April 14, 2015

Submerged...!!


A shrine lies semi- submerged in the expansive azure waters of River Krishna. 
Korti- Kolhar, Bijapur, Karnataka. October 2013.

March 26, 2015

That Distant Rain...!!


An evening shower drenching the town of Bijapur, as seen from Gol Gumbaz. Bijapur, Karnataka. October 2013.

March 4, 2015

Sarnath- Buddha Land...!!



Saffron had a subtle change in colour and the beards and long braids disappeared as the autorikshaw rode through the crowded dusty road from Varanasi to drop me off at Sarnath. Such a drastic change within 13 Kms. Sarnath, though geographically close to Varanasi is quite contrasting and does not possess the exuberance of its more famous neighbour. It is relatively peaceful, has many Buddhist temples, stupas, sculptures and excavations of ruins. After attaining enlightenment, Gautama Buddha travelled to Sarnath and preached his first sermon to his five companions at the deer park here. This stage in Buddhism is known as 'Dharma Chakra Pravartana' or 'the turning of the wheel of law'. Sarnath forms one of the four major pilgrim destinations for Buddhists, the others being Bodhgaya, Lumbini and Kushi nagar. Buddhism and the preachings of Buddha flourished in Sarnath until it was attacked by the west asian rulers in the 12th century. The place remained abandoned till the 18th century when the ruins were re-discovered.


A few guides approach to show me around the stupas and temples of Sarnath, but I ignore them and walk away with my guide book and a self made list of places to visit. I walk into the premises of Mulagandhakuti vihara, a Buddhist temple built by Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan Buddhist follower in early 20th century. He is also the founder of Maha Bodhi society of India. A nice garden with lined trees and school children welcome me as I walk in. The famous deer park is behind it. Along with seated Buddha statue, the insides of the temple has beautiful mural paintings depicting various scenes from the life of Gautama Buddha by Japanese artist, Kosetsu Nosu. Also nearby is a bodhi tree, which has grown from a cutting of the Bodhi tree in Gaya. As I walk close to the tree, I see huge statues of Buddha giving sermon to his disciples. The huge bell with intricate works and the surrounding inscriptions of the sermon along with colourful prayer flags fascinates and takes me closer to it.


Mulaganandha kutir





Beyond the trees and the garden, I see the huge Dhamek stupa dwarfing everything else in its vicinity. As I walk towards the 31 meter tall and 28 meter wide imposing structure, am dumbstruck by its magnitude. Built by emperor Ashoka in 249 B.C., the real name of the stupa is Dharma Chakra stupa. A few visitors light candles in front of the stupa while some circumnavigate it, not quite similar to the way it is done in Hindu temples. The followers take a couple of steps, then lie prostrate on the path and then keep repeating it as they navigate the majestic structure. Remnants of gold foil are seen on the outer of the stupa. Though prohibited from pasting the foils, pilgrims still press the foils hard onto the structure. The stupa also has wonderful geometrical designs and floral carvings on it.

Dhamek Stupa
In the near vicinity lies the excavations of monasteries, other stupas and ruins. I meander through the brick remains, more lush green gardens, saffron clad meditating monks, a swarm of tourists and school children who are spread all over the premises to reach the Ashokan Pillar remains. Only a cylindrical shaft remains here, well covered and away from the reach of visitors. Built during the times of emperor Ashoka, this tapering monolithic pillar made of sand stone displays Mauryan architecture and was first installed here. It once surmounted the four headed lions, The Lion Capital of Ashoka which is also the national emblem of India and is securely displayed at the site museum.  

Ruins

Ashoka pillar remains
I walk amidst the excavations envisaging the life of monks in the monasteries that existed a many centuries ago. In the distance I see the Dharmarajike stupa, with monks praying peacefully atop it. Dharmarajike stupa is one of other popular stupas built by emperor Ashoka to enshrine the relics of Lord Buddha. Only the base remains of the once existent stupa which was pulled down during the 18th century by the King of Benares to exploit various materials. A small crowd of monks is seated below the stupa and all I can see is meditation everywhere. The place is serene and my mind wanders into the lives of the monks again as I gaze at them from a distance. While I frame my subjects clad in saffron with a green background, a mild fog envelopes suddenly only to disappear within minutes. 


Dharmarajike Stupa
I leave the huge premises even as the monks continue their meditation. The red ruins turn feeble and hazy to my eyes as I walk out in search of Chaukanthi Stupa. Located a short walk away, this huge stupa made of bricks was built during the Gupta period in A.D. 5th century to mark the location where Buddha met his disciples while returning from Bodh Gaya. Atop the stupa is an octagonal brick structure built in Islamic style to commemorate the visit of Humayun, the mughal emperor. I enter the gates of the stupa and saunter towards it. There is no other soul in the vicinity as I gaze at the massive structure before me. I walk around its corners and from nowhere appears a group of buddhist monks who have just finished their meditation and are about to leave. They are absolutely nonchalant about this lonely visitor and do not even spare a glance. They gather their belongings in hushed silence and leave the premises as I still gaze at the stupa and walk around it. A close look reveals that the base of the stupa has interesting patterns and unlike now, must have been quite attractive when it was built. Sun has inched closer to the horizon and I am asked to leave by the guard who calls out from the road.

Chaukanthi Stupa
On the way back I pass the Wat Thai, which is a Buddhist temple which has a huge statue of the lord himself. I take a close look at the intimidating statue and go past it towards the Archaeological museum located next to the excavation site. Photography is prohibited and for a change I do not rush and explore the intricate inscriptions and works on the half broken sculptures and antiques displayed. With five galleries and two verandahs, the site museum at Sarnath has a plethora of displays ranging from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. which were discovered during the extensive excavation. This is a wonderful museum where visitors need to spend time, read the plaques and enjoy the unearthed art works and antiques. I loiter around until the authorities say it is time to close. 

Wat Thai
Numerous temple such as Chinese Buddhist temple, Tibetan Buddhist temple, Japanese Buddhist temple etc adorn the lanes of Sarnath. I walk into a couple of them and most of them are enveloped in serenity and peace. Well decorated Buddha statues with the country specific architecture and decorations adorn the insides and exteriors of these temples. Japanese temple is the last in line and surprisingly there is a small function with drum beats and hymns with a small crowd enjoying the beats. I too become a part of the evening ritual which ends shortly with chocolates being distributed.


Japanese temple

I go past the numerous vendors sell various buddhist paraphernalia on their push carts and small shops by the road to my final place of visit in Sarnath. Along with Buddhism, I add a tinge of Jainism and visit the Digamber jain temple before leaving the serene Sarnath for the chaotic Varanasi. Sarnath is also a pilgrim centre for Jains as it is the birth place of Shreyansanath, the eleventh thirthankara of Jainism. Its quiet, dark and peaceful inside the small temple. Without loitering around much, I leave the premises in search of an autorickshaw.

Jain temple
 The sun has gone down, visitors have left the roads of Sarnath deserted and it's become cold again. I get a glimpse of the excavations as the auto-rickshaw passes its gates. There are a few monks wrapped in saffron walking swiftly to their abodes. I look back for one last time at the land where Buddha gave his first sermon before the driver speeds past the lanes of Sarnath to the saffron land, which is far less serene.

Signing Note- Immerse in the serenity that prevails over the stupas, temples and excavations of Sarnath...!!

Location- 13 Kms from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

February 25, 2015

Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014

After a mesmerising Biennale in 2012-13, Kochi is back to its artistic best with Aspinwall, Pepper House, David Hall, Durbar Art Gallery, Calvathy street and every nook and corner turning into works of art. Biennale is back! The brilliant art exhibition has gained popularity over a period of time with artists from various corners of the globe joining hands to bring out their creative work. It is undoubtedly one of the most creative exhibitions in the country. In addition to the exhibitions of art works, paintings, videos and much more, there are also cultural shows, collateral projects and art cinemas that are screened for the art lovers. Held from December 2014, this wonderful display of art culminates on the 29th of March 2015.

For more details please visit- http://kochimuzirisbiennale.org/





Shadow painting
Works by artist Nampoothiri



Location- Fort Kochi and surroundings.

February 23, 2015

Reminiscences of Communism...!!


Long before Biennale became popular and frescoes adorned the walls of Kochi, communism had its red painted all over, with many national and international comrade's faces. Such wall arts are a rarity these days with most of them confined to the dilapidated inner walls of old reading rooms, libraries and party offices. A couple of them can be found while you stroll along the by-lanes of Fort Kochi.

Comrade Santo Gopalan memorial library and reading room, Fort Kochi. February 2015.

February 12, 2015

Kochi- A Colonial Melting Pot...!!

"If Canton (China) is where you make your money, then Cochin is the place to spend it", said the middle ages Italian traveller, Niccolo de Conti. 


Kochi also known as Cochin has forever seduced travellers and traders and moored them to its shores for ages. This island town that still exhibits glimpses of its glorious past can best be described as a colonial melting pot. Kochi became prominent when a natural port was formed after River Periyar flooded the Muziris port at Kodungallur, north of Kochi in AD 1341. Centuries ago, explorers from world over and foreign invaders landed on this tiny island, a ferry ride away from Ernakulam, its twin city on mainland. The visits by Jews, Chinese and various western travellers when it was a spice trading centre has left a long lasting impression on this now popular port town. The influences of the Portuguese, Dutch and English who occupied the town from as early as the 16th century is evident even today. Be it the narrow lanes, the fishing nets, the cemeteries, the palaces, the churches, the antique shops, the boutique hotels or the umpteen number of cafes, Kochi emanates more foreign flavours than the local ones. This colonial influence has been the impetus in churning out Kochi, aptly named Queen of the Arabian sea, into one of the top travel destinations in the country. 

Venduruthy bridge greets as you leave the mainland to cross the Vembanad lake into Willingdon island that connects Kochi with the mainland. The road then crosses another bridge over the Lakshadweep sea to enter Kochi. Various fragrances hit you as the road winds its way through the bakeries of Thopumpady, the spice markets of Mattancherry and the sea food stalls of Fort Kochi. The enchanting landscape has islands strewn across Vembanad lake, mesmerising backwaters and expansive Lakshadweep sea. Areas in and around Fort Kochi and Mattancherry are collectively referred to as Kochi. There are more tiny islands surrounding Kochi and Willingdon such as Bolghatty and Vypeen which are just a ferry ride away. For the visitors, Kochi offers a plethora of historical places to visit and cultural experiences to soak in-

Delve into Jewish history at the Synagogue-

Pardeshi Synagogue as it is referred to as, stands at the end of the narrow lane that leads to it. The towering clock tower in the background stands testimony to the times and lives of the Jews who have lived here for centuries. Only a few Jewish families remain who haven't made their way to Israel. Built in 1568 by the descendents of Spanish and Dutch Jews , this is the oldest Synagogue in the commonwealth of nations. Its interiors are adorned with Belgian chandeliers, hand painted blue and white Chinese porcelain tiles, Hebrew inscriptions on slabs and Verses from old testament. Remains closed on Fridays and Saturdays. Photography is prohibited inside.

Clock Tower
Hebrew inscriptions
Visit the Dutch Palace-

Gifted by the Portuguese in mid 16th century to the then Raja of Kochi, it is often referred to as Mattancherry palace. It was later renovated by the Dutch after they defeated the Portuguese and hence its name. Presently it is a museum with beautiful murals across its walls. Closed on Fridays. Photography is prohibited insie.

Soak in the architecture of Santa Cruz Basilica-

With a Gothic facade and tall spires, this Basilica built by the Portuguese is an imposing one. The Basilica is well known for its spellbinding interiors and paintings. While the original church at this site which dates to mid 16th century was demolished by the British, the present one was built in the late 19th century.



Walk into St. Francis Church-

Built in early 16th century by the Portuguese, the St. Francis church is believed to be India's oldest European church. Gorgeous gravestones adorn the walls of its insides. The church has undergone several restorations from being a wooden  chapel to what it is now under the rule of Portuguese, Dutch and English.  Vasco da Gama was first buried here and later his remains were shifted to Lisbon.


A moment of silence at the Dutch cemetery- 

Across the small closed gates of the cemetery lies the graves of numerous Dutchmen who were laid to rest almost 300 years ago. Entry is denied and the tombstones amidst the tall grasses can be viewed only from outside the gates.


 Amble along Fort Immanuel-

Though it doesn't offer much to a visitor, Fort Immanuel located very close to the beach is probably the reason why Kochi has a 'Fort' attached to its name. The fortification was done by the Portuguese in early 16th century and demolished by the British later. Only very little of the fort remains presently.

Explore the Portuguese museum-

With a wide display of Portuguese artefacts, this multistory building has a huge collection from various churches of Catholic communities and is a delight for historians. The museum remains closed on Mondays.

Gather information at SNC Maritime museum-

This museum depicts in detail the Indian naval history with numerous maps, plaques, murals and medieval trade routes. Well recommended if one is keen on India's naval evolution and history. The museum remains closed on Mondays.

Help pull up the Chinese Fishing nets-

Located off the Vasco Square, these cantilevered huge fishing nets have become synonymous with Kochi and are locally known as 'Cheenavala'. Introduced in 14th century by travellers from Kublai Khan's court, only a few remain and it requires a few fishermen to pull them up. One can tip them and join in pulling up the nets. Undoubtedly the best place in Kochi to catch the setting sun go down the horizon.


Walk along Fort Kochi Beach and Promenade-

Despite not being a beach where can one work on their tan, it has a nice promenade where one can stroll along in the evenings and enjoy the sunset as the ships pass by and fishermen pull up the Chinese fishing nets. There are a few eateries where one can relish the fresh catches of the day. 


Stroll through the by-lanes-

Fort Kochi is well known for its numerous quaint streets with European names, of which the Princess street in the most well known one. There are numerous shops selling a plethora of interesting things from coffee and spices to antiques at Jew town. Stroll through the alleyways and get lost amidst them. The charming little cafes are where you can read a book on a lazy afternoon as you sip some caffeine. Lined along the streets are the old bright coloured and immaculate Portuguese bungalows in European styled architecture, most of which have been converted into boutique hotels and art galleries. David hall, Vasco house and Koder house are some of the popular ones. 


Experience Kochi Muziris Biennale-

The dilapidated walls and the old warehouses of Kochi turn into a colourful and vibrant place with art displays adorning this island during this art festival. Kochi Muziris biennale is an art exhibition where artists from world over have their works displayed. Various genres of art works, paintings, sculptures, photographs, collateral projects, cultural programs and cinemas are displayed and shown across Kochi's dilapidated warehouses and its surroundings.  Held for the first time in 2012, it is presently in its second edition and brings crowd from all over. It is held once in two years between December and March. You can read more about the same here- Kochi Muziris Biennale.


  
Relish at Kashi Art Cafe-

This is probably the most popular cafe in Kochi and is well known for its delicious cakes, sandwiches and coffee. The art works hanging on its walls adds to its charm. The chocolate cake is a must try.

Gaze at the vistas from Willingdon Island-

Willingdon island is the largest man made island in India and connects the mainland to Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. It once housed the Cochin international airport and presently is home to the southern naval command of Indian Navy. The island has nice little roads, most of which leads to the embarkation point. The views of the mainland across the Vembanad lake from here are quite captivating.

Skyline of the mainland as seen from Willingdon island
Visit Bolghatty Palace-

Located on Mulavukadu island, this KTDC hotel was built by the Dutch in mid 18th century and is the oldest Dutch palace outside Netherlands. Undoubtedly one of the best heritage hotels where one can stay while in Kochi.

Drive to Vypeen and Cherai-

A ferry ride away from Kochi lies the beautiful Vypeen island. The island which is approachable via road too is well known for its lighthouse at Ochanthuruthu. Climb up the light house and it offers panoramic vistas of the sea and surrounding greenery. Hordes of believers throng the Church of our Lady of Hope which they believe has strong powers to fulfill your prayers. The only shortcoming for Kochi as a destination is the lack of a nice beach. Though a short drive away, Cherai beach on Vypeen island is the most sought after one for both the people of Kochi and its visitors. It has been beautified with walkways and is definitely a nice place to spend an evening.You can read more about it here- Cherai beach.

View from lighthouse
Cherai beach
Take a eco tour to Kumbalangi-

Located to the south of Kochi, this fishing hamlet has been transformed into an Eco- tourism village. Initiated by the Kerala tourism, this model rural village gives the visitors an insight into the life of toddy tappers, fishermen, coir making industries and much more. It also helps the locals make a living out of tourism.

Enjoy a ferry ride-

A ferry ride or a jankar ride (where you vehicles can also be boarded) from the mainland to Kochi is a must try experience. Though it was the only mode of transport until a few decades back, it still holds a quaint charm to it. Whiff of the sea breeze, fisher folk on catamarans, lovely skyline of the mainland, floating sea weeds, frolicking sea gulls and the gorgeous Vembanad lake are sure to enchant you en route your visit to Kochi. There are ferry rides to other islands such as Vypeen and Mulavukadu from Kochi and Ernakulam. 

  
Take a break at Ernakulam-

The twin town of Kochi, Ernakulam, a typical modern bustling city lies on the mainland. Take a break from the colonialism of Kochi and wander through the crowded Broadway or M.G.Road, spent an evening strolling though the walkway at marine drive and enjoy a sunset boat ride meandering through the Vembanad lake. There are a couple of interesting museums such as Hill palace museum, Kerala folklore museum and museum of Kerala history for the enthusiastic history buffs. The art gallery at Durbar hall is a great place for art lovers as it very often has art exhibitions.


Where to eat- Kashi art cafe, Tea pot cafe, Pai Dosas, Kayikka's Biriyani, Dhe Puttu

Where to stay- At any of the numerous home stays or heritage hotels in Kochi such as Old Courtyard, Koder House etc.

Where to shop- The streets of Fort Kochi, Jew town, Broadway and M.G.Road

Nearest rail head- Ernakulam (13 Kms)

Nearest airport- Cochin international airport, Nedumbassery (44 Kms)

Best season to visit- October to February

February 4, 2015

Kodachadri Trek and Hidlumane Falls


Kodachadri conjures up a lot of images right from Mookambika temple to Sarvanjapeetham. But what remained in my mind from my last visit (read here) was the off-roading jeep ride from Mookambika temple with magnificent vistas and the final climb to Sarvanjapeetham where the scholar Sankaracharya once meditated. I had then decided to trek Kodachadri from the base, but it turned a reality only a couple of years later.

When it dawned, the bus with a group of strangers (had enrolled myself with BMC for this trek) from Bangalore was heading past arecanut trees on either sides to the home stay. Most trek routes across the western ghats in Karnataka have a Bhat's house (usually a priest) somewhere close to it and this was no different. Post freshening up and breakfast, we headed to Katinahole, from where trek trail begins. From the asphalted main road, we took the muddy jeep trail that leads to Kodachadri. The muddy track is used by jeeps to ferry pilgrims to Sarvanjapeetham.


It was the onset of summers and the sun was out pretty early. A quick introduction later, we were on the trail following each other, building camaraderie and getting to know the fellow trekkers better. Less than a kilometer later, we took a detour off the jeep track, crossed a stream, went past a few paddy fields and entered the jungle trail. From the muddy wide road, it was a drastic change in the landscape to the narrow jungle trail with bushes, fallen trees and foliage. Sparse canopy allowed sunlight to percolate onto the thick dry foliage which had fallen and covered the pathway. Slowly, the bushy path turned into a forest trail with thick dangling roots and giant tree trunks.Not being thickly vegetated and a couple of short breaks helped us trudge faster along the gradual descent and keep pace with our local guide. Laced with beautiful tall trees, brown fallen leaves and intermittent sunlight, this gorgeous landscape ended with an open vast land with sparse vegetation, distant hills and a house with a small shop in the middle of nowhere.




The first taste of buttermilk which was to be a constant partner through the trek was at this tiny shop. After gulping down a few glasses of the spicy thirst quencher, we walked down onto the ridges of  paddy fields and cut across them to re-enter the forest trail. A small stream flowed alongside us as we went deeper. A while later, what lay ahead of us was a huge rocky terrain with a tiny perennial stream cascading its way to the small pool below and then further down. For a moment I mistook this to be Hidlumane falls, which we were to encounter during the trek. The trek from here was a steep precarious short climb to the right of the huge rock. The narrow path after the rock climb was a short trail that led to Hidlumane falls. The falls wasn't impressive with very little water sprinkling over the rocks covered with green overgrowth and dangling creepers. We climbed over a few boulders to get close to the falls. It did not seem as trickle as we went closer. There was enough water to get under the falls and refresh yourself. Apparently there were a few hooligans enjoying their act under the falls that made me stay away from the same. I happily gazed at the falls and the natural setting from a boulder as the sun rays cut across the frame.




Hidlumane Falls
The climb from the the falls was quite an interesting one. It was a vertical climb where we had to hold on to the bulging roots and pull each other up. This was probably the toughest part of the trek and it led to further jungle trails. It slowly opened out and what lay ahead was a long trail over tall brown grasslands with gorgeous vistas on all sides. For the first time during the trek, we felt the heat beating us down. Vast open grasslands isn't the ideal place to hike at mid noon during the month of March. Respite from the heat came in the form of panoramic views of the brown hills, thick canopy, distant water bodies and a couple of vantage points. The climb was quite steep and the gravel track made the hike an exhausting one. On reaching the top, we could see the the trail meandering its way further, past tiny brown hills onto many more. The long hike finally led to a small shola grassland where the trail ended and we opened our lunch packs. 

Steep climb after the falls.
Gorgeous vistas
Steep climb

Meandering trails
 The packed lunches was gobbled down quickly and washed with loads of buttermilk. It was another long climb to reach the jeep track which we had parted ways with at the beginning of the trek. A look back from the jeep track and we had lovely vistas of the trail we had taken alongside beautiful hills. All frames had the evident brown, while green was minimal. We hiked along the jeep track from there on with magnificent deep valleys and intermittent hills on to the left. The muddy jeep track ended at a guest house which is also the drop off point for jeeps. One needs to climb the last stretch from there even if you hire a jeep.

More buttermilks and refreshments later, we began the final hike to Sarvanjapeetham. Unsurprisingly, there were more pilgrims and buttermilk vendors on this stretch. The path slowly turned into a ridge walk as we trudged carefully amidst fog that wrapped us without a cue. The sun had become milder and there was chillness all around for the first time during the trek. Onto our left were breathtaking views of the valley  which was incessantly covered by fog. It was a sheer drop and the views left us spellbound as we made our way through the fog. This definitely had to be the best stretch of our trek. We climbed higher and the Sarvanjapeetham was visible covered in fog after a while. We had conquered Kodachadri! The small shrine is where scholar Sankaracharya had once meditated.


Valley view




Sarvanjapeetham
The vantage points from the shrine were mind blowing as floating clouds and fog wrapped  the enchanting valley. Despite disruptions by the fog, photography session continued for long. Undoubtedly a delight for landscape photographers. The sun was about to set and we made a quick dash back through the fog to the guest house to gulp more buttermilk. The return trek was along the jeep track throughout and not the trail we had taken during the day. Layered with red mud and stones which kicked up dust every time a jeep crossed us, we trod on them and raced against the setting sun. As the sun set, red became the explicit and prominent colour everywhere, be it the sky or the jeep track. The white fog however, made its presence felt amidst all those redness as we made our quick steps with flashing torch lights. 


The red muddy jeep track
 The last hour was amidst pitch darkness following the person in front with flashing lights. Though the trek seemed never ending in the darkness, a while later we were at the point where we began the trek in the morning. Gulping more buttermilk, we ambled into our bus to head to the home stay after a successful, refreshing and exciting trek. A sumptuous dinner later, we were offered one of the best beds ever- open to sky. How exciting is that? The day long trek had its tiring effect as we succumbed to deep sleep amidst the arecanut trees despite gazillion stars twinkling at us.

The ideal time to trek Kodachadri would be between the months of September and January when the vegetation is lush green and Hidlumane is at its best.

Signing Note- A trek that offers everything to the nature lover- shola grasslands, waterfalls, rock climbs, ridge walks, unending trails and breathtaking vistas...!!

Trek distance- 14 Kms (approx.)- depends on the route you take
Distance- 385 Kms
Route- Bangalore- Tumkur- Tarikere- Shimoga- Arasalu- Hosanagar- Katinahole- Kodachadri


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