Saturday, July 24, 2010

Melting Pot

Known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Kochi (formerly Cochin) is an important seaport on the west coast of India. Traders sailed across seas to reach these wealth-laden shores famous for exotic spices, ivory, peacocks and silk. The formation of a natural port at Cochin is attributed to a flash flood that washed away land in the year 1341.The flood heralded Cochin’s rise as a trade hub and triggered the fall of Kodangallur (known variously as Craganore, Shinkli and Muzuris), a port that had beckoned explorers and travelers for eons. The flooding waters deposited silt at Kodangallur ‘s harbour and the port became too narrow for incoming ships. While Cochin thrived, Kodangallur’s importance diminished rapidly.
Cochin was once a seat of power and a stage for fiery battles. Its fabric transformed as the baton of power changed hands. Lured by its riches, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Jews, the British, the Arabs and the Chinese arrived and settled in Cochin. Epithets like “Mini England”, “Homely Holland” and “Little Lisbon” speak of its heydays in times of the British, Dutch and Portuguese. Cochin is the commercial capital of Kerala and its municipality comprises of Ernakulam, Fort Kochi and Mattancherry.
The 20-minute ride on a government ferry from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi was my passage to a land that is a stockpile of history. As the boat drifted away from the Ernakulam Boat Jetty majestic old buildings standing on the water's edge presented a preview of the cocoon called Fort Kochi. Life ambles at its own pace here and each street flaunts a different facet of its diversity. I chose to explore Fort Kochi on foot resisting my temptation to rent a bicycle or hire a rickshaw. Constant pit stops to refuel at roadside tender coconut stalls and cafes kept me going despite the oppressive heat and the saline soaked wind. I walked past brightly coloured houses reminiscent of different eras.
My first stop was at the eye-catching row of cheenavalas or the Chinese fishing nets. The huge fixed fishing nets, believed to be Chinese in origin are installed on the land and operated by teams of about six men. After each physically taxing fishing exercise, the fishermen return to their makeshift shack to smoke beedis and relax. “You buy, we fry”, read the sign boards outside shops where the fresh catch is cooked instantly. These imposing 10m high fishing implements with an outstretched net on one side and stone suspensions on the other end are a popular tourist attraction and have become an icon of Fort Kochi.
From the fishing nets I walked ahead to St. Francis Church, the oldest European Church in India. It was built by the Portuguese who made their way into India following Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a new route from Europe. Commanding a troop of 170 men in three eastbound ships from Lisbon, navigator and explorer Vasco da Gama, set sail to India and reached the town of Calicut in 1498. He however failed to impress the ruler of Calicut (Samoothari or Zamorin) to initiate trade with Portugal. Vasco was followed by Pedro Alvarez Cabral who won the Zamorin’s trust and was allowed to set up a factory in Calicut. But clashes with the Moors drove Cabral to the safer shores of Cochin. The Portuguese became allies of the Raja of Cochin and subsequently helped him in fighting the Zamorin. As a goodwill gesture, the Raja permitted the Portuguese to build a fort. Square in shape with a bastion in each corner, the fort was made of coconut logs fastened by iron bands. The Fort was named Fort Manuel (or Manuelkotta) after the king of Portugal. It laid the foundation for the Portuguese dominance in the years to follow. Within the confines of the timber fort was a flourishing Portuguese settlement comprising of factories, a palace, educational institutions and places of worship.
As the Portuguese supremacy ebbed, the control of the Dutch strengthened. The oriental style Dutch palace was originally built by the Portuguese and later renovated by the Dutch. European and indigenous architecture styles blend beautifully in this two-storeyed structure. The central courtyard enshrines Goddess Pazhayannur Bhagavathi, the tutelary deity of the Cochin Royal Family. The upper floor consisting of a coronation hall, bedchamber, a ladies chamber and a dining hall, now serves a beautiful museum. Murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana and puranic legends adorn the walls of the palace. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch left lasting signatures on Cochin. The Bolgatty Palace that has been converted to a heritage hotel and the Bastion Bungalow that has been declared as a protected monument are few streaks of the Dutch lavishness in Cochin.
A rickshaw driver who doubled up as a tour guide took me to the Jew Town in the neighboring settlement of Mattancherry. We went past an array of shops that were resplendent with traditional Indian curios and antiques. Mattancherry’s Jew Town is spread around the Paradesi Synagogue (also known as the Cochin Synagogue). Constructed in 1568, it is currently the only functioning synagogue in Kerala. Paintings inside the synagogue trace the history of the Jews in Kerala. It is said that the first Jews came en masse to Craganore around 70 A.D to avoid religious prosecution. While one painting depicts the Raja of Craganore welcoming the Jews, another shows Joseph Rabban receiving copper plates from the Raja. The copper plates spelled out the rights and privileges of the Jewish community. The destruction of Craganore by the Moors led to the displacement of the Jews who then settled in Cochin. Paintings also depict the Maharaja of Travancore presenting a golden crown to the Torah in 1805 and the last Maharaja addressing his Jewish subjects in 1949.
Fort Kochi is a melting pot of myriad races and religions. Stones, bricks and wooden reinforcements in bungalows, heritage hotels and monuments speak volumes of eras bygone. Everything, from its name to its people spawn stories that are woven over several hundreds of years. Foreign influences, interspersed in a truly Indian setting make for an interesting walk down memory lane. Fort Kochi is a mélange of different languages, cultures and customs. The past blends seamlessly with the present, presenting an enticing treat to the discerning eye

This article was published in Deccan Herald on the 25th of July 2010. Below is the link to the online version of the article.

Where Time Stands Still

I was in the land of fish and chips; in the land of lanky coconut trees and pristine backwaters. I was in the land where the science of Ayurveda has transcended time; in the land where this ancient practice is a prided legacy. I was in God’s own country to experience the healing touch of Ayurveda.
At the foothills of the Western Ghats is the unassuming town of Palakkad, popularly known as the granary of Kerala. Amidst the green cover and prosperous paddy is Kairali, an Ayurvedic Health Resort. Spread across 50 acres of luxuriant greenery, Kairali is an oasis of calm and a blissful retreat from the cacophony of our cities. Being a premier health resort, Kairali was ranked among the top 50 wellness Meccas in the world by National Geographic Traveler in 2008.
Thirty aesthetic cottages named after Indian zodiac signs dot the expanse of the resort’s sprawling lawns. Aswathi, Karthika, Bharani, Makariyam, Punartham, Avittam and Uthradam are a few jewels in the tiara of this resort. The cottages are designed to conform to Vaastu Shastra and are unique in name, style and decor. Bricks and stones used in the construction of each cottage are visibly different from the other. The red oxide coating on the floor acts as a natural coolant. The divine Valambari Conch (Turbinella pyrum) is placed in every cottage to emanate positive vibrations. A cascading rivulet running by the side of the cottages creates a harmonious atmosphere.
Designed by renowned horticulturist and Padma Bhushan awardee Dr. G.S. Randhawa Kairali’s landscape strikes a chord with nature. There are about 600 coconut trees that announce their presence by sending their sun dried leaves down to earth. Plants with therapeutic value are interspersed between trees of leak, mango, guava, pine and coconut. Medicinal plants are grown in the herbal garden. Blooms of jasmine, hibiscus and anthurium adorn the stone walkways. The coconut trees are the only high-rises here and samrani is the room freshener.
It’s back to basics at Kairali. The day begins with yoga. The food served is vegetarian. Fruits and vegetables are homegrown. Warm herbal water is favored over bottled water. Fresh juices are in and iced colas are out. Until it becomes a routine, the guests are cajoled to unwind while being pampered with good food and great hospitality.
Chasing butterflies, reading by the poolside, watching a kingfisher pick up its meal from the gurgling water and relaxing on an old rocking chair. For a city-dweller like me, these simple pleasures are hard to come by. Strolling in the 10-acre organic garden was an experience in itself. Within a few feet from the each other were plants of pineapple, chili, tomato, bitter gourd, pumpkin, ladies finger, eggplant, banana, snake gourd and a lot more. As we were taken on a tour of the garden we were told that these were fruits of labor and no chemicals went into making them look fresh and healthy.
Given that vegetables harvested across the road make it to our plates, it comes as no surprise that food was delectable. Apart from the food itself, the attention to detail at the Ayurvedic canteen was impressive. Everything from the juice, to the salad to the arrangement of napkins on the table was different for every meal. The food was delicious and the service was delightful.
The outdoor yoga session was a unique experience. This was the first time I was doing to the suryanamaskara (sun salutation) with the sun in my line of sight. I joined Europeans and Americans at the yoga session and we spent an hour together performing various asanas (exercises) and chanting sholkas. After stretching and bending we were treated to an amazing concoction of lime and mint. It was worth the effort of pulling myself out of bed early in the morning!
Through traditional techniques of Ayurveda qualified doctors administer treatments to cure ailments and relieve stress. The vivacious chief doctor, Dr. T. R. Chandrashekaran has been Ayurvedic practitioner for over four decades. Seasoned masseurs use their deft touch and the power of herbs and traditional oils alleviate stress.
Kairali is all about good health and happiness. As the warm oil was rubbed over my body, my muscles loosened and relaxed. I realized that a good massage is a great treat for an over-worked body. A steam bath followed the massage and I rocked myself to sleep on a hammock listening to birdsongs and gazing at the sky above. Indulging massages followed by delicious meals and an inviting cozy bed. It was blissful to say the least.
I was told that Panchakarma (a five-fold procedure for cleansing the body) and detoxification and rejuvenation therapies are the most common treatments opted by visitors. The guests are encouraged to practice yoga and meditation in the natural setting that compliments the holistic treatment. Dhara, Abhyangam, Pizhichil, Navarakizhi and Nasyam are a few of many of Ayurvedic treatments on offer. The doctor prescribes a special diet for guests undergoing treatment.
Every aspect of the resort from the sounds one hears and the water one drinks to the activities one indulges in, aim at imbibing the positive energy exuded by the elements of nature. Butterflies flit from leaf to flower with boundless joy. Birds wait eagerly to snatch a catch from water while fish dart across the stream. Lying in the lap of nature amidst the sound of falling water, the golden glow of the sun’s rays, the hiss of the wind and the kiss of the breeze is the perfect setting to switch off your mind and derail its train of endless thoughts.

Quick Facts:

Getting there: Palakkad is less than two hours away from the Coimbatore and Cochin airports.
Palakkad has a railway station and good road and rail links with all major cities.

Season: Kairali Ayurvedic Resort has visitors all year through. The weather is at its best between November and February. The summer months of March, April and May can be oppressive but the trees act as protective umbrellas and the weather is tolerable. June, July and August is the time to visit if you want to experience the monsoons in Kerala.

Accommodation: Deluxe, Classic, Royal and the exclusive Maharaja suites are the four classifications of the 30 cottages at the Kairali Ayurvedic Resort.

Leisure packages: Rs. 2999/- per person per night on a double occupancy basis.
Treatment packages: Rs. 35,000/- (taxes extra) onwards for 7-nights/8-days person on a double occupancy basis.
This package includes accommodation in a Deluxe Villa, one Ayurvedic treatment per day, all meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), complimentary yoga and meditation sessions, consultation with the Ayurvedic doctor, one lifestyle evaluation session and the use of the resort’s facilities.
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This article was published in The Hindu on the 25th of July 2010. Below is the link to the online version of the article.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fighting in Harmony

“Watching Bruce Lee movies with my father, I dreamt of learning martial arts someday”, recounts Vandana Rao as she traces her journey into the world of punches and kicks. Vandana was athletic as a child and has an outstanding academic record completing her Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism with a gold medal. She went with the flow of life and her dreams were safely tucked away until six months after her daughter’s birth when she started taking lessons in karate. Vandana is now a third degree black belt in the Korean martial art Tang Soo Do.
“With my stressful job my body began to crack up. Nothing aligns your priorities like adversity”, says Vandana who chose to give up her job in the Silicon Valley to be a stay-at-home mom. “I learnt about a martial arts school in my neighborhood from a television show. I enrolled at the school and was part of the same show for seven years to follow”, she says with a broad smile. Vandana trained at the First Tang Soo Do of Fremont, California under Master David Bell. Here she developed a deep passion for Tang Soo Do and went on to win medals at the Regional and World Tang Soo Do Championship held in Florida, USA. “Martial arts also gave me avenues to explore my degree in media and communication”, she says mentioning her involvement in the production of the television show, website development and working on the school’s newsletter. After moving to Bangalore Vandana established The Healing Arts Centre, where she imparts training in Chi Kung (a Chinese meditative healing art) and Yoga apart from Tang Soo Do.
“Martial Arts is not about violence and physical assault”, says Vandana clarifying that she does not run a fight club or encourage aggression. “Tang Soo Do is a peaceful and defensive martial art. We first learn how to block and then learn to counter attack. Patience is the key”, she adds. While Tang Soo Do is a high-energy kick intensive martial art involving free sparing, combination drills, forms and weapons, Chi Kung is a meditative practice that requires tremendous discipline. “Tang Soo Do, Yoga and Chi Kung may have visual differences but the essential principles and energy centers are the same. Breathing is the cornerstone of all three arts. They come from three different countries but take you to the same place. It’s all about striking a balance between the mind, body and spirit,” explains Vandana.
Vandana currently trains about 50 students ranging from the age of 5 to 45. The batches comprise of people from mixed age groups, genders and levels of physical fitness. While some have taken up the arts for weight loss others are there to fight health ailments like high blood pressure and cholesterol. Martial arts and yoga have helped to bring discipline in children and beat stress in adults. While some have been able to cut down on nicotine, others have been able to find a balance between work and home. “Apart from physical fitness and mental relaxation it helps people accept their body and develop a positive outlook to life. I am trying to create awareness about a way of life and enhance character development through martial arts”, says Vandana.
Vandana is diving deeper into the art even as she tries to demystify its complexity and beauty to her students. The last time Master Bell was in Bangalore, he left her with plenty of homework. Vandana is expanding her knowledge through books, DVDs and interaction with her Master through Skype. The stick, the knife, the sai and the sword are the four weapons she is currently working with. She is learning various Chi Kung patterns even as she is creatively improvising on Yoga postures.
She dared to dream and life presented her opportunities to pursue her passion. Twelve years into martial arts Vandana is as fit as a fiddle. She effortlessly juggles her role as a daughter, a mother, a wife, a teacher and a student. Following in her footsteps is her daughter waiting to turn twelve this year, so that she can appear for the exam to secure her black belt.

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This article was published in The Hindu, Bangalore edition on the 14th of July 2010. Below is the link to the online version of the article.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Railcar's Last Stop

A one-bogie train stationed at the periphery of the bustling Bangarpet Railway Station caught my attention. A closer look revealed that it was a railbus, a unique hybrid that combines the engineering of a bus with the comfort of a rail coach. Railbuses reduce the overhead of running trains on lines with low passenger traffic. This is the only operational railbus in Karnataka and plies on the branch-line between Bangarpet and Kolar.
Intrigued by this rather small “train”, I embarked on a short but sweet 18 Km journey from the Bangarpet junction. The railbus chugged along slowly, even stopping for a person who missed it at the station. For most passengers this 35-minute rail journey is a daily routine, but for me it was an enjoyable joyride. The charming colonial railway station of Kolar warmed up to welcome the railbus yet again. A few decades ago, Kolar was an important station but the number of passengers and trains reduced drastically over the years. There was a time when the station was operating only for the railbus.
Compact in design, the Bangarpet-Kolar broad gauge railbus was manufactured by Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) in 1997. It is a self-powered four-wheeled locomotive with driving cabs at both ends and controls for bidirectional operation. The 72-seater railbus is a boon for about 65 office workers who commute from Bangalore to Kolar by train everyday. A loco pilot who is accompanied by an assistant loco pilot operates the railbus, which is like a chartered service for the regulars. A single track connects the Bangarpet and Kolar stations and the “one train only token system” is used to control rail traffic on this line. A baton with the two station names etched on it authorizes a single train to pass through. The arrival and departure of the railbus from Bangarpet are linked to the timings of the connecting trains to and from Bangalore.

Railcars and railbuses feature among the unique locomotives in the ranks of the Indian Railways that has a wide variety of trains for transporting freight and passengers across the country. Even though they were not profitable, railcars were operated in some routes for the benefit of the people. Loyal passengers developed a personal connection with these locomotives and their withdrawal was strongly resisted. While the Bangarpet-Kolar railbus is still in operation, the others have made their way into museums and linger on as a fading memory.

Guntakal-Mysore Railcar
In the 1970s, a meter gauge diesel railcar built at the Integral Coach Factory (Madras) operated between Guntakal and Mysore. The railcar consisted of two self powered cabs that were connected electrically. The loco pilots could control the power and brake from any one of the cabs. While one cab had both first-class and second-class accommodation, the other had only second-class accommodation. The engine and other transmission units were under slung making it compact. The distance covered by the railcar reduced over time and it operated between Mysore and Nanjangud railway stations before it was eventually decommissioned.

Yelahanka-Bangarpet Railcar“There was a narrow gauge railway line between Bangarpet and Bangalore. The track reached the front of the present day Bangalore City Railway Station, the area that now serves as the parking lot”, said one of the old timers of the Indian Railways. “This track was laid during the time of the Wodeyars”, he added. Trains propelled by steam engines plied on this track, which traversed a route through Yelahanka, Kodigenahalli, Yeshwanthpur and Malleshwaram before reaching Bangalore City. The narrow gauge track between Bangalore City and Yeshwanthpur railway stations was first removed and later the track connecting Yeshwanthpur and Yelahanka was done away with. The narrow gauge track between Yelahanka and Bangarpet continued to exist although no trains were plying on this stretch. T. A. Pai, the then Union Minister for Railways introduced a railcar in the Yelahanka-Bangarpet section that was lying idle for a while.
The four-coach narrow gauge railcar built at the Central Workshop had one power cab and three trailing cabs. There were two sets of railcar rakes that operated on the single track and crossed over at the Chintamani Railway Station. The railcar passed through Devanahalli, Nandi, Chikaballapur, Sidlaghatta, Chintamani and Kolar en route to Bangarpet. Vegetable vendors from various taluks of the Kolar district benefited from the operation of this railcar. As a part of the Uniguage Policy introduced during the term of Railway Minister C. K. Jaffer Sheriff, most of the different gauges of tracks were converted into broad gauge. Under this policy the Yelahanka-Chikballapur track was converted to broad gauge following which the railcar was withdrawn.

Shimoga-Thalaguppa Railcar
The meter gauge railway track between the town of Shimoga and Thalaguppa was laid by the British way back in 1938. In 1939, Mirza Ismail took the maiden journey on this line to visit the town of Sagar. This rail link provided access to Jog Falls, which is just 12 Kms from the village of Thalaguppa. Famous personalities like Krishnaraja Wodeyar, Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, Sir M. Vishveshwariah, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai used this line to reach the spectacular Jog Falls. Goods trains that operated on this stretch transported logs that were used as fuel in the furnaces of the Vishveshwariah Iron and Steel Plant at Bhadravathi and for making wooden sleepers. With the passage of time, the number of commuters diminished and the passenger trains between Shimoga and Thalaguppa reduced from three to one.
In the 1990s, the Bangalore-Shimoga track was converted to broad gauge. After the gauge conversion, the narrow gauge railcar that was formerly used in the Yelahanka-Bangarpet stretch was converted to meter gauge and operated between Shimoga and Thalaguppa. The rustic 2-bogie railcar could seat 52 passengers and took 3 hours and 45 minutes to cover a distance of 82 Kms. In order to cut costs, gatemen manning level crossings along the route were removed. A mobile gateman on board the railcar would get off at every crossing to close the gates. A wooden turntable was used to reverse the railcar at the terminals. The Shimoga-Thalaguppa railcar was in operation until 2007.

This article was published in Deccan Herald on the 5th of July 2010. Below is the link to the online version of the article.