Thursday, November 19, 2009

Far from the madding crowd....Himalayan Village, Sonapani

The pictures say it all…..the view from the rugged road on the way to the Himalayan village resort (Sonapani) the pine forest just outside the resort gate--then from the resort, a view of the mighty Himalayas stretched out in the horizon, forests all around, a profusion of flowers and trees laden with fruit around the cottages, a spectacular sunset……the experience cannot be described, only felt!
Look for details at and have a great holiday!

The road less traveled........

The colors of India, (and indeed, the world) are not only about places and events, but the people who choose the road less traveled, thereby enriching not only their own lives, but the lives of countless others.
Meet a young couple who have done just this…..Ashish and Deepa Arora, who in 2004 chose to leave comfortable jobs and successful careers in Delhi to “return to nature” in an unspoilt region of Uttaranchal and contribute to the local community. The resort that they have built up with tremendous labor and love and look after today is truly far from the madding crowd…. indeed, one can’t be closer to nature---there are no TV sets, daily newspapers or telephones (though mobile phones and internet data cards work now!) Maybe that is why their little girl is more creative and well read than any city child older than her! They live in a 100+ years old stone house (artistically done up by the talented Deepa!) with their children Vanya (6 years) and Aranya (not yet 2) and are the best hosts imaginable. Himalayan Village, Sonapani is spread over 20 acres on a 2000 m high ridge, and they personally supervise every aspect of it, with the result that the cliché of going there as a stranger and returning as a friend is the experience of every visitor!

The 12 cottages at different levels all face the majestic Himalayas, so the first sight as you wake up is that of snow covered peaks glinting in the sunlight. A herb bush beside each cottage gives it its name! In keeping with the eco friendly policy, earth blocks have been used instead of bricks. The dining room affords a magnificent view of the cottages, forests and mountain ranges. The food is multi-cuisine and excellent, made with home grown ingredients, and augmented by the impeccable service of the staff, and above all, the personal attention and warmth of the host.

There is something of interest for every visitor. One can just soak in the peace and beauty, with only the sound of birds and insects and the breeze. For the more adventurous, Ashish organizes individual and group activities like rock climbing and jungle walks, learning programs for school groups and corporate training programs. In fact, batches of students on an exchange program from the University of Washington are regular biannual visitors.

Despite the constant task of looking after visitors, the staff exudes a warmth and cheerfulness that is rare, but as they say, Ashish and Deepa “lead from the front”!
More about the resort in the next post!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.......Bandipur National Park

Bandipur Tiger Reserve or National park is nestled at the foot of the Blue Mountains, the common name for the Nilgiris, and spreads over 880 sq km.
There is a wide range of vegetation: scrub forest, dry and moist deciduous forests, so home to a variety of animals. Bandipur is one of the most popular wildlife sanctuaries in India, with the highest density of Indian tigers and 1/5th of the world’s Asiatic elephants. Other animals found here are gaur, sambar, chital, wild boar, wild dog and leopard. Langurs (a species of monkeys), swinging from the branches, are very common!

As I mentioned in the last post, we stayed at the Jungle Lodges resort, and part of the program is jeep safaris into the jungle twice a day, accompanied by trained naturalists. We chose an open jeep, but the top had to be covered because of the rain. However, it lashed against the sides, and very soon I was pretty much drenched! This was repeated the next morning, but well worth it! It was an incredible experience, thanks to Basavanna (the naturalist I referred to in the last post)who drove the jeep.

The dirt roads through the forest are winding, very rocky and narrow, and one can just admire the skill of the drivers, who also have to drive without lights (so as not to disturb the animals) in the pitch darkness. In some parts, it is pretty dark even during the day! Unfortunately, our safari was on a wet, gloomy day, as you can see from the rain spattered photos, as dark as the woods!

Chital or spotted deer can be seen in large numbers; we saw them in the evening, and then again the next morning, amidst the constant drizzle and mist.

The gaur, sometimes called the Indian bison, was massive, but it moved with amazing speed. Another one, seen later in the evening, seemed annoyed at the attention, and for a moment, we thought it was going to give the charge. One wonders how the animals feel, being pursued by jeep loads of curious and persistent visitors, armed with sophisticated (and some,like me, with basic) cameras and other equipment!

Suddenly, we spotted a pair of sloth bear, the only bear found in South India. Next, we came across a couple of beautiful, red Asiatic wild dogs (Dhole). The highlight of the sightings was a sleek leopard gracefully sauntering across the bushes, its magnificent coat acting as a camouflage. Unfortunately, the fading light and speed of the animal's movements prevented us from clicking any photos. Hopefully next time! It must be mentioned that we were able to see such rare animals largely due to Basavanna's enthusiasm and efforts.

There are also over 300 species of birds, seen specially in the early morning. The next morning, we spotted many of them, again thanks to Basavana, who drove into the most likely habitats, and also told us about the birds. A more interested and knowlegeable naturalist is hard to find. The photo of the peacock perched majestically on the tree in the center does not do justice to its gorgeous plumage--but it was too far off, and the light was poor. Finally, the lone cormorant keeping a watchful eye from its perch in the center of the dam.
The magic of the forests has to be felt to be believed.......

A Wild Bandipur!

A trip to Bandipur national park, 220 km from Bangalore, gives a glimpse of the rich flora and fauna of the Nilgiri Biosphere reserve, of which it is a part. Once the private hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Mysore, it became the first (of the 7) parks under Project Tiger to save the species.

There are rock formations, lush green fields, coconut groves, banana plantations and lakes and ponds on either side of the highway leading to Mysore, and on to Bandipur. One can stop at any number of places for a quick, hot South Indian meal on a traditional plantain leaf!

We stayed at the Bandipur Safari Lodge, situated at the end of and about a km from the Bandipur national park. There are 12 very comfortable cottages, each named after a wild creature! We stayed at the Mayura (peacock) cottage, complete with a huge motif on the wall.

The facilities and food are excellent, and the most attractive feature is trips in the early morning and evening in open top jeeps into the park, with well trained guides. (You can find detailed information on other activities on the “Jungle lodges and resorts' site). Tips for visitors: opt for an open jeep (instead of a covered van, worth the experience, even if it rains) request the person arranging the safari (Mr.Nataraja) for a guide called Basavanna (extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable) and carry extra sets of clothes and socks (even for a one day trip) in case of sudden showers during the jeep ride!

The view from the resort is lovely, and the road leading to the park affords a view of hills and green countryside. More about the park in the next post.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Immortal beauty in stone---Belur Temple, Karnataka (South India)

Belur was another capital of the Hoysalas. Today it is famed for its magnificent temple complex, visible after entering an ornate gateway, called “gopuram.”
The star shaped main temple took 103 years to be completed and stands on a platform. The carvings on the outer walls include figures of dancing girls, scenes from everyday life, mythological figures and stories and of course, deities.
Inside the temple is a gigantic statue of the deity and filigreed pillars and sculptures.
There are other smaller but equally impressive temples in the same complex.
The temples of Halebid and Belur are made of soapstone---soft underground, extremely hard when exposed to the air!