A hundred places in two years… Our reporters scoured the nooks and corners of southern India to visit forts, palaces, cave temples and sleepy seaside villages to write about places that have fallen off the tourist radar. As the column Hidden 100 completes its run they come up with anecdotes that and incidents that made their journeys memorable. Illustrations: Satwik Gade
Even on off-days when I left on a short notice to meet the column’s deadline, people, friends and colleagues would enviously enquire, “Off to another exotic place? You are always on a holiday!”
But never was it a vacation! I spent hours walking in forests or climbing up mountains, burnt myself in scorching heat or searched for that lead point amidst the ruins of some fort even when the stomach growled in protest. Filled with notes, facts, anecdotes and countless digital photos, I would return to my computer to compress the thoughts, impressions and expressions.
Each trip was characterised by a different mood and approach, knowledge and discovery. Each place was alive with people and history and some times if the language did not fit the description what the eyes saw, I ended up describing the weather on the Sunday I visited or the people I met on the way.
Like this gentleman I met while panting my way up to the Jain caves at Sittanavasal. On the lonely brown hill top I was all frowns when he decided on self-introduction. He addressed me as “sister” and told me about his bus journey from Dharmapuri, where he worked as an engineer with TNEB, and how he travels every alternate Saturday to different places.
Why should that interest me? I wondered and ignored his monologue. He irritated me further by walking along the rugged landscape to the adjacent cave temple. He waited till I finished and audaciously enough asked for a lift to the main road to catch a bus. That 10-minute drive drives this copy.
He enquired about me. “A student”, I lied. It was followed by some more false information — my and university name. I was compelled into a polite conversation, albeit half-heartedly. When he pulled out a loosely bound book I sat up. It was a laminated collection of travel articles from The Hindu.
He had 70 such sheets. “I love to go to interesting places and have been to 29 of these so far,” he grinned. I was dumbstruck because it contained several of my articles too from our erstwhile column ‘The Road Less Travelled’ and now ‘Hidden Hundred’!
“These writers are so lucky, they get to visit different places and inspire and guide us to go there,” he said.
I do not regret for not disclosing my name. But I do feel sorry for not remembering his. He makes me realise all over again we owe our readers honesty and responsibility, good research and writing because many of them may not even get to the places we see except through our words.
Behind the scenes
Singing birds sound like head bangers inside my head. Every time the leaves rustle, my nerves shred a little bit more. And I never want to see animal spoor again in my life… This is me, with a migraine, on a mission to uncover scenic spots that are somehow always located on mountains with vertical slopes or within deep forests full of truculent animals. But I can’t possibly write that in the Hidden Hundred column. What appears in print is birds making glorious music and the rustling leaves unleashing the poet in me. I write how animal dung sends me into a paroxysm of uncontained joy as it means the beasts are round the corner somewhere. These assignments are hardly a walk in the park. But in the time it takes me to travel from there to my computer to hammer out the article, I realise how lucky I really am. To perhaps be the first to document information about forts, temples, traditions and vanished cultures and stories of gods and goddesses and heroes and heroines associated with them. The kind of stuff that has fallen through the gap and not made it to history books. I have been to little pockets of heaven, where Draupadi combed out her long tresses, where Shiva and Parvathi cavorted, where pre-historic man scratched out drawings on rock walls…where kings fought and lost, where there are glimpses of high art even amidst desolate topography. Have I spotted a tiger? Sure I have. And strange half men and half beasts too. But I forgot to remove my camera cap, so you will just have to take my word for it. Just like you have to believe me when I describe the unbelievable high when through a curtain of mist a chai kadai appears in the middle of nowhere. Pinkish brown tea, in thick transparent glasses, sweet and flavoured with cardamom. Sometimes with hot vadai. Did I mention heaven…?
Lost in the woods
We were on our way to Keezhmavilangai. Our driver (who we later stereotyped as the ‘angry young man’) was driving so fast, we were sure to get lost. And so, we did. We crossed the junction where we had to turn and had almost gone all the way to Vellore, when my trusty GPS went into action. We had decided that a map could be trusted, after an old man spent more time scratching his head than giving us directions. The GPS, ever faithful, pointed in the opposite direction and we had to turn around. We took State Highway 5 to Melmavilangu and looked around. The GPS was pointing right and then, another right. We followed the arrow all the way, until it suddenly stopped and said, ‘You have reached your desitnation’. We looked around for a lone rock, with a 7th Century sculpture of Vishnu etched on it. Instead, we were in the middle of a vast field in front of a cow, where palms swayed lazily to the light breeze. It looked up as we neared it, half amused and half curious and then went back to chewing grass. This time, it was our turn to scratch our heads.
Marriages are made in heaven
The Bhoganandishwara form of Shiva, one of the principal deities at the Bhoganandishwara temple situated at the base of Nandi Hills, represents the life stage of the man who has experienced the pleasures of married life. We didn’t quite know that even as we sat through a special pooja celebrating the auspicious month of Shravana.
As we were leaving, we met the temple manager who told us confidently that any unmarried person who worshipped at this shrine, would get married soon. We looked at each other and laughed, much to the amusement of the manager — while marriage was on our minds (mainly thanks to respective mommies’ warnings that we were close to expiry date), Prince Charming seemed like a distant dream. But Lord Shiva, it seems had plans for us....
And to drive home his point, we wandered into not one but two weddings at the temple. What made it even more serendipitous was that we managed to land up there right when the thali was being tied around the brides’ neck — both times. Now, if that is not a sign from above, we don’t know what is.
Preeti Zachariah and Harshini Vakkalanka
Clueless in Chitradurga
My trip to Chitradurga was unplanned. I decided on mode of transport and a place to stay a day in advance, not knowing what to expect. The people were warm, the Chitradurga fort and Chandravelli caves lovely, but the only problem was I only understood Kannada spoken in Bangalore, not the dialect spoken in Chitradurga. The day, I was visiting the fort and the temple, I had no way of telling the auto driver where I wanted to go. We communicated in sign language. Nodded our heads. Thought one of us was saying no, when we actually meant yes. And the only way in which I could show which direction to go, was by stretching my hand and saying “straight”, “straight”.
Needless to say we lost our way, but thanks to the kind auto driver I ultimately got to visit both the fort and the temple.