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SUN TEMPLE, MODHERA, GUJARAT

SUN TEMPLE, MODHERA, GUJARAT

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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!

sun-temple-modhera-gujarat
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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.

orchha-chance-discovery
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BOAT WITH A VIEW – KOCHI

BOAT WITH A VIEW – KOCHI

boat-view-kochi

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

first-glimpse-taj-mahal-agra

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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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

silent-yet-eloquent-cellular-jail-port-blair
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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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Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
View from our Balcony

Background

We had made a Sea View Club Room booking with The Leela Grand, Kovalam in January 2015. The 4-night stay would have left us poorer by approx. Rs.84,000 (~US$ 1,230 – i.e. US$ 307 per night). Around then, due to its financial mess, SpiceJet was cancelling many of its flights and this news was commonplace knowledge.

Our flights on three out of the four sectors also got cancelled and thankfully, the news came to us at a time when we could cancel our room bookings without losing any monies. We did cancel but there was a regret of missing out on staying with a property with one of the finest locations anywhere.

In September 2016, we had another opportunity to visit Kovalam and we were going to stay in The Leela Grand. We stayed there and this stay prompted me to put forth an honest review for money-paying guests who may plan a stay at this property. I want them know the realities of a stay here to make a considered decision.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Infinity pool, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

“You’ll come to Kovalam with me?”

My wife was speaking at an IoT-focussed conference in Kovalam. Since the conference organisers were hosting her and they were fine with spouses coming along, she asked me if I would like to accompany her.

Her question was obviously prompted by our earlier cancellation of the Kovalam trip. Also, since Kovalam was just a spitting distance from some of the bucket list destinations, I readily agreed.

We had just returned from a 10-day Lombok-Bali trip. So, the beach was not such a big draw, but when she mentioned that we’d be staying in The Leela Grand, a hotel known for its gorgeous location, that was another ‘plus one’ to look forward to.

 

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Look down from our balcony, and you see this

First impression…

We were driven in an Audi Q3 from Thiruvananthapuram Airport to the hotel. The drive was short, but pleasant. We had a separate lounge for check-in as we were booked in their Sea View Club room (higher category room).

Since this property is on a coastal cliff, we climbed down one level to get to our room. As soon as we entered, wife and I exchanged glances and smiled. In our extensive hotel-trotting streak, we had not come across a better view from our hotel room. Though it was dark already, the waters around the property were illuminated by cool temperature LEDs installed by the hotel. And we could see and hear the waves lashing noisily against the rocks.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Near the pool, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

I knew this property was the erstwhile ITDC Ashok hotel. And by virtue of this being a government-owned entity established much before perhaps the 300-metre no-construction-zone rule came into being, the property was literally kissing the sea.

Instead of unpacking, we just poured ourselves a drink and sat in the balcony enjoying the view and the ambience. The trance lasted a while!

Reality Check

Once we came back into the room, the challenges of this aging property started to dawn on us. The plug sockets were old and hence unreliable – you plug in a device and hope for the best that it will continue to get charged. These sockets were in sunken ports that had wooden lids. Fair enough, except a typical C, E or F type plug would normally stand upright (as against the D & M types that offer a flat plug). Result? After you plug in a device, the lid won’t close.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
The lid won’t close

Interestingly, for some unknown reason, the bedside sockets were Type G! You know, those three flat pin ones? Those! The property happens to be in India, and instead of providing the type D or M, or the more modern type K, they provided type G – useful in China, Malaysia and a few other countries for sure, but rather useless here. (For understanding this weird jargon, please see the infographic).

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Plug types demystified

The bathroom was a sum total of 3 matchboxes – a shower cubicle, a WC cubicle and a washbasin cubicle. The Shower and WC cubicle doors opened outwards, naturally inconveniencing the other occupant – in case he/she happened to be washing hands or brushing teeth.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
The wallpaper was peeling off

Are you hygiene conscious?

For the hygiene-conscious, please be warned that washing hands in the washbasin is going to a hairy experience! Try as hard as you may, your hands are going to be brushing against the basin bowl as the faucet has been fixed at an angle that leaves little space for your hands.

The towels and bath mats was another crazy story. Over the next 3 days, the housekeeping would forget to leave either the face towels, or the hand towels, or the bath mat. This routine was followed every day and the entire experience left you in a advanced state of resignation.

While unpacking, my wife realised that the drawer housing the safe would not open. Once we pried it open, it was a challenge to close it. The space provided for the suitcase was barely sufficient for one large suitcase. And, it was a double occupancy room, if you please!

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Sullied view from the room – thanks to the permanent scratches and stains on the window pane

Let’s have some food

It had been a long day. Soon, we were hungry and decided to order room service. That’s when a hunt for the in-room dining menu started. After agonising for a while with various visible and concealed drawers, we concluded that they had omitted to place one in our room. We called the in-room dining and got connected to front office instead. Politely, they asked us to call the room service number again. We tried telling them that we couldn’t find the menu, and were politely told again to call room service. Fair enough!

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
The Leela Grand Beach

We called the in-room dining again and again got connected to the front office. Now, we were losing it. In no uncertain terms we told the front office guys to get their telephone system in order and while at it, to send an in-room dining menu to our room.

There’s more…

Food was ordinary. But, we are used to condoning one bad experience – knowing fully well that the cuisine we ordered may be a challenge for the chef on duty. After dinner, we again stepped out into the balcony and once we came in to call it a day, we realised the balcony door wouldn’t get locked. Naturally, we asked the operator to connect us to maintenance. She politely asked us what did we want. Upon telling her, she promised to have someone fix that soon.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Didn’t I say the view is gorgeous

After a 15-minute wait, we reminded her and soon had a maintenance guy come in. He took his time while we were quietly amusing ourselves by watching some B channel on the limited menu of channels on offer. Once he finished, I checked if the door would close, and realised that he had done whatever best he could since the door was any case in an advanced state of disrepair, and hence was unlikely to close properly. We resignedly asked him to carry on.

Well, I could go on and on. But suffice it to say that what we experienced during our first few hours was not an exception, but was a norm in this property.

Next Morning

In the morning light, we noticed a few more issues. The coastal dampness had led to a peeling wallpaper; the window glass had permanent swathes of damage that definitely didn’t do much good to your view of the nature outside. The window blinds were frayed. Over all, the indifference in maintenance was glaringly evident.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Frayed blinds

Any reason for such indifference towards a gloriously located property?

Upon making enquiries with the staffers, we realised the Leela Group had sold the hotel to some Ravi Group. When I checked on the Internet, it showed that though it sold the property in 2011, it is still being managed by HLVL (Hotel Leela Ventures Ltd.). While HLVL still continues to make money hand over fist milking its superbly unique location, they seem to have little or no interest in ploughing back any of this money into the upkeep since the property does not belong to them anymore.

What further surprises me is that this property won the Best Indian Luxury Hotel in India Award in 2015 – an award by Lonely Planet India.

Sooner, than later, the news of their mismanagement is likely to reach the market. The earlier that happens, the better. If it doesn’t, chances are the property reviews by traveller are going to hurt not just this one property, but also the entire chain. And, it will turn out to be a huge PR nightmare for this classy chain.

Why Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

When you stay with a group property of a renowned chain like the Leela that is known for its impeccable attention to detail, you are naturally paying an arm and a leg as room tariff. We were just plain lucky as we didn’t have to pay it since we were hosted. So, as a money-paying guest, the least you expect is that the property will have basic 5-star amenities and fittings in the room would work. When they don’t, and instead begin to fall apart, you get up with a start and take notice.

And after all, in 2015, we did commit US$1230 for our stay there! We were so glad we didn’t end up paying that amount at that time.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
I saw this facade in an advertisement in the 80’s

Chances are many of my readers would pay a king’s ransom to stay there. It is only fair that they at least are made aware of how things work or NOT work there. As they say, forewarned is forearmed!

In case any of you faced a similar experience here, kindly feel free to share as a comment. I will incorporate your comment as an independent review into this post itself.

Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam

 

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Discover how it is carved in stone – Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

Discover how it is carved in stone – Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

My image has appeared in Radar section of October 2016 issue of JetWings Domestic, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (Domestic sectors).

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

It is said that this stunning structure, Rani-ki-Vav (The Queen’s Stepwell), was built in 11th century as a tribute to the king and founder of the Solanki Dynasty by his widowed wife, Udayamati. This 64 metre-long stepwell is seven levels deep and is embellished with over 1,500 statues. The stacking of statues on the levels as you go down the stepwell is conceptually an inversion of a typical temple that pays obeisance to water. These sculptures mostly depict Vishnu’s different avatars and the traditional solah shringaar (16 styles of adornments). Rani-ki-Vav made its way into the UNESCO Heritage List in 2014, for its outstanding architecture and creativity, and is an absolute must-see site in Gujarat.

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

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Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal

Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal

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The Facade of Ramgarh Heritage

A week back, I received an invitation from a PR agency on behalf of Ramgarh Heritage, a Rajasthani heritage property in Panchkula – they were going to host me for a couple of nights. Though I accepted the invitation, my mind was throwing up a few pertinent questions. On more than one occasion, I have found myself trapped in the so-called pseudo-Rajasthani boutique resorts; will this be another such instance? Or, Chandigarh folks reserve similar disdain for Panchkula that Mumbai townies reserve for the ‘burbs (suburbs); so, should I even consider visiting Panchkula?

All the same, the deed was done. I had accepted their hosting invitation. So, on the scheduled date, I got on to the 5.15 pm evening Chandigarh Shatabdi – a comfortable fast train that sets out from New Delhi station and takes you to Chandigarh in three and a half hours. The folks from Ramgarh Heritage received me at Chandigarh Railway Station.

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A portrait of one of the ancestors of Chandail family

Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal

A 25-minute drive took us to the resort. Customary check-in formalities followed. The reception was plain-Jane. But as soon as I stepped out of the reception block, an imposing off-white façade with terracotta-red borders and characteristic Rajasthani domes stared me in my face. There was a well-manicured lawn to my left and a huge Bunyan tree to my right!

I was guided past the Bunyan tree to the Dining Area called Diwankhana that also offers an al fresco dining option. Being a smoker, I decided to avail of it. There, two elegant ladies from the PR agency joined me. Over drinks and dinner, they shared some information about the property and the family who had created it with their labour of love.

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Authentic Rajasthani flavour – the Ravanhatta player from Rajasthan

While the information sounded fascinating, I chose to reserve my judgement till I had personally seen the property, more particularly, the room. A couple of things I did not reserve my judgement on though was the food and the entertainment. The fare was delicious and truly Rajasthani, and the folksinger hailed from a famous Rajasthani folk singer family. His mastery over Ravanhatta, a traditional Rajasthani instrument, was remarkable!

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My room

Ethnic Modernity or Modern Ethnicity

After the meal, a resort staffer escorted me to my room. As soon as I entered the room, its ambience and aesthetics struck me as both – elegantly ethnic and comfortably modern. The room was spacious, its furnishings, tasteful, and its layout, utilitarian! A quick peep into the bathroom, and my mind was completely at rest!

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A comfortable lounge for use of guests!

The hosts had planned a village visit for me the next morning. But that was changed to a visit to Nada Sahib, a well-revered Sikh shrine close to the resort, as previous day’s unseasonal rain meant that the village roads would be mucky and not fit for a comfortable walk. I was told this village/Sikh shrine visit is an option they offer to all guests who stay with them.

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7 generations of Chandails

Upon our return, a pleasant and humble young man, Jaideep, greeted us. I was told that the Ramgarh Heritage is his home that he’s opened up for discerning travellers and he is the son of Sardar Sahib Jagdeep Singh, the head of a branch of the Chandail family that has a 900-year history as erstwhile rulers of Bilaspur.

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The lobby in Ramgarh Heritage, where the guests may relax

A touch of history

Over the next three hours, Jaideep took us around his ‘home’ that now welcomes travellers. Compared to any large hotel, this ‘home’ may not be too large, but the history that lies sprinkled around here sure is. From ancient, to medieval to ‘Raj’ days to modern, it actually is a mirror that reflects the larger picture of the history of our entire country.

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Old manuscripts

From the 325-year-old Bunyan tree to a century-old kitchen utensils, from the manuscripts penned over 150 years back to the Viceregal invite to the Coronation Hall when it was resolved that the capital of India would formally move from Calcutta (known as Kolkata today) to Delhi, every artifact that adorns this restored home tells a story steeped in history of not just the Chandail family, but our entire country. When I asked about the Rajasthan connection of the family, Jaideep told me that this connection is through his maternal grandmother.

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Deer on the ceiling – one of the many masterpieces created by the skilled Samod artists

A Labour of Love

This conducted visit through the history of this home made me marvel at the time, effort, resources, and love that had gone into its restoration. To create the authentic Rajasthani feel, skilled Samod painters had worked for months to adorn the walls and ceilings of the various rooms and common areas and had created magic with their art. Since words may not do justice to the kind of art conjured up here, have a look at the images I shot of this wizardry.

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While a panel displays the seven generations of the family, the stained glass work in Lotus and Peacock suites demonstrate the aesthetic bent of these multiple generations. Shikargaah, the bar, is adorned with spent 12 Bore shells from the hunting era, its walls  tastefully decorated with hunting trophies and the bar stools are made with empty gun shells and saddles. The entire place reflects the lifestyle of royalty over the last few centuries. Additionally, a Victorian building built in 1937 (Jagdish Kuti), also boasts a few heritage rooms that offer a further royal feel to the guests.

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Jagdish Kuti
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Shikargaah, the bar

In some earlier times, Chandail family used to own elephants. These elephants used to reside in Gajagraha, an area now converted into a banquets area that houses a cute splash pool. The lawns outside, called Baara, are used for banquets, weddings, and corporate dos. This improvisation makes Ramgarh Heritage a well-suited location for destination weddings as well as for conferences.

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The splash pool in Gajagraha
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Inside Peacock Suite

Grab a surprise

Our lunch and dinner further strengthened my earlier observation that the cuisine was authentic when ‘papad curry’, ‘gatte ki sabzi’ and ‘Lal Maans’ prepared with closely guarded family recipe was served. By the end of my stay in Ramgarh Heritage, I was convinced that it truly is a spot of Rajasthan en route hills of Himachal. Next time, as and when the hills of Himachal call you, do break your journey here and get surprised for yourself and discover this mini-Rajasthan in Haryana, just next to Chandigarh!

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
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