh and English; “You Have Been Sufficiently Warned !!!” almost as if telling us, the government felt that by now we had better been warned that we weren’t allowed to smoke, use plastic, cause forest fires, drink and drive, or damage nature in any other way. The best part was how by the next hair-pin bend the signs just stopped. We laughed at the thought process that went into this amazingly Hip articulation, all the way to the nest stop.
We were now in ‘Propaah’ Nilgiris. The pine, firs and eucalyptus everywhere showed it. It had begun to drizzle as we landed at our first stop before climbing into The Udhagamandalam (Ooty) Sub-Division. Koraikundhah, the flat valley check post where we halted to get tourist passes into the Nilgiris, was overrun by a heavy shower leaving behind traces of a washed out river bed. It gave the first glimpse of what beauty awaited us further up. Aunty Priyamvadaa noticed some water feasting bird eat from the mud on the bed of the stream , and for the first time I realised how much the whole Periyapattinam Kudumbam was into bird watching. Uncle had gone to fight over some fee we had to pay that came up to Rs.700, but eventually we had to pay it as we were travelling in a tourist vehicle.
The ride up from then on was sheer pleasure, as we slowly drove into Ooty town, first crossing Indunagar, Home to the famous INDU ( the only indigenous Photo film industry in India), a suburb of Ooty. Slowly we drove into Finger-Post and then into the Ooty bus stand. It was now direction asking time. I asked the first person I came across, in pure Kovai Tamizh, for directions. The way he responded so courteously and politely, shocked everyone else. Little did they know that we Nilgiris people are brought up like that. I felt so proud of being brought up there again. On receiving directions, we continued to Fern hill, (detour on the way all round the town , due to a faulty road, that we were informed about by some over friendly locals) where we were to go down hill on the road to a town called Emerald (Emeraltu), which would lead us to our destination for that day i.e. Avalaanchee (Avalaanjee). The road led us to the infamous ‘Fern Hill Palace’ hotel, and I noticed Kannada on one of the sign boards! (Almost impossible in Tamil Nadu) It was the Karnataka State Guest House, and then we continued further down hill into Palladaa. We saw the New Campus of Good Shepherds International School and were quite impressed by it.
We soon were out of the Ooty town limits, and got into the ugliest stretch of land I’ve ever passed through in the Nilgiris. The hill sides were brown and destroyed by plantations carried out in Jhooming style. It spoilt the whole green look that the Nilgiris usually offered. Thankfully, the patch ended, and tea plantations began. That was a real relief. A very boring ride down hill then brought us at last to Emerald. The town, nothing like its amazing sounding name, is just a typical sleepy hamlet of the Nilgiris. We stopped there for a wonderfully long tea, of Mozhakaa (Green Chilli) Bajjis, Bondaas, and delicious Nilgiri tea.
The stop however exceeded way beyond what we meant it to be, and the sun soon set. In partial darkness we left the cosy town of Emerald and continued further downstream, crossing over a small stream that ran into the Emerald Reservoir. The stream had overflowed due to the recent rains and so we were soon stuck in the most amazing slush puddles I’ve ever come across. The puddles were deep and our Qualis refused to budge. The driver began showing his true colours then. More concerned about the condition of his vehicle, he began grumbling. We just couldn’t let this small obstacle come in our way now. We were just 5kms from Avalaanchee. So we got out of the Qualis, and walked the whole stretch of the Slush puddle. Our first adventure had just begun. It was fun to get ourselves all muddy while we had to help aunty and Deepti over the puddles. The jeep began to move, and well the rest is history!!!
We travelled through what seemed like thick wattle (a plantation tree extensively grown by the British, for it use in the Tanning Industry) thickets. But none of us would know for sure as the road was dark and well the driver kept bugging us complaining all the while.
We reached the guesthouse at last, following a sign post on the road. We reached this Guest house, and suddenly uncle realised that it didn’t look like the original place we were supposed to stay in , it was I guest house all the same. It looked new, and well haunted, as Deepti claimed. It did. We gave up trying to read, or hope for any luck and so thought we’d reverse and take the other road. As we reversed however our guardian angel, a forest guard saw the light and came walking towards us. He showed us the guest house we were looking for, and well we were impressed, to figure out that it was just beside the structure we were standing in front off ( apparently they had built a new guest house) : )
We soon camped in, and I must say the guest house was amazing even for a lodge-hopper like me. I loved the way in which the lodge was built, very typical brit forest dwelling. Three beautiful bedrooms with wooden floors, fireplaces all over. Typical animal skull hangings all over, a bull skull in the front room (which Ebbie had to inquire on its authenticity), and well you know that kind of an ambience. The Ranger was still not sure on whether to believe we were the actual guests, so he went to call up the Chief Ranger for that forest. Better for us! We waited, and well my leg was the most to be pulled, just because I was staring at the rules of the residence. Soon he returned all smiles, and thus began the best trip I’ve ever had!
He was now over indulgent, he figured out uncle was a high ranking official, and now he had to impress him (the joys of Indian Governance), we soon got down to figuring what we’d have for dinner. Uncle Dilip, as we had started expecting by now was well prepared, and opened or ‘LIFE-BAG’ [it shall be referred to as such henceforth], and took out a 4-pack of Maggi Noodles, and one after came out, Dhal, Rice, Masala, MTR Mixes: Rava Idly, Khara Baath, a loaf of bread, Jam and god knows what else… I WAS SURPRISED!! Uncle smiles and just says, “You always have to be prepared”. Man I learnt my listen, even such a high ranking person, believed in ‘Chance’. Anyway, if that wasn’t the case we would have starved all night. Suddenly, the same ranger offers us a choice, if we wanted to stay in the new Forest Guest House… Yupp the very one, we thought was haunted. He led us to the new place while aunty caught her breath. IT WAS AMAZING!!
If one could ever find Five Star class accommodation in the middle of nowhere it was HERE! The Guest house was two bed-roomed with bathrooms (avec WC), and believe me the whole house was tiled, and the drawing room, don’t even ask... Three separate lounge sofas. The dining room was equipped with a state of the art TV and an adjoining Dish TV connection. I was in ninth heaven. Purr-fect place to spend a night after such a rigorous journey (I know how hypocritical of me it is to want a Bangalore haven in the middle of nowhere, but it’s just that I wasn’t expecting it, so when I did get it, it was more than I could ever ask for). We shifted in to the new residence, as fast as bees entering their hive when it rains.
The Bedrooms took my breath away, with the king sized beds, and the pretty (totally) bed sheets, from the Ilumino range from ‘Bombay Dyeing’ (as in they glow in the dark). I quickly opened out my clothes and ran in for a quick bath. The warm water on my body, I can never ask for more. I find warm baths, so refreshing, it leaves my skin glowing. As I walked out after my bath, I was overwhelmed to see the sky above me. I sat on the dew wet bench, and looked up into the sky. Deepti and Ebbie soon joined me. We began star watching, spotted the small Dipper very fast and Leo too, but, Orion deluded both Deepti and me. Aunty soon joined us, and we looked into the dark surroundings. It was so freaky as the land on which our Guest House stood overlooked something, so a few metres from our bench, the land gave way, and believe me we didn’t know to what (Ebbie told me yesterday that he thought the lake was below that plunge, no wonder he was so freaked out on sitting on the edge). We tried calling Hari, and got him at last. Aunt’s heart skipped a beat as she spoke to her pet : ).
Dinner was ready and so we went in and sat around a table to eat our Noodles, Dhal and Rice. I must say the cook was a genius, I loved his version of Maggi Noodles, filled with Onions and other Indian spices. He even switched the TV on for us. It was quite hilarious to think of us now, sitting in the middle of a thick jungle, watching ‘Headlines Today’, and eating Maggi NoodlesJ. The dinner was followed by the biggest surprise I’d seen till then. Uncle brought out this tubular map case and unravelled something I would call a treasure trove of maps…. “I gazed and gazed with little thought, what geeks of me these Ebbie and Deepti thought…” I just couldn’t take my eyes off those gems. Detailed to the very inch, restricted, well etched, Survey of India maps (What I’d do for a set of those… wa-wa). We tracked out our routes for the next days, and we soon gave up as the boredom was showing too obviously on Deepti and Ebbie’s faces.
It was around 9 by now, so Aunty and Uncle went to bed, so we went to bed too, not before we played several games of UNO. Is it just me, or is it normal for people to pair against me when I play with them, because soon, Deepti and Ebbie had taken vows to make me lose, and began working at it together. Soon I was losing every single game [to their utter satisfaction], and time flew by. We realised it was getting late, and tried hitting sack, not before we had several teddy bear wars between Ebbie and Deepti. Ebbie couldn’t stand Deepti’s Teddy’s from the moment he set his eyes on them. Anyway we were soon in bed, alarms wound, rather set on our mobiles, for 5:00am, 5:30am, and 6:00am, (all three of us carried our mobiles), and we fell asleep with Deepti’s voice somewhere in the distance complaining about our bed sheets having more illuminos than hers. The night at the ‘haunted’ Guest House was a truly peaceful one.
I’m sure I would have had as much to write about the evening journey, but darkness blocked all visibility, and thus I lost on most of what I could have seen on the stretch from Emerald to Avalaanchee, which I assume was very beautiful. The extended stop at Emerald seemed to have played a nasty trick on us after all. As Uncle Dilip said “Try to reach you destination wherever it maybe, before sundown”. That shall henceforth be my principle while visiting any area; the light makes things so much easier : ).
The Driver However spent the night at the cosy brit cottage we were supposed to stay in ALL ALONE!!