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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Discovering Culture and History in Chiang Mai

Amazing Thailand. It has an aura of its own.

The land of the enchanting beaches that are a favorite with Indian middle-class families - Phuket, Krabi and Pattaya are destinations that easily roll off the tongue of most 6-yr olds in the country. The beautiful islands, that are haunted by back-packers and luxury travelers alike, with the promise of great food, all-night entertainment and a gazillion choices of "good fun". The notorious "massage parlors" and the in-your-face unadulterated permissiveness, that surprisingly jells harmoniously with the culturally sensitive, deeply religious mindset of ever-smiling and courteous folks. Bangkok, the capital with some of the most notorious traffic jams in Asia, ones that make Mumbai's traffic look like a leisurely Sunday afternoon stroll.

Most visitors to Thailand spend their lifetime snaking around the sun-kissed Southern province, lazing around the beaches and questioning the meaning of life, aka dicaprio. Some make their way up to Bangkok, emptying their wallets in the many shopping malls dotting the capital, spending more time passing through the sparkling and glitzy Suvarnabhumi airport than the capital itself. And while culture and history permeates every facet of life in the country, they limp around the periphery, while commerce, shopping, sun, sex and sand dominate the conscious. 

I was as guilty as anyone else. 7 trips spread over 11 years to Thailand, and all one had to show for the efforts were the numerous boarding passes through those beautiful small airports and credit card swipes at several exotic beach-towns. It was no surprise then that on the flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, one strained to locate some familiar "touristy" faces - the Indians, the Europeans, the Aussies. A few blond strands here, a few over-weight Indians there, and that's that. It was almost as if Chiang Mai was an after-thought in the whole "enchanting Thailand" brouhaha. A fact confirmed by our wonderful ever-smiling guide, who said in his 17 years there, we were just the second Indian group he had come across! The cultural capital of the country, with such strong links to India, and we seemed to be the only Indians in the city. So where were the other "tourists", I asked? The guide said only three kinds came here: the religious to pray at one of the several "wats", the back-packers to get lost in the hillside, and the Chinese - by the truck-loads.

Chiang Mai is a city of glorious contrasts. It starts with the name - which means "new city", for an establishment that is more than 700 years old! Glitzy massage parlors, night bazaars and sex clubs thrive right next door to the numerous temples and pagodas, some as old as the city itself, all within the city limits. An hour's drive from the city center brings one right to the heart of the country's hillside and the highest peak, while the city is built on the banks of the Ping river and is surrounded by a moat, along with the fortified wall and the four gates that were built to protect it. The cultural capital of the ancient Thai kingdom, the epicentre of Buddhism in northern Thailand, and a modern sprawling metropolis of a million or so inhabitants, complete with the glitz and rank commercialism, that attracts more than 4 Million visitors a year. 

I wasn't here for the massage parlors or the shows, Phuket and Krabi had done their job well. Neither for the Tiger and Elephant sanctuaries, which were to be honest, well-maintained and the animals well-cared for. Just can't get over the feeling that something must be terribly wrong in a world where wild animals in captivity are money-spinners and a bit hit with hordes of expensive DSLR wielding tourists, while the same people get agitated and angry at having to wait in the sun at a wildlife park. Where are the animals i say, you said we would see some tigers and its been 10 minutes, they bristle, as if the tiger is an artifact which should appear at their beck and call.

Then why was I here? For a long walk along the moat which runs through and across the old city, and passes through several ancient monasteries that dot the city. More than the mind can begin to comprehend and the eye can take in a day. And the various street food jaunts and typical morning country-life, un-corrupted yet by pollution or traffic. I was also here to take in the famed Thai country-side with its rolling paddy fields, and the hillside with its tropical rain-forests and gushing rivers, even in the winter. Both a good day's drive, the air is crisp and gets thinner as the road winds through the Doi Inthanon national park which houses the highest mountain the country, and ample opportunities to river-raft and wade through some deep waters and climb some steep cliffs. And for the delightful sound and light show and the magical night safari, one of the only three in the world. Chiang Mai has several attractions within an hour's drive from the city, enough to keep both the world-weary backpacker and the family engaged alike.

But it was really the "wats" that I was interested in, and specifically the "Wat Pra That Doi Suthep", the most famous and the most important temple in Chiang Mai, located on top of a mountain that rises 3500 feet and offers some magnificent views of the city. The intrigue starts with the drive to the wat. The tuk-tuk we hired refused to take more than six, the driver said in typical Thai fashion shaking his head "too heavy". And then proceeded to rip through the hour's climb, taking us around innumerable hair-pins, steep climbs, with the engine making gurgling noises through the climb, and dropping us off at the narrow and steep steps that seemed to go on and on. The city has a fascinating history and so does the temple, interestingly narrated at the "White elephant" shrine at the entrance, with the first construction of the temple dated back to the 13 Century AD. Interestingly, the history of the temple encapsulates elements of both Buddhism and Hinduism, and both motifs deserve mention. 

It starts with the roughly 300 steps. In both religions, God sits on top of a hill, and tests his devotees will by putting them through an arduous climb. Nothing like the Adam's peak in Srilanka, but steep nonetheless.The shrine of the "White elephant" greets the tired climber, and the eye falls on the statue of several wise men, in a seated posture along with several smaller statues, all gold plated and shining brightly in the afternoon sun, right opposite a covered prayer-cum-seating area. The main temple is built in several arches and layers, in dazzling yellow and red tiles, again gold-plated (a local said it was all real gold, and i wanted to believe it!) and dazzling to the eye. 

The upper terrace of the temple has several small shrines, pagodas, two rooms with seated Buddha statues that seem serene enough to attract the atheist, several golden umbrellas and a multitude of jade Buddha statues, some seated and others horizontal, almost transparent and radiating incredible calm and quiet. Interestingly, the concept of "pradakshinam"or circambulating seems to be common to both Hinduism and Buddhism, and we saw pilgrims, after praying at one of the many Buddha statues, circling round the shrine from left to right three times, aka the elephant legend, with a prayer on their lips and a stem of white lotus in their hands, to be placed at the feet of the Lord. Another common motif, a statue of Ganesha at one of the corners inside the main temple.

The holiest area in the temple grounds is the "Pra That" or the "Chedi", a 16 Century AD gold-plated spire that was built over the 14 Century AD copper plated original, and houses the relic of Lord Buddha, that was so mysteriously transported here by the white elephant. Locals told us that several layers of renovation and reinforcement had been carried out to the main shrine over the years, and while the "wat" still remained the most important Buddhist and cultural shrine in the Northeast of the country, they were worried by the influx of tourism and impact on the eco-sensitive city and its countryside, particularly after Chiang Mai became famous for its namesake "Chiang Mai initiative". But we hardly saw any tourists either here, or in the city, other than the ubiquitous Chinese who were everywhere. Riding the elephants, visiting the wats, shopping at the night market. And appearing in almost all my snaps!

The lookout area on the mountain, as well as several "visitor points" along the way, offer some incredible views of the city of Chiang Mai and its surroundings. It is green as far as the eye can see. The city has a vibe in the evenings, when everyone seems to be just waking up, and is splendidly springy at night, when the night market comes alive, massage parlors welcome visitors with a "swadikha", stables of pretty women entice the honey-minded with their "cheap and clean fun", and as our guide pointed out, lots of wallet exercise. Culture and history married with the vices of modern-day civilization. That is Chiang Mai for you, a city with an incredible history, amazing natural wealth, centuries old culture and religion, and all the trappings of a metropolis. A small capsule of yesterday, with the vibe of today.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Aihole and Pattadakal – The Origin and the Pinnacle of Chalukyan temple architecture

We had the sequence wrong, and this was despite all that we learnt at the museum in Badami, put down to sheer laziness and convenience. Aihole was the first establishment of the Chalukyas and it is here that the first experiments on temple construction took place; Malaprabha valley was the birthplace of this dynasty and it is easy to see why – well-fortified by the cliffs, which the river cuts through and provides access to drinking water as well as fertile soil for cultivation. And from here they moved to Badami, honing their skills and building their empire, which culminated in the glorious temple complexes at Pattadakal. These three towns are 12kms away from each other, Badami, Pattadakal and Aihole in that order.
The road to Aihole requires one to be religious. There is hardly any road, and what remains is a single pebble-infested track through some pretty isolated territory; flourishing fields, disfigured cliffs, and what must be really self-sustaining villages, in the middle of nowhere. We prayed the car wouldn’t break down as that would surely mean pushing it 30 kms to Badami. What we were really looking forward to was the ancient rock art on the cliffs leading in to Aihole, which were discovered by local guides and which were now being studied by archaeologists. Sadly, we forgot to ask “where?” What we did see though were several cliffs which seemed unnaturally smooth, and a local shepherd said the rocks from these cliffs were chipped and used for temple construction, and some of these did shelter rock art. We also heard of caves dated 3C BC where fragments of utensils and daily articles have been found, but their exact location seems to be a closely guarded secret. Everyone agrees it exists, but we asked multiple people, and no one had a clue.
The museum said Aihole was a great ancient city, the largest commercial center of Chalukya dynasty, had hillocks with inscriptions dating to pre-historic period, and several groups of temples, caves and other notable archaeological specimen. The first temple complex we saw on entering the village sent us into raptures and 30 mins of excitement; only to discover the local folk were using part of the construction as a boundary wall and some, as a storage unit. Imagine, 1400 years of history only to end up as a storage unit for cattle fodder? The next complex we came across was totally abandoned, with no tourists and several houses adjoining it, and no one would know it existed except for an ASI sign. Smart tourists that we were, we then decided to follow one of those tourist vans till it disgorged its contents, hoping they would know better. And passed about four such complexes, till we stopped at the largest of these.
Aihole, at last count, had 125 temples divided in to more than 20 temple groups, earning it the sobriquet of a temple town. And even within any given temple complex, the experimentation is quite clearly evident. The earliest temple would be dated early 6C AD, and would just be a rough-cut structure, and the youngest would have been built 100 yrs later, and elaborately carved. And more interestingly, ASI description at several of these temples said the early Chalukyas were “Vaishnavites” and later converted to “Shaivism”, which is also visible in the construction. No wonder the locals are so disinterested in anything not fenced by ASI, there are just too many strewn around, you throw a stone in this village and out will come a temple, said a villager. 
Prominent among these temple groups are the Kontigudi and the Galaganatha group. Durga temple in the main complex catches the eye, unique that it fuses two different styles of construction, is on a raised platform with pillars surrounding the garba griha. The walls within the pillars have a continuous set of some of the most exquisitely carved sculptures of Siva and Vishnu, and other gods and goddesses.
“Lad khan” temple is apparently named after a muslim prince, who was so enamored with the structure that he turned it in his residence for a brief period. One of the earliest found in Aihole and dating back to mid 5C A.D, it is the only two-tiered temple in the complex, with the lower rectangular structure supported by a set of carved pillars, and the higher square structure ending in a carved roof. Again, it is unclear whether it is a Vishnu or a Siva temple, both motifs are present, and it seems the conversion of Chalukyas from one sect to another took place between the 5-8C AD. There are several other cave temples, both Buddhist and Jain in origin, and multiple “gudis”; one feels overwhelmed after a while, and starkly illiterate – maybe the guides do a better job at educating tourists but they usually tend to rush with their stories and end up herding from place to place, leaving one feeling helpless. I have come to the conclusion that when confronted with architecture as magnificent as this, it is better to keep coming back when one gets the chance; we understood Hampi much better the second time, and AP even turned a guide for his friends recently. Surely Aihole deserves a second visit.
The transformation is complete at Pattadakal, both in the wholesale move to Shaivism and the style of temple construction, which exhibits finesse, intricate knowledge and fusion of five different styles, as the museum pointedly remarks. A set of nine large temples built between the 7-9C AD, with the “Virupaksha” temple dominating both in terms of history, elaboration and richness, led Pattadakal to being designated a “World heritage site”. Malaprabha flows just behind the complex and the only practicing temple in the complex has a pathway from the river to the nandi, and in to the large garbha gudi, where sits a huge lingam. The history of the temple complex is told through two inscriptions, a “victory pillar” at the Virupaksha temple that speaks of the grand conquest over the Pallavas sometime around 750C A.D, and a large vertical “tablet” at Sangameswara temple that details some grants regarding its construction. The eye discerns the various styles of construction, but the normal tourist would require years of study to identify the various styles, which fuse in to the unique Chalukya architecture.
Other temples have scenes from the ancient epics on the walls and ceiling, avatars of both Vishnu and Siva, although the main lord seems to be the “lingam". Each has its own distinct feature; Sangameswara temple has three stories, while Papanatha temple has beautiful figurines of animals and war scenes on its walls, while all have an elaborate courtyard and a guard nandi at their main entrance. Again, almost all Indian tourists tend towards the only practicing temple, while the rest walk around dazed, attempting to take in as much as they can, snapping pictures from all angles and muttering incoherently.
If one plans well, a day trip from Badami should suffice, and most tourists seem to prefer this; although the complete absence of any accommodation in Aihole and Pattadakal doesn’t leave one with a choice, Hampi at least has some atrocious places to shack up, and explore at leisure. We were stranded at Aihole at 3PM, searching for some nourishment, and had to make do with exorbitantly priced tender coconut and guavas. While ASI does a brilliant job of maintaining the temple complexes and its surroundings, the least the administration can do is create the minimum infrastructure for visitors - proper roads, toilets, restaurants and places to stay. This trinity of towns is as important as Hampi, and much more ancient too; while Hampi is overrun by tourists, we found only the hardiest here, such as a German-British pair who had been touring temple towns in the south for 3 months, and a European group who were in India for 6 weeks, and the only explanation I could come up with was it was difficult to reach, had no infrastructure, and maybe was not advertised as well. So, 1500 years of our glorious history needs a bit of re-telling. Ms. “U”, are you listening? May be I could attempt, in all humility, to carry a bit of your burden?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Badami – Spectacular views of a natural ravine, an imposing fort and splendid rock-cut temples

There must have been a raging river here once; otherwise, one has to suspend belief and agree with the locals who told me it was the wind alone that carved through 600 meters of sandstone hills. Badami is at the mouth of a ravine, with the town spread out from the “Agastya tirtha” on one side, with the lake itself hemmed in on three sides by rocky hills. The nearest water source is the Malaprabha river 22kms away at Pattadakal; which is how the myth regarding the creation of the lake, and the town, must have arisen. The setting lends itself to folklore and the views are spectacular, sound reverberates so clearly that each syllable spoken at the cave temples can be easily heard both at the fort and the lake, the temples and the caves are elaborately carved, and the place has a certain undeniable mystique. But there is an acute shortage of water, and as one localite put it, “only the rains can save us this year”.
Reaching the ASI museum is an adventure; it is situated at the end of an incredibly narrow twisting road which goes up to the eastern edge of the lake. As all ASI museums are, this one is very informative about the history of the place, but what takes the cake is the “makara torana” right at the entrance, which must have been an important adornment on one of those temple gateways. We have actually started looking for an ASI museum in all such historical places before setting out on our visits, and I must say this helps us be better informed and much better planned than the average tourist, who simply wanders in and out.
Through the museum premises lies the approach to the old fort. It is a steep climb through an ever-narrowing ravine, and it is here that we were convinced there was flowing water once, it takes a good 20-25 minutes to climb to the top, but it is worth its weight in gold for three brilliant views. The first is at the lower “shivalaya”, from where one has a great view of the lower town. The second is at the “open lookout” which has spectacular views of the ravine, the lake and the cave temples on one side, and the old town and the surrounding fields, along with about 25 kms of uninterrupted vision on the other side. No wonder the huge cannons are located here. The third view is the “upper shivalaya”, from where the cave temples and the horizon are clearly visible. Tipu’s treasury was supposedly located here and it must have been easy to protect in those days. For the religious, there is a dargah at the edge of the cliff. A word of caution – it tends to get extremely hot and heat sears up from the rocks, so best to climb the fort early morning, the gates are open from 9AM to 5PM.
About 100m from the museum along the edge of the lake are the “Bhootanath” group of temples, with exquisite set of murals and carvings of deities on the external walls. This set of small elegant temples date back to the early 5-6 C AD; to a similar period belongs the natural Mahavir cave, which can be entered only by crawling. There are several other inscriptions on the walls, some of them dated and others lost to the elements, and they total more than fifty, according to the chatty gardener-guide-priest, who must have seen something in us, there we were wandering around, excitedly taking pictures and chatting outside the locked temples; he not only invited us in and opened the locks, but also gave us a brief history tour and pointed out the carvings. People in small towns are much nicer, if only we city-folk set aside our biases and ask for information! A side road and another steep climb leads to the other edge of the ravine. From here, the water and the temple glisten in the afternoon sun, and I felt a pinch of sadness that the much publicized “Badami festival” was canceled – the setting would have been perfect for a cultural evening.
The highlights of Badami though are the cave temples on the southern edge of the lake, built between the 6th and 8th century AD, and which provide the earliest references for the rise of Indian temple architecture. There are four caves in total, and they more than adequately represent Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the prevailing religions of that age. Cave.1 has been dated as the oldest and has an arresting 18 armed “Siva” in countless dancing poses, a large hall with meticulously carved pillars, and a painted ceiling full of amorous couples. Cave.2 has a “Vishnu” theme, with several carvings of Vishnu, Krishna, Varaha and Narasimha.

Cave.3 is the largest and the most spectacularly carved of the lot, with the largest sculptures and the most emotive deities. Several giant figures of avatars of “Vishnu”, a ceiling that at its prime must have been covered with dazzling colors and pictures of which only a few parts are visible today, and an inscription dating back to 570 C AD. Instinctive “oohs” and “aahs” from wide-mouthed tourists render the air, with most unable to believe what they have just seen. Both I and AP were guilty of this, and we have been around a lot! 
Cave.4 is abundant with “Jain” motifs. A large and serene image of “Mahavir” on a pedestal serves as the primary idol, and several of his poses are carved on the walls and pillars. In addition, the pedestal has an inscription which dates the cave back to 8 C AD, making it a relatively later development. This is one of the most significant instances of fusion between Jain/Hindu sculptures and styles in the south. It took about 3 hrs of to and fro just to convince the mind we had seen it all, and it started raining, maybe the villager’s prayers were answered. It does not rain in February in these parts, and the previous evening had seen a 2 hour thunderstorm. 
People took cover, most scurried away, so did the rain and a faint rainbow appeared on the rocks behind the ravine. Easily the prettiest pictures yours truly has done justice to. And so serene and peaceful, I can now imagine what must have driven those Jain ascetics of the 8th century here. High up on elevated rocks, a beautiful setting sun, lots of fresh air, and the walls of the ravine that alternate between flaming red and dull brown. Meditation comes naturally when one is content with the present. And the stomach is full.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cradle of South Indian temple architecture: Badami, Pattadakal and Aihole

Ms. “U” had a shrill voice and a permanently foul temper; maybe all high school teachers turn in to caricatures after years of teaching a motley crue of self-obsessed, acne-faced teenagers. She was also a spinster at the ripe old age of 35 – at a time when most of her colleagues were busy raising kids, she was caring for a perennially ill mother and a college going nephew. We ascribed her demeanor to the daily grind of loneliness and sacrifice. And hated and feared her, for she was a strict disciplinarian with an acerbic tongue – only the fear of public speaking scares a teenager more than being singled out in class. Ms. “U” taught me history and geography for five straight years, and she left two indelible lessons, other than the memories of all those merciless taunts: the difference between “weather” and “climate”, and the glory of the dynasties that rose in Karnataka. I still chuckle when I hear those “illiterate” TV anchors saying “climate is getting worse day by day”, and I can still recite all the dynasties starting with the Badami, Kalyani and Vengi Chalukyas. Thank you teacher. Your history lessons make sense to me now, 20 years later.
The Chalukyas were the first, and possibly the most important contributors to the rise of Karnataka in the “South Indian” empire. They consolidated and grew their empire, built temples and patronized art, religion and culture. Their primary influence though is the temple architecture style they perfected and lent their name to, and which can be seen today in the temple village of Aihole dated back to as early as 5C AD, the magnificent cave temples at Badami which served as their capital, and the culmination of their efforts in the largest and most elaborate temple complex at Pattadakal.

For a town that is the primary access to a UNESCO World Heritage site, Badami is remarkably difficult to reach. It took me and AP 2-1/2 hrs by road from Hubli; “last mile connectivity” was just a term before we starting digging in to the interiors of the country, but we have encountered it twice in the last three months, first in Orissa and now here. If it is possible to build a highway for 100 kms, I would assume, considering the importance of these sites, the last 25 kms would be a breeze. Maybe it has something to do with the soil which was black and nourishing when we left Hubli, and turned red and barren the closer we got to Badami. Once one turns off the highway, it is a testing drive; we had more potholes and gravel than a road. And even when one reaches Badami, it takes just a minute to figure out the town is similar to most of rural India, there are the temples and there is a single-lane agricultural town. Considering that, the “Heritage resort” at the edge of the town (http://theheritage.co.in/) is your best bet. Airy and spacious cottages, clean bathrooms, excellent rustic food with fresh local produce, safe parking, and a chatty resort manager. We spent most of the evenings on the porch reading, so did most of the other guests, and all of them were foreign tourists. The resort managers also confirmed that 90% of their visitors were foreigners, where were the Indian tourists? Too “interior” or not too glamorous?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Orissa Archives: Part.6: Bhitarkanika & Chandipur - Giant Crocodiles and the Vanishing sea

How does one sum up a fascinating marine ecosystem dominated by mangroves, multitude of creeks and wetlands, and an incredibly unique bio-diversity of flora and fauna? A few numbers may help.
  • 1644 – No. of saltwater crocodiles in the Jan 2014 census
  • 4 – Giant crocodiles measuring more than 20 feet in length (of which we were lucky to see 2)
  • 15 – No. of albino crocodiles (we saw one ten minutes in to the first ride)
  • 45 – No. of people killed in the national park over the past 10 years

Located in Kendrapada district ans spread over 672 sq.kms, Bhitarkanika is a designated wildlife sanctuary, and boasts of the largest population of saltwater crocodiles in the country, along with a huge number of king cobras, about 50,000 nesting birds at the height of winter spread across more than 200 species, and several species of spotted deer; to top it off, the nesting grounds of the endangered olive-ridley turtles border the wetlands on one side in Gahirmatha, albeit out of bounds for tourists. The main attraction, through are the crocodiles.
It is a difficult place to reach, and I would have been surprised if it weren't so. 220 kms from Puri through Kendrapada, Rajnagar to Khola checkpost, the last 70 kms is a back-breaking adventure through the narrowest of barely paved roads surrounded by vast expanses of paddy fields and waterways; if it weren't for Pinto and his patience, I am not sure we would have ever made it, but that seemed to be the theme on this whole trip through Orissa – alternating periods of struggle and rewards. Sand Pebbles (http://www.sandpebblestours.com/bhitarkanika-jungle-resort) has 15 Swiss-tents located about 100 metres from the Khola check post, and is one of the most isolated places I have stayed in.
Surrounded on one side by the main creek that leads into the national park and on the other three sides by huge expanses of nothingness, the nearest civilization (with the notable exception of some small villages and tribes) is 30 kms away. Dusk falls at 5PM and by 530PM, it is pitch dark, and I was told, dangerous too (several reported attacks on humans by crocodiles, and we saw a couple of recent animal kills on the approach). Other than the television in the open restaurant and the books we carried, there is absolutely nothing to do around. Ideal grounds for introspection and lazing around! There is a nip in the air, and at night, it gets down to low single digits, so a campfire is a good option, and even better is to layer up (I had on three layers of clothing, and AP four, while Pinto was extremely comfortable in one!). How cold it gets is judged only in the mornings, when putting your hand under the tap is an ordeal. The food is rustic, the people are down to earth and large-hearted, the locale is picturesque and feels a million miles away from the world.

The next morning, we were the first in at the check-post; a few elaborate forms and challans filled up by the helpful spotter-cum-guide and we were in. Booking an all-inclusive stay helps, we breezed through the check-points, and had a boat all to ourselves for the next 6 hrs, along with an extremely knowledgeable guide and a chatty navigator. And here is where the money pays off. We were taken on an amazing trek on invisible paths through the forest and to several watch-points; several flocks of deer, monkeys, jungle cats, civets, several species of birds including one purple-colored kingfisher and crabs of the most vibrant color of red, were the discoveries of the trek. We were happy, but disappointed too. On the way in, we had no glimpses of any crocodiles (we had seen several smaller versions on the previous evening, but we were here for the big ones) and kept asking “where are they?” and the spotter would assure us “there are thousands and some of them are enormous”. And then a 2-hr trek, at which point we were downbeat (maybe it wasn't our day), hungry and tired.
The return ride got off to a flurry of excitement, the spotter shouted “woh dekho, bada magar”, we held our breath and sure enough, one of the largest was floating about 20 meters away, an indescribable thrill along with a chill up the spine; it was after some time we realized we had no one to hold or breath, the joy of watching wildlife in their natural environment has that effect on you. One assumes a large crocodile would be impossible to miss, but the spotter plays a key role for their eyes are trained to seek out the living from the logs. And these are slippery creatures, at the first noise or approach, they slither away and disappear under the murky water. Then another tanning itself along a creek, and more at low tide and high noon; it was then we realized the walk was mere foreplay! These giant reptiles come up mostly around noon to bathe in the sun, and can apparently stay motionless for hours till disturbed. So for the next 2 hrs, as the boat glided from one creek to another, we must have seen more than 30 crocodiles, some in the water at a distance, some tanning in the sun, some sliding in to the water, maybe a large albino but we weren't sure, and after some time, there were too many to care. There are only so many crocodiles one can be bombarded with, the spotter must have sensed this for he asked “dekh liya bade waale, wapas chalein?”
Crocodiles may be the coupe-de-grace but the birds surely deserve a mention; I have never seen those colors on anything alive. Shades of green that can only be painted, purple, flamingo red, wooden brown, striped wings and so on. What is positive to see is that the tourist influx is tightly controlled, and poaching seems non-existent, and there seem to be a large no. of herbivores. And while we were disappointed that Gahirmatha is now off-limits (a recent phenomenon I was told), that is the price we have to pay for pushing more and more species to the endangered list. Sometimes, we do not give the Govt. enough credit for its conservation efforts, Bhitarkanika is a stark reminder of what can be achieved if the authorities have a will.
Two nights here, and we debated whether Chandipur would be worth the drive; 200 kms one way from Bhitarkanika, and then back to Bhubaneswar with just a one-night halt to see the mysterious beach. I was out-voted 2:1 and Pinto was vociferous and emotional, haven’t seen my family in 10 days he said. He belongs to Balasore, and Chandipur is a sleepy hamlet 10 kms away, best known for the vanishing sea. So we landed here around 130PM, and the sea was right there. But then the tide began to fall and the water started
receding, slowly at first and then a bit more, by 230 though, people were walking on water. In Havelock, I had walked in about 500m in to sea in low tide on a rocky coral-infested beach, but this is very different. We must have walked about 1.5 kms in, there were no rocks and the sea at no place was more than half a meter deep. So much so that barely 5 meters from the waves were a group of seagulls sitting on the water. All i could think was how could such a shallow piece of land pass off as a beach, surely a freak, nature reveals its mysteries to those willing to go the extra mile, in our case 440 kms. But this beach has to be see to be believed.
Panthanivas on the beach is an excellent deal for the price (INR 1300 for a double AC room) and it helped that it was sparsely populated. It has a decent restaurant and an excellent view of the sea, which can be heard when he completely takes over the beach and hits the rocks on the shore, at high tide around 9PM. Vanishing sea now turns in to a vanishing beach. There is absolutely nothing in Chandipur except a couple of stalls and the beach, and one doesn't need more after a long day. The old waiter who mans the restaurant is grumpy and has his own set of rules, but he has a soft heart, a couple of thank you’s and he turned extremely chatty, albeit in Oriya and broken English. He told us that there were only two such beaches in the world, one somewhere on the U.S east coast (or was it west?) and here. Natural wonder and I have the luxury of seeing this and the beautiful sunrise every day for the last 40 years, he said, with a toothy grin. Happiness comes in large doses for some, and it is usually a choice. He seemed to have made his peace with the world. A divine sunrise and an excellent cup of tea told me he had made the right choice, and so had we. The trip had started in Bhubaneswar with a question "what is there to see in Orissa" and it ended here, in Chandipur, with the answer "everything and more".

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Orissa Archives: Part.5: Chilka lake – Chasing dolphins

Spread around an area of around 1,200 sq km, Chilka lake is the largest coastal lagoon in India and the second largest in the world. This brackish marine ecosystem is spread across three districts of Orissa and supports about 150 villages and 100,000 families on its shore and several islands; in addition, the famously reclusive irrawady river dolphins, several species of bottlenose dolphins and several hundred species of birds make it their home, marking it the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in the country.
We had visions of driving from one end of the lake to the other, or floating down from the origin to the sea-face; practical considerations ruled both out. There are several approachable inlets to the lake, and two most important are from Balugaon and Satapada. Bhubaneswar is a good homing point for Balugaon and other northern inlets to the lake, while Puri is ideal to reach Satapada and the sea mouth on the southern side.
We left Bhubaneswar early morning at 630AM and after 90 kms reached a fork where we got off the 4-lane highway at Balugaon. What surprised me was how green the fields and surrounding vegetation were; it was the middle of winter, there was absolutely no irrigation for yards, and the only conclusion could be that somehow, the cyclones while wreaking havoc (and we saw several signs of this, we were 50 kms inland from the sea and the wind from Phailin had flattened an entire forest on a hill we visited on the other side of the lake) had rewarded those vegetation that survived. It is a rocky 10 km drive to the lake from the highway, and the lake itself is surrounded by low-lying hills on three sides, and continues parallel to NH5 till its origin near Rambha.
Height of winter meant there was a thick low-lying haze on the lake, extremely poor visibility and the need to trust a rickety, old traditional boat, which had been modified and fitted with a noisy, fuming engine. Chilka here is green, and the haze and the low visibility meant anything more than a meter away was at best a guess work; even with the sun blazing down at high noon, visibility was 10m at best, making photography challenging; yet some of the finest pictures I took during the trip were here, including one in which a boat mysteriously appeared and disappeared in to the mist. For the princely sum of INR 600, we got a boat all to ourselves, for a two hour ride (which turned out to be almost 15 kms) to an island which housed a temple, and the possibility of spotting the famous dolphins.
A breeze always blows on the lake, it is an ecosystem by itself, and exceptionally clean, except those areas near human settlements, and we saw several of them on the way. We also saw all of them fishing, and the local folk told us the lake has plentiful of fish, prawn and crab. So were there several schools of dolphin, but whether one gets a sighting or not depended on the dolphin; apparently, they were very playful at times and very reticent some other times (moody said our boatman). He also said since we were there early, and there were very few boats to scare the dolphins away, if we had the patience, we would surely see some near the islands.
The ride is worth the time and the money, irrespective of whether one sees the dolphins or not; it is a picture perfect locale, and the colors are striking and dual, the water at times is a brilliant green and other times an exceptional blue, depending on how the sun reflected off it; the surrounding hills (when we managed to see them through the haze) were an amazing brown and green, the sun alternated between bright red and hazy orange, and the boats, in contrast are bright blue and red. An hour and absolutely no sight of the dolphins; we weren’t complaining (city folk have no right to argue when in such pristine environment, you never know when the next opportunity comes along, if it does at all) but getting itchy; and then a fin, and another, then a flip and a tail, the boatman shouted “there is a school around” and cut the engine.
And we waited there, trying not to make a noise. And surely there were a school of dolphins bobbing up and down about 5m from the boat, at times splashing and turning in the water, at times disappearing and appearing on the other side of the boat. How many we never got to know, maybe 10 or more silently moving around the boat and towards the island as we silently followed (the boatman did a fine job rowing silently) for what seemed an eternity, but in fact must have been just 7-8 mins. And then they vanished as we headed closer to the island, I must have taken hundreds of snaps, but all I have to show for the effort is a single fin and a splash! The temple and the island itself are irrelevant, and on the way back, we hoped we would see more of the dolphins; but not a sight of them. The local fishing folk revere the dolphins and do not hunt them, in fact, they are rumored to help them fish by driving prey towards the dolphins. Cohabitation at best; we also heard of some practitioners of “cormorant fishing” but didn't see any. The first sight of a most fascinating marine ecosystem and dolphins had gone better than expected.
So thrilled were we that we took a second swipe at Satapada another day, which is 45 kms from Puri, with the road itself an experience; it is very narrow and winds through several tiny villages, fresh green paddy fields, and finally through the backwaters of Chilka where we saw several instances of prawn cultivation. The last 10 kms to Satapada is all water on either sides, with the road skipping along and the inviting smells of the sea wafting through. Satapada is the more “touristy” of the inlets to Chilka, there are a large number of motor boats of slightly better quality and size, and the charges for a 4-hr ride in to the lake and sea-face is INR 1,800. Pinto assured me it was worth it, “bahut se dolphin dikenge, aur sea-face accha hai”.
And thus stated the second Chilka ride, while the first was somewhere near the origin, this was at the mouth, where Chilka emptied in to the sea. What about the dolphins, well, we saw so many in the first 15 mins of the ride that after some time, the boatman asked us “sea-face?” Surely Satapada is a better point to view dolphins, there are many more here than at any other place in the lake, and the lake itself is at its widest. While at Balugaon the ride was smooth, there hardly being any waves in the water, at Satapada, the lake is both wider and deeper as it approaches the sea. There was a strong breeze, all through the 4 hour ride there were waves breaking across the surface, and several islands where we saw mangroves, several sets of migratory birds (I couldn't tell you what species they exactly were, but white and black cranes were the most prominent, and 10-12 other species in multi-colors were swooping up and down the surface all the way through), along with the by-now “usual” dolphins bobbing up and down from time to time.
It seemed an exceptionally long ride, and the boatman did say 25 kms to the sea. One loses track of time when having fun, has absolutely no expectations, and no timelines to stick to. The water here oscillates between a much milder green and gets progressively bluer as one nears the sea-face. Technically, it is the last habitable strip of land where the lake and the sea run parallel to each other, before merging somewhere down the line. Why is this worth a visit? Simply for the ride, and the stark difference one sees in the two waters just 50 meters away from each other, and separated by a thin strip of sand; the sea is a clear bright blue and lashes out in waves, while the lake is calmer, a tinge of green and has zero visibility. Even the air smells different, so does the sun feel different on your skin, it feels as if the haze surrounding the lake mysteriously drifts away on the other side of the island. Incredible! Now if only we could do the entire lake at one stretch from the beginning to the sea-face, that would be something. And if only I could get a decent snap of the dolphin. If only I could do this more often. If only I had better company than AP; Chilka looked and felt much purer than some of my snaps would suggest, and we are better off leaving it alone. Nature is capable of a lot more self-regulation than we can ever imagine.
http://www.conservationindia.org/videos/chilika

Watch this brilliant film on Chilka by Shekar Dattatri.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Orissa Archives: Part.4: Spectacular Konark – Sun, Sand, Art and Culture

Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man. Richly deserving its place as a World heritage site, the magnificent Sun temple (also known as the black Pagoda owing to the color of the stone) is an architectural marvel; immense, majestic and awe-inspiring. Imagining the Sun god being carried on a giant chariot with 12 pairs of gigantic wheels, and pulled by seven horses in 13C A.D is one thing; designing it and giving it form out of stone is quite another. No wonder the temple draws such a large number of tourists.
First discovered and sketched in 1832 and fully excavated in 1906, a large part of the original structure, including the main spire, kitchen, dancing hall have been destroyed, and the main entrance was walled up in 1910, presumably to protect it from the very crowds it draws today. What is left is the unbelievably huge and elevated main structure with all the wheels and part of the horses intact, along with several thousands of dancing structures, murals and gargoyles, all of which seem to be almost alive. The sheer delight and humbleness one feels here needs to be experienced to be believed.
The main temple is surrounded by several shrines on all sides, each with its unique story and mesmerizing carvings, with a huge “natyamandir” facing the main structure, whose walls exhibit carvings of such complexity that after some time, I had to give up trying to photograph them, it is such a futile exercise; the mind too selectively remembers the salient features, especially the huge chariot wheels and the colossal main entrance. How in the 13C A.D did the artisans conceive and construct those wheels, whose inner carvings even today function as sun-dials is beyond belief. ASI is doing a wonderful job renovating the weaker parts of the structure step-by-step, and several artifacts recovered in the temple and other historical sites in Orissa are displayed in the nearby museum, which sadly receives no visitors. We could have spent a couple of generations admiring the temple and still discover something new every day, the feeling one takes away is “just not enough time”.
Konark lies on the sea, about 35 kms away from Puri and 60kms from Bhubaneswar. The road from Puri passes through a wildlife reserve, about 2kms inland from the sea for about 20kms, till a fork in the road gets the sea into view, with an unbroken beautiful white beach running parallel to the road till one reaches Chandrabhaga beach, where the International Sand festival is held every December About 30 artists, several from overseas, set-up stalls on one side of the beach, and conjure up beautiful images out of the sand, based on themes given to them over 5 days. Extremely innovative and imaginative, and a great way of attracting tourists, although the beautiful beach doesn’t need any dressing up; it gets extremely crowded between 3-5PM, with several groups of tourists descending here from as far away as Bhubaneswar. And why not, there is the sand art festival, the cool breeze, the beautiful beach and a great picnic spot. And to add one of the most beautiful sunrise and an almost equally glorious sunset in these parts of the world, provided the weather co-operates.
Konark has a lot of attractions; the Sun temple, the beach, the sand art festival and to add to these, the annual Konark dance festival. What it lacks though is decent accommodation and restaurants, except the “Panthanivas” run by the Govt. What we should have done is fix a base at Konark, do Puri as a day-trip, and leave enough spare time to attend the entire 5-day dance festival and the sand art festival. Poor advice and lack of planning are to blame.
The 5-day long annual Konark festival focuses on Indian classical dance forms, performed by some renowned artists and is held at the majestic open air auditorium adjoining the sun temple. The stage is brilliantly lit, the temple illumination filters through the winter mist, the music is splendid and the dance performances are mesmerizing. And all in the backdrop of one of the finest architectural structures in the world, heart-warming enough to dispel the chill December air, and captivating enough for us to squeeze in an extra evening here; only with great reluctance did we manage to pull away the second night. Pinto was non-puzzled, he in fact asked us why we were wasting time on “song and dance” in a ramshackle town! And for the first and only time over the 12 days and 2,200 kms through the state, we saw a few foreign tourists; perhaps only the true aficionados had turned up this year.

And now for the sour points. After going through all the lengths to organize a truly world-class dance festival, why would you invite irrelevant bureaucrats to inaugurate it? The musicians were ready, so were the artists and the crowd, braving the chilly air, and the chief guest decides to turn up a full 45 mins late. And then the absolute bore of an inauguration ceremony and lighting the traditional lamp by an assortment of characters, which takes another 30 mins. Only to have the "dignitaries" walk away in the middle of a performance. The crowd wildly cheered the performances and went absolutely quiet when the “guests” were invited on the stage, only the stooges clapped, says a lot about how important they were to the event! Why not invite some artists as chief-guests I wonder? Official patronage must be important!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Orissa Archives: Part.3: Puri – where the Spiritual and Mythical co-exist

Shrieks and cries reverberate through the expectant air, creating waves of devotion that surge through the large front porch; a unified body of devotees who were hugging the dhwaj sthamb, as the purohit called it, (it is rumored to cure all ailments) fall over each other, while pushing towards the Vimana (sanctum sanctorum) where the Lord along with his siblings sits atop a throne supposedly made of pearls. The traditional bhog is placed at the Lord’s feet by the bevy of priests, and one catches a glimpse of the diety, he with large white eyes, black body, and surrounded by his siblings Balabhadra and Subhadra. The atmosphere is intense, there is chanting all around, and only the helping hand of the purohit-cum-guide we had hired for the darshan stops us from falling, surely to be crushed by the advancing crowd. It is madness and panic, but this Lord elicits such emotions.
Dedicated to the beloved avatar of Lord Vishnu and revered across the state by all castes and religions, Jagannath temple is among the “chaar dhaams” that every practicing hindu attempts to visit once in his lifetime. Built around 12C A.D and dedicated to Lord Jagannath, the temple has a maha-gopuram and is surrounded in four directions by imposing gates. The four-chambered temple complex, with several small shrines inside dedicated to Krishna, Sun-lord, Durga, Laxmi and several other versions of Krishna, is itself is surrounded by two huge walls; its 58m-high sikhara (spire) is topped by the flag and wheel of Vishnu. Guarded by two stone lions and a pillar crowned by the Garuda that once stood at the Sun Temple at Konark, the eastern entrance, or Lion Gate, is the passageway for the chariot procession of Rath Yatra. The other three gates are guarded by men on horseback, tigers and elephants. The inner-walls of the temple tell several tales, and are adorned with rich multi-colored paintings. Twenty-two huge steps welcome the visitors; the temple complex is vast enough to tire out those not driven by faith, and one of the largest kitchens in the world continuously feed the devotees. Death ceremonies for the loved ones are performed at the other end of the temple, with cremation at the “swarg-dwaar” a couple of kms away outside the complex and on the beach road, signifying the passage from this life to another.
Several myths and legends about the Lord exist; our purohit must have mentioned atleast ten such legends including the one in which the sea receded about a km on the Lord’s complaint that it disturbed his sleep, and the one in which the Lord’s idol is finally stolen, which heralds the end of “Kaliyug” and the literal destruction of the world. Interestingly, although Jagannath is considered an avatar of Vishnu or Krishna, he is not strictly speaking a Hindu lord. While there are associations and various sects, the Lord is worshiped by all religions and castes. (However, only practicing hindus by birth are allowed in the complex, while the rest have to make do with a version of the Lord). The world-famous “rath yatra” takes place once a year during “Ashada”, when the Lord travels 3 kms to “Gundicha temple” on huge chariots along the high street, which is easily the widest I have ever seen in the country; it has to support about 10 lakh devotees!
Puri revolves around the Lord, and is a flourishing “temple economy”, which supports the nondescript town, offering a fascinating glimpse of ancient religious India where kings built temples and supported an army of devotees and purohits, an ancient form of fiscal support. It is always crowded, people pour in through the year at all times, all the hotels, irrespective of class or quality are full, supporting both the army of priests who make a living out of religion, and the thousands of vendors who feed and clothe them. Puri is just 60 kms away from Bhubaneswar and it is a pleasant drive except the last 20 kms which are back-breaking and an insult to a state highway. The views are splendid, green and yellow rain-fed rice fields abound both sides of the highway, although coconut trees are conspicuous by their absence.
Puri has two roads in which the bevy of hotels are located; beach road which has the budget hotels and is crowded and narrow, and which Pinto wanted us to stay in, being more “convenient/approachable”. The other is the CT Road which is about 3-4 kms away from the temple, and is far away from the noise and the crowds. A few resorts are located here, but Samudra Puri is certainly not a “resort”. It is a 1980’s style old bungalow in dire need of a renovation, very few amenities, and exorbitantly priced; the only relative advantage I could justify is the amazingly clean beach right at the back, with easy access and absolutely zero crowds.
The sun sets in these parts around 430 PM in winter and by 515 PM, it is pitch dark. And the beach road mysteriously transforms into a huge array of stalls, hawking anything from eateries, clothes, local artifacts, handbags and other items; the whole array of tourists descend here by 6 PM and the mood is cheerful and lively. A bit of activity and a small crowd of “experienced tourists” on a part of the beach drew our attention, and what followed was one of the most spiritual experiences yours truly ever witnessed.

Between 615-630 PM, a group of young priests arrange their articles of worship, along with a pedestal and a large aarti on the beach. For the next 45 mins, continuous chanting of religious hyms, prayers and offerings to the sea follows, with the crowds surging and chanting along. The most fascinating of this exercise was the part where the sea seems to accept the offering, and surges towards the crowd and the pedestal, completely surrounding the aarti and priests, except for a small piece of sand around the pedestal. Completely inexplicable is the fact that the rest of the beach is fully dry and the sea is a few metres away. The priests seem totally oblivious to the crowd and the crowd to the rising water, and still the chanting continues, as the crowd keeps moving towards and away from the aarti offered by the priests, as if practiced and in unison. The entire prayer ceremony is truly spectacular, and is mystical, soul-lifting and illuminating. If there is a god and faith is as powerful as it is made out to be, it is here.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Orissa Archives: Part.2: The Cultural circuit and the three religions - Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism

Bhubaneswar
The capital Bhubaneswar has such a large no. of temples in such close vicinity that it is called “temple town of India”. And it is here we landed one misty morning from Bangalore, expecting fierce winds and terrible rain, it being the season for cyclones and worried about the after-effects of Phailin; we were pleasantly surprised – both by the immaculate planning and cleanliness of the city, as well as the perfect blue skies and ideal weather. Bhubaneswar can be broadly divided in to two zones, the temple zone and the residential zone. The residential zone is dotted with broad roads all the way to Cuttack, and almost all the decent hotels lie on one single road leading from the airport, so do most of the educational institutions and office blocks. The administrative part of the capital particularly stands out for the well-laid out elegant structures, plenty of greenery and clean straight lines, and are worth a brisk walk late afternoons. It is to the temple zone that we headed, with our driver “Pinto” lamenting “too many, takes too much time”.

Lingaraj Temple
One of the most revered Shaivite site, and where the deity “Tribhubaneswar” lends his name to the capital, the temple precinct itself is dotted with more than 100 other small shrines. It is an elaborate and well-spread out complex, with multi-layered and intricately carved walls, built over multiple historical periods and styles, which is clearly evident from the differing constructions. Surprisingly, while the exterior of the 180 feet high gopuram and the walls are richly carved, the interiors are extremely sparse and almost bare. The most striking feature though, are the conical pillar constructions, with each era slightly different from the earlier, lending the temple a dated view. However, as with all famous temples, it is extremely crowded, very commercial, and extremely biased (no non-hindu is allowed inside, and the temple priests who we spoke to while waiting for the darshan were extremely proud that one former prime minister, having married a non-hindu was denied entry; they were also specific that cameras and mobiles dilute the essence of the lord!). It is albeit very strange that an agnostic and an atheist are allowed in a religious sanctuary by the single virtue of being born in to the religion. While one can wander around from one shrine to another within the complex, with the accompanying demands of “dakshina” serving to empty your wallet, to get a sense of the scale, one has to climb on to an elevated gallery behind the temple, struggling past touts and creeps trying to extract money. The temple is magnificent, built between the 11-13C A.D and the view from the gallery is perhaps the best, also the fact that one can take photographs only from here and nowhere in the vicinity of the temple makes this worth spending some time here.
Rajarani temple
I am positive I will never come across a more aptly named temple. All one sees around the beautifully laid out lawns are the modern and young “raja-rani”, and a lot of PDA; surprisingly, no tourists, absolutely none the one hour we were here. It is not as large as Lingaraj, and the absence of a presiding deity must have something to do with the minimal crowds; sometimes I believe it is better that way. Structurally older than the Lingaraj temple, being a single structure allows it to be far more intricate and ornate, with the smaller mini-gopurams around the main structure exceptionally charming. The carvings of the gargoyles, and beautiful clean rock-cuts reminded me of Khajuraho rather than Orissa, maybe they share a common history. The style and arrangement though is similar to Lingaraj temple, and with the added advantage of being allowed to carry my camera and absence of crowds, my personal preferences are clear. Pay your obeisance to the Lord at Lingaraj if you are religious, and spend some quality time here admiring the Orissa temple architecture and its evolution, which is so starkly visible in the next couple of temples a short walk away, that I would recommend doing the three temples in the reverse order.
Mukteswar temple
The smallest and the earliest of the temples in the capital, Mukteswar belongs sometime to the 9-10C AD, and thus acts as an evolutionary bridge between the ancient structures and the latter temple complexes such as the Lingaraj. It is extremely concise, but has two unique features: an arched gateway outside the temple, and a carved ceiling, both missing in the other two. A small walk away from here is the even more ancient and smaller Parasurama temple, which supposedly belongs to the 7C AD. A small garbhagudi surrounded by a quadrilateral, with the temple walls as intricately carved as the other three, and a “lingam” on one side. ASI is missing a trick here by not having a description of the history of evolution of temple architecture in the capital; clearly we went in the wrong direction – starting with the largest and the most popular and ending with the most ancient and most neglected. But isn’t that the way the world is – some temples and by extension, some people get a disproportionately large share of fame and popularity, whereas other ancient and maybe, as important ones, lie in splendid isolation? And all hinging on the presence or lack of a deity! One cannot argue with matters of faith.
The Jain caves of Khandagiri & Udaygiri
The next day, we headed ten kms away from the capital, where lie the 1C B.C rock-cut Jain caves of Khandagiri and Udaygiri, twin hills offering not only a glimpse of the ancient Jain way of life, with multiple stories depicted on the walls of these caves, but also panoramic views of the city of Bhubaneswar and the fields surrounding Dhauli hills. The caves themselves are sparse; they were meant to be living quarters of Jain followers, but the walls of these caves are adorned with mythological stories and murals, which a good guide would be able to turn in to a story. But seriously, chuck the guides, they rush you from one structure to another and keep talking, distracting one from the pleasure of discovery. The most important specimen here is the famous “Hathigumpha” inscription which dates the earliest of the caves to 1C B.C, with continuous improvements till 10C A.D. Brilliant use of naturally available sandstone and rich wall carvings, along with their heritage make these Jain caves a visual treat. Unfortunately, both the locals and tourists treat this more as a picnic spot rather than respect them for the historical artifacts they are; be prepared for large crowds of families munching away and littering, and plenty of irritations and people posing and making an absolute fool of themselves; I have always wondered what purpose do humans serve when set against natural wonders, in spite of reminders from my family that they couldn't find a single picture of me in 10 years of my travel. I don't see the point of wasting frames on the living, when the dead have left behind so many tales, AP nods in agreement.
The Buddhist shrines of Dhauli/Lalitgiri/Ratnagiri/Udayagiri
Shrine is a misnomer, but historical edifices they are; and much to the horror of Pinto, who in his 20 years as a driver in Orissa, had always passed through, but had never actually been asked to drive any human form to any of these except Dhauli, we dedicated almost an entire day to the Buddhist circuit on our way back from Chandipur. Buddhism took root in these areas post Asoka’s dramatic conversion around 250-260C B.C post the Kalinga war.
Dhauli is the most famous and well-known of these landmarks, the fields on the bank of river Daya being the site of the infamous Kalinga war. From the top of the hill, the fields are clearly visible, the river still snakes through the area, a mute spectator to probably the bloodiest war in India after the Mahabharata. Dhauli also houses, at its foot, one of the most important relics of Asoka, his edicts engraved on a mass of rock (which is now safely stored away behind a glass enclosure, much needed knowing how poorly we treat our history), and the rock-cut elephant above the edict which is apparently one of the earliest specimens of Buddhism in Orissa. But once again, there were no people around. On the other hand, the Japanese inspired white-washed Stupa built at the top of Dhauli hill in 1973, almost 2500 yrs later than the edicts, receives plenty of “religious” visitors. Important and serene it may very well be, but how any sane being can ascribe more importance to it than the edicts defies logic!
Enroute between Chandipur and Bhubaneswar, with a 30kms detour through Kendrapada lie some of the oldest Buddhist establishments in the world. The largest, most significant and the oldest dating back to between 1C B.C to 1C A.D is the archaeological remains of Lalitgiri. A mahastupa, several prayer monasteries, a huge main temple, an extensively long stairway, and a unique lotus holding Lokeswara give it the look and feel of an important Buddhist settlement. A major part of these archaeological remains have been excavated, and several important forms of Lord Buddha have been discovered here. The mahastupa is a singular circular structure on top of the highest of these hills, and served as an important site of prayer in ancient times.
Udayagiri is another vantage point; it is smaller, much better protected on three sides by steep hills, and belongs to a much later period between 11-12C A.D. Suggestions that it was an important site among the later ages emanate from the many forms of Buddha cut in to the walls of the large brick monastery. In addition, a large number of seated Buddha statues have been discovered from the surrounding areas, and I suspect more lie hidden among the hills. Ratnagiri hill range also houses a similar large monastery and significant archaeological finds of similar ancestry.
This trinity of shrines remains one of the most ancient and extensive discoveries belonging to the earliest spread of Buddhism in the country; sadly, Pinto who had driven through these areas plethora of times across two decades, and who is very knowledgeable regarding the tourist circuit in Orissa, professed his absolute ignorance, with a query “why are they important when there is no God here?” I rest my case.
If one plans it well, this religious circuit consisting of Hindu temples in and around Bhubaneswar, Jain caves and the Buddhist shrines can be covered in three days flat, as they ideally should be, with the Hindu temples taking a day, Dhauli and Jain caves the second, and the Buddhist shrines, being the most far sprung from Bhubaneswar the third day. The capital is an ideal base for all three, with maybe a visit to Cuttack one afternoon covering Barabati stadium (which in no way resembles a stadium which has hosted international cricket) and topped off by the inspiring Bose museum. The approach to the museum is through some incredibly narrow lanes through the old town, and only the truly deranged tourist (like AP and me) reaches here without losing heart and a sense of direction, in that order. But the museum is absolutely worth a visit; one can argue with the depiction of history, but not the historical significance or the awe-inspiring story of the first great revolutionary in Indian history. If only Bose had been successful in his conquest, maybe the history of the nation would have been told differently.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Orissa Archives: Part 1: Scenic, Serene, Sublime


The most frequently asked questions were “Odisha? Why? Couldn’t you find anything else?” and “How will you spend 12 days there?” Obviously there was Puri and Konark, and the beaches, but friends begged me to choose Thailand/Malaysia or even Goa if I wanted beaches. Others pointed out Cambodia for religion and exotic water-locales. Some pointed out closer home to Tamilnadu for culture and temples. Finally, a “good-friend” had the gall to predict I would be stuck down with dengue in the forests, or drown in the next cyclone if I dared. Well, I am back well and alive, albeit with a bad throat and a sticky 3-shade tan; courtesy of two Abhijit’s, one a banker from Baleswar with a passion for travel, has enormous patience and did all the planning and most of the organizing; and the other who is both brave and naive enough to risk traveling with me through several of my impulses. And all those “advice” was well-meaning, yet so wildly off the mark! the well-heeled and well-traveled Indian seems to be able to locate Phuket on the map far easily than say, Konark or Chandipur, two of the most stunning and under-appreciated locales in India. It is both a shame as well as a relief.
“Scenic, Serene, Sublime” is the official tagline for Orissa. One could add a couple more “Ancient, Diverse, Rich”.
It is ancient with a long-dated history, probably among the earliest yet discovered in the Indian subcontinent. Apparently civilization flourished here as far back as the Paleolithic age; cultural remains supposed to be more than 70,000 years old have been discovered in the interiors of the state, with tools dating to the same period found in several districts in modern Odisha. Human skeletons, dating back to 2000 B.C and belonging to the early Copper age, have been discovered near Puri and Bhubaneswar, throwing light on the existence of early farming communities and their settlements along the coast. Buddhism spread across the country, led by Asoka and his dramatic conversion sometime around the 260 B.C. The Kalinga empire has references in religious scriptures such as the Mahabharata, while mentions by Ptolemy and some Greco-Roman writers speak of a thriving coastal capital, the most prominent of which is by Megasthenes, around 300 B.C.
The diversity in nature, both flora and fauna is enchanting. On one side you have the almost silent natural wonder of the Chandipur beach. Is it the sea that vanishes or the beach? Either way, it is one of the most surreal experiences one can ever have, along with other beautiful beach towns such as Konark, Puri and Gopalpur. Then there are the two national reserves, Bhitarkanika marine reserve and the densely wooded Simlipal national reserve, along with Chilka, Asia’s largest brackish lake and a fascinating marine ecosystem. To this one can add the quartet of wondrous species, the secretive irrawady river water dolphins, the largest saltwater crocodiles in India at Bhitarkanika, the world-famous Olive Ridley turtles at Gahirmatha, and the Royal Bengal tiger at Simlipal.

And then comes the rich cultural heritage; one of the earliest Buddhist settlements at Udayagiri, Ratnagiri and Lalitgiri, the famed Jain rock structures at Khandagiri and Udaygiri, the notorious river plains surrounding Dhauli hills, the temple town of Bhubaneswar, the majestic Sun temple at Konark, the sacred Jagannath temple at Puri, and these are just the well-known. Orissa has a bit for everyone: for the wild-life enthusiast, for the religious minded, for the beach addict, for the history junkie. Luckily, what it doesn't have, yet, are the crowds and hippies on the beach except the numerous Bengalis (but they are everywhere!), no five-star hotels except maybe in Bhubaneswar and Puri, which means very few places where you get swindled with high prices and low quality. In general, people are simple, helpful and courteous. Food is excellent and value-for-money, although one has to adjust to eating rice all the way. All of which made for a fascinating week-and-half along the length and a bit of the breadth of the state, and if one were to bear with me for gloating, a 2,200 km drive. A warning though; leave your biases behind. The best discoveries in life are accidental, and work their magic when one has an open mind. Odisha has a lot to offer, but it cannot be categorized, nor cliched. It is not your average tourist circuit, and may it never turn in to one...