Sunday, January 31, 2016

India like you've never seen before - 30 Offbeat places from #30DaysofAnotherIndia in Color!

For the longest time, I shied away from traveling in India because popular culture led me to believe India is all about religions, festivals, sadhus and cows. None of which interest me as a photographer or traveler. Only when I started traveling in 2008, I discovered India's silent places. Places full of character yet devoid of the crowd that has become synonymous with our country. In my quest my avoid throngs of people as much as possible, I started straying away as far as possible from the mainstream and thus began my journey to discover another India, one whose profile changed like traffic signals on a busy intersection within a span of few kilometers!

I've been thinking of a long term project for Instagram for a while now. I still haven't come up with a perfect one but I'd like to share another side of India that I've seen during my travels to begin with. In this 30 part series, I have profiled some of the most stunning and offbeat places I've come across during my travels in Black & White on Instagram but I'm posting the color images here on the blog.

Get yourself a cup of coffee because this is one long post with plenty of photos.

Also see: The project featured on Hindustan Times - India, framed: This Republic Day, tour the country with Instagram storytellers

#1 Pushkarani at Hampi

Pushkarini at Hampi, Karnataka

My first tryst with stepwells was in 2010 in Rajasthan and Gujarat when I inadvertently stumbled upon an ancient stepwell in Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. I was aware of Chand Baori by then but always thought it was an exception rather than a rule. However, a quick research told me stepwells were popular all over the northern part of the country.

2 years later when I stumbled upon this gorgeous stepwell at Hampi was when I realized that south India was full of them as well, albeit an alteration of the style and the purpose. Popularly known as Kalyani or Pushkarini, there are more stepwells in south than I can dare to count. From not even being aware of stepwells' existence to becoming one of my favorite architectural marvels, is how India can surprise you!

#2 of Ayyankere, Chikmagalur, Karnataka

Ayyankere, Chikmagalur, Karnataka

This image holds the record for the number of times people asked me if this was India! Few years ago I had seen this breathtaking picture of a serene lake at sunset with a footbridge over it. Surrounded by lush greenery, the image looked totally out of this world and I was quick in assuming it couldn't be India. Turned out it was India. To be more specific, it was in Chikmagalur region of Karnataka. In my own backyard!

So after years of hiking and cycling in Chikmagalur area, on one particular trip I was set upon finding this gem of a lake and arrived at Ayyankere reservoir which is in the outskirts of Chikamagalur. The lake at sunset looked as stunning as I had imagined it to be and I was more than content with the find. However, months later, I find out that this lake and the one in the image were not the same.

I was supposed to be looking for Hirekolale Lake in Chikmagalur but I stumbled upon Ayyankere Lake in the same region.

So then I wonder. India, how much more awesome can you be?

#3 Chitrakot Falls, Bastar, Chhattisgarh

Niagara of India - Chitrakot Waterfalls, Chhattisgarh

Out of all the fake Niagara namesakes in India, Chitrakot Falls in Chhattisgarh is probably the only one that fits the bill. Entire River Indravati tumbling down an abrupt dip in the riverbed from a height of over 100ft is a sight to behold, especially in the monsoons. If Chhattisgarh was a revelation, it was largely due to Chitrakot Falls, it was so not what I had imagined the state to be.

#4 White Rann, Kutch, Gujarat

White Rann, Kutch, Gujarat

I've dreamt of the salt flats of Salar De Uyuni for embarrassingly too long before realizing one of the world's largest salt flats were hiding right under the nose of the super famous state of Rajasthan. Also, this was so not what I had imagined Thar desert to be.

#5 Maguri Beel, Tinsukia, Assam

Maguri Beel, Dibru Saikhowa National Park

Part of the Dibru Saikhowa Important Bird Area, Maguri Beel is a wetland complex teeming with avifauna including waterfowl and grassland birds. It's not part of the national park but right outside it. After a very eventful few days in Arunachal and Assam, our driver suggested he'll take us to a secret place full of birds near Dibrugarh on our last day of the trip.

We arrived at Maguri Beel not knowing much and without much expectations but the lake is surely throbbing with aquatic and avi fauna. We took a leisurely boat ride at sunset on this vast lake where we saw hundreds of birds around us who would fly away no sooner we would even inch towards them. It was fitting end to a great trip to northeast which was full of new finds.

Only after getting back did I learn that Maguri Beel is a hot favorite among ornithologists and birding enthusiasts. A secret only the birding community was privy to, until our driver brought us here that is! 

#6 Kolukkumalai Tea Estate, Theni district, Tamilnadu

Kolukkumalai, Tamilnadu

I have to tell you, I am not a big fan of Tea Estates. All it does is to remind me of the dense wilderness that was cut down to make way for the estates. However, this particular tea estate managed to catch my interest. After all how many times have I seen a tea garden dwarfed by rugged mountains, deep valleys and dense wilderness right by the side of the plantations?

At 8000ft, this has to be the world’s highest tea estate and seems the tea grown here possessing a special flavour and freshness because of the high altitude. The backbreaking journey to reach the Kolukkumalai tea estate is totally worth the effort for the views are extraordinary. On a stormy day, we climbed over a mountain side and cross over to the other side at the top to reach Kolukkumalai. From here, we could see the mountains and villages in Tamilnadu. The tea factory here has been standing since 1930s and is still in use to produce tea in the orthodox seven step process. The sad part is almost all of the produce is exported. I had a cup of tea and it tasted divine, but considering the cold and the rain, any hot cup of tea would’ve delighted my taste buds.

At a distance of 32kms from Munnar, the last 10kms ride through this estate is quite bumpy and backbreaking but the views totally make up for it. Strictly only 4 wheel drives can tread on this trail. Jeeps are available at the start of the trail to reach this estate.

#7 India's only ape found in Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary in Assam

Hoollongapar Sanctuary, Assam

There’s a small patch of dense forest, roughly 20 sq. kms, surrounded by sprawling tea estates and human settlements in the north eastern state of Assam in India, which happens to be an unlikely home for the only ape species found in India, the Hoolock Gibbon. While the great apes (Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Orangutans) have always been popular, I wasn’t aware of Gibbons, also known as the lesser apes, until this visit. Surviving only in small pockets in the remote jungles of Bangladesh, Myanmar and north east India, this forest is the probably the only accessible place to observe Hoolock Gibbons with ease.

In Assam’s Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, I spent a day walking through the forest with a guard and tracking the curious apes. Despite the onslaught of human encroachment, the jungle was surprisingly dense with prolific upper, middle and lower canopies. We managed to see two separate families of Hoolock Gibbons on our walk swinging high up in the canopy.

The now endangered Western Hoolock Gibbon has suffered intense hunting and habitat loss that led to a staggering decline in their numbers over the last 3 to 4 decades, making this small patch of forest very important. In a country obsessed with the Tiger, it is sad that little awareness is raised about other such unique creatures, which is a pity because the Hoolock Gibbons are vital seed dispersers and more importantly a beautiful species that I was lucky enough to observe in their natural habitat.

#8 The Dolmens of Marayoor, Kerala

Marayoor Dolmens, Kerala

To begin with, dolmens are prehistoric structures believed to ancient burial chambers. Characterized by four stones and a fifth cap stone on the top, these structures are found across the world but the origins and intentions of building these remain unclear till date. In Marayoor, believed to be as old as 10,000 B.C, these are locally known as Muniyaras and several dolmens can be seen on a stone hill to the left of the Pambar River.

We reached Marayoor almost as the sun set, passing through the spectacular natural sandalwood reserve. A school is at the base of the hill and strewn all across the hill are ancient dolmens. As it rained intermittently, I walked barefoot on the cold stone to explore several of these fascinating yet dilapidated stone structures. Surrounded by high mountains on all sides, with crazy wind blowing and the constant drizzle, it was a mesmerizing evening, to be in presence of something built by our early ancestors belonging to Iron Age or Stone Age!

A church prominently stood, brightly painted, amidst the greenery of Marayoor, the clouds were playing with the mountain tops, Pambar River was flowing down below and loud bhajans from a temple nearby filled my ears even as the winds howled. Just behind the mountain are primitive tribes who believe in animism resisting contact and fostering their own traditions and culture. Standing on the hill top, it was a magical heady mix of nature, beauty, religion and beliefs that transcended timelines. In short, that evening was spectacular.

At a distance of 40kms from Munnar, Marayoor is a must visit for those interested in its rich ancient heritage and natural beauty. Without the context, the primitive stone structures and the rock paintings by the Pambar river might look ordinary but they are hardly so.

#9 Siju Cave, Garo Hills, Meghalaya

Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal, Madurai

Sitting in a small hut by the side of a swollen Simsang River in South Garo Hills of Meghalaya, we waited for the rain to subside so we could enter a flooded cave - one of the longest of India. But when it comes to damp and dingy places where creatures of the dark thrive, I’m a lost cause. However, curiosity prevailed for a short while when I summoned up courage to enter the mammoth Siju Cave, locally known as Dabakhol (translating to Bat Cave), an awe-inspiring system of deep labyrinths with a perennial stream running right through it.

Arriving at the mouth of the cave from where the stream gushed down, I gripped my friend’s hand firmly in fear as we waded through the waters. Behind us, the faint glow of daylight diminished as we moved further towards the pitch black oblivion. The only noise resonating in the chamber was the muffled sound of flowing water.

On our way back, I asked Plinder, our guide, how deep he must have explored before. He said a kilometer. I asked him how deep we must’ve gone, he chuckled and said maybe 300 meters. Before I could drown in embarassment, I found comfort in the fact that it’s not everyday you find caves in India where shrines haven’t been built or glaring lights haven’t been put up. Here in Siju, subterranean adventure is as pristine as it comes.

#10 Thirumala Nayak Palace, Madurai, Tamilnadu

New York Times has just included Tamilnadu in it's world list of 50 odd places to visit in 2016, Tamilnadu finally gets some due! The 17th century Thirumala Nayak Palace built in stunning Indo-Sarcenic style is a fine example of all the hidden jewels scattered across the state.

Overshadowed by the towering Madurai Meenakshi Temple, this palace gets little attention but it's no less spectacular. At some point when the original palace was four times bigger than what remains today, it was considered to be one of the wonder of south it seems. 

#11 Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary, Himachal Pradesh

Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary, Himachal Pradesh

It was year 2010 and trekking in India was just going mainstream. Between all the well known and popular trekking trails, this one exploratory trek across Kugti Pass caught my eye. Despite having no major peaks in view, I was thrilled to be entering a virtually unknown territory.

Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary in Chamba district is as pristine as it comes with lush jungles and gurgling glacial streams. Kugti Pass is almost solely used by the local gaddi shepherds of the region to cross from Chamba into Lahaul districts. Till date, it remains the only trek in my 7 year hiking-career where I didn't encounter another hiking group for the entire duration from start to finish. Definitely one of the most offbeat and remote regions I've been to.

#12 The village that straddles an International Border, Longwa, Nagaland

Longwa, Nagaland

Sitting atop a ridge of a far ahead mountain, Longwa commands a grand view of the valleys and mountains around at the Indo-Burmese border. I was hanging out with the children of this remote frontier village around a warm bonfire thinking of a little piece of trivia that stuck with me.

Earlier that evening, I was told the house of the Angh, the village chief, is longitudinally split between the two countries and that the international border actually cuts across the house and the village! The joke around here is that the Angh dines in India and sleeps in Myanmar. I wasn't very convinced of the border story.

However, the next morning I did actually hike upto the border pillar that's one of the 2500 odd pillars placed all along the border in the north east region. Carved into the small concrete column, was “BP 154, 1970-71”, one side in Hindi and the other side in Burmese language. It was true, the international border did cut across the village and the Angh’s house! Fascinating as it was to me, it didn’t matter much to the Konyaks though. They woke up one day in 1970 to the news of the demarcation but how do you split an age-old community suddenly between two countries?

#13 Kala Patthar, Little Andaman, Andaman & Nicobar Islands

Little Andaman, Andaman & Nicobar Islands

You probably know dozens who've been to Andaman but you can count on your fingers those who've been to this super remote island! ��

Little Andaman, fourth largest in the Andaman archipelago, is the most beautiful according to me. From vast stretches of pristine beaches to the bluest of waters from the open ocean, Little Andaman is a treasure that few even think of exploring.

#14 Painted Havelis of Shekhawati, Rajasthan

Painted Havelis of Shekhawati

The breeding ground of most of India's super rich, the glories of Shekhwati have fallen into a surprising disgrace and neglect over the years. Once thriving from abundant trade passing through northern Rajasthan and with the riches from Marvaris settled elsewhere in the country, opulent havelis were constructed and filled with paintings to the last inch depicting epic stories and life of 19th century. Slowly, for reasons we clearly don't understand, the entire region fell into despair and is now nothing but a cluster of ruins scattered in the desert.

#15 Eastern Ghats, around Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh

Venkateswara National Park, Tirupati

I've lived in Tirupati for almost 8 years and had no idea the hills famous for the temple were hiding gorgeous gorges like this between them. Eastern Ghats do not get nearly a quarter of the attention Western Ghats get but these barren rocky hills are no less spectacular actually. Full of sedimentary rock gorges with infinite pools and streams glowing through them, this entire region is none like I have ever seen in India.

Since I have been here only thrice, I don't have more images to do justice to Eastern Ghat's beauty. But to get a true sense of the grandeur of this least explored region of the country, check the really old posts of Chennai Trekking Club website, you'll be completely surprised. Trust me!

#16 West Siang District, Arunachal Pradesh 

Wild Frontiers of Along, Arunachal Pradesh

Most people heading to Arunachal inevitably go towards Tawang in the western corner. Naturally, I decided whenever it is I head to that state, I'll go anywhere but Tawang. In the November of 2014, I found myself entering the state through the remote border crossing at Likabali towards Along in West Siang district.

The entire West Siang district is one of the most remote and least visited districts in Arunachal. From lush jungles of Aalo to the barren highlands of Mechuka, the place enchants you like a charm. Rarely do expectations which you have built up in your mind match reality, but that's the thing about Arunachal. It's not a regular place. It's a special place where nature gods still thrive and our only hope is it continues to be so. For such pristine wilderness is hard to come by!

#17 Rainbow Waterfalls, Khasi Hills, Meghalaya

Rainbow Waterfalls, Nongriat

Many people visit the Riwai Living Root bridge in Mawlynnong. Few hike to the Double Decker Living Root Bridge in Nongriat. But only a handful actually go and explore the beautifully remote village of Nongriat and its surroundings.

Situated deep inside the forests of Khasi Hills, Nongriat is a small 30-house village which is also home to the Umshiang(Double Decker) Living Root Bridge. There are no roads to reach this place and only a 2 hour hike down a steep trail leads to here. Beyond the village are pristine pools, more living root bridges, lush jungles and incredible waterfalls.

Rainbow Waterfalls are situated almost 3 hours away from the village. The hike going through dense and moist jungle is an adventure in itself and the first glimpse of the ginormous waterfalls is a sight to behold. An entire stream actually tumbles down one mountain into the valley as you can see in the picture. While it has a local name, the waterfalls have been named Rainbow Waterfalls by the foreigners who've come here because you can see a rainbow form at the base of the waterfalls on sunny days. No points for guessing this remote corner is actually super popular with adventurous foreigners.

#18 River Aghanashini meets Arabian Sea, West Coast, Karnataka

West Coast on Arabian Sea, Karnataka

Both Karnataka and India's coastline are one of the gravely underrated destinations. However, at least in the hiking circuit, the charm of the west coast is not entirely lost upon us. The popular Gokarna to Honnavar stretch gets most footfall but the next section of the hike from Ankola to Gokarna is no less scenic either with stunning views like this.

#19 Aara Devi Top, Almora, Uttarakhand

Aara Devi Top, Almora, Uttarakhand

Sitting on a lonely perch in the middle of bright red Rhododendron bloom, I was surprised at myself that how could it be that I’m seeing the best Himalayan view here and now despite having trekked deep in the Himalayas for over half a decade! I was on a simple 2 day trek to an old temple in the vicinity of the famous hill stations of Almora and Kausani, ironically not the area I would have chosen for a stunning 180 degree panorama! But as it turns out, this famous temple that only the locals know about and frequent, also happens to have the best view of the entire Himalayan Range in Kumaon.

Last year, I was spending some quiet time in the foothills of Kumaon when my local guide and I were discussing what to do next. He suggested there’s a nice trek to a temple called Aara Devi through pristine pine forest and along the ridges with splendid views of the Himalayan range. The temple bit escaped me but the mention of Himalayas caught my attention. I was game for it but only if my guide could arrange for an overnight stay at the top because frankly speaking, far away Himalayan views were not my thing considering I was a so called “hardcore” trekker. At least a sunset and sunrise view would up the ante, that is how I justified going on the hike. And what a treat it turned out to be!

But the reason I was so blown away by this Himalayan view rather the other close encounters was that it was only here I could see the bigger picture and the true beauty of the Himalayas. Sitting in the foothills, I saw the valleys slowly give way to small mountains covered in pine forests which further slowly gave way to the snow capped peak rising higher towards the sky.

#20 Rosary Church, Shettihalli, Karnataka

Rosary Church, Shettihalli, Karnataka

I've written enough about it so I won't babble on any more but suffice to say this was one of the earliest moments in my travel career that set me on the quest for the offbeat in the following years.

And if you need to read more on this church, you'll find it all on my blog!

#21 Somewhere in North Sikkim

North Sikkim in Monsoons

Who goes to Sikkim in pouring monsoons?
Those who want to see surreal views like this! ��

#22 Orchha, Bundelkhand, Madhya Pradesh

Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

Most of us seem to have a ridiculous fascination with ruins. Then, it comes as a big surprise that the immensely fascinating ruins of the ancient city of Orchha that was never conquered, hence supremely well preserved, doesn't fall under the radar of most travellers.

Originally intending to spend just a day here like most suggested, I arrived here on the banks of Betwa River to lose my mind completely to the lovely ruins and people of Orchha that falls somewhere between Agra and Khajuraho circuit. With a mixed Mughal and Rajput-style architecture, the cenotaphs, chattris, palaces and temples of Orchha are vastly diverse and incredibly interesting. In the end I spent 4 days wandering in the ruins of the ancient city and still hadn't my fill of it. Would love love love to go back here!

#23 Biligiri Ranganatha Swamy Temple Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka

BR Hills, KGudi, Karnataka

Where Eastern Ghats meet the Western Ghats!

Situated in BR Hills of Karnataka, 86 km from Mysore, this little-known wildlife sanctuary is home to at least 44 tigers, 75 leopards, 600 elephants but it’s not easy to get a glimpse of the fauna because of the limited safari tracks and hilly landscape. Thanks to the lack of fame, the sanctuary remains a pristine place, without any unwanted commercialisation. Along with the relative obscurity, thriving wildlife and spectacular scenery ranging from lush forests on one side and the barren hill sides on the other, BR Hills is just the place for a nature loving traveller who longs to escape the din of city life as well as popular tourist hubs.

#24 Spangur Gap in China. Seen from Chushul Sector, Ladakh, India

Spangur Gap, Ladakh

While Ladakh may be one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in India, it has also played host to some of the most fierce battles in one of the world's highest and harshest battleground!

The gap between the two mountains you see in the picture is called Spangur Gap. It was under India's control till 1962 when the Chinese occupied it in the Sino-Indian War of 1962 as the Indian army withdrew in order to bolster defences of the nearby Indian village of Chushul, from where this image was shot.

#25 Rock Cut Caves at Bojjanna Konda, Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh

Bojjanna Konda, Anakapalle

What comes to mind when you think Buddhist heritage sites in India? Bodh Gaya? Sarnath? Sanchi?

Well have I got the surprise for you?! Actually even I was quite surprised with this find which was less than 45kms from Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Called Bojjanna Konda and Lingala Konda(stupas were wrongly assumed to be lingas), these sites are believed to date between 4th and 9th Century A.D.

Well preserved rock cut caves, carvings, temples and some ginormous stupas are located at this site yet there's hardly any information available about these places. Actually, there are several buddhist sites around Vishakhapatnam between the dense forests that I have visited during my childhood. Unfortunately, the sites still remain neglected and there's little information available still. Hope that'll change in future.

Or perhaps I should do more research about this! It would be the ultimate offbeat find in case I do. ��

#26 Banjar Valley, Hidden World in the Himalayan Foothills, Himachal Pradesh

Banjar Valley, Himachal Pradesh

Chaini Watchtower, the one that you see rising over the ridge is more than 40 meters high, built entirely out of stone and intersecting timber logs without any cementing material. That tower has been standing for more than 1500 years, even survived the debilitating Kangra Earthquake of 1905!

Welcome to wonderland! 
Lofty peaks and massive snowfields are probably the first things that comes to mind when we think Himalayas. I've often raced to the ambitious heights of upper Himalayas every chance I got but recently I spent a marvellous week in a heavenly valley in the lower Himalayas. And that got me wondering why I've ignored the verdant mountains and atmospheric hamlets all this time. 
Jibhi is a small settlement in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh in a remote valley known as Banjar where neither the ancient traditional culture nor the lush mountains have been ravaged by the modern advancements. I spent a week here fishing in the trout-filled pristine streams that run amok in the valley and hiking in wild flower laden oak forests above 10000ft that looked absolutely magical in mist. I was lost for words staring into the rare glory rainbow(Brocken Spectre) that formed around me when I was exploring the green meadows near an ancient fort. I stood mesmerized watching the numerous layers of pine filled ridges spread in front of me and the double rainbow that almost always forms near Jibhi Waterfall at sunrise. Apart from the immense natural beauty, this region also happens to be one of the very few areas in India where the traditional architecture and atmosphere is still preserved.

I was immensely torn whether I should write about this place or keep the secret to myself. In the end, for some money and for greater good, I spilled all the secrets of this place, watch out for the article! 

#27 Physically Fenced India-Bangladesh Border in Meghalaya

Indo-Bangladesh Border, Meghalaya

For a majority of us, the imaginary lines of borders physically don’t mean much, apart from being a small inconvenience while crossing countries. But I was pretty much dumbfounded when I found myself travelling along what is to become the world’s largest and one of the weirdest fenced borders, between India and Bangladesh.

A friend and I had randomly chosen this forgotten route on Google Maps which goes through dense forests and sleepy frontier hamlets along the Indo-Bangladesh border to reach Garo Hills in remote Meghalaya. We couldn't even get a single driver to drive us on this obscure route, so we had to get two. One left us at Khasi district border. The other picked us up from Garo district border. No one comes here except for the locals living on his god-forsaken stretch. For all intents and purposes this route doesn't exist but what an adventure it turned out to be!

From first seeing the 10 feet high black fence to crossing over and driving in no mans land(legally), the route threw many surprises at us, the least of which was stunning scenery and its palpable remoteness. The biggest of which was that there were pockets of India in Bangladesh and vice versa, called enclaves. A historic treaty was signed just last year by the PM that cleared up the mess finally.

Most of the time, the fenced border was to our left that meant we were in India and at times, the border would to be our right and we would be driving through small hamlets which either were in Bangladesh or in no mans land.

As bizarre as a journey could get!

#28 The Farthest end of Tso Moriri, Ladakh, J&K

Kiangdom, Tso Moriri, Ladakh

Hundreds of thousands of people visit Ladakh every year.

Only few thousands of those probably visit Tso Moriri, which kind of gets a second preference over the more famous and accessible Pangong Tso.

Only a handful actually hike all the way till the end of Tso Moriri towards the mountains of Himachal Pradesh.

The other end of Tso Moriri, 20kms away from Karzok village is a lovely place with the greenest grass patches, home to plenty of super cute marmots, territory of the Kiangs, base for migrating birds and above all pristine, reminiscent of what the shores of Pangong used to be like before all the mass commercialisation.

#29 Armenian Church on Armenian Street in wait-for-it, CHENNAI!

Armenian Church, Chennai

Armenian Street, surprisingly, is the name of a busy lane in Chennai! Hidden behind high walls on the same lane, is a 300-year-old, historically significant Armenian Church built in 1772 that I visited one summer. The church was constructed in the Armenian cemetery where the graves of 350 Armenians were laid to rest. Ironically, neither does the street have any Armenian settlers nor does the church have a flock today. However, remnants of a thriving Armenian community that left behind vestiges of their long and pleasant association with erstwhile Madras can be found everywhere in the city. Having lived in the city for years, this came as quite a big shock to me.

Starting 1600s the presence of Armenians in Madras was prominently recorded and felt. The Armenians settled in India were traders who had come through the overland route over the Hindu Kush mountain range. Since they were excellent traders, the society prospered wherever they settled. The British who were trading in cotton exports didn’t see the silk and gem trading Armenians as a competition and offered them patronage in Madras.

One of the graves inside the Armenian church cemetery is of Reverend Haroutiun Shmavonian, considered to be the father of Armenian Journalism. The first Armenian periodical in the world, Azdarar, was printed by him out of Madras. The same community also drafted the first version of democratic constitution in early 18th century envisioning an independent Armenia here in Madras - a thought whose time wouldn’t come until the next two centuries.

Apart from the inconspicuous church and the street name, it’s almost as if the Armenians were never there. But if we look closely, the people have disappeared but their legacies are everywhere in Madras.

Who would've guessed!

#30 Dosmoche: Wintery New Year's Festival at Likir, Ladakh, J&K

Dosmoche, Ladakh

Dosmoche festival is a social and religious fair and was instituted by the Kings of Ladakh on the pattern of the famous Mon-Lam or Great Prayer ceremony of Lhasa. The festival is widely celebrated at the majestic Leh palace in Leh town and Liker monastery in lower Ladakh.

When I landed in Ladakh last winter to try my luck at spotting a Snow Leopard, I accidentally found myself amidst the gorgeous mask dances of Dosmoche. Festivals in Ladakh are a riot, full of tourists, so I never bothered. But this time, serendipitously, I was able to see the entire festival up close with just a handful of other photographers around, in the stunning location of Likir in the dead of winter.

I've been to different parts of Ladakh six times now yet every single time there's something or the other that keeps taking me by surprise. No wonder then, Ladakh feels like home because there's a haunting familiarity yet there's always the anticipation of good times.

Ladakh, just like India, never disappoints. Both, are gifts that keep on giving!

With this post from my favorite part of the country, I end the #30DaysofAnotherIndia series! Hope you enjoyed the virtual journey to the remote corners of the country and have added a few to your bucket list. Let me know what you thought about the 30 places I profiled on this project in the comments.

So, how many of these places have you been to?
And which ones have been most fascinating to you? 
Tell me in the comments. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

I've been using Asus Zenfone 2 Laser for 2 months now and Here's why I'm loving it!

I'm okay with splurging a lot of money on essential gear but one thing I cannot get myself to do is buy an expensive phone. The things I look for in a phone are a decent camera, good screen to view images/videos well and a capability to handle both email, at least 4 to 5 social media apps and few travel apps. A good battery life is a bonus but with all the power banks these days, that's not really a need but merely a want.

I bought my first smartphone only 3 years ago, for a long time I refused to spend any more than 10k on a phone. Even when I finally bought an decently expensive one, it was only because I got a super discount + an exchange offer. So I still had paid less than 12k for a 20k phone. Now you know how stingy I am when it comes to spending money on smartphones. To me, that money is well spent on a flight ticket.

So when my existing phone started giving up, I was desperately fighting the urge to spend a fortune on one of the many latest smartphones that pack a punch but are way out of my budget. And that's why I jumped at the opportunity to review the Asus Zenfone 2 Laser because of the price point, impressive specs, excellent reviews and great camera - for all under 10k!

I've been a happy user of the phone for a little more than 2 months now(so it's no shallow review) and here's why I'm loving it and can fully recommend it.

1. Great Cameras - A 13MP Primary Camera and a 5MP Secondary Camera
A good camera is one of the first features I look for in a new smartphone. Wish I had this camera with me in Turkey where I was posting quick updates on my 3 week hike along the Lycian Way. The laser focus is really quick and helps a lot by making the camera very responsive. I tried taking plenty of pictures through the train recently in Switzerland and was quite happy with how fast the camera was able to focus on the scene outside and not on the glass window. With 13MP resolution, the images are of excellent quality. The only complain I have is that the camera doesn't handle dynamic range very well, sunset and sunrise shots can get a bit dull despite using HDR mode but even DSLRs can't handle dynamic ranges well at times, so I'm alright with this minor issue. Also, considering the price, it might be too much to ask for.

Winter in Interlaken, Switzerland. Shot on Asus Zenfone 2 Laser. Edited on Lightroom 4

And as much as I seem to hate Selfies, I'm slowly warming up to them after using the Zenfone 2 Laser's 5MP secondary camera. I'm also rather annoyed by the beautification feature, because we all are beautiful as we are and all that, but I have to admit, selfies look really good with a bit of blush and skin softening features applied. If it's any consolation, I'm only talking about group selfies here. I'm still not into selfies, as yet! ;)

2. Innovative Features to add flavor to your Photography
When iPhone 5s brought the slo-mo feature to mobiles, I was crushed thinking I'd never get to use it because there's no way I'd spend a fortune on an iPhone. But hey, what do you know, Asus Zenfone 2 Laser has it! That along with GIF making ability and Timelapse mode makes this score very very high in my book.

Handheld shot, GIFs are so much fun!

3. Absolutely brilliant battery life
I'll admit it, I'm a lazy person. Even when I know the battery is dying, I won't go to a plug point that's barely 3 feet away from me. So you can only imagine my joy when the battery starts crying in red saying "15%" yet somehow lasts all night long to only come down to like 9%! On any given day, I use Wi-Fi or Mobile Internet all the time, take few calls and use at least 3 social media apps continuously along with plenty of web browsing. One charge lasts me about 24hours while doing all this. Also, I've noticed the battery charges pretty quickly and this can come handy while traveling where you get a an hour or so to charge at a restaurant or cafe. The 3000 mAh Li-Polymer battery seems like a brilliant workhorse maintaining significant charge despite the huge 5.5" HD display screen!

4. Lovely ergonomics
Before getting the phone, I had read that the phone is tad bit too large. I was apprehensive about getting an even larger phone than what I had but once I got it, my fears were allayed. I instantly fell in love with the glamorous red back cover and then noticed how lightweight it was despite looking so huge. Not having much metal contributes to this I guess, but the plastic doesn't look cheap at all.  The Corning Gorilla Glass 4 adds much stability and scratch/drop resistance although the screen becomes smudgy quite fast. The elegant curved back cover fits perfectly in the palm of my hand. Overall the phone rates pretty high on looks department.

This red is really cool!
5. The below 10k price point!
Here's the clincher though. Shell some bucks and you get all these features in any high end phone but the only reason I can't shut up about this phone is because of the price. If I weren't offered this phone for review, I would've happily bought this phone myself.

P.S - I was given the Asus Zenfone 2 Laser for review but opinions are mine after using the phone for 2 months. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Indigenous Ingenuity: The Legacy of Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya

The first step I put on a living root bridge felt surreal. I was walking on something that spanned generations and was born out of a clever marriage between bountiful nature and intelligent human foresight. Two strong Ficus trees provided the roots, the support and foundation on either end of the stream. Over the years they met halfway and continued to grow into each other. Thick strong roots formed the base while the smaller vines grew into a protective railing by the side of the bridge to provide safe crossing over raging streams or smaller brooks. This has been by far, the most interesting bridge I ever crossed.

Surreal Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya
Longest Living Root Bridge, spanning at least 30m, at Ritymmen village halfway through the hike to Nongriat
Earlier that day my heart skipped a beat when I was looking down at a vertigo inducing, near vertical stairs that led to Nongriat village that was on the other side of the valley. From my vantage point at Tyrna, village from where the hike starts, I could see the densely forested mountains surrounding me were devoid of any scars of civilization on their slopes. Instead, several gorgeous waterfalls lined the sheer rock faces at the top of the mountains. It felt wild and pristine. The loud roar of cascading waterfalls and rumbling streams was reverberating in the valley. A yellow butterfly fluttered around me, as I stood there transfixed taking in the view and the cool breeze. We were there to visit the famous double decker living root bridge of Nongriat.

World's Wettest Place, Cherapunjee
Waterfalls line the mountain range around Cherrapunji, one of the world's wettest places
I took a deep breath and carefully trudged along the narrow stairs. While I was excited about the prospect of going down to the village, the daunting task of coming back up on this steep slope never left my mind. Every step I took down was only a haunting reminder of what I’ll have to climb on my way back up to Tyrna. Half an hour into the descent, we came across a village and a handwritten signboard that said “long root bridge”. Curious, we followed in that direction and to our astonishment we found another living root bridge that is claimed to be the longest living root bridge. At an approximate 30 meters, there is a very real possibility that this is the longest. The bridge was fairly new, rickety and was hanging high above the stream. The base was very uneven with wet trunks and stones stuck between the growing roots. But it looked magical nonetheless; we took turns to cross, as the bridge would wobble with every step. Red flowers were hanging from the roots and lavender blooms adorned the sides. I felt a strange exhilaration as I walked over the bridge, touched the moss, walked past the flowers and felt the fresh breeze that was coming from the mountains to my right. The stream below was singing its own tune and I felt so close to nature.

Longest Living Root Bridge
Red flowers dangle from the moss covered longest living root bridge

Khasi districts of Meghalaya receive an ungodly amount of rain every monsoon as the moisture-laden winds from the Indian Ocean encounter their first obstruction, the mountains of Khasi hills. The clouds break into torrential downpour turning the gentle streams into raging torrents. Being the hilly area that it is, there are several stream crossings in between the villages. The bamboo bridges of early years wouldn’t hold up under the pressure of continuous moisture and sunshine-less days. They would rot and break every monsoon.

Lush streams in the forests surrounding Nongriat
Even the smallest of streams swell up during monsoons, making it difficult to cross over 

Recognizing the need for a permanent and sustainable solution, the War-Khasis, a tribe in Meghalaya, looked for answers within their surroundings. A finest example of living architecture, these experts at cane craft guided the roots of Ficus Elastica through hollow beetelnut trunks to form the basic structure that supports the roots, as they grow strong over the years. A 100 years later, dozens of these living root bridges are stronger than ever and provide safe crossing to the villagers of the new generation irrespective of the season in the valleys of Khasi Hills. Once formed, they don’t need maintenance. The rains don’t rot the wood anymore. If anything, they only make the bridges look beautiful by aiding the growth of dense moss and blooming flowers that adorn the roots.

Also Read: Going Offbeat in Meghalaya & Learning Interesting Things

After the unexpected encounter with the long living root bridge, we couldn’t wait to see the double decker bridge. We rushed but there were two more adventurous crossings over suspended and high-strung steel rope bridges spanning over much larger streams before we reached Nongriat. Nongriat is one of the many small villages situated in the valley near Cherrapunji and there are no roads to reach this village. A small settlement with about 30-40 households on the mountain slope, Nongriat seemed like a perfect place to escape and spend a few perfect days in nature’s lap. Two hours after we started, we reached the double decker bridge just after Nongriat village. It was a marvelous sight; the lower level was about 180 years old while the upper level was 80 years old. Keen on maintaining their unique status, a third level is being grown just above the second level by the villagers.

Beautiful children of Nongriat Village
Beautiful children of Nongriat

The next morning, we went on a tiring but beautiful hike to a huge, roaring waterfall popularly known as Rainbow Waterfall. We stopped at streams on the way, waded through bushy jungle trails and waited patiently by the waterfall to see the rainbow. The sun was in no mood to shine as we sat getting drenched in the mist that rose from the volume of water tumbling down. Pink flowers swayed with the wind as dark clouds created drama in the sky. After returning from the hike, the boys chose the waterfall to the left of the guesthouse to take a bath and I went to another waterfall on the right, my own private bath in the midst of nature. As I bathed, sunlight was streaking through the canopy, butterflies were busy fluttering all around and a huge red caterpillar was munching on a leaf close by. All the noise of the discordant thoughts in my mind drowned in the ubiquitous sound of flowing water. There’s an abundance of natural beauty and tranquility in this village. Nothing about Nongriat feels remote. It feels right, like this was how we were supposed to live and rejoice in nature’s company - a whimsical place where childhood dreams full of magical mountains, colorful butterflies and enchanting forests might have played out.

Rainbow Waterfalls, Nongriat
Rainbow Waterfalls, a huge stream tumbles down the mountain side deep inside the forests surrounding Nongriat

Living in a place that can be accurately described as a green haven nestled between the mountains and in such perfect harmony with nature must be deeply fulfilling. No wonder Biron, a school teacher at Sohra (as Cherrapunji is locally known), chose to leave his job and settle in this little quaint village. He said there’s a peace and quiet in Nongriat that he couldn’t find elsewhere. Biron had moved to Nongriat after getting married. After marriage, the man moves to the woman’s house in Meghalaya. Khasis follow a matrilineal culture where inheritance of property and titles passes through the maternal line of descent. It is said that during the olden days due to the uncertainty of a warrior man’s life, rights were passed down to women to keep the property within the family in the unfortunate event that the man is killed.

Over the next two days, we crossed the Mawsaw and Double Decker living root bridges several times on our way to waterfalls and the village. But when I crossed the double decker bridge the last time, I stood in silence and marveled at the resourcefulness of the Khasis. The ingenuity of the inspired solution and the selfless foresight of the Khasi elders awed me and inspired me yet left me in melancholy. I wished more of us could lead such thoughtful and harmonious lives in sync with the natural world around us.

The famous double decker bridge of Nongriat
The famous double decker living root bridge of Nongriat

As I prepared to leave three days later, I was not sure what I would miss the most - the pitter patter of raindrops at night or the waterfall I could see from my room or the sound of screeching insects or the rising moon that slowly crept upon us. The climb back up to Tyrna wasn’t as exerting as I thought it’d be. While waited for the cab to take us back to Sohra, we sat watching the waterfalls and clouds as butterflies of many colors took turns in fluttering around us, as if they were all saying farewell. As a traveler, my time in a place might be fleeting. But the memories I take, they’ll last forever. As I got into the cab, I didn’t bid goodbye to the mountains of Meghalaya, knowing we’d meet again in my dreams.

Butterflies in Nongriat
Butterflies abound!

Full logistics of where to stay, how to reach double decker bridge, where to hike in Nongriat and such details on the last page of this article - Living Legacy

An edited version of this story appeared in August 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller India as "Living Legacy". 

The Living Root Bridge Project
In related news, Patrick A. Rogers has been extensively exploring and documenting the living root bridges of Meghalaya. Contrary to the popular opinion, there seem to hundreds of living root bridges all across the region and Patrick is one of the very few actively looking for these marvellous creations. Check his blog for several obscure and unknown living root bridges. He is running a crowdfunding campaign to support his efforts to document as many living root bridges as possible in Meghalaya. Do check and support the project if you'd like.

Crowdfunding Page:  The Living Root Bridge Project

Saturday, November 28, 2015

This is India! - 2016 Calendars Out Now

It's that time of the year again! :)

12 epic images from remote corners that showcase the incredible 
variety and beauty of Indian Landscapes!

After last year's grand success, I'm back with a brand new calendar for the new year! The theme this time is "This is India!". I have picked images that are not typically associated with India or for images I have been asked if the location is India.

I still get quite amused whenever people just assume some of the places I've been to can't be in India. So, now get these images on your desk or on the wall and play a part in enlightening those who think India isn't beautiful enough. ;)

You can order the calendars in two sizes.
6" x 8" Desktop Calendar - Rs.750 (Sample)
9" x 11" Hanging Wall Calendar - Rs. 1250 (Sample)

Free shipping, anywhere in India.
Calendars will be shipped in December 3rd week.

Here are the images featuring in the calendar.

Place your order here:
(For International Shipping, drop me an email.)

And if any you amazing people have a corporate offer, do drop me a mail to discuss. As a freelancer with no steady income, I'll be happy beyond belief to get a bulk order! :)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

I'm in Turkey and I'm Hiking the Lycian Way, for nearly a month!

My New Year resolution is to be more adventurous, climb more mountains, spend more time outdoors and return to the kind of crazy trips that drew you all to my blog to begin with. 2015 will be year where I'll happily embrace discomfort in return for an epic story. 

Earlier this year, I decided I'm going to get back to the great outdoors and to hike as much as I can. Starting the year with tracking snow leopard and later sometime camping in front of an active volcano to the recent trek from Spiti to Ladakh, I've had some great moments this year. Well the year is almost ending and I couldn't be happier about all the adventures I've undertaken so far but the best was certainly was kept for the last.

The magnificent Lycian Ruins at Phellos

I'm posting this short blog post from a camping site in Turkey as I prepare to head to the mountains for 3 days. I'm hiking a 430kms waymarked trail called the Lycian Way which is a footpath along the Turkish Coast from Fethiye to Antalya in the ancient Anatolia region. I'm hiking with a friend I met last year and we are carrying all our food, camping gear, water et al with us as we camp half the times and stay in pansyions(Turkish for guesthouses) the other half. The biggest challenge so far has been carrying the heavy backpack which weighs at least 15 kilos and the long distance we cover each day that range from 10 to 20kms at a time.

What excited me about this particular hike is that it's along distance trail. Going on a week long adventure is so different from doing something for a whole month! Besides, I'm hiking just with a friend which makes it all the more exciting and interesting as we both try to find our way, tackle the abundant shepherd dogs, camp in the wild and walk, walk, walk and then some more for all of three weeks. 

I'm already 10 days into the adventure and I have two more weeks of hiking ahead of us to reach Antalya. The first few days were tough getting used to the rigor but looks like I've fallen into the habit of waking up at dawn and walking till dusk or till the feet give away to the exhaustion. On the other hand, the coastal views have been incredibly beautiful, the charming little town along the sea are most amazing, super friendly locals and absolutely stunning ruins of the Lycian that dot the entire trail. I've got some amazing stories and a lot of research to do once I get back, but for now I can only share some pictures and moments I've captured on my mobile. 

Stunning coastline and the rugged mountains of the Anatolia region of Turkey
I've taken a local sim and there's network connectivity most of the times. This means I can post short updates constantly from my hike. Wish me luck and follow my journey along the trail as I try and post real time updates as often as possible here -

Also, there's a contest running on the blog where you can win a Himalayan trek, have you participated yet? (CONTEST: Win 2 Himalayan Treks in India with GIO! )

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

CONTEST: Win 2 Himalayan Treks in India with GIO!

(Contest closed, thanks for the great response!
Results announced.)
UPDATE: Results announced! Congrats to the winners and thank you all for your participation. 


In my seven years of outdoor adventures, I've derived the most joy, exhilaration and anguish from the mighty Himalayas. From being immensely intimidating to feeling like home now, Himalayas have had a very big part to play in what I've become today and what I've chosen to do for a living. An affair with the mountains cannot be a short one, it is a lifelong commitment. Once you're in, there is no way out. They'll be plenty of heartaches along the way but, obviously, all the trouble would be worth it and so much more. And I am so sorry for pushing you towards this agony! ;)

Himalayan Bliss
I stand in rapture on a stormy evening, in front of beloved Himalayas
For I have a new contest on the blog, the first one in fact, and it is only fitting that two treks to Himalayas with Great Indian Outdoors(GIO Adventures) are up for grabs on the blog. As many of you might remember, I had recently gone on a trek from Spiti to Ladakh via Parang La with GIO Adventures. And now, I want at least two of you, my lovely and supportive readers, to head out into the outdoors under the safe guidance of experienced guides and with good equipment.
ReadTrekking Along the Ancient Nomadic Trade Route - Spiti to Ladakh across Parang La

About GIO Adventures
GIO Adventures (est. 1999) is an Outdoors Adventure Company with a mission of making Himalayan destinations, not often found on regular maps, accessible to people who love discovering them. True to their mission, they have one of the largest collections I've seen so far, of Himalayan trek departures listed on their site. From something as offbeat as Parang La to something as popular as Hampta Pass, they can take you mostly anywhere in the whole gamut of Indian Himalayas. With their firm belief in keeping groups as small as 12, eco-friendly practices and world-class equipment, I highly recommend GIO Adventures for your next Himalayan adventure!

What do you win?

First prize winner can pick any one trek from a list of four week-long treks below:


Hampta Pass trek is a popular trek that takes you from the lush green valleys of Kullu & Manali to the other is the semi-arid region of the Lahaul valley
Kuari Pass & Pangarchula Peak is one of finest treks in the Indian Himalayas that takes you to a gorgeous region of Uttarakhand.


Chopta, Deoriatal, and Chandrashila Peak is one of the most enchanting short treks(5 days) and is in the Garhwal region of Himalayas. 
Kedar Kantha Summit Trek through snow-ridden dense forests and vast meadows makes for a perfect winter outdoor escape in the Himalayas.
Runner up can choose any one of the two 3-day treks below:


Nagtibba Trek is a splendid weekend trek near Dehradun with stunning views of Himalayas and plenty of lovely campsites amidst meadows.
Triund Trek near Dharamshala is an easy trek in the lower Dhauladhars where you'll climb a hill top just in front of the mighty ranges.
Now I know that many of you don't prefer to head out on a Himalayan trek alone, so here's something to sweeten the deal! If you win and choose to get a friend along, your friend is eligible to get a 35% discount on the trek fee.

How to Enter?

Using the form below, tell me in less than 300 words why you are enchanted by the Himalayas and you are entered for the contest! I'll look at the entries and announce the results soon.

Things to note:
  • There'll be two winners - first and second. And each winner can avail only one trek selected from the provided options as a prize.
  • All treks will be subject to availability, so the winners will have to give at least 3 options for dates to avail the trek prize. The departure dates can be found on the website.
  • The winners can avail the trek within 12 months of the announcement of results on the blog.  
  • Travel arrangements to and from the trek start and end point are not included in the prize and should be taken care of by the winners.
  • By entering the contest, you agree to the Terms and Conditions and the things listed above.
Last date to enter the contest: November 30, 2015

Results to be announced on: December 7, 2015 December 13, 2015

(Contest closed, thanks for the great response! Results announced)


1st place: Sanghita Nandi who wrote a beautiful poem that perfectly described how the Himalayas slowly make us fall head over heels in love with it.
2nd place: Arun Katiyar who shared a small but apt anecdote that brilliantly captured both the magnificence and the brutal reality of a Himalayan adventure.

Congrats to the winners and thank you all for your participation. 

P.S - It broke my heart to pick only two out of so many lovely and heartfelt entries. So, the next time, whenever that is, I will leave it to luck to pick a winner!

Terms and Conditions:
  • The winners must be at least 18 years old.
  • Only one entry per person is allowed. Participants with multiple entries will be disqualified.
  • The two most creative entries, as judged by Neelima Vallangi, will win one Himalayan trek(listed above) each with GIO Adventures. No disputes will be entertained and the decision will be final.
  • All prizes are nontransferable, and there are no cash alternatives.
  • By entering this contest, you agree to receive updates from GIO Adventures by email in the future. You can unsubscribe at any time.
  • Winner absolves Neelima Vallangi and GIO Adventures of any and all liability regarding accidents, mishaps, problems with the activities, and any unforeseen circumstances before, during or after the trip.
  • The winner is responsible for transport, flights, visas, activities, insurance, personal expenses and anything other than the inclusions mentioned listed on the GIO Adventures website.
  • Changes to the contest terms, prizes or mechanism can be made at the sole discretion of Neelima Vallangi.
Good Luck then! 

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