Watching Water Birds and Water People in Maguri Beel, Assam

Whilst on a recent trip to Arunachal, watching us go bananas over the birds, our driver boasted about a water body near his town in Tinsukia, Assam that has “all sorts of birds.” “Uske saamne yeh to kuch bhi nahin hai,” he continued. This is nothing compared to what you see there. We took his words seriously and spent the last evening of our trip exploring the Maguri Beel, watching its water people and birds, enjoying a sunset on a boat with a guide.

Turns out, it is not an unexplored remote corner as I expected it to be. Maguri Beel is quite popular among birders not only in this part of the country but from all over. Jeevan Dutta, who is the resident guide at the Kohua Eco-camp resort that borders the beel told us that he is getting two groups of Bangaloreans just the next day. Maguri Beel is located just south of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and attracts migratory birds in thousands every year other than quite a number of residents.

Pigeon Tailed Jacana, Ruddy Shelduck, Yellow Wagtails, Purple Swamphens, Asian Open Bills, Northern Pintails, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Coot, Stonechats are the commonly found birds in the beel. We hired a boat and went on a sort of a sunset cruise watching fishermen getting back home with their daily catch. Fishing nets across the beel fluttered in the sunset and Ruddy Shelducks took flight watching our approaching boat framed by the sunset. Swamphens, Wagtails and Egrets were a constant presence too. It was quite an experience and a perfect way to end our trip to the North-East India.

Some pictures from the trip.

Fishermen rowing back after a day's work

Fishermen rowing back after a day’s work

A yellow wagtail

A yellow wagtail

Fishing nets in Maguri Beel

Fishing nets in Maguri Beel

Spreading the net

Spreading the net

Could this be a White-tailed Stonechat?

A Common Stonechat

How to reach: Nearest town, Tinsukia, is just 9km away. Dibrugarh is 50km away and taxis are easily available for a day trip. It would probably be better to stay in the Kohua resort that overlooks the Beel (call Jeevan for rates at +919954135613) to enjoy the ecosystem of the Beel.

A Purple Swamphen

A Purple Swamphen

An Asian Openbill in flight

An Asian Openbill in flight

A Ruddy Shelduck

A Ruddy Shelduck

A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel

A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel

The blue house, Magari Beel

The blue house, Magari Beel

An egret in flight

An egret in flight

Boats at Maguri Beel

Boats at Maguri Beel

Could this also be a White-tailed Stonechat?

A Common Stonechat

Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters

Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters

A fisherman in Maguri Beel

A fisherman in Maguri Beel

Have you been to Maguri Beel? Have you blogged about it? Leave a comment and let me know. I would love to read it.

Bellinzona – Switzerland with an Italian accent

I usually do not make travel wishlists but if I did Italy would top it. So I was pleasantly surprised when this Switzerland trip came along and as I jumped at it, I noticed the plan covered Ticino, Southern Switzerland – a part very close to Italy. So very close that Europe travel expert Rick Steves called the region ‘Switzerland with an Italian accent.’ Bellinzona’s cuisine, architecture, its sunny disposition and even the language spoken is influenced by Italy in a big way.

I spent a couple of days in Bellinzona, explored its Castle Grande, walked its alleyways peeping into its delis, the display cases of which are filled with local cheese and other produce. During my stay I discovered that white Merlot exists (pictured here too) and that it is possible to get drunk on food. I polished plate after plate brought to my table that it was assumed that I must have been very hungry from all the walking. That was only partly true. I simply enjoyed all that cheese and wine and meat and vegetables.

Some pictures from the trip.

The main street that leads to the town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland

The main street that leads to the town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland

A sort of ariel view of the town, Bellinzona

A sort of ariel view of the town, Bellinzona

Bellinzona town square

Bellinzona town square

The town square - Bellinzona

The town square – Bellinzona

View of Bellinzona from the Castle Grande

View of Bellinzona from the Castle Grande

The walkway to Castle Grande, Bellinzona

The walkway to Castle Grande, Bellinzona

The vineyards of Castle Grande

The vineyards of Castle Grande

A wall, Castle Grande, Bellinzona

A wall, Castle Grande, Bellinzona

Bread, the crackling bread

Bread, the crackling bread

Chicken roast, Bellinzona

Chicken roast, Bellinzona

An art installation in town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland

An art installation in town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland

The white merlot, Bellinzona

The white merlot, Bellinzona

A pastry with a squishy, egg-noggy, center.

A pastry with a squishy, egg-noggy, center.

Castle Grande, Bellinzona

Castle Grande, Bellinzona

Have you been to Switzerland? Or Italy? Or Bellinzona itself? Leave a comment and let me know.

Holi hai – celebrating holi in the hills!

Last year, I spent two wonderful weeks in Kalap, a charming village in Garhwali Himalayas. Lucky that I was, my stay coincided with holi and I was able to witness the festival as it was celebrated in the hills.

I became the official photographer for Kalap’s holi celebrations and by the end of it, although I survived without being doused in color powder, my camera bore the brunt. Later in the evening, I helped make Gujjia – the holi special, a sweet calzone. Its deep fried packets of dough are filled with a roasted mixture of semolina, desiccated coconut, jaggery (a traditional sugar) and raisins. By the end of its making, my host Guddu’s wife, Pathuli – meaning butterfly in the local language – has thawed towards me after witnessing my able handedness at rolling and sealing the Gujjias.

That is probably the best holi I ever celebrated. More than just holi, Kalap and its beautiful people remain etched in my memory. I hope to visit Guddu, Pathuli and the entire village again sometime soon. Check Kalap’s website here to know more details to plan your trip, in case you are interested too.

Someone's very cautious!

Someone’s very cautious!

The gulal brothers

The gulal brothers

Are you photographing me?

Are you photographing me?

Red cheeks

Red cheeks

Gulal in my cheeks

Gulal in my cheeks

Holi in the hills

Holi in the hills

The gulal brothers

The gulal brothers

Holi in technicolor

Holi in technicolor

The gulal brothers

The gulal brothers

The holi revelry

The holi revelry

Too shy to smile - holi in Kalap

Too shy to smile – holi in Kalap

The holi revelry

The holi revelry

And then, me

And then, me

Are you celebrating holi wherever you are? Leave a comment and let me know.

Bagan mystique – the ruins of Bagan, Central Myanmar – Part II

This is the second and last instalment of pictures of Bagan ruins. Get there before Bagan catapults into the tourist circuit (it already has and tourist footfall is only going to grow). I did it by horse cart but if you have a slightly bulky wallet, get on a hot air balloon and watch the ruins from above. Balloons over Bagan offers rides, click here to visit their website. Once done, hire a horse cart with the help of your hotel front desk and take a ride along the ruins to give yourself a different view. It is quite an experience.

Do buy the February’2015 edition of Outlook Traveller (India) to read my story Bagan by Horsecart.

Click here to read the earlier post about Bagan (or simply scroll down).

Monks seeking alms

Monks seeking alms

Sundown in bagan

Sundown in bagan

Skies painted blue and orange at sun down

Skies painted blue and orange at sun down

Sulamani

Sulamani

Souvenirs for sale

Souvenirs for sale

Ruby with her cart

Ruby with her cart

Sundown in Bagan

Sundown in Bagan

Sundown in Bagan

Sundown in Bagan

Sunset cruising in Irrawadycc1

Sunset cruising in Irrawady

Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies

Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies

Thatbyinnu

Thatbyinnu

The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan

The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan

The ananda phaya

The ananda phaya

The abayadhana temple

The abayadhana temple

PS: Some of these pictures are generously provided to me by my travel companion and friend Kiran Kannappan who was with me during the first leg of my Myanmar travels.

Like what you see? Leave a comment.

Bagan mystique – the ruins of Bagan, Central Myanmar – Part I

“There is a country far nobler than any, a land that brings joy to the heart; and it is called Bagan.” This was inscribed on stone in the 14th century by order of a queen of the Pyina dynasty. Says the beautiful picture book titled ‘Bagan Mystique’ by Ma Thanegi that tries to dissect the history behind the mystical ruins that lay scattered in the central plains of Myanmar for centuries.

Bagan is an ancient city and its existence was noted by Chinese travelers as early as 1225 CE. Decades of military rule had isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world and these structures remained somewhat a mystery while the neighboring Angkor Wat hogged all the limelight. That is until Myanmar opened for tourism in 2011 after the military dictatorship partially came to an end. As soon as the floodgates of tourism are open, Bagan started receiving millions of tourists each year to gape at these architectural marvels that have stood their ground through centuries.

A devastating earthquake of 1975 destroyed many of these structures. However, a mighty 2230 of these pagodas, temples, monasteries and cave pagodas remain according to a 1993 census conducted by the Department of Archaeology. These structures are scattered across 16 square miles and evoke an imagery of surreal mysticism. Details are patchy but inscriptions found in various temple complexes suggest that construction of the oldest structured happened in the late 11th century.

The mystical Bagan is slowly gaining prominence as tourists are trickling in. Here are some of the pictures from the trip. The pictures are just so many they couldn’t be contained in one post. I will post the next instalment very soon.

A monk in contemplation

A monk in contemplation

 

A sand painter

A sand painter

A temple complex

A temple complex

 

An ornate signboard

An ornate signboard

 

Ananda Phaya

Ananda Phaya

Fresco at Apayathana

Fresco at Apayathana

Dhammayan Gyi

Dhammayan Gyi

Cycling is a preferred form of transportation

Cycling is a preferred form of transportation to visit the ruins

An apsara at the Apayadhana temple

An apsara at the Apayadhana temple

Htilminlo at sundwon

Htilminlo at sundwon

Horsecarts in front of ruins

Horsecarts in front of ruins

Htilminlo temple from a distance

Htilminlo temple from a distance

Hundreds of years have had the telling effect on the structures

Hundreds of years have had the telling effect on the structures

Little monks in contemplation

Little monks in contemplation

 

Also read my story in the February edition of Outlook Traveller that is on stands now.

Like what you see? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

 

The Fort by the Sea – a trip to Tranquebar (Tharangambadi)

In her absorbing lectures, the renowned art historian Chithra Madhavan often laments about the lackadaisical restoration work carried out by ASI in some of the temples in Tamil Nadu. Ancient murals on temple ceilings plastered over or redone tactlessly, broken structures cemented in a manner of filling cracks as if in a regular construction scenario – many temples and monuments have suffered such fate. Thankfully no such misfortune has befallen in the upkeep of the Danish fort of Tharangabadi. Though the salty breeze that taunts the structure has accounted for erosion, the fort retains its charm despite the concrete wall hugging it, smothered in fading pink paint.

Built in the year 1620 by the Danish admiral Ove Gjedde who headed the expedition on behalf of the Danish East India Company to establish trade links with India, the fort was called Dansborg (stone house) before it was anglicized when it changed hands to the British. Thanjavur’s King Ragunatha Nayaka leased out Tharangambadi to the Danes following a trade pact. Tharangabadi was subsequently sold to the English East India Company in 1845 for an amount of Rs.12.50 lakh, the deed of which can be seen on display at the museum.

Inside the fort

Inside the fort

Another component of Tharangabadi’s ancient history is the sea-facing Masilamani Nathar temple, which was supposed to have been built by the King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian in 1306. Despite the Danish occupation and the ensuing conversion of swathes of population in the coastal village, the temple still stands on the shores braving the winds, gesturing religious harmony.

Masilamani Nathar temple at a distance

Masilamani Nathar temple at a distance

I arrived in Tharangabadi as early as daybreak on a weekday, ignorant of the rhythms of life in a coastal village not used to many tourists. The only tourist footfall is during holidays and weekends when hordes of people throng the fort that also houses the museum. School going children gape at me and some daring ones asked their pictures to be taken, tea shops wake up from their slumber, their copper tea pots sending up swathes of smoke and students in the many teacher training institutes that dot the King Street uniformly dressed in many hues of blue and pink saunter on.

The Zion Church

The Zion Church

As in any other colonial invasion, Tharangambadi also witnessed an influx of Christian missionaries from far and beyond in an effort to proliferate the reaches of Christianity. Shortly afterwards, churches were built to accommodate the growing population of devotees. The Zion Church, The New Jerusalem Church and the Lutheran Church jostle each other for space in this coastal village. Of these, The Zion Church is considered to be India’s oldest Protestant church. The missionaries also brought the first printing press, subsequently printing the bible in Tamil for distribution among the local populace.

Steeped in cultural history and architecture, Tharangambadi is also home to as many as 33 heritage buildings of which at least two of them – The Bungalow on the Beach and The Gate House provide accommodations. The Pondicherry chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), a non-profit working in the areas of heritage conservation and awareness is working in Tharangambadi to restore many structures in the village. Some of the structures restored include Bungalow on the beach – which was later converted into a heritage hotel run by Neemrana Hotels – and a few houses on the Goldsmith street.

the sea facing entrance of the fort

the sea facing entrance of the fort

Meanwhile, I trained my camera at the Landporten, the Town Gate, built to mark the entrance of Tharangambadi in the year 1660. The gate was built afresh in 1792 by the governor of the region Peter Anker at that time and bears the year on its forehead. Now though, part of it has been encroached upon by settlements, huts stand alongside the gate rubbing shoulders with it, nullifying its effect as an entrance to the village that stands testimony to a piece of history owing to its colonial past.

Landporten - the town gate

Landporten – the town gate

The fort and the museum associated with it didn’t open until after 10 a.m. and the beach is a good walk from the Town Gate – the street of which houses institutions starting from the Zion Church ending with the Bungalow by the beach property that almost touches the lip of the beach. Fisher folk prepare to set out for the day, sorting their nets out, and school bells herald the beginning of yet another day. The Masilamani Nathar temple stands facing the beach and is now awash in freshly painted glory – in preparation of an upcoming temple festival perhaps.

The fort - another view

The fort – another view

The fort has a rampart wall with bastions and also houses barracks, kitchen, church and lodging for the governor and other senior officials. There is also a lower storey used as arsenal storage. Though there were signboards announcing an ‘information center’ and ‘crafts on sale’, they are empty and fallen to disuse – understandably so owing to the insufficient visitors the fort attracts. The accompanying museum displays many artifacts unearthed in the area including lamps, decorated terracotta objects, sculptures, figurines, lamps and cannon balls.

The Tharangambadi fort

The Tharangambadi fort

On a clear day, the fort and its backdrop of azure blue sky provide excellent photo-ops. The breeze whips you up incessantly but it is a small price worth paying for a secluded spot of history tucked away in a remote corner of India’s colonial past.

Fact Sheet:

How to get there

Karaikal is the nearby town that is accessible by both road and train from major cities. From Chennai there are over night trains and from Bangalore there are buses to Pondy, from there Karaikal is 132kms away. From Karaikal, Tharangambadi is just a bus ride away (around 17kms).

Where to stay

Tharangambadi has premium range accommodations including the renovated ‘The Bungalow on the beach’ run by Neemrana hotels. If you want to do it in budget, Karaikal has numerous options providing clean and basic accommodation. I stayed at Atlantic Inn at Rs.600 per night, single bed. However, if you insist on staying on a budget, Hotel Tamil Nadu provides doubles at Rs.800 per night.

What to eat

The restaurant at the Neemrana run The Bungalow on the beach is legendary for its seafood. Tharangambadi has not too many eateries other than the tea-shacks, so plan your day accordingly if you do not want to stick around for food.

Nearby places of interest

Karaikal’s beach and port, Pondicherry’s beaches are worth visiting. If you are into temple architecture, visit Thirunallar, Thanjavur, Karaikal Ammayar Temple and the church of Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni.

Have you been to Tranquebar? Leave a comment and let me know.

This appeared in The Alternative and can be accessed here.