Monday, February 28, 2011

Elephanta Caves - Rock-Cut Brilliance

Past rusty-looking ships, massive oil rigs and tiny fishing boats, ten kilometers off the shore of Mumbai, is Elephanta Island, home to ancient rock-cut architecture in the Elephanta Caves, which dates back to the 6th century A.D. The stone sculpting has withstood the trials of time, albeit with a little recent help from UNESCO, and remains awe-inspiring.

To get to the caves, you must take a ferry from the Gateway of India (Rs.130/-, plus Rs.10/- to sit on the upper deck), which will get you to the Elephanta Island jetty in just under an hour. The ferries - colourful boats capable of seating around 50 people each, start at 9am, and have a frequency of 15 to 20 minutes. It's best to go as early as possible, to avoid droves of tourists, and enjoy a peaceful morning out.

Once there, you can choose to walk along the jetty, or take a cute 20-seater coal-engine train to the main entrance, to enter the island proper. Stock up on water or snacks from the provision stores here, for there is a fair amount of walking and exploring to be done, starting with a climb up intermittent flights of stairs, extending around half a kilometer.

If you've been shirking your gym visits, you'll probably be puffing and panting in a while, as you make your way up to the caves. The stairs are lined with all manner of small stalls, selling souvenier t-shirts, guides, junk-jewellery, and other quirky locally made artifacts like painted betel leaves. If you're hungry, you can grab a vada pav (advertised as an “Indian Burgur”) on the way up, but beware of the monkeys, who have no qualms about making a meal out of a half eaten-sandwich snatched from your hands.

Pay the final entry fee at the cave entrance (Rs.10/- for Indians and Rs.250/- for foreign nationals), and you're free to roam through the stone corridors for as long as you please. Local guides will try to convince you that you will not appreciate the caves without knowing the entire history surrounding them, and offer to give you a detailed tour for a fee. You can haggle with them, and settle at a price of around Rs.100-150/-, if your curiousity must be sated.

All the intricate sculpture is dedicated to Lord Shiva, with architecture detailing his various forms and scenes from his life. To the right, just as you enter, Shiva is depicted is his “cosmic dancer” avatar (Nataraja), while, the masterpiece in the center, Trimurti, depicts the three main forms of Shiva – creator, preserver, and destroyer. The attention to detail is astounding, and does make one wonder if there's more to the folklore stating that the sculptures are not made man-made.

In addition to carvings on the wall, there are several shrines (Lingas), the grandest of which is just to the right of the main entrance, in a small room with towering stone guardians (dvarapalas) flanking the openings. That several limbs of statues and carvings have fallen away over time, or been destroyed centuries ago by colonists using them for target practice, does not detract from the overall grandeur.

You can expect to see a large number of tourists, particularly foreigners, concentrated within the first cave, marvelling at their surroundings, taking pictures and guided tours. To the left of the main entrance is another small cave with stone pillars at the entrance, just ahead of a courtyard with a pedestal that was probably used for ancient dance and rituals. In here is another shrine, which you must enter barefeet. Several visitors leave behind flowers and money as offerings, which may sometimes be picked off by security guards looking to make a quick buck. The shrine is flanked by two stone lions, a trademark of the Chalukyan architecture.

Beyond the main caves, along a pathway to the left, are caves numbered 2 to 5, which have few or no sculptures, but resemble some form of ancient housing plan, with each cave comprising of several empty rooms of various sizes. Caves 3 and 4 make for some great photo opportunities if you're innovative enough - particularly a shrine exposed by a hole in the wall, flanked by fading rock guardians. Monkeys roam around the railings on the hill, and swing across trees, occasionally swooping down to grab an interesting trinket.

For all the splendor in the architecture, and the efforts being made to maintain it, it is rather sad that many visitors, locals in particular, seem to treat Elephanta Island and its caves with disregard. Discarded water bottles and wrappers can be seen almost everywhere you look, and it's disappointing that people would choose not to care about their own heritage.

Once you've explored to your heart's content, make your way back down the stairs, and do not be fooled by women standing around requesting their photographs to be taken. They will pester you for money after you click. Browse through souvenirs if it pleases you to do so, or head to the restaurant at the bottom of the stairs for a chilled beer and some very good fried fish before you take the ferry back to the shores of Mumbai.

The island locals would have you believe that the caves are not man-made, but were created by Pandava, and Banasura, ancient, super-human characters from the Mahabharata, and at times, it's easier to believe that side of the story than fathom that mere men could make walls of rock come to life in such a wondrous manner.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kolad - An adventure destination?

I've always considered myself an adventure-sport enthusiast. In that I'm enthused by the idea of adventure-sports, but rarely ever get myself down to doing anything about it. It's the thought that counts, right? I was excited to get my my feet wet with white-water rafting in Kolad.

A little over 100km away from Mumbai, Kolad is a village that is slowly gaining commercial value through the surrounding mountains, waterfalls and rapids, to become an adventure sport destination in Maharashtra. It is a scenic two-hour drive, once the Mumbai traffic has been left behind, along NH17, arguably one of India's most fun highways.

Our watery prowess was organised by Quest Adventures, headed by the amicable and infectiously enthusiastic Jehan Driver. There was a chill in the mountain air as we stopped for a cup of tea. Jehan came to receive us and had us tail his Mahindra Bolero along winding roads up the hills, to get to the starting point. We would be rafting down the river Kundalika, which is fed by a hydro-electric power dam. We made a couple of stops along the way, as Jehan would get off every now and again to familiarize us with the surroundings, giving us the history of the area and pointing out short-cuts to get back home. The initial plan had been to drive to Kolad the previous evening and stay the night, but we were dissuaded by our notion of there not being much to do in a village. We were wrong, as it turned out. Jehan and the other group members had spent the previous evening with a barbeque around a campfire, later joining in tribal revelry with the local adivasis. We would not make the same mistake next time.

The rafting generally starts at around 9am, marked by a loud siren indicating that the floodgates have been opened. As the growing wail echoed around , we gathered inside a small yard, stacked with rafts, oars, helmets and life-jackets, as the friendly and well-drilled rafting instructors gave us a security brief. Split into groups of eight to a raft, we clumsily put on our rafting gear, while the staff fussed over how our life-jackets weren't strapped tightly enough, or that I had worn my helmet backwards. Finally, looking reasonably like adventurers, we joined Ashish, our instructor, and headed to the raft, where we were taught how to sit, lock our legs in place and respond to calls with urgency. I was rather taken aback to know that I would not be sitting inside the raft, but on the edge. That would make things more interesting.

Equipped with the knowledge to deal with most scenarios, we carried our raft into the water. Any latent drowsiness was instantly dispelled by Ashish, who pelted all the boat's members with the icy river water, as our journey began. This would not be a very intense two hours of rafting, with no more than Grade 3 rapids, but it was definitely a start. For me, in particular, it was the first time I'd be doing more than simply getting wet in a boat. It took a while to get rhythm and co-ordination in our rowing, with more than a few clashing oars and winces, but we did a reasonable job. A total of 13 rapids awaited us, with varying levels of ferocity, each given a unique name, based on it's locational significance, or sometimes, even on amusing incidents involving previous visitors and their lost keys.

I was underwhelmed when the “Welcome” rapid came and went. The raft rocked about a little bit, and there were squeals all around; mostly people reacting to being splashed with cold water, but it was hardly exhilarating. I could only hope it would get better. It did.

Rowing and floating down the river, past overhanging mangroves and brush on the banks, I couldn't help but wish it was the monsoon. It would have been beautiful, with greener surroundings and rougher waters. I would perhaps have realised my secret desire of being bucked into the water and being rescued by the man in the tiny emergency kayak rowing alongside us, too. Such thoughts were put aside temporarily, as Ashish bellowed, “Get down!”, and we obliged by executing our well-choreographed moves to avoid any danger.

The next few rapids were slightly rougher, but things started to get more interesting at the Butterfly rapid, which led quickly into Crow's Nest and Key Waves (so named because of the case of keys lost to watery depths). The sequence probably lasted around 5 minutes, but had the boat and all its occupants rocking from side to side, with much high pitched squealing echoing around, as we all ensure our feet were wedged firmly into the sides of the boat, to avoid being thrown off.

Those 5 minutes, sadly enough, marked the high point of our journey in terms of exhilaration, for the water ahead was too calm to thrill much. After the 12th rapid (Boomshankar), we were given license to jump out of the raft and body-surf for a while. Apprehension and phobia of swimming were discussed amongst our boat's members, but after a point, I'd had enough of the chit-chat. I leant back with what I perceived to be an aura of zen-ness, into the flowing water. It didn't go quite as I had played out in my head, though, as I ended up coughing and spluttering and emerging with a sheepish thumbs-up. But flowing along with the chilly water, feet wedged into the side of the raft was relaxing. The rest of the crowd soon followed suit, and the river was filled with people swimming, splashing, or floating on their backs. Some 30 minutes later, the current lost what little energy it had and compelled us to put our backs into rowing, while chanting and singing songs, to make it more entertaining.

More physical exercise was involved in our final act of disembarking, lifting the raft and taking it uphill, and in a little over two hours, we were done. While the rafting wasn't the most heart-pounding, exhilarating, experience in the world, it was certainly a great way to spend a Sunday morning, with a fun drive, some welcome exercise and enjoyable dips in the water. A nice, convenient getaway from Mumbai's metropolitan madness, which would be even more fun during the monsoon.

The association of adventure-sport organizations, along with the local members of parliament, are trying to convert Kolad into an adventure-sports hub in Maharashtra, with rafting forming just the tip of the iceberg. The rugged terrain is a great platform for mountain and dirt-biking, for which tracks are already being created. Add to that the immense scope for trekking and rock-climbing, and Kolad may soon evolve from a small getaway village to a complete location for metropolitan thrill-seekers in Maharashtra.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Keep Walking – Kalbadevi

The plan was simple. Take a train to Mahalaxmi station, a cab to Pydhonie and then a walk around Kalbadevi – one of Mumbai's oldest neighbourhoods – to wherever the crowded by-lanes took me. In 22 years of living in the city, this was to be my first visit to the area every guidebook insists you visit. It was about time. But I was ill-prepared for what awaited me.

I got off at the corner of Pydhonie Umbrella Mart where you can get umbrellas of all shapes, colours and sizes. It was of special significance, for it had once been owned by my mother's family. She still wonders why they sold the business; it's not like umbrellas would have ever gone out of fashion, she says.

I walked past into the lanes of Kalbadevi. Above, housewives stood in the balconies of the chawls, arms resting on dilapidated railings, watching the mid-morning sun soak the streets with less than a mild interest. The streets grew busier as I ventured further, past Pydhonie Police Station, and turned left into Abdul Rehman Street. Shop after shop here is stocked with all manner of school and office stationary. Pens, pencils, paperweights, staplers, even children's water-bottles and tiffin boxes - all sold at wholesale rates. A little ahead, at a corner on the right, an old sign-board told me that I had reached the Light of Bombay restaurant. It was, paradoxically, a dimly-lit space with few tables, serving Indian cuisine to a small number of patrons. I headed back to the main road and contemplated where to head next. White temple tops peeking over buildings to the left made up my mind for me.

The shops lining the street to the marble structures were dominated by metal workshops or vendors dealing exclusively in stoves. As the temples grew closer, the contents of these workshops seemed to develop a more spiritual taste as well, slowly changing from commercial wire mesh to copper and brass prayer ornaments and wall-hangings. The ancient temple's name was inscribed on a stone plaque in Gujarati – which I was ill-equipped to read. I asked Chirag Shah, the owner of a shop across the road called Liberty Products, to enlighten me.

“That's the Godiji Jain Dehrasar”, he said. “It's more than 200 years old; the oldest temple in this area.” I asked about his store and the area around. “This particular area is a wholesale market for everything to do with stoves. We stock LPG stoves, kerosene-wick stoves, gauges, lighters, and all the parts, big and small, associated with them” Chirag explained, pointing to the high piles of equipment around him. I thanked him and moved on to the temple. It had a quiet grandeur, though the interiors were starting to show signs of disrepair. A few visitors sat there, heads bowed in prayer, in the large, peaceful room that insulated from the fracas on the streets outside.

Leaving the temple, I entered the road opposite with its numerous jewellery shops – Zaveri bazaar. Just as I began to wonder how many shops there were, I got my answer - 40. the shops were numbered; as though they knew every visitor would ask the same question. The road - packed with hawkers, shoppers looking for the best deal and workers pulling along handcarts - started to grow narrower, evolving into Dhanji street, with more small shops trading gold jewellery, chains, and gems. As I stopped to look at a gem-setter seated at a small table, his wares laid out before him, I was knocked off balance by a man with a handcart who was in an obvious hurry. He advised me to get out of the way as I picked myself up. Undeterred, I resumed my stroll, turning right to return to the main market, emerging at the corner of Mumbadevi Jalebiwala. This century-old establishment has only two items were on the menu - jalebis and paapri chaat. Both looked inviting. The crisp tangy chaat wafers followed by fresh, sugar syrup-slathered fried batter made a great combination and I picked up more jalebis to munch on as I continued my walk.

Small shops and stalls gave way to massive jewellery showrooms, all of which seemed to be offering the best possible buy-back rates. Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri, a name I'd heard before, was the grandest, housed in an entire three-storey building. I went in and was greeted warmly by salespeople who seemed to assume that I was very rich and getting married soon. I played along, exploring the two levels of gold and diamond jewellery. A lady stood at a cash counter, wearing the look of someone who had just parted with a whole lot of money.

Promising the salesgirl that I would return when I had more money to spare, I got back on to the street, wondering where exactly I had reached. That's when I bumped into Frank and Dave, tourists from Canada, who were just returning from the madness of Crawford market, which their guide-book had insisted they experience. I asked them where exactly it was and made my way ahead. The irony of asking a tourist for directions in my own city hit me a while later. A whiff of attars greeted me as I turned the corner for Crawford Market, which was overrun with shoppers and tourists amidst tables piled with clothes, bedsheets, toys, shoes, and sandals. Bigger shops dealt in imported eatables and more complex and expensive toys. The amusingly named “Toys R Must” is still firmly etched in my mind. A man selling inflatable travel pillows took “in-your-face” marketing to the next level, smacking two pillows together inches away from my nose to make his point. My shoelaces untied themselves, but I didn't dare stop and tie them lest I get knocked over again. I turned right to into the less-crowded Lohar Chawl, a street to go to for electrical goods, lights, and chandeliers.

To escape the scourge of shoppers, I ducked into the nondescript Old Hanuman Lane, populated by tailors and saree shops that had few patrons. It was refreshing to leave behind the madness of Crawford market and take a quiet walk through a largely deserted street lined by mossy walls. I emerged at the corner of Hasmukhrai & Sons, “The Tea People” who sell all forms of tea from Darjeeling to Oolong by the kilo. I asked a roadside channawala for directions to Bhuleshwar. He wasn't very helpful but Ritesh Shah, one of his customers, was. He asked me to follow him through winding shortcuts between condominiums and then the Anantwadi market, filled with locally-designed and produced garments. His family also had a business there and I was very curious about how they survived amidst scores of others. He told me that the designs at every shop were unique, and that a lot of their garments were sent back to be sold in their native villages. The escort ended near his shop, some hundred meters from Bhuleshwar market, and my solitary expedition resumed.

Bhuleshwar is known for its stainless-steel market, with dozens of shops selling cutlery and utensils, both new and used. At several vendors you can trade in your old pots and pans for discounts on new items. Forks and spoons were strewn around almost disdainfully or filled inside recycled pressure cookers, as local housewives haggled to get the best price for their old kadais. Closeby, Panjarpole Compound enclosed something of a flea-market, with imitation jewellery, sarees, peacock feathers and idols on display, which culminated at the back-entrance of the Digambar Jain Temple. I now had just one more place to visit before giving my feet a well-deserved rest.

It was a long walk to Chor Bazaar, which, being just off Mohammad Ali Road, wasn't technically “in the neighbourhood”. I had heard much about how everything here, ranging from electronics, car-parts, antiques and clothes, were actually stolen, giving the place its name. I wanted to see for myself.

Objects for sale were strewn on mattresses on the ground. Nothing was packaged or had a price-tag. An old man sat at a table selling old photographs, envelopes and that which he claimed were written by Mahatma Gandhi. Posters of old Bollywood movies were hung at the stall adjacent, amongst ancient gramophones. The sunglasses on display looked most enticing and I almost ended up buying what I thought was a stolen Ray-Ban until I picked it up and saw that it was a knock-off, cleverly named Ray-Ben. I also looked keenly through the litany of earphones laid out on a table-cloth. Some part of me hoped that I might find the Panasonic headset I had lost a few months ago. I was amazed at the sheer number of people, mostly locals, who were genuinely interested in buying things from here. I could now see why people referred to Chor Bazaar as an experience.

Four hours on and back where I had started, my feet beseeched me to sit down and get something to drink before heading home. Across the road was Jabbari Restaurant, a place my father had told me about once. He said that the tea here was believed to have strange healing powers to sort out throat ailments. My throat was a bit scratchy, so I went in and ordered the Jabbari masala chai. Infused with all manner of ayurvedic herbs, it tasted vile and seemed to burn my insides as it went down. But I kept going until I had reached the bottom of the cup. As terrible as it was, I have to admit that my throat felt squeaky clean for the rest of the day.