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Author: Travelure

Award-winning Travel Photographer. Canon Photo Mentor. Photo Tour Leader. Photo Educator. Photo Jurist. Driven by his mission is to make destinations desirable. Passionate about capturing the sights, sounds and stories of the places he visits. Winner of India's biggest blogging contest - GrabYourDream and Grand Winner of NatGeoTraveller's PhotoEssayContest!
SUN TEMPLE, MODHERA, GUJARAT

SUN TEMPLE, MODHERA, GUJARAT

sun-temple-modhera-gujarat
Sun Temple, Modhera, Gujarat

February 2017 issue of JetWings International, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (International Sectors), carried my Sun Temple image in their regular B&W section – Radar. Sun Temple was heavily plundered by the Muslim invaders, but its glorious architecture still stands tall!

sun-temple-modhera-gujarat

Sun-Temple-Modhera-Gujarat

Lying on the banks of River Pushpawati, the Sun Temple was built in 1027 ad by King Bhimdev I of the Solanki dynasty. It was dedicated to Surya, the Sun God. Once there was an idol of Surya riding his golden chariot pulled by seven horses, made of pure gold and studded with precious stones. The temple was later on plundered by Mahmud Ghazni and Alauddin Khilji. Despite the ravages of time, what remains of the exquisite architecture will leave you awestruck. And, the sun rays still create magic here!

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AGRA AND ITS SURROUNDINGS – THE UNKNOWN AND THE UNUSUAL

AGRA AND ITS SURROUNDINGS – THE UNKNOWN AND THE UNUSUAL

 

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This article was published in an NRI-focussed publication (NRI Achievers) in September 2013.

Agra and its surroundings – the unknown and the unusual

Much has been written about Agra. But I am still venturing to write this piece. My recent trip to Agra was to experience the unusual. Besides one customary visit to the Taj Mahal, the other activities were not what any tourist would normally engage in. Let me share the details.

Unique Saviours

While driving towards Agra, just 16km short of the city, in a village called Keetam, there is a large scenic lake called Soor Sarovar. This lake is a migratory birds’ haven during the winter months. Since winter was still far away, my reason for going to this lake was not the migratory birds.

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Wildlife SOS Facility

This sanctuary houses Agra Bear Rescue Facility – a facility that takes care of rescued sloth bears. Wildlife SOS, one of the most successful wildlife rescue organisations in the country, runs it. Besides Agra, they also run similar facilities in Purulia (West Bengal), Bannerghatta (Near Bangalore, Karnataka) and Van Vihar (Near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh). They are currently looking after over 450 rescued bears – over 100 of them in the Agra facility alone. And they are supported by the Forest Department in their efforts.

I visited this establishment to understand the entire tale of this rescue.

Dancing Bears

Most of us may have witnessed a dancing bear show. Each of these dancing bears has had a traumatic past. Poachers-cum-handlers would snatch 3-4-weeks-old bear cubs from their mothers and then proceed to pierce these babies’ muzzles with hot iron rods. While these wounds were still raw, a coarse rope would then be passed through this hole. That is not all – the babies’ canines would then be mercilessly extracted without administering any anesthesia.

After that, the dance training of these cubs would start. And this training is another gory story.

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A rescued pair

The bear cub would be put on a hot tin sheet and the Kalandar (the handler) would play Damru (a small, 2-headed drum). From early childhood, this bear cub starts to associate pain and trauma of being on a hot tin sheet, with this sound. And, on hearing this sound, it begins to dance.

Wildlife SOS rescues these bears who have had a traumatised past. Upon seeing their noble work and the care they were extending to these rehabilitated animals, I instinctively saluted their gesture by adopting a bear for a month.

A Coloured Taj

Everyone visits Agra for the Taj Mahal. Some even see the Red Fort (also referred to as Agra Fort). Very few go across the Yamuna and visit Mehtab Bagh – the proposed site of Taj’s replica in Black marble. An organised city sightseeing tour may even take you to Sikandra and Itmad-Ud-Daula (Noorjahan’s grandfather’s tomb). But only exceptional ones go and see the coloured Taj I am referring to – The Red Taj. Interestingly, not many locals are also able to guide you to this beautiful monument that is near Bhagwan Talkies just off the main M.G. Road and is located in Catholic Cemetery.

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The Red Taj

This monument is the tomb of a Dutch national – John Hessing. He was a military officer in the army of Maratha Confederacy. His wife, Alice (or as some references mention, Ann), built the tomb. Though the monument is nowhere close to Taj Mahal in size, it is a beautiful work of art. The craftsmanship in red sandstone is remarkable. If you look closely, you’d realise this monument is an amalgamation of Mughal, Indian and European architecture.

While the similarity of design to Taj Mahal strikes you, what seems odd are the 4 missing minarets, though the edifices for the same do exist. Apparently, Alice ran out of funds and could not complete the monument the way she had envisaged.

The solitary watchman told us that once in 1-2 months, some tourist might chance by. Otherwise, it is a forgotten monument even for the locals. Perhaps the price it has to pay for being in the shadow of the original Taj, a modern-day wonder of the world.

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View of Taj Mahal from just outside Mehtab Bagh

Across the Yamuna

The pilgrims of Taj Mahal, if their itinerary and time permits, do cross over to the other side of River Yamuna to see the monument with a river flowing in front. Their standard stopover across the Yamuna is Mehtab Bagh. While we also went there but figured that another spot close by accorded a better view. Once you reach Mehtab Bagh entrance, do not enter the garden, but follow that road to the banks of Yamuna. The view from here is breathtaking.

For the first glimpse of the Taj, click HERE!

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View of Taj Mahal from Mehtab Bagh

Time-Travel to 9th Century just 80 km away

After visiting Taj Mahal at sunrise, we drove off on Agra-Jaipur highway. The road is not good for first 20-km or so, but once the dual carriageway starts, it is a beautiful drive. Our destination was Abhaneri (originally, Abhanagri; now dialectically debauched to Abhaneri).

This 9th-century village is just 3 km off the main highway and it houses one of the most beautifully crafted step wells in India – Chand Baoli (Moon Stepwell). Amazingly, it is still beautifully preserved.

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Chand Baoli, Abhaneri

The baoli is amongst the deepest and largest baolis in India. Unlike most baolis, which are rectangular, this one is a square. Considering its construction happened 1200 years ago, its symmetry would leave you awestruck.

Built for harvesting rainwater, it used to provide the villagers a cool place to meet during the scorching heat of summers.

Next to it is Harshat Mata Temple. Though not as well preserved as the Chand Baoli, this temple is a sterling example of medieval architecture. These 2 structures make a visit to this quaint destination totally worthwhile.

I conclude with a hope that these unusual and unknown facets of Agra and its surroundings would inspire you to plan a longer stay during your next visit here.

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ORCHHA – A CHANCE DISCOVERY

ORCHHA – A CHANCE DISCOVERY

January 2017 issue of JetWings, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (Domestic Sectors), carried my photo-feature. I am reproducing the photo-feature as it appeared. I am also following it through with the detailed story I had sent for publication that was not carried owing to space constraint. 

Orchha – A Chance Discovery

Take a pictorial tour of this offbeat destination that is dotted with impressive examples of Bundela Architecture in the heart of India. 

The historic town of Orchha lies nestled on the banks of River Betwa. It was founded in the 16th century by the Bundela Rajput chief, Rudra Pratap. For those visiting today, the ancient town seems frozen in time with its many monuments continuing to retain their original grandeur. Orchha truly is a hidden gem, here you can explore some fascinating structures – from the intriguing and serene Ram Raja Temple, and the Jahangir Mahal that was built in honour of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir to the Laxmi Temple that exhibits a unique architectural style which is a mix of a fort and a temple, and the famed chhatris, cenotaphs that were constructed in honour of its erstwhile rulers.

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The three-storeyed cenotaph of the ruler of the kingdom of Orchha, Bir Singh Deo, sits on the banks of River Betwa; this structure has an exit leading straight to the river. It is believed that this was done so that the king could have a bath in the waterbody as often as he’d like in his afterlife.

I had vaguely heard of Orchha. Monsoons were almost over. The weather was kind. So, I decided to do a road trip to check out this obscure destination.

Driving out early from Delhi, I reached Orchha before noon. While it is just about 20 km from Jhansi (Uttar Pradesh), Orchha is actually a part of District Tikamgarh in Madhya Pradesh.

Check-in and a few quick enquiries later, I stepped out to explore this seemingly sleepy town. I had little idea of what to expect. During my short walk to Orchha Palace, my guide shared a few interesting bits of trivia.

Orchha means ‘Hidden’

Orchha, a colloquial word for ‘hidden’, was a small erstwhile province on the banks of River Betwa. During the Mughal era, Bundela Chiefs ruled it. Bundelas got their unique name as their Ruler used to offer drops of blood to the deity. This practice got the clan christened as Bundelas (boond or bund = drops, and hence boondela/bundela).

In the afternoon, Orchha almost seemed like a ghost town with few people around. My guide explained that the town’s population was only around 25,000. Since it was off-season, not many tourists were around. He went on to share that during tourist season, the town gets hordes of visitors, especially from Germany and France, as Orchha was quite popular amongst them.

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The Diwan-e-Aam in Raja Mahal is characterised by massive columns and high ceiling

Once inside the palace, I found myself admiring a combination of Mughal and Rajput architecture. The Diwan-e-Aam seemed like a smaller version of Red Fort’s Diwan-e-Aam. Rani Mahal had ceiling murals, similar to some Havelis in Rajasthan. Besides Raja Mahal (King’s Palace) stood another, equally imposing Jahangir Mahal that had a central courtyard as its centrepiece. I was genuinely perplexed seeing two adjoining grand palaces.

Bundelas and their brush with Mughal Royals

Seeing my puzzled looks, my guide shared an interesting anecdote. He told me about how Bundelas and Mughals crossed paths a few centuries ago.

Prince Salim, before he became known to the world as Emperor Jahangir, had his differences with his father, Emperor Akbar. He had one thorn in his side – Akbar’s biographer and Vizier (Prime Minister), Abul Fazl. Bir Singh Deo, the contemporary of Salim, beheaded and sent the head of Abul Fazl to Salim.

This gesture earned Bir Singh a strong friendship with Salim, and also, the resultant Mughal patronage. This friendship could be a possible explanation of the Mughal architectural influence. And the Mughal patronage could explain the access to funds needed for building such grand structures.

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The famous Ram Raja Temple is considered to be the only place where Lord Ram is worshipped not as a God but as a king.

From the roof of the majestic palace, I could spot a gleaming white temple. Guide told me it was Raja Ram’s temple. He went on to share that Orchha is the only place where Lord Rama is not worshipped as a God, but as a king. There is another majestic sandstone temple next to it – Chaturbhuj Temple.

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A stunning view of one of the cenotaphs

Bundela Cenotaphs

As I glanced to the left of these temples, some imposing structures caught my eye. Those were the famed ‘chhattries’ (cenotaphs) of Orchha. Hurriedly finishing the palace tour, with my guide in tow, I made my way to these stunning architectural beauties.

Located on the scenic bank of River Betwa, there are 14 cenotaphs in all. While most of them have a relative profile similarity, there is one that is distinctly different – Raja Bir Singh Deo’s cenotaph. This 3-storeyed cenotaph has an exit that leads straight to the river. It was thus built with a belief that the king could have a bath in the river as often as he wants in his afterlife.

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The fourteen chhatris or cenotaphs that honour the erstwhile kings of the Bundela dynasty

After spending a leisurely couple of hours here, I set out for the farthest attraction of Orchha – the Lakshmi Temple. While its dome looks like that of a temple, its peripheral wall bears a distinct similarity to a fort. It provides for cannon slots to fire at the enemy.

There was no idol inside as it had been stolen, but it had a sacrificial platform. Such platforms are normally seen in temples of the Tantric cult. This temple is slightly away from the main town but was definitely worth the visit.

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Nature paints a vivid picture as tourists make their way to the Laxmi Narayan Temple

There is more to Orchha than meets the eye

Next morning, while I was leaving Orchha, I spotted another gem – Kranti Sthal. This lesser known memorial has been erected in memory of famed freedom fighter – Chandra Shekhar Azad. A bronze statue of his trademark pose – twirling his moustache – adorns this memorial. The official here told me that Chandra Shekhar Azad had used the forests of Orchha for shooting practice, and that was why his memorial was erected here.

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For those arriving by train, Orchha welcomes you with a quaint railway station

While I spent just a night here, I was surprised at the heritage treasure trove Orchha offered me in such a short time. I could not stay longer, but I was told there was more to see here. There is a famous dam close by – Mata Tila Dam. Its reservoir is a birding spot. Also, once you cross the fragile bridge and go across the river, there is also a wildlife sanctuary that is inhabited by some minor wild animals.

In conclusion, I can earnestly say that Orchha proved true to its name. The name means ‘hidden’ and for most travellers, this gem is truly hidden. It is now time they discovered it and started exploring it.

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BOAT WITH A VIEW – KOCHI

BOAT WITH A VIEW – KOCHI

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January 2017 issue of JetWings Domestic, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (Domestic Sectors), carried my Kochi image in their regular B&W section – Radar. Kochi is the capital of Kerala, touted by their tourism as ‘God’s Own Country!’

Boat-View-Kochi

As you step out of the bustling twin cities of Kochi and Ernakulam, you will find houses on the edge of backwaters with boats anchored outside. Life here has a languid pace, nature’s presence is overwhelming, and tranquility truly envelopes you. Kerala is one the cleanest states in the country; and with eco-friendly modes of transport being commonplace, it is likely to walk away with some top honours in 2017 – the year United Nations has declared as the ‘International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development’.

boat-view-kochi

boat-view-kochi
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FIRST GLIMPSE, TAJ MAHAL, AGRA

FIRST GLIMPSE, TAJ MAHAL, AGRA

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January 2017 issue of JetWings International, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (International Sectors), carried my Taj Mahal image in their regular B&W section – Radar. Taj Mahal is one of the modern 7 Wonders of the World and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

First-Glimpse-Taj-Mahal-Agra

Rabindranath Tagore aptly called this monument of love, built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century, “a teardrop on the cheek of time”. Noted for its unique workmanship and architecture, it glided into the modern-day ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ list through a worldwide poll. Every year, between 7 and 8 million people visit this iconic monument. And each of those visitors is greeted by this first glimpse!

first-glimpse-taj-mahal-agra

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Bali – A Little India in Indonesia

Bali – A Little India in Indonesia

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Besakih Temple Complex

Indonesia Series Part-II. Appeared in December 2016 issue of Smart Photography, India’s Premier Photography Magazine.

Bali – A Little India in Indonesia

In my previous travel story, we travelled to Lombok. Let’s embark on a Bali journey this time.

You may read Indonesia Series Part-I (Lombok – Bali of 70s) HERE.

I will start this journey by asking a question – in how many locations outside India would you get a feeling that you are in the land of Mahabharata, Bhagwat Gita, and Ramayana?

Not many, I guess. But in Bali, I constantly kept getting reminded of India’s holy epics!

Bali-Little-India-Indonesia

Bali ranks high every time a travel conversation veers towards beaches, water sports, nightlife, backpacking, volcanoes, and more. But one fact that gets seldom talked about is the Hindu influence here. Of the 17,000-odd islands that form the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is the only officially Hindu island.

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Gita Updesh – an elaborate sculpture in a Denpasar roundabout

We were staying in Seminyak, an area surrounded by Kuta, Denpasar, and North Kuta. To give you a further sense of its location, let me just say that it is on the rear edge of the lower fin of this fish-shaped island – and this fish is swimming from left to right.

Seminyak is a lot quieter than Kuta. But then, that’s not saying much as even this area is a major travel hub in Bali with the presence of many luxury hotels including the Oberoi Bali. It is fast developing into the high-street shopping capital of Bali.

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The steps leading to Besakih Temple

Besakih Temple

One of the days, we decided to travel to northwest Bali to visit the scenic Besakih Temple. This complex has 23 separate, yet related temples, located on 6 levels on the slope of the highest mountain in Bali – Mount Agung. We were glad we were accompanied by a guide from our hotel as he was well prepared and had carried sarongs. The scam here is that the touts insist you hire a sarong at an exorbitant rental of US$ 25-30 each and they also compulsorily force you to engage a guide at equally ridiculous fees.

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Intricate carved sculptures of Vishnu Temple in Besakih Complex

Mount Agung is normally covered in clouds. But, during our visit we were fortunate to have seen it. Making our way to the temple complex, high humidity made its presence felt and we were sweating profusely. It is definitely advisable to wear a hat during a visit to Besakih.

Besides various other Hindu deities, there is also a Vishnu temple at the highest level of the complex. Intricately carved sculptures and idols adorn this temple. The compound of this temple accords the best view to the spread-out temple complex!

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Goa Gajah cave entrance (do note the Hindu mythological connection of this bas relief)

Goa Gajah

While returning from Besakih Temple, we took a detour and went to Goa Gajah – a cave temple with a recently excavated sarovar (pond). Both, the cave entrance and the sarovar had superb sculptures and carvings of gods and goddesses – some from Hindu mythology. Inside the cave, there is an idol of Lord Ganesha!

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Idols inside Goa Gajah

A usual drive through Ubud took us past a string of streets, each one lined with art galleries displaying Balinese and other art.

The roundabouts across our route had well-painted and well-maintained sculptures – from Geeta Updesh to Arjuna with his bow and arrow, from Rama with the monkey army to Vishnu killing a demon while riding garuda!

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Foreground – Goa Gajah Sarovar. Background – Goa Gajah Cave.

It is interesting that the manifestations of these gods and mythological characters resemble Hindu gods, mythological characters, and their accepted form. Vishnu riding the garuda is holding the conch shell and chakra; while Arjuna clearly seems to be wielding his favoured bow – Gandiva!

Tanah Lot and Uluwatu

We spent a couple of sunsets at scenic Balinese Temples dedicated to sea gods. Both, Tanah Lot as well as Uluwatu form a part of the seven temples dotting the south-western coast of Bali. Both are dedicated to Rudra, the Vedic manifestation of Shiva.

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Tanah Lot Temple gets surrounded by seawater during high tide

While Tanah Lot gets surrounded by seawater in high tide, Uluwatu is perched on a cliff that is 70 metres high.

Local guides recommend that the traveller should visit these temples around sunset. While sunset does add magic to these temples, getting good images of these temples around sunset definitely poses a challenge!

You may choose to shop in touristy Kuta or pricey Saminyak, experience the colourful nightlife across the entire southwestern Bali, or closely interact with free-spirited and talented Balinese artists in Ubud.

You may even decide to do the wildlife trails in Bali to check out the elephants and a wide variety of monkeys. It may be your wont to trek the volcanos and jungles, or indulge in exotic watersports.

But if you are as fascinated with the Hindu discovery outside India as I am, I definitely recommend that you visit the places I have shared in this travel story. You may even choose to do one better by hunting out and discovering a few more gems and come back with story richer than mine!

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Our Family Fun and Togetherness in Kashmir

Our Family Fun and Togetherness in Kashmir

family-fun-togetherness-kashmir

Our Family Fun and Togetherness in Kashmir

Every year, winters arrive at our door with cold winds, woollen clothes, mouthwatering snacks to nibble beside an Angithi, and a perfect time to go for a family vacation. A vacation to rekindle the warmth in our relationships and to make endless memories that we can cherish for the rest of our lives.

Recently, while skimming through my Facebook account, I came across #ErtigaHolidayDiaries campaign by Maruti Suzuki Ertiga which emphasized on sharing the beautiful moments a family spent together during holidays. And frankly, I instantly warmed up to the idea and decided to share about my family trip to Kashmir.

During this holiday, we had travelled around to all the touristy places around Srinagar. As I was going through the photo album, nostalgia engulfed me like fog on a cold winter morning while the feelings deep within were warm!

So, without any further ado, let me plunge into my very own chapter of #ErtigaHolidayDiaries!

Family-Fun-Togetherness-Kashmir

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Wholesale Vegetable market, Dal Lake, Srinagar

The time we spent in Srinagar was magical. An early morning Shikara ride to the famous wholesale vegetable market in Dal Lake gave me a glimpse of the traditional lifestyle of Kashmiris (natives of Kashmir). #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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Predictably, my daughters had refused to wake up early in the morning for the Dal Lake Shikara ride to the vegetable market. But, they were not prepared to be denied the opportunity to do a Shikara ride, all the same. So, here we were… for their Shikara ride! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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What good is youth if you do not indulge in occasional tomfoolery? A dried maple leaf is a fun adornment for the tousled hair – or so my younger daughter thinks! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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It was a joy to click my two princesses as they sat on their mock throne in Nishat Bagh. As I click, the younger one is distracted. Well, being the younger one, isn’t that her right? #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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Gulmarg. As we were heading towards the famed Gulmarg Gandola, these pony-riding tourists reminded us of the Wild West Action Thrillers from the era of the original Hollywood Cowboy – Clint Eastwood! #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

As we crossed this vast meadow, wife and I were sharing with our daughters that the famous Bollywood hit song from Rajesh Khanna starrer ‘Aap Ki Kasam’ (Jai Jai Shiv Shankar) was picturised in the temple at the edge of this meadow. #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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Here, the pose says it all – “Yay, we’ve made it to Apharwat (2nd level of Gulmarg Gandola)! While it was sunny here, the wind chill and the snow around made us freeze. Well, almost! #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

Pahalgam, here we come! Little lambs and bunny rabbits in their arms, their expressions seem to say – ”We are loving it!” #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. My better half decides to truly live up to the saying. Here she is, in total traditional Kashmiri finery! #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

One is happy, while the other is zapped! As we were climbing down the Sonamarg glacier, my daughters were gingerly walking down the slippery terrain. So, I can’t be sure if she was zapped or it was all concentration! #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

Believe it or not, all of us screamed in unison – “We love traffic jams!” – as we were crossing this adorable herd. As dog lovers, we even loved the Himalayan Sheep Dog who was dutifully keeping step with his master. #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

Dear Readers, I hope you enjoyed this little chapter by me in the on-going fun-filled #ErtigaHolidayDiaries dedicated to celebrating family and togetherness!

For more chapters of #ErtigaHolidayDiaries, visit their Facebook page or check out their tweets (@ertigabymaruti)

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Silent, Yet Eloquent – Cellular Jail, Port Blair

Silent, Yet Eloquent – Cellular Jail, Port Blair

 

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December 2016 issue of JetWings, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways, carried my Cellular Jail image shot in Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands. This monument holds an important place in Modern Indian History.

Silent, Yet Eloquent – Cellular Jail, Port Blair

Cellular Jail forms an integral chapter of India’s freedom struggle. Commissioned by the British in 1896 and completed in 1906, it was built to exile Indian freedom fighters away from mainland India. It was called the ‘Cellular Jail’ as it did not have any dormitory – only solitary confinement cells – 696 of them.

The reason? The British did not want Indian revolutionists to interact and plan their moves. But plan they did, finally liberating India. In a way, despite not being the centre stage, it continually stole the limelight. Today, this National Memorial bears a mute testimony to the success of the freedom struggle and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Port Blair.

silent-yet-eloquent-cellular-jail-port-blair

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A good time to visit London? Now!

A good time to visit London? Now!

good-time-visit-london-now
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, London

London!

I saw some.

I missed some.

So, London keeps calling me back.

When am going to plan a visit again?

The answer is ‘Right Now!’

Want to know why?

Then, read on!

A good time to visit London? Now!

It was summer of 2012. My elder daughter, who was just 20 then and was doing her graduation with an offshore London School of Economics-affiliate (LSE-affiliate) college, got selected to do her summers in London. It was going to be a 6-week residential programme.

Like most Indian parents, while we were proud, we were also concerned about her first-ever solo stay in an alien town. So, after some intense family deliberations, my wife nominated me to accompany her and see if the stay and other arrangements were satisfactory.

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Oxford Street in Olympic Finery

Here, let me just remind you that summer of 2012 was Olympics-time in London! Though a popular phrase goes – “All roads lead to Rome”, around that time, the world had replaced ‘Rome’ with ‘London’. This little fact ensured that my trip cost was going to be through the roof.

As a travel photographer and writer, I naturally wanted to make the most of this… er…  opportunity. After all, it was going to be my first-ever visit to London!

All the same, with due consideration to the budget, I decided to keep my stay in London short. So, three nights it was. In this city packed with places of interest of all hues. But then, something is better than no something!

After settling her in, I started my brief sojourn with London. The more I saw, the more I fell in love with it. Besides the usual day-long London city sightseeing trip, I explored the city on my own too. I was truly on the move there!

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The Tower Bridge, as viewed from the Tower of London.

So, let’s see what all I managed

The city has 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites – The Tower of London, Kew Gardens, the site comprising Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, and St Margaret’s Church, and the historic settlement of Greenwich where the Royal Observatory marks 0° longitude, the Prime Meridian, and GMT. I managed to visit three of these, but ran out of time and had to skip Kew Gardens. A pity, really!

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The Royal Observatory at Greenwich

At the Tower of London, I took a Beefeater tour (Yeoman Warder tour) and visited the Crown Jewels vault and saw the Koh-I-Noor diamond. I took a Verger Tour of the Westminster Abbey and clicked a photograph (with Verger’s permission) of the first grave in the Abbey – that of Edward the Confessor. I stood astride the brass (or is it copper?) strip that marks the Prime Meridian.

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A Beefeater. They are the traditional custodians of the Crown Jewels.

I did a ride on the famed London Eye. I did a short cruise over Thames. I took a walk through Hyde Park and swung past Royal Albert Hall. I admired the artists and their gorgeous art near the National Gallery. I saw a unicyclist perform at the Covent Garden. I also witnessed the ceremonial change of guard at the Buckingham Palace.

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The Tower of London

I spent some time in Trafalgar Square; though, the pigeons I saw Amrish Puri feeding in ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ (the biggest hit Bollywood has ever produced) had gone missing by then! I had a pint of beer at Sherlock Holmes – a pub on Northumberland Street that was established in 1736! I watched the Spain vs Italy Euro Cup finals at Buckingham Arms in Westminster area.

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Stonehenge, near Amesbury, Wiltshire, UK

Heck… I even managed a day trip to Salisbury and checked out Stonehenge – another UNESCO World Heritage site.

Well, I did manage a lot, but I have some regrets… regrets of not being able to do many more things.

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London Eye, South Bank

Let me share some of those

I missed out on visiting Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. I also did not have enough time to make it to the Museum of Brands (this one is of special interest to me as I have spent 27 years in Advertising!). Though I am an avid Hard Rock Café T-shirt collector, I could not find time to visit this iconic destination in London.

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Ceremonial Change of Guard, Buckingham Palace, London.

I did go past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but I could not see a show there. I missed out on seeing the great displays at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. Remember that popular TV show – Crystal Maze? I was a big fan of the show. And naturally, I wanted to take on the Crystal Maze in Zone One. But, I couldn’t.

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A potpourri of traditional and modern at the Westminster Bridge

I also did not manage Ripley’s Believe it or Not at Piccadilly Circus. Or the London Zoo. Or the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street. Or the Royal Opera House. Or even the Museum of London. Or… well, there is so much more I wanted to do in London that this list can be endless!

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Tomb of Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey

Why this post now?

I chanced upon the British Airways (BA) page recently and discovered they had unleashed some bonanzas – exclusively for their customers. BA customers enjoy special shopping discounts at multiple outlets across London (for the whole list, CLICK HERE). They are offering their lowest fares – with hotel stays thrown in! I found a return ticket with a 5-night hotel stay, breakfast included, for just Rs. 54,106!!!

They have also suggested some real cost-saving itineraries under various heads. Check these out HERE.

And, the icing on the cake – British Pound that used to hover around Rs. 100 is now at Rs. 82.

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Royal Albert Hall

What Next?

I feel this is too good an opportunity to let go. So, I am going to book a trip right now! Those of you who have always wanted to visit this great city but have been deterred by the high costs should also do the same. As they say, opportunity knocks but once!

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City view from London Eye.

Like I said – A good time to visit London? Now! Happy Travels!

 

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Vivo V5 – For Captures After Pack Up

Vivo V5 – For Captures After Pack Up

vivo v5 captures pack

Vivo V5 – For Captures After Pack Up

Pack up is a jargon that photographers and filming crews use. It is a bold announcement of ‘end of the work for the day’. It also means that the equipment may now go back to the storeroom, as it won’t be required again till the next work shift starts.

Even as a travel photographer and a solo worker, there is a time of the day when I announce ‘pack up’ to myself. The ‘pack up’ time may vary. If it is a city destination that I am covering, it could be late in the night as my plan may include shooting low-light shots of city life or night cityscapes. But if I am doing a road trip to a nearby attraction, the ‘pack up’ may happen as soon as I finish shooting the attraction and am on my way back.

vivo v5 captures pack

After ‘pack up’, most photographers follow an unwritten rule – No Camera! And, I am no different. Even I follow this rule!

But then, not all photographers are travel photographers. As a travel photographer, there are times after the ‘pack up’, when I wish I were prepared to capture the moment because my trip may present unusual photo-ops! These photo-ops may be a chance meeting with a celebrity, a spontaneous get-together at my hotel, a breathtaking sight that catches my eye as I turn the street corner, or any of a million more eventualities that may throw themselves at me! These are the times that leave me with a regret – the regret of being unprepared.

vivo v5 captures pack

Additionally, being a professional photographer also puts some extra pressure on me – the pressure of capturing even my casual images in acceptable quality. Sub-optimal images won’t do!

So, when Vivo approached me with their V5 (a stylish smartphone with a camera) and requested me to do a field test, they specifically mentioned about its 20mp front camera and its moonlight selfie capability. Have a look at this beauty HERE.

vivo v5 captures pack

Now, what does that capability mean?

For the photographer in me, it spells freedom – freedom of lugging around my gear after ‘pack up’. And still having the option of capturing decent images in those after-hours, even in low-light situations. I readily accepted the offer of doing this field test!

vivo v5 captures pack

Field Test

I shot some low-light shots that would normally turn out to be pathetic. I shot erratically moving subject, some still life, neon lights and other signage and the results were satisfactory. All those worked well for me.

May be you should also give it a shot?

vivo v5 captures pack
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Sharing 16 UNESCO Sites of 2016 in My Hundredth Post

Sharing 16 UNESCO Sites of 2016 in My Hundredth Post

Soon, we will all be celebrating the onset of 2017. Before 2016 bids goodbye, I have another milestone to celebrate – I am scoring a century! Yes, that’s right. This is my hundredth post. I wanted it to be a landmark in more ways than one. Hence, I decided this post would be about the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I visited during 2016. Coincidentally, there are 16 of these!

Instead of keeping this post chronological, I am going to mix it up a bit! Some of these UNESCO sites may seem inane, but each is loaded with solid reasons for inscription. I’ll be going over those too. So, let me start the sharing.

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Reclining Buddha, Cave Temple, Dambulla

#1. Golden Temple or Cave Temple, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

It lies around 150km East of Colombo, in central Sri Lanka. While the distance isn’t much, it can take you around 4 hours to reach here from Colombo.

While there are many caves sprinkled around the area, most travellers visit the 5 significant adjoining caves in the temple complex. The entire complex is still functional as a Buddhist Temple though it dates back to between 3rd century BCE and 18th century CE. Extremely well preserved, it was inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1991.

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Qutub Minar on a lunar eclipse night

#2. Qutub Minar, New Delhi, India

This 73-metre tall minaret is the tallest brick minaret in the world. It was commissioned in early 13th century by Qutb-al-Din Aibak and was completed by his successor, Iltutmish. Along with the other monuments in the Mehrauli Archeological Park, Qutub Minar has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

You may wonder why I talk of Qutub Minar – a monument near my home. Well, I know of many people who live in Delhi but have never visited some of the monuments here. So, no harm sharing about my visit here during this year!

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Nederluleå Church, Gammelstad, Sweden

#3. Church Town of Gammelstad, Luleå, Sweden

Stone church of Gammelstad was built by Sweden in 1492 as the first move to lay lien on the territory, as borders were not well defined in those days. A church town came about around this church.

Here, people would build cottages and would use them for stay during their big feast pilgrimage. Though privately owned, these cottages were not meant for permanent residence. These had no water supply, no heating facility, and no cooking arrangements. All that was and still is taboo as these cottages were meant for a spartan stay during the pilgrimage. And that is what defined a church town. As it stayed true to the initial intent, the church town of Gammelstad has earned a UNESCO World Heritage site inscription in 1996.

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Dressing up Buddha at Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba, Anuradhapura

#4. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Considered to be the first capital of Sri Lanka (from 4th century CE to 11 century CE), Anuradhapura lies 205 kms North-East of Colombo. This distance may take up to 6 hours by road.

The excavated ruins consist of three types of structure – monastic buildings, Dagobas (bell shaped masonry), and Pokunas (bathing tanks). The largest Dagoba (Ruwanwelisaya) is 1100 feet in circumference. It got inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1982.

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Across this Amsterdam canal, you can spot the Anne Frank House

#5. Canals of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

More than one hundred kilometers of canals, about 90 islands and around 1,500 bridges are there in Amsterdam. The three main canals from 17th century – Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht – were dug during the Dutch Golden Age. These form concentric belts around the city, the Grachtengordel.

These canals are the keystone of Amsterdam’s exemplary city planning and were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.

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A memorial commemorating indentured labour landings in Mauritius

#6. Aapravasi Ghat, Mauritius

Aapravasi Ghat (Immigration Depot) or Coolie Ghat has earned its UNESCO inscription in 2006 for being the first port that received indentured labour, many of whom settled in Mauritius, while the others made their way to the plantations across the British empire.

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Impressive interiors of San Agustin Church, Manila, The Philippines

#7. San Agustin Church, Manila, Philippines

San Agustin Church is one of the four Baroque Churches of Philippines that were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1993.

The church building does not only seem imposing and indestructible, it truly is. It has withstood repeated calamitous damage at the hands of raging fires, enemy attacks and high-intensity earthquakes.

Its flat ceiling has been painted in a magical way to give an illusion of 3D bass relief work, just like what you see in the Gallery of Maps (Sistine Chapel), Vatican!

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Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India

#8. Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi, India

This Buddhist monument is the oldest brick monument in the country. It was commissioned in 3rd century BCE by Emperor Ashoka and was built over the relics of Buddha.

It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.

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Bali Rice Fields

#9. Cultural Landscape of Bali Province

Volcanoes provide Bali with fertile soil. Combined with a wet tropical climate, that makes it an ideal location for crop cultivation. River water has been channelled into canals for irrigation. It allows the cultivation of rice on both flat land and mountain terraces.

Rice, water, and subak, (water-controlling cooperative social system) together have shaped the Bali landscape over the past thousand years. These are an integral part of Bali’s religious life too. As rice is seen as the gift of god, the subak system is considered part of Bali’s temple culture.

Together with their temples, five rice terraces of Bali covering an area of 19,500 hectare, became a UNESCO site in 2012.

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Polonnaruwa Buddhist Temple Ruins

#10. Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

After the decimation of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the second capital of Sri Lanka. The most illustrious king who reigned was Parakramabahu I. His reign is marked by a distinctly superior irrigation system as he was obsessed with not wasting even a drop of water that descended from heaven. It was inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1982. Even today, Polonnaruwa remains an important Buddhism pilgrimage site in the country.

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The intricate system of windmills for keeping the sea waters out

#11. Kinderdijk, The Netherlands

When you are living 7 metres below sea level and you do not have gills, you need to keep the sea water out of your village. The residents of Kinderdijk, a settlement that is a 25-minute speedboat ride inland from Rotterdam, deployed an ingenious technique to pump seawater out – an elaborate arrangement of 19 windmills.

Though these windmills were commissioned in the mid-eighteenth century, they are still functional. They continue to fulfill the original purpose of keeping the land dry while providing 3-storeyed living quarters to the farmers who own them. A windmill-turned-museum gives you a glimpse into the local culture and lifestyle. This well-preserved traditional innovation has earned the windmills of Kinderdijk UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997.

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One of the water bodies in Singapore Botanic Gardens

#12. Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore

Created in 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens demonstrate the evolution a Pleasure Garden, to a colonial Economic Garden for research, to a world-class botanic garden that is both – a scientific institution and a place of conservation, recreation and education. This site got inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. Incidentally, this is the only UNESCO site in Singapore.

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The Secretariat Building in the Capitol Complex, Chandigarh

#13. Capitol Complex, Chandigarh, India

In 2015, the architectural work of Le Corbusier got acknowledged by UNESCO as World Heritage, thanks to its outstanding contribution to the modern movement. This work is spread over 7 countries – Argentina, Belgium, France, Germany, India, Japan and Switzerland. Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex is a part of this UNESCO listing. While the Secretariat building is a typical Le Corbusier structure, the Open Hand Monument is an abstract installation in the Capitol Complex that has been adopted by the Chandigarh Administration as the symbol of the city.

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Le Morne Brabant forms the backdrop of the Crystal Rock

#14. Le Morne, Mauritius

These are two of the most recognisable spots in Mauritius! While Crystal Rock is just a fossilised coral reef, Le Morne Brabant got inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 for an unfortunate reason. This monolith was a hideout for slaves who would run away from their masters. When the Abolition of Slavery Act got passed in 1853, these masters went to Le Morne to give the good news to the slaves. The slaves misunderstood the intent. They jumped and committed suicide from this cliff!

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Visitors enjoying a lazy afternoon on one of the ramparts of Galle Fort

#15. Galle Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka

Built in 1588 CE and further fortified extensively from 1649 CE onwards, the fort is a living, buzzing township with multi-cultural population. The town planning of this habitation is typical of the Dutch (a sterling example being Amsterdam). It survived the notoriously devastating tsunami that hit 14 countries on 26th December 2004. It houses a few churches, one of which has been converted in to a mosque after Muslim accession of the fort. Additionally, the fort has a clock tower and a lighthouse.

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Skogskyrkogården or Woodland Cemetery

#16. Skogskyrkogården or Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, Sweden

Few cemeteries across the globe can boast being UNESCO World Heritage sites. Skogskyrkogården is one of those. Interestingly, this cemetery got inscribed in UNESCO list because of its landmark architecture that influenced numerous cemeteries across the globe. It is a brilliant blend of terrain, vegetation, and purpose. Interred grave of Greta Garbo, the heartthrob of Hollywood in 1920s and 30s, is also here (she passed away in Manhattan).

Now, while visiting 16 of these heritage sites during the year was fascinating, here’s looking forward to 17 or more during 2017!

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