July 30, 2018

Places to visit in Tiruchirappalli



Beside the Cauvery river and located in central Tamil Nadu, Tiruchirappalli is a bustling educational and industrial town which is commonly referred as Trichy. The city was once under rule of Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas, and came to be known as Trichinopoly when it fell into the hands of the British. While Sri Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam is one of the major attractions near Trichy, there are quite a few other places of interest too.  The erstwhile dynasties and rulers have left their imprints on this city in the form of various temples and other structures. Here are a few places which are definitely worth visiting while in Tiruchirappalli apart from the popular Sri Ranganathaswamy temple.

Rock fort temple:

Also referred locally as Malaikottai, Rock fort temple is a large 83 metre high rocky outcrop with a 7th century temple atop it. This landmark structure which is visible from all parts of the town was first built by the Pallava kings and later by the Nayakars of Madurai in the 16th century. Located next to a large theppakulam (temple pond), the temple’s entrance is lined with numerous shops selling temple paraphernalia. A long fleet of steps leads you past sculptures, inscriptions and small shrines all the way to the top through a fortified wall. There are two major temples here and the one mid way to the top is Thayumanaswamy temple dedicated to Shiva. The temple is adorned with wonderful carvings and sculptures. Further ahead of the Shiva temple is Pallava cave with inscriptions on the walls along with carved pillars. The other main temple is at the summit of the rock which is Ucchi Pillaiyar temple, dedicated to Ganesha. The top of the rock offers magnificent panoramic views of the city and river Cauvery. The sunset view is breathtakingly beautiful and is quite windy in the evenings.








Jambukeswarar temple:

Located a bit away from the town in Thiruvanaikaval, this is one of the most prominent temples in Tiruchirappalli. Located near Cauvery, Jambukeswarar temple was built in the 2nd century by the Chola dynasty and is dedicated to Shiva and Parvati. The temple has five precincts with tall walls, carved pillars, colourful gopurams (entrance gates) and perennial springs. The enclosure before the inner sanctum has elaborately sculpted large pillars and corridors which are laced with beautifully carved pillars. The inner sanctum too has numerous pillars and a few other shrines apart from the main one which is a Shivlinga. Within the enclosure is another big shrine dedicated to Akhilandeswari amman.





Our Lady of Lourdes Church:

Built in 1895 CE, Our Lady of Lourdes Church is another prominent structure in the city. The main spire of this church soars to a height of 220 feet and has neo gothic architecture with stained glass windows. The church built on the model of Our Lady of Lourdes church in France has Gallo Catholic design and wonderful works on its outer facade. The interior has beautiful arches and is adorned with lovely glass paintings. The church houses statues of five saints in Christianity and the altar has wooden carvings.




Hazarath Natharsha Dargah:

This colourful dargah is the final resting place of the revered sufi saint, Baba Natharvali who came to India in early 11th century and resided in Tiruchirappalli. The dargah also has inscriptions on its interior walls and is a prominent sacred place for Muslims.


Grand Anaicut Dam:

Just outside the town, this dam is an engineering marvel built by the Chola kings in the 2nd century to stop the Cauvery from flooding.  The 300 metre dam is one of the world’s oldest functional stone dams and is locally referred as Kallanai. There is also a small children’s park and a memorial in the name of Chola kings near the dam.


Erumbeswarar Temple:

A few kilometers from Trichy in Thiruverumbur, Erumbeswarar temple built on a 60 feet high rocky outcrop is another popular rock temple in the town with a fleet of steps leading up to it.  Dedicated to Shiva, the temple was built by the Chola kings in the 10th century CE. The temple has a large pond at its base, two enclosures, carved entrance gates and inscriptions on its walls. The place also offers wonderful views of the setting sun and the surrounding areas.






Navigator:

Tiruchirappalli is a fairly big town and is well connected to other places in Tamil Nadu. Tiruchirappalli also has an airport and there are trains that connect the town with places across the country. There are frequent buses from Chennai and Bengaluru to Tiruchirappalli.

Food and Accommodation:

Tiruchirappali has numerous hotels and restaurants which caters to all types of travellers.

July 26, 2018

Summer Sky!


A spectacular evening sky as seen from Rock fort temple, Tiruchirappalli. March 2018.

July 24, 2018

Tiruvannamalai- A Serene Holy Town


Expected Tiruvannamalai to be another quintessential temple town, but was pleasantly surprised when I spotted many foreign travellers happily cycling around. Travellers rubbing shoulders with pilgrims and presence of European cafes amidst vegetarian restaurants, gives a vibe quite different from that you would associate with a small town.  Predominantly known for its Annamalaiyar temple, this holy town at the base of Arunachaleshwar hill is known for its ashrams too. The ashrams are the major reason for the large number of foreign travellers heading to this otherwise nondescript town. Ramana Ashram, run by the followers of the saint Ramana Maharshi is the most popular ashram here.

Located on the Bengaluru- Puducherry road, Tiruvannamalai receives hordes of visitors during Karthigai Deepam festival on the full moon day between November and December when it is celebrated here. Pilgrims circumnavigate the Arunachaleshwar hill a day prior to the festival and the 12 Km walk is known as Girivalam. 

I headed early in the morning to Annamalaiyar or Arunachaleshwar temple, supposedly the second largest temple complex in India after the one at Srirangam. The tall gopurams (entrance gate) and the high rise walls with the hills in the backdrop stand intimidating the small town. Spread over 10 hectares, the temple was built in 9th century by Chola dynasty and later expanded by the Vijayanagara rulers. The rajagopuram (east entrance) at 217 feet is the tallest gopuram and has 11 stories. Though not colourful, the gopurams are adorned with beautiful carvings of various mythological characters. The main shrine is that of Shiva in the form of Agni (fire), which is one of the five elements (panchabhootas). The sprawling complex also has other shrines dedicated to Amman (goddess), Subramanya , Vinayaka etc. It also houses two large ponds and a few smaller carved gopurams. Of the many halls, Aayiram Kal Mandapam or the thousand pillar hall is the prominent one. The premise has wonderful carvings everywhere from gopurams to pillars to walls. I strolled around for a while gazing at the beautiful works before heading out for a quick breakfast.










Arunachaleshwar hill behind the temple is usually trekked only during the festival period. However, there is a trail that starts from Ramana Ashram that goes to Skanda Ashram and Virupaksha cave which are located half way up the hill. It is recommended to hike early in the morning to avoid the harsh sun. It was an easy hike all the way with a well marked pathway shrouded by trees. There are a couple of places where you can quench your thirst on the way. Enroute, a vantage point offers magnificent panoramic views of the town of Tiruvannamalai with the Annamalaiyar temple at its centre. Further ahead Skanda Ashram seemed like the quietest place in the whole of Tiruvannamalai. The ashram was the abode of Ramana Maharshi during early 20th century. There are a few small rooms here where people meditate. Silence is all that you can feel here and I sat there for a while before tip toeing out. A short trail down from here leads to Virupaksha cave. The cave which presently has a concrete structure covering it was where Ramana Maharshi resided before moving to Skanda Ashram. The cave is another ideal place to meditate while in this holy town. I took another route while returning and the steep descend led to the base of the hill, next to one of the entrance gates of the temple by the main road.





Later in the evening I walked into Ramana Ashram again, this time to explore the place. This ashram is where Ramana Maharshi, the 20th century spiritual saint spent the last years of his life. The well maintained ashram has meditation rooms, prayer halls and rooms for visitors. The premise also houses the samadhi of the saint, nirvana room, a library, dining hall and a temple dedicated to Matrubuteshwara. It was a bit crowded as the evening prayers were about to start. Despite the prayers and the hymns, the meditation hall next to it was a peaceful place for me to sit and meditate for a while. The ambience is serene and a mind soother. I sat there for a couple of hours before heading to a couple of other ashrams such as Sheshadri Swamigal ashram and Yogi Kumar ashram. While Sheshadri Swamigal ashram has a small hall and stay option, Yogi Kumar ashram was unimpressive and quite commercialized.




Tiruvannamalai is an ideal weekend getaway from Bengaluru and Chennai where one can stroll through the ashrams, gaze at the wonderful carvings at the temple and soak in the wonderful vibe of this holy town.

Navigator: 

Tiruvannamalai is 194 Kms from Chennai, 202 Kms from Bengaluru and 105 Kms from Pondicherry. The nearest airport is at Chennai and the closest rail head is at Villupuram (104 Kms). There are regular buses from Chennai and Bengaluru to Tiruvannamalai.

Food and Accommodation:

There are numerous vegetarian restaurants and a few continental cafes near Ramana Ashram. The town has a wide range of stay options from guest houses to hotels and guest houses. The ashrams also offer stay options. I stayed at Rainbow Guest house which is a pretty good one with all basic facilities.

July 20, 2018

5 Financial decisions that helped achieve my travel goals



While most of us have different reasons to travel, there are some who find reasons to travel. That’s how profoundly travel has taken over us. Work hard, save up and travel far is probably the motto of travellers these days. Though we save up money for various reasons, saving up for travel is not something all can relate to. We save money to buy a phone, a bike, a car, a house or anything that fancies our mind. Most of us don’t save up to spend it largely on travels and experiences. But if you are saving up to travel, here are a few decisions that I made which helped me achieve my travel goals.

Separate savings account:  Open a savings account and deposit money into that account whenever you have any additional savings. This could be on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis. Make sure to touch this account only for your travels.

Buy Insurance: Mutual funds and life insurances are probably the best and the most recommended investment options these days. Apart from lifeinsurance policies, the insurance companies also offer a variety of investment plans such as ULIPs that have interim returns. This would help fund your travels without dipping into your other accounts.

One can also opt for term insurance where the premiums are low and the coverage is high, making sure your family’s future is secured in case something were to happen to you when travelling.

Cut down on unwanted expenses: In today’s world, anything can be bought with the swipe of a card or with the press of a button. While possessing a credit card has numerous advantages, it also tends to make us vulnerable while shopping, partying etc. Assess your previous month’s expenditure and note down the expenses which you feel could have been avoided. Calculate it and that might well have been the amount you would have spent on your next travel. Ask yourself if you absolutely need that new phone or that colourful jacket or that additional beer each time you open your wallet.

Systematic Investment Plan: A monthly investment plan is always helpful and is similar to a recurring deposit. Even if you can’t make any savings from the month’s salary, SIP makes sure that an amount is saved every month. You can withdraw it when you plan that much awaited long holiday.

Choosing experiences over possessions: This is a decision that grows over a period of time as you assess your life’s goals and dreams. Buying a house or a luxury car on loan was never a part of my goals in life. I do not wish to pay premiums for 5 or 10 years and end my life paying bills. I would rather spend that large amount on my long term travels. This decision comes from the fact that I’d love to have experiences in my life and not possessions. If travel is your life goal, then this decision would definitely help.


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P.S.: This post is in collaboration with Aegon Life.

July 19, 2018

Rainbow Guest house, Tiruvannamalai- Review


Away from the highway and nestled in one of the nondescript bylanes of Tiruvannamalai, Rainbow Guest house is true to its name with all the bright hues on its façade. Surrounded by more colourful low rise buildings, green fields and facing the hills, the guest house has an excellent location and is a short walk away from all the ashrams and temple. While most of the rooms face the hills, the common areas offer lovely views of the surroundings and are an ideal place to read a book or sip some filter coffee. The place offers rooms with single beds, twin beds, deluxe rooms and a large apartment. All the rooms have attached baths. The rates start from INR 600 per day and come with all the basic amenities. They also offer Wifi in common areas and parking facility.




What I loved:

Location: Location is definitely one of the highlights of this guest house. The serene surroundings is apt for a relaxed stay.

Rooms: The rooms and baths are clean and well maintained.

Common areas: The corridors have hammock chairs and the views are absolutely lovely. They also have an open terrace on top.

Hosts: The hosts who stay on the ground floor are extremely friendly and always ready to help the guests.


What I did not like:

Kitchen: The guest house lacks a kitchen and hence does not provide breakfast, short eats or beverages. However, there are restaurants nearby.


Address:

Rainbow Guest House,
27/28, Lakshmanan Nagar,
Perumbakkam road, Tiruvannamalai,
Tamil Nadu, India- 606603

Ph: +91- 9443886408 / +91- 9047733742

July 17, 2018

Mahabalipuram: Sculpted along the Coast



A major seaport during the days of Pallava dynasty, Mahabalipuram is carved in stone with innumerable sculptures and ancient temples. It was in the 7th century CE that the Pallava ruler Narasimha Varman-I made this small town his capital. Known as Mamallapuram earlier, the temples here are mostly monolithic (carved from a single rock) and are a UNESCO World Heritage site. As almost all the temples were built during 7th and 8th century, most of the sculptures have been windswept over the years due to its location by the Coromandel Coast. Though the town has moved on from the times of Pallavas, a stroll through Mahabalipuram’s alleys would throw up sculptors chiseling away on stones to create magnificent sculptures.


Standing strong against the harsh salty winds over centuries, the Shore temple is located close to the sea and hence gets its name. Built by Narasimha Varman I in 7th century and rebuilt by Narasimha Varman II in typical Dravidian temple architecture, this protected monument has a two tier wall lined with numerous sculptures of Nandi. There are two shrines here- Kshatri Simheshwara and Raja Simheshwara, dedicated to Shiva. Between the two shrines is a huge carving of Ananthashayana (form of Vishnu) in reclining pose on the walls of the main shrine. While the main shrine with a shiva linga in the inner sanctum has a five tier stepped pyramidal tower, the smaller shrine in the front has a three tier tower. Both the shrines have been extensively embellished with carvings, most of which have been eroded over the years due to the salt laden winds. The premise also has a small tank, a dilapidated entrance gate, a few more shrines and numerous scattered sculptures of nandi. It is believed that there are more temples and shrines here which have been covered in sand and remains underground. The narrow lane that runs parallel to the shore temple goes past numerous shops selling a plethora of stone works and leads to the beach.




Dating to the 7th century, Pancha rathas in southern Mahabalipuram are a group of five temples in the form of chariots dedicated to the characters from Mahabharata- Pandavas and Draupadi. Built from monolithic rocks, these temples have elaborate carvings on them and sculptures of animals such as nandi (bull), elephant and lion can be found outside them. The first ratha on the left is dedicated to Draupadi and the one next to it is Arjuna ratha. There is a sculpture of nandi behind Draupadi and Arjuna rathas. The ratha dedicated to Nakula and Sahadeva stands in front of the Arjuna ratha and has a large sculpture of an elephant adjoining it. Bhima ratha is the largest ratha here and is also the most beautifully carved one. Dharmaraja ratha is at the southern end and has a square structure with a pyramid shaped tower atop. The premise also has a few rocks with unfinished works which says that there were more temples and shrines that were planned here during the times of Narasimha Varman I.






Descent of the Ganges which is also referred as Arjuna’s Penance is one of the outstanding works in Mahabalipuram and is considered to be one of the largest rock reliefs in the world. Inscribed on a large rock, it showcases scenes from Mahabharata including that of Arjuna performing a penance.  There are numerous other mythological characters that are carved on this relief. The carvings depict the story of Arjuna’s penance to get a weapon during the war and also of the descent of river Ganga from heaven to earth. Adjoining the rock relief is the Panchapanadava mandapam with carved pillars and stone works on its facade.


Krishna mandapa is another cave temple near the rock relief which has carings on its façade and also on its walls. The wall carvings are huge and depict stories from the life of Krishna. Here he is shown holding aloft Govardhana mountain to protect his folks from rain. There are also carvings depicting cattle, people milking cows and other daily chores during those days.


The main hilock in Mahabalipuram overlooks the town and has numerous cave temples and mandapas strewn across it. Krishna’s butter ball is a landmark structure in Mahabalipuram and a favourite with photographers as the large boulder precariously balances on the slopes of the hillock. The cave temples here have wonderful carvings on them depicting various gods, mythological characters and stories from mythology. Ganesh ratha which was earlier a Shiva temple and later converted into a Ganesha temple has wonderful carvings on its tower. This ratha looks similar to the Pancha rathas and has sculptures inside too. Varaha mandapam is dedicated to the boar form of Vishnu and has large panels on its inner walls. Thrimurthy cave nearby has three shrines dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Mahishasuramardhini cave temple at the southern end of the hillock has sculptures of Durga and also magnificent carvings depicting mythological stories. Atop this is the beautifully carved Olakkaneshwara temple. Ramanuja mandapa and Kotikal mandapa dedicated to Durga are the other popular temples here.








At the northern end of the site is a huge unfinished entrance gate which has intricate carvings on its inner walls. Opposite the Mahishasuramardhini cave temple is the lighthouse which was built in 1887 CE. The lighthouse offers magnificent panoramic views of this heritage town. 





The streets of Mahabalipuram are a delight to walk in the evening with innumerable shops selling a plethora of items including stone works and shells. The sea shell museum here is an interesting one and the beach is known for its rough tides.



Mahabalipuram throws you back to the times of Pallavas who were passionate about temple architecture and showcases a display of the same through innumerable carvings and sculptures across the town. 


Travel Tips:

  • Head to the sites early in the morning to avoid both the harsh sun and the crowds.
  • Be a responsible traveller and avoid touching and leaning onto the sculptures and carvings.

Navigator:

Located along the coromandel coast, Mahabalipuram is 65 Kms south of Chennai. The nearest railhead and closest airport are in Chennai. There are frequent buses from Chennai to Mahabalipuram.

Food and Accommodation:

There are both vegetarian restaurants and cafes serving western cuisines across the town. Othavadai street has numerous cafes such as Moonrakers and Le Yogi. Mahabalipuram has a wide range of options to stay from guesthouses to luxury hotels. I stayed at Rajalakshmi guest house on Othavadai cross street which is well recommended. 

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