Friday, December 21, 2007

A River Runs Through It

Which is about a trip

In October 2007, we visited Konaseema. What follows is a kind of report. Thanks to Space Bar for the introduction, to Lesley for making the junket possible, and to Outlook Traveller for footing the bill. It will appear/has appeared in the "Weekend Breaks from Hyderabad" book from Outlook's Getaway series.

Note that much of the practical information (phone numbers, timings, prices etc.) has been carefully edited out of this draft. If you're a friend of Ludwig, you can ask him, and he will duly divulge. Otherwise, you will have to buy the book and find out for yourselves. For in this manner, Outlook will make money, and hopefully send Ludwig on more gallivants. Read this for some very pertinent thoughts on the matter. In any case, if you're in the AP/Karnataka/TN region, you should probably just buy the book, seeing as it will be filled with lots of practical information that will help you realize the Ultimate Brahman or whatever during one of your weekends.

Previous (non-mercenary) trip reports:

Bhubaneswar-Konark-Chilka weekend

Bandipur

Pondicherry

Belur-Halebid-Chickmagalur

Train - Vizag-Delhi

Train - Across America

Random list of memorable train journeys

INTRO

The people who live along the Godavari in Andhra have a curious turn of phrase to describe the annual floods that the river brings. "Godaari vachhindi", they say, "Godavari has come." It is as though the river is a person who has packed her bags and gone off to live somewhere upstream during the dry months, exposing the sandy bottom. Little trickles and small pools that soundlessly give up the ghost in the heat are the only reminders that the riverbed’s days in the sun are borrowed time.

For soon the Godavari will come, the real Godavari; the generous provider of water for the summer crop; the careless invader of banks that sweeps away everything it can carry. For the people who live on the great rivers of the world, they are more than mere sources of alternating despair and salvation. The river has life; it is almost sentient, an aging relative, with moods and mood-swings that perhaps only those who live on it can fathom.

And perhaps no one on the Godavari feels this kinship more than the people of Konaseema, seeing as the very piece of earth they call home is bounded and defined by the river. This is where it all ends for the Godavari, a last chance to lavish its attention on the land, before slipping serenely and gracefully into the ocean.

So it leaves behind a final offering, a verdant triangle of coconut groves and paddy fields. When the clamour of traffic and the greys of concrete and asphalt and smog smother your spirit, head for Konaseema. The weariness will slough off and like the river you "...shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, dropping from the veils of the morning..." Perhaps you will discover your own Innisfree, and remember it in the deep heart’s core.

Fieldwork

ORIENTATION

Technically, Konaseema is an island, but only in the sense that Manhattan is an island or Bengal is an island. The exhausted Godavari is sundered in twain just downstream of Rajahmundry, and fans out into its delta. Konaseema is the roughly triangular region between the Gautami and Vasishta Godavari rivers (the northernmost/easternmost and southernmost/westernmost branches) and the Bay of Bengal.

The delta is dotted with picturesque fields, villages and temples and makes for great drives if you have access to a car. The APTDC facility itself is located on the Vasishta at the village of Dhindi. As you cross the deliciously named Chinchinada Bridge on NH 214, you can see the resort on the left bank if you look downstream.

Chinchinada Bridge

Palakollu (12 km) is the most convenient railhead for Dhindi. Local transport in the form of negotiable non-metered autos and share autos are available within and between major towns and villages such as Narsapur, Palakollu, Razolu and Antarvedi. Reasonably frequent RTC buses also ply between these towns and connect to Amalapuram, Rajahmundry and Vijayawada.

With the river wending its sluggish way through all these places, you may be forgiven for thinking that you could float up and downstream to your destination. Alas, the state of inland water transport isn’t what it could be! Although if you find yourself in Antarvedi and in a hurry to catch an evening train from Narsapur, one option is to get to the village of Sakhinetipalli and take the ferry across the river.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Thankfully, since you will likely spend much of your time in Konaseema on the deck of a gently bobbing houseboat and pampering your taste buds, there isn’t a whole lot by way of sightseeing to do. Which is a very different thing from saying that there are no sights to see.

Uppder deck view

Expect a good part of the weekend to pass in splendid isolation, contemplating such profundities as the fickleness of the river and how it is a metaphor for life. Once on terra firma, and if you are so inclined, there are a number of charming shrines scattered around the region that you can visit.

Houseboat Cruise
The APTDC houseboat cruise is the high point of the Konaseema experience. The cruises start at 10 a.m. from a coconut grove in the village of Dhindi and end around the same time next morning (if you opt for the 24-hour experience). Before you leave, discuss what you want to have for lunch with the staff on shore (there’s no cooking in the vessel, so to speak) and they will get busy while you drift about. Make sure to ask for local specialities, especially fish and prawn centred delicacies.

The crew will take you some way downstream and upstream from Dhindi. How far and how long you want to go is configurable. One option is to float downstream until the town of Narsapur and motor back up to Dhindi in time for lunch.

Ze river

You will spot fishermen going about earning their day’s wages in little open sailboats (naavus) with canvas and plastic sails. On the banks there will be boys practising fishing in the shallows. The occasional motored craft will wend its way gingerly, avoiding shoals and underwater nets. If you stretch your imagination a little bit, maybe you will feel the shades of Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain hovering near the gunwales.

Life on the Godavari

Ever so often, something iridescent and altogether unexpected will break the cover of the verdure of the shore and dash across the water. For the ornithology enthusiast, it might be worthwhile carrying binoculars. Kingfishers, drongos, Brahminy kites, the ubiquitous lapwings and other familiars are to be found close at hand.

The rest of the afternoon could be spent upstream near the islet of Sivakodilanka, with a return to Dhindi in time a silent and spectacular sunset. Dinner is served on board. Turn off the lights and sit on the upper deck and feel the stillness of the night about you, and watch the stars tremble as they switch on.

Sundown - Peace comes dropping slow...

Sivakodilanka Island
"Island" is the sort of word the Sivakodilanka islet would use to describe itself on a resume. This sandbar on steroids is located less than a kilometre upstream from Dhindi, across from the Chinchinada (there’s that word again!) bridge. The cheerful staff will be sure to point out the world-famous-in-Konaseema "five-branched palm tree" as you approach Sivakodilanka.

The world famous five-branched palm

The island is covered with different types of tall grasses and reeds, and scrub vegetation. Up until 2006, the houseboats would take you to the island for games on the sand in the evening, camp fires and other revels. After dinner, the boats would anchor mid-river and drift about all night thanks to the push-pull action of the river current and the ocean’s tides. Overnight camping was also permitted.

Alas, the flooding of the Godavari has put paid to all that. The good news is that there is talk about restarting the overnight stay and games etc. so be sure to check both at the time of booking and with the crew on what the possibilities are. Depending on the weather, the water level and the flow, it might still be possible to disembark and do a picnic on the island, or even go for a swim.

WHERE TO STAY

Not being on anybody’s default list of destinations (yet), Konaseema doesn’t come with too many options on the accommodation front. The APTDC rules the roost for the moment. But as the outside world finds out more about this bucolic haven, it is surely a matter of time before alternatives become available.

Without a doubt the sine qua non of the Konaseema experience is the APTDC houseboat cruise. As of this writing, it is not only the best accommodation option available; it is virtually the only accommodation available.

Home

Each boat has two surprisingly well-appointed cabins with tiny but adequate attached bathrooms. The rooms come with pedestal fans, mosquito netting and air conditioning. There are plug points should you want to charge your phone or laptop, although you’ll have to ask the crew to run the generator. Towels are provided, but you’ll have to carry all your toiletries and other needs with you. The helpful crew and other APTDC staff can help you with arrangements such as autos or taxis, bus schedules and advice on local culinary and cultural attractions.

The roofs of the cabins and the gangway in between form the floor of an upper deck, which is accessed by clambering up a wooden ladder. There’s a canopy big enough to keep the elements out and yet open enough to let the sun and the wind in. There are chairs to lounge in and small tables should you want to play a hand or simply put your feet up. Carry something to read or board games or just sit and watch life on the river.

Right opposite the boat jetty, on the edge of a quiet green pool, in the middle of the coconut grove are the cottages of the Dhindi Resorts Pvt. Ltd. There are two tiled, air-conditioned cottages with oodles of decorative woodwork and sit-outs overlooking the pond. Lake View is a single bedroom unit and Vasishta has two rooms.

Cottage

The town of Narsapur has a few basic budget options. Hotel Madhuri on the Main Road is close to the bus stand and railway station, and can arrange taxis. Hotel Sri Vijaya Durga has tidy rooms and is also on the Main Road, closer to the bus stand.

APTDC is building a massive 33-room resort with attached bar and restaurant at Dhindi right next to the boat jetty. As of this writing, construction was in full swing and is expected to be complete in 3 months.

WHERE TO EAT

When you go for a weekend break in a houseboat on a river near where it empties into the sea, what would you expect to eat? If you’re thinking fish and prawns, reach around and give yourself a pat on the back. While the Coromandel Coast remains somewhat overshadowed by its Malabar and Konkan counterparts as far experiments with seafood are concerned, your taste-buds will likely be pleasantly surprised by the menu.

As with accommodation, the APTDC will mostly dictate what you have to sate your appetites. Talk to the staff about what the options are as far as food goes, and be monomaniacal in your desire to eat fish. By the time you sail in for lunch, they will have cooked up a storm.

Hotel Madhuri in Narsapur also comes up trumps. Try the maaga and pandugappa fishes, curried or fried and throw in some prawns for the sake of variety. If you’re vegetarian and haven’t tried them before, you can ask for Andhra special curries and dals and discover a whole new cuisine you didn’t know existed. A meal for two (including the fish and prawns) will set you back to the tune of a princely Rs. 200 - Rs. 250!

There are lots of cheap-and-best eateries along the main highways, but be prepared for not-perfect cleanliness and to take on the spiciness for which the cuisine of the Andhra region is known (and feared!).

AROUND KONASEEMA

Antarvedi (20 km)
The temple town of Antarvedi is at the end of a short drive from Dhindi, over bosky, canal-lined back-roads, through numerous villages and small towns. Simply being in the middle of the vivid greens of paddy and coconut, and the relatively laidback ways of the country will do much to soothe jangled nerves. The quiet temple and beach at journey’s end are icing on the cake.

The Lakshmi Narasimha Swami Temple is the reason why most people come to Antarvedi. The sthala puraana has it that the sage Vasishta consecrated the shrine in honour of Lord Narasimha for avenging the death of Vasishta’s sons at the hands of Raktavilochana, the asura son of Hiranyakashipu. While the first temple is supposed to have been built in the 15th or 16th century, it was subsequently destroyed. The current edifice was completed in 1923.

Outside the Lakshmi Narasimha Swami temple

The temple is designed such that on the day of the Ratha Saptami (in January/February), the rays of the setting sun fall directly on the feet of the deity. The Antarvedi shrine has a quietude and unhurriedness about it that is in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of most temples nowadays.

The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam runs a choultry in Antarvedi.

Antarvedi lighthouse and beach

The picturesque Antarvedi lighthouse complex is a couple of kilometres down the road from the temple, on a stretch of deserted, windswept beach. The neatly painted tower stands in a little complex of its own, complete with pump house, electrical equipment, and staff quarters.

Clamber up 7 floors of steps inside the building and a final metal ladder, and you will find yourself treated to gob-smacking views of patchwork fields glinting in the sun, and fishing vessels taking shelter in the estuary. After its rough and tumble journey from Maharashtra, here is where the sighing Godavari finally joins the Bay of Bengal.

The view from a lighthouse

The beach itself is desolate, and a serviceable picnic spot, although the only shade around is offered by clumps of casuarinas. It is the perfect location for one to engage in those solitary and essential interrogations of oneself.

Antarvedi beach

FAST FACTS
When to go
Basically - in winter. Summers are hot (sometimes very hot, this is Andhra Pradesh!) and it can get very sweaty and sticky in these parts. The rains have the unfortunate side effect of making the river unpredictable, and hey suddenly after lunch all that plunging up and down through the swell isn’t all that much fun anymore. November - January is probably best, but make sure to check the weather report for signs of those utterly unpredictable annual Bay of Bengal productions called tropical cyclones and depressions. If you can put up with a bit of humidity and sweat, or don’t mind getting a little wet, it might be worth going just for the sultry stillness of summer or the susurrus of showers.

LAST BUT NOT THE LEAST (WE-DONT-USE-CLICHES.COM)

A word about the culinary piece de resistance of Konaseema. Upon the mildest interrogation, any local will happily inform you that you really haven’t lived life until you’ve tasted the pulasa fish.

In August/September, as the Godavari brings the fresh water that the monsoon has deposited in the hills to the sea, the pulasa make their way upstream to lay eggs. The fish becomes fleshy, fat, and irresistibly delicious and the market price shoots up by as much as an order of magnitude over the deep sea version. So much so that a proverb in these parts wholeheartedly recommends the pawning of a mangala sutram to pay for the pulasa.

Because of its seasonal nature, the pulasa is not exactly the easiest thing to come by. Even when available, it usually doesn’t find its way into local eateries because of the price. However, do remember to ask the houseboat staff if there is even a slight chance they can rustle up some pulasa. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

If you’re wondering where you’ve heard this story of the fish-that-is-cheap-and-thin-in-the-sea-and-fat-and-expensive-in-the-river, that’s because the pulasa of Konaseema is none other than the ilish/hilsa that Bengal swears by!

Antarvedi beach, from lighthouse

14 comments:

Space Bar said...

lovely lovely! much joy comes from having made the introduction.

Phantasmagoria said...

When we were crying on your shoulder about vacation from vacation why 'o why didn't you suggest any of this. BAH! I shall take back all endearments this instance. Hmph.

Ludwig said...

[space bar] thanks to ye kindly.

[ph] the horror, the horror. who would've thunk that you might've been interested in obscure Andhra backwaters, when such a wealth of treasures is to be possibly found within spitting distance of Bengaluru? oversight, apologies etc. please un-hmph and allow the end. to come back to their rightful owner.

Lesley E said...

many, many more junkets will be thrown your way, ludwig ji. you bring out the beauty of coastal andhra so well. makes me long and long to be there, and not staring at the unflattering backside of rajinder da dhaba in this smoggy north indian winter

Nitish said...

And to think that the only places that I thought off, when i wanted to take a weekend break from Hyd were Srisailam or Bangalore.
Brilliant stuff monsieur!

And can't wait for the Outlook traveller weekend getaways from hyd. I am a big fan of those books and would love to see what they can come up with for Hyd.

Ludwig said...

[lesley] thank ye kindly. and may something more sublime than rajinder da d. happen to you soon!

[nitish] thanks, mon. yeah, the book is going to be very, very useful, i'm thinking. i've seen the list of destinations, and hadn't heard of half of them!

kbpm said...

yes. very nice. will eagerly await book.

Just Kiddin said...

Your blog are there. It are super are there. Will visit frequently and read.

jk

Ludwig said...

[kbpm] be that as it may, how are we shaping up for Jan 20? the blog is keeping me updated, of course. feel visibly tubbier after Mallu-land trip, where industrial quantities of coconut oil have been consumed. 18 k this weekend, inshallah.

[just kiddin] kishore! welcome. thank you. you just keeps on comes and we will provide gas here...

bunty said...

I want to go to dhindi resorts, how I can?, means need a web adrees or corresponding phone number to know the details. can u please send it me.

Sudheer Marisetti said...

Excellent write-up. I am taking the same trip in a week's time and your information is incredibly useful. My ancestors hail from this region and I am retracing my steps through those villages. Now that I read your blog, I now know what to see and experience.

Ludwig said...

[bunty] You can get all the information you need in Outlook Traveler's "Weekend Breaks from Hyderabad" guide which is available at most bookstores in AP and nearby.

[Sudheer] Glad you like the piece, and I hope you have a good trip. Looks like your blog have quite a bit of travel content, it will be great if you could do a write-up about your experiences and post a link.

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