Sept. 27 World Tourism Day: Travel Bug-bitten

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

I have one great weakness, that of falling in love. Falling in love with places - places I tour and places where I worked earning three square meals a day. Be it the snowy Sikkim or its opposite the sunny Rajasthan, the water-locked Andamans or its opposite the landlocked Assam or Manipur, I tend to fall in love instantly and madly. Also, I desire to have a small hut somewhere in a corner of all these places. Sigh! I must be an Amabni to own luxurious cottages everywhere around our beautiful India but also around our beautiful globe! But Ambanis would always be more worried about their money and counting it than have time to visit and enjoy places. Poor guys!

I am rich in that respect. I had never crossed the borders of Tamil Nadu until 1978 when I drastically chose Port Blair as my first place of posting, more out of curiosity than out of necessity. What a jump! Andamans was an exotic and unpolluted place in 1978. There I travelled to see India’s real Southernmost point Parsons Pygmalion Point, later named Indira Point. I arrived there at the nick of time to watch the sun sink into Indian Ocean and click the most memorable sunset ever. I had a rare encounter with the King of the Great Andamanese tribe, the dwindling tribe with just 50 members. Cuttack in Odisha, my 2nd place of posting in 1980, is a riverside city, bang on the banks of Mahanadi River. There it was like time machine travel to 2000 years back visiting Dhauli where Emperor Ashoka fought & won the nasty Kalinga war, only to convert to Buddhism, and the Jain caves of Khandagiri-Udhayagiri predating even Buddhism by a century and more! Words fail to describe the monumental Sun Temple of Konark and the architecturally rich temples of Bhubaneswar! The congregation of lakhs of almost hysterical devotees at the Puri Jagannath temple car festival (ratha jatra) is to be witnessed to be believed. Gangtok in Sikkim, my third place of posting in 1983, was altogether apart. I felt as if I was transported to the mystic Tibet. In fact, I ‘saw’ Tibet from Nathula border in 1983, much before the border was thrown open for trade & tourism, as I officially hitchhiked with a parliamentary committee! A distant peak was pointed out to be of Bhutan; so, I have ‘seen’ Bhutan also. My love for Sikkim was so overflowing that I wanted to marry a Sikkimese damsel and settle down there itself. Unfortunately, my offer was not warmly reciprocated. Dejected, like a wandering monk I visited various monasteries in Sikkim, Darjeeling and even Nepal watching the ‘chham’ (religious dances) and praying to Lord Buddha to fulfill my desire of becoming the son-in-law of Sikkim because I can’t be the Son of the Soil of Sikkim. There I got the chance to admire the snow-clad Himalayan peaks, including Mt. Everest and Mt. Khangchendzonga, world’s 1st and 3rd tallest peaks. But Buddha decided otherwise and I was shunted back to the sultry Madras. Though the name has now changed to Chennai it still remains sultry!

As my dad was on transferable job, we frequently shifted our camp within Tamil Nadu like a gypsy family, but this gave chance to visit places in & around those towns. We travelled to religious places like Rameswaram, Kodaikanal, Kanyakumari, Lord Karthik’s Palani & Thiruchendur temples. While for elders these were purely religious tours, for kids they were exciting trips to explore, for the first time, the mighty sea and the majestic Palani hills. I faintly remember the school excursions, but once when my elder sisters were taken on an excursion to Kanyakumari, I bitterly wept & cried to be included as the sole exception from the primary section to join the middle section students. Needless to say, I was pampered and taken care of by all during that ‘unforgettable’ trip. It seems the travel bug must have first bitten me then only.  During my polytechnic days, they took us on a trip to the hill station of Ooty during, believe me, peak December! As we were in peak youth the cold did not bite us.

Retired from service, I look back contently at the satisfactory usage level of Leave Travel Concession (LTC) facility to roam around within our vast country. It was rumoured that Modi government would extend LTC to SAARC countries also but it never materialized until I retired. I pray it never comes through, now that I have retired! Carrying our infant boy we travelled to Bombay (the then name) and Thiruvananthapuram/Kanyakumari, so had to restrict our local visits there. But we made it to the Elephanta Caves to amaze at the massive but finely chiseled statues, and to the land’s tip to watch sunrise and sunset. A visit to the hill resort of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu to wonder at the once-in-12-year mass flowering of ‘Kurinji’ is vividly blue in my memory.

I took my family to my earlier places of posting – to Andamans after 30 years and to Sikkim after 35 years. Unfortunately, I had to retire at 60 and so could not take them to Odisha, for which I had to spend my hard-earned pension money! Never mind! Instead, we had visited Rajasthan to roll in the sandy deserts and have a peek at Pakistan from afar. For count sake, I can claim I have ‘seen’ Pakistan also, besides Tibet & Bhutan! The excellent upkeep of royal monuments and water-filled lakes made me go green with envy. During our Manipur trip, we escaped to Myanmar for a few hours to claim a visit abroad without passport & visa hassles. Manipur during Yaoshang (Holi) was an enriching experience! In the adjacent Assam, sighting of baby rhinos and elephants was quite exciting. The ferry trip across the swirling Brahmaputra River to Majuli, world’s biggest river island, and visit to Vaishnavaite mutts there was a lifetime experience.

As a gang of relatives, we explored the source of River Cauvery in Karnataka with a refreshing stay at a resort hidden in the coffee estate of Coorg hills. We paid our reverence to the Jain monk Bahubali at Saravanabelagola where his massive stone statue is installed. It was awesome! One day was not enough to go around the Mysore Palace and view its collections.

When our office organized weeklong publicity campaigns across the state, I joined the bandwagon voluntarily with the ulterior motive of seeing unseen places. I was indeed richly rewarded – the wildlife at Gudalur near Ooty, the Chettinadu Palace in Karaikudi, my alma maters after 40 years, revered temples like the Big Temple of Thanjavur and its duplicate in Gangaikonda Cholapuram, the Chidambaram temple, the 2000-year-old Kallanai dam, etc.

There are still many places in the beautiful land of ours that is India which I am yet to visit. One of them is God’s Own Country, Kerala, which I visited recently during the most celebrated Onam festival there, thanks to my friend’s invite. I used this opportunity to revisit Kanyakumari after 30 years. It was an invite from another friend that helped me wonder at one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Taj Mahal! When there is so much to see & admire within India, why rush to other countries!  Before Lord Yama takes me to heaven or drags me to hell (mostly hell), I hope to cover as much of our Enchanting India, please!                 

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[The purpose of World Tourism Day as  observed by the UNO is to foster awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value. The event seeks to address global challenges outlined in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to highlight the contribution the tourism sector can make in reaching these goals.]