A birding trip to Kokrebellur had been on my mind, ever since I heard of this exotic village where migratory birds flock in year after year during this season. So last weekend, we were off to Kokrebellur, 80kms from Bangalore, zooming off through Bangalore-Mysore highway at sunrise.

Spotbilled Pelicans, Painted Storks, Black Ibis breeding on the tamarind trees of this village is a sight which left us spellbound. We were completely bowled over by the sight of these huge birds, the size of which would easily put the local birds to shame. These enormous birds swarming in flocks on the top of tamarind trees, noisily flapping their wings, building nests, briskly flying in and out carrying small branches in their beaks made this place resemble a crowded street, which in reality is a peaceful village. In comparison to these avian species, we birdwatchers looked like jobless jacks hanging out here merely watching this flurry of activity and flashing our cameras.
Spotbilled Pelicans

Painted Stork
We were here at the right time and lucky to have been able to watch this nest building activity. And it is curious that these birds chose to come only to this village. It must have to do with the existence of numerous lakes and the Shimsha river flowing here, which provides for their food, mainly fish. It is also curious that they only chose the Tamarind trees to breed, while there are other bigger, sturdier trees like Peepul trees nearby. Both Pelicans and Painted Storks are seen co-existing on the same trees.These birds will now lay eggs, hatch and rear their off springs before they finally fly back to their place, usually by the month of May.

The villagers here never seem to trouble these birds, and look upon their arrival every year as sign of good luck and prosperity. If these avian visitors don’t arrive, villagers believe their crops will be lost that year . It seems the underlying fact behind this popular belief is that these bird droppings are a rich in phosphorous and potassium and act as good manure for crops.

To reach this haven, we took a turn from the highway and drove 12 kms inside. The barren landscape suddenly gave way to a beautiful green stretch, with fields of paddy, sugarcane and raagi fringed with cluster of coconut trees. Sericulture seemed to be quite popular here and we passed several silk farms on the way. At times we had to drive over stack of hay, the villagers had spread out on the road to get sun dried.
On the way was Tailur Kere lake, painted in golden honey by glistening rays of rising sun and the silhouette of numerous birds wading in the water sketched quite a contrast against the backdrop. Watched the Pelicans, Cormorants, a bevy of Blackwing Stilts and other unidentified duck-like birds wading here.

Tailur Kere
Flight of the Painted Stork
A canal feeding from the lake runs through paddy fields on the opposite side of the road. Village women were seen washing clothes along the canal sides. Spotted few green bee-eater birds here tirelessly darting from one electric line to another.

Later we drove towards the bridge over Shimsha river. We stopped here and sitting inside the car gorged on a quick breakfast of bread, jam and juice. The river brink was peppered with a generous sprinkle of lovely white waterlilies. Common Coot was seen gracefully wading between these lilies, randomly pecking on leaves and disappearing at times behind tall blades of grass. How lucky is it to be dreamily swimming between these beautiful water lilies all day long.

River Shimsha
Common Coot
An old man with his family embarked on the river bank with a huge flock of sheep, then to our utter surprise and delight started bathing the sheep. The reluctant sheep vehemently protested, bleating and wriggling under the old man’s strong arms, as he dragged each one of them into the water, giving them a good dip and briskly scrubbed them with his palm.

We then decided to call it a day, pleased at having spent an otherwise lazy Sunday morning, birdwatching in this beautiful village.

 I craved to visit Sikkim for two prime reasons. One was for the beauty of Himalayas and other for it’s rich Buddhist culture. And when I traveled there in December, Sikkim did not disappoint me with it’s quaint, laid back mountainous towns and colourful life.  Everything about Sikkim is vibrant . People generally wear loud colourful clothes and their houses are painted in bright hues with flower pots adorning most balconies. Even their places of worship, the monasteries, with it’s intricate paintings are a treat to the eyes. For the curious traveler, the people of this mountainous state seem to be celebrating their life. A stroll through MG Marg at Gangtok, bustling with winter carnival celebrations added to my conviction on this place. There was a vivacious crowd cheering to the ethnic dance performed on the pedestrian's only street. I also wonder if it was because of off-season, I was able to enjoy the beauty of this place more.

 We started our journey from Bagdogra to Pelling, traversing the misty tea gardens, dense hilly forests, following the long Teesta River meandering around the valleys. Wherever we went we could see Teesta, mysteriously green,  it’s sandy banks caressed by dense vegetation, catering to the adventurous traveler who takes to rafting through it’s cold rapid waters.

 The monasteries of Sikkim are a must visit. The Pemayangtse monastery at Pelling is situated on hill top, a muddy path leading up to the monastery flanked by numerous poles of prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Monk kids in maroon rob and shaved heads were running around the courtyard, enthusiastically playing a game of cricket. As we entered the sanctum, a prayer session was in progress. Rhythmic sound of drums and soothing chants echoed the room, where we saw huge striking   Buddhist statues,  the eight incarnations of Guru Padmasambava.  The beautiful paintings on the wall had started wearing off. Old scriptures, musical instruments,  masks & utensils from olden days were showcased. On the third floor was a seven-tiered intricately carved & painted sculpture of Sanghthokpalri, the heavenly palace of Guru Rimpoche.

Lingdum Monastery

  At Gangtok, we visited Ranka/Lingdum monastery. The towering architecture of the colourfully painted monastery, set against the green hills is a sight to look out for. The paintings on the walls, depicting Buddhist ways of life are quite detailed and painstakingly done.  There’s a long lane of prayer wheels leading to the entrance of monastery, each cylindrical wheel inscribed with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. These prayer wheels are supposed to be spun by turning the handle beneath, as the devotees offer their prayer.  Watching the Chaam dance performed by the monks was in my wish list, but did not materialize since it happens only during auspicious occasions. It is a masked and costumed dance performed by the monks. When I saw the next date for Chaam dance, my heart sank. It was 5 days away and we would be out of Sikkim by then. Monks are very friendly folks and patiently answer our inquisitive queries regarding monastery. I see lot of black cats around, obviously their pets. Seeing these black felines, the first thing that came to my mind was the cover picture of the book  Dalai Lama’s Cat. I have never read this book, but somehow the picture I had seen suddenly struck me.

From our hotel at Pelling we could catch glimpses of Kanchenjunga, mysteriously veiled behind the clouds. Mt. Kanchenjunga the highest peak of India, the third highest in the world is worshiped by people of Sikkim & Darjeeling. December being unbearably cold and visibility poor, we missed on majestic views of Kanchenjunga. I would definitely love to come back here during Oct-Nov when the skies are clearer. Usually by 2 pm the temperature drops and sun would have come down by 4 pm. After that there is nothing much to do in the hills, except some street shopping. We then rush back to our hotel yearning for steaming cups of soup and platter full of hot momos accompanied by fiery chilli sauce.  On the streets it is quite common to see the local folks huddled in groups around an open fire place, chatting and warming themselves, not a care in the world as if they could spend their whole day here relaxed.

To be continued....

It was a Vishu eve three years back, our first Vishu after the wedding. M was still at IITM hostel those days and I had joined him at Chennai to celebrate the festival together.

Since we were staying in guest house, it was arduous to follow the traditional rituals viz, kani and sadya associated with Vishu. Not to be disillusioned, we decided to arrange the Vishu kani by all means. We raked our grey cells to come up with an authentic kani. First, we needed a taalam to keep all the goodies. M suggested using his hostel food plate. Cool!! Then we went to the campus shop to buy fruits and vegetables. We decided to buy only the items which we could reuse later. So coconut, rice etc were instantly ruled out. Anyway, we cannot use them without a kitchen setup. Hence we bought mangoes, apples and cucumber. M picked up a fivestar chocolate bar and was adamant on keeping that as a kani item. He believed that it will ensure a rich supply of chocolates and other junk items through out the year.

Now we needed a lamp. We were in dilemma, as the campus shops did not sell them. Then came the Eureka moment. I remembered seeing these huge tree near the hostel, which had these hard brown nuts, dangling from it's branches. I had seen these huge nuts with it's case half split open, lying under the tree. That could easily be used as a diya. I could use M's Parachute coconut oil to light it up. For the wick, I tore up some old rags, and rolled it up. Hurray!! The lamp was ready.

 There was a fully blossomed kanikonna tree inside the campus. But we could not get the flowers, since the branches were too high and out of reach. Besides jumping under the tree like a maniac, trying to reach the branches, will invite unwanted stares from the students. So we decided to let it go. Instead, I sneaked into the hostel courtyard, unnoticed by the security and plucked the chethi, namyarvattom flowers.. What an evil way to start a new year :)

Only thing missing were gold ornaments. So me and M removed our wedding ring and chain. At midnight, we arranged our kani, kept the alarm for 4 am and hit the bed. And next day morning, we opened our eyes to the most special vishu kani. It was a beautiful Vishu, despite being devoid of sadya and crackers. The excitement and creativity behind bringing together the naive kani made it most memorable Vishu ever.

These days, it rains every evening in Bangalore. The sky is persistently clouded, casting a gloomy spell whole day long. I watched the rain through the glass panes from the fourth floor of my office. I could see the rain droplets plunging down, and the intermittent gale of wind blowing the drops upward, creating a hazy pattern up in the air. It's fascinating to watch these patterns from high above.The rain thrashes down on the parked cars and  people run helter skelter for a cover. But there are  few guys walking around, as if they are unaffected by the nature's fury.. I wonder, are they trying act super cool or are they really enjoying this..I quiver at the thought of getting drenched and later having to sit inside the air conditioned office space..

As I came out of the office after the rain, everything had a glossy washed out look.The air  was cold and the evening sky  was engulfed by menacing thunder clouds. As I walked through the tech park, lined all along with colossal glass buildings, I could see the dense blue-grey monsoon clouds reflecting on the tall glass structures and imparting them a quaint bluish tint. The lights inside the buildings added to the magical feel. 

  As I walked, it started drizzling and I had to pass by the lake, which is inside the tech park. The cold wind blowing through the lake gave me goose bumps. I wished I had a warm jacket on. It's beautiful to watch the lake in the rain. I stopped by to watch the dusky light from the evening sky making the rippling waters even more beautiful. The lake has a dense carpet of flowering plants, lining it's edges. Occasionally, during daylight, we find fishermen in coracles fishing here. At other times there are buffaloes waddling in the murky waters. Group of cormorants (black duck-like birds) breed on this lake. It's a curious sight to watch these water birds. It occasionally flings it's pretty neck into the water and does a vanishing act. After a few seconds, it reappears in some other part of the lake with a wriggling live fish in it's beaks. Then it just tilts it's head up and swallow the entire fish down, in the blink of an eye. After devouring a sumptuous meal of  fish, the cormorant flies out of the lake to the distant horizon. Sometimes it perches on the branch of a nearby tree, spreading out it's wing, as if to dry in the sun.

 The night was settling in. I could neither see the menacing beauty of the sky, nor the rain. All I could see were the silhouette of the buildings against the night sky and lights reflecting in the lake. I walked on in the city rain..

Today morning I was dashing out of the Cafeteria at office, after grabbing a quick breakfast. I was late and was hurrying out, when somebody called out,  "Madam, Good morning". I turned back  and saw the familiar face of the Security guy. "Did you have breakfast?", he asked. It dawned on me that I had not seen him for a while. Since last month, it was different Security guy at the Cafeteria. Otherwise, everyday, I used to exchange greetings and chit-chat with him. He is an old guy with a kind looking face..

"I haven't seen  you since a month.."
"Oh..I was at hometown.."
"Where's your hometown??"
"I am basically from Madurai..And it was my daughter's wedding"
"Good.. So how is your daughter ???"

And his reply left me spellbound for a few seconds..
"She works in IBM. She has done her BE in Computer Science. And my son-in-law is MSc in IT. He works here in Bagmane Techpark."

I was awed. After a few spellbound seconds, I regained my composure and replied, "That's wonderful". I felt a swell of pride, proud of these people who have worked hard and build their own destiny. I felt proud for him, proud that his daughter is so well educated and well employed.. I felt happy for him..And this Security guy still works, earns his own living and stands proud, though he could easily have left his job.. I am awed!!!!!