A Piece of Lost Time: The Shangrong Monastery of Ladakh


The little-known Shangrong Monastery is a 13th century monument, in the village of Alchi, in Ladakh, India.

While people do know about the beautiful and awe-inspiring Alchi Monastery of Ladakh, the Shangrong Monastery gets ignored. Am I thankful for this? A little. Little tourist attention means less exploitation of the area, but it also means that a piece of our past remains ignored….forgotten, and abandoned.

Not much is known about the Shangrong Monastery. But that doesn’t keep it from leaving the visitor awestruck. What is left of it is a long row of stupas (chortens in the local language), and a set of dilapidated buildings.

Ladakh has many many hidden treasures, and this is one of them. As a researcher working in the region, and on the history of Ladakh, I consider it a responsibility to spread more knowledge about this breathtaking region, with beautiful and kind people, and a spiritual core so deep, that it penetrates every human, every thing that steps into and leaves Ladakh.

The many many chortens, monasteries, prayer wheels everywhere you go, is a testimony to the spiritual abode that Ladakh is, even today, when modernisation has started to rear its ugly face.

Chortens at Shangrong

Chortens at Shangrong

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Where Heaven Meets Earth: Lakshadweep!


After our trip to Kerala, next in line were the islands of Lakshadweep. Initially, I didnt want to go there as I was scared I will miss out on valuable preparation time for my exam. Little did I know what I was about to miss??

Lakshadweep-  meaning a lakh islands….is a place where one forgets that a world exists where one has to struggle every moment to stay ahead and active in life, where all kinds of tensions: family, work and personal growth is a pain in the neck. Lakshadweep is a place where you think of angels on Earth, where you LIVE that filmy image of sitting peacefully in a bikini, on the white sands ….sipping on coconut water and thinking about how beautiful life is. Lakshadweep is a place which takes you away from real life…..!

The moment we got off the boat jetty on the island of Kalpeni, all we could see was clear, blue water and lush green coconut trees ALL around us. We were driven to the beach,in a small tempo on a road that was only wide enough to accommodate that particular vehicle. On both sides of the road were trees and more trees, and small huts of the inhabitants. Once every few metres, we would see a concrete single/double storeyed building. Beyond the trees, on all sides, was the sea!! (remember, its an island!!)

And the colour of the sea? A clean, clear, shiny blue whose surface glistened when the sun’s rays fell on it. It was so clear that we could see the floor of the sea so well, as if we were standing right on it.

After reaching the beach, we promptly changed into our swimsuits and went for snorkeling. India’s only coral islands, Lakshadweep has to offer, a variety of water sports like scuba diving, kayaking, glass boating, snorkeling, sea bathing, etc.

I wonder if we even needed to go into the water to see all that coral….as I already said, the water was so clear we could already see everything from above. However, how could we resist the temptation to get into such brilliantly blue, clean waters? Where the sun was just warm enough while we were in the cool water. Add to that, the B-E-A-Utiful corals that we saw….red, green, blue…in the most wonderful shapes imaginable: cactus like, starfish-like, brain corals, capsicum and pumpkin like (!)…….it was sheer bliss.

At both the islands, Kalpeni and Kavaratti (the capital island), we were welcomed by the locals and offered coconut water which immediately set the mood for some beach fun! At both the islands, we did kayaking and a bit of sea bathing which was a delight, even as much of the salty sea water went into our mouths.

Our Sand Castle!!

AN Holding A crab in a Shell

After enjoying the water sports, we had a lunch of tuna fish and then went back to sit on the sand to make sand castles. My friend and fellow blogger AN, her brother and me, even though we are mature adults now, sat like kids in the sand and threw it over each other as we made our lovely little castle (and fixed a little flag on it!). The unique and best thing about these sands was their super-fine texture and their bright, white color. Thanks to the limited tourist population (one has to get a permit to come, foreigners are allowed only on certain islands), the beaches are relatively clean and still a treat for the eye. Although some people were inconsiderate enough to throw paper cups in the water.  The local population, respects their natural surroundings and helps keep it really really clean. No wonder we fell in love with the place!

Speaking of the people of Lakshadweep, one would expect the locals of these small islands to be like the adivasis of Andaman and Nicobar. But they are pretty much the opposite. Lakshadweep has undergone a considerable amount of development, and development in a positive direction. Even though there is a 100% orthodox Muslim population, we could see school-going girls prancing around in their uniforms. There were posters of family planning and polio drops on the walls of the buildings indicating a good level of education-both literary and civic.

All in all, even though our trip to Kerala will be cherished, our trip to Lakshadweep will be Remembered and Thought of Repeatedly. As we are doing now!!! I mean, come on? We are now back to the bitter cold of Delhi after spending two weeks on beaches getting a tan and sipping coconut water!! 

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Kerala diaries: Food


As most Indians would probably know, Kerala is the land of Idlis, dosas, appams and sambhar. But sadly, despite the availabilty of these dishes at most places….I discovered that even the best of restaurants do not serve the authentic form of South Indian food.

In the name of dosas, we get fancy ‘Paper dosas’, ‘Set dosas’, etc. What I had in Kerala was a somewhat different version of the dosa that we get in Delhi. It is a little thicker than a chapatti and is not always served crisp and golden. Nevertheless, the taste is just right!

Idlis (rice cakes) are small and soft cakes of fermented rice dough and the sambhar has a variety of vegetables usually readily available in the south like cucumber, and tapioca stems, and seasoned with tamarind, not tomato.

But of course the spices! (Ouch!) It took me a day to get used the spices. My mom surprisingly took a longer time. But then, they just enhanced the flavour of the dishes. Even while roaming around in the street markets, one could take in the fragrances of cardamom, pepper, star anise, and a host of other strong, but pleasant spices.

At many places we had a kheer like dish, but instead of using rice, they used something like noodles in the milk, which sorta spoiled our mood. But apart from that, the local halwas and the sweet dishes made with rice were a treat for the tongue! Although you could make out the extensive use of coconut oil in the halwas, but that didnt bother us much after a few spoonfuls.

Karimeen fish wrapped in banana leaf and fried

The specialty of the backwaters

We also gorged on the special fish of the backwaters, known as the karimeen fish. The karimeen fish is a fresh water fish, which is soft and when fried well, gives a nice flavour to the tongue. The most popular version is the Karimeen Pollichathu, which is karimeen fish wrapped in a banana leaf and fried (Pollichathu means wrapped in banana leaf).

Uncooked Karimeen fish

Buying banana chips of course, was a given. The best part is, that most shops would make the chips right in front of you and serve them to you right then. However, we discovered that they tasted better when cool.

Sharja-some innovations aren't all that good!

We also tried something called ‘Sharja’. Seeing it on every restaurant’s menu, we were pretty eager to find out what it was. Turned out to be an ice-cold (chilled in fact) milkshake with coffee, banana, and chocolate powder, and ice. Though it sounds very interesting, to be honest, it is not very impressive.

Kerala, and most of the rest of south India, also has numerous varieties of the banana and coconut. The most popular was the orange coconut and the red banana. Although the red bananas were similar in taste as the yellow ones, the orange coconuts we found to be a tad sweeter than the green ones. What more, these coconuts were the perfect thirst buster!! 

Regardless, we did realize that the Keralites make full use of their bananas and coconuts and try to create a variety of things with these resources! In the end, the best thing that I liked about Kerala food was still the dosas and banana chips. 🙂

Oh!! Did I just forget the best part of having food in South India!! On Banana Leaves!!! Yes! we had food on banana leaves instead of plates…just in the traditional way. Now why dont we do the same everywhere?? Economical, eco-friendly and the coolest way to have food! Woohoo!! 😀

Kerala Diaries: Travelling and People


Lungi land!!

As I mentioned in my last post, travelling in Kerala’s ‘green streets’ was a fascinating experience on its own. My mother is one of those people, who, when they go to a different place, like to engage with the locals and learn more about them, not by travelling in taxis and watching them from a distance, but travelling with them, eating with them and sitting with them and talking to them.

Naturally, the only thing she preferred was travelling by the local and inter-city buses. Although initially, I was not so keen on doing the same, but when I did, I was glad and thankful that I got to know the people at closer quarters than most tourists.

For most of the year, Kerala experiences heavy rains as a result of which, most roads get damaged. It is difficult to maintain and keep repairing these roads round the year, so most of them are just let be. Obviously, as a result the road trip to most places was a little rickety, if not entirely unpleasant. The auto-rickshaw ride from Kumarakom to Kottayam was especially rickety, so much so, that it seemed we were riding on a motor-driven bullock cart.

The bus rides were a little better. Although the drivers loved rash driving in the narrowest of lanes, the driver and conductor were courteous and helpful, considering we did not understand the local language. Moreover, the blaring of loud Malyali film music (which is not too bad by the way!) made the journey even more enjoyable.

Speaking of courtesy, the Malyali people of Kerala do not immediately come across as very helpful. They hardly ever take the initiative to help out two women who are carrying heavy luggage. But they will help if asked. The Keralites dont even seem to be very keen on smiling, but otherwise, they are pleasant people.

The buses have no reserved seats for ladies either. But then, I noticed the fact that the men do not sit with the women.

Whether these facts have something to do with insensitivity towards the woman or belief in women’s empowerment and equality, I am not too sure. But probably, with a literacy rate of 100%, the women must feel a sense of pride, thus leading to these practices.

The blend of tradition and modernity is evident in the Keralite way of dressing and ethics too. While the women continue to oil their hair liberally with coconut oil hair every morning (imagine my state when I had to travel with them in the buses…my nose filled with the  fragrance of coconut), they have started to get out of heavy saris and into salwar suits which suit the hot and humid climate more. Although, the process of getting acquainted with and acceptance of modern ideas is slow (Kerala being known for its traditional outlook), it is definitely visible. The men wear long shirts with their lungis, which hilariously enough, they repeatedly pick up and re-tie them even when standing in the middle of the street (no, no show of inappropriate parts of the body/underclothes). With a high per capita income, however, everyone from the police man, to the bus driver wears clean, ironed and crisp cotton clothes.

Overall, Keralites come across to be very simple people. They are happy and satisfied with their lives and do not interfere with others’ lives unless absolutely needed. The women, sometimes, still a little traditional in their outlook, asked my mother where her husband was and pressed till she answered. But I guess, this is a typical Indian thing. People have still not accepted the idea of two women travelling alone.

Of course, talking about the people I encountered, how can I not mention the scores of Sabarimala pilgrims we saw on the way…wherever we went! This happened to be the season (December-January) of the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala in which thousands of worshipers of the deity- Ayappa travel to the Sabarimala temple whilst practicing a strict regimen of austerity, etc. One would expect them to be polite and calm pilgrims who do not bother about the worldy things that matter us. But how wrong I was in thinking so! These pilgrims are as shrieky and loud and their groups as chaotic as those of the Kumbh Mela. But even seeing them make a ruckus was pretty amusing as they would sort of represent another culture altogether. They would more often than not, move around in huge groups, circling around a picture of their deity and chanting prayers wherever they found space. They would make and eat their meals together on make shift stoves and seeing them together, would make me think of them as a different country in Kerala.

A Woman cutting up a coconut for us

On the whole, like I have repeatedly said, I have enjoyed my stay in Kerala, and my interaction, however limited, with the people. I would be rather confused if asked to decide between the people of Delhi, with their broad outlook and relatively independent lifestyle; and the people of Kerala, with their curt manners and respect for their surroundings.

Kerala Diaries: A Treat for the eyes


Residential colony in Kumarakom

The first thing which strikes you when you wander in the streets  of Kerala is the beautiful blend of tradition and modernity.

Walking on the streets of Kochi and Vaikom, we saw single and double-storeyed houses among dense clusters of coconut trees. The beauty of this simple idea was refreshing and reminiscent of my school books which had pictures of rural areas. Except for the main city square, Kochi and Viakom had managed to maintain the presence of a green cover along with the comfort of a concrete roof, something which most cities, including Delhi has miserably failed at.

How easy it seemed, to have a house constructed in the lap of a coconut grove. How comforting it seemed, to think of stepping out of one’s house into a garden with huge leaves of the banana and coconut trees to give some shade from the burning Kerala sun. But then, I reminded myself that Kochi was not, a metro like Delhi, and constructing buildings like these would not only be a luxury, but perhaps nearly impossible to make. Nevertheless, the urge to stay back in these streets and sit under the canopy of the tall coconut trees did not leave me for a long time.

Talking to a few people (which seemed a little difficult as only a few spoke English or Hindi), we found out that traditionally, before cement started to be used for constructing walls, houses were constructed using sea shells. The amazing part is that these traditional houses still stand erect, after years and years of the burning sun and pouring rain, something which Kerala goes through for most of the year. Our hotel, in Kumarakom, being an example in case, was a house 140 years old, with a wooden roof (which, of course, had to be repaired regularly) and a top like a hut, which had holes for air and smoke ventilation. Like most houses of Kerala, it had a sloping, tiled roof to keep away the rain water.

Our hotel in Kumarakom

Yet again, thus, I saw the blend of tradition and modernity, when we entered the hotel room to find a television set and an air conditioner waiting for us to switch them on after a long, bumpy bus ride.

This was right next to the road!

Another interesting aspect of Kerala is the frequent use of boats for travelling. Being a backwater region, water often seeps in wherever it finds place and takes the form of small canals and rivulets. Hence, in some cases, the only possible way to reach one place from another is to use small boats…even if just to cover a distance of a kilometre! We even saw people travelling by boat right next to the road!

Sunshine, coonut and wood: these are things the Keralites know very well how to use. Most houses, like already mentioned, are made of wood. Boats are made of wood. The poorer sections could be easily identified by their houses. Typically, the material used for their houses was coconut fibre. These are not the same kind of almonds that we eat usually, it seems. They look like Colocasia and are rough and

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hairy. (no, I’m not describing a man) See for yourself.

About to enter the Vembanad lake...by boat of course!!

The wealthier households had banana orchards and coconut groves in the vicinity of their single storeyed houses. Apartments are rare and are only seen in the main city.

All in all, Kerala is the place to go when you want to soothe your eyes and relax your body and mind. Go for an ayurvedic massage, stroll in the semi-rural Kumarakom, shop in Vytilla, and bask  in the sunshine (that-you can do anywhere!!) and learn more about nature and animals in the bird sanctuaries. No wonder, it is called ‘God’s Own Country’!

Kerala Diaries: First Glimpse


Travelling from North India to the southern-most part of India gives you butterflies. Having grown up learning about India’s diversity, the knowledge that I know nothing of the language of the place I am going to, and of course, planning to roam around in an unknown city with the locals was pretty nerve-racking.

But after a 3 hour flight from Delhi to Kochi, the moment the plane began to land, all that feeling of nervousness began to disappear and a sense of awe began to set in. For 15 minutes, before we reached Kochi airport, we could see huge, lush green fields surrounded by tall, coconut trees with their leaves glistening in the sun. Here and there, we could spot a few white church buildings, and lagoons for which Kerala is so famous for. The rivers looked like silvery ribbons and the hills looked tiny. Seeing this view even before we landed, I could not wait to start exploring the place. After roaming around buildings for nearly my whole life, I could not wait to run amongst trees and barefoot on grass and go rowing on boats in the lovely backwaters.

Of course, I had to wait and prepare myself for a few shocks before that. The second we stepped off the plane, we felt the gust of hot,humid wind and started sweating almost instantaneously. After leaving Delhi at 20 degrees celsius, having suddenly reached 34 degrees can be quite a shock. However, we just reminded ourselves of Indian summers and moved on to take our baggage.

From Dreamworld


2 weeks of travelling can be very hectic. But when it is a treat for the eyes, the tongue, and the soul….the word ‘tired’ can virtually disappear from your dictionary.

Christmas in Kerala and the Lakshadweep Islands will be among the most cherished vacations of my life. Why? Well, simply because when you see the sun, the sand, the sea, and green canopies all around you, it pretty much seems like a dream world if you come from a busy metropolitan city like Delhi.

Over the next few posts, I will describe my visit to ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala and the Queen of islands- Lakshadweep. My main objective will be to tell you about the wonderful things about South India, but it will be great if my criticisms open a few eyes too.

Peace and the scenic beauty in God's Own Country