Monday, December 1, 2008

Chikmagalur, Belur, Halebid

Chikmagalur ('town of the younger daughter') is a town and district in western Karnataka (just as Bangalore is a city as well as a district, though Bangalore the city is part of Bangalore the district - you knew that already, but it never hurts to repeat the obvious). Its political claim to fame is that Indira Gandhi had contested and won a parliamentary seat here in 1978, after she had been defeated in the elections of 1977. After winning from here she pretty much forgot about the constituency, or so our guide told us. Forgetting about the constituency and its constituents is pretty much the 'done thing' when it comes to politics, so one way or the other it didn't raise any eyebrows, and is seen as par for the course. Other than that, it is famous for primarily two other things. Well, lots of things, but let's stick with two things for the sake of simplicity and focus.

The first is that Chikmagalur is the place where coffee first came to India. Legend or folklore has it that a saint by the name Baba Budan Giri, whose real name was Hazrat Shah Jamer Allah Mazarab, smuggled some six or seven coffee beans from Yemen in the early seventeenth century into India and planted them here. Several decades later the British took upon the task of extending coffee cultivation to other areas in the country like the Nilgiris, Coorg (now called Kodagu), Darjeeling, etc... According to government statistics, the district of Chikamagalur grows some 17% of all Robusta coffee and 38% of all Arabica coffee grown in India. In case you wondered what Robusta and Arabica mean, Robusta is the cheaper of the two, is usually used for making instant coffee, and has twice the caffeine content of Arabica. Arabica, therefore, as you would have figured out, is costlier, and is used in making the 'traditional' filter coffee. There are thousands upon thousands of acres of land under coffee cultivation in Chikmagalur. Interspersed between these coffee estates are even more coffee estates. When you go visit Chikmagalur, a sine-qua-non is a visit to a coffee plantation. If you are fascinated with coffee plantations, it may be a good idea to find a homestay or accomodation in a plantation itself. Many plantations have large houses that have been converted to serve as decent accomodations for tourists. We stayed at one such place in Coorg, where the rooms had all the amenities that an urban dweller would expect, but no television in the rooms. It stands to reason that if you crave a television when in the midst of such lush greenery and nature, then maybe the lush greenery and nature is not for you. Rush back to the city where the concrete and the television awaits. I may be a bit harsh here, since you are quite likely to find a television in the dining area or the common area of the hotel, just not in the rooms. With a complement of a hundred channels, replete with the cacophony of loud newscasters. Whereas a few years back you would have to remain content with the national television of Doordarshan, thanks to the wonders of satellite television, and the manic saturated advertising of Tata Sky ('isko laga dala to life jhinga lala'), Dish TV ('thoda aur wish karo, dish karo'), Big TV, or Airtel Digital TV (which is a case of very confused branding - is it IPTV or dish TV, or both, or none???), you can actually sit in the middle of thousands of acres of forest and greenery and yet be able to watch the exact same channels as in your living room in the city. Technology is wonderful - you can now never truly escape it. Even your cell phone works, so if not the television, you can watch videos at YouTube.

Coffee plantation owners can be rich dudes. Maybe not as rich as the mining magnates of Bellary, but check out the mansion in the middle of the plantation below. The photograph is admittedly not as rich, but I blame that on my laziness in composition and exposure primarily, and also on the fact that I did not have a sharp enough lens... Then there is the lighting to be considered, the time of day, the absence of a tripod, the time at hand that can be spent in composing and shooting the photo, and you get this photo. Not quite bad, but not quite good either.

These are examples of the coffee beans look like when in bloom. Now imagine tens of thousands of acres of plantations like this in December and January when all these plants bloom. Blooming awesome!

Ignore the mosquitoes and other insects out to feast on your city slicker blood, and you can have the most relaxing of walks among these plantations. Early mornings are possibly the best since the sun has not been up long enough in the sky to make it very warm, the light is quite amazing, and the dew on the leaves and plants very, very pretty. If you are the poetic kind, Robert Frost should make for a good companion (Miles to Go Before I Sleep). Closer home, Ghalib and 'dil dhoondta hai, phir wahi, fursat ke raat din' (दिल ढूँढता है, फिर वही, फुर्सत के रात दिन) should strike a chord.

Having digressed enough, to return to the aromatic world of coffee plantations, what come as a surprise, or more as a revelation is the fact that alongside the coffee plants, there are silver oak trees also planted, that serve to provide shade to the coffee plants. Further, to make the most of these trees and to improve the returns per acre of land, pepper plants/creepers are grown on these trees. While it is possible to grow coffee plants even under the direct gaze of the sun using newer techniques, in India you will generally find shade grown coffee plants.

You will find that all along the drive, and especially as you start approaching Halebid, Belur, Shravanbelagola on the highway, there are ample signs put up by the government. They all look similar - black text on a yellow board - that they are easy to spot.
Near chikmagalur are the small historical towns of Belur and Halebid, which were the capitals of the Hoysala rulers. Belur is actually in the district of Hasan, but quite near Chikmagalur also. These temples are approximately 900 years old, with spectacular carvings and statues. The Belur temple is the larger of the two, but the Halebid temples are no less admirable. Some of the carvings are so intricate that you would be forgiven for forgetting that these carvings have been done on stone and not wood. There do not seem to be any two carvings that are similar, anywhere in the temple. To get a good appreciation of these temples, you would need to spend a lot of time there, several days or even weeks. But if you have a few hours, or less, then engaging the services of a guide is well advised.

There are several depictions from Hindu mythology that can be observed. The Mahabharata, Dasha-avtar, life of Krishna are some of the favorite themes.

If you are upto speed on your Hindu mythology, here are some to pique your interest:
This below is a depiction of Krishna and Putna. Putna, as we well know, is one of the better known rakshasis from Puranic lore, and who was sent by Kamsa to kill Krishna. Krishna was still an infant when Putna tried to do away with the Lord.

This is Bheeshma lying on a bed of arrows after he was felled by Arjun's arrows.

Going back a little bit in Hindu mythology, according to the Dashavtaar, Hirayanksha and Hirayankashyap were brothers cursed to die at the hands of Lord Vishnu. They were born again as Ravana and Kumbhakaran, where they were slain by Ram, incarnation of Lord Vishnu. And were born for the third and last time during Krishna's time as Sishupala and another character whose name I forget. Anyway, here below is a depiction of Prahalad as he is attacked by elephants. Of course, nothing happened to Prahalad, protected as he was by the Lord.

Messing around with the lord has its consequences, as Prahalad's father, Hirayanakashyap, found out to his dismay as he is slain by the Narsimha avtar of Lord Vishnu. Not by man or beast, by any weapon, in day or night, indoors or outdoors, on earth or in heaven - this is what he had asked of Lord Brahma as a boon. Well, he had first asked for immortality. When told that one who is born must die, this is the next best he could manage. According to Wikipedia, this is what he asked for:
O my lord, O best of the givers of benediction, if you will kindly grant me the benediction I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you. Grant me that I not die within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. Grant me that I not meet death from any entity, living or nonliving. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets. Since no one can kill you in the battlefield, you have no competitor. Therefore, grant me the benediction that I too may have no rival. Give me sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and give me all the glories obtained by that position. Furthermore, give me all the mystic powers attained by long austerities and the practice of yoga, for these cannot be lost at any time.
One wonders whether immortality is a boon or a curse - Ashwatthama is a case in point, but to each his own. The good Lord took it upon himself to take care of all provisions of the boon when disposing of Hiranyakaship. He was neither man nor beast, it was the twilight hour, his hands were no weapons, his lap was neither earth nor the skies, and the deed was done at the threshold of the palace, which was neither indoor nor outdoor... The significance of this episode from the Dashavtar is that the lord is omnipresent, that devotion is a matter of character and not birth, given that Prahalad was born to one of the most evil of asuras.

Hebbe Falls
Hebbe falls are about 10 kms from the hill station of Kemmangundi. From there you take a ride in a jeep to reach a spot that is, still, a couple of kilometers from the base of the falls. The jeep ride is about 8kms long. The reason you have to take a jeep is because there is no road. Not only is there no road, but the path that is used as a road is the worst road you can hope not to travel on, ever. Sometimes the jeep goes over boulders, sometimes over rocks, the vehicle tilting 15, 20 degrees or more. The entire ride is bumpy, extremely so, and takes an interminable 45 minutes. At the end of the ride you reach a private plantation. From there you have to trek down to a stream, over which there is no bridge. Immediately after the monsoons and for a few months after, the stream is full of water, and needs to be waded through. Which does not sound like a difficult task. Till you step in the water and realize that the bed is not smooth or easy to walk on. It has rocks underneath, some of which are jagged, slippery, tilted, and which make walking a challenge. Our driver told us cautionary tales of several college youths who had been washed away in this stream because they under-estimated the strength of the current, the slipperiness of the rocks in the bed, and, most importantly, they were drunk. So there you have the moral of the story - drinking and crossing shallow streams with rocky beds leads to a watery grave. After this you have to wade through two more streams. If it has rained the night before, and the soil is moist, then be prepared for leeches. Since you would have taken off your shoes to wade through the stream, chances are almost better than 100% that a couple of leeches will pick you your leg to feast on. Not that you will notice it, because you will not feel their prick on your skin, nor will you notice or feel them sucking your blood. It is only when they have gorged on enough blood and fall off do you notice it.

The hotel itself had some very nice views of the Sahyadri range in the Western Ghats. It is just off the main road, a small, short, winding road leading upto the hotel. It used to be known as the Taj Garden Retreat till a few months back, but in a stroke of branding madness, it has been renamed as the 'Gateway' hotel. The reasons are probably not too difficult to fathom. The 'Taj' brand is a marquee brand, and as a brand it is most useful if it offers a sense of exclusivity, comforts, and a price to match. If there are too many hotels associated with the 'Taj' brand, then brand dilution occurs, and that's not good. Also, it is probabaly considered a good idea to build a new brand rather than risk overextending and diluting an existing brand. Hence the 'Gateway' brand. In case you wondered and did not yet figure it out, the most famous Taj hotel is in Bombay (now Mumbai), besides the Gateway of India. That is where the 'Gateway' name was inspired from. What the brand managers probably missed is to add a small subline to the 'Gateway' brand indicating it was a Taj property. This way you have some sense of continuity and not scare off people who may not immediately or initially associate 'Gateway' with 'Taj'. After a few years you could do away with the Taj tagline completely. Anyway...