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.

April 11, 2016

Cherrapunji- Confluence of Myriad Landscapes

Had it not been for our history textbooks, where Cherrapunji stood glorified as the wettest place on the planet, this little hill town nestled in the Khasi hills of Meghalaya might not have made its presence felt until the modern day travellers explored it. Though the neighbouring Mawsynram has taken over the crown, Cherrapunji for many still rings a bell as the wettest place on earth. There is more to Cherrapunji than the rains. The place is known for its landscape which is strewn with green hills, deep valleys, waterfalls, caves and unending vistas.

It was the last fag of winter and a hazy day, but the sun shone bright as we drove past upper Shillong. Our driver warned that most waterfalls were dry or had very little water. Despite that, with minimal hope, added a few waterfalls to the itinerary. The car made its way meandering through hills, vantage points and open grasslands which had turned a shade less green. We did stop at a couple of view points which offered spellbinding vistas of the Khasi hills. The first major break was at Mawkdok view point, a popular one where most visitors take a break. We walked down a few steps to enjoy the endless views of the green canopy covered hills which turned into different shades of blue the farther they were. The deep valleys lay sandwiched and many a time I wished there was a path that led to its depth.

Mawkdok view point

The car snaked its way past more vantage points, intermittent tiny tea shops and a few dry waterfalls which was disheartening. We did stop by one of such falls for some tea and a break. Wakaba falls despite having very little water looked beautiful with the dry rock patch between the greenery which would have been a breathtaking sight during the monsoon.

View from Wakaba falls
Wakaba falls

The road further led to Cherrapunji locally referred to as Sohra, a little town oblivious of its world popularity. The first point of interest was the ever popular Nohkalikai falls, one of the tallest plunge falls in India. Nohkalikai gets its name from a Khasi lady, Likai, who jumped off the cliff. A wide swathe of rock patch stood clear of the green carpet over the flat hill top while the Nohkalikai flung itself into the turquoise plunge pool 1115 feet below. A few tiny falls on either side of the Nohkalikai were visible as a trickle. The frame turns into a magical one during the rains when numerous falls gush their way through the canopy into the valley. How I wish I was there during the monsoon! Silence, serenity and a warm breeze is all that prevailed over the place as we stared at the gorgeous landscape in oblivion. The only visitors apart from us were a Dutch couple riding their bike all the way from Thailand to Netherlands. Inspirational!

Nohkalikai falls
From vantage points and waterfalls we headed to Mawsmai caves for some spelunking, for which Meghalaya is well known. Some of the longest caves in the world are located here. Unlike Nohkalikai, the caves had its fair share of visitors, including some unruly ones. Located a few kilometers away from Sohra, Krem Mawsmai (Krem in Khasi is cave) is more than 800 meters long and goes down up to 40 feet. Belum was my only previous experience of caves. While Belum had lots of open areas where one could walk around freely, Mawsmai was all about crawling, sneaking and wriggling through stalactites and stalagmites.  Though not pungent, the cave was damp, water droplets fell off the roof at many places and felt a bit claustrophobic making it unbelievably surreal. Though the entrance is dark, light seeps through immediately and from there on it is well lit and has many long passages and large chambers. The million year old stalactites and stalagmites have taken various forms and shapes due to water and rain . While the stalactites look chiseled and still drip water, stalagmites have smooth rounded heads as a result of exploration over years. There are many places where both these have joined to form a column. Natural formations in various shapes (godly figures, human faces, animals) stared at us as we scrambled our way through slippery rocks in search of natural sunlight. A huge hole where sunlight seeped through was where the crawling ended. Transported back from the neolithic age, took in a lung full of fresh air as we walked out.

Tiny stalactits

From caving we were back on the plains of Thakhrang ecological park to enjoy the distant hills and deep valleys. Plains of Bangladesh showed a hazy glimpse of itself from the view point. The park which is a picnic spot is laded with trees, foliage and lawns for kids to play. The next pit stop was Koh Ramhah, a short drive away which offered a better view of the expansive plains of Bangladesh. Koh Ramhah is popular for its impressive monolithic pillar rock. As I gazed at the rock and the distant plains, Bangladesh seemed so near and yet so far. Re-kindled memories of my visit to Mae Sot in Thailand, where Myanmar was just a few steps away.

Thakhrang eco park
Plains of Bangladesh
Koh Ramhah rock

The sun had begun to descend and we drove back the same winding roads through the hills. Seven sister falls, a popular water falls was completely dry and way below a watermark made its way through the lush greenery. This would been a sight to behold after the rains. A quick stop to gulp down a few momos at Mawkdok point, and we drove back to Shillong as the day light faded over the horizon with a sudden drizzle. That was a pleasant surprise. How could a visit to Cherrapunji be devoid of the rains?

The dry seven sister falls

Getting there: Taxis are available from Shillong which is 60 Kms away (1.5 hours drive)

Accommodation and Food: There are guest house/ home stays in Cherrapunji (Sohra) which are not expensive. Hotels/ restaurants are present at Mawkdok, Mawsmai caves.
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