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.

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Hampi: The Empire strikes back

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Be at Hampi for these coloured evenings

There are two sides of Hampi. One for the new age carefree tourists seeking tranquillity, crammed in a side which is strangely defended, where new world sets in, of open roof restaurants, budget hotels, funny fags and smokey sticks. Initiate a conversation with anyone there and a quaint picture of Hampi is portrayed, one that of a laidback and soothing town, away from urbane madness, a place no short of novel experiences, of endless trekking, night-outs on boulders, scooter renting and biking on sun-baked roads leading from nowhere to nowhere, boulder rappelling and almost everything you ever had noted in your list of ‘to-do once in life’. A new age hippie backpacker’s paradise, Hampi lives upto your expectations.

And then there is this second side, which lives in its own mystic, narrating the confusing stories, telling tales of things forgotten and no more itched in most history books. I was on the other side; the side of stories, forgotten past, temple ruins standing as gruesome reminders of history and mythology; the side marked with charming eccentricity.

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Gates to the forgotten Vijayanagar empire

Sitting upon the Mathunga hill on a large expanse of flat rock, I looked down on Hampi. A splendid view of ochre coloured boulders, the mighty Tungabhadra snaking its way through them, life living its course on coracles as they sailed from one end of the river to the other, oases of green palms and plantations on the sides, little lost temples clinging to the hillside and the mystique and splendor of the impressive Virupaksha temple piercing the azure blue sky. The boulders are enormous, mysteriously held in their respective position, defying gravity as if some magical spell has kept them from falling. They stretch for miles and hold many secrets of the great empire of Vijayanagar that flourished here. Everything seems frozen, the history, the mystique, the culture that refused to die, the carvings that lived all war, the hundreds of temples nestling themselves away from prying eyes and also the people, who came here as tourists and merged with the silence of the place.

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Virupaksha temple from Hemkunta hill

They say Hampi is like an unfulfilled dream; serene, splendid and some laid back, where you can lounge about restaurants overlooking the river, where marijuana is in abundance, and where you can be yourself for days, weeks or even months.

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The king’s platform in Hampi’s royal enclosures

We trekked down to the Achyutaraya Temple and wandered silently among the ruins. It’s a place to sit, contemplate, think and reflect on whatever you want to. Only a handful of tourists venture here and those who do chose not to spend a lot of time. Take moments to get an eyeful of the crumbling walls, walk down the old Bazaar outside the temple, it conjures up images of the forlorn era, when merchants would shout their wares from the stalls. Now it’s deserted, but never fails to invoke images of those long gone days. But during its heyday in the 1400s, Abdur Razzak, a Persian ambassador to the kingdom, wrote: “Each class of men belonging to each profession has shops contiguous the one to the other; the jewelers sell publicly in the bazaars pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds.”

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Remains of the King’s palace

As I walked, I grew more knowledgeable of the intricate religious and historical sides of Hampi. From a distance, the behemoth red granite boulders, shadowing the town, looked like an overgrown childhood collection of marbles. It had gone dark and we tried to take in as much as visual treat as we could, dodging spiky cacti, and unscathed of the numerous stories of bear and leopard, my guide Rajesh had laden me with. A small flame flickered inside a temple, sandwiched between the large boulders, one of the many temples strewn around. This one showed signs of life and our only source as we walked along the Tungabhadra River, spell bound by the majestic silhouette of boulders and derelict structures on them, as they shone in full moon light.

I broke for the day, but Hampi still hung on me. I lived the munificence of the Vijaynagar kingdom every minute, in the award winning design of the Orange County Resort.

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The elephant stables at royal enclosure. Notice the Indo-Islamic design in domes and arches.

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The lotus Mahal, another piece of Indo-Islamic fusion with feminine arches and lotus marked crown

The next day we set off for the royal enclosures, walking among the ramparts of what once used to be the fort walls, halls and irrigation channels, under the baking sun. A maze of platforms, little passes, hidden chambers, broken pedestals, water channels leading to step-well and ruins that could have once been a temple; everything takes you back ages. My guide Rajesh pointed at another set of ruins that was once the mighty ruler Krishna Deva Rai’s palace. “What triggered Hampi’s destruction?” I asked.

“The Bahamani kingdom, which included sultanate of Bidar, Birar, Raichur, Gulbarga and Golkonda came together and attacked Hampi. After defeating Hampi, when they didn’t find much treasure, they burned the entire city down” he answered.

I strode towards the Queen’s bath, an immaculate, now empty pool where the royal ladies once used to bath. There was a deep trench ringing the building. “The king filled it with crocodiles so that no one could watch the queen in her bath” explained Rajesh. Ah! so no peeping inside.

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Queen’s royal bath, the buildings with a touch of Islamic designs are more intact, probably for the same reason

A little further are more intact buildings, the lotus palace, the royal stable and guards place, buildings with conspicuous eclectic mix of Indo-Islamic design in their architecture and probably the most plausible reason for these buildings to be spared the destruction. We strayed further to more ruins, along an out of the way path, to take rest under one of those impossibly balanced rocks, which in the real world shouldn’t have been standing, but then this was Hampi, a chapter taken out of a fancy tale. The wind roared again. I have seen many desolate places, but there is a certain peculiarity here, an unparalleled charm, something that grows and stays inside you. It was my second time to Hampi, but I still feel unsatiated, I feel some corners are still to be discovered, the grandeur requires some more eyeing.

The four O’ clock sun had started to shade the landscape redder, the wind blew hard as it swept the barren landscape, shadows were thrown longer. We made our way to the Vitthala Viman temple. The Sun chariot in the center, stood as indication of the flourishing past, this city had seen. The ornate pillars of the Kalyan mandap, had scriptures of a mythological animal Yali, with a body of a horse, head of a lion with a trunk of an elephant indicating qualities of agility, responsiveness, power and geniality as leadership traits that every ruler should have. The outer walls have eloquent carvings of Hindu spiritual tales, King’s administrative systems, social orders and carvings depicting Hindu beliefs and philosophy, indicating that temple in those days doubled up as a center of social learning. Frankly I was taken in by the Sun chariot in the temple. Looking at it and the grand spectacle that was before me, words of Nicole Conti, the first European to see the Vijayanagara Empire when he arrived in 1420, rung in my ears “I never saw a place like this”. I wondered where was Hampi in my history books, for which British Historian Robert Swell wrote in his book Hampi: the forgotten empire “a city with which for richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare;”. I read Alexander, Marathas, Guptas, Cholas but was the Vijaynagar empire missed. I could recollect a slight mention of Krishna Deva Raya, but looking at this marvel, I knew I hadn’t read enough. This discovery was both humbling and exhilarating. One look spared at the bazaar, a common thing outside any temple, and we moved on. As my guide told, temples were the centers of the city and it was usual to have market place around temples. Thus, the city was broadly divided into a royal complex, the sacred or market complex and the residential complex which housed the citizens.

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Vitthala Viman Temple – British Historian Robert Swell wrote in his book Hampi: the forgotten empire “a city with which for richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare;”

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I was completely taken in by the Sun Chariot in the Vitthala Viman Temple

The story of Hampi is fascinating. Harihara Raya, in 1336, decided to make this place his capital when he saw a wild hare chasing away his hunting dog. He was so amazed with the ferocity of this soil that produced a hare which could quiver his dog into submission that he decided to build his empire here. For almost 200 years Hampi continued to grow, attracting trade from all across the globe. Krishna Deva Raya’s reign was the Golden period for Hampi, when it prospered and grew into a powerful empire mustering million-man armies, and housing 500,000 people, second only to Beijing then. Trade relations were established with traders from far-off Portugal, Russia and Italy, as well as Mongols, Persians and Arabs. The pillars on the monolithic Ganesh temple, prove a great learning point for trade related aspects of the empire. The wealth of the empire invited enemies and in 1565 an alliance of Muslim invaders known as the Deccan Sultans laid waste to the empire. The city was destroyed, citizens slaughtered, temples razed, monuments trounced; all for whole five months. Swell writes “Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city.” But even all this carnage couldn’t erase the grandeur of Hampi. It still lives in its scattered empty monuments.

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With its randomness Hampi is an incredible place for photography

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Some more randomness thrown in – five Shiva lingas denote five elements of nature

Hampi draws you. Every corner is full of stories. I learnt as I moved, the interlocks in the pillars of the temples, the marks in the large granite pieces where wood was fixed and then watered and expansion of the moist wood resulted in mechanical weathering of granite which were later shaped, the three shiv-lingas on rocks indicating the three power centers of Hindu philosophy and the five shiv-lingas, indicating the five elements, the small temples built by traders, the numerous pillars as we reached the Virupaksha temple, everything had a tale to learn from. From a distance, Virupaksha temple, looked like some lost Mayan or Egyptian wonder, pyramidal cone with intricate carvings, open sanctorum area, frescos and ornate pillars; an absolute wonder. And right outside the temple is its living treasure, Lakshmi, the town’s holy elephant, who taps a blessing on your head, once offered a coin. I stood in delighted awe as I glanced on the intricate work on the pillars and the roof in the temple. Rajesh told me the meaning of each painting on the roof, some pertaining to social order and some to religion. I listened patiently.

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Getting blessed by Laxmi, at Virupaksha Temple

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The interiors of Virupaksha temple

Hundreds of years have passed and the ruins can still take you back to that forgone era, as if everything is alive. It’s a feeling that nothing has changed, just frozen, wrapped in time in the nursery of nature. It’s like all the fighting stopped yesterday. As you wander through the royal enclosures, you get the feeling that all the art, the smell of Vijayanagar cuisine, the rhythm in orchestrated steps of the courtesans, the clink of coins, the subtle fragrance of sandalwood in the air, rustle of silk, the beating of drums as Krishna Deva Raya enters his palace, the festivity of the bazaars, grandeur of the hundreds of temples which lie wasted today, the tap of horses’ steps, elephants trumpets in the stable, the playful laps in the bigger than Olympic sized pools, the giggles of royal ladies as they play – are all hidden beneath the surface, ready to sprint back to life, if you wish to read it. This is the grand stage of Hampi – immortal.

(Hampi has a huge connection with the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’. According to Ramayana, this place was Kishkingdha, the birthplace of monkey God Hanuman. Even the Matunga hill has its story. Legends say that once an ascetic Matunga was meditating in the hills when Bali (King of Kishkingdha) came to the hill looking for a demon. This angered the ascetic and he condemned him that he would die if he ever stepped on the hill again. When the two brothers, Sugriva and Bali fell off each other, Sugriva took refuge in the Matunga hill to keep himself safe from Bali. Lord Ram met the monkey king and his army in the Matunga hills.)

To go – Hampi is in North Karnataka, 6-7 hours journey from both Bangalore and Hyderabad. The nearest railway and bus station is Hospet (10 kms from Hampi).

To stay – For budget travelers, scores of stays available. For Luxury seeking travelers, visit Orange County resorts.

Ahobilam Temple: Trek in the Nallamala Range

The idea behind a trip to Ahobilam, was out of the blue, out of some casual talk, idle browsing on internet, and then sealed by Andhra Pradesh tourism. And some moments of reading travelogues with accounts of trek experiences, gave us the required brain waves to extend the Kurnnol trip and take a long detour to cover Ahobilam. The road trip to Ahobilam, wasn’t very appealing, the roads were desolate, but with a rustic hue.

Let me accept here, I am not a great temple-goer person. I study temples, there architecture, the finesse in their design, the rich carvings on the pillars, the entire character. The art and design put on display, turns these temples into an age old chronicler for me. I love the touch and feel of the old rocks, the ever-lasting gleam on the sculptures, the floral designs following some geometric manner and the endless tales narrated to on-lookers through carvings; appeal to me.

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Upper Ahobilam temple

Before planning to Ahobilam, I had almost no idea of what was in display for me. I was inspired of the trek to the Upper Ahobilam temples. Ahobilam has two main temples – Diguva (Lower) Ahobilam, located at the foothills of the Nallamala range, housing the Prahalada Varadha Temple and Eguva (Upper Ahobilam) located in the hills on an 8 km ghat road and houses the Ahobila Narasimha temple. There are 8 other temples for Lord Narasimha and two other spots associated with the Hindu Mythology – the entire set forms part of the Ahobilam trek. While 4 of the temples are accessible on road, for the other 5, one needs to trek a total distance of 32 kilometres.

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Lower Ahobilam temple

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My ‘earthly’ experience: Kurnool escapade

It was more like an urge – to take the open road, the uncharted ways, to make no itinerary and make headway off to somewhere, halt at the first stop and explore, either ride into the sunset or melt with it. These were my first thoughts when I started my course of journey in the Eastern Ghats – starting with Kurnool, often referred to as the Gateway to Rayalseema – a province with a rich and varied history, a place of hot passions, of violent factionist loyalties, a land that was once the stronghold of Krishna Deva Raya and was once a cultural pot of the Vijayanagar empire.

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The imposing Buddha statue at Belum caves

I started my day with Belum caves. I have to say, I liked the place almost instantly. Surrounded by hillocks (which I mistakenly took for caves), impossibly calm and serene surroundings, the desolate roads, fragmented habitation, an unusual chill in the morning breeze and an imposing Buddha Statue before the caves, my brain kept registering the unusual charms of the place. The caves were explored some 130 years back and came to AP Tourism’s notice in 1980s. This is an underground cave, some 3.5 km long with an underground river. Well the caves are well maintained – they are well maintained and illuminated, timings are maintained, no food item is allowed inside and guide service is mandatory to look after the naughty types. The entrance is a circular pit and right away, one descends and then moves into a spacious chamber with a circular opening overhead. I craned my neck to see a deep blue sky at the rim of the crater! That was our last glimpse of the sky for a while.

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Belum caves

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Dwarka – of Krishna and Meera

A long, tiring drive across flat, featureless and arid landscape of west Gujarat brought me to Dwarka. The last stage of drive from Rajkot was material less, offering nothing to capture my attention. My interest pecked up as we passed salt panes and our guide announced that we are in ‘Dev-bhoomi’. As you cross a rivulet, the road rises, and the town is suddenly in front of you. The bus halted and I popped my head out of the window to take a shot of the temple. Sheer excitement!

I am not a very religious guy, I had gone there to find stories, to release the bond of love between Meerabai and Lord Krishna, to live stories that are eternal and to find a city, historians call India’s Atlantis. The remote seaside is one of India’s holiest places, where Krishna lived for over 100 years and where Meerabai met her eternal love when she mysteriously vanished in front of thousands who had thronged to offer prayers to Krishna with her. Dwarka’s soul lies in these stories and the bond of spiritual love, this place has seen between a devotee and her deity. Otherwise, a flat, barren land, Dwarka washed by both sun and sea, with limited colours and very tranquil, unlike other holy cities of India. Minutes in this place and you find yourself in warm embrace of the sun, sea and spirituality.

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It took me seconds to take in the spirit of Dwarka; the spiritual air hung over me, and started working its magic. I took to the seaside, mostly colourless, lined with concrete wall, and dotted with temples. Nothing you would like to call picturesque, but inviting in its own way.

I started my journey with the Meerabai temple.

“Meerabai’s love was different; she never expected to be loved. She wished a bond, a holy bond between Aatma (soul – mortal) and Parmatma (God – Immortal). There were no boundaries in that love, she forgot herself to remember the divine.” Harish our guide told me and the other foreign tourists who were with us.

We walked through the modest town of Dwarka to reach the point that defines this city (Dwarka (Dwar = gate and Ka = moksha (salvation)). Even on the stairs, far from the main building, you can feel the sacred air. One look at the spire covered with ornate carvings, and a flag fluttering in the breeze, makes you feel a bit special about the place. I went directly into the inner sanctum, where the black idol of Krishna, in colourful garments, is kept, decked on a recess with frames of gold and silver surrounding the idol. The whole experience is overwhelming. There are many smaller temples that surround the main temple, all in grey sandstone, beautifully sculptured, adorned with the same medieval charm as the main temple, giving a very dreamy look in unison.

Dwarka Temple

I took a quiet corner for myself to look at the activities. Lulled by the evening sea breeze, I tried imbibing the calm of the place, somewhere in my mind, picturing Meerabai singing for her Krishna.  Harish had another story for me, again of the eternal love of Meera. When she disappeared in Dwarka, a piece of cloth of her saree was left behind on the Krishna idol. She had merged with the god she loved and prayed. Some say she fled away, and it is only those ‘some’ who believed in their saying, for the masses she had found her love.

Three kilometers away from the main temple is the Rukmani temple perched on a breezy stretch of backwater. Mythology puts that Goddess Rukmini opted to stay here and bless the devotees. The temple is an architectural masterpiece. Taking religion out of the story, Dwarka teaches you the different forms in which love existed in Krishna’s life – there was Radha’s ecstatic love, then Rukmini’s love which existed as commitment, Draupadi’s love which was respect and then Meera’s which was devotion. Only a feeling like love can exist in so many forms and still be worshiped.

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I went further in search of ‘Atlantis of India’, Bet Dwarka. Various marine excavations around Bet Dwarka have indeed revealed a good and planned city. I shared glances with Harish, he looked eager to share the story. Vedic scriptures say that Lord Krishna settled here with his Yadav clan to save them from Jarasandha, the evil king of Mathura (Krishna’s home place). Since Bheema was ordained to kill Jarasandha, Krishna had to leave Mathura with his clan and establish a new fortified city. With the help of Viswakarma, the divine architect, a dazzling Golden City was erected and christened as Kushasthali or Dwaravati. It later became Dwarka. After the death of Krishna, the city was submerged, only to be excavated centuries later.

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I looked at the temple again, the steeple towers, the huge flag and the throng of devotees on the stairs – images of bhajan singing saffron dhoti clad boys, women in long queues who must have traveled distances to come and offer their offerings, children who had been told stories of Krishna and men for whom God is the only one they can trust, flashed before me. What had they all come for in this remote western town? Isn’t there one thing that binds all these stories and images? Devotion or say faith or call it love. You feel that buoyant joy here, a feeling that you have been dragged out of the stream of life, the continuous time and space continuum you live in, to a place where everything has settled, where you find calmness in roaring sea and pace in the mystic stories of Meera and Krishna. And standing in the midst of this divinity, staring at how all the life processes condense into devotion or love, you realize that love is the central force where all forces mingle. Love is devotion. Love is awareness. Krishna is awareness, Meera is love.

Hampi: An Indian Rome

It was like moving on a movie set, a place so dramatic in its natural form, is hard to imagine. Unreal and bewitching, the ruins of Hampi, lying scattered over a landscape to leave you mesmerized. Giant boulders perching for miles, set under azure blue sky with jade green palm cover serving as the background. Ah! It’s truly out of a set, wrapped in time, nursed by nature. It’s a story of an empire which never died, couldn’t be scrapped from history, an empire that lived upto its name – Vijaynagar.

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Hampi, a tourist village now was once a thriving capital of the mighty Vijaynagar Kingdom. The imperium which lasted for more than two centuries, was founded on this strategic location guarded by the rocky terrain and hillocks on one side and the might Tungabhadra river on the other. The last non-islamic superpower, reaching its acme under the great ruler Krishna Devaraya, had to be literally colluded to dismantle, leaving behind an architectural history that left the Portuguese and the English gaping at. Vijaynagar had always been alluring and enigmatic to me. And thus, my excitement knew no bound, when I got an invitation to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site. Continue reading

An Ode to Sun Temple, Modhera

A ride, of some 125 kms from Ahmedabad, leads you into the quaint town of Mehsana, famous for the magnificent Sun temple built by the great Solanki rulers to venerate Sun for its energy and vitality. This Sun Temple, very much like the Sun temple at Konark, Orissa and Martand, Kashmir seems undiminished by the ravages of history. The unruffled, peaceful, rustic landscape and the majestic temple frame an eternal picture in minds. Situated on the banks of the river Pushpavati, amidst the verdant fields, rests this famed Sun temple of Modhera. Legends narrate that after vanquishing Ravana, Lord Rama performed a yajna (sacrifice) here to absolve the sin of killing a Brahmin. Rama built “Modherak” which subsequently came to be known as “Modhera”.

Sun Temple@night_Modhera

 

The Sun Temple at Modhera was built as a grand offering to the God under the patronage of Suryavanshi King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty. This temple reflects the architectural dexterity of the Solanki dynasty. The temple was built in a way that the first rays of the Sun fall on the idol in the Sabha Mandap.  The design and architecture of the temple seems a voyage through time with magnificently carved eons of the Solanki period, or the Golden period of Gujarat history, welcoming and narrating legends of Modhera.     Continue reading