May 9, 2016

Lepakshi- A Testimony to Vijayanagara Architecture

The sun rose slowly and splashed a deep orange hue over the horizon as we left Bangalore and its cluttered traffic behind. The Royal Enfields thumped their way across the barren brown vast lands of Karnataka- Andhra border into Rayalseema on a fairly cold morning to Lepakshi. It is known for its 16th century Veerabhadra temple built on a hillock during the Vijayanagara empire. Lepakshi is believed to be the location where Ravana and Jadayu had a tussle in Ramayana.

Shortly after the border at Bagepalli, we detoured onto the village road. The green surrounding was a delight from the brown landscape on the highway. The road snaked its way past tiny villages, smiling onlookers and small shops before being welcomed by the huge monolithic Nandi (bull) sculpture just before the temple. The place was crowded with visitors, pilgrims and locals.

Climbing the steps, we entered the massive entry door, and beautifully lined pillar with chiselled sculptures which runs all along the outer courtyard welcomed us. We ambled along gazing at the wonderful art work to the assembly hall or natya mantap. A huge dance hall during the golden times, what remains now are numerous pillars, many of which are free standing ones. Every pillar has a figurine or a mythological character chiseled on it. From one wonderful creation to another, we walked further along the pathway to the huge carving of Ganapathy and then to the massive hooded naga with a shivlinga beneath it. The naga structure is absolutely a marvelous creation carved out of a single rock.

Natya mantapa or assembly hall

Further ahead lies the ante chamber or the ardha mantapa. A relief from the scorching sun, this mantapa undoubtedly holds the best of the creations at Veerabhadra temple. Numerous pillars with exquisite chisel work adorn this mantapa. Every pillar here has large magnificent sculptures of dancers, musicians, mythological characters, saints and figurines. There are pillars where scenes from mythology are portrayed through the carvings. The ceiling of this mantapa has huge frescoes depicting 14 avatars of Shiva. Though most of it has faded, the detailing is still visible. These frescoes are considered to be the largest in Asia and is a wonderful testimony of Vijayanagara pictorial art work. The biggest attraction here is the hanging pillar, a free standing pillar which does not touch the base floor and happily hangs from the top. Many tourists were seen sliding their towels beneath the pillar to test the same. Though the story behind this is fairly unknown, the technicalities taken into consideration even during those times does need an applause. The ardha mantapa faces the inner sanctum where the presiding  idol Veerabadra sits in full grandeur.

Ardha mantapa

The hanging pillar

View of inner sanctum from ardha mantapa
We walked down from the ante chamber to circumnavigate the inner sanctum and get back onto the outer courtyard with more pillared walkways by the side. There is no dearth of pillars with sculptures at Veerabhadra temple as they are present all over the temple premises. This temple at Lepakshi is soaked in architecture and it is an absolute delight to gaze at the magnificent creations and go back in history. Had a short pit stop by the huge monolithic Nandi structure (the largest nandi structure in India) before riding through the meandering village road back to the highway.

Outer courtyard
Nandi structure

Getting there: Lepakshi is 125 Kms from Bangalore. Drive on NH-7, cross the Karnataka- Andhra border and a take a left at Kodikonda after Bagepalli. There are regular buses from Hindupur to Lepakshi. Closest railway station is at Hindupur.

Food and Accommodation:Though there are small eateries in Lepakshi, Chikballarpur and Hindupur has better options.

May 3, 2016

Shaniwar Wada: Through the Lens

Built in 1732 by the Peshwas, this is a landmark structure in the heart of Pune town. It was occupied by the Pehawas until 1818 when they lost the Anglo- Maratha war to the British. The fort has five entrance gates and Dilli Darwaza is the main one.The fort had many important structures inside such as the reception hall, dance hall and mirror hall along with wooden pillars, doorways in teak wood, chandeliers, paintings and rugs, most of which were gutted in a fire in 1828. Presently it has a nice garden, the palace fountain and ruins of various structures. This historic fort is claimed to be haunted by the ghost of Narayanrao, the fifth Peshwa ruler who was murdered by his guards.

April 28, 2016

Tranquebar- Land of the Singing Waves

The road wore a deserted look and puffed dust on a hot afternoon as I drove past the large arch entrance gate into the erstwhile Danish colony of Tranquebar. There were hardly any people on the road and the freshly white painted churches glared under the bright sun. I went past many narrow cobbled roads that detoured from the main road, which had a couple of colonial  buildings and a few traditional houses, the front doors of which had locks dangling. The road led further with a whiff of salty air and rolling sands on the tarmac until I reached Bungalow on the Beach, a 17th century heritage property and my abode for next 2 days.

Tranquebar, which is also referred to  as Tharangambadi (translates to 'land of singing waves') was earlier called as Trankebar by the Danes and is the most popular colony under the Danish. Ruled by the Cholas and Pandyas, its proximity to the sea made Tranquebar a busy trading port by the 15th century. Arabs, Portuguese, British and Danes frequently traded here and with the establishment of Danish East India company and the construction of Dansborg fort, the Danes took over Tranquebar. Along with the two hundred year presence of the Danish, Tranquebar was also influenced by German missionaries sent by the Danish King in early 18th century.

Until a few years back, Tranquebar almost resembled a ghost town with dilapidated colonial buildings and a few villagers. However, with restoration work and help from various organizations, Tranquebar now has crawled back to normalcy and is quite an attraction for history lovers. 

Located adjacent to Masilamaninathar temple, Tranquebar beach and Dansborg fort, the three most popular attractions in Tranquebar, the Bungalow on the beach was earlier a colonial house which belonged to the Danish Governor which has been restored by Neemarana hotel. The colonial architecture is ubiquitous with high ceilings, chandeliers, tall wooden doors, long verandahs and surreal rooms which takes you back a few centuries. All the rooms have been named after various Danish ships that sailed to Tranquebar and the corridors offer gorgeous panoramic vistas of the Bay of Bengal.

As the sun mellowed, I walked across to the 17th century Dansborg fort. Built in 1620 A.D. by the Danish royal navy commander, the fort was one of the structures in this coastal hamlet that withstood the wrath of the tsunami in 2004. Consisting of two levels, the fort was used as a prison, storage area and residences for priests and the governor. Ramparts of the fort wall extends into the sea and I almost mistook them for rocks over looking the sea. The murky yellow on the fort's exterior was getting a fresh coat and there were more restoration work under progress. I would rather prefer to see it with all its ruggedness, dirt and moss. Near the entrance a few canons protruded staring at the dark clouds, the blue waters and the numerous colourful fishing boats. The fort now has a museum which houses the history of Tranquebar, its trade pacts, agreements, trade route maps, portraits of Danish governors, miniature ships and various other antique displays. An ideal place to run through the history lanes of Tranquebar. I strolled around for a while and then went in search of the Danish cemetery, a few meters away from the fort in a by-lane. The gate was locked while the graves looked bright in white paint as I peeped through the rusted grills.

Dansborg fort
Ramparts of fort wall

All the places of interest are a short distance away from each other and I decided to walk myself through the colonial lanes (Kings street, Queens street, Admiral street etc.) and beautiful buildings of Tranquebar. Kings Street is the main street in Tranquebar and most of the popular attractions are here. While the fort lies adjacent, Bungalow on the Beach is located on this street. Adjoining it lies the Governor's bungalow, which has been restored by the Denmark national museum after the tsunami in 2004. Visitors aren't allowed inside this beautiful structure with tall pillars which also acted as an administrative office during the Danish rule. Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg monument on Kings street was built to commemorate the social services by the scholar to people of all community. He was responsible for the establishment of the first printing press in India and for printing the bible in Tamil for the first time.

Governor's bungalow

Tranquebar has a couple of pretty looking churches and Zion church built in 1701 A.D. was the first that I visited. Believed to be the first protestant church in India, it has beautiful stained glasses, plaques of Christ and apostles and a few tombstones within its premises. Next in line on the Kings street was New Jerusalem church which undoubtedly is the most beautiful church in this colonial village. Built in German and Danish architectural style in 1718, the premises also houses the grave of Ziegenbalg. I spent some solitude moments inside the church before walking out in search of another colonial structure. Von Theiligen house  also referred to as the Pillar house was another attractive building that caught my attention as I walked down the Kings street. I went past a few training institutes, convents and schools before the street ended at the entrance gateway. Built in 1792 A.D., this majestic arch has nice art works and has its doors made of teak wood. 

Zion church
New Jerusalem church
Entry arch
From the Kings street I trod onto the Queens street, where the maritime museum with numerous displays and Flora cottage, where the members of Tranquebar association stay are located. I walked further to Admiral street where the oldest printing press in India was started. Though restored, the building remained closed and did not seem like it was functional. Ziegenbalg's house which has now been converted into a boy's hostel is also located on the same street. While the Mosque street houses a dargah, the Goldsmith's street has many houses (such as Glorious Illam, Nayak house etc.) bought and restored by Best Seller Foundation and Neemrana hotels. 

India's first printing press

As the sun set, walked back to the beach to take in more salty air, wet my feet and chase some crabs while the colourful boats still stared at the unending pink horizon in oblivion. 

Cocooned in Princess Louise, my room, I crept out when the alarm struck at 5:30 AM. It was still dark, but I could see a tinge of orange in the horizon. As the orange grew brighter, the silhouettes of fishermen and their boats made beautiful frames. The panoramic view of Dansborg fort  was visible and the colorful Masilamaninathar temple made its presence felt. It got brighter as I stood by the verandah capturing frames and welcoming the bright morning. 

Tranquebar has more to it than colonialism and the Masilamani nathar temple is a testimonial to that. Located by the sea, it has withstood nature's wrath along with increasing sea levels over the years and has been listening to the tunes of the waves since the 13th century. Showered with rocks after the tsunami in 2004, the coastline near the temple is well guarded and the waves thrash itself on to them. Built in typical South Indian architecture, the temple was unfortunately closed when I had visited. More fort ramparts submerged in the sea are visible from the temple. 

Shortly after I left behind the beautiful buildings and Danish history while taking back some colonial memories as the car went past the entrance arch of Tranquebar.

Getting there: There are frequent buses from Chennai (290 Kms) to Tranquebar. The closest rail head is at Mayiladuthurai (40 Kms) and the nearest airport is at Chennai. The closest major town is Chidambaram (51 Kms)

Accommodation and Food: Bungalow on the beach is the best place to stay, while Nayak house and Hotel Tamil Nadu are the other options. Though Tranquebar doesn't have many options to eat out, Bungalow on the beach and Nayak house have restaurants which serve both their guests and outsiders.

April 20, 2016

Grand Palace, Bangkok: A Photo Essay

It is not without a reason that Grand Palace is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Bangkok. The breathtaking structures, the glittering colours and the spellbinding art work makes Grand Palace a concoction of mesmerizing Thai architecture. Home to the royal family and the government until 1925, presently this is open to public and only certain official events are held here. Established in 1782, there has been numerous buildings that were added to the complex over the years during reigns of various rulers.

Located adjacent to the Chao Phraya river, the whole complex has various quarters such as Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Phra Maha Monthien group of buildings, Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat group of buildings, Phra Maha Prasat group of buildings, Dusit group of buildings, upper terrace, subsidiary buildings, museums, galleries and numerous courtyards. Quite a crowded place due to its popularity and presence on every itinerary, be ready to elbow yourself through tourists, selfie- takers, tour guides and a whole lot of visitors, while gawking at this architectural stunner.


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