Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Diu – a Portuguese old town!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey

Diu, which is part of the union territory of Daman and Diu is a small island that lies off the coast of Gujarat in the Arabian Sea. Diu is separated from the mainland by a long, narrow channel.

After an excellent wildlife experience at the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park, I rode the short distance to the Portuguese old town of Diu. With lots of time on my hand and the sun above my head, I went to explore this town even before checking into a hotel. I was pleasantly surprised by the quiet lifestyle of this idyllic coastal town kissing the Arabian sea. Its this old world charm that gives Diu its character. Diu’s white and golden beaches are unspoilt and lovely. As a bonus, they are relatively quiet and devoid of large crowds, perhaps because of its remote location. This speck of land is far away from any major town and that is what makes Diu such a pure bliss.

Diu’s entire 17 km coastline is technically a beach, but Nagoa, Ghoghla, Jallandar, Chakratirth and Gomtimata are its main stretches of sand. I visited the Ghoghla beach, which is covered with the small fishing boats and some of them offer to provide a sea trip to Diu Fort. I also visited the touristy Nagoa beach, where folks tend to come in for water sports and for some safe swimming. This beautiful beach is frequented by the domestic tourists. The beach that is frequented by the foreign tourist is the isolated Gomtimata beach, which is situated at Diu’s western extremity and close to the Vanakbara jetty. 

As I entered the old quarter of Diu through the high city wall on the west, I found quaint houses lining the narrow street. Of these, Nagar Seth’s Haveli was the finest. Not far away from the haveli stands the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, which was built in 1593. Close by was the Gothic St Thomas Church built in 1598. This church is an imposing sight and serves as a museum of Portuguese relics.

Next, I made by way to the Diu fort (Timings 8 am to 6 pm), which is skirted by the sea on three sides. A lighthouse, some canons, a sub-Jail, carvings, Portuguese artefacts and loads of history made up my view of the Diu fort.

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Velavadar Blackbuck National Park – a birdwatcher’s haven!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey

As the name goes, Velavadar Blackbuck National Park is known for its blackbucks, but what folks don’t know about this national park is that it is a birdwatcher’s paradise.

With Gujarat being a wintering ground and a crucial link in the migratory flyways of millions of waterfowl (including cranes, ducks, geese and numerous waders) that travel from Central Asia and Western Europe to Peninsular Asia, the Velavadar National Park is rich in bird life. It is well known as a destination for migrating harriers. In 1991, 1,500 harriers roosted here, making it the largest roost of harriers since a 19th century one recorded at a marsh in West France.

Once I was satisfied with my blackbuck, nilgai (blue bull) and wolf sightings, I made by way to the wetland, which is a slight detour (3 km left from the park gates) along the path. This is where I spotted a lot of the migratory waterfowl.

The sheer number of great white pelicans, common cranes, greater flamingos, black storks, grey herons, Northern Shovellers, Painted Storks, Eurasian spoonbills, Black-winged stilts, pied avocets, large and little egrets and purple herons made for a sumptuous visual experience.

There are these water ponds/tanks in the national park where one can spot more water fowl. When it comes to terrestrial birds, one can spot them almost everywhere. I was able to see grey francolins, white-breasted kingfishers, Pallid harriers, Montagu’s harriers, Rose-ringed parakeets (male and female), black drongos, blue-cheeked bee-eater, black shouldered kite, common stonechat, green sandpiper and paddy field pipits.

I met an interesting group here during my bird watching expedition. These guys were researching the community and roosting behaviour of harriers (Montagu’s, Marsh and Pallid). Led by a person with a double doctorate degree in harriers and with funding from a wildlife agency based in the United Kingdom, these guys were counting numbers, studying roosting patterns, community behaviour, flight patterns, feeding methods, etc. Harriers feed on locusts and thereby protect the surrounding agricultural lands from this insect’s destructive power. It is estimated that they save cotton worth Rs. 1.35 million annually in this region.

A supremely peaceful bird watching experience for me at the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park. If you are interesting in reading about the blackbuck side of my story at this national park, you can refer my other post here.

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Velavadar Blackbuck National Park – the blackbuck lives here…

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey

Velavadar National Park is located in the Bhal region of Saurashtra and is set between two rivers, 50 km west of the Gulf of Cambay (also known as Khambhat). Velavadar is one of Gujarat’s best-kept secrets and that is the reason it is brimming with animal and bird life.

I passed dry monotonous landscape to reach Velavadar from Ahmedabad. This place was initially not on my agenda, but I decided to visit this place based on recommendations from fellow wildlife enthusiasts and boy was I happy for having listened to them. As this place was not on my agenda, I didn’t have any prior accommodation booking, but as luck would have it, I bumped into the Assistant Wildlife Warden of this park who was extremely kind to offer me accommodation in an otherwise packed forest rest house. The forest rest house, which is run by the Gujarat forest department is set in one corner of the park and one can watch large groups of blackbucks by just taking a stroll in the park’s walkways.

I was stationed here for 2 full days and explored most of this park on foot. During my stay here, the forest officials found an injured blackbuck that had been run over by a vehicle on the boundaries of the park. Unfortunately, the blackbuck didn’t make it and it let to a feeling of sadness in the entire Velavadar camp. Such is the dedication of the forest officials here to ensure the park’s healthy growth and survival.

Before Independence, Velavadar was a part of the princely state of Bhavnagar with the grasslands acting as private grazing lands for the maharaja’s cattle. It is currently a 34 sq km protected area. Hunting of blackbucks is strictly prohibited here. If one remembers, the Bollywood actor, Salman Khan was arrested for shooting a blackbuck. Velavadar is the only tropical grassland to be given the status of a National Park. Its ecosystem houses four distinct habitats – grassland, shrub land, saline land and high tidal lands. 

During my walks in this national park, I spotted many large groups of blackbucks with shining black males with corrugated horns always leading the way and dozens of brown, tanned females and very young calves following them closely. In Hindu mythology, the blackbuck is considered sacred. Even a glimpse of the animal is considered auspicious in many communities.

With its maximum recorded speed standing at 80 km an hour, the blackbuck is the fastest Indian antelope. I was extremely thrilled to have spotted a couple of male blackbucks in full steam. Their leaps and jumps are just a sight to behold. The male blackbuck is highly territorial and tends to lead a lifestyle that is now against the law in most human societies – the dominant male lives in harems and quasi-harems.

I spotted a lot of Nilgai (Bluebull) here too, which again exists in large numbers. The icing on the cake for me was my first sighting of a wild wolf in the late evening hours. The wolf is the only predator in this region and it exudes a sheer sense of power. The other predator that used to roam these grasslands earlier was the Indian cheetah, which is extinct today.

I hope that the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park becomes richer in times to come and this is one place I would not get tired of visiting.

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Mahatma Gandhi lives on at Sabarmati Ashram!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey

It was 2 days since I had arrived at Ahmedabad from Mount Abu and I was itching to get a move on once the kite festival got over and the city awoke from its festival slumber. Next on my agenda was the erstwhile residence of the father of our nation – Mahatma Gandhi. This erstwhile residence of the Mahatma, titled, Sabarmati or Gandhi Ashram is a national monument that is built on the banks of the Sabarmati river.

The Sabarmati Ashram, which now houses a museum, the Gandhi Smarak Sanghrahalay is a great place to learn about India’s rich, but not so rosy past. The museum has a lot of paintings that visually depict historic events of Gandhi’s life, ancient letters and relics, a library devoted to Gandhiji’s life and his work, archives of letters and manuscripts related to the Indian freedom movement, personal artefacts of Gandhi at Hridaya Kunj (Gandhi’s cottage) and a non-profit Ashram book store selling literature and memorabilia related to Gandhi and his life work.

Set in peaceful surroundings, Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram is a must visit place for the Indian citizen. One’s patriotism will get an adrenaline shot here!!

The Famous Kite Festival at Ahmedabad!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey… 

I was at Ahmedabad, the largest city of Gujarat. It was the day of the kite festival here. This day is celebrated as Makara Sankranti, Baisakhi and Pongal in the rest of the country. The entire city was in celebration mode. I have never seen a city celebrate like this. All the shops in the city were closed for 2 days and to such an extent, that I couldn’t manage to get myself a cup of tea in most parts of the city.

The entire sky was dotted with vibrant colours and wagging tails of the kites that were fluttering in the breeze. And, the citizens of the entire city were on their respective house terraces flying these kites. The kids were in a frenzied mode trying to defeat fellow kite-fliers; others were keeping a close watch to catch a kite that would make its way to the ground after losing its aerial battle. Bandages across the fingers and palms, tube light glass to sharpen the kite thread (manja), the art of kite flying, the joy of catching a kite that has lost its war are some of the vibrant sensations that I felt on this vibrant day in the vibrant state of Gujarat. Took me to my childhood days when I used to be on my friend’s terrace flying kites.

Mount Abu – Rajasthan’s hill abode!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey… 

I had ridden from the city of Palaces – Udaipur to Rajasthan’s only hill station Mount Abu. The drive from Abu road to Mount Abu offered splendid views of the lush green valleys and peaks of the Aravallis.

Mount Abu, located at an elevation of 1,220 meters is a popular ‘heat reprieve’ retreat for the people of Rajasthan and Gujarat, which is the neighbouring state. Further, this tourist destination, offers great incentive for the folks of Gujarat, as they offer the dual combo of a pretty and cool hill station that sells liquor (Gujarat is a no-alcohol state in India). The entire region is also home to the Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary, which covers 290 sq km of the hills.

Like a stereotype tourist, I visited the standard, yet famous destinations within this tourist hill town. The first evening, I made by way to the Sunset Point and watched the sun set across the deep valleys and gorges. The next day, I visited Nakki lake, a popular boating spot for honeymooners and kids alike. I spent my time watching the large migratory birds. Andara point and the nearby Ganesha temple were next on my list. Andara point offers great views of the Aravallis. There are a lot of Jain temples in and around Mount Abu and I visited the Dilwara temples, which are the most noted of the lot. The Dilwara temples are part of a temple complex that was built between the 11th and the 13th centuries AD. There are other notable Hindu temples that are definitely worth a visit, but my clock seemed to be ticking fast and I could not visit these. Mount Abu – a green and mountainous getaway in an otherwise dry desert state!!

Udaipur – the City of Palaces!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey… 

It was a long day and I was riding from Sawai Madhopur (Ranthambore National Park). Thankfully, I was saved from the monotonous 4 lane riding by some company from fellow royal enfield bikers who were returning home to Mumbai after a fortnight in the Himalayas. I reached Udaipur around 5 in the evening, checked into a decent hotel near Udaiya pole and waited for for my hotelier friend from Pench National Park to pick me up and take me to his house for dinner. The dinner was sumptuous Rajasthani Brahmin food cooked in desi ghee. On our way back, my friend took me to witness the beauty of the lake palace at night and the view was terrific.

The next morning, I went to the famous Jagdish temple and offered my prayers. Next, I visited the City Palace and viewed the glitterati first-hand. On viewing the cost of the entry ticket, I expressed a feeling of shock, but once I entered into the well-preserved ancient world, I felt the money was worth my experience and was happy to note that Rajasthan tourism was using such funds for the right cause. The buildings, the artefacts, the museum, the mirror work and the view of the town of Udaipur from the top is just a magic carpet ride into ancient history.

Next, I made my way to the Monsoon Palace, which is situated on top of a hill and was the king’s monsoon retreat. The monsoon palace and its neighbourhood comes under the Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary. The ride from the Sajjangarh entrance to the top provides breathtaking views of the forest and the Udaipur town. Unlike the City Palace, the monsoon palace is not being maintained properly, but sitting on one of the walls here, one can let their mind drift to ancient times.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ranthambore Tiger Reserve - In an antique land!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey…

Ranthambore Tiger Reserve lies at the junction of the Aravallis and the Vindhyas in the South Eastern quarter of Rajasthan. Once the hunting grounds of the maharajas of Jaipur, and later the British, the Ranthambore National Park is spread over an expanse of 1, 174 sq km. The bird watching opportunities here, especially around the lakes are legendary. One can see large herds of herbivores, spotted deer, sambar deer and nilgai (blue bull), and also find feline pug marks in the sand around dilapidated chhatris.

I reached Sawai Madhopur after a rackety ride from Sheopur. After checking myself in at a hotel near the Sawai Madhopur railway station, I made my way to the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) to get my jungle safari bookings done. I got 2 bookings done for different days. One on a canter (a 24 seater truck) and a gypsy. Each of these vehicles took me to different parts of the forest and both trips were fabulous.

As soon as one enters the premises of the Ranthambore National Park, the desert look changes into lush green cover. One can even spot prey and predator alike in this short ride from the forest entrance to the main ticket counter. While all vehicles stopped at the ticket counter, everyone were busy enjoying the ruckus that the common langaurs were causing. Often tourists throw titbits around and this seems to excite the langaurs to a frenzy. Also, a great place to hear the chatter of parakeets (plum-headed and rose-ringed).

As I made my way into the jungle, I was awe-struck by the primal beauty that it offered, the pristine lakes, the vast landscape of dry and dense covered vegetation, its denizens and the ruins that surrounded all this. I was able to sight Nilgai (blue bull), Common Langaurs, Spotted deer (Chital), Sambar Deer, Rufus Tree Pie, Black Stork, Brahminy Shelducks, Crocodiles (muggers), White-breasted kingfisher, painted stork, white-breasted water hen, water snake, red vented bulbul, oriental magpie robin, Indian pond heron, crested serpent eagle (female) and Indian hare.  I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t sight a tiger during either of my jungle safaris, but the overall jungle and wildlife experience was so rich that I could hardly form a crease of frown on my forehead. The Rajbag and the other lakes along with the ruins just accentuate the charm.

Apart from the jungle safari, I also immersed myself in a bit of trekking and climbed up to the Ranthambore fort. This ancient citadel is situated almost exactly at the meeting point of the Vindhya and the Aravalli hill ranges. The fort, after which the national park is named, is thought to have been built in 944 AD and is considered one of the strongest forts in the country. It was occupied by Raja Hamir for many years until the siege by Allaudin Khilji’s army in 1301 AD forced the Rajput king to surrender.

There is a Ganesha temple inside this fort that is still functional and locals come to offer their prayers. The view of the park and its three lakes from the top is very pretty. Another famous tourist spot is the Jogi Mahal, which is located at the foot of the fort and is home to the country’s second largest banyan tree.

Overall, Ranthambore National Park is pure magic. It is full of romance and intrigue.

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my solo all-india motorcycle journey

Friday, September 25, 2009

Beautiful Mustard Fields in the heart of India!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey...

I was riding from Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan when I stopped for an early morning pit stop. That was when I took this snap. The outside temperature was close to freezing, the birds were chirping the early morning tunes and the entire area was devoid of any human soul apart from me. The world around me was covered with yellow mustard fields and I should say that this sight was heavenly.

If one is interested in seeing golden yellow mustard fields, visit the North Indian countryside during the winter season, preferably, January and February.

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Ken Gharial Sanctuary - A fragile and vulnerable ecosystem!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey...

Ken Gharial Sanctuary lies at the confluence of the Ken and the Khudar rivers in the Chattarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. Ken Gharial Sanctuary gets its name from the 6 meter long fish-eating Gharial, a rare species of crocodile. It is also home to wildlife species like sambar deer, blue bull (nilgai), peafowl, wild boar, spotted deer, chinkara and spotted deer. The Ken Gharial Sanctuary is part of the Gharial Conservation association where captive bred gharials are released to help regenerate the gharial ecosystem here.

I was stationed at Khajuraho and had spent an entire day and a half admiring temples, architectures and sculptures. After an overdose of history, I felt the need to get back into nature's arms. Thus, I decided to visit Ken Gharial Sanctuary, about 30 kms away from Khajuraho as part of a day trip. Locals had mentioned Raneh waterfall to me as a pretty tourist spot.  One can even enter Ken Gharial Sanctuary from the other bank, which falls under the boundary of the Panna Tiger Reserve.

After riding through the countryside dotted with mustard fields, I reached Raneh falls. Named after King Rane Pratap, the erstwhile ruler here, this horseshoe waterfall tumbling down from a height of 30m is a pretty sight, though I guess it will look prettier post the monsoon season. It was here that I bought additional permits and gave lift to a forest department employee. Both of us reached the forest department enclosure nestled deep in the forest after crossing kacha mud roads. On our way to the forest department enclosure, we sighted Nilgai (Blue bull) and Sambar deer. Both of us made our way to a nearby view point armed with binoculars. The view took me by surprise as I scanned the interesting rock formations and the long and deep granite canyon. Through our binoculars, we spotted 2 adult gharials basking in the sun with some black storks in the vicinity.

While my forest guide was sharing his experience and narrating about the situation, I got to know that there maybe less than 200 mature breeding adult gharials left in the wild and they are listed as "critically endangered"  in the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. This entire sanctuary is struggling to cope with the habitat destruction and this is leading to faster disappearance of the gharials in spite of captive breeding by the Gharial Conservation Association.

The Gharial is a very beautiful reptile and I hope its numbers increase due to the conservation program and hope citizens of India do not end up troubling denizens of the wild.

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Khajuraho - of history, temples, sculptures, erotica and kamasutra!!

Of days gone by...this January during my solo all India motorcycle journey...

On a cold January morning, I left my hotel at Umaria (Bandhavgarh national park), rode through non-existent roads to reach the famous tourist village of Khajuraho.

Khajuraho has the largest group of medieval Hindu and Jain temples in India, famous for their erotic sculptures.  The Khajuraho group of monuments are listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Once I had settled myself in this tourist town, I made my way to the town's biggest attraction - the Western Group of Temples, which are housed in a very neatly laid enclosure maintained by the Archaeological Society of India. As I studied these temples, I was stunned by the impressive architecture and the captivating erotic sculptures.

The temples are constructed with spiral superstructures and adhere to a north Indian shikhara style. Each carving both outside and inside the temple carry a story, whether it be the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. It feels like you are getting a visual history lesson. Such is the beauty and depth of these sculptures. As is true with the rest of Indian temple architecture, there are a lot of carvings that depict the daily activities of the common Indian during the time of construction. In sum, these temples serve as fine examples of the rich and intricate Indian style of architecture.

Next, I made my way to the Jain group of temples that displayed similar intricate temple architecture and carvings, though it lacked the erotic sculptures. While, the Western group of temples had Shiva, Vishnu and Devi as deities, the Jain temples had Mahavir Jain and his disciples as deities in addition to the Hindu deities. There were other temple complexes in Khajuraho, but they were either run down due to wear and tear by time or due to the Muslim invasion of medieval times.

Khajuraho is definitely a place where one can admire and appreciate Indian history and temple architecture along with the world of erotica!!

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my solo all-india motorcycle journey

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is India seeing a boom in Infrastructure?

An event of days gone by...this January during my solo all india motorcycle journey...

I was on my way from the Bandhavgarh National Park to Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh when I happened to cross this unbelievable stretch of road highways. And because of which there is hardly any development in these areas. We talk about the golden quadrilaterals and the boom in Indian infrastructure. But, having personally ridden on these roads, I try to find reason in our long term goals.

Are we really having a boom in Infrastructure? If yes, then the first things that need to be set right and fixed are our roads as they will help us connect faster.

But, on the other side, I think deeply and say: Thank goodness, the roads are like this, else, in a country with the second largest population in the world, what would happen to our natural resources if these regions were well connected? I guess the answer in my head is we will lose our forests, wildlife and increase the pollution levels. But, I would love to be proved wrong! Which, would be the ideal situation.

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