Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Of tables and chairs

I sit for once at a proper table. I'm in a new hotel in Coimbatore, and these perches in new places are something I enjoy very much. Although there is a notebook and a nicely sharpened pencil, I want to blog, so the tablet is in front of me and I Swype away. I'm feeling rather writerly and would have supplied a picture if this table hadn't been so messy.
Oh, why I can't have a table at home!? Well of course there is one but I don't have a chair whose height I'm happy with and so seldom sit at it to write. But a new chair! Where does it go when I don't need it? This is the problem with old houses that have been well lived in. Every corner has been accounted for. And there no room for more stuff unless you have already chosen what to get rid of.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Humour me

What an oddly strong mood to be in. Packing, and I'm afraid I'm going to be in browns and peaches all this week. Only force of will is admitting a few blues and reds.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Stories from the Seema

In October last year, I undertook two travel assignments for Outlook Traveller – one to Medak and the other to Kurnool. A '2 States' kind of story – one trip into Telangana and the other into Seemandhra. I was supposed to go to the coast, but every time we plan a story for Coastal Andhra, it has most lamentable consequences for that region. Srikakulam, we thought in 2012, and it triggered Cyclone Laila. We had only started to consider Guntur-Vijayawada again and it brought on Hudhud. So we decided on Kurnool, which has proved more hardy. Not that it has a history of being particularly easy for me but at least there isn't a trail of disaster.
It was hot weather, I had a migraine throughout but we managed a lovely trip. Here is the story. Photos on this blog are mine.

These Border(less) Lands
As we speeded along the road from Hyderabad towards Kurnool, my thoughts dwelled quite a bit on the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh into Telangana and the residuary state. The rights and wrongs, the causes and effects of the matter aside, it felt like a house divided, borders where they didn’t need to exist... too many lines, I thought sentimentally, are never a good idea.
The destination was Kurnool, the gateway to Rayalaseema – a province with a rich and varied history, a place of hot passions, violent factionist loyalties, a land that was once the stronghold of Krishna Deva Raya. Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra together now get called ‘Seemandhra’ – two thirds of the former whole.
Kurnool town received us indifferently. We settled into the hotel, and battered as we were from the hot drive, decided on a siesta first. Then, as the sun moved west, revived by cups of tea, we ventured first to the tomb of Abdul Wahab Khan, the first Nawab of Kurnool. The two domes were visible over rooftops from a distance, and narrow, winding roads led us there. No sooner had I stepped into the compound than I acquired the company of a band of inquisitive school boys, intrigued by visitors from far-off lands. We took a shine to one another and my friends accompanied me inside as I peered into the musty burial chambers of the noble family, then to an adjoining dargah and around the tomb to the Hundri riverside, now a murky trickle.
The tomb held no surprises but I was utterly charmed by the building that abuts it. This was Osmania College, a privately run college that offers up to post-graduate degrees. I wandered into the grey, stone courtyard. Students were making their way home and activity for the day was winding down. Established in 1947 by the educationist Dr M Abdul Haq, this place exudes a combination of an old-world that keeps pace with the world, albeit in its own way. At many points, I saw, at a height above my own, markings declaring ‘Flood Level, 2009’. I knew there had been floods in Kurnool a few years ago but it was still startling to realise that had I stood at this point then, I’d have been submerged with half-foot to spare. 
I strolled into the library and was warmly made welcome by Mohd Akmal sa’ab, who has held charge here for 32 years. This reading room, he informed me, was inspired by the Connemara Public Library in Chennai. A long central reading table, afternoon light slanting on the bookshelves, small lime-washed staircases leading to the upper levels... I took in a breath of deep delight. Portraits of various dignitaries lined the walls, including one of Ghalib. And the issuing counter was such an anachronism, I had to have a picture of that as well.
But light was fading and I wanted to see the Konda Reddy Burz by decent light, so I tore myself away and rushed to the Old Bus Stand area. There, to one side of teeming traffic, was the semi-circular citadel. It is not a word one commonly applies to forts but, I tell you, it fits this one: Konda Reddy Burz is cute. Dated to sometime around 1530-42 AD, it was built by Achyuta Raya, the successor of Krishna Deva Raya. It was used as a community call-to-arms, the man from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) told me; not living quarters but a bolt-hole in case of attack. There is a boarded up underground passage here that is said to lead all the way to Alampur, 28km to the northeast, to emerge somewhere in the precincts of the old Jogulamba Temple there. But the thrill of hearing about secret pathways like this one inevitably dims in the light of repressive realities. It has been sealed, they will tell you, the passage has been blocked by rubble and is unusable... and no! you certainly can’t explore it. Oh, what is the use? This sort of thing would have never deterred children in adventure books but I nod meekly and go away.

The next day, we took a winding route across the district to Belum Caves. Barely 25 km out of Kurnool, however, we stopped to have our breath taken away. Let’s put it this way – there are rocks at Orvakallu. Lots of them. Magnificent deposits of quartz and silica piled up in spectacular formations. Between two tall walls of stone, there is a ravine that has been cut through by water. I’d been here before but it was even more impressive the second time.
We rushed through breakfast and headed to Banganapalle. I didn’t have too much information about what I was seeking here – just couple of references online. However, the picture I’d seen was enough to have me turn a touch dogged and enquire for the ‘Arundhati bangla?’ at every halt for directions. What I was looking for was the summer residence of the Nawab Mir Fazl Ali Khan Bahadur, more recently famous for being the shoot-location of a Telugu fantasy thriller called Arundhati.
They told us we’d find it on the road to Yaganti, near the village of Pathapadu. And just when we began to have misgivings about this search, there it was under the torrid noon sun: on a slight hillock, somehow looking imposing, forlorn, forbidding and beckoning at once. A beautifully proportioned bangla with a series of arched windows, staircases leading up from each side. It looked deserted but there were a couple of villagers in occupation after all. An array of local snacks were laid out and they collected a modest entry fee which opened the locked doors of the building. I bought a potnam of sunflower seeds for Rs 5 and followed her in. Corridors gave way to chambers. Here and there the roof had caved in and sunlight streamed strongly in, making for nice pictures but a sad story. I could see why Arundhati had chosen to come here – there were ghosts still.
Pathapadu Bangala.
 Our next halt was Yaganti which was famous for its temple to Shiva. Nestled at the foot of some imposing cliffs, the lord is called Yaganti Uma Maheshwara here. Built by the illustrious Sangama kings Harihara and Bukka Rayulu, the 15th-century temple is beautiful, with a pushkarni ever-supplied with spring water. And to one side of the main temple is a dramatic shrine. Steep steps lead up the cliffside and right into a thin aperture in the rock... the cave opens up to considerable height and here, in an alcove, reigns Lord Venkateshwara, whom Sage Agastya first intended to install at Yaganti before Shiva took it for his own.
Embedded in the cliff-side.
By now, we could see that stone was a ubiquitous feature of the Kurnool landscape. Untouched and towering in some spots, and fully exploited at others such as the village of Betamcherla, famous for its polished slab. Marble, granite, black stone are all mined here and almost every building we passed was in the stone business. But now, at Belum, we were approaching rock at another level altogether. With a length of 3229 m, these appear to be the longest cave systems in the country outside of the karsts of Meghalaya. The entrance was a circular pit and right away, we descended and then moved into a spacious chamber with a circular opening overhead. I craned my neck to see a deep blue sky and a white puff of cloud... at the rim of the crater, grass fluttered in the breeze... so pretty! That was our last glimpse of the sky for a while.

Skylight in the Belum Caves.

Belum Caves were first discovered by British surveyor Robert Bruce Foote in 1884, but it was only recently, in 1982-84, that a team of German speleologists headed by Daniel Gebauer conducted a detailed exploration of the caves. The team mapped about 3½ km of caves, and when APTDC stepped in to develop the caves as a tourist attraction in 2000, they put to use only 1½ km. Knowing that this tourism corporation had great enthusiasm that was not equalled by good taste, I will admit to some apprehensions about their treatment and showcasing of natural wonders. Walking into the caves, I did purse my lips at an artificial fountain, did wonder if they needed to be quite so obtrusive in designing stairs and ramps for tourists. But after the whole tour, I have to tip my hat to them, and indeed thank them for making the experience of these caves at all possible for people without endurance or a thirst for perilous adventure. The whole walk has been designed to include various features of interest – large caverns, interesting formations and, at the lowest point at 120ft below, a spring they’ve called Patalaganga. It gets hot and it gets claustrophobic, so at four points during the walk, the authorities have lowered air shafts for people to stand under and, literally, recover their breath. The sense of being underground, surrounded by damp black limestone, running my finger along indentions made by water, seeing shapes formed by years of stress and deposit... it was simply terrific.
It was time to head back to Hyderabad but there was time for one more detour – the temple complex at Alampur. Now this, strictly, isn’t in Kurnool – it falls within Mahbubnagar and therefore Telangana. On the other hand, history binds these places rather tightly. After all, when carts ferried stone to the temples being built at Alampur in the 7th century, it was at Kurnool that they stopped to be greased. Kandenavolu, they used to call it then, for ‘kandena’ meant grease.
The Jogulamba temple, Alampur. It's one of the 18 Mahashakti Peethams in the sub-continent.
The temple complex at Alampur is on the banks of the Tungabhadra and each shrine – there are many – has a tale to tell. I walked along here and there, and came upon a dargah wedged snugly into the wall next to a temple for the lady Kamakshi. India’s secularism pops up in the most unexpected nooks. Then I stopped at an ornate pathway when a priest fortuitously offered me information. The jyothirlinga at Srisailam had four gates in four directions, and this spot, where I now stood, was the western gateway – an entrance that has witnessed footfalls of every pilgrim that came from this direction.
The lay of the land was different then, I mused, their hubs were other than the ones we’ve created... the lines they drew on their maps were formed differently. Kingdoms collapse, establishments fade away, lines blur and are redrawn afresh in each era... cities rise and fall but the land is more enduring. These border lines don’t matter as much as I think they do.
The piece appeared in Outlook Traveller, November 2014. The link to the online version is here.