Fit for a Queen - Queenstown Published in the Deccan Herald , Sunday Herald on 18th December 2012

Queenstown – A Town Fit for a Queen!   
It was windy, rainy and cold as we stepped on to the tarmac at Queenstown airport – quite a dampener, literally and figuratively! Queenstown is positioned as the adventure sports capital of New Zealand, but at that moment, going by the weather, all the carefully orchestrated plans of paragliding, river rafting, bungy jumping and sky diving seemed to be getting blown away. We were a bunch of Sad Sacks, but only till we entered the airport. The airport was bustling with skiers and sports enthusiasts and cheerful tourists! Maybe all was not lost! It was not.
Queenstown, we discovered offers much more than adventure sports.
To begin with, Queenstown is, quite simply, very beautiful. It stands serenely, on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, the third largest lake in New Zealand, with snow capped mountains in the background. Lake Wakatipu, nestled in a single, glacier-carved trench, is unique in that, it actually has a tide of sorts. This tide is attributed to its peculiar Z-shape which causes the water in it to rise and fall by 10 centimetres, every 25 minutes. Maori legend has it that this is due to the heartbeat of a huge monster named Matau, who is in deep slumber in the depths of the lake! Incidentally, the Maoris are credited with the distinction of being the discoverers and first settlers of New Zealand and retain their distinct identity to this day. Towns and streets in New Zealand still bear Maori names which are very quaint and often unpronounceable! Names in Queenstown themselves are unusual and interesting. One of the mountains where much of the skiing action takes place is called The Remarkables, one of the two rivers that feed the lake is called Shotover River and the arterial street is called Shotover Street! Quite remarkable!
 Queenstown has a very interesting history. Way back in the 1862, deposits of gold were discovered in the Arrow and Shotover Rivers and this led to a great influx of miners who descended on the town which used to be called “Canvas Town”. Civilisation followed, the town developed rapidly and subsequent European settlers came to Canvas Town to graze and breed their cattle after the miners had left. The deposits of gold and the rapid prosperity of the region prompted some of the miners to pronounce the region “Fit for the Queen (Victoria)” and since then Canvas Town is known as Queenstown.
Tourism seems to be the prime source of income. While its population stands at a mere 22,000, Queenstown receives more than 100 times the figure as visitors! Ergo, a great deal of thought seems to have gone into the tourist infrastructure in Queenstown. When we stepped into the gondola that was to take us to the top of Bob’s Peak, it was with a ho-hum, been-there-done-it-air. After all a gondola is just a gondola, whether it is Singapore or Queenstown. However, as the gondola began its gradual ascent amidst beautiful flora, fauna and ferns (the national symbol of New Zealand), it unfurled before us a breathtaking panorama of the lake, the snow capped mountains and the entire town of Queenstown. The ropeway, we realized, had been constructed on that side of the peak that would give the best view of all three. Very clever! It is also in Queenstown that AJ Hackett created the first bungee jumping facility in the world. The jet boat facility at Kawarau River is the first commercial jet boat business in the world. Queenstown has four mountain ranges which attract skiers and snow boarders from all over, during winter. Skydiving and paragliding, jet boating and river rafting in Queenstown are said to be among the best in the world , a fact that was borne by the extreme caution that was repeatedly stressed upon, during the briefings preceding these activities.
Another unique attraction of Queenstown was the Puzzling World of Stuart Landsborough. While the initial response was to liken it to the Mystery Spot in California, Puzzling World was all that and more. It burst upon us suddenly, as we were busy admiring the beautiful drive up the Crown Range of mountains, with a tower that seemed to be teetering on the edge of itself - the Leaning Tower of Puzzling World. This, we discovered, was just the beginning of a mind boggling array of illusions and perceptual oddities, right from a downward sloping billiards table where the ball climbed upwards to the people using the Roman toilet (I would be giving away the secret if I said anymore!) and the world’s largest two – storied maze with both. We marvelled at the 3 dimensional holograms, racked our brains over impossible puzzles kept at each table in the cafeteria and goggled at the Ames Room, into which we entered as dwarfs and crossed over as giants. Finally we emptied our pockets on the most unusual memorabilia like a rope that holds a full bottle of wine in just a simple knot, pens that levitates and the most unusual Backwards Clock in which, even the seconds hand, the minutes hand and the hour hand move in the anti-clockwise direction marking the time on numbers that are also written in the anti clockwise direction! People call Stuart Landsborough an eccentric, but his Puzzling World would seem most sane, to the intellectually inclined as well as to the whacky! For some unknown reason, the Puzzling World does not figure on tourist packages offered in New Zealand, but the verdict is unanimous that it must be a non-negotiable part of any trip to Queenstown.
Time constraints compelled us to prioritize our activities. Sadly, we could not visit Milford Sound, which is said to be so beautiful that Rudyard Kipling described as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’; we could not visit Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand and we could not visit the orchards and wineries, all of which are within a stone’s throw from Queenstown. However, we did spot the locations where the Lord of the Rings movies were shot and yes, the weather did clear and we did go river-rafting and paragliding!
However, the fact remains that Queenstown offers a great deal more than just adventure sports!


Shiva in his Element, Published in The Times of India-Speaking Tree on 3rd November 2012

At the Panchabhuta Sthalas, Shiva is worshipped as fire, water, space, wind and earth to remind us that we should live in harmony with nature, says BHAGYALAKSHMI KRISHNAMURTHY
Every time I visit a Shiva temple, I am struck by the irony of how Shiva, the destroyer, is also known to manifest himself in the panchabhutas or five elements - fire, water, space, wind and earth - without which, creation and life are impossible!

The Shiva temples at Tiruvannamalai, Thiruvannaikaval, Chidambaram, Kanchipuram, all in Tamil Nadu, and Srikalahasthi, in Andhra Pradesh, are collectively known as Panchabhuta Sthalas, where Shiva manifests himself in the form of the five elements. While the 12 Jyotirlingas are well-known across the country, the Panchabhuta Sthalas in southern India are lesser known but equally significant.

At Tiruvannamalai, Shiva is worshipped as fire. According to the puranas, a heated debate between Vishnu and Brahma about their supremacy plunged the universe into misery. Shiva, out of compassion, stepped in to rid the universe of this misery and appeared to both of them in the form of a column of fire. A voice from the fire decreed that he who finds the beginning and the end of the fire is Supreme.

Column Of Fire
Vishnu assumed the form of a boar and started burrowing into the earth to find the base of the fire, while Brahma assumed the form of a swan and soared into the sky to find the pinnacle of the column. Vishnu abandoned the search, sat down to meditate and realised that the column of fire was Shiva himself.

Suitably chastened, he returned to earth only to find Brahma claim he had found the crest of the fire! Shiva knew that Brahma’s claim was false, so he proclaimed that Vishnu was the true devotee. A repentant Brahma and a sober Vishnu implored Shiva to reside in the place. So the column of fire merged into the Arunachalagiri hill as well as inside a Shiva lingam at the eastern foot of the hill. This is the Tejo lingam, or the lingam that enshrines the divine light.

At Thiruvannaikaval, Shiva, as Jambukeswara, embodies water. In the days of yore, a sage called Jambu, came across a rare white tree, Venn Naaval, and offered its fruit to Shiva. So intense was his devotion that he swallowed the seed that Shiva spat out. Soon, a white tree grew out of the sage’s head. Pleased with Jambu’s devotion, Shiva accepted his offer to reside in the tree.

Many years later, Shiva banished Parvati to the earth for disturbing his meditation. A repentant Parvati made a lingam from the waters of the Cauvery river, placed it under the Jambu tree and prayed for forgiveness. Shiva forgave her frivolity, taught her the Shiva Jnana, merged with the water lingam and stayed under the Jambu tree. He came to be known as Jambukeswara. Since it was Parvati who worshipped the lord here, even today, the temple priest dresses up like a woman when he performs the puja at noon.

At Chidambaram, Shiva is akasha or space in the Akasha lingam. Since space is essentially formless, the sanctum at the temple contains no idol. At regular intervals, the curtain is moved to provide devotees a glimpse of nothingness punctuated by a garland of golden bilva leaves hanging from the ceiling.

Dancing Shiva
Adjacent to the inner sanctum, Shiva is worshipped as Nataraja, dancing the divine Ananda Tandava. According to a legend, Shiva - in the form of a mendicant - and Mohini - the female form of Vishnu - were strolling in the forests of Chidambaram, which was also home to a group of rishis, who believed God could be controlled by magic rituals. Seeing the two resplendent figures, the rishis’ wives got distracted and neglected their duties. The angry rishis used their magical powers and created a demon, Muyalakan, to attack the duo. The mendicant struck him down and danced the tandava with a beautiful smile on his face!
The rishis realised that this Nataraja was Shiva himself and could not be bound. Thus, Nataraja came to Chidambaram and stayed there as the formless one.  

At Kanchipuram, Shiva is Ekambareswara and embodies earth. Parvati is believed to have made a lingam out of sand which she worshipped under a mango tree here on the banks of the river. This tree was believed to yield only one fruit a year - Ekambara. In order to test her piety and devotion, Shiva made the river swell, but Parvati clung to the earthen lingam to protect it. Pleased with her devotion, Shiva came to rest in the lingam and stayed there as Ekambareswara. The lingam came to be known as the Prithvi (Earth) lingam.

Flickering Lamp
And finally, at Srikalahasti, in Andhra Pradesh, Shiva resides as air or wind in the Vayu lingam, believed to be swayambhu or self-manifested. Inside the sanctum, the flame of the lamp flickers constantly, even when there is no wind blowing, indicating the presence of Shiva as air. The region gets its name from three unusual devotees of Shiva, a spider (sri), a serpent (kala) and an elephant (hasthi) who worshipped the lingam in their own ways. Recognising their intense devotion, Shiva granted them moksha, or liberation.

Devotees throng the Panchabhuta Sthalas with only Shiva on their minds, the panchabhutas receding far into the background. Even if a handful of devotees begin associating nature’s flora and fauna, as part of the persona of the gods, the sthalas would have served their purpose.

Unfortunately, man is destroying environment to feed his greed. Every festival revives the hope that the devotee will realise that the ultimate goal of spirituality is to coexist in harmony with nature, because he is part of a philosophy that extols the environment, long before it became fashionable to do so.


Smoke On The Water- Published in The Hindu-Metroplus Editions on December 3rd 2012

Rotorua - Inside New Zealand’s Geothermal World 
 “Roto what”? This was the common response when people heard that Rotorua figured majorly in our New Zealand itinerary. What also added spice to Rotorua was the fact that a mere six days before we were to descend there, Mount Tongariro in the same volcanic zone had erupted. The last time it had erupted was a hundred years back!
Rotorua is New Zealand’s geothermal wonderland. It is located in the North Island at the southernmost tip of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Just in case you have forgotten your geography like we had, the Pacific Ring of Fire is a horseshoe shaped area in the Pacific Ocean, made up of volcanic arcs and belts. It starts in New Zealand, stretches along the Eastern edge of Asia, the Northern islands of Alaska and tapers away south, along the coast of North and South America. 81% of the Earth’s largest earthquakes and 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur in the Pacific Ring of Fire. 240,000 years back, a volcanic eruption in the North Island, as we know it today, caused the magma chamber of the earth to collapse, leaving behind a depression or a caldera. Gradually, water began filling up this caldera. Much later, a Maori chieftain, Kahumatamomoe, from the Te Arawa tribe, discovered the lake and the hot springs around it and called it Roto (lake) Rua (two). Rotorua, even today, remains the seat of Maori culture, with streets named after Maori Gods, warriors and chieftains with unpronounceable names!
Rotorua smokes and smells! As we drive into the city, we are greeted by spirals of smoke coming off the ground and the lake and a strong smell of rotten eggs. Some Smart Alecs call it Rotten-Rua and no, the Rotoruans are not amused! Legend has it, that the geo-thermal activity of Rotorua is due to the exploits of a spiritual leader of the Te Arawa tribe, called Ngatoroirangi, who saw a beautiful white mountain and decided to climb it. However as he climbed higher, icy, snow-laden winds began to blow, threatening his very existence. Almost at the brink of death, Ngatoroirangi prayed to his sisters Te Pupu and Te Hoata, who lived in Hawaiki, to bring him the warmth of fire. The two sisters immediately swam across the Pacific Ocean carrying the gift of life in the form of fire that would save their brother. Every time the sisters raised their head from the ocean, to see if they had reached their destination, the earth in that place became a pit of fire. These are the areas around Rotorua and New Zealand itself. According to geologists, however, this significant geo thermal activity is because, Rotorua is located in an area where, two giant pieces of the earth’s surface are in constant motion and one piece is slowly creeping over the other. This movement, albeit slow, is generating humungous amount of subterranean heat and volcanic activity. The smell arises from the hydrogen sulphide emissions from sulphur deposits that are found in the area. Yet, despite these harsh facts, it was a beautiful sight that greeted us as we entered our room – the sun setting against the lake with plumes of smoke rising off its surface – it was also a bit surreal and a bit scary!
Packaging this totally volatile beauty of nature, in as safe a manner as possible, are the Geothermal Parks of Rotorua, where geysers, hot springs and boiling mud pools are cordoned off or harnessed within limits of safety. Hell’s Gate (so called because, when George Bernard Shaw visited the place and saw the angry bubbling mud pools, he is supposed to have remarked that this is how hell must look!), Waiotapu Geothermal Park, Te Puia and Waimangu Volcanic Valley are some of the well known thermal parks here.
Te Puia, in the Te Whakarewarewa Valley, is Rotorua’s most publicised geothermal parks because it is a regular feature on many packaged tours. Te Puia is home to the Pohutu Geyser which is believed to be the largest active geyser in New Zealand and in the Southern Hemisphere. She erupts approximately 20 times a day and reaches a height of almost 100 feet when she is in a good mood. We were lucky enough to see her erupt and it was quite a sight. So were the boiling mud pools in which mud from the earth spluttered and bubbled due to the heat under it! Incidentally, all guides in Te Puia are women, who have been handed this responsibility, generation after generation, by their mothers and grandmothers. Visitors to Te Puia are also treated to an exhaustive peek into Maori culture, lore and legend. One gets to see the marae, which is the central community hall of every Maori village, where people congregate for all occasions – happy or sad. One also gets to see New Zealand’s most iconic figure – the kiwi bird in the Kiwi House. However, the dark brown Kiwi, being a nocturnal creature, is extremely photo-sensitive and sound-sensitive. The lighting in the Kiwi House, therefore, is almost nonexistent, making kiwi-spotting a lottery! We did not win it!
Te Puia tends to get a bit crowded for obvious reasons and it was at Waimangu Volcanic Valley, that we got the full import of a geothermal region. Waimangu Volcanic Valley claims to be the world’s youngest geothermal park. It was created by the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, which was so violent that its lava flow buried an entire village. Waimangu Volcanic Valley is, quite simply, a beautiful experience. In fact, Waimangu Valley tops TripAdvisor’s list of things to see and do in Rotorua and now I know why. The Valley is best explored on foot , as this provides an up close view of the amazing crater lakes as well as the flora and fauna that make New Zealand a land of unparalleled beauty. There is an ‘easy trail’ and a ‘hard trail’. We chose the easy trail and were rewarded with the dark and brooding Echo Crater, The Frying Pan Lake, which was actually steaming and last but not the least, the Inferno Crater and its turquoise lake which can only be called enchanting, if not amazing. All this along well laid out pathways, on either side of which, lies the earth, covered with the most unusual of hues, thanks to the silica deposits! We rounded this trail off with a boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana, which is said to have exploded to 20 times its size, in a matter of minutes, after the 1886 eruption. It is, today, the deepest lake in the North Island. Steve, our captain, gave us the most illuminating and entertaining geography lesson. We learnt that, the crust of the earth in a geothermal region is only 10 kilometres in thickness as against the normal 30 kilometres elsewhere. We learnt that fumaroles are vents in the earth, in or near a volcanic area, from which steam and hot gases are emitted! We also prayed hard that there should be no eruption, as we marvelled at the steam rising from the fumaroles on the multi-coloured hills around the lake! The crowning glory of the cruise was the geyser on a red hill that is said to erupt, approximately, every seven minutes. The entire experience was quite ‘other-worldly’. Waimangu Volcanic Valley made one feel truly humbled and small!
Constrained by time, we had to miss the other geothermal parks. However, we came away, raising a toast to the mercurial and violent beauty of nature and the passion of the New Zealanders in keeping nature’s endowments, as untouched and pristinely pure as possible!

Bhagyalakshmi Krishnamurthy,


All at Sea

All at Sea
The cruise liner lurched into Phuket port. I roused myself from the inertia that was, clearly, becoming the most enjoyable part of this cruise. It was only the lure of Phuket, white water rafting and getting deep into the forests of Thailand on an elephant safari that made me step out of my cabin.
 A middle-aged man, dressed in white cotton casuals stepped out of the adjacent cabin, calling out a cheerful "come on girls".
He looked at me and smiled.
"So, are you on the elephant safari excursion or on the James Bond Island trip?" he asked.
"The elephant safari one” I answered.
"Great, we are on that too", he said in a happy-to-be-going-with-you voice.
Suddenly there was a loud noise - quite like a clap of thunder.
A thin and extremely fashionable lady stepped out of the same cabin followed by a fourteen year old girl who looked sullen, belligerent and very much like the man who was with us.
"Do you not have any concept of time at all, Sania?"
The lady bit each word of the question glaring at the girl.
 "I do not want to come", replied Sania, biting each word with too, but looking at the ground as she spoke.
The man looked at the lady angrily and then turned to me.
"Take your time" I said cheerfully and began to walk ahead.
However, very soon, they were in step with me.
"We are not late Teresa" said the man in a placatory voice as he threw an arm over the shoulders of Sania who looked mutinous and tearful.
"Yes, we are!" barked Teresa as we turned the corridor of the ship and headed towards a crowd of people who were waiting for the lift that would take us all to the deck.
"They had asked us to assemble at nine o'clock. It is nine fifteen now."
The man fell behind a step so that he could put some distance between them and me but Teresa had raised her voice by several decibels and I could hear her clearly above the din of the other travellers on the cruise.
 "This is all because of you, Carl. You have spoilt her. She is disorganized, rude and stupid."
I tried to get a look at Teresa through the corner of my eyes. She reminded me of Cruella de Vil.
The lift stopped at our floor and the crowd parted to make way to those coming out. Sania held on to Carl and moved away from Teresa.
"Come here" growled Teresa. She stretched across and pulled Sania to her, completely oblivious to the lady who was stepping out of the lift, balancing a rowdy toddler and a baby bag. Sania did not resist.
Carl apologised to the lady and stepped back to let her pass. Teresa launched into another tirade as we trooped into the lift.
Carl said "alright let's move on!"
Neither Teresa nor Sania responded. Sania shook off Teresa's hand and edged towards a corner. Teresa glared at her and then opened her mouth to say something to Carl who pre-empted it by turning towards me.
 "So, where are you from? We are from Brisbane."
Then, without waiting for an answer, he put his hand out to the Japanese couple standing near us, bowed down from the waist and said “konnichiwa."
The Japanese couple smiled, nodded and then looked at Teresa and Sania with open curiosity.
The lift stopped. We got out and stepped on to the deck. As we neared the gangplank, Sania stopped.
"Come on" snapped Teresa. Now, she reminded me of a trainer cracking his whip at his lion.
Carl put his hand on Sania's elbow and moved closer to her. Sania looked at Teresa, raised her head, to just that fraction of an inch and said clearly, in a voice that left no room for a response, "I will not. I will not. Get lost!"
She then looked at Carl, a little scared and a little defiant. "Dad, may I have the key please."
Carl looked at her affectionately, kissed her cheek, took the key from his pocket and gave it to her. "Here you go kid. “Lucky you!"
Sania took the key, hugged Carl, turned on her heels and walked back into the lobby, punching the air with her fist.


Why Not Wayanad

                                                Why not Wayanad!

Wayanad, in Kerala, is an ideal weekend getaway from Bangalore. It is beautiful, quiet and as yet, relatively less ravaged  by commercial tourism. Derived from the Malayalam words Wayal (paddy) and Nadu (land), Wayanad quite literally means land of the paddy fields. But Wayanad also has rolling green mountains and vast stretches of tea, coffee and pepper plantations amidst coconut and banana groves, exotic birds, rare species of flora and fauna and much more. There are caves to be explored, heritage museums that document the history of Wayanad,  century old temples and a rich tribal culture that is interesting even to the layman.
 The drive from Bangalore to Wayanad through Mysore, the Bandipur National Park or the Muthunga Game Sanctuary and the drive from Kozhikode to Wayanad are two of the more scenic drives in the South. In fact, the Wayanad experience starts with this drive. Once there, you have the option of just sitting back and enjoying the peace and tranquillity or set the adrenaline pumping with treks up the Western Ghats.
If you are not adventurous, then start with the Pookot Lake, a serene and scenic freshwater lake with boating facilities. You can also drive up nine hairpin bends through lush beautiful forests to Lakkidi, the highest point of Wayanad at 700 metres above sea level and get a breathtaking view of the valley. Try out the Edakkal caves which have pre historic etchings on their walls. Local legend has it that the caves were formed from the arrows shot by Lav and Kush, the sons of Lord Rama. Banasura dam, 21 kilometres away from the centre of Wayanad, is the largest earthen dam in the country and a place of unparalleled beauty. An excursion over two days at the dam is a most soothing balm for the tired and overworked mind!
 For the adventurous tourist there are a host of treks leading to many idyllic spots hidden deep in the hills. The most challenging one is to the Chembara peak, the highest peak in Wayanad. This trek which takes almost an entire day is not for the uninitiated or the novice trekker! But once up there, trekkers swear that the view from the top is well worth the effort. Some of them even stay on top of the peak for a few days in the tents and guides provided by the Tourist promotion Council of Wayanad. Kuruwa Dweep or Kuruwa Island has 950 acres of virgin forests along the tributaries of the Kabini, full of rare birds, orchids and herbs. Again this is not for the faint hearted as you may find a few friendly leeches sticking to you as you walk through the forest. Check with your travel desk as there are many more picturesque treks but be sure to go with a guide as it is easy to lose your way!
 Wayanad has some very innovative staying options. In keeping with the tenets of eco- tourism, some resorts offer a totally rustic experience, even going to the extent of avoiding the use of electricity. The resort near the Banasura Dam claims to be totally eco friendly, having been constructed from natural stone and mud bricks. The Hermitage at Edakkal Caves offers tree houses, cottages perched on the edge of cliffs and rocks and cottages with pre historic etchings replicated in them and all of them have state of art conveniences and facilities. Plantation owners offer homestays with meals thrown in, right in the middle of their plantations. Peaceful and beautiful, but a little removed from civilisation, this may not be very exciting proposition to families with children! Finally of course, there are also normal hotels in the centre of the district! Food may pose a bit of a problem for the vegetarian and it is best to opt for the meal options provided at your place of stay.  Tourist infra-structure in Wyanad may seem a tad limited. But truly, this is a small price to pay for the pristine beauty and solitude of the place. Wayanad is an ideal place to spend a short or long weekend. Catch it before the crowds discover and descend on it!
Fact File:
Getting there: By air or rail up to Mysore or Kozhikode and then by road.
                       Closest rail station and airport: Kozhikode
Distance:        140 kilometres from Mysore on NH 212
                       75 kilometres from Kozhikode.
                       260 kilometres from Bangalore.
Routes from Bangalore:
Route A : Bangalore - Mysore - Hunsur- Nagarhole - Kutta - Mananthavadi (Wayanad)
Route B: Bangalore - Mysore – Nanjangud - Gundulpet - Sulthan Bathery ( Wayanad)
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