On Tour with Bhagini. By Jayant Doshi(A Scenic tour of Sri Lanka and South India organised by Navnat Vanik Bhagini Samaj)After months of preparations, lots ofmeetings and phone calls, the trip got off toa start on 17th January 2002. Sixtypassengers were at the airport beforedusk, and were surprised to receive apacked dinner to tidy them up till thesupper, which was not expected till almostmidnight. For next seventeen days, thegroup of sixty travelled together, andformed a small family type of affinity. Welanded in Sri Lanka after the overnightflight. Sri Lanka, a small island to thesouth of Indian sub-continent with apopulation of 19 million, and having achieved zero growth in its population growth, is alush green island with a charm of its own. Sri Lanka is where Rama, of the Ramayanafame, came with his army led by Hanuman, and killed Ravana and rescued his wife Sita.Our sightseeing began from the time we left the airport at Ngambo. We were shown a Buddha temple and a Dutch fort on our way to the hotel. The Dutch came to Sri Lanka first until the British drove them out. Next day we had an early start and drove to Kandy. We were taken to an elephant orphanage, where we saw the feeding and bathing of the baby elephants. We passed through a sleepy village and lots of greenery on the way. We visited a spice farm where herbs and oils are made from the herbal plants and sold to the tourists.After lunch we visited the city of Kandy where we saw the Buddhist temple of the toothrelic. It is said that the tooth of Buddhawas smuggled from India, and brought toSri Lanka, and the temple built with thistooth as the centrepiece, has become agreat Buddhist pilgrimage attraction. Wevisited a gem factory and saw the gemsbeing cut into their beauty, and then saw alocal cultural show. It included a walk onfire and taking fire into the mouth. The dayended with us travelling to a hotel on amountaintop, with dinner served by thepoolside where we could admire the
beautiful scenery. On our way to Nuwara Eliya, we were taken to a tea factory where we were shown how the tea leaves are processed and made into the black tea we buy in the shops. It was interesting to learn that all tea is made from the same plants, but it is the grading and blending that gives every variety its own flavour. Nuwara Eliya draws its beauty from the mountains, the valleys, waterfalls and tea plantations, which surround the town, and climatically it is cooler than other parts of the country.We toured round the town, and spent sometime on shopping. After dinner, we had alarge gathering of the group members, andhad entertaining singing competition.Travelling in a large group has itsadvantages and disadvantages too. Coachtrips were enjoyable. The long coachjourneys were cushioned by jokes andlaughter, singing and card playing, with anap in between, and overall everyonemanaged to find something to while theirtime. On the other hand, it also meant thatmore time was taken at comfort stops, and at sightseeing. But balancing the two, thepleasure was greater for most. It was a trip where caring, sharing and enjoying for oneand all was the central theme. This was a trip organised without any profit motive. It wasa trip for the lonely and elderly, who would not have gone on such trips otherwise. It washeartening to see how each passenger was taken care of, and their special needs lookedafter. Since Sri Lanka was an important place mentioned in the epic Ramayana, it was to be expected to see some places named after those characters. We visited Sita temple, possibly located where Sita was kept in captivity when Ravana kidnapped her and brought her to Sri Lanka, and we saw a waterfalls, which has been named after the devil king Ravana. While Ravana has been depicted as a devil king with ten heads, it was interesting to find out from a guide that he was very intelligent, and
wrote a book on medicine based on minerals and chemicals, and that even today thatmedical science is practiced in this part of the world. We toured around the Lara NationalPark in open vehicles, but hardly any wild life was to be seen in two hours of drivingaround the park. When one has been to an African national park and seen lots of wild life,this particular excursion seemed to be a wasted trip. We headed for the golden beaches of Sri Lanka. We visited an ancient Dutch fort and saw fishermen on stilts, which is a novelty for tourists. Our hotel was on the sea front, and rest of the day was spent at leisure, and some of the members indulged in swimming in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Our last day was in the capital city Colombo where a drive through its imperial buildings, and some historical sites was the high light. We were taken to an eighteenth century Dutch church and avery old historical Hindu temple, and these visits were interspersed with shopping stopson the way.Our Sri Lanka tour had come to an end. It was too short a time to appreciate the beachesand the beauty of the country but it gave us a glimpse of what the country is like. We hada special cook from India who made some delicious food, and gave us a big choice at everymeal. The food was very tasty and tempting, and soon every one could feel a bulgingwaistline. We left Sri Lanka early in the morning to fly to Trivandrum, the capital of Keralastate.Kerala, with a mountain range to its north, and ocean on the west, is the land of spices.The Arabs controlled the spice trade until the Europeans scrambled and ultimatelysucceeded in finding a sea route. Keralahas always had more contacts with othercountries, like China, Arabia and Europe,then with the rest of India. The influence ofthese countries is reflected in itsarchitecture and culture. Christianity camehere in its very early days and Jewssettled here in the fourth century. Even theMoguls, who ruled most of India, failed toconquer this part of the country. TodayKerala has a large Christian and Muslimpopulation amidst its Hindu majority.Sadly, with the creation of Israel, and adesire to go back home, has meant that a Jewish population of ten thousand has dwindledto only fourteen now, and is expected to disappear totally in the near future.We were taken to a hotel on the beach, and our stay was for two nights, which came as a
relief to everyone who were getting tired of being on the move all the time. The warmwaters of the Arabian sea, and the famous Kowlam beach, gave pleasure to some, whileothers opted to confine themselves to the safe waters of the swimming pool, and othersdecided to take a well-earned rest for the afternoon. Next day we drove to the southernmost point of the Indian sub-continent, known as Kanyakumari, where the three oceans (Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal) converge. Some say and believe that it is literally possible to see the three oceans converging, and differentiate the three colours of water. This is more of a myth, and an illusion created by faith, as we mankind named the oceans and created their boundaries while god had made the earth and the water as oneentity. The main attraction of this “Land’s End” are two rocks in the sea across themainland, one of which has a memorial to Swami Vivekanand while the other one has amillennium memorial with a huge statute of Saint Thiruvalluvar, a famous Tamil poet. Aferry takes tourists to both the islands. The sunset at this point is supposed to beexcellent, but hazy cloud cover spoiled our view and we missed the opportunity to viewthat.Swami Vivekanand is known for taking Hindu religion and its philosophy to the West, andis worshipped for his expounding the religion in a way we all can understand andappreciate. His memorial on this rock is a tribute to his contribution to the spreading ofHindu religion. Like the statue of Liberty imposing itself on the city of New York, the statueof Saint Thiruvalluvar stands at the tip of the mainland of India, and the height of thestatute, including the pedestal, is an imposing 133 feet, dwarfing the Vivekanand templeon the other rock.It was a long journey to Madurai, which isin the state of Tamil Nadu. On the way wesaw the PadmanabhapuramPalace, with itshundreds of spacious rooms and chambers.We also saw the NaickerPalace in Madurai,which is 486 years old and built in aIndosasin style, with a distinct Arabicinfluence. There is lot of Dutch andPortugese influence in the construction ofthese Palaces. Madurai is famous for itscolossal Meenaxi temple, which is awonderful example of Dravidianarchitecture. It has five huge gates, each with thousands of colourful statutes, and the fivegates represent two legs, two hands and the head of a human body. The temple is huge,and the whole complex is spread on a few acres of land, but situated in the middle of this
town. The main temple was constructed in 13th Century, but additions were made over aperiod of time. The central dome is 158 feet high. There is so much following and belief inthis temple, which is built for Meenaxi or Parvati, wife of Shiva, that there is always a longqueue to do darshan. We were taken through another queue, and luckily avoided waiting in a long queue, and were fortunate to see the arti. Across the temple there is a three storey building, where we were taken on the terrace to have a breathtaking view of the whole temple complex, but unfortunately it was dark and our view was not that clear. However, coming down the building we were lured into looking at the products on offer, and we spent much longer time in the building then most would have preferred.We moved on to Thekkady, and to the famous Periyar wildlife sanctuary of Kerala. Afterlunch we were taken on a boat ride around a lake, and there was disappointment as theonly wild life to be seen was deer and wild boars. However, on arrival back to the hotel,our day was made with a wonderful display of Kathakli dance. I found out about trekkingat night, and I decided to go for it. Two others decided to join me. When we reached thejungle in pitch dark at 10 p.m. at night, the other two decided to back out. I continued. Ihad three guards with me, and everyone carried a torch and one rifle. We walked for overthree hours. It was pitch dark as there was no moon in the sky that night. We did not seemuch wild life except a few deer and wild boar. However, hundreds of fireflies lighted thepitch dark trees, as if tiny candles in hundreds were hung from the branches. But walkingat night in the jungle, walking through tree roots and leaves, and the ups and downs ofthe land, was an experience that made a memorable day for me.The famous “backwaters” of Kerala wasour next destination. About forty rivers flowinto the Arabian Ocean, and they formthese backwaters. The rivers, the estuariesand a web of intricate canals forms thishuge lake like area where the water is amixture of sweet and salt, depending on thetides. This is the only such water spotwhere vegetation grows in abundance inspite of the water being salty. Half thegroup stayed at a resort for a day to spendat leisure, while the other group went on a
houseboat. The next day, there was a swap of the groups. Houseboats were not luxurious,but comfortable and cosy. Chefs on board cooked nice food. The boat cruised the waterslined with rice paddies and cocoanut groves. The day was relaxing and peaceful,especially after the hectic tour so far. The hotel was also luxurious with lots of facilities,and everyone enjoyed a relaxing day with massages, swimming and lazing around. British, during their times in India, sought cooler climes, and every hill area, where the temperatures were cooler and were developed for their comfort and to get away from the scorching heat of summer. Munnar was developed in the same fashion and was our next stop of stay. The hills of Munnar are either covered with thick green forests, or planted with tea, which looked like a layer of green carpet and the scene was enchanting. The beauty of the mountains is in the eyes, and watching allthat greenery and the misty atmosphere is pleasing.We reached Cochin, the city where the Europeans came first to India to get the spices. Thecity has a distinct blend of European influence in its buildings and planning. We stayed ata luxurious hotel, and the city tour gave us a glimpse of this historical and busy city. Wesaw the Chinese net fishing, which is only existent in this part of the world. We saw a16th century synagogue, which was built right next to the palace. When the Jews cameseeking refuge in Kerala, the King gave them land next to the palace where the Jewishsettlement was built, and still exists. We visited a palace, five hundred years old, withpaintings from Ramayana and other Hindu mythology.It was gala dinner that night. We had a demonstration of Kathakali dance, explaining themeanings of facial expressions and hand and body movements. After dinner there wasmusic and dancing, and good byes weresaid as everyone was departing next dayearly morning, and going in differentdirections. Majority had opted to extendtheir stay in India, and visit theirrelatives. A few decided to take a stop inDubai during its famous shopping festival,while a few came back home. Thewakeup call was quite early, but theattachments formed during the trip weresuch that no one wanted to leave thedancing floor. But all good things have tocome to an end, and early next day eachpassenger departed their own way. It was a hectic trip, with some long journeys, and attimes tiring waits. But overall it was a wonderful and enjoyable trip. We had nosicknesses or mishaps, and the feeling of being like one family was wonderful.