Reviews, Travel

The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya

A very special place on earth where humans and Nature co-exist in harmony, respecting and making way for each other. Deep in the dense tropical forests of Meghalaya, the abode of clouds blessed by the abundance of rains, exists some astonishing man-made natural wonders. The living root bridges of Meghalaya are classic examples of gently maneuvering Nature to overcome challenges posed by Nature herself without harming Her delicate ecosystem. These bridges are made from the aerial roots of Banyan fig trees (Ficus Elastica) and are in use now for 100s of years. They are ever growing, self-renewing, and self-strengthening. A clever invention of the indigenous Khasi tribe of Meghalaya, the living root bridges provide a stable alternative to bridges made from wooden logs that could decay and get destroyed during the year-long rainfall which the region is famous for. For hundreds of years, the Khasi tribe have “maneuvered” and “routed” the aerial roots to create bridges that are strong enough to carry about 50 people or more and last not less than 500 years. It takes around 15 years for a new root bridge to become strong enough to bear the weight of people crossing it. However, it continues to evolve and strengthen more over time. The young pliable tree roots are gently guided through betel tree trunks which are placed across the streams until the tree roots attach themselves to the other side. Sticks, stones, small steel wires and other objects are used to stabilize the growing bridge. The whole process can take up to 15 years to complete. But the result is a structure of astonishing natural beauty, strength, and endurance.

Meghalaya, home to the Khasi tribe, has many such living root bridges. There is no documentation about when the Khasi tribe devised this unique bio-engineering marvel to survive in this beautiful but challenging terrain. The earliest mention about these bridges is found in the 1844 Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Of course the bridges are stunning marvels, but the journey to the bridge is also rewarding yet challenging. You are surrounded by almost 360-degree panoramic views of green blue mountains and sounds of gushing waterfalls.

To reach here, you can drive from Guwahati to Meghalaya, passing through the Meghalaya capital, Shillong. The Shillong-Cherrapunjee road is classified as one of the most scenic routes in India. For a considerable stretch, on your left side is a mountain valley. The road condition is pretty good too.

The scenic valley en route Cherrapunjee.

The last motorable road is until Tyrna village. After this, starts the descent of roughly some 3000-5000 steps, about 80% of which is concrete steps, most of them at a 70-degree inclination and having only a tiny foothold. At times you cannot see where you are headed. The steps seem as if they plunge deep into the forest. But the scenery around you is marvelous that you may want to stop every once in a while to admire the view.

Can you see the white specks in the middle of the mountain? That is Nongriat village, our destination.

No matter how fit and active you are, after a while of the steep unending flight of steps, your knees can get wobbly due to the strain of repetitive motion and cause joint pain. The weather is not a great support either. When it is not raining, it gets humid and sweaty making your climb more difficult.

This up and down trek is a daily affair for the locals to reach their school, college, or work place. Arecanuts and bay leaves are grown by the locals and you will come across locals carrying gunny sacks full of arecanuts or bay leafs on their back and taking it up to the market.

A little girl on the way to school.

En route you cross two wire suspension bridges built by the Indian army. This can be an overwhelming experience as these bridges are shaky and below your feet is a raging river and huge elephant-sized rock boulders. Crossing these steel wire bridges can just blow away your mind, much more than the experience of witnessing the raw beauty of the living root bridges.

Scene below the steel wire suspension bridge
The river below the steel wire suspension bridge. Pristine blue waters.

Some tips:

Start the trek as early as you can. In Cherrapunjee, it dawns by 5 am. Start your walk at least by 7 am so that you can reach the double decker bridge before peak sun.
Pack as light as possible, as carrying your own weight itself is tough enough. You don’t want to be struggling with your luggage during the hike.

Carry a poncho/raincoat so that your hands are free to hold on to the railing wherever it is available.

Carry a walking stick. Bamboo walking sticks are available at the village for Rs. 10 per piece.

Wear comfortable shoes/sandals. Stilettos are absolute no-no. Choose comfortable shoes that have good grip. Sandals are fine too if they are of good quality. A shoe with good cushion helps minimize your discomfort caused by repetitive climbing motion.

Wear light, loose, airy comfortable clothing preferably in layers so that you can add on more when there is a drastic weather change. Due to the strenuous nature of the trek, you will feel hot very quickly. Your clothes will become saturated with sweat.

Carry waterproof covers to keep your belongings and camera safely.

Pack snacks/food/energy bars wisely. We carried Oral Rehydration Sachets (ORS) packets and mixed it to our water and had it from time to time because it can get really hot, humid, and sweaty during the hike. ORS is a good way to ensure your body is not dehydrated and gets enough salt that it is lost through sweat.

There are a few small shops on the way that sell mostly sugary/carbonated drinks but they also serve you tea and bananas. There are clean water sources (at the waterfall and also water taps in the villages that you would be passing through). Hence you may carry a minimum amount of water for immediate needs only.

Carry an extra set of clothes and a towel because you would be tempted to take a dip at the pool/waterfall at the double decker root bridge. (The water is really cold!) There is a changing room by the fall. You can also rent shorts and t-shirts for Rs.20/piece from the shop near the double decker root bridge.

Plan to spend the night at the home stay near the double decker bridge in Nongriat village that offer accommodations to tourists. If you have the time and can cope with minimal facilities (water, electricity, restroom, bed, and food) it is worth staying overnight at the vicinity of the double decker root bridge. Be prepared to share your room with spiders and other insects. Absolutely harmless 🙂 Co-existence is the key here. You can also trek to nearby waterfalls, natural swimming pools, and other root bridges from here. The more adventurous types can spend the night in a sleeping bag at the bridge itself.

It takes roughly 2 hours (3 hours if you are really slow) to hike back up. There are sign posts on the way but it is useful to avail the service of a local guide to know more about the region and to hear local stories.

When you trek back, aim to be back at Tyrna by 5 PM. If you are staying overnight, you can leave early morning (we left from the double decker root bridge at 5:30 am, enjoyed the early morning scenery en route and slowly hiked back up).

Root bridges in this area:

Ritymmen Root Bridge is at the Nongthymmai village, which is on the way to the double decker root bridge. It took us an hour’s hike from Tyrna village to reach this bridge. This bridge is 30 meters/100 feet and is the longest living root bridge.

You need to purchase a Rs. 10/- ticket entry fee from this house.

A bridge in the making right next to the longest living root bridge.
The deck of the bridge is strengthened with arecanut wooden logs over which the aerial roots of the ficus tree intertwines to strengthen the bridge.
Metal wires used to strengthen the living root bridge.

The most famous root bridge is the Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge at the Nongriat village. This is located 3 km from the Tyrna village. It took us 2 hours to reach here. The total descent is roughly 2,400 feet. There is a tiny root bridge just before you enter the Nongriat village. When standing on this root bridge, you can see the double decker root bridge on your right.

Double decker root bridge panoramic view.

Mawsaw Root Bridge is located at a 20-30 mins walking distance beyond the Double Decker Root Bridge. From the double decker root bridge, it is mostly flat terrain and not much climbing required to reach this bridge. There is a steel wire bridge just before you reach this living root bridge and it has a spectacular view. There are natural swimming pools near this root bridge.

Football ground at Nongriat village.

 

Wire suspension bridge near Mawsaw living root bridge.

Mawsaw living root bridge.
Mawsaw wire bridge

The thick ficus tree roots that form the deck of the Mawsaw root bridge.

Rainbow waterfalls – At about 40 mins to 1-hr hiking distance from the Mawsaw Root Bridge are the Rainbow Falls. If you still have the stamina for a 2-hr hike (up and down), you could explore this one. We did not go here as we were too fatigued from the morning hike. If you are spending a day or two at the double decker root bridge, you can rest some and then hike up to this place. This is highly recommended, we heard, but we just couldn’t muster the strength for that extra 2-hr walk.

Coming back to the trek to the double decker root bridge, the steepest and most challenging part is the first part, down the hill to Nongthymmai village where the longest root bridge is located. This takes about 45 minutes to 1 hour. The second part involves mostly flat terrain through villages and then crossing the narrow steel wire suspension bridges over raging rivers. After this, the final lap, which again involves steep climbs. Those who have a fear of heights or with weak knees must avoid this trek.

The scene after crossing the last wire bridge. Another tough steep climb starts here.

There are two home stays near the double decker root bridge. Serene Homestay and the guest house. Serene Homestay serves only vegetarian food. There are couple of small shops in Nongriat village of which one shop serves lunch and dinner, in case you decide to eat out while at the homestay.

We spoke to Byron who runs the Serene Homestay. The indigenous Khasis traditionally followed the Khasi religion, which is based on Animism; a belief that all things, including animals, plants, rivers, mountains, stars, the moon, and the sun have a spirit or soul. Each being is considered a spirit that can help or harm humans. They also believe in and worship fairies and dwarfs. In the 1830s, Christian missionaries came to Meghalaya and converted most Khasis to Christianity. Although the Khasis follow Christianity, for all practical purposes, they still follow most of the rituals in their Khasi faith. For instance, near the second large steel wire suspension bridge is a sacred grove. This grove is protected and Khasis believe that not a leaf or stone of the sacred grove must be disturbed/moved from its place; a clever way of preserving the forest and its ecosystem. The Khasis know that the only way to preserve themselves is to preserve their environment. Such sacred groves are present all over Meghalaya. We heard an interesting story. A family who had visited the grove returned back to their vehicle and the car refused to start. After a while of troubleshooting etc., the family realized that their little boy had lifted a few stones from the sacred grove. The family returned to the sacred grove and made the boy place the stones back where it belonged. They returned to their vehicle and could proceed their journey. I am not sure about the authenticity of this story but it sure is fascinating.

A Nongriat home

The Khasis are matrilineal. After marriage, husbands move into their wife’s home. Byron also moved into Nongriat after his marriage. Byron mentioned with pride about how strong the women in the village are. Some women give birth to their babies at home, in the village. But some walk all the way up (3 km of steep climbing) to the Tyrna village just a few days before their impending delivery. Post delivery, they return the 3-km climb down, baby et al. This is something unthinkable for us city dwellers!

Another incident narrated by Byron had us all gaping! Five years back, Byron’s father-in-law, who is now 80 (who must have been 75 then) single-handedly brought a refrigerator on his back all the way from Tyrna to Nongriat. The steel wire suspension bridge had to be widened so that he could bring the refrigerator smoothly across the bridge. In spite of being fairly active and in our 30s, sans refrigerator on the back, all of us were huffing and puffing and barely made it to the Nongriat village in 2 hours! At this age, it takes only 45 mins for the father-in-law to make a trip to the Tyrna village. The Khasis are short-statured people and for generations their body type has been one that is suited to live in terrains such as this. They are used to climbing all through their life.

Cherrapunjee is known as the wettest place on Earth. The rainy season starts in April and continues until October with heavy rains during June and July and intermittent rains during the rest of the monsoon months. In October when we visited, although the average temperature increases to a maximum of 22-25 degrees Celsius, it drops to an average of 18 degrees Celsius. The root bridges are in a canyon and the temperature although just 18 degrees Celsius, is fairly hot and sweaty because of lack of winds. We experienced some wind and pleasant air movement only near the steel wire bridges. The other parts are like a canyon and hence primarily hot and sweaty.

Aerial Roots of the double decker bridge.

 

Dawn at Nongriat village (4.50 AM to be precise)

Does the thought of hiking to double root bridge scare you? You can still see living root bridges even without this grueling hike. There are places in Meghalaya where you can just walk down 15 mins and reach a living root bridge. If trekking is not an option for you, you may consider these options.

Long after you have come away from the root bridges and the villagers, you can’t help but be in awe of this marvel, the waterfalls, natural swimming pools with pristine blue waters, the beautiful villagers, and the sounds of the forest. You feel overwhelmed by the ancient wisdom and clarity of thought and their actions and efforts to preserve Nature while trying to survive the challenges posed by It.

Reviews, South Indian

Hotel Sree Sakthi Vilas – A Review

Hotel Sree Sakthi VilasWe were on our way back to Palakkad after attending a function at Thrissur (via Ottapalam) when my sister-in-law told us about a hotel (read thattukada/dhaba) on our way that serves really tasty food. After hearing her description, I couldn’t wait any longer and convinced my folks to stop at this hotel. Although we were too full after the sadya (feast) at Thrissur, we could at least have tea and coffee. The group that got down just for tea and coffee ended up having uzhunnu (medu) vada, kesari, and poori masala!

Hotel Sree Sakthi Vilas is a roadside dhaba at Edathara en route Palakkad-Thrissur road when you go via Ottapalam. There are lots of such dhabas lining the road, many serving very tasty traditional Kerala food. Apart from the taste, what makes this one unique is Madhavan Nair, the owner. Aged 100 (he does not look a day older than 80, see for yourself!), he still works at the hotel ensuring that every customer is served well and is happy. The experiences of a long life have not dulled him one bit. When a customer walks in, he rings the bell to alert the waiters inside, smiles, folds his hands and greets every customer. His smile so warm and genuine, it instantly makes you feel good. He is as enthusiastic as a young boy.

Sree Sakthi Vilas hotel has a truly rustic ambience and is more like a house modified into a hotel. As you enter there is a small room and towards your right sits the ever smiling Madhavan Nair, greeting you. There is a sweets and savory counter also in this room. Then you enter into the main sitting area where there are about 6-7 benches and desks, dhaba style, where people can sit and eat. Food is served in banana leaf. A picture of Mahatma Gandhi with a message highlighting the importance of customer service hangs on the wall. My uncle who worked with Citibank mentioned that usually banks and financial institutions hang this message on their walls. But the message truly reflects Mr. Nair’s ideologies. There is also a poster that says “Ela Edukkanam,” which means “Dispose the banana leaf.”

The menu at Sree Sakthi Vilas is typical of such dhabas. For breakfast you get idli, dosa, poori with masala, vada, upma, and so on. Thali lunch is served at noon. For evening snacks, you get dosa and savory items like lentil vada (parippu vada). Being a die-hard dosa fan, I wanted to try their dosa but unfortunately the batter was not ready then. So we settled in to try medu vada. Some of us ordered poori masala which I heard was very tasty. We also had Kesari bath which was excellent, melting in the mouth with just the right amount of ghee and sugar. Although too full to eat anything, I could not stop at a few bites. No spoons or fancy cutlery at Sree Sakthi Vilas. Just dig in, scoop off, and lick – best way to enjoy tasty food! 🙂

Even at 4 in the evening, I noticed people eating thali meals. When I say thali meals, please do not expect a plate full of small katoris with different curries. All items are served in banana leaf. My cousin’s 8-year-old daughter certified that the sambhar here is fabulous and even walked up to Mr. Nair and complimented him and team on the taste of sambhar.

Madhavan Nair is quite famous and has been featured on some Malayalam TV channels. Recently he celebrated his 100th birthday along with his large extended family that includes the seventh generation grandchild. He lives in a house just few feet away from the hotel. His day at the hotel begins at 4 in the morning and ends at 8 in the evening. Apart from the time when he takes a small afternoon nap, he is always at the hotel to oversee things and welcome his customers.

When we finished eating, we walked up to Mr. Nair and complimented him and expressed our good wishes to him. He was deeply grateful and he just kept smiling and gave us toffees. It is difficult to express how we felt at seeing this man who is so genuine and wants to please all his customers. It is amazing to see his enthusiasm to run the hotel even at this age. I am making retirement plans even as I am in my 30s. But here is a man who works even at 100! I am quite sure he must have started young too, and it is not as if he is completely healthy. Arthritic pains must be bothering him. Yet there he was, trying to make others happy. Times have changed so much since his youth – wars fought, independence regained, people have come and gone – yet Madhavan Nair’s zest for life remains intact. There is so much to learn from a person like Mr. Nair.

As we got out, two cars full of people, possibly on their way to Thrissur, entered Sree Sakthi Vilas. Time for Mr. Nair to ring the bell and greet his customers. While my aunt was buying some papad that was being sold at the shop next door, the rest of us huddled around behind our van. We could not stop exclaiming what a nice experience it was. Madhavan Nair continued to smile at us with his hands folded. May he be happy and healthy.

Reviews

Growing Plants

Growing plants seem overwhelming to most people. They make up all sorts of excuses. “Oh, there is no space in the house. I don’t have time. I don’t have a green thumb.” But it is actually very simple. You don’t need to have a green thumb to grow in a small scale. When you are tired and your eyes are aching, just observe your plants. Just watch them being there doing their thing in their own quiet way, makes you feel so good! I tell you it’s completely worthwhile.

I still remember each and every plant in our house in the village. During summer, my mother would draw water from the well and fill buckets and pots, and we would water all the plants. When my young cousins came to visit us on month-long summer vacation, they would also give a helping hand. The cool shade of the backyard was my favorite place to be. They knew my joys and sorrows. Every friend/relative who came home was proudly shown around. Even strangers who walked past our compound would stop and admire the rare fruits like Sitaphal, Anar, Bablimos (grapefruit), and of course Jackfruit. Some of them even rang the bell and requested for a fruit, and if it is ripe enough, we would gladly give it away.

My father has a good green thumb. He grows banana, lady’s-finger, chilies, amaranth, drumstick, and he takes care of them so well. Green thumb or not, I try to plant too in my own little way in the little space I have.

Coming back to my little garden here. Living in the city, you don’t have the luxury of planting on the ground. But even planting on pots can be joyful, like I discovered a few years back. Introducing plants from my tiny garden:

I started off with flowering plants.

Desert rose

This is a desert rose bonsai. Low maintenance and flowers throughout the year. My neighbor (a widower who had been living alone for many years) could see this plant from his window. He used to say that although the plant didn’t belong to him, he felt so happy whenever there was a new flower.

Nityakalyani

These are called Nityakalyani in my native. These are also low maintenance and flowers daily. These two plants could survive up to a week without water.

White Jammanthi

Yellow JammanthiWhen I moved houses, the plants too moved with me. But when I moved out of the city, I had to give them away to a nursery to ensure that they are looked after well.

Now I don’t grow any flowering plants. I feel that it is better to grow plants that can be used in daily cooking. Even if it is just a sprig of curry leaf, it feels good to be self-reliant. Once after having pasta that had fresh basil on it, it occurred to me why not grow my own basil?

Italian Large Leaf Basil

I bought basil seeds from the geekgardener’s store. Each seed I planted sprouted within 3-4 days. The leaves smell amazing. If you just touch the leaf, the smell lingers on your finger for a good five minutes.

Spinach

See how healthy my spinach plant looks! Can you believe, it just came up from the leftover roots of the palak that I bought for cooking?

Spinach roots

Leftover spinach roots potted

If the spinach that you bought from the market has its roots intact, instead of throwing it in the bin, just stick them into a pot of soil and water daily. You can grow coriander also in the same way using leftover roots.

Money plant

Don’t tell me you don’t have space to keep a money plant in a corner! All you need is to immerse the plant in a jar of water. Once a week or so, check the water levels and add water as and when necessary. Seeing new tendrils sprout is sheer joy! Indoor plants have many benefits. Not only do they purify the air, they also reduce your fatigue and stress. Fill up small pockets of your house with indoor plants. Take them out to meet the sun over weekends.

Jackfruit saplings

These are jackfruit saplings. I am really proud of these! After consuming ripe jackfruit, I covered the seeds in a piece of cotton cloth, and put them away near the kitchen sink where moisture was guaranteed. In 8-10 days, most of them sprouted. Then I planted them in a pot. Very soon, I plan to plant them in the garden nearby. This is the second batch of jackfruit saplings. I have not had much luck with the tomato plant that you see (extreme left). That one has been in the same state for 3-4 months now. But I haven’t given up as yet. 🙂

It is simple to grow methi (uluva) also at home. Soak the methi seeds (that you use for cooking) in water overnight. Sow them in a pot and in 3-4 days you will notice sprouts.

I treat my plants like members living in my house. I give them their water soon after I wake up. I check how they are doing. Each new sign of life is newfound joy. I feel sad when a leaf turns yellow. Before I pluck a leaf (for cooking), I “take the plant’s permission” and pluck the leaf gently without hurting the plant. I am aware it does not “hurt” them. (Plants are not sentient. They do not have a central nervous system.) Yet this is my way of showing respect to the plant. They are our only source to anything that we consume.

I do not water my plants after sunset and never before sunrise as I feel plants sleep during this time should not be disturbed. If you have taken a walk at a park during sunset, you might have noticed that the leaves of some plants fold together in a touch-me-not leaf kind of fashion. Not all plants display a visible sign of “sleep” but some do. There is scientific proof that at night plants shut down their system by closing their stomata and stopping food production. If you have more information on this, please do share with me.

Growing plants is a beautiful experience. It enriches your person. Do give it a try.

Reviews

In Pursuit of Good Food – Carrots, A Vegan Restaurant

Carrots - Vegan RestaurantLast Sunday I went in search of a healthy kitchen; Carrots – Bangalore’s first and only vegan restaurant. So far most of my pursuits have been in search of taste alone. Every restaurant that you see around is keen on fulfilling popular demand and generating higher revenue. Here is a restaurant and a restaurateur, that really cares not just about the taste of the food or its appearance, but about what it does to the consumer’s body and to the environment. Carrots doesn’t just make tall claims, but adheres to its philosophy to a T. I had the privilege of talking to Krishna Sashtry who is one of the founders of this restaurant. He told me about his journey so far as a vegan. An ex-IT professional, his heart and mind had always been on becoming a “green entrepreneur.” He turned vegan at a time when he was not even aware of the existence of this term, though now there are many like him who have adapted this lifestyle as a conscious choice. Krishna Shastry is a veteran in veganism and has been a vegan for about 13 years now.

Vegans are vegetarians who do not consume animal or dairy products such as milk, curd, cheese, ghee, and so on. Vegans feel that robbing a cow of its milk and separating the calf from its mother is cruelty. Not only that, the dairy industry indirectly promotes beef industry. Animal farming and non-vegetarian dietary habits is one of the biggest contributors to environmental pollution. For all these reasons, vegans choose to consume plant-based diet.

Carrots is located at 80 ft road, Koramangala 6th block. The restaurant ambience is very warm, pleasing, bright, and spacious. Sparingly furnished, the place can accommodate about 25-30 people at a time. Good enough setting for one to know what to expect.

Since I reached the restaurant way past lunch time (more like 4 p.m.), most of the buffet lunch items were over. Yet I chose to eat the regular lunch buffet. I had lentil soup, ragi idlis served with sambar and chutney, and some brown rice with dal and tofu curry with zucchini. Mr. Shastry was kind enough to let me choose items from the broader menu to compensate for the lack of some buffet items.

Carrots menu

 

Regular buffet costs 399, fusion that includes pizza and pasta Rs. 499, and the special one Rs. 699. Weekday North Indian lunch thali costs Rs. 199. Mr. Shastry told me that the chef and his team at Carrots is still perfecting the taste of the South Indian thali. Take a look at the menu here.

 

 

 

Along with veganism, Carrots also stands for organically cultivated ingredients and healthy diet. Mr. Shastry says that veganism, organic food, and health food are three different aspects that they try to bring together at Carrots. To illustrate, he says he could make Gobi Manchurian (which is a vegan dish) with organically cultivated cauliflower, but then it would mean using a few unhealthy ingredients such as maida, ajinomoto, etc. Carrots focuses on serving tasty food that does not harm the body. No maida is used; sparing use of oil and processed sugar. Cakes made of jowar flour, cookies made from bajra flour, chocolate mousse are just some of the desserts at Carrots. Chocolate mousse is made using cocoa powder, silken tofu, and jaggery, with almond shavings for garnish. I could not guess at all that no cow’s milk, egg, or sugar went into making it! I would rate it as a damn good chocolate mousse – vegan or not.

storeCarrots also has a small store that houses organic products such as legumes, grains, spices, and cosmetic products. I bought a Kyra organic dishwashing powder and some hummus.

A Vegan restaurant is a unique concept in Bangalore and in India; veganism itself being relatively new. As a culture, we promote the use of dairy and dairy products all across the nation. The cow is Kamadhenu and a holy symbol for us. We are eager to label it sacred but not bothered about what actually happens inside the dairy industry. The industry sells us products with cartoon labels of a very happy cow with a suckling calf in tow. This cartoon is far from the truth. Did you know that the cow is repeatedly impregnated most of its adult life and sent to slaughterhouses when milk production reduces? Not everybody needs to turn vegan or can turn vegan, but everyone can ask a question for sure. Scientific studies have proved that avoiding dairy can eliminate a lot of diseases and allergic conditions and that a plant-based diet is the best for human body.

Most vegetarians in India are vegetarians by birth and not out of choice. More and more westerners are embracing vegetarianism and veganism by choice. This is highly commendable. We see the opposite happening back home. Meat industry has grown several folds in India. Households that used to consume meat once a week earlier now start their day with meat.

Indian cuisine is filled with recipes that heavily use dairy products. Turning vegan seems like a difficult task but according to Mr. Shastry it is not difficult at all. He says although he still remembers the taste, he does not miss anything at all. Everything that uses dairy has an alternative vegan cooking method and the taste is almost the same. It just takes some time to get used to. Here is a wonderful blog that is a treasure house of vegan recipes. It is full of innovative recipes. This blogger, Susmitha, recently conducted a vegan baking class at Carrots. You can watch videos from the class at the blog link.

Here is another Vegan blog that I have been following for a few years now by Harini Prakash who writes wonderfully and clicks amazingly beautiful photographs.

CarrotsMeeting Mr. Shastry and hearing about his philosophy restored my faith in humanity. This honest and humble man is doing a good service to the society by standing up for a cause and trying to spread awareness about conscious and healthy eating. He plans to use the space upstairs in his restaurant to conduct workshops and classes related to healthy living. Mr. Shastry says they are continuously innovating and revising their menu. I would suggest that along with pizzas, sandwiches, and pastas, he should consider adding varieties of sprouted whole grain dosas to the Carrots menu. A little bit of cold-pressed oil on the dosa wouldn’t hurt too. The choice can be the customers’. He could include more Indian vegan dishes, and also add some healthy small-eats and chaat items made of roasted grains (oil-free). A slightly more relaxed approach (concerning oil usage etc.) will attract more eager people to Carrots and help them discover the benefits of conscious and healthy vegan eating. Wishing Carrots and Mr. Shastry and his team all the very best.

Reviews

In Pursuit of Good Food

ghee masala dosaHow far have you traveled in pursuit of the food that you crave for? Based on your answer to this question, I would judge whether you are a real foodie or not. The more you crave, the more effort you are likely to put. If it is difficult to get to the food, you will be less inclined to put effort. At the cost of sounding vain, let me tell you that I consider myself a passionate foodie. I know I do not look like one (at least I don’t fit the conservative description of a foodie). But if you listen to some of the things that I have done to just indulge in the food that I love, you will know what a strong competitor you have in me. Would you travel 45 km in public transport just to pick up that special mysurpa which is only sold in that specific store? No, you do not have any other agenda in that part of the town. Yet, would you? Would you consider cycling 20 km just to have a crispy ghee roast? Well, I did today morning.

MTR near Lalbagh gardens

I do not need to introduce you to Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR). For the benefit of people who are not from Bangalore, MTR is a restaurant that was set up way back in 1924 and has been serving traditional South Indian food. It is one the best and oldest place that you can visit for a traditional meal. Although there are other competitors, the original MTR branch (located very close to the main gate of Lalbagh Botanical Gardens) has an old world charm and uniqueness that you cannot get even in other MTR branches. In recent years, MTR has captured the global market. Although they started out as a restaurant, they expanded to snacks and Ready-to-Eat items and now they are a very popular household name across India and even abroad. Read their story here.

Clock at Lalbagh entrance

I live roughly 8 km away from MTR and have visited them only once before, but have been wanting to visit again for a long time now. I also wanted to catch a glimpse of the last flowers of the season at Lalbagh. Flowers weren’t motivation enough, but ghee roast at MTR definitely was. Many of you may not agree with me, but indulging in rich food definitely makes me feel guilty at least for a few days. So I ruminate over the craving, try to resist the thought. Mostly, I just give in. At times, I set goals for myself and try to do something that makes me deserve that sinful indulgence. After cycling 10 kilometers, I have really earned that ghee roast for myself.

Lalbagh blooms

So, I made up my mind to get out of my bed on a Saturday morning and cycle all the way to Lalbagh. Admired the cool green shades, walked around soaking in the intoxicating smell of the wild champa flowers in bloom, and then headed to MTR. I did bump into quite a few people I saw at the Lalbagh garden. Though, I really doubt how many of them truly worked out to deserve the rich breakfast that they were eating 😉

dosaBreakfast options are many (although not as much as your neighborhood Udupi restaurant). But if the available options are top class, who wants many options? What I have observed is that, people feel good about seeing a long list of options in the menu card, but mostly stick to ordering the usual 3-4 items they like. MTR has Rice Idly, Rava Idly, Dosa, Upma, Khara Bath, and two varieties of sweet. (They didn’t have Kesari bath yesterday 😦 so next trip is in search of Kesari Bath 😉 already decided!). So ghee roast it was for me. At MTR all dosas are drizzled with ghee and a light spread of a green masala paste, served with potato masala filling inside, extra ghee by the side and coconut mint chutney.

a bite with the chutneyThe texture of the dosas here is a class apart. It is very crispy on one side, yet soft and spongy on the other. I would love to learn how they manage this. I have eaten such dosas only in very few places. You have to eat this dosa to even understand what I am talking about. You go to a normal Udupi restaurant (or any other that serves dosa), and you get paper thin roasts that you can break off and scoop chutney with. You stuff it into your mouth, and if you aren’t careful enough, you end up hurting your upper palate or tongue! No, that’s not how dosas are supposed to be. I am telling you guys, you really need to explore and find the best dosas. In Mumbai, I loved the dosas at Amba bhavan, the best. Here, it has to be Yem-Tee-Aar.

As mentioned earlier, the oldest MTR branch is located near the Lalbagh main gate. A quaint, two-storey building with unpretentious interiors. No fancy chairs or crockery, simple seating arrangements.

MTR board at the entrance

Coffee served in silver glassesWhen you enter, to your left is the stairs that lead you upstairs. The cashier is seated beside the stairs, and there is a small waiting area as well. To your right is a “Coffee Room” which is unique and something that I have not seen anywhere, not even at the “Tea Centre” in Mumbai. South Indians love their coffee. And it is only fair that an entire room and a few wooden benches are dedicated just for the coffee lovers to sip their coffee in peace without having to hustle with the eating crowd. At any time of the day, you can find a reasonably big crowd in this room. In the ground floor, if you give the cashier and coffee room a pass and enter the next room, there is seating arrangement for around 15-20 people. The rest of the space is dedicated to kitchen.

MTR seating arrangement

MTR kitchenMTR can boast of a very clean kitchen. As you can see in this picture, even at peak business hours, the kitchen is spotless. As gathered from their web site, the MTR owner’s trip to European countries would have made him implement strict hygiene standards back home.

view when climbing up the stairs

You climb to the first floor, and there is a small waiting area with wooden benches. This leads to two reasonably large halls that can seat around 35-40 people each. Photos from the past of prestigious customers decorate the walls.

walls at MTR

crockery shelf

manager's seat at the entrance threshold at the first floorLunch is a totally different affair. Breakfast closes at about 11 am and then you can enter the building only by 12:30 noon. Sit in the waiting area until the manager lets you in and then lunch is served to the entire crowd in batches. You cannot just walk in and take a place at any time you like. One batch of people are served with multiple servings of the different kinds of rice and other goodies and then the next batch can come in.

Bakery section

Next to the restaurant building is a shop that sells snacks, savories, and ready-to-eat items.

CycleBeing a foodie is not just about cooking and relishing good food, but also about staying fit and healthy. It is very easy to stay in the lazy comfort of our demanding sedentary jobs. It is only when a lab report or a health problem hits that we tend to take a step back and pay serious attention to our body. All of you would have different ways of staying healthy. My way is to ensure that I earn every kilocalorie that I indulge in, like they say about Bournville. Maybe cycling isn’t your sport. Maybe you want to run, walk, skip rope, dust the house or do some gardening. Whatever it may be, find your calling and then when you indulge in your ghee roast or that sinful brownie, you will feel good..really good. Doing it in the reverse order does not work. You cant indulge first and decide to do your sport later. That later never comes. Break the sweat first and then indulge. I can guarantee that you will feel good. Don’t wait for the Gatorade or the perfect cycling shorts. Just grab a bottle of water and get started.

What’s the next in my agenda? Kesari bath at MTR. Also, it is that time of the year when I need to stash away a whole year’s supply of jackfruit jam. Time to scan the street for the familiar smell. What are you waiting for? Go hit the street, with your running shoes or pedals or skipping rope or whatever is your sport and find your craving.

PostScript:

Thanks to my friend, this weekend I discovered an MTR branch closer to my house.

JP Nagar MTR

JP Nagar MTR EntranceLocated at the top floor of a 5-storey building, the interiors look very different in comparison to the original outlet near the Lalbagh entrance.

Tiled roof at JP Nagar MTRAt the JP Nagar MTR branch, the quaint charm is replaced with tiled roofs interspersed with glass tiles to let ample natural light in. Almost everything else remains the same.

Spacious interiors full of patrons

The restaurant has a pleasant and spacious decor.

DosaDosaDosaThe dishes taste the same although the silver glasses are missing. I must admit that it is a long wait to be served.

Reviews, Travel

Thiruvannamalai & Chidambaram – Panchabhootha Stalams of Shiva

It was a long-time dream come true; a trip to Arunachala and Chidambaram. These two temples are among the Pancha Bhootha Sthalangal of Lord Shiva representing the five elements – earth, water, air, sky, and fire. Chidambaram (as the name suggests) represents the sky and Arunachala at Thiruvannamalai represents fire.

I had heard and read a lot about the Nataraja of Chidambaram but I got to know about Thiruvannamalai fairly recently. Arunachala or Annamalai (the inaccessible mountain) is the holy mountain that is a manifestation of Lord Shiva and it represents the lingam or fire. I heard about Ramana Maharshi who came to Thiruvannamalai when he was 16 and lived and meditated here. I was fascinated to hear about his predictions regarding Thiruvannamalai, how it is the spiritual axis of Earth and that there should be something that is equally spiritually uplifted on the other side of the Earth. His premonition was not proved right during his lifetime but later it was found that Machu Pichu in Peru is the other end of Arunachala. This was calculated by determining the coordinates of both Arunachala and Machu Pichu and after discounting the fact that the Earth is not completely round but slightly flat at the poles. Interestingly, Pachamama, who is worshipped in Machu Pichu represents Mother Earth. The name Pachamama sounds very similar to pachai amman who is worshiped in Tamil Nadu. After hearing all this I just couldnt wait to visit this place. I planned a trip along with my parents.

We got down at Katpadi railway station near Vellore in Tamil Nadu. Since it was already 7:30 in the evening and travel from Vellore to Thiruvannamalai takes at least 2 hours by bus, we decided to have dinner at Vellore. Found an Aryas near the Vellore bus stand. The best part of being in Tamil Nadu is nothing but the food. Tamilians LOVE to eat out and they do not tolerate poor quality food. MOST restaurants in Tamil Nadu serve decent food if not excellent! I speak from experience.

Aryas is a reputed restaurant chain in the state and they will never disappoint you. They serve mostly tiffin and not meals. We had good dinner and were ready for the 2-hour bus ride. We reached Thiruvannamalai late that Monday night and found a small lodge to spend the night. Can you believe having a decent single room all for yourself at 200 bucks? You will find that at Thiruvannamalai.

Tuesday morning we set out to Arunachala temple.

Beautiful garlands
Lovely garlands just outside the temple, a landmark of streets in Tamil Nadu

All women in Tamil Nadu invariably wear flowers on their hair. They also apply turmeric on their body while bathing. You can see the yellow tint on the flower seller’s face.

The temple was built over years during the Vijayanagara dynasty and is spread around 24 acres, has 9 gopurams (towers), four of them really tall, the tallest being 217 feet. This is the Rajagopuram which is a standing testimony of the architectural brilliance of Vijayanagara dynasty.

Raja Gopuram (east tower)
Raja Gopuram (east tower)
Carving
A carving on the gopuram
Golden chariot - Thanga ratham
Golden chariot – Thanga ratham
Gomatha chariot
Gomatha chariot
Temple elephant Rukku
Rukku blesses all who feed her

Each gopuram has a story to tell. One of the gopurams is called Parrot gopuram. There is a 1000 pillar hall next to which there is Patala Lingam where Ramana Maharshi meditated.

The main deity of this shrine is of course Annamalaiyar in the form of Shiva linga. His muse Unnamulai Amman does not reside in the same shrine but is in a separate structure. When you get out of the Annamalaiyar shrine, you can see a row of 63 dhoti-clad saints (Nayanars). There is so much to see in and around the temple complex. We could not cover all of it in one visit. One could spend a whole day inside the temple complex yet miss quite a lot. It is not just about the sheer size or grandeur of this place but when you are in this temple complex, there is something that calms you down at the same time overwhelms you. I am finding it very difficult to explain how good I felt.

Here is a 360 degree view of the temple. You can choose your position using the layout on top left and look around the place. The web site is beautifully done.

Since we had an auto rickshaw driver cum guide with us, we could get some information about each place and its legends. He took us around the holy mountain, Arunachala. This is called Giri Valam (going around the mountain). One has to be barefoot and walk around the mountain, which is 14 kms. Since none of us were keen on such a long walk, we opted for a shortcut, which is getting around in a rickshaw.

There are plenty of small temples around the mountain, most of them Shiva lingas with tanks adjacent to the temple. The most important among these are the Adi Annamalaiyar temple (where Annamalaiyar first originated) and the Balaji temple.

Gomatha
Gomatha at Balaji temple. She has the body of a holy cow and secrets milk over a Shiva linga.
Kala Bhairav
Kala Bhairav at the Balaji temple
Vishnu at Balaji temple
Maha Vishnu at Balaji temple
Mango flowers at Balaji temple
Mango flowers and tiny mangoes at Balaji temple

During the giri valam, we stopped at Sri Ramana Asram.

Sri Ramana Asram
Ramana Asram entrance

We were awestruck by the calmness and austerity. It is a serene place that has too many foreigners and peacocks!

Peacock at asram
Peacocks roaming about at the asram
Beautiful feathers
What a beauty!
White peahen
Could not trace her mate. Wonder how grand he would have looked!
white peahen
The same one
Peacock
lovely colors

The asram has its own  temple, bhajana hall, book store, veda patasala, kitchen, dining hall, goshala, a separate structure for each.

Asram templ
Temple at the asram. There is hall next to it where bhajana is held every evening, a soul-stirring experience.
Peacocks perched atop asram temple
Peacocks perched on asram temple roof. There are 3 of them.
One on the roof
Another one on the roof
asram kitchen
asram kitchen that serves satvik food
Veda patasala
Veda patasala

The place where Sri Ramana Maharshi spent his last days stands opposite the temple. Before the trip, we had written to the asram requesting for accommodation. That was arranged and we shifted to the asram by noon after the giri valam. If you want to stay at Ramana Ashram during your stay to T.malai, you just need to drop them a letter or an email at least 2 months in advance informing them of the desired dates. Three days is the maximum you can stay during a visit.

Asram serves lunch by 11:30 and so we had to eat outside. We went to Hotel Ashok opposite the T.malai bus stand. The board claims it to be a ‘high-class vegetarian’ restaurant. The food was indeed top class. There was rice, raddish sambar, dry cabbage subzi with plenty of coconut, a dal curry with spinach, curd, buttermilk, appalam (papad), and spicy rasam with lots of hing and garlic. I could not click a picture of this meal that left us truly satiated. The only thing missing was a sweet dish. But that would have made us more lazy and sleepy!

Scooters and bicycles are available on rent outside small shops near the asram. I took a bicycle on rent with giri valam in mind. I wasnt too sure if I would be able to complete the 14-km stretch but thought of trying it. Believe me, it turned out to be a truly unforgettable experience. The giri valam path is not too close to the mountain, just the right distance to get a lovely view of the mountain while staying close to it. It is more or less flat terrain with very little to no traffic on the road except for the last 3-4 km stretch where you have to cross the busy town. But the other 10 km more than compensates for the busy stretch. I had a relaxed cycle ride enjoying the beauty of the place.

Giri valam
Giri valam or going around the mountain. Its a tarred road. Heard that Rajnikanth donated lights for the sidewalk.
Onion fields
Onion fields en route giri valam
paddy fields
Paddy and marigold fields set against Arunachala

I could smell something really nice! I stopped the cycle and my eyes literally popped out at that lovely sight and smell! Just imagine such clean air, lovely scenery, combined with good food. What a combo!

Muniyamma making Paniyaram
Muniyamma making Paniyaram

Thats Muniyamma making Paniyarams by the road. I gobbled 4 of them along with chutney. She sells it for a humble Rs. 2 per piece! Kuzhi Paniyaram is a snack made out of dosa batter. Add onions, green chilies, curry leaves, and hing to dosa batter and then cook them in very little oil in the special paniyaram skillet. Check the recipe here.

Paniyaram
Paniyaram in the making

I chatted up with Muniyamma for a while and promised her I will return. Back on track after pit stop, refreshed and energized.

Even after the long cycle ride, I did not feel hungry enough for an early dinner. So I missed the asram dinner, which is served at 7:30 PM. I regretted it the next day after dining at the asram.

Next day morning after praying at the asram temple, we proceeded to climb Arunachala mountain to see the 2 asrams on the mountain where Ramana Mahirshi spent several years meditating; the Skanda asram and Virupaksha cave. It is not a very difficult climb. If you start climbing from Ramana Asram at the foothill, Skanda Asram is around 4-5 km.

Wild shoeflowers in the mountain
Tiny wild shoe flowers in the mountain
camouflaged
Camouflaged.. i almost stepped on this one!
slithering away
slithering away

The view of the temple from top of the mountain is incredible! I could not manage to get clear pictures. We were against sun light.

Temple view from the mountain
Temple view from the mountain
temple
Another view of temple

There are sculptors who were making and selling small figures of elephants, nandi, Shiva lingam, and such.

sculptors at work
sculptors at work
Arunachala eleph
This eleph from Arunachala stands among my eleph collection

Both Skanda Asram and Virupaksha cave are caves around which a structure has been made. I am not sure if this existed during Ramana Maharshi’s time. A lot of people who visit the asram sit there and meditate. Virupaksha cave is more closer towards the temple when you descend from Skanda asram. After this we climbed down and went to the temple. Covered some of the things that we had missed on the previous day.

We missed the asram lunch that day also and headed straight to Hotel Ashok and once again had a sumptuous meal.

Asram has a bhajan between 6:30 and 7 every evening. That is something that you just should not miss. Men and women sing slokas (hymns) praising Arunachaleshwar from the Ramana mala book. Half of a verse is sung by men followed by the rest half by the women and some portions are sung by both. This creates a wonderful effect and makes you go to a trance like state even though you may not follow exactly what is being chanted. Its a beautiful experience.

Back to reality again, its dinner time in the ashram at 7:30. Everybody stands in a queue until the dinner hall is opened. There are a few tables and chairs for the elders. But 90% of the people have to occupy the seat on a mat in the floor. The serving plate is made of stitched leaves. Delicious broken wheat upma, sambar, chutney, and banana was served first followed by some curd rice. Thats what I call a Satvik meal. It was not high on salt, spice, or oil yet it was really tasty. Again, unfortunately I could not click pictures of these either.

When you check out from the asram you could give any amount you please as donation, which is completely voluntary.

Both Arunachala temple and Ramana Asram are must visits at least once in a lifetime.

Thiruvannamalai thru a bus window
Arunachala, Thiruvannamalai temple, and town thru a bus window. Notice that the tallest structures in town are the temple gopurams. I hope they remain so in future.

The bus ride from Thiruvannamalai to Chidambaram, though long (4.5 hours) and bumpy was very scenic. The bus passes through small picturesque villages with plenty of paddy, sugarcane, marigold fields. Most places have lovely names too. Non-tamilians might find the names tongue-twisting.

Even though the Chidambaram temple and surroundings are not as huge as Thiruvannamalai, it still leaves you equally awestruck. I was a little disappointed with the temple management as the priests would demand money to get a closer darshan or make you pay for special poojas which you have no inclination of doing. One moment you are overwhelmed by the austere atmosphere at the temple but such open display of greed puts you off totally.

I am not posting a travelogue on Chidambaram but here are some pictures.

East gopuram
East gopuram, probably half as tall as the Thiruvannamalai Raja gopuram
Anbe shivam
Anbe Shivam written on the East gopuram, roughly translates to Love is God
Intricate work on south gopuram
A wedding scene on the south gopuram
Palazhi madhanam on south gopuram
Palazhi madhanam (churning of the milk ocean) on south gopuram
West gopuram
West gopuram
mandapam
mandapam
North gopuram and temple tank
North gopuram and temple tank