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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!’
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’.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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 Arjunawith his bow and arrow, from Rama with the monkey army to Vishnu killing a demon while riding garuda!
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.
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!
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.
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Discover how it is 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.
My story, A Tucked-Away Town – Gammelstad, has appeared in October 2016 issue of JetWings International – the in-flight magazine for international sectors of Jet Airways.
Exploring Sweden’s best-preserved church town, Gammelstad
As we approached Gammelstad, the imposing Nederluleå Church filled the horizon. Our guide, a summer volunteer, pointed at the imposing structure and said, “This church was built by the Swedish to stake a claim on the territory rather than with the intention to propagate religion.”
We had driven from Luleå, a city on the coast of northern Sweden, to Gammelstad to see its deep-red cottages, over 400 in number. The church town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
In 1323, a peace treaty was signed between Sweden and Novgorod Republic, a medieval Slavic state that extended from Baltic Sea to regions of modern Russia. In those days, the boundaries of the two countries were not clearly defined, thus resulting in attempts of colonisation. The first move to assert its lien on the territory was made by Sweden in 1492 when the stone church was inaugurated.
Across the road from the church is the Visitor Centre, a good place to start a tour of the town. The Centre regales the town’s history with an exhibition, slideshows, and brochures. Our guide took us through the architectural model of the town, complementing it with stories from the medieval times – the narration was nothing short of a period drama!
The church town tradition
Nederluleå Church was the pivot of community life for villages within a radius of 15 kilometres. Though privately owned, the cottages were not meant for permanent residence – the pilgrims resided in these wooden cottages during religious festivals, when owing to the distance, travelling to and fro from their village was difficult.
These cottages had no water supply, no heating facility, and no provision for cooking. Even today, these church cottages are used in the traditional way – there is no running water, no open flames are allowed, and the cottages can be used for not more than one night. This spartan lifestyle continues to define the church town, even today.
Things changed in 1621 when the town got its city rights. Luleå was initially founded here and it transformed from being a temporary church town to a town of residents. That worked well for a few years but, in 1649, Luleå was moved to its current location, 10 km away from Gammelstad, to meet the growing demands of an expanding maritime trade. This development led to Gammelstad re-assuming its church town role. A beached ship that we discovered during our walk through the town is a telltale of the times when Gammelstad was a harbour.
Around the town
The construction of the Nederluleå Church started in the 15th century and continued into the early 16th century. The church has a huge organ that was inaugurated in 1971.
During our visit, we engaged in baking bread using a flat stone oven and making butter. The pilgrims, during their stay, made their own bread here. Making butter entailed churning buttermilk in a tall wooden barrel – a rhythmic process emitting sounds akin to a traditional percussion instrument.
At one of the eateries, you are served the bread you have baked with evening tea – a tradition practiced in Gammelstad for the last 400 years. Interestingly, it is said that while all pilgrims baked bread, making butter was restricted to the well-heeled as butter was used as currency in those days.
We had another culinary surprise in store for us. In the heart of the town, we savoured a seven-course exotic meal at Kaptensgården. A fine dining restaurant, Kaptensgården serves preparations made from local meats and ingredients. The menu ranged from ptarmigan to quail, white fish to salmon, reindeer to chicken and much more.
After lunch, we visited the Hägnan Open Air Museum – a town cottage converted into a museum. A walk through Hägnan, along with its large vintage key, takes you closer to the lifestyle of the town. Amidst the small red cottages, stands a fairly sizeable farmhouse, which is Gammelstad’s mayor’s house.
Gammelstad, with its humble cottages, is a remarkable example of the traditional church town of northern Scandinavia. Instantly allowing you to travel back in time, this is indeed a travel experience not to be missed!
In September 2016 issue of JetWings International, my image from Kinderdijk, The Netherlands appeared in their regular BW section – Radar.
Windmills at Kinderdijk, The Netherlands
When you live seven metres below sea level, you need to keep the water out. The residents of Kinderdijk, a village about 12 km south-east of Rotterdam, deployed an ingenious technique for this purpose – an elaborate arrangement of windmills. Built around 1740, 19 of these windmills continue to survive and fulfill its original purpose of keeping the land dry. They also provide a three-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 innovation has earned the windmills of Kinderdijk a UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
BLink, the weekend magazine of The Hindu’s BusinessLine carried this article of mine on Saturday, august 27, 2016
The last days of Vincent
Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum looks back at the most disturbed yet defining years of the Dutch painter’s life
Year 1881. It was at the age of 27 that Vincent Van Gogh considered painting as a full-time occupation. And it wasn’t until 1888 that the Dutch post-Impressionist artist had formed the style that the world remembers him by. In just two years after that — on July 27, 1890 — Vincent shot himself in the chest. The bullet wound ended his life in 48 hours.
‘On the Verge of Insanity’, an ongoing exhibition at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, delves into the last 18 months of the life of the tortured artist, who cut off his ear during an altercation with his friend, Paul Gauguin, the French painter. Vincent’s last days were spent in poverty while battling mental illness. During the few years he devoted completely to painting, he is said to have created over 2,000 pieces — over 850 oil paintings and the rest, sketches. That comes to about three works in just five days.
Despite the frenzied pace, Vincent managed to sell just one painting during his lifetime. The buyer was Anna Boch, a Belgian painter, who paid 400 francs (around $2,000 now) to the impoverished Dutchman, who lived on his brother Theo’s kindness. A heavy drinker who didn’t eat enough, Vincent’s troubled behaviour sent him to a mental institution several times. And his violent fight with Gauguin led people to ask why a man as gifted as him would do any of this.
Van Gogh Museum’s latest exhibition looks into some of these controversial episodes: Whether or not Vincent cut off only a part of his left ear; whether he was forced into taking admission at the mental asylum; the reasons behind his fight with Gauguin, and his relationship with Theo in the troubled years.
The display of information on Vincent’s mental condition — drawn from diagnoses by doctors as well as his correspondence — is punctuated with paintings that mirror the state he was in.
Some of his letters are also available as audio clips in Dutch and English. Among the exhibits is a letter from the residents of Arles, the French town where Vincent cut off his ear, who begged the local mayor to have the painter institutionalised.
While the exhibition is a detailed reconstruction of events that led to Vincent’s suicide, it also includes posthumous diagnoses over the last century into the probable causes of his illness. Quite predictably, the answers are inconclusive.