Travel (27) Opinion (7) Ramblings (7) Cambodia (6) Economy (6) India (6) Odisha (6) Orissa (6) Andaman Nicobar islands (4) Badami (3) Siem Reap (3) Aihole (2) Angkor Wat (2) IPL (2) Pattadakal (2) Port Blair (2) Ratnagiri (2) Virupaksha temple (2) Abbey Falls (1) Aberdeen Jetty (1) Adam's peak (1) Agastya tirtha (1) Ajabgarh (1) Amanbagh (1) Anegondi (1) Angkor (1) Angkor Thom (1) Angkor national museum (1) Anuradhapura (1) Badami cave temple (1) Badami festival (1) Balugaon (1) Bambooflat (1) Bangalore (1) Baphuon (1) Baratang (1) Bayon (1) Belgaum (1) Bhagamandala (1) Bhitarkanika (1) Bhootanath temple (1) Bhubaneswar (1) Birur (1) Byomkesh Bakshi (1) Cave temple (1) Cellular jail (1) Chalukya empire (1) Chandipur beach (1) Chandrabhaga beach (1) Chatham island (1) Chedi (1) Chiang Mai (1) Chilka dolphin (1) Chilka lake (1) Chinnaswami stadium (1) Citadel (1) Colombo (1) Coorg (1) Cricket (1) Crocodiles (1) Cuttack (1) Dambulla (1) Dhauli (1) Doi Inthanon national park (1) Doi Suthep (1) Dubare (1) Durga temple (1) EPL (1) Eastern gallery (1) Elephant sanctuary (1) Elephant stables (1) Elephant terrace (1) Ella (1) Football (1) Gahirmatha (1) Galaganatha (1) Galle (1) Ganapatiphule (1) Goa (1) Golden Temple (1) Grand Andaman trunk road (1) Haddo (1) Hampi (1) Havelock (1) Hernando Tellez (1) Hospet (1) Hotel Venetian (1) India credit rating (1) International sand art festival (1) Jagannath temple (1) Jarawa (1) Jirkatang (1) Jog falls (1) Just Lather that's all (1) Kamalapura (1) Kandy Golden temple (1) Karwar (1) Kendrapada (1) Khandagiri (1) Khola checkpost (1) King Jayavarman (1) Kolar (1) Kolhapur (1) Konark (1) Konark festival (1) Konkan Coast (1) Kontigudi (1) Kushalnagar (1) Lad khan temple (1) Lalitgiri (1) Leper king (1) Limestone caves (1) Lingaraj temple (1) Lotus mahal (1) Macau (1) Madikeri (1) Mebon (1) Mount Harriett (1) Mount meru (1) Mukteswar temple (1) Mulbagal (1) Murudeshwar (1) Neak Pean (1) Panaji (1) Papanatha temple (1) Polannoruwa (1) Pra That (1) Preah Ang Chek (1) Preah Khan (1) Preah Palilay (1) Puri (1) Radhanagar Beach (1) Rajarani temple (1) Rajasthan (1) Rating (1) Rolous group (1) Ross island (1) Royal Gardens (1) Royal centre (1) Royal palace (1) Samudrika museum (1) Sangameswara temple (1) Satapada (1) Sector rotation cycle (1) Shekar Dattatri (1) Sigiriya (1) Someshwara temple (1) Sound and light show (1) SriLanka (1) Stone chariot (1) Sun temple (1) Suryavarman (1) TB dam (1) Ta Prohm (1) Ta Som (1) Talacauvery (1) Tax payers in India (1) Technical Analysis (1) Thailand (1) Tiger sanctuary (1) Tonle Sap (1) Tooth relic (1) Tungabhadra (1) Udayagiri (1) Udaygiri (1) Victory gate (1) Vijayanagara empire (1) Virupakshi temple (1) Vittala temple (1) Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (1) Wat Preah Prohm Rath (1) World heritage site (1) high frequency data (1) irrawady river dolphin (1) rock art (1) salt water crocodile (1) temple spires (1)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Cambodia - Part 6 - The town of Siem Reap

I always wondered how first impressions are formed. Malcolm Gladwell says they are an evolutionary trait, a survival mechanism. Our minds are geared towards making snap, instinctive judgments and more often than not, they are right. Airports play a crucial role in such first impressions, and the first adjective on getting off the flight at Siem Reap was “laid-back”. It is an international airport, and the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia. Yet, the airport is old-world, one walks across the tarmac to the immigration under the hot sun, where a friendly officer greets you and hands over a couple of ugly looking forms; we gathered round a couple of distinctive wooden tables to fill them out, and then noisily stretched out in to a long queue. At the counter, a voice in broken English said “Oh, India, Bollywood, Mumbai, Cricket” and waved us through. All in barely 10 minutes. And as Rei loaded our luggage on to his tuk-tuk, and the winter sun started burning our faces (it was 30C and 90% humidity), AP remarked “if the airport is any indicator, the town will be sleepy”. How prescient he was!
When Angkor was rediscovered in the 1900's, Siem Reap's fortunes turned overnight, the sleepy town became the gateway to the now world famous Angkor temples, with “Grand Hotel d'Angkor” being the first “tourist resort” built in 1920's. Today, the town is connected by unnaturally wide and empty roads all the way to Bangkok, has several upscale resorts on the drive from the airport to the town (about 7-8 kms and 20 mins), a vibrant nightlife clustered around the ubiquitously named Pub-street and its namesake river-front, and boasts of multiple options for visitors, ranging from the glitzy to the downright seedy. The town survives on tourism and almost everyone is directly or indirectly connected to the moolah, the busboys, guides, tuk-tuk drivers, the restaurants, hotels and pubs, even the pimps and the prostitutes. Perry, the honorary Cambodian, told me of a time in the 70's when the town was just two streets, and a couple of hotels. Tourism sustains but also breeds several ills, a choice most emerging economies have already made, without fully understanding the implications.
We stayed at the “Golden Temple Villa”, a 5-minute walk away from Pub street in the quieter part of the town. Not exactly a backpacker's paradise, but budget at USD20 per night, basic amenities, and a great restaurant. Siem Reap is best covered by walk or on a bicycle, one can still see the French overhang on the old buildings, the neatly arranged river-front along which most of the commercial establishments lie, the clean and well-laid out streets that stretch parallel to the river; Pub street in contrast seems a modern addition, is loud, lively and gets crowded with its loud music, abundance of pubs and roof-top restaurants, street food and dazed tourists looking for a good time.
While the chief attractions, the Angkor temples and Tonle Sap, are out of town, the town of Siem Reap does have its attractions; Angkor national museum (about which I have already raved in Part.2) is a lesson in history and a great delight, while the town's several Wats, evenly spaced from north to south along the river are a must-see, chief among them being the attractive “Wat Preah Prohm Rath”.
The largest and the oldest Buddhist monastery in Siem Reap, the Wat has a history dating back 600 years. Built somewhere in the early 15th Century, and dedicated to an early 13th century monk who has several legends about him, the Pagoda is built in bright colors, has beautiful archways reminiscent of the Khmer architecture one sees in Angkor temples, and is today a practicing temple. Monks dressed in orange and golden robes, along with a few devotees in white, pray at the courtyard, while tourists are conspicuous by their absence. But what draws attention is the huge, seated Buddha on an elevated pedestal in the main temple, along with the serene, giant statue of a sleeping Buddha at the back. Surprisingly, over the next two hours, I was the only tourist on the premises, a bit of hand signals and broken english with a couple of devotees helped me figure out that not many actually visit the Wats, except the locals. The other Wats (and there are more than 10 of them around town) are similar in style and expression, but smaller. Temple overkill maybe. 

On the last day, me and AP covered almost the entire town of Siem Reap over a leisurely walk spanning an hour along the river front. It is amazingly clean, well-organized in typical French parallels and perpendiculars, bright at night and looked straight out of a movie set, not a speck out of place. A calm breeze blows across the river-front in the evening, the street food is appetizing, the Colonial buildings glean under the lighting, and the moon shines brightly on the slow-flowing waters. Barely young lovers gaze in to each other's eyes, while older tourists wander around, hand in hand. Pub street meanwhile is loud and full of vices, and can be heard a mile away. Stark contrasts. The town of Siem Reap is sleepy and retains an old-world charm, barely clinging on to its past in the face of unrelenting change, while Coldplay blares loudly from one of the many pubs right next to Wat Prohm Rath. Modern tourism anyone?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cambodia - Part 5 - Ta Phrom & Tonle Sap – The Living forest and the Great Lake

When Rei asked whether we wanted to visit the “Jolie” temple, we were barely alive. It was 2PM on the third day, I had just gulped down my third glass of lemonade (post lunch and a jug of beer), and AP his second banana milkshake and our feet were killing us. It is not surprising that Rei, and almost all other drivers in Siem Reap know all the movies of Angelina Jolie, especially "Tomb Raider" – they charge not only per day but also by the distance they drive, more the merrier. An extra 1 USD in Cambodia goes some way. If the temple was good enough to center a movie, make it to the UNESCO World Heritage list, and famous enough to be on the itinerary of most tourists, who were we to question; although its fame did make me ask the question “Will it be of any architectural importance, or is it just a tourist gimmick?”
It honestly doesn't matter. Ta Prohm is straight out of a movie, over-run by large trees and the jungle, the temple walls have large roots hanging down everywhere, and it seems nature has decided enough is enough. Man and his destructive ways need to be curbed, and nature reclaims what is rightfully hers. Is this the way our civilization ends? Or is it the way “water-world” depicts, at the bottom of the ocean? Either way, one cannot but help asking such irrelevant philosophical questions when faced with something as stark and photogenic as Ta Prohm. 

The highlight though, is the large hollowed out trunk of a huge branch-less tree at the entrance, while the other corner has a similar tree growing out of the temple wall, its huge roots dripping through the walls, and disappearing in to the ground. Most of the temple has several such instances, and the whole place is in ruins, except some corridors that have been cleared by ASI, and display carvings of dancing nymphs and other figurines. There are no signboards or descriptions, and it seems the authorities like to keep it that way. Considering the number of tourists Ta Prohm receives, they may be right. Most squeal in delight at being photographed with the roots or the walls, the whole place is lit up with camera flashes, and loud obnoxious
you-know-who nationalities. How do singularly individualistic societies produce such terrible travelers, who think nothing of elbowing others just to get a picture? And crowd around in unimaginable numbers, by the truck-loads and make such a racket everywhere they go? If you get caught in one of those groups, blindly run the other way.

Ta Prohm must have been a large living complex at some time in the 12th Century, considering the size and the breadth of the enclosures, most of which are in a state of decay today. The libraries in the southeast corners, the satellite temples , the large Hall of dancers and the House of Fire are consumed by the forestCredit goes to the archaeologists who decided to leave the temple much the same way it was discovered - a large part of its appeal lies in the symmetry between the complex and the jungle, as if they had existed this way since time immemorial. 
Tonle Sap, the great lake formed by the back-draft from Mekong and Siem Reap rivers, lies about 15 kms from Siem Reap town, the road passing through several fishing villages caught in a time-wrap, with their stilted huts, palm trees, paddy fields and idyllic village life. The attraction is not the lake (it should be!) but the floating villages that dot the embankments. A fairly large Govt. ticket counter charges USD 20 per person for a boat ride through the brown, muddy waters of the lake to the floating village, and around, till the water and the sky start merging at the horizon.
November is the dry season and the waters were about 8-10 metres deep, the high water signs we saw were twice that height, and about 200 boats-converted-homes are tethered on metal drums, supported by stilts, with the houses and the village seemingly fully self-sufficient. Vendors peddle wares and vegetables on canoes, most houses have a TV and a satellite, the village has a school and a church, a ramshackle bar, and even a “recreation” room. We asked Rei to tag along, and he knew the boatman who lived here. Almost all of the inhabitants are Vietnamese who come here during the dry season from the other side of the lake, or Cham Cambodians who are too poor to live anywhere. They are a religious minority, Muslims in a Buddhist country, and move back and forth across international borders to Vietnam or Laos during the high season. 
It is a unique community of extremely poor, marginalized border-less fisher-folk, who survive on Tonle Sap, which in turn sustains a million people and a large part of the fishing industry in the country. Surprisingly, we hardly saw any birds and very little fish. Or maybe we were too close to the civilization to spot them. A good early morning excursion is what Tonle Sap is, a nice boat ride and a pleasant drive in to the countryside. Is the drive and the ride worth the effort? No, have seen much better. Are the floating villages worth it? Seriously yes. There, that justifies the USD15 for Rei for the day. May his four kids get a decent education, so they need not depend on fickle-minded, value-seeking tourists like us. And the boatman claimed a share of the ticket sales goes to the boat dwellers in terms of Govt. dole towards education for the kids. He hardly looked 15, but said he was 25 and had three kids. In a country where youth marry the minute they turn 18, that may have been true. Poverty and hunger are afflictions all too common in the developing world.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Cambodia - Part 4 - Angkor Thom - The Capital city

Khmer “Angkor Thom” – “Great city”
Spread over a nine area, surrounded by high walls and a largish moat lies the administrative capital of the Khmer empire, Angkor Thom, on the banks of Siem reap river. The majority of the palaces, temples, ruins from the Angkor era, and several other historical remnants of the once-great civilization are strewn around here. Most of Angkor Thom is well preserved, especially those belonging to the Angkor era, while later era constructions are either lost or destroyed; the greatness of the capital coincided with the construction of Angkor Wat, and during the Jayavarman era.
Central Angkor Thom starts at the South gate, passes through Angkor Wat and the spectacular and mysterious faces of Bayon, one of the largest Mahayana Buddhist temples in the complex that demands attention. Twenty-three massive faces gaze serenely, seated on each tower, and seem to be gazing intently at us. Whose face was that? The King Jayavarman, Lord Buddha, or some other Hindu deity is a question that has stumped historians, as there are no inscriptions. Some say the temple-mountain that is Bayon, was the mythical Mount meru, around which the legend of “Sagara manthanam” was based. Unlike Angkor Wat, which is an exhibition of interior finesse and delicate carvings, the architecture and monuments of Angkor Thom are mainly carved on the exterior; the interior walls are almost bare and hardly deserve any mention.
Central Angkor Thom is not a single structure; rather a series of architectural exhibits, each one unique in its depiction and construction. Seven main structures are: 
Baphuon – which is a three-tiered temple built on a small hill, dedicated to Siva
Royal palace – dominated by the 3-tiered, three spired Buddha temple, accessible by a large steep staircase, and offers fabulous views of the central Angkor Thom area
Terrace of the elephants – A 500m long terrace with a continuous set of carved elephants on its entire length
Terrace of the Leper King/Preah Palilay/Tep Pranam/Victory gate
Take your pick, follow the map and the detailed instructions in the “You are here” sign boards. The exertions of the second day at Angkor Wat and the discovery of nightlife of Siem Reap had manifested in mysterious ways that morning, chief being a rather heavy breakfast at the hotel. Not a detail to be forgotten, since there are long distances to be covered, adrenalin takes its toll by mid-day along with the humidity, as the mind keeps pushing the body; most interesting structures though are the twelve dilapidated single storied structures on the opposite side of the road from the two terraces – a guide said they were the living quarters of each of the 12 wives/concubines of the king. Such was the opulence of that age, and it makes immense sense to keep the wives apart. Angkor Thom is not for the lazy or the weak-kneed, but the rewards far outweigh the exertions.
Rei drove us; both to lunch as well as through the afternoon iternary. He must have seen our enthusiasm the first day, and kept telling us about the wonders beyond the two “Angkors”. All for USD25 this day. Said the buses don’t go to the other monuments since the guides love their quick money, and the tourists are too tired to care by lunch. Being the intrepid explorers that we are, and hating the crowds the first two days, we quickly gobbled some grilled river fish and beer, regained a bit of our senses and energy, and merrily bounced along the half-paved roads through most of what turned out to be some pristine surroundings.
Preah Khan 
– Khmer “Victorious sword”
Over-run by the jungle, largely ignored and unrestored, Preah Khan is a largely flat, long, semi-restored, crumbling temple, dominated by long galleries and several mini-temples. Legend has it that this was the site of Jayavarman’s greatest victory, and to commemorate it, a temple was built in 1191. Probably one of the few with an engraved Steele that provides some contextual history, Preah Khan was one of the largest settlements, with people, monasteries and temples. A unique two-tiered independent structure with round columns, apparently never seen before in Khmer architecture is yet to be deciphered; no one knows the purpose nor the construction style of this structure. Some carvings of apsaras and nagas are seen on some of the walls, but a majority of the place is in ruins, and ill-maintained. Rei was right too, very few tourists were around.
Neak Pean – Khmer “Entwined Serpents”
While the temple itself is nothing worth mentioning, the approach to it is gorgeous; through a narrow wooden pathway in the middle of a man-made lake (3.5 sq. kms), the breeze blowing through the waters and birds chirping around, the small temple rests on an artificial island, and has several legends woven around it, chief being the medicinal pools around it.
East Mebon – Surprisingly ignored, and belonging to the early 10th C AD, this three-tiered temple has three spires rising from the elevated terrace, with the central spire dedicated to Buddha. Large elephants grace the corners between the two tiers, and the carvings display similar finesse as Angkor Wat. But the central spire rising about 40m from the ground, and the approach through a narrow staircase and a series of steps are the highlights.
We also visited several other temples namely Ta Som, Pre Rup, Banteay Samre, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang and the Rolous group at various points over the four days. Suffice to say each one of them is different and has a deep history, especially the Roluos group; these are some of the earliest structures of the Khmer era, located about 15kms away from the Angkor hub, hence rarely see any visitors. We had time, and energy, and a willing guide in Rei; it depends. Most people I know would be content seeing the two “Angkors” and that would be fine; but if one wants to understand the evolution of Khmer architecture and history and spread of the empire, it helps to see as much as the mind and time allow. I was selfish, sounding knowledgeable is infectious; AP loves completing tasks. And we had lots of time, and it hardly cost us anything.
The spread, construction and archeological importance of Angkor Thom to Khmer history is unparalleled. A day at Angkor Wat and a day at Central Angkor Thom is the bare minimum to do justice, plus any other explorations one might be interested in. What we do know is that the 12th Century Khmer empire was one of the most significant in the South East Asian region, and left lasting impressions on the Cambodian culture, the remnants of which are preserved in Angkor Thom and the other temple groups. A great lesson in history and architecture. Exercise for the body and the mind. And a lasting tan.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cambodia - Part 3 - Angkor Wat - the Temple

“Nagara Vata” – Sanskrit - “enclosure around a capital city of temples”
Khmer – “Angkor Wat” or “City of temples”
No motif dominates Cambodia as this temple; you see it on the national flag, in tourist brochures, in visitors’ iternaries, and in the country’s collective conscious. It wears multiple hats. Originally a Hindu temple, then Buddhist; first dedicated to Vishnu, then Siva, then the great king Suryavarman’s mausoleum, and finally to Lord Buddha; based in equal parts on Dravidian architecture and classical Khmer foundations; legends that place it in undated mythology and 12th Century AD; and either built in a single night by Viswakarma, the divine architect or in increments over three decades.
As a battle hardened wanderer, one quickly builds a cloak of cynicism and distrust; survival and preserving your sanity & wallet become priorities; avoid “typical” tourist hard-sell, explore away from the crowds, temper your exploratory urges, these become the mantra. But this was a world heritage site, visited by more than 2Mn every year, and the prime motivator for the trip. So, with a healthy mix of enthusiasm and growing apprehension, we hired a tuk-tuk for the day and set out the second morning at 8AM. Just 5 kms, and 15 mins from the hotel, said our driver-cum-trip planner Rei, but first we have to buy the ticket. Jostling with crowds that had already built up along the road, a good hustle and some old fashioned barging, along with an incredibly quick snap at the tourist center, got us the 3-day USD 40 pass.

What hits one at a first glance is the huge moat, the glistening water and the long walkway in the middle. As the tuk-tuk pulls through the road to the temple, a cool breeze blows across the open water, almost 200 m wide from the temple on all sides, surrounded by huge walls. From the main entrance, through the walkway to the large, partly collapsed, western gopura, and the outer structure, one first sees the famous spires and the large walls, with the sun directly above the main structure. The scale of the temple becomes evident as one keeps moving, along with what seems like hordes of thousands, jostling for space and the right camera angle, under the sweltering sun even in the “dry season” in November. From the outer gopuram to the main temple must be another 300 m or so, with the complex increasingly rectangular. The importance of Naga or the Serpent in Khmer culture hits by now, almost every other figurine on the balustrades being a naga or an asura, or some heavenly mixture between the two.
The central structure that contains the temple is built on a raised terrace, with three incredibly long galleries surrounding it, and rising up to the main spire. The museum suggested circambulation, in typical Hindu style through the galleries. What separates Angkor Wat from other temples of that era, and lends to its aura are the carvings and decorations on the gallery inner walls. Counter-clockwise from the western gallery is ideal, as the carvings are really stories from the oldest Hindu epics, in linear order.

The Western gallery depicts key battles of Lanka and Hastinapura from Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Southern gallery the victories and exploits of the legendary king Suryavarman, along with various versions of heaven and hell from Hindu mythology. Then comes the most famous, the Eastern gallery and the “Sagara Manthanam”, the churning of the seas, with the king of nagas, Vasuki the central figure with what seems like a million figurines and as many details covering the whole wall. The Northern gallery depicts Lord Krishna and his exploits. Not only is the scale of these depictions immense, the reliefs, murals and the stories are continuous and run through from one gallery to another, an extended tale from the epics. The detail of the carvings is absolute finesse and the murals occupy the whole inner wall of each gallery, even the roofs.
One almost loses sight of the main temple and the astounding spires, trudging along the galleries, visually assaulted by these unimaginable stories and detail, and it rather creeps out of nowhere. A small opening from the second gallery had some light filtering through, and following it lead us to an open enclosure where we first saw the celebrated five spires, rising through to the sun. The central tower is the mythical “Mount meru” and rises higher than the other four, about 60 m on an elevated pedestal, accessible through a steep series of steps. It is today a practicing temple, a mausoleum that originally held the king’s remains, and later dedicated to a reclining Lord Buddha. The other four spires denote the four elements, agni, vaayu, jal, pruthvi, or so the legend goes.
Volunteers at the bottom of the stairs check for “inappropriate” clothing, which means uncovered shoulders and bare legs. A great number of visitors, mostly foreign, do not fit the bill. A Russian couple, the guy in a sarong and a vest, and the woman in noodle straps and thigh-high slits come to blows with the smiling, tiny volunteer from Apsara foundation, she patiently ties a scarf around both waists and drapes an overcoat around the straps, explaining that the temple and the gods must be respected, and the clothing must be returned. An obese American exclaims there is no way he will make it up and down the stairs, and he has seen most of the temple anyway, and the volunteer smiles, and says it will be worth the effort.
The mythical Mount Meru hides some of the most stunning and complete views of Angkor Wat and its surroundings, right down to the blazing sun rising from the glistening water. I smile, and have my fifteen minutes of shutter madness from the various vantage points that open up to the countryside, AP and his ipad disappear and then reappear. The enormity of the surroundings hits me, so does the magnitude of what we have seen over the past five hours. The temple complex and its grounds stretch as far as the eye can gaze, and the carvings from the galleries and their tales leave the mind hazy. The finesse of the carved sandstone and bas-reliefs, the almost polished false marble seem in perfect harmony with the structurally magnificent and enormous temple complex. Scale and finesse, detail and volume, god and stone, king and the common, myth and religion, all blend in to create the magnificence that is Angkor Wat.
I switch from the past to the present, and wonder how on earth did Hindu mythology and Dravidian architecture take such a strong hold in a land so far away from India. And how and where did they find the huge volumes of stone and other building materials, in the 12th century? How did the artisans learn these skills and what time and wealth did they spend? And more important, why was it built? Historians are divided, and there are multiple theories. Angkor Wat remains an enigma, and maybe that is what lends to its mystique.
Crowds continue to jostle for space and selfies, and some die-hard camera addicts perch precariously on one foot along the far walls, hoping for the impossible - capturing the temple complex, from the moat to the five spires, and the sun, in one shot, and without the crowds. The Japanese, Chinese and Korean truckloads have none of it whatsoever; they buzz around with their selfie sticks and group photographs while their tired guides hustle them from one location to the next. I try, try again, and then give up. The snaps are terrible and nothing seems to match the images that my disorganized mind has ingested. Maybe some images are best left to the imagination.
We trundle back to the tuck-tuck, along the same causeway we walked on, the sun on the other side now, six hours after we first set foot at the temple complex. Two shades darker, drenched in sweat and tears, exhausted and famished. A tender coconut quenches the thirst, but I keep glancing back at the moat and the spires. Rei gives an all-knowing smile, and allows us to wallow in self-pity; then loads us back on to his tuk-tuk and other temples, all for USD 14 for the day. It’s a matter of perspective. He grew up around here, this is his backyard, and to him, Angkor Wat is his livelihood. To the rest of us, it is one of the most wondrous edifices of ancient architecture of this millennium, one that we should thank our ancestors for, it is astonishing, uplifting and wonderfully inspiring. We haven’t built anything close to it in a 1000 years, and we won’t.

Cambodia - Part 2 - Angkor - The initiation

What is Angkor?
  • The largest Hindu temple and the largest religious monument in the world
  • The resplendent capital of the great Khmer kingdom
  • A World heritage site spread over 400 sq.kms dotted with architectural splendors, ruins and temple complexes
  • An ancient civilization, which at its zenith, dominated most of South East Asia and hosted a million inhabitants, between 7-14 C AD.
As a multiple choice question, the right answer would be all of the above. As Indians who are born into a culture dominated by mythology and architecture, and decades of temple watching under their belts, what drew us to Siem Reap was the “largest temple in the world – Angkor Wat”. Tick. And then came along “Angkor Thom”, the administrative capital where most of the architectural splendors reside. Tick. And then the great kingdom of “Angkor”, its unique brand of Naga dominated folk-ore that evokes the grandeur and cultural dominance of the Khmer empire. Tick again.
“Angkor” doesn’t merely exist; it lives and breathes, and begins when one’s imagination ends. In its temples, architecture, ruins, palaces, artefacts, culture, lakes and people. One can never claim to have seen Angkor; it takes a lifetime of committed exploration and arduous legwork. The Japanese and Korean buses trampled all over Angkor in half a day as if it were a Hollywood action movie, while Perry the life-long Angkor romantic from Salisbury (we bumped in to him at Ta Phrom) has now spent over two decades trying to map Angkor in its entirety (and accepts he may never be able to!).
A tip. The single day USD20 Angkor pass is worthless; unless you are one of those selfie shutterbugs who lives for the likes (what are you doing on this blog?). The 3-day USD40 pass works, at least as a basic initiation. And start Cambodia with Siem Reap. Angkor needs time, energy, patience and legs, and we were exhausted after just four days of incessant temple touring. And Siem Reap, as a town, has a lot more to offer, if one has the time.

Every tour company, hotel, guide or tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap offers an “Angkor itinerary” and a list of must-do’s; a bit of reading and some natural inclination to get lost while exploring, along with the old trick of listening to the locals, worked for me. But what they don't tell you is that a treasure trove of Angkor related information exists right in the town, 10 mins away from Pubstreet.
Angkor National Museum – The Initiation
A museum at the top of this list? Perry would say I have gone bananas. I sound like a broken record, yet most ignore the only well-intentioned piece of advice I have ever doled out. Always spend a couple of hours at the official museum before hurrying along to an architectural site. It helps to have some background and history of the site, and one gets a great perspective.
This is easily the best museum experience I have seen, AP in his infinite wisdom nods. Brilliantly designed, fabulously well thought-out, supremely informative, and unobtrusively run by the curator Ven, at USD12 entry price, the three hours we spent here the first evening was the most informative part of the trip. Luckily, we didn’t cheap out and got the audio option at an extra USD3 per head, must be the best money I have ever spent. Made the next four days a breeze, and saved a lot of “guide” money.
Designed in four levels, and arranged in seven sections, the museum has brilliant audio-visual presentations, selected clippings of the various monuments and architecture, some exceptionally fine linear history on the various Angkor eras; and in turns describes the architecture, history, art, dynasties and rulers, mythology, tools and other living conditions of the three eras that dot Khmer history, the pre, the Angkor and the post. The museum can easily pass off as Indian. There are so many references and borrowings from Hindu/Buddhist mythology, culture, arts, architecture, epics (names from Ramayana & Mahabharata are widely spread) that we felt right at home. Siva/Vishnu/Ganesh/Indra/Brahma kept popping up so frequently that after some time, the museum crew and the other guides started ignoring us the minute they heard our discussions and figured out we knew the history as well as they did.
While each section is worth spending time on, there were two clear stand-outs: The "1000 Buddha room", which radiates calm and shines through the induced darkness, and the Angkor Wat display which is breathtaking. The video of the sun rising above the five-spired temple is just one of those jaw dropping moments when you forget to breathe and stare, scared that it might just slip away if you took your eyes off only for a moment. So mesmerizing that I played the video thrice. The actual sunrise at the temple though, not lucky enough. Lazy, foggy, late, tired, in that order. Some things just aren’t meant to be.
Start your Angkor trip here. Worth every dollar, hour and effort. The Royal Gardens and the evening prayer at Preah Ang Chek, with several newly-wed couples, the girls in ghostly white, the grooms in brown blazers, set against a dark sky and a golden temple was just the right kind of start for what was to come.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cambodia - Part 1 - The Beautiful Land!

The largest and the most spectacular temple in the world, which is far grander and more awe-inspiring than imagination permits, built on an inspiring mix of Indian religion and adapted to incorporate Khmer mythology; Absolutely gorgeous flat land dotted with miles and miles of deliciously green paddy fields, spread along all-weather rivulets and interspersed with picture perfect villages with houses on stilts; a capital city that is as colorful, vibrant and immaculately clean as the location it sits on, the confluence of the great Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers; friendly, delightfully honest and ever-patient folks, who earnestly try their broken English and apologize profusely for their irrelevant errors, and rarely honk, even when stuck in traffic (Indians, are you listening?); Cambodia is an amazing mix of the young and old, traditional and modern, languid and the vibrant.
Indian influences are numerous and wide-spread, be it architecture, religion or mythology. Cambodia is an ingenious mix of contradictions, be it the intermingling of mythology, religion, Buddhism, and architecture that have dominated Cambodian past, as seen in the great Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom complexes, and in the present, as seen in the pacifist approach to life. Or the delightful irony of a kingdom which adores the monarchy, but is dominated by classic European concepts such as towns with French architecture and Vienna style huge public squares. Or a wonderfully permissive society that manages to retain its traditional South East Asian Buddhist bent of mind; an “economically” poor country, where the minimum wages are USD 125 a month, and is yet so rich in tradition, culture and architecture; a country with a pegged USD/Riel rate and where both currencies are freely exchanged by both locals and tourists. But what was most alluring, among all these is the favorite pastime “Sey” or “feather-cock”, a sort of behind the back football played with a shuttlecock that has been rolled in to a plastic tin, primarily in public spaces, and apparently a sport common to south east Asia.
Bordered and dwarfed by Thailand to the North and West, with whom it shares a long coastline, Laos to the North-East and Vietnam to the East and South-East, Cambodia has four unique features that dominate the landscape. A Central flat plain, the great lake that is Tonle Sap, the life sustaining Mekong delta, along which the larger population and the tourist infrastructure resides, and the Coastline. We had just two weeks, and AP was tired of beaches (he alternatively gets bored with mountains and beaches! AP blogs at Two weeks starting with Siem Reap which is the gateway to the cultural legacy and the great lake, due West to Battambang (we had a choice of Sihanoukville the beach town or Battambang the French town), and down South to Phnom Penh, in hindsight sounds too touristy and too little to generalize a whole country. The truckloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists that kept popping up in almost all my 6GB worth 1,500 snaps would probably cover a couple of countries on their guided visits. But Cambodia is a place to be savored at leisure and at peace; difficult as that may sound for a nation that is, judging by its populace and narrative, slowly coming to terms with the brutality of Khmer rouge's genocide, and that is so obvious in the haunting voices of the Killing fields and Tuol Sleng.
Detailed short pieces of the three towns will follow, but here are my five pieces of advice to first-timers to Cambodia:

  • The LCD (lowest common denominator) is 1 USD and USD works everywhere, even in the remotest villages, but do expect small change in Riel. 1 USD = 4000 Riel; Put on your bargaining hat when you shop. Plentiful ATM's and money changers in large towns, debit/credit cards work
  • Most towns have decent tourist infrastructure. Good roads (not by developed world standards, but good enough!), and smashing varieties of food, western and local, even Indian and Jain!
  • Money goes a long way. A decent meal is USD 5-10 with beer (delicious seafood), USD 25-30 gets you a good hotel with a breakfast plan, and USD 40-50 per day is more than adequate to be comfortable. And you have many many choices across all budgets.
  • Most locals speak English, and most tourist locales have some smattering of French, Japanese, Chinese, German and Russian, in that order. It is an exceptionally safe country, at least the three places we were in, we saw women selling commodities at 1AM, and they were alone on the streets. Most pubs/restaurants are up till midnight
  • Trust the locals, they appreciate the fact that tourism is their livelihood. There will be bad apples, but once a local makes a verbal contract, he usually sticks to it – in exchange for money of course. And don’t get disheartened by the prostitution, pimps and cheap drugs – those are the ills that tourism brings. I learnt to smile, ignore the constant solicitation and walk away while vigorously shaking my head sideways. It works

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 ( 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?