Travel Tales from Uttara Kannada

Towards the end of September 2014, I travelled with my parents and three other relatives to Honnavar, Kumta, and some other places nearby. This is a “diary”, as it were, of the three days we spent there. Most of the account is what I wrote down (in a notebook) as we went along; the rest are details remembered and written down in early October – when I typed out and polished the whole thing.

Note: There’s a glossary below. Words with an asterisk against them show up in it. Do refer to the glossary if any of those words need clarifying. However, please note that there is no need to refer to the glossary and that it is possible to read and grasp the whole account without referring to it.

Sep 27, Day 1:

We reached Mangalore on time, at about 8 in the morning. The station was reasonably clean and sparsely populated. We had breakfast – iḍlis and vaḍēs* – and then napped until about noon on the train. We crossed the sharāvati river at about 12.30 p.m. and gained a wonderful view of it from the bridge. It looked so large, it could have been mistaken for the sea and it was full with the water of a beneficent monsoon. The waves looked calm, and the water itself was an attractive grey colour. Somewhere out on the river rode a small painted boat. Dotting the river were small islands, looking green with their trees and shrubs.
We reached
honnāvara at about 1.00 in the afternoon: it was a small station and held only a handful of people. A stone plaque that had been laid in 1996 put the station’s age at 18.
We were met at the station by Gopi, a small man with small eyes and a swollen, unshaven face who turned out to be an inveterate chewer of paan masala*. He had brought a Maruti van, which was perhaps the best kind of car for the roads found in the area. (Gopi, it struck me later, was a rather careful driver, who rarely extended himself or the car.) We loaded our bags onto the roof of the van and made our way to the railway station at
kumṭa – where we were to pick up Shaila aunty and Anand uncle. The road to kumṭa took us through several tiny villages that are a common feature of the Karnataka – and I presume the Indian – countryside. Along the road were orchards and open fields, some overgrown with grass after the rains; others drowning in water, marking them as paddy-fields. The day itself was hot (with some humidity), the heat hanging in the air in a sort of haze.
We reached
biḍāra – the homestay – at about two in the afternoon, sweaty and sticky and raring to have a bath. The façade of the place made no particular impression at first sight – it looked somewhat unstructured and remote – but a quick tour of the rooms impressed me. Since the water was being heated using hot coals, we were advised to have lunch first – which we did, upon an unostentatious glass-top table that had been placed under the cool shelter of a Mangalore-tiled roof. (The lunch was simple but substantial – slender chapātis, dōṣekāyi huḷi*, well-cooked rice, some aromatic lemongrass tambuḷi*, a lush, well-set bowl of curds and a bowl of shāvigē pāyasa* for dessert.)
We then bathed and set off for a
darshana of the karikānanamma temple – which sits atop a medium-sized hill. We had been told, warned rather, that it would be crowded; however, it was anything but. After a drive – upon potholed, gravel-and-sand roads – of about 3 to 4 kms, we reached the temple, a rudimentary structure of stone, with a corridor that led to the garbhaguḍi* (where the dēvī’s* face had been drawn on a black stone, and where the windows had been carved out to spell her name). After a short stop at the garbhaguḍi, where we were given the mangaḷārati*, we returned to the car and decided – after looking out towards the Arabian sea and into the thickly-forested valley below – to stay to watch the sunset, which wouldn’t happen until 6.45 or 7.
In order to pass the time, we trekked up a winding, stony path that eventually descended – instead of rising – towards the temple of another
dēvī, kaṇivē* amma. The trail was nice and cool and wet – and reminded me of a similar trail we had travelled on in America. (Appa said that it was at the Mt. Rainier Park.) We turned back when we came to the top, but that was not enough to prevent Pammie aunty and Shaila aunty (and me) from the bloodlust of the leeches – or umbaḷa as Gopi called them – that we had been cautioned about, and, in our chappals, were unprepared for. However, no harm was done, I saw a leech finally – and didn’t find it especially repulsive – and the episode led to a good deal of chatter and laughter.
We then sat about in some plastic chairs and waited for the sun to sink and fall – and it seemed as if we had been condemned to wait and wait and wait, for the sun stood still in the sky like the reassuring, motionless light of a lighthouse. Beyond the sun and (later, as we grasped the key to the mirage) under it spread the Arabian sea, rippling faintly in the single beam of sunlight falling on it, and attractively set off by an island that rose like a large, enshrubbed hillock.
We returned home soon after the sun set – anticlimactically and abruptly, as if in freefall – to our cosy homestay, secreted away within a forest of
aḍikē* orchards and fruit trees, where insects chirped and sang all night long under the clear crescent moon. I close my narrative now at 1.00 am, as I sit among the faint lights that separate this little homestay from the ancient darkness of the surrounding forest. The last sound I hear is the singing of a cricket, its ancient notes falling into an ancient darkness.

Sep 28, Day 2:

We breakfasted at about 8.30 and left for yāṇā at about 9. Breakfast was a steamed idli wrapped like a patroḍē* within a slice of plantain leaf. We reached yāṇā at about 9.30 and set off for the peak almost immediately. (We had been assured there would be no leeches but we had all rubbed on Odomos just to make sure.) The climb was pleasant, with a gurgling stream that kept us company most of the way. The trees along the path, as well as the shrubs, moss and sundry bushes, looked untouched and as if they had come right out of an undisturbed past. The climb was mildly challenging – and Appa led the way as usual. Shaila Aunty lagged behind and was visibly tired, frequently stopping to wipe her face. She eventually stopped before the last flight of stairs, and plopped down on a nearby bench. Luckily, the remainder was a short climb and she made it at Pammie Aunty’s urging.
All along the climb we had seen the two mountains – the
kālabhyrēshwara (ಕಾಲಭೈರೇಶ್ವರ) and the mōhinī (ಮೋಹಿನೀ) – two wide, black, calcite structures that time and the elements had carved gracefully. If the mōhinī parvata* is an erect structure, with sheer bluffs crested by steeples – one steeple rising above all the others, the kālabhyrēshwara rock (under whose hood are the temple and the linga) is a broad-chested structure of black, with a deep concave flank.
The inner temple was almost empty, and held a placid quiet within its small courtyard. The shrine itself was a small room, with a black-floor vestibule and a
swayambhu* image of shiva within the garbhaguḍi. Appa requested a rudrābhishēka* – inspired by the quiet he said later – and the purōhitru*, a fat man with a calm face and a slow, gentle, clear voice – said the introductory prayers before asking us to make a pradakshiṇa* of the temple. Shaila aunty and Pammie aunty asked out, but Appa, Anand uncle, Amma and I climbed the stony path that had been carved through the rock itself. This was a much more challenging ascent (and descent) which was not, however, without its rewards (that came in the form of numerous exquisitely patterned, latticed rocks of laterite).
Upon our return, the
purohitru performed the abhishēka* – that included the divesting and the dressing of the murti – and gave us the prasada*. We then bought a few curios (including a black miniature of the mōhinī parvata) at the small store within the temple’s premises; before descending at a fair pace, buoyed by having eaten some chakkalis* Pammie Aunty had brought along. Upon reaching the base, we had some coffee and bought a couple of jars of honey before leaving for biḍāra.
With everyone hungry, lunch was a quiet affair. We were served sāru* (instead of huḷi) and cabbage palya*, with a boondi* laḍḍoo for dessert. A short rest later, we left for the haḷadipura beach, a visit I had no particular reason to look forward to. I seem to recall that I dozed on the way and was surpised when I awoke to see that a slight detour off the main road led to the sandy front of the beach.
I have been to very few beaches in my life, but I cannot think that I have seen any finer than this one. We had glimpsed the sea (from atop the hill) the evening before, but now it lay spread before us, rising and falling with its sombre grey set off by the countless white sprays of foam that rode the crests of the waves. It was still light when we arrived, which allowed us to see the fine, white, powdery sand of the beach – soft and squishy, like a pillow. The beach itself was mostly empty, with only a few fishermen and their grounded boats to be seen, tiny figures in the dusk.

Sep 29, Day 3:

Breakfast was an early affair for we had a day’s worth of places to see. We were served uppiṭṭu* and sheera* – the uppiṭṭu was much too salty but the sheera was just the way I like it: soft, yellow and not too sweet. (I would have eaten a lot more of it, but I made it a point to not overeat on the days we were to travel in the Omni.) We were to have gone to iḍagunji first and then on to the sharāvati but we set out only at 9 o’clock, which meant going straight to the sharāvati for our scheduled “boating” session. We were earlier than expected but the proprietor arranged things for us over the phone and deputed one of his men, Maasti, to take us on a tour of the river on one of the several dinghies lying by the jetty. The sharāvati itself didn’t look as nice as it had two days ago (from the vantage of the bridge) but its expanse was undeniable. The sun was quite high in the sky when Maasti pulled the string, brought the motor-engine to life and extinguished all hope of conversation.
The idea was to round the larger group of islands dotting the river and return in about an hour and a half’s time. Our passage towards the islands – along the middle of the river’s expanse – was insipid, the monotone of green-coloured water our only companion. It was like walking up the middle of a wide, monochromatic plain, the faraway mountains losing their aura with every next step. About the only interesting part of this stretch was the small wash that accompanied the dinghy’s passage and reminded me of Coleridge’s “…the furrows followed free…”.
It was when we’d escaped the monotonous expanse of water and neared the cluster of islands that the journey transformed into a memorable one, as Maasti manouevred us through the more intimate spaces of the river and between the several patches of land and the reed-thick shallows around them. It was like we were finally communing with the river after a sustained period of aloofness. And the river too had begun to warm to us and reveal her secrets; the most wonderful of which was her collection of birds. From the empty blue of the ever-widening sky came to us garuḍa* (the Brahminy kite) himself, proud and beautiful as he winged and glided upon currents of air invisible to us. White-breasted with a glittering eye, two regal wings of brown and his famous aquiline beak, I cannot recall a finer time spent watching birds. He was given company by a number of other birds – the black geese (bātukōḷi: ಬಾತುಕೋಳಿ) with their thin necks and cocoon-like bodies, lightning-fast sunbirds that flew by in a flash of colour, and the poor dull crow.
Maasti had switched off the engine and we drifted along the sinuous curves of the river and among the reeds and lilies and mangroves and arcing palms of coconut. I thought then of the word “intimacy” as the best way to describe this passage through space and time and, as I write this now, I still think it felicitous; with its echoes of closeness and sympathy.
Maasti too was a source of pleasure, with his attractive sun-browned face and happy smile. He emboided the archetypal village man – simple and honest and gentle and hard-working. His speech too was characterized by a spare fluency. I would have liked to have pressed a hundred rupees into his palm as a token of my admiration and appreciation, but the proprietor was nearby and I thought it best not to. Nevertheless, I expect I will remember him and his simple smile for some time to come.
We returned to biḍāra for lunch, which was the usual affair plus a tambuḷi and a special sweet of rice and jaggery that came wrapped in the distinctive three-veined dāl chīni* leaf. (I forgot to mention our quick visit to a gaṇesha temple in iḍagunji that was visibly more commercial and busy than the other temples we’d visited. It was near “closing time” – for the afternoon – when we reached, but we managed to catch the last rites of the mahāmangaḷarati, a ritual made lively by the extremely rare sight of small, excited sparrows that shot about from one corner to another.)
It was about 4 p.m. when we left for apsarakoṇḍa, a locally-celebrated waterfall (and bathing-hole) whose beauty, it is said, attracted Indra’s own apsaras*. The place lay a little way up a hill, with an entrance that offered a pleasant view of the Arabian Sea. A local bhaṭṭru* gave us a summary of the place’s attractions which we were told ended in a procession of steps down to the shore. The apsarakoṇḍa and the waterfall were pleasing without being spectacular. The waterfall itself was only about 30 feet high and descended in a gush of swirling white before dissipating within the shallows of the koṇḍa. Unlike the yāṇā trail that was charged with the echoes of the past, the shallows and the koṇḍa* seemed to have lost the charm that made them the delight of the apsaras.
We ascended as we’d been told to, up a wild trail of trees and stones to a “plateau” that had been spruced up with inlaid, coloured stones and a sheltering gazebo around a well-cut lawn. The sea was closer now and its sands glittered in the late-afternoon sun. Around us lay the green of the ghats and the villages: olden trees and wild flowers and swathes of untouched forests adjoined watered and supervised fields of paddy that stretched away towards the right. (Later, we got a better view of these fresh-green fields and the white sands of the beach from a high-hanging cave that seemed as though it had been placed to serve as a vantage point.) A slight drizzle kept us company through our ascent, but it was warm and not unpleasant. The shore looked welcoming and thanks to Appa’s scouting, we began our descent down a series of steps that led right down to the beach.
It was earlier in the evening than the previous day and “the sun poured down like honey” upon the bobbing waves of the sea. It was low tide and the sea by the shore was calm. If the haḷadipura beach presented a long, desolate, dusk-darkened coastline, the shore by apsarakoṇḍa was livened by the presence of a fertile mountain that rose both unexpectedly and inexorably from one side; its characteristic black rock mossed by a rich, rain-fed green. (I was reminded of the forests that circled the sand dunes of Colorado National Park.)
As the evening wore on, we were treated to the sight of the sun dropping seawards, in a temperate glow of orange and red and foregrounded by jagged, half-coloured clouds. Like ever, it seemed to hang over the horizoned sea before dropping precipitously into the distant waters. Near the shore, the waves ran in and out as usual, with their small sprays of foam turned gold-green by the twilight. I spent a long time simply looking out over the sea, both aware of it and unaware, watching its untiring motion with a vague abstraction. I would have liked to have stayed on, looking out into the sea as the night fell from the corners of the sky – but my mother was calling to me persistently and the party was impatient, so I turned away from the sea and towards the waiting car.

Glossary:

1. vaḍē — the Kannada name of a deep-fried savoury dish shaped like a doughnut made using urad dāl (a certain kind of pulse/lentil)

2. paan masala — a mix of crushed betel nuts, angelica, and (often) tobacco

3. huḷi — the Kannada name of a liquid “side dish” made using a specially prepared powder (puḍi), crushed toor dāl (a certain kind of pulse/lentil), and one or more cut-up vegetables

4. tambuḷi — the Kannada name of a liqueous preparation made using several different vegetables or herbs; it has a most wonderful cooling effect

5. shāvigē pāyasa — pāyasa is the Kannada word for kheer (a sweet pudding of sorts); shāvigē is the Kannada word for vermicelli

6. garbhaguḍi — the sanctum sanctorum of a temple where the idol is kept

7. dēvī — a Sanskrit word that basically means ‘goddess’

8. mangaḷārati — an auspicious ārati, which is a ritual that involves the clockwise-revolution of a tongue of fire (usually lit by a tablet of camphor); it usually ends a prayer-ceremony

9. kaṇivē — the Kannada word for “valley” or “trough”

10. aḍikē — the Kannada word for betel nut or areca nut

11. patroḍē — a coastal Karnataka savoury dish, (usually) made using rice flour and wrapped in a leaf

12. parvata — the Sanskrit word for ‘mountain’

13. swayambhu — lit. ‘self-born’ in Sanskrit; often used to describe lingas or other natural structures that bear a resemblance to a Hindu deity

14. rudrābhishēka — a water-ceremony considered especially auspicious and performed for the god Shiva’s benefit (‘rudra’ being the name of his angry, terrible form)

15. purōhitru — the Kannada word for a Hindu priest

16. pradakshiṇa — a circumambulation of a temple or temple-like structure

17. abhishēka — a ceremony where water is poured over the idol and mantras are chanted

18. prasada — lit. happiness in Sanskrit; most often used to refer to the food (ostensibly) blessed by the deity themselves and handed out to devotees

19. chakkali — the Kannada word for a deep-fried savoury dish, spiral in shape and made using rice flour and the flour of urad dāl (a certain kind of pulse/lentil)

20. sāru — the Kannada word for a liquid “side dish” made using a special powder (puḍi), a handful of crushed toor dāl (a certain kind of pulse/lentil) and tamarind

21. palyā — the Kannada word for a savoury vegetable preparation, often contaning more than one vegetable and seasoned with grated coconut; usually eaten with annā-sāru (rice-sāru) and annā-huḷi (rice-huḷi)

22. boondi — a savoury (or occasionally sweet) preparation made using basin (gram flour), usually rolled into tiny balls and deep-fried

23. uppiṭṭu — the Kannada word for a savoury dish made using ravē or (broken) wheat flour; often flavoured using cut-up vegetables including onion, bell peppers, tomatoes, etc.

24. sheera — a sweet dish made using ravē or (broken) wheat flour

25. garuḍa — a mythological bird considered the mount of the god Vishṇu; an important figure in the Hindu tradition

26. dāl chīni — cinnamon

27. apsara — an exceedingly beautiful damsel present in the court of Indra, the king of the gods (who lives in swarga or heaven)

28. bhaṭṭru — a Kannada honorific for a Hindu brahmin-cook

29. koṇḍa — a (smallish) pond

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