Saturday, September 3, 2016

Lording it in Landsdowne - A brief getaway from the Summer Heat

As I sit here in the 'Hideout' of the Oak Grove Inn, strategically located below the 'Hangout', that was once a garage in Delhi, I am amazed at the transformation a little imagination and a lot of bric-a-brac can create in any space. What began as a planned holiday with friends to Landsdowne, turned into a little getaway for Nalini and me.

On a bright Monday morning, we stepped into a hired Scorpio and navigated the bylanes of Gurgaon and the busy thoroughfares of the city,  to escape to towards 'The Hills' . The drive to Landsdowne was peppered with missed turns and guidance from Colonel Rawat, our host.

Lunch, a steaming bowl of butter chicken with freshly baked naans, served at a surprisingly posh, AC restaurant in the town of Kotdwara.  The restaurant lived up to its name as we 'relished' our afternoon repast. From there on, it was literally uphill going. We ascended into pine forests, along narrow, winding hill roads, with silent jeeps screaming around the corners. It was a battle of wits, with a dash of common sense and generous dose of intuition that kept us going.

Oak Grove Inn is a charming homestay run by the Rawats. As we discovered over the next few days, everyone knows the Colonel. In fact, in this sleepy hamlet, it seems more as though everyone knows everyone.  The homestay is located at Jaiharikhal, 6 km from Landsdowne.  Spread over multiple levels across the hillside, it affords a private lair for those who seek it. And companionship for those who yearn for a chat or two.

The 'Hideout', discovered 3 days after landing here, explains why those who come here once, keep coming back, not only to Landsdowne, but to Oak Grove Inn. It's the kind of place that I would share only with those I know would appreciate it, and the lovely couple that run it.  Hangout, Hideout, The Lounge, God's Own Window.... The resort is replete with colourful, cozy spaces created painstakingly by Mrs. Rawat.  Rarely have I felt a desire to wax eloquent about a homestay, though I have been to quite a few across the country. Oak Grove deserves it.

The day we drove down from Delhi, it rained cats and dogs. Nestled on our balcony, we savoured hot chai and pakoras, waiting for the rain to subside. The wait was in vain. The heavens opened up and kept us indoors, nursing a rum and Coke, and the finest French Fries this side of the Atlantic.  Chef Raju has magic in his hands, transforming the simplest local vegetables into a gourmet meal.

Conversation flowed freely from environment to travels, from Khichdi to Kung Pao Chicken, forest trails to fiery pulaos, until it was time to call it a night.

The rain was unrelenting. Through the night and well into the next morning, the pitter-pat of rain drops made their presence felt..tapping out a melody on the tin roof above us. As the rain cleared, we ventured into the town, to soak in the sights.  First stop, Tip-in-Top, pronounced more as 'Tiffin Top', the highest point in the area.  A picturesque spot that affords typically picturesque views of the Garhwhal Range. The Garhwhal Vikas Mandal has capitalised on this scenic location by setting up tree Houses, Log Huts and pre-fab cabins for tourists.

One mountain view is much like another says the blasé traveller. But each vista has the power to bestow upon the onlooker a sense or tranquility and awe. Thus did we linger, viewing the peaks before us, until an ominous growl was heard. As the hour crept past one, our stomachs signalled the need for nourishment.

So from one fairytale locale to Fairydale did we drive. Through vale and across marginally motor able tracks, the route to Fairydale Resort was reminiscent of a Harry Potter movie, minus the ominous clouds. The Resort, one of the very first to start operations in Landsdowne, is a large bungalow with a few cottages on its grounds. But what is enchanting is its al fresco dining area. Even the simplest fare tastes magical, if eaten amidst the pines, overlooking meadows and pine and peaks in the distance. 

We have no agenda in Landsdowne or list of things to see, a bucket list of 'must-dos'. In fact, there should be a list of 'must-not-do's' here.  You must not hurry, worry or scurry. The points will always be there. You must amble gently from one place to another and let the sleepy nature of this place overwhelm you. Only then, will you enjoy your stay in Landsdowne.  Or else, stay away, lest your corrupt it with your 'city-slicker' attitude.

Things move slowly here, but they move with an air of elegance and calm that is lost on most city-dwellers. I have seen that those who visit places like Landsdowne begin to seek the very things that they wished to escape from. Why do you need satellite TV, when you have the Magpie's Chorus in the morning. Why waste time on political views, when you can spend the evening gazing at village lights in the distance. Why do you eschew the simple fare of a homestay, served with love, when that is what you signed up for?  Why remain a tourist, when you have the chance to become a traveller? This is beyond me.

Later in the afternoon, we visited the immaculately maintained, though unlit, War Memorial - a tribute to the history and gallantry of the men of the Garwhal Rifles Regiment. With a background score provided by the Army Marching Band practicing in the adjacent parade ground, I leafed through the pages of the Regiment's history, reading stories of bravery beyond the call of duty, of weapons that would be considered primitive in today's times and most of all, of sense of duty that defies definition.

By now, the rains were a distant dream, and Landsdowne was bathed in bright sunshine. We trooped back to our haven for some victuals and rest, emerging from hibernation once the sun had set. Tonight, we were all set to make the most of the Hangout.  Alcohol, conversation and snacks flowed freely, as we chanted with fellow guests with everything ranging from Uttapams to Urban Planning.

The next day, we decided to take a drive to the temple of Tadkeshvar, set in a Deodhar grove around 40 kilometres from Landsdowne. Armed with sandwiches, a mat and a thermos of hot water, we set off on our adventure. In the hills, a two lane road seems like a cruel joke, as one could probably place two  feet apart in each of the lanes, but two cars passing each other? That's another story altogether. So with one eye on the landscape and another on the corner ahead, I propelled us gently towards our destination. 

Predictably, the first stop was for lunch in a. No-name restaurant in a no-name stretch of habitation called Sisalda. Two benches, a counter and a fridge constituted the restaurant. But what it lacked in polish, it more than made up for in hospitality and fresh food. Everything was bought from the store opposite, as we needed it. Hot chapatis and fresh salad, cut on the spot. Dal, rice and the vegetable du jour, served with aplomb by the maitre'D . His ever watchful eye darting to see if we needed anything.  Lunch thus dismissed, we are back on our way to Tadkeshwar.

When in search of experiences divine, on must bow to the needs of divinity and serve. So, when we saw two ladies trudging with large bags on their heads, along with a little girl in tow, we did what came naturally to me - offered them a ride. We exchanged pleasantries and dropped them off at their village, a few kilometres down the road, Their colourful garb, lilting dialect and sheer gratitude at a simple act of kindness made us realise how much we take for granted. They probably showered more blessings on us than a pantheon of priests, as they alighted from the car. And all through, I had only one thought in my mind, " I Hope she's not sitting on my IPad!" I guess there's only that much generosity of spirit in all of us - but I did everything I could to not stop the car while they were in it and check.  Once they alighted, I stopped at the next scenic point, and clicked a picture, just to check!

The next hour or more was spent in the company of Lord Tadkeshwar and his Deodhar protectors. An idyllic spot set amidst pine and Deodar trees, desperately trying to escape the ravages of the paper-plate brigade. Even the Lord seems to be losing this battle, despite exhortations to keep His place clean. He frowns on those who litter and blesses those who clean up - or so a sign says.
Seems as though the devotees are not worried about a growing God, when they can feed cows the leftovers from their picnic, paper plates, et al.

I often wonder what it will take to install some civic sense into the common populace. There's more litter outside the dustbin than in it. And then, mountain breezes playfully play frisbee with paper plates, depositing them in the most unlikely locations - including the feet of the Lord. 

As the sun began its decent over the horizon, so did we descend towards Landsdowne, sopping only for a cup of tea at a small hillside resort along the way.  We stopped at the Army Market at Landsdowne for a dekho and were pleasantly surprised to find high quality fabrics and leather goods at reasonable prices.  Over the next hour, we traipsed from one shop to other, picking up bags, shoes, kurtas and stoles to our hearts' delight. Thus armed with our purchases did we return to Oak Grove Inn.  The moment we unburdened ourselves of our purchases, it became apparent that I had left my satchel which contained among other things my wallet and house keys at the shoe shop at Landsdowne, 5 km away. It took one phone call to confirm that the shopkeeper had it, In fact, he had already tried to contact the Colonel and tell him that we had left it behind.

The Lord works in mysterious ways. Probably the good karma I had earned with my good deed of the day paid off. The shop owner Javed met the Colonel at a wedding celebration in the town and handed over my satchel.Then, all was well with the world.  The perfect end to a lovely day.

Day 3 in Landsdowne. Our last full day here. I took me 3 days to discover the Hideout where I am sitting and typing this blog. Armed with trusty IPad, a bottle of beer and plate of French Fries ( as mentioned afore), and a quiver of the finest words, I am reminiscing over the events of the past two days. It would be far too much to pack in the people we've met, new friends we've made and conversations we've had into this epistle. Suffice to say that they have made the entire stay exactly what I hoped it would be. Blissful.

The agenda for the rest of the day like most tourist agendas is very hectic and packed with items like lunch, nap, evening drink, fireside chat, dinner, sleep.  All to be executed at the slowest possible pace. For the best journeys are those that flow from one moment to the next, without a plan. I'm sure the Landsdowners will concur. That's how they seem to live their lives, anyway.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Day 12 - Kanger National Park - The last stop.

Today, we woke up at 4.30 am and were out of the resort by 6.30. I left the windows down to enjoy the nippy morning breeze, as Nalini protested, bundled up like an eskimo in the passenger seat. By 7.30 am, we having breakfast at a major junction, around 18 km from the entrance to Kanger national park. Steaming hot puris, vegetable and tea, all served with a smile. Women travelling in this region, especially those with weak bladders, will often find it difficult to find a clean loo. It's either a petrol pump or a large dhaba that can come to their rescue. And even there, the sanitation levels are best left undescribed. Nalini had to make do with whatever facilities were available wherever we stopped, and as a last resort, commune with nature in the wild, whenever the occasion or her bladder demanded.

We entered Kanger National Park around 9 am and paid the entry fees at the gate. One good policy the park has adopted is to provide a guide for the caves within, at an all -inclusive price along with the entry fees. We drove around 5 km inside the forest, on a dappled trail, dotted with muddy speed breakers, until we picked up our guide and drove on to the base of the Kumteshwar caves, another 5 kilometres away.

The entry to the Kumteshwar caves is through a narrow crack in the rock surface. One has to literally crawl down a narrow staircase to reach a large, cavernous cave almost 330 metres in length. Nalini stayed out due to a fear of getting stuck and an aversion to confined, narrow, dark spaces. She is also extremely uncomfortable on uneven surfaces, and hence her abstinence in this case proved to be rather prudent.

Over the next hour, the guide and his powerful torch threw light on a subterranean wonder world filled with stalagmites and stalactites, formed over thousands of years. In one corner, an image of a tiger had been formed naturally on the rock face. Beautiful pillars, unfinished chandeliers, a combination of water and rock that had created its very own art gallery, away from prying eyes.

In another corner, a tiny pool of water was home to a shy crab and a couple of fish. It is a common myth that these fish are 'blind' and do not have eyes. The truth is that they have grown so used to the dark, that their eyes have become unaccustomed to any form of light, and hence, are blinded in daylight or torchlight. Although we were almost 80 meters below ground level, thee humidity and temperature of the cave was rather high, drenching me in sweat. The beauty and serenity of the cave was shattered by a large group of tourists who thought of this as nothing more than an underground picnic. That was our cue to head back.

Never have I been happier to see daylight. Back at the parking lot, we picked up a few fresh fruits from the local villagers and headed off to see 'Kanger Dhara' the lesser known waterfall in the sanctuary. The road to the waterfall is marked by a small sign at a fork in the forest and can be easily missed, if you are not looking for it. We were looking for it, simply because we hoped that it would be free of the hubbub that it's bigger brother, the Teerthdhara Falls promised.

I was armed with a picnic kit and mat, Nalini with a trusty stick found along the way. We made our way down to a stream, just before the fall drops gently into a pool below. There by the steam, we had a pleasant British Picnic. Muffins, Jam and Cheese sandwiches, freshly brewed coffee and a few fresh fruits. An hour passed at this idyllic spot uninterrupted, until the inevitable happened. A score of envious eyes accompanied by equally raucous voices chanced upon our enchanted garden. Thankfully, the interruption was brief and we went back to the business of doing absolutely nothing at all.

Thus did we move on to pay our obeisance at the last touristy outpost of our journey, Teerthdhara Falls. This is a popular picnic spot, around 5 kilometres from the forest gate, within the Kanger Valley National Park. Our first brush with private commerce was a 20 Rupee charge for parking, manned by the local tribals. Parking fees in a forest??? This was a taste of things to come. The next shock was a 200 meter stretch of shops selling everything from pakoras to pepsi.

While Nalini lumbered down tentatively, trusty stick in hand, I scampered down 300 odd steps to find an almost deserted pool, where the waterfall finally culminated. On my way, I skirted locals carrying cartons of snacks in search of the perfect picnic spot that could be sullied instantly. At the base, I stripped down to my nylon shorts and gingerly edged to a spot on a ledge behind the waterfall. Here I enjoyed 5 or 10 minutes of tranquillity and energy.

Bathed by the chilling spray of the waterfall, it felt like the perfect end to a lovely holiday. It was everything that Chattisgarh had never promised to be. Relaxing and energising at the same time. For a few brief moments, I felt like a king, in my own private, natural kingdom. The milling crowds at the upper levels of the falls were a distant memory.... until they started trickling down the steps, like water down a mossy rockface, one droplet at a time. Before I knew it, the Kingdom of Cyriana was taken over by vulgar. tittering hordes and the king had to retreat into exile.

As I dried myself and reached for my regal robes, laid before me upon a rock, a sudden movement aught my eye, and I spied a small, but possibly deadly snake slithering away. Just a reminder that even a king can be laid low by a sharp pair of fangs. Moreover, it reminded me that this was their turf and I a mere visitor who was tolerated. Thus, paying my respects to the forces of nature did I retreat to the crass commercial world that existed 300 steps away.

Back among the human race, I had no option but to succumb to the aroma of hot bhajjiyas and a steaming cup of tea. Tomorrow, we will be headed back to Mumbai, all of 1300 kilometres and a million lifetimes away. So, today, we sup like kings at the restaurant that shall not be named.

Someday, I would like to meet the copywriter who came up with the tagline 'full of surprises' and the brave client who agreed to use it. In the quest to come up with fancy lines, and prove their worth, copywriters, are often forced to come up with fancy, esoteric lines that need an instruction manual to decipher their true meaning. This is a state that lives upto its tagline and vice versa. It's simple and honest, without any of the fripperies of a Madison Avenue or Upper Worli line - just like the people of the state. God bless them all.

May the state and it's people never fall pray to the vagaries of tourism, tourists and their whims. And may the travellers who venture here appreciate the state for what it is, and not what they would like it to be. I do hope that I never see 'Dhokla' on the menu in Chattisgarh.

The day that happens, the Ghatkoparisation of the world will be complete.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Day 10 Sirpur to Chitrakote

The journey from Sirpur to Chitrakote and thee first impression of the sound of the Chitrakote falls reminds me of the line from Forrest Gump - " Life is like a box of chocolates... you never know what you will get inside." The 400 km journey from Sirpur to Chitrakote was covered in around 11 hours. This time, it was not due to the quality of roads, but the number of distractions along the way. First, the road itself. Changing from narrow, single lane highways, where each vehicle had to give way to the oncoming one by taking two wheels off the road, to miles of canopied, two lane tarmac that were a dream to drive on.

The real India lives in its towns and villages and were experiencing it firsthand. A breakfast of steaming samosas, straight from the pan, sitting at the crossroads of a small town. The entire family bustling around, switching roles at the drop of a hat. The father would fry the samosas, his daughter would serve them, while husband and wife went back to preparing the ingredients for other delicacies

From then on, it was a broad, treelined highway, all the way to Kondagaon, where Eagle Eye Nalini spotted a handicrafts centre. This by someone who can't spot a sign to save her life and keeps asking where we are and how many kilometres to the next turn off.

The next hour or so was spent exploring all sorts of local handicrafts, terracotta, bell metal, et al. Each town or village has a specialisation. This one excels in 'Dhokra' or the lost wax method of casting metal, to create sculptures of animals, deities and utility items. We picked up a few souvenirs and headed towards Chitrakote, until she spotted another one - a woodwork shop this time. The artisans were busy crafting exquisite woodwork items, from figurines to lintels and even an entire bed! It was a treat, to see them at work as they fashioned a piece of teak wood into a work of art.

The 27 km drive from Jagdalpur to Chitrakote was a nerve wracking experience. Dusk had set in an it was pitch dark, by the time we hit the hilly road that snaked its way to our destination. Cyclists and pedestrians trudged up the hill, unmindful of oncoming traffic. Every one in a while, I would spot a group of cyclists, pedalling uphill, without any lights or reflectors.

The first thing that hit me as soon as I drove into the resort was the sheer size of the place. It was sprawling. The next, was the sound of the waterfall, thundering in the background. I had no clue that we were so close to the waterfall, once could almost reach out and touch it.
We had a sumptuous dinner of freshly caught, fried fish, dal and rice before retreating to our private haven - a balcony overlooking the falls. The milky froth shimmered by the light of a candle, as a cup of soothing green tea served as the perfect nightcap. If life is like a box of chocolates, I think I got an almond praline this time!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Day 9 - Sirpur - An underground city comes to life

6.30 am, reveille. 7.00 am, tea and typing in the garden. That's the way the day began. Nalini decided to order breakfast via the intercom, and gave very precise instructions to the only person manning the reception - the security guard. No prizes for guessing the outcome. The Burji became an omelette, plain paratha transformed into aloo paratha and the poha for one seemed like a gargantuan portion. And so, the morning began with post-Divali fireworks, aimed at the hapless chef. Although he promised to set things right immediately, madam was on a roll. That was my exit cue, and I decided to complete my spell of writing and make reparations with the staff later.

After breakfast, we hit the Sirpur tourist trail. This tiny town has over 20 odd excavation sites, and there are more popping up like mushrooms. Buddhist viharas and temples dedicated to deities like Shiva, Lakshman, Ram, and many others in the Hindu Pantheon. The three most prominent ones are dedicated to Buddha, Shiva and Lakshman. Without going into details, suffice to say that each one of them is unique, be it from an architectural perspective, intricacy of carvings or sheer scale of construction.

TheBuddhist vihara had carvings of scenes from the Jataka tales on the door lintel. The Shiva temple had a 4.5 foot high stone statue of Shiva and the Lakshman temple, was the only completely restored temple in the town. This sightseeing can get to be quite exhausting, and hence the body craves for constant refuelling. One round of samosas, onion pattys and hot tea was all it took to get us back on the road again. Considering the snack was devoured by the roadside, I don't know if we even left the road at all.

Where there is piety, there will be commerce. The town has a 250 sq m excavated market place, complete with an underground granary, wells, Buddhist Vihara, underground sewage system and broad roads. The market also had interlocking stores, the precursor of the department store, way back in the 7th century. All this, set around a giant Banyan tree.

What astounded me was the sheer size of the market and its planning. Our town planners and administrators could learn a thing or two from their 7th Century cousins.

Lunch was at a 'way out' resort called 'Muba's Machan'. Located 15 km from town, on the very fringe of the Banawara Tiger Reserve, the resort has accommodation on stilt houses or 'machans'. Well equipped and furnished with mod -cons, these 'machans' are the perfect getaway for families and lovers alike. While the resort does not encourage 'drop in' customers, they made a special exception in our case. Lunch consisted simple vegetarian fare, cooked to perfection, with a view of the forest in the distance. After a relaxing lunch, we cruised back into town.

Our first halt was the Lakshman temple and the museum behind it. The museum
has some wonderful stone artefacts which cannot be identified, as the stainless steel labels are smudged beyond recognition. Then, there are sections with bulb holders, but no bulbs. The star attraction is undoubtedly a beautiful shivling with a four headed shiva, set in a perfectly shaped 'yonipith' set in the centre of the exhibition shed.

The museum manager had the misfortune of being on the premises,sipping tea along with some cronies, outside the museum shed. He received a polite tongue lashing for the labels and a sharp barb for the missing bulbs. Hopefully one will go 'ding' in his head and I shall see a vastly improved museum on my next visit, whenever that may be.

The last stop on the tourist trail was a temple 'Surang Tilla' , a fortified temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The strangest thing about the temple are the steps. The first few rows are angled towards the temple in the centre, but are at an angle to the ground on the sides. It's as though someone has pushed the two side walls of the steps, forcing them to be angled upwards at the extremes, for lack of space. This makes it difficult to climb up, but almost impossible to come down from, unless you are a mountain goat. The residing deity is Lord Shiva, accompanied by Ganesh and a few buxom enchantresses.

Tired of hotel food, we decided to eat at the Bhojanalay at the cross roads. The owner had made simple home-cooked meal for us, which we devoured in a matter of minutes. ...

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Day 6 - Bhoramdeo to Achanakmar

It was 6 am and the sun was peeping from the horizon. As a golden hue graced the misty landscape before us, we alighted from our rooftop perch to savour some hard-earned tea.

Later in the day, we walked down to the Bhoramdeo temple. A narrow raised causeway, flanked by an unkempt, hyacinth infested pond provides access to the temple.

Famed as the 'Khajuraho of the East', this 11th Century edifice is best known for its erotic sculptures. Considering the size and scale of the Khajuraho temple complex, this would not even qualify of a poor man's version of the original. However, on its own, it exudes the kind of peace and tranquility that Khajuraho can never hope to attain. Moreover, while active worship ceased at Khajuraho eons ago, it still is very much in practice here.

After breakfast, we visited a 14th Century Shiv Temple, a kilometre down the road from our guest house. This quiet, almost forgotten temple felt like a source of pure energy. Half an hour spent in its proximity is enough to charge the most jaded soul.

I needed all the energy I could get for the drive that lay ahead of me, though I did not know it at the time. What was supposed to be a 100 km, 2.5 hour drive tuned out to be a six hour marathon that traversed 186 kilometres of hill, vale and rutted plain. Mile after mile of single lane highways, often poorly surfaced does not a joyous drive make. The only redeeming part of the drive was the last 50 odd kilometre stretch through enchanting forest land.

We arrived at Achanakmar at around 6 pm, though it felt more like 9. A sip of local brew, a sumptuous dinner of oily country-style chicken and a plan for an exciting safari drove the Chattisgarh blues away. Tiger, tiger burning bright...

Friday, December 18, 2015

Day 8- Achanakmar - Sirpur

We have been on the road for 8 days now, one day merging into the next. On the ninth day of our trip, I am sitting in the quiet courtyard garden in our resort at Sirpur, catching up on my writing. It is nearly 8 am and I have spent the better part of the last hour with my trusty Ipad, ensconced on a wrought iron bench with a finch and a thermos for company.

Yesterday, day 8 of our journey, we traveled 300 kilometres, beginning with a quick morning blast through the Achanakmar sanctuary, followed by a set of single lane highways graced with mustard fields, a high-speed section on a newly constructed dual carriage way, and finally, a muddy track leading to our resort. We covered the distance in a good seven hours, which is fair for this part of the country, give or take a diversion or three.

Sirpur is a one-horse town. There's a tiny market, no ATM, probably a bank and basic postal facilities. Thee town is best known for its excavations of ancient temples and a township that existed here aeons ago. Most sites are open from sunrise to sunset and hence an early start is a must. By around 4.30 pm, it's dusk and by 5.30, completely dark.

We had barely an hour of sunlight in hand. The lady at the tourist office casually mentioned that we could see the entire town in 2 hours. If you are a point-and-shoot, been there, Facebooked that kind of tourist, probably so. But for someone like me who can infuriate the most patient guide with his curiosity and desire to explore every nook and cranny, a few days is more like it.

There are temples by the now almost dry section of the Mahanadi river that may not necessarily have the same level of sophistication of the temples further inland, but the location makes up for it all. Set on the river bank, these temples are the embodiment of tranquility, and that is where our 'touristy' day ended.

The rest of the evening ranged from the sublime to the mundane. The much overdue activity of washing underwear and socks in a town that has no laundry facilities, followed by a set of calisthenics to find various perches on which they could be hung to dry. We spent an hour in the very same courtyard, with a picnic mat spread on the damp grass, a glass of Mahua and Nusrat for company. What more can one ask for?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Day 7 - Achanakmar & Amarkantak - From tiger trails to temple trysts

By now, it's becoming a bit of struggle to keep this blog going. A series of late nights and early mornings on a holiday are enough to make the most resolute writer balk at the thought of hitting the word processor. Thus do I soldier on bravely, night after night.

This morning, we awoke at 4.30, performed all necessary ablutions, savoured a cup of lemongrass tea and sett off for Acahankmar sanctuary gate, 56 kilometres away. Thanks to some nefarious activities in the precincts of the forest, the gates closest to our resorts were closed. So, we sped through the misty morning, or rather bumped our way through the forest for over an hour, savouring the crisp morning air, until we arrived at the forest gate. The 56 km stretch has 5 checkpoints, which ascertain the time at which you pass and whether you have been speeding within the forest.

The next four hours were absolutely magical. Accompanied by the manager of our resort and his colleague, we trundled through thickets and streams in a trusty Gypsy, clambered up a watch tower and enjoyed the sight of a majestic Bison at close quarters. But most of all, we savoured the sights and sounds of the forest around us.

Before we left the forest, we went to say hello to 'Raju', a big bull Elephant who had been captured and kept in captivity as a punishment for his misdemeanours. As the story goes, Raju had been attacked with an axe by a tribal trying to steal his tusk. Raju escaped. The tribal and his family paid for it with their lives. In a fit of rage, the wounded elephant followed his attacker and trampled his house to the ground, along with its occupants. Every time the house was rebuilt, Raju would return to the village and trample upon it. He did this on three occasions, without harming a single other person or piece of property in the village. Now, Raju is the one being rehabilitated, and being trained to help control other 'rogue' elephants. Strange are the ways of man.

Refreshed, recharged and rejuvenated, we returned to base for a sumptuous, if rather late, lunch. Later in the evening, we set off for the holy town of Amarjantak 15 kilometres away. The evening was spent in a blur of shrines, of various ages. Some are active shrines while others are archaeological sites, which bring back the glory of a byegone era. The entire town was shrouded in a veil of tranquility, and the temple that houses the source of the Narmada, was no exception. Over the last two days, I had been hearing Indian Ocean's rendition of 'Maa Rewa', the other name from the Narmada, and about how her source lies at Amarkantak. Today, I witnessed it in person

For some strange reason, the entire temple complex has been whitewashed, erasing its original beauty and replacing it with a patina of white. All, save one shrine. Why, I will never know, and did not bother to enquire. As I walked around the complex, soaking in the tranquility, I spied a statue, reclining near the door of one of the shrines. As I moved closer to take a photo, the saffron robed statue blinked. I know now whether it was a man or a woman, but the stillness of the person shook me. I retreated, camera in hand, without taking a photo, and found a quiet spot by the temple tank, opposite the idol of Narmada Devi.

As city dwellers, even a few minutes of stillness seem like an eternity and the urge to do 'something' overtakes us. So, I fiddled around with my camera and tried my best to capture a slice of tranquility in pixel form.

I also realized that Amarkantak and its environs have much to offer and one should spend few days, rather than a few hours here. Giant Shivlings, monolithic statues and a temple that has been under construction for over 15 years - for just a day every year, based on the alignment of the stars.

The rest of the evening was spent as the tribals must have done many moons ago, and some probably still do. Angari Roti, a smoked rice pancake covered in leaves and a chutney made from tomatoes and potatoes roasted in an open fire. Cooked and devoured al fresco, with copious quantities of local brew, Mahua, and folk music playing in the background. The best part of it all was that this was a treat set up by our manager, exclusively for us. Just one of teh many perks of having the resort to ourselves.