“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive” – Robert M Pirsig.
Travels within India for centuries were mostly pilgrimages. People from South India travelled to Varanasi (a holy place for Hindus) and the pilgrims from North made a trip to Tirupati and Rameswaram, at the southern tip of India, to pray at the ancient temples. Group of pilgrims from a village walked together across the country under the scorching sun, heavy rains and biting cold to complete these arduous journeys. My great grandmother made one such trip from Kaveripakkam, a small village in Tamil Nadu to Varanasi, a distance of about 2,000 Kilometers (Google Map says 1960 KMs or 1225 miles).
The advent of steam engines and trains made travel easy and affordable and affected the way people travelled in a way unknown to us from the time we learned to walk on legs. Two train journeys made a significant impact on Indian History. Mahatma Gandhi, on his return from South Africa travelled across the country in Train to meet and listen to ordinary folks before he took the plunge in freedom struggle. It was during one such journey, after seeing a woman in completely tattered cloths, he changed his attire to a simple dhoti, which made Churchill to call him a fakir. The train journeys taught him more about India and the travails of its citizens than all the books he read about his motherland.
The other train journey was under more tragic circumstances. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in mass migration of people. Tens of thousands of Muslims from India travelled to Pakistan millions Hindus and Sikhs travelled from Pakistan to India resulting in the biggest human migration (in peace time) in the history of mankind. People lost their homes and farmlands and in most cases their kith and kin during migration from either side. The first tragedy of Independent India which displaced a total of 14 million people. You can read an heart wrenching account of this journey in Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.
Trains in India always helped people to migrate to greener pastures and thus people from all over the country moved to Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata) and Delhi looking for employment. For many, their first train journey would have been traveling in a train to join the civil services in Delhi or to attend an interview at a commercial firm in Bombay or Calcutta.
I firmly believe ‘travel for travel sake’ was not a known concept in India till the early eighties. The journey was always to meet relatives or to attend a marriage or for a pilgrimage. Vacation for children meant traveling in trains to spend the summer with an aunt or uncle or grandparents. I still vividly remember my first long distance train journey (I was probably 8 or 9 years old). As I have mentioned in my blog The Family Autocrat – Tribute To My Grandma, we were staying with our grandma in Kaveripakkam and my father was working for a construction company and posted in Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala. During the summer vacation, my sister, JK and I travelled with our grandma from Chennai to Thiruvanathapuram (900 KMs/600 miles away) in a train and when we got down to meet our parents at the station we were completely covered in soot from the steam engine.
Eric Newby has compiled a brilliant anthology of travel writers A Book of Travellers’ Tales (from 3rd century BC to 1960s). In a book that covers more than 300 authors, I could not find a single Indian name in it. It looks little strange for a country which has established trade with Romans as early as second millennium BC to Tamil Kings who expanded their kingdoms as far as Thailand and Indonesia as late as 10th Century AD that in an anthology of over 300 writers, not a single Indian could be found.
Travel as a hobby or for relaxation or for a vacation started only in the mid eighties when Indians started to have a little disposable income. It was still restricted to travel by trains as cars were expensive and only the rich could afford it and flights which were few in numbers covering just a handful of cities, were beyond everyone’s reach. My earliest travels across India were all done in trains.
The advent of 100 CC motorbikes in the mid eighties changed all that. Though the bikes were still used mainly for commute to office, few adventurous ones rode their bikes to travel across their states and beyond. In my earlier blogs A Marriage in Mumbai and an M-50 and My brother goes to College – again!, I have narrated how JK and I started our bike travels and our early adventures.
We bought a Yamaha RX 100 in 1991 and attained our instant nirvana. Actually I convinced the MD of the company where I worked, (Ivax Paper Chemicals) to get me the bike so that I could visit all the paper mills in Maharashtra by bike and save a lot of time in taking circuitous routes in trains and buses. He obliged and my travels in Yamaha bike began in full earnest.
The Yamaha RX 100 was not just a bike. It was a pride possession of bike enthusiasts. In a country where people were obsessed with mileage, it gave a poor average compared to the Hero Honda bike (35 KMPL against 65 KMPL) but was still popular. It had power and was quick to accelerate. It was a very stable bike even though it had skinny tyres. In the late nineties, I was traveling with my colleague from Australia (David Hardy) in a Maruti car (800 CC) to see a customer. David commented that his lawn mower had more power than my car. So 100 CC bike is not much to rave about. If he had travelled with me in RX 100, he would have said his hairdryer had more power than my bike. But we could touch 110 KM speed (70 MPH) with two people and a back pack on our RX 100. It also stopped when you used the brake and I don’t think it even had disc brakes forget ABS.
And it was the fastest on the road. Occasionally a Maruti (Suzuki) car would overtake us. Otherwise we were the kings on the road. The buses and ambassador cars were nothing in front of the fury of Yamaha. We could overtake everything in our sight, and we just loved to ride it.
Apart from work related travel in the bike which took me to nooks and corners of Maharashtra, JK and I used the bike for our weekend adventures. We visited the coastal towns and interior villages. Never once the bike skidded or had a flat tyre or an engine seizure even when on full throttle for hundreds of miles.
Though The motorcycle classic Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance was published in 1974, we read it only in 1990 and we planned to do a travel like that but never got around to do it. One Sunday in early 1993, I read an article about some of the monuments and temples in Aihole and Pattadakal in Karnataka (a state in South India) and told JK we should visit these places and more importantly this could be our own ‘Zen’ trip.
So I set out in earnest to prepare for the bike ride. We decided to do the trip in April after the financial year closure in India (for me year end sales target was a challenge and JK would be tied up with book (accounts) closure in March).
I would like to remind young readers of the blog that in 1993 there were no mobile phones in India (the landline was just about to cover the country), no GPS and hardly any bike clubs we were aware of. There was no Google and Wikipedia to do our research. So I first bought a Map of South India and measured the distances we had to travel. We decided to ride across Karnataka and terminate our journey in Chennai.
I discussed with my mechanic about our plan to ride 1250 miles (2000 KMs) and he said the bike would make it without an issue. I got it serviced and went about acquiring the essentials. We bought a tool kit, guard ropes, a first aid pouch and a puncture kit. We discussed various options for the route we should take and after a month of talking for hours on end, arrived at an itinerary. We would start on 9th and reach Chennai on 13th just in time for Tamil New Year on 14th of April. I also bought some cotton fabric and stitched two riding jackets from our family tailor.
Day-1, 9th April, Pune – Bijapur – 381 KMs (238 Miles):
The Gol Gumbaz of Bijapur
We had an early start and stopped for breakfast in Bhigwan, a sleepy village about 110 KMs from Pune. Early morning drives in Pune were always good even in summer as the city had one of the huge temperature differences in a day. So even if the day was a hot 400C, by night it fell to about 220C making the mornings pleasant. When we started after breakfast the sun also climbed up and by the time we reached Solapur it was scorching.
Bijapur was still 60 miles away and after lunch we immediately set out for our destination of the day. We had a connection to Bijapur town. My mom had spent her childhood there and always talked about the Gol Gumbaz. The town flourished under Adil Shahi’s rule in the early 16th century.
Gol Gumbaz (L) and Ibrahim Rauza R), magnificent monuments.
Gol Gumbaz has one of the most amazing architecture one would get to see in India. Built as a tomb to Mohammed Adil Shah, it had the largest dome ever built in India, second only to St Peter’s Basilica. The dome was so enormous we stood watching it for minutes and checked out the whispering gallery and the museum maintained by Archeological Survey of India.
The other place of interest was Ibrahim Rauza, a short walk away from the Gol Gumbaz. It had a tomb on one side (Ibrahim Adil Shah), a mosque on the other side and a fountain in between. The architectural symmetry would take one’s breath away.
We booked into KSTDC Adil Shahi (run by Karnataka Tourism) and headed for a beer at the bar where we met a young couple from UK. They had a taken a break from work for 6 months with a plan to ride across India and Sri Lanka and it only their 3rd day in India. We exchanged notes about our itineraries and understood they had a similar route like ours till Bangalore.
Day-2, 10th April, Bijapur- Badami – Hampi – 315 KMs (200 Miles):
Day 2 started with lot of excitement. After all, we would be visiting the places today which actually triggered our journey across south India – Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal. When we came out of the hotel, we saw the couple from UK arranging their pinions and other stuff and our eyes fell on the bike. It was a BMW and gleaming all over. It was a beast of a machine. Our jealousy went up a few notches. We had just managed a week of leave from our offices and they were going to be on the road for the next six months. We had our skinny machine and they were on a BMW. We thought we would wait for them but realized they would take at least half an hour to pack. We kick started our bike and were on our way.
About an hour into our drive, I saw a bike approaching us and in a moment realized it was the BMW couple. Readers in India would know the quality of roads in India and it was more primitive in the nineties. Added to that we were on a state highway which was just broad enough to accommodate a single vehicle. If you saw a bus, you had to get off the road to give way. In that road, when we were struggling to go at 80 KMPH (50 mph) the BMW was easily doing 110 KMPH (70 mph). It was some bike.
We had a brief stop for breakfast. As we were in Idli and Dosa territory (our staples) , we relished a quick bite and headed towards Badami, our first stop for the day.
Badami Cave Temples
Readers from Tamil Nadu would know Badami as Vathapi (as it’s called in Tamil). The Chalukyas of present day Karnataka and Pallavas of present day Tamil Nadu were at war for decades. Pulikesin II went to war with Mahendra Pallava and won a decisive battle 617-18. In 642 AD, King Mahendran’s son, Narasimhavarman I avenged the defeat of his father, conquered Badami and earned a title ‘Vathapi Kondan.’
The Yellamma Temple was our first stop. The temple construction was a mixture of North and South Indian type of architecture and built during 11th Century CE.
We went around the cave temples at Badami built in 6th Century AD and proceeded to see the Agastya Lake, which is mentioned as Agastya Tirtha in our epics.
Pattadakal – The Temple Template:
After lunch, we drove to Pattadakal. The temple complex is a mesmerizing sight. Built with North and South Indian temple architecture, Pattadakal has ten temple at one site. The imagination and ingenuity of our ancestors is something beyond description. 1400 years have passed since they have been built and they stood in all their majesty. They provide proof of the architectural skills of our ancestros and provided a prototype for future temples built in India.
Aihole: Confluence of Religions
Aihole is a just a short drive away. One could see temple of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cultures built at close proximity. We were dazzled by the Durga temple as it’s sheer elegance mesmerized us.
Aihole is an unforgettable place for another reason as well. It provides the backdrop of the only picture of Yamaha RX 100 bike we photographed.
The bike was doing admirably well through the small interior road of Karnataka. We decided to stay the night at Hospet, a distance of 128 KMs (80 miles) from Aihole. We checked into KSTDC Mayura, Vijayanagar and to surprise saw the couple from UK who also had the same route planned for the day.
Day-3, 11th April, Hospet- Hampi – Chitradurga – 201 KMs (126 Miles):
Hampi – the most famous ruins of India
After an early breakfast, we set out for Hampi from Hospet a distance of about 50 KMs. The first look at the ruins from a distance would blow one’s breath away. Situated on the banks of river Tungabhadra, the city has been inhabited by people from King Asoka’s period (3rd century BC) and achieved it’s pinnacle of glory during King Krishnadevaray’s period in early 15th Century. During this period, it was probably the richest city in the world.
We went to pray at the Virupaksha Temple and then rushed to Lotus temple. The design of the Lotus temple was indeed unique and a look at the Elephant stable convinced us that, only a king with enormous wealth and unmatched taste can build a stable which looked a like mini palace.
The Lotus Temple (L) and the Elephant Stable (R).
Even the water tank was so elegantly designed. The sculptures at the temples, even the smallest ones, were so detailed one could spend hours looking at them.
JK (L) and Yours Truly (R) stood rooted, examining the details of the sculptures.
A few lines of blog is no way to write the magnificence of Hampi, a city of temples and water tanks, stables and palaces, forts and fountains, which was destroyed after the Mogul invasion. But I am sure it will kindle readers’ interest to know more about the city which was once as famous as ancient Rome or medieval time Beijing.
We left the city determined to come back and spend few days to study the history of the city thoroughly. The plan was to reach Belur by night but about 60 KMs (37 mile) into drive, we met with the first and only harassment on Indian road. By now we were on national highway and overtook a small Maruti (Suzuki) car. After a few moments, the car overtook us almost touching us to throw us off balance. JK saw the driver was a young guy traveling with friends. He slowed down to give us some distance and saw them slowing down as well. When we overtook them, they again shot past us, cutting narrowly once again. The scene repeated 3-4 times and we decided to stop the bike. The occupants of the car shouted and waved at us as they went past us. We sensed something was not right and waited for 15 minutes before we started again.
By the it was getting dark as well and we decided to stay in Chitradurga, the nearest town on our way. In our entire riding and driving experience covering hundreds of thousand miles over a thirty year period, this was the only instance, I remember, being harassed on the road. After checking in at Prakash Lodge, we had an early dinner and went to bed after making the customary call from a nearby STD booth to our parents informing them we were safe and doing well.
Day-4, 12th April, Chitradurga – Halabeedu – Belur – 225 KMs (140 Miles):
Halabeedu and Belur: The Most Beautiful Temples in India
Halabeedu was the capital of Hoyasala empire in the 12th and 13th centuries. The city along with Belur, has the most beautiful temples built in India. The temples in Tamil Nadu are magnificent. The difference is basically in sculpture designs. The Tamil Kings built enormous temples with huge towers possibly the largest in Asia. You would be awestruck by the size and the engineering marvel. For e.g. the dome on top of the Big Temple (Bragdiswarar Temple) in Tanjavore in Tamil Nadu, weighs 80 MT. How could someone carve a 80 MT stone and lift it to the top of 100 Meter high Gopuram (tower) without the benefits of modern engineering like lifts and cranes?
The temples of Halabeedu and Belur, on the other hand, do not have huge gopurams (towers). Two Hindu and Two Jain temples still stand testimony to the artwork of these great craftsmen.
The ultimate artwork from bygone era.. Belur and Halabeedu
Late in evening we went back to Chennakeshwara Temple and spent some time relaxing at the huge courtyard there. We were talking about the architecture and the ruins. Just then, the temples priests were taking a small bust of the God around the courtyard. They were singing a lullaby for the God (it is a custom followed for centuries, before closing the temple, they put the God to bed after singing a bhavan), which wafted across the gentle winds of the night. It became the most memorable experience of the trip for us. We stayed the night at KSTDC Mayura – Velapuri.
Day-5, 13th April, Belur – Shravanabelagola – Bangalore – Madras (584 KMs 360 Miles):
Mad dash to Madras
We broke the dawn to dusk rule of riding by starting early as we had huge distance to cover. Sharavanabelagola was in national news last month when our Prime Minister visited the place of worship. The town is an important place of pilgrimage for Jains. The monolithic statue is so huge, we could not capture the entire statute in a single frame in our camera. The temple is built on a hillock and involved some steep climb.
It’s only apt that I am writing about the holy city of the Jains on the day of Mahavir Jayanti (29-03-18).
After having a quick breakfast, we proceeded to Bangalore and were looking for the exit to Madras (now Chennai). We saw a huge signboard in the local language, with information about two possible routes. Since we could not read the script, we made a guess, took one on the left and after 50 KMs, realized this was not the one we wanted to take.
We broke for lunch and made a dash to Madras which was still 330 KMs away. When we crossed Ranipet, a sudden summer shower broke out drenching us completely. We were not prepared for this and drove for next two hours in blinding rains. The bike was coping admirably and I was concentrating hard to see the road under the heavy downpour. By eight in the evening the outskirts of Madras appeared and I heaved a sigh of relief.
We reached our friend’s place around 9 PM, had a shower and narrated our adventures to every one. We were bone weary and every single muscle in the body ached. But we were also immensely happy that we did the trip without an itch and our beloved Yamaha did not trouble us at all.
Day-6, 14th April, A short ride to Muttukadu (60 KMs 38 Miles):
14th of April being the Tamil New Year, our friends had an holiday. To commemorate our successful trip, we took a short ride to Muttukadu beach on the Madras – Mahabalipuram highway.
First of al why this blog after so many years? JK and I are planning to do the same trip by bike on the same days after 25 years – April 2018. The idea is to observe and record the changes India has seen in the past two and half decades. We needed a reference point to compare. I hope this blog could give us a start. The D day is just 10 days away. So there was a deadline to meet.
We travelled light with just a backpack and a tool-kit. I request readers to check the featured image (title image). The photo collage has all the items we carried. Apart from our cloths we carried only the following;
- A backpack
- A toolkit in a saddle bag
- Water bottle and camera
- Helmets and a pair of gloves
- A tourist map and a notepad
There were no mobile phones and laptops so no chargers, cables and the constant struggle to find the right connectors.
Travel was easy and it was fun. Whenever you were struck for directions, you just stopped the bike, lifted the visor of the helmet and asked the passerby the directions. It still works in India.
Today we talk more of personal space and choices. JK and I did the trip without ever discussing about how were we going to fund the trip. The trip costed 3,000 Rs or close to 50 Dollars in today’s currency, but it was still about 15 days wages for us. We did have our arguments on the way and an occasional fight. It was difficult to ride pillion in a small bike for hours on end. The irritation you develop manifests in the conversation and you end up arguing and fighting. But we also enjoyed each other’s company. JK gained from my adventurous attitude and I learnt a lot from his attention to details and planning. There was immense joy in sharing the meagre resources we had. The strong bond we formed stands till today after 25 odd years.
We do have our regrets. We rationalized on the photos we took as a single photo would cost as much as a liter of petrol – 10 Rs/Liter (if you add the cost of negative, development fee and printing expense). We still shot close to 100 pictures (3 film rolls) and this was the 2nd biggest expenses after petrol during the trip. So we don’t have photos of the bike in front of the monuments and we don’t have a single photo where we appear together.
We also did not write diaries during the trip which could have served as excellent tool for narrating this story. Nor did we take the details from the UK couple and never knew how was their travel through India and Nepal.
In the late nineties, the Government of India put a ban on two stroke engine bikes and production of Yamaha RX 100 stopped. I had returned the bike to my company when I resigned but never thought of buying the bike again. Yamaha RX 100 has become a cult classic now with dedicated rider groups and facebook pages. Yes, we miss the bike even today.
Last but not the least of the reasons for writing the blog is to share a word with millennials in the family and friends. We were just amazed to see the confluence of the cultures India provides to a traveller. The first place of our visit was to see the Mosque and tombs at Bijapur, a remarkable place to see the architectural excellence of Moguls and for the next 3 days saw some of the most ancient Hindu temples and scluptures, culminating our ‘sight seeing’at Sharvanabelagola, a holy site for Jains. All these places are declared as UNESCO world heritage sites now and well protected.
Of course you can see a mixture of Byzantine and Muslim cultures in Istanbul and Christian/Muslim influence elsewhere. But I have not seen anywhere a prototype for temples for Hindu, Jain and Buddhist (3 great religions of the world) at a single site, as I saw in Pattadakal. So my request to young readers is to see Badami before you think of going to Barcelona. Check out Aihole before you book your tickets to Amsterdam to see the tulips. Explore Mahabalipuram before you rush to see La Tomatina in Madrid. The spectrum India provides for a traveller is unmatched and only by making a trip to these places you would understand the richness of Indian culture.
Finally thanks to JK, without the log he has written in the most legible handwriting in the family which only he could decipher, this blog would not have been possible.
I hope with all the technology available today, I can write a blog everyday during our 25th Anniversary trip and share it with readers in real time.