Heidelberg: Town that inspires artists

Ever wondered that artists, authors, composers, and painters would come, see, and get inspired by a ruined castle by the river. And this would set German art and literature to take new wings. This is an inspiring tale of Heidelberg. Heidelberg is a quintessential German town nestled in the Black forest, with half-timbered, and Baroque houses lined on cobblestone streets, an old red sandstone bridge on River Neckar which passes through it, and a ruined castle overlooking the town as some angelic guardian.

Heidelberg city from the castle that looks down as some angelic guardian
Heidelberg city from the castle that looks down as some angelic guardian

I’ll accept, I am partial to good views. And so my first stop was the castle that overlooks the town. And one look of Heidelberg from the top, explains how the town has inspired and is inspiring so many artists. Germany’s beloved writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was charmed with Heidelberg and wrote the town had “something ideal” about it. William Turner, the influential British landscape artist, stayed here and explored his artistic interests, and created some of his masterpieces in Heidelberg. The Huckleberry Finn creator Mark Twain was especially fond of the town and stayed here for several months, and even called Heidelberg, “the last possibility of the beautiful”. Twain began his European travels with a three-month stay in Heidelberg and recounted his observations of the town in A Tramp Abroad (1880). Given Heidelberg’s literary and artistic lineage, along with its contemporary scene, UNESCO named it UNESCO City of Literature in 2014.

No doubt Heidelberg is overrun by new-age travelers, and the town sees a traveler footfall of 11.8 million visitors every year.

Shot at one of the centers, a narrow alley uphill leads to the Heidelberg castle

The main draw in Heidelberg is its evocative half-ruined hilltop castle; part medieval fortress, part Renaissance palace; and in parts a contemporary structure holding a history of 300 years. The castle is in ruins today, just a reflection of what it stood for in its heydays. The old Schloss (castle), albeit in ruins, cuts a romantic figure, and towers over the main city or the Altstadt, accessible via a steep, cobbled trail in about 10 minutes or by the Bergbahn (cogwheel train) from Kornmarkt station. The far-reaching views over the Neckar River and the Altstadt rooftops from the castle makes Heidelberg a photographer’s paradise. The Heidelberg castle is considered to be among the most beautiful castles in Germany and a prime example of Renaissance-era architecture. Inside the castle, the most eye-catching building is the Friedrichsbau, now reduced to just a wall festooned with life-size sculptures of kings, and nobles. And probably the most lavish is what is left of the Hortus Palatinus, the gardens dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” 400 years ago. The terrace offers not just a walk through gardens whose prosaic beauty inspired many literary masterpieces, but also grand views of the old town. Today’s attractions also include the world’s largest wine barrel, a 250-year-old vat that once held 50,000 gallons of wine, and the German Apothecary Museum.

The Heidelberg castle
The Heidelberg castle, part medieval fortress, part Renaissance palace; and in parts a contemporary structure holding a history of 300 years.
Even though in ruins now, the Heidelberg castle cuts a romantic figure
Even though in ruins now, the Heidelberg castle cuts a romantic figure
The Heidelberg castle, accessible via a steep, cobbled trail
The Heidelberg castle, accessible via a steep, cobbled trail in about 10 minutes or by the Bergbahn (cogwheel train) from Kornmarkt station.
Today’s attractions also include the world’s largest wine barrel, a 250-year-old vat that once held 50,000 gallons of wine
Today’s attractions also include the world’s largest wine barrel, a 250-year-old vat that once held 50,000 gallons of wine

Like many of Europe’s small towns, Heidelberg has stood against time, and embraced the contemporary changes. And the same lanes that house some of the most exquisite architectural beauties of the medieval era, wear a contemporary charm of a classic shopping place.

Back down in the Old Town is Heidelberg University, Germany’s oldest university, founded in 1386. The Studentenkarzer, a tiny jail nearby, is an interesting story. Students were regularly locked up in the Studentenkarzer, for disturbing the peace of the town. However, the student community wore this incarceration as a badge of honor. During the incarceration, the students would amuse themselves by painting the cell walls with their pictures wearing their little student caps. The rebel stories haven’t lost the flavor with changing times and continue to inspire. Alongside the student, jail is the book burning memorial, a spot where shortly after Hitler’s rise to power, books of authors banned by the Nazis like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud were burned.

The Studentenkarzer, a tiny jail nearby, is an interesting story.
The Studentenkarzer, a tiny jail nearby, is an interesting story.

A little ahead of that is the Holy Spirit Church, which stands testimony with Heidelberg’s battle of religious ideology. The church was divided into two; the Catholics were given the east end to worship, and the Protestants the west end. Another church, the Jesuit Church has beautiful white and well-lit interiors, good enough to pencil in some time for it, as you make your way down to Hauptstrase, Heidelberg’s main road with countless shops, cafés, and restaurants.

Heidelberg offers countless clicking moments
Heidelberg offers countless clicking moments

Once done with the countless clicking moments in the old town, take on Heidelberg’s most famous walking path, the Philosophers’ Way. Start your walk towards the Neckar River and stroll across the iconic Old Bridge, constructed in 1788. The Carl Theodor Bridge is one of pride and joy and was once the gateway to Heidelberg. It was here that carriages of rich traders would stop to pay taxes. Today the bridge offers a walk through history, with some splendid views of the town and the castle, with the black forest in the backdrop. From the bridge, a fairly steep set of stairs zigzags up the hill, take you to the famed Philosopher’s path, which is steeped with tales from the past, as many great writers, philosophers, poets, and artists have trodden down these diminutive paths. And apart from history, there are always munificent views you will be rewarded with.

The Carl Theodor Bridge offers a walk through history, with some splendid views of the town and the castle, with the black forest in the backdrop.
The Carl Theodor Bridge offers a walk through history, with some splendid views of the town and the castle, with the black forest in the backdrop.

The café scenes

Detours, old towns, history, and food scenes go together in Germany. And like most German towns, Heidelberg offers a rich palette of gastronomic smorgasbords. You can stop at any little outlet for your share of bagels, rolls, croissants, or brioches, or settle for some authentic German food. Of the traditional gastro pubs scattered around the old town, your pick should include the iconic Zum Roten Ochsen, with a 315-year-long history, and a guest list that includes Mark Twain and Marilyn Monroe in the past. To go easy on pockets, go for Seppl, a historic students’ pub, with a particularly nostalgic and welcoming ambiance. Heidelberg has many faces to unravel. It hides within it the artistic dexterity that inspired the likes of Twain to create a masterpiece like Huckleberry Finn, there is history dating back to the medieval era, a crumbling castle that perennially ranks among the most visited landmarks of Germany, vibes from Germany’s oldest university that holds many stories, enchanting views of the old town, and an unforgettable cruise down the Neckar valley. No doubt this romantic town has remained a favorite of travel writers, and you will read many good things about it; but in actuality, in Heidelberg, every good thing has a tendency to turn out better.

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Going cuckoo for a magical charm of Ghent

Ghent might be less renowned than its classy neighbor Bruges, but it is still bags full of history and culture. Being a university town, it is buzzier and looks less Disneyfied than Bruges. Across its canals, are endless opportunities to lose oneself in its narrow lanes, that take you to fascinating squares with splendid churches, magnificent castles, and comfortable cafes and bars. In the Middle Ages, Ghent grew both in reputation and riches on cloth and wool and was the second-biggest town in Europe, after Paris. Today the medieval heritage still lives, on an old merchants’ street that runs along the bank of the Leie River. The street is steeped with Gothic guild houses with stepped roofs and ornately carved facades. And a little east of this street, are two of Ghent’s great monuments, St. Nicholas church and St. Bavo Cathedral, a splendid display of riches, and dexterity in craftsmanship Ghent has seen.

The old churches of Ghent, Belgium
Ghent is bags full of history and culture
Graslei on the river Leie in Ghent, Belgium
The old churches of Ghent
Across its canals, are endless opportunities to lose oneself in its narrow lanes, which take you to fascinating squares with splendid churches, magnificent castles, and comfortable cafes and bars.
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To the heritage villages of Himachal Pradesh

Pragpur, a quaint little village in Himachal Pradesh’s scenic Kangra Valley, became the first village in India to be branded a heritage village. Pragpur was founded in the late 16th century by the Kuthiala Soods in memory of Princess Prag Dei of the Jaswan royal family. With its winding lanes, wooden slate-roofed houses, the village looks nothing less than a miniature painting set on an aisle. As the story goes, in the early 19th century the prosperous Kuthiala Sood community arrived and settled here. These merchants who were well exposed to architecture and arts outside the area, returned to Pragpur to build buildings, chateaus and mansions in architectural styles they observed outside. With their efforts, Pragpur gradually transformed into a grand display of immaculate beauty and spectacular architecture that evolved as a perfect blend of Portuguese, Rajput and British styles. This reminded me of the unique way in which Shekhawati architecture of the havelis, cenotaphs, and stepwells has evolved, with designs taken from different cultures the traders got exposed to.  

To experience the charm of Pragpur, take a walk through the village. The square shaped water pond, in the middle of the village, will lure you to spend some time around it. A village walk introduces you to the architectural beauty strewn across Pragpur. Built before 1868, the Taal is in the center of the village and is surrounded by several old community structures like the Nehar Bhawan, Naun, and Dhunichand Bhardial Serai. The village market by the pond is a bustling place and has an unlikely charm missing from most villages. At a stone throw away distance is the Lala Rerumal’s haveli, with elements of Mughal-styled architecture, and has a large water reservoir. Ancient temples, courtyards, even age-old windows and doors with intricate carvings, leave an everlasting impression on the travelers. Most of these houses exhibit fancy tile-work, ornamental towers, and stained glass windows. It’s like a world merged with old Himachali architecture, where you see an overuse of wood and pillars. Interestingly, the rooftops of these buildings have gables and slanted slopes, which is quite unique considering it seldom snows in the Himalayan foothills. The slanted slopes is a ubiquitous feature in the uphill Kangra and Kullu valley. The village committee is entrusted with restoring and conserving these architectural marvels.

Built before 1868, the Taal is in the center of the Pragpur village
Built before 1868, the Taal is in the center of the village
Old heritage buildings in Pragpur
Old heritage buildings in Pragpur
Heritage mansion in Pragpur
Heritage mansion in Pragpur

Another jewel in the Pragpur cultural mélange is the Judges Court. The Judge’s Court, the 300-year-old ancestral home of Vijai and Rani Lal, has now been converted into a heritage resort. Vijai Lal is the grandson of Justice Sir Jai Lal, the second Indian to become a Judge of the Punjab High Court. The story goes that for years the ancestral property was left unattended, before being restored and turned into a heritage hotel. Apart, from a nice stay-over, this two-storey brick-red mansion, steeped in history, offers an insight into life of one of the most influential families with roots in Pragpur.

Judge's Court Pragpur
Judge’s Court Pragpur

As you walk, Pragpur seems a busy and prosperous village, with a cultural history worth falling in love with. The cultural history seems well veneered with contemporary charm. All one needs is a nice little walk to live this experience.

Garli: The next stop

At some three kilometers from Pragpur, Garli is literally the next stop from Pragpur, on Shimla route. During their migration from Punjab, some Sood families settled in Garli, and started trading in timber. Some families who moved uphill used the Beas River to transport the logs downhill to Garli. Soon Garli had evolved into a major hub for timber business. With timber, came money, and with money prosperity. The old heritage buildings, some now converted into heritage hotels, are living tell-tales of those prosperous days.

A unique feature of architecture in Garli is the Anglo Islamic architecture of the mansions, marked by airy spaces in the mansion, intricate carvings on the doors and windows, courtyards outside the main building, and extensive use of pillars. Most of these private marvels lie in various stages of decay. Most buildings abandoned or occupied by the tenants and divided into many families. The upkeep is almost nil. Still, the out shells of these structures never fail to fascinate the travelers, and the upper turrets of these old buildings seem to dominate the entire village.

Heritage buildings now in complete ruins in Garli village
Heritage buildings now in complete ruins in Garli village
Heritage buildings now reduced to ruins in garli village

One of the marvels in the village – the Chateau Garli was restored and converted into a heritage hotel. The building was restored to its age-old glory by carefully recreating the colonial, Portuguese, Mughal, Rajasthani and Kangri architectural influences. The Chateau is a fine imprint of this heritage. The village of Garli offers experience through time.

The Chateau Garli, now restored to its old beauty and turned into a heritage village

As I wandered through the village lanes, I came across many architectural marvels now left to ruin. One of the buildings the Bishnu Sagar, a splendid example of the dexterity in art and design that called Garli it’s home, lies abandoned today. And it isn’t the only one, there are scores of such buildings left abandoned today. And while Pragpur has worked to restore the old buildings, Garli presents a different side of the story. Nevertheless, the village serves as a beautiful reminder of our past. The village leaves you with a mix of emotions. The sheer awe of the historic charm, and history, the delight of hospitality, the bliss of natural beauty with Dhauladhar Range rising as a backdrop to this quaint village, to a sense of pity for the mesmerizing buildings that stands as beautiful ruins today. Only if the government or private sector has stepped forward to restore the old buildings, probably convert them into museums or homestays.

Chateau in garli
The village serves a good reminder of the past

How to reach

Garli and Pragpur are well connected by roads from Chandigarh, Pathankot, and Delhi. There are regular buses from Chandigarh and Delhi, going to Dharamsala passing through Pragpur. The nearest railhead Amb is nearly 28 kilometers that get trains from Delhi. And the nearest airport is at Gaggal, about 50 kilometers from away.

Where to stay

Pragpur has many budget options to stay. For a luxury stay, one can opt to stay at Chateau Garli or Judge’s Court.

Spiti: The untouched land

Five days on and Spiti had been a promised traveler’s delight. These had been days full of explorations, welcoming smiles, giggles, and developing a bond with Spiti. The hospitality of Kaza had taken me over. All you need to do is to break the ice with a smile, say ‘Juley’ (greetings and respect), and engage in a conversation with a local, or best a monk in a monastery. From religion, local lore to culture and history, you can crack up any topic with monks. Kaza is a cultural potpourri for Spiti valley. Every morning village folks from Langza, Mud, Kibber, and Cheecham, come in the morning bus, to do their daily business in Kaza. The same bus leaves in the evening. This is how normal days go. Being close to the bus station, I was witness to these shades, day begins early here and continues till late.  

Spiti river in Kaza
Roads taking you from one paradise to the other. This shot near the village Losar on way to lake Chandratal

On this day, I had decided to take the route heading towards Langza, the fossil village; Hikkim, with the unique distinction of hosting Himachal Pradesh’s highest polling station as well as the world’s highest post office; and Komic, world’s highest village connected with a motorable road. The journey to the villages is short, but not without its own challenges. Even though, the scenery weans away all pain of the journey, the benign neglect of the development of road infrastructure is hard to ignore. Half the journey is covered on dirt tracks, but in Spiti, there can be no better inspiration to travel than the scenery. I had decided to go to Langza, and then trek from there to Komic and then downhill to Hikkim. The open spaces along the way promise an endless supply of solitude, and the concoction of solitude, serenity, and the feeling of being with oneself lures travelers like nothing else.

Signs of life in Langza

When you drive towards Rangrik from Kaza there comes a bifurcation, one road takes you to Key and Kibber, and the other goes to Langza – Komic – Hikkim. Langza is unique in its own way. Popularly known as the fossil village, Langza is for science buffs looking for signs of early life, and the great geological event of a collision of tectonic plates of India and Eurasia, which gave rise to the mighty Himalayas. The circular rings like fossils are signs of prehistoric marine life, of a time when this land was a sea. Due to tectonic movements, the India plate shifted and thus the Himalayas arose. But even if you aren’t looking for fossils, the mesmerizing scenery at Langza wouldn’t fail to captivate you.

The weather, with the clouds almost descended upon us, made the journey all the more prosaic.

Even before entering the village, the grand Buddha statue overlooking the village captures your attention. The sight of Lord Buddha sitting in the lap of mighty Himalayas all around is a sight to behold. You starting enjoying Langza from the moment you take a steep turn to reach it. The road ascends fast, and from your window, you could watch valley getting deeper, slopes getting steeper and the peaks growing shorter as your altitude begins to match theirs.  And then gradually, the peaks turn to flat plateau, absurdly green for the barren brown landscape, that had accompanied all along the journey. The terrain looked like a verdant carpet of green, a piece of heaven, tended by elves, for the gods who would descend here on some bright, starry night. And from the edge of this green carpet, arise a piece of earth, a near flat, vertical wall, with snow-covered crown, dominating everything around. This is the Chau Chau Kang Nilda peak (the literal meaning of the name of this peak is “Blue moon in the sky”).

In the lap of this 6500m peak (highest in Spiti region) peacefully sits the village of Langza, a hamlet of some 50 houses skirted with lush green fields. In such a beatific setting, moments are never rare. Even though I spent nothing more than an hour in the scenic village, I felt a huge calling here.

The highest nest, Komic

I made a move from Langza towards the highest motorable village of Komic. A short two-three hours of trek take you to Komic. Alternatively, you can always take the road. Perched at 4500m, it is among the highest inhabited villages in the Himalayas. A board saying, ‘welcome to the highest homestay’ welcomes you to the village. On one side stands the Komic monastery overlooking the lush green fields. Opposite to the monastery is tucked a cute café (ah, world’s highest café) like some fairytale romance. From the monastery, I looked at the village. A total of 10 houses. Upon inquiry, I came to know some 60 people live in the village.

World’s highest village connected with motorable roads – Komic

Legend has it that due to a long drought, the monks of Komic decided to shift the monastery to the nearby low lying Hikkim village. But the grand statue of Mahakal couldn’t be moved. The entire monastery was moved, but the statue of Mahakal remained adamant, with all but one monk. In 1975, a massive earthquake struck Spiti which completely destroyed the new monastery set in Hikkim. The monastery at Komic didn’t suffer much damage. Thereafter all the monks returned to the Komic monastery.

The landscape of Komic village

The road from Kaza leading to Komic is a steep winding uphill climb. It is both a seasoned dream and a rookie’s nightmare, as the lack of oxygen and change in weather becomes palpable. First-time travelers need to be cautious, and it is always advisable to keep Komic towards the end of the itinerary. The village is housed in a bowl-shaped depression, distinctly split into two parts, the lower with a small cluster of houses and upper with a cluster of larger houses. A hillock above is housed the Komic monastery, painted in beautiful bright colors.

When in komic, take a detour around, it’s not difficult to find fossil rocks. Pencil in some time to be at the world’s highest café, don’t forget to order Spiti sandwiches. The service is quick, and taste, just like the scenery, beyond expectations.

Though there may not be a huge list of to-do in these villages, their seclusion is enchanting. And a thought on life at these heights and so off the road villages is inspiring. I broke into a small talk with a local, who took me to his mud-house, offered Spiti’s butter tea, and started telling me about life in the village. Summers is the month to work and save, while in winters, one can only be indoors, enjoying the reserves of the summers. Still, winters are something the villagers await for. There could be a surreal, romantic charm in temperatures, dipping below -20 degrees. There should be, and probably a prosaic feeling in the white splendor of snow, one that can only leave us to shudder, but becomes the sole companions of these villagers. I could only smile at the thought, life shapes up in different ways and people have evolved to live in these extremes.

On a postcard pilgrimage to Hikkim

Taking leave from Komic, one can go downhill to Hikkim, the highest post-office. Fortunately, I had got a lift from there to Kaza. Yes, such plans work in Spiti. The walk to Hikkim wasn’t tough, but it went steeply downhill. The Hikkim post office was opened on November 5, 1983, and Rinchen Chhering—has been the branch postmaster here since inception. This conspicuous Spitian landmark is also his home, and in a place with no communication channels, works as the only means to communicate with the other world. It is this place, where monks from Komik monastery receive their letters from other spiritual centers, some as far as Tibet and Bhutan, where farmers open their savings account, and tourists like me send postcards, to hold by as a memory from the Spitian highs.

The journey of the post from here is as interesting as the place itself. Every morning, two runners take turns in delivering mail on foot from Hikkim to Kaza. From Kaza, the emails are taken by bus to Reckong Peo, onward to Shimla, further by train to Kalka, and then loaded on a bus to Delhi, from where it is further distributed. Following the long-held tradition, I too sent myself two postcards from Hikkim. And as I write this piece, I can look at those two tokens of love, sent from the land, every shade of which, leaves you enchanted.

On way to Komic and Hikkim village

It felt there that the azure blue skies and empty expanse around had joined hands to deliver an inviting feeling of seclusion. There are subtle signs of authenticity and rusticity in life at these heights. The age-old ways of farming, the plain mud and stone houses, painted white on the exteriors and beatifically adorned with colored flags, and a life seemingly frozen in time: simple, and in inviting synergy with the habitat. With every step, I felt myself closer to this land and was unraveling the deeper meanings of life, hidden in the vast barrens of Spiti. And nothing was more loud and clear than living in synergy with nature.  I made my way back to Kaza, having grown richer in the philosophy of life, memories, and pictures that would form the décor of my walls to teach me how big and beautiful life is, and how less have I explored it. As we returned, we halted to have a look at the old monastery, destroyed during the earthquake. I searched in the mountains to look at the Komic monastery one more time. A story a time leaves in the midst of a puzzle called faith and belief. Who to believe, and what to take as real? In the land called ‘lands of God’ by Mark Twain, everything seems real. Perhaps its only faith that can make you a part of this vastness.

Roads leading to Spiti valley
Stopped at Chacha-Chachi Dhaba on way back from Spiti valley
A halt at Pagal nadi while returning from Spiti

Read more about my Spiti travels: 1) Kalpa and the Kinnaur sojourn 2) Dhankar, the beautiful monastery perched in the highs, 3) Tabo, the oldest monastery, and 4) Key monastery and Kibber village

Spiti: The hill of temples

This was my fourth day in Spiti valley, and with every turn, I was getting more acclimatized and acquainted with this middle land. I didn’t have to spend hours to learn that this cold desert, a heady mix of barren mountains, unexpected bursts of green fields, and deep gorges formed by the fierce Spiti River, is also a melting pot of cultures. My visit to Tabo and Dhankar, had made me intelligent of what to look for. The signs of Hinduism in Kinnaur, had been gracefully replaced by those of Buddhism, and wouldn’t be found till Keylong. I knew my way from Kaza, the last stop on my Spiti journey, and also the administrative capital of Spiti. I were to spend three days here, hoping from one village to the other, looking for my cultural murals, one monastery to the other, one story to the story.

The weather, with the clouds almost descended upon us, made the journey all the more prosaic.
On the desolate roads of Spiti

I reached Kaza, from Dhankar, a one hour journey, bringing you from a village perched on the top of a mountain to one by the river. The weather, with the clouds almost descended upon us, made the journey all the more prosaic. The proximity of Spiti to Tibet, has ensured this martian landscape to be dotted with Gumpas and monasteries, the sheer beauty of which, never fails to amaze you. It won’t be hard to find one in the middle of the road, and vehicles taking a full circle of it in reverence. For the next three days I was to be in Kaza to cover some of the most secluded and prettiest villages. And some crowned with their tags of the ‘highest’ and the ‘largest’.

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Dhankar: Somewhere perched high

By the time I reached Tabo, I had promised myself to completely ditch the word ‘planning’. There was no need of it, I was in Spiti, and I wanted to remain spell-bound by this ‘time wrap’. And in the course of staying a little long in Tabo to enjoy the morning sun and my host’s famous pancakes, I happened to miss the only bus to Kaza. But Spiti is a land of hope against all the hardships; and in hope to get a hitch-hike to Schichlling, I took the road. Spiti is unpredictable, and travelling here can’t be a time-table job. Thankfully I was travelling light, keeping enough space in my backpack to pack memories back home.

The view was mesmerizing; craggy brown hills providing a backdrop to two rivers merging with each other in the foothill.

In such a hospitable place, hitch-hiking is quite possible, and even waiting or walking a few kilometers doesn’t hurt. The pace of life here is slow, and people warm and hospitable. After walking for a few kilometers, passing villages with a population board stating “50 souls”, I got a ride to Schichlling. Next on my Spiti trail was Dhankar monastery, and a trek to the Dhankar Lake perched high in the mountain. I reached Schichlling in about half an hour. From there my journey was another ten kilometers uphill to the Dhankar village. From downhill, Dhankar looked like a village created by stacking some matchboxes, on a craggy brown hill, and two rivers merging with each other in the foothill. The 1000-year-old Dhankar, perched precariously on jutting rocks on a mountaintop. The Dhankar monastery is listed among the 100 most endangered monuments in the world by the World Monuments Fund. The old monastery is on a constant fight with the elements of nature. While it’s still in good terms with snow, and an unimaginable amount of it, it is losing battle against increasing and disturbing patterns of rainfall, a fall-out of global reality of climate change. The signs of heavy rain, the day before, were evident everywhere in washed away roads, and wet mountains.

Dhankar village as captured from far
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Tabo: About a life untouched

An eight hour journey, on the world’s most dangerous roads, can be both tiring and exhilarating. But the views of the craggy peaks whooshing past the window, the spectacle of a turquoise ribbon of river cutting through the valley, hundreds of falls and streams merging into the river, and the bends taking you from one slice of paradise to the other, are a prize worth the madness of being on the world’s deadliest roads. And while the bus past these, nicely framed picture perfect frames, my mind weaved a story of a land of Buddhist Gompas doubling up as landmarks, prayer flags fluttering, mummies sitting still in monasteries, azure blue skies and stars dancing in galaxies at night, and above all the cultural mysteries it has held over time. I wanted to know how local people live their life here, holding natural and mystical mysteries for centuries. A land that wasn’t open for people till 1970s, a land tucked between the Himalayas and the Tibet, a land that has been called ‘world within a world’ by Mark Twain; I wondered how that land would be.

The village of Tabo as seen from the cave monastery
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Kalpa: A cultural osmosis

Below flows the roaring Satluj river, snaking its way through the valley, above stands the mighty Kinnaur Kailash as a royal guard, and tucked between these two forces of nature, is the small hamlet of Kalpa. No sooner the bus brakes mooned, wheels screeched, and I got down and framed the first frame of this tucked away paradise, than I fell for its idyllic setting. No doubt the petrifying valleys and heart-warming culture had been a calling of many a travelers. A short, inviting walk through the main road, is enough to warm your heart. Studded with wooden houses, and apple orchards on sides, and uncountable smiles to greet you, Kalpa seems a village taken out of Nora Roberts novel.

Kalpa_life

Never thought a village so small that it can fit in one wide frame of camera lens, can have so many eternal bounties to offer

The first image from the village, that is bound to find a special corner in your heart, is of the Shivling peak (Kinnaur kailash) that rises over 20,000 feet. The peak stands as a royal guard to the village. This idyllic setting of the village, makes one feel that one is sitting in the lap of the holy mountains. Continue reading

The secret miracles of Landour

Sunlight glinted on the hill-tops, and valleys were half dark and half lighted. Trees yawned as morning hue woke them from their slumber. The still breeze carried an indescribable purity and sweetness, laden with an aroma from the virgin forests. At a distance was this comfortable looking little town extending uphill and eastward. A steep four-five kilometers drive from Mussourie brought us to Landour, a British raj relic, a town, draped by an old fashioned aura, numerous colonial-era bungalows with slanting roofs, brick arches and stone walls, and silence that was interrupted only by the gusts of invigorating cold breezes. We glided over the shining track, going past the little houses with red thatched roofs and backyard, waving to the welcoming villagers who were off to collect the firewood, school kids and the typical heavily built, bush bearded, leather-jacketed Harley Davidson guys to reach the smiling Landour.

Landour_on Gol Chakkar

Life seemed to be taking a deep breath in the town; the natural beauty topped with reds and greens of roofs, extending a colonial reminiscence. We were passing through narrow roads that could barely fit two cars at a time. The driver was delicately maneuvering the car through these needle hole sized turns. Occasionally I had my head peering out of the car window to sap in the pure, cool breeze. There hung a certain, zeal in the breeze, flowing in gay abandon, like a harbinger of good times.

Taking another turn through Landour’s old bridle path, passing interesting sights and the famous St. Paul’s Church, with the endless stretches of pines and willows and the mountain sun filtering through the threshold of trees to accompany us; we reached one of the landmarks of the town, Rokeby Manor, our haunt for the next three days. And the property was everything that could have been expected; colonial touch taking you back to the era of 1840s when it was built, lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls and wooden floors, and cutely tucked gardens overlooking the valley. Continue reading

Pushkar: kaleidoscope of emotions

Pushkar hung in my thoughts like a dream. After having seen several of my plans for Pushkar get cancelled, this time I tried some serious nudging on myself; to be there at the sacred moment of Pushkar camel fair. The very idea of camels and traders journeying across the vast deserts of Rajasthan in a time immemorial fashion to meet, socialize, and trade, found an inkling in me. Pushkar is a complete teleportation from the urbane life to a rustic one, from economy that survives on cars to one where camels form an integral part. The romantic image of camels loping across the desert in Rajasthan, enthused me to plan the plan I had waited for so long.

Pushkar has a magnetism of its own – it’s very unlike the way one imagines Rajasthan. Fair or not, it will never cease to sweep you off your feet. The town celebrates the riddles of life, throughout the year. Pushkar made me rejig the concept of time; moments into Pushkar and a feeling that everything has been stalled, got me. The antiquity of the town is inspiring. The everyday world of Pushkar does more than inspire and encourage well-being, it makes the sordid routine seem novel.

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Pushkar Ghat

I was in Pushkar, at the annual camel fair, indisputably, the best time of the year to be in. Everywhere I turned, I could hear music, see a riot of colours, feel the exuberance of the fair and sense Pushkar’s ability to engage with tourists pouring from world over; and then there was the rustic hue, atmospheric shots of herders and their camels, trekking past the deserts. Calling the Pushkar fair just magnetic, would be an understatement. It is far more than that, it takes you out of your cocoon, into a world unknown and untraversed. One eyeful of Pushkar, and the reason that made it a favorite among foreign tourists, becomes discernible. Pushkar is everything most Indian cities are not; it’s sleepy, calm, inviting and engaging; a tell-tale of a town that has thrown off its provinciality.

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Hot air baloon is a new addition in Pushkar Fair

Pushkar Fair

In the autumn, as the moon starts its journey for the brightest night of the year, tribes from all over Rajasthan, stream out of their ethnic lands, arid landscapes, stubbly fields, thickets, scrubs, and deserts; trudging with their beasts, draped in multi-colored turbans, travelling with rivulets of kaleidoscopic caravans. The women of the tribes, come draped in their gypsy bright skirts swaying in autumn winds like daffodils, sporting bright silver and bronze jewelry rivaling the smoldering sun and big, arresting bindi on forehead; engrossed in little chats. And at certain distance are scattered groups of travelers, some from different corners of the country and more from abroad, lost in the little riddles and proses of this town.

Pushkair fair brings them all together.

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Scene from Pushkar mela

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Pushkar, the Brahma’s land

Pushkar, is a legendary town, stretched around the three sacred lakes, and legends say Lord Brahma, the Creator of the Hindu Trinity, while flying over this land, had dropped three petals from the lotus he carried. The three petals became the three lakes of Pushkar. Some say the creator landed on this auspicious land and performed a holy ritual. Others take the tale a little further and claim that Lord Brahma married a tribal girl in Pushkar. Ever since, people gather in thousands, at this holy place to bathe and worship on the anniversary of the Creator’s sacrifice.

Regardless of legendary tales, Pushkar has grown, both as a colourful animal fair and an international tourist destination. While traders throng here to trade cattle, sheep, camels and thoroughbred horses; for tourists, it’s an escape from their world with an added flavor of good deal of craft shopping and café hopping.

A colony of backpackers

The moment our car breast the hill, magic unfolded. It was early morning, wind carried the chill of the night and the sun was in a sleepy state. In the distance the three lakes glinted like jewels, and a little further, through dust and haze, campfires twinkled. We maneuvered our way through the narrow alleys, the morning markets, the hubbub of a touristy town, making our way towards the hotel. And as we drove, a part of us mingled with the razzmatazz of the place. It seemed like a shifting kaleidoscope of emotions, trying to find a balance somewhere between the serenity of the place and the ordered chaos of the fair. The central area of the fair was crowded with visitors thronging the shops and eateries, while the herders and traders took the plains, focusing on their business.

The colonization of backpackers have made this a model town: a place created by and for the tourists, with multicuisine eateries, chic cafes, schools of yoga, massage, Indian music and dance, shops selling herbal cosmetics, perfumes and the inexplicable clothing that characterizes the backpacker diaspora. And it’s all there, shops feasting with colourful textiles, silver jewelry and crafts, town lost in backpacker’s thoughtless party reverie, locals engrossed in their daily chores playfully mixed with spiritual detours, houses with open courtyards with murals to keep you on a click frenzy mode, nomads exhibiting their ravishing dreadlocks and loincloths, and a gastronomic culture that has evolved due to mixing of myriad of cultures and aspirations. The rooftops of medieval buildings with exquisite jharokhas have been turned into cafes, offering new vignettes of the lake with its ghats, the sprawl of temples and the town around the sacred lake. Some ancient courtyards have been turned into meditation centers. It’s suggested to keep enough time on hand to pencil in such moments, after all everything in Pushkar moves at its own leisurely pace. From temple to temple, take your time to discover the cultural and spiritual nuances of the place.

I often ditched the fair to be by the lake, often joined by a group of backpackers with their musical instruments. These are not rare moments, this is routine in Pushkar. And be it any moment, there’s always a spirit of gay abandon, hanging in Pushkar.

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Pushkar has evolved as an offbeat and ethnic shoppers paradise

The divine in Pushkar

In the evenings, as the sun slips into the valleys, the lake comes alive with the flickering of the lamps during the scenic aarti. The Pushkar fair ends on a full moon night, and thankfully, I was there, to bear witness to his heavenly spectacle. The ambience with lights twinkling in the twilight was ethereal. Drumbeats, clash of symbols and chiming of bells herald the aarti on the final day i.e. on Purnima (full moon). Lamps are lit and placed all-round the Ghat. This was probably the first time, I was coming in terms with the spirituality of Pushkar. I had seen its jamboree, its gay abandon, the way it has engaged with all cultures and left a part of it in them, and the way it has shaped itself to be a hot tourist destination, but this was different. This was Pushkar, the way it has been for all these centuries, when the travellers had not arrived and it still carries that air.

What else to do

Apart from all the spiritual, culinary, musical, and shopping adventure, you can hire a bike and go to Ratnagiri Hill for sublime sunset views over the lake. Do a one-and-a-half-hour hike up to Savitri Devi Temple. Most times of the year, the skies are fabulous canvasses of delight.

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Indian Ocean band performing in Pushkar Fair

Rajputana revisited at Nagaur

This wasn’t a well-planned tour; last minute tickets, itinerary gone through in haste, no pre-research done and entire plan charted out on way to the railway station. My first impression of Nagaur, as I landed the next morning, was that of a quaint town. I took a corner in that humble station and rolled my eyes to detail out every corner, to assure me that I was still in this century. ‘The town looks ancient’ I said to myself, coming out of the station. This was Nagaur, in the arid northwest of India’s largest state, Rajasthan. Bordering the Thar desert, most of the cityscape has been painted royal yellow with a magnificent Fort standing in the middle of the city; the city walls echoing the tales from time immemorial and the fort speaking of tales of glory and valour.

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Landscape view of the Nagaur Fort

I was soon drawn into a history lesson by my chauffeur as we drove to the hotel. A major draw for anyone seeking an immersion in courtly history, Nagaur grew from a strategic trade point to the centre of Rajputana power in its hey days. Naguar lived under the influence of conquerors from vastly different cultures. Over time it gained a distinct Rajput-Mughal architectural design as gardens, temples and fountains were added. Passing through the town is like passing through an age frozen and wrapped in time. The city seems as unmoved by changing times. The 4th century Ahichhatragarh Fort, standing in the middle of the city, was originally built by the Nagavanshi clan (hence the name that means ‘Fort of the Hooded Cobra’!) and rebuilt in the 12th century by the Ghaznis to include palaces and mosques. The Nagaur Fort epitomizes the city more than anything else. Continue reading

A Fort with many stories: Chittorgarh

Stories abound in this fort. Wrapped in history, Chittorgarh Fort has been a textbook lesson on valour, honor, sacrifice and never to fade aura of romance. Haunting silence of the innumerable historic episodes, that found a setting here, still echo in the ruins. Every corner seems to have a story to tell. “You must have heard the story of Queen Padmini” said my driver with a toothless smile, as we whizzed past the lanes of this living fort. Chittorgarh, has been a part of history lessons, taken as an epitome of Rajput valor and pride. One of the oldest surviving forts of India, it was actually built by the Mauryas. Over centuries, it changed many hands, seen many battles, but its grandeur only increased with time. Even though it stands in decay today, it gives you a feeling of awe and magnificence of ages and periods of history, these buildings have seen.

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Rana Kumbha Palace, though in ruins, still evokes myriad emotions in travelers.

Chittorgarh was once a fortified city and the capital of Mewar Rajputana (Southern part of Rajasthan), before falling into hands of Khiljis, then ruled by Gehlot and Sisodia dynasties from 7th Century AD until captured by Emperor Akbar. Today this stunning fort is a UNESCO world heritage site. This was my second visit to Chittorgarh, infact Chittorgarh was my introduction to Rajasthan, when I had combined it with Bundi. As I entered the gate (Pol), frames from my first visit, flashed before me. In a minute, Chittorgarh turned into a bouquet of emotions for me. Continue reading

Yogyakarta: Into the heart of Indonesia

Buddhist temple Borobodur, a UNESCO Heritage site in Yogyakarta

An ancient city and the last remaining Sultanate of Indonesia, YogyaKarta has long nurtured the Javanese connection with the outer world and has been a cradle of art and culture. Old ways of life exist in Yogyakarta, side by side with bustling modernity and the city decorates itself with the symbols of traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. From all night shadow puppetry, the age old extraordinary Buddhist temples of BoroBodur and the equally impressive Hindu ones of Prambanan, socially aware graffiti on the wall to the beautifully styled Batik designs; Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s second most visited spot, is a cultural palette on display.

The city comes as a huge relief from the urbane madness of Jakarta, narrow roads lined with trees, old buildings wearing a colonial touch, shops styled as pagodas, slow life, frequent smiles by strangers, alleys lined with themed restaurants, art cafes often buzzing with some performances, random music bands performing on streets and endless boards advertising batik designing lessons; Yogyakarta gives you a feeling of being in a different era.

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Prambanan Temple, one of UNESCO Heritage sites in Yogyakarta (pic as appeared in HuffPost)

Continue reading

On a Golden Chariot

Suddenly, noise fills the air. A band of dancers and drummers had assembled, and no sooner did we get off the bus than they started beating the drums. After a moment’s hesitation, I breathed in the luxury of the moment. Train journeys are inspiring as they whisk you past landscapes that exist in real and in your mind. I was on the Golden Chariot, a luxury train in South India that runs across the state of Karnataka and ends its journey in Goa. The name of the train conjures up romantic images of historical tales, bejeweled scimitars and ornate thrones. History and heritage are its mainstay, but there are moments in the ‘wild’ in the tiger territory of Nagarhole Park and a relaxed time on a Goan beach with glistening white sands.

Golden Chariot Continue reading

Stitching back the past at Badami

A centuries old town at the mouth of a river, nestled between two rocky hills giving you the impression of a wildwest, lakes on other three sides and reputed for its rock cut temples, Badami can take you back ages. I marvelled at the dramatic landscape of the region, as we made way through it. Red sandstone cliffs, with deep fissures, rugged mountainous profile, dusty roads and the mud walled houses splashed with ochre dust; all seeming like a leaf taken from Wadi Rum.

Badami had been the capital of the Chalukyan rulers, a dynasty that ruled over Deccan for almost 200 years between the sixth and the eighth centuries. Chalukyans were great patrons of art and architecture and during their rule architecture took a transition from rock art to free standing structural architecture.

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Cave temples overlook the Adil Shahi Mosque: Religions had always coexisted

Deity secrets

The first look of the Badami caves reminded me of a miniature and a rustier version of Petra. The lowest cave is dedicated to Lord Shiva, evident from the eighteen armed figure of a dancing god Natraj, at the entry point. Not an inch of space has been left untouched in the cave, murals, artistic columns, bejewelled deities, bracketed figures, angels and mythological tales on the pillars and roof make it an architectural wonder. And wonder all of this is monolithic, hewn deeply in the cliff. Up the steps, overlooking the greenish water body, Agastya Lake, are cave temples, consecrated to Lord Vishnu, depicted in his myriad forms. A sculpture sees him seated on a cosmic serpent, while other in his man-lion incarnation and yet a third depicts him raising his leg, a depiction of his yet another incarnation. The supporting beams have beam chain inscriptions, adorned with floral designs and sculptures of angels in close embrace on angles. The last cave is devoted to Jain Tirthankaras, gracefully sculptured, a tall sculpture of Mahavira on the ends and tales and philosophies carved on the walls. One glimpse and these caves seem an eclectic mix of art and spirituality.

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Shiva cave temple

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Jain Temple

We made our move to our next stop, Pattadakal, where ancient temples built in divergent styles waited for us. This coming together of North and South Indian architectural styles is probably due to the geographical position of Badami in the centre of the Deccan plateau.

Road to Pattadakal

Everytime I have been to an ASI protected heritage site, I’ve wished ASI had done a better job with signage and storytelling. Badami comes as a surprise –proper signage and historical accounts, immaculate paperbacks on Badami (including ones of George Mitchell) at the counters and guides who can take you beyond the temple architecture to literature, philosophy and culture as it evolved in the Chalukyan dynasty over a millennium ago.  Standing there, in an incredibly dense complex of ancient buildings, is very close to a feeling of walking through a frozen landscape of bizarre red mountains. An ancient complex, a group of eight temples, carrying a hint of Southern and Northern style of temple architecture, taking you back centuries into a world of mythology, rituals and philosophies some too incredible to even believe they ever existed.

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Mosaic of ancient temples in Pattadakal (notice the distinct designs of the spires in the temples)

Standing on ceremony

As stories embrace you, you wink at the wit of builders and philosophers, smile at the brilliance of design of sculptures and dexterity palpable on every wall of these temples. Pattadakal stands out among its contemporaries and even from other historical structures, for its sheer sophistication.

On a bend of the River Malaprabha, some 22 kms from Badami, the village of Pattadakal served as a ceremonial site for the Chalukya rulers. The Chalukyan style is a unique synthesis of Nagara (northern) and Dravidian (southern) styles which was later adopted by the Hoysalas rulers, further down in south Karnataka. The hall interiors of the temples are divided into multiple aisles by rows of columns, will walls covered with carvings showing hindu mythological tales. The central aisle leads to a central chamber accommodating Lord Shiva lingam, with richly ornamented sculptures of guards on either sides of the chamber. Only Virupaksha temple is still used for worship. The profusion of carvings on the outer wall of Virupaksha is tantamount to a visual encyclopedia of Hindu mythology. All you need is someone to tell these stories.

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Mallikarjun temple in Pattadakal

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Sands of time

The demarcation between the Nagara style of architecture and Dravida style of architecture is very conspicuous in the shape of the spires or shikhara. In nagara style, the tower is shaped as a pyramid soaring upwards towards the heavens and in dravidan style the towers are stepped and richly carved. All eight temples show different styles of architectures; the use of many novel features like aisles, curvilinear spires, roofs with receding tiers, porch suggest that the temples were built as manuscripts to be replicated from. The imposing Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples, alike in design, built by twin sister queens of King Vikramaditya II to honour his return from a battle, are graceful examples of timeless architecture of that era. Both the temples sport an enormous gateway, numerous inscriptions on the walls, beaded columns, spell-binding frescos, ornate motifs, rings of elephants and horses at angles to mark the king’s victory, richly carved roofs with floral and animal designs and abundant murals from the epics. No doubt the architect was given the title ‘Tribhuvanacharya’ (the master of three worlds).

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Interiors of Mallikarjun temple

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Sculpture on the wall of Virupaksha temple

I took a step, looked around, once more eyeful of these stone temples, standing like red sandstone mountains, set against the backdrop of azure blue sky, river flowing on one side; everything frozen, centuries pass by as you ponder, amused by this sheer poetry in stone.

Fast facts

Badami is well connected with major cities like Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bangalore via railway network. To stay, there are budget lodges available in Badami city or consider Karnataka Tourism hotel Chalukya for a decent stay.

Pattadakal is approximately 25 kms from the main district, one can either take a local bus (usually crowded) or hire private taxi. Some shared autos also ply on the route but the frequency of these is a matter of concern. Badami caves are approximately 6 kms from the main city and shared autos and buses ply on the route.