Bagan mystique – the ruins of Bagan, Central Myanmar – Part II

This is the second and last instalment of pictures of Bagan ruins. Get there before Bagan catapults into the tourist circuit (it already has and tourist footfall is only going to grow). I did it by horse cart but if you have a slightly bulky wallet, get on a hot air balloon and watch the ruins from above. Balloons over Bagan offers rides, click here to visit their website. Once done, hire a horse cart with the help of your hotel front desk and take a ride along the ruins to give yourself a different view. It is quite an experience.

Do buy the February’2015 edition of Outlook Traveller (India) to read my story Bagan by Horsecart.

Click here to read the earlier post about Bagan (or simply scroll down).

Monks seeking alms

Monks seeking alms

Sundown in bagan

Sundown in bagan

Skies painted blue and orange at sun down

Skies painted blue and orange at sun down

Sulamani

Sulamani

Souvenirs for sale

Souvenirs for sale

Ruby with her cart

Ruby with her cart

Sundown in Bagan

Sundown in Bagan

Sundown in Bagan

Sundown in Bagan

Sunset cruising in Irrawadycc1

Sunset cruising in Irrawady

Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies

Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies

Thatbyinnu

Thatbyinnu

The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan

The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan

The ananda phaya

The ananda phaya

The abayadhana temple

The abayadhana temple

PS: Some of these pictures are generously provided to me by my travel companion and friend Kiran Kannappan who was with me during the first leg of my Myanmar travels.

Like what you see? Leave a comment.

Glimpses from the Ghats – Varanasi, India

Pico Iyer, while writing about Nepal in his book Video nights in Kathmandu,  calls India ‘the biggest spiritual department store in the East.’  Later, while writing on Varanasi itself, he, somewhat soberly mentions that it is the “most sacred citadel of Hinduism and a cultural hot spot.” Every manifestation of human existence can be witnessed in Varanasi by the Ganges of questionable purity (and holiness, perhaps) – newborns  are brought to the ghats to be named / blessed, marriages are consummated and the dead are cremated in the witness of Ganges. The river not only bears witness to the spiritual paraphernalia but it somberly flows, enduring the filth thrown in it.

Claimed to be the oldest living city in the world, Varanasi’s urban infrastructure (non-existent, might I add) is placed under tremendous pressure by millions of tourists descending upon the city seeking spiritual freedom and moksha. Its narrow roads are grappling with insane traffic with cycle rickshaws, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians jostling for space with each other, but harmoniously inching on towards their destination.

That apart, the city exudes positive vibes and the ghats section plays host to numerous rituals from early morning throughout the day until the Ganga Arti happens, concluding the show. I walked by the ghats several times during my stay and experienced the Varanasi induced trance (without the hash, of course!), took a boat ride (good luck with not getting fleeced) and took in the river side scene.

Some pictures.

Ganges, Varanasi

A group of tourists enjoying a boat ride on Ganges

Ganges, Varanasi

Boats moored by the banks of Ganges

Ganges, Varanasi

Sadhus are an inevitable part of the Ghats in Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

A baba with his skeleton-laden necklace, Ganges, Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

Smeared with Ash, he sits by the banks. Dare take his picture and you will be demanded for money

Ganges, Varanasi

Varanasi is also one of the places in India where westerners sometimes outnumber local tourists.

Ganges, Varanasi

A Shivling at Ganges, Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

A boat ride is quintessential to absorb the ghat scenes from a distance.

Ganges, Varanasi

Row boats by the banks of Ganges, Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

Sun sets over Ganges, Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

Readying for the Ganga Arti at Dasashvamedh Ghats, Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

Ganga Aarti at Ganges, Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

Reverence for the river – Ganges, Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

Lamps being lit up for the Aarti at Ganges, Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

Parasols lit up for the Aarti at Ganges, Varanasi

Ganges, Varanasi

Ganga Arti, Dasashvameth Ghat, Varanasi

Have you been to Varanasi? What was your experience? Leave a comment and let me know.

Bagan mystique – the ruins of Bagan, Central Myanmar – Part I

“There is a country far nobler than any, a land that brings joy to the heart; and it is called Bagan.” This was inscribed on stone in the 14th century by order of a queen of the Pyina dynasty. Says the beautiful picture book titled ‘Bagan Mystique’ by Ma Thanegi that tries to dissect the history behind the mystical ruins that lay scattered in the central plains of Myanmar for centuries.

Bagan is an ancient city and its existence was noted by Chinese travelers as early as 1225 CE. Decades of military rule had isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world and these structures remained somewhat a mystery while the neighboring Angkor Wat hogged all the limelight. That is until Myanmar opened for tourism in 2011 after the military dictatorship partially came to an end. As soon as the floodgates of tourism are open, Bagan started receiving millions of tourists each year to gape at these architectural marvels that have stood their ground through centuries.

A devastating earthquake of 1975 destroyed many of these structures. However, a mighty 2230 of these pagodas, temples, monasteries and cave pagodas remain according to a 1993 census conducted by the Department of Archaeology. These structures are scattered across 16 square miles and evoke an imagery of surreal mysticism. Details are patchy but inscriptions found in various temple complexes suggest that construction of the oldest structured happened in the late 11th century.

The mystical Bagan is slowly gaining prominence as tourists are trickling in. Here are some of the pictures from the trip. The pictures are just so many they couldn’t be contained in one post. I will post the next instalment very soon.

A monk in contemplation

A monk in contemplation

 

A sand painter

A sand painter

A temple complex

A temple complex

 

An ornate signboard

An ornate signboard

 

Ananda Phaya

Ananda Phaya

Fresco at Apayathana

Fresco at Apayathana

Dhammayan Gyi

Dhammayan Gyi

Cycling is a preferred form of transportation

Cycling is a preferred form of transportation to visit the ruins

An apsara at the Apayadhana temple

An apsara at the Apayadhana temple

Htilminlo at sundwon

Htilminlo at sundwon

Horsecarts in front of ruins

Horsecarts in front of ruins

Htilminlo temple from a distance

Htilminlo temple from a distance

Hundreds of years have had the telling effect on the structures

Hundreds of years have had the telling effect on the structures

Little monks in contemplation

Little monks in contemplation

 

Also read my story in the February edition of Outlook Traveller that is on stands now.

Like what you see? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

 

The Fort by the Sea – a trip to Tranquebar (Tharangambadi)

In her absorbing lectures, the renowned art historian Chithra Madhavan often laments about the lackadaisical restoration work carried out by ASI in some of the temples in Tamil Nadu. Ancient murals on temple ceilings plastered over or redone tactlessly, broken structures cemented in a manner of filling cracks as if in a regular construction scenario – many temples and monuments have suffered such fate. Thankfully no such misfortune has befallen in the upkeep of the Danish fort of Tharangabadi. Though the salty breeze that taunts the structure has accounted for erosion, the fort retains its charm despite the concrete wall hugging it, smothered in fading pink paint.

Built in the year 1620 by the Danish admiral Ove Gjedde who headed the expedition on behalf of the Danish East India Company to establish trade links with India, the fort was called Dansborg (stone house) before it was anglicized when it changed hands to the British. Thanjavur’s King Ragunatha Nayaka leased out Tharangambadi to the Danes following a trade pact. Tharangabadi was subsequently sold to the English East India Company in 1845 for an amount of Rs.12.50 lakh, the deed of which can be seen on display at the museum.

Inside the fort

Inside the fort

Another component of Tharangabadi’s ancient history is the sea-facing Masilamani Nathar temple, which was supposed to have been built by the King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian in 1306. Despite the Danish occupation and the ensuing conversion of swathes of population in the coastal village, the temple still stands on the shores braving the winds, gesturing religious harmony.

Masilamani Nathar temple at a distance

Masilamani Nathar temple at a distance

I arrived in Tharangabadi as early as daybreak on a weekday, ignorant of the rhythms of life in a coastal village not used to many tourists. The only tourist footfall is during holidays and weekends when hordes of people throng the fort that also houses the museum. School going children gape at me and some daring ones asked their pictures to be taken, tea shops wake up from their slumber, their copper tea pots sending up swathes of smoke and students in the many teacher training institutes that dot the King Street uniformly dressed in many hues of blue and pink saunter on.

The Zion Church

The Zion Church

As in any other colonial invasion, Tharangambadi also witnessed an influx of Christian missionaries from far and beyond in an effort to proliferate the reaches of Christianity. Shortly afterwards, churches were built to accommodate the growing population of devotees. The Zion Church, The New Jerusalem Church and the Lutheran Church jostle each other for space in this coastal village. Of these, The Zion Church is considered to be India’s oldest Protestant church. The missionaries also brought the first printing press, subsequently printing the bible in Tamil for distribution among the local populace.

Steeped in cultural history and architecture, Tharangambadi is also home to as many as 33 heritage buildings of which at least two of them – The Bungalow on the Beach and The Gate House provide accommodations. The Pondicherry chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), a non-profit working in the areas of heritage conservation and awareness is working in Tharangambadi to restore many structures in the village. Some of the structures restored include Bungalow on the beach – which was later converted into a heritage hotel run by Neemrana Hotels – and a few houses on the Goldsmith street.

the sea facing entrance of the fort

the sea facing entrance of the fort

Meanwhile, I trained my camera at the Landporten, the Town Gate, built to mark the entrance of Tharangambadi in the year 1660. The gate was built afresh in 1792 by the governor of the region Peter Anker at that time and bears the year on its forehead. Now though, part of it has been encroached upon by settlements, huts stand alongside the gate rubbing shoulders with it, nullifying its effect as an entrance to the village that stands testimony to a piece of history owing to its colonial past.

Landporten - the town gate

Landporten – the town gate

The fort and the museum associated with it didn’t open until after 10 a.m. and the beach is a good walk from the Town Gate – the street of which houses institutions starting from the Zion Church ending with the Bungalow by the beach property that almost touches the lip of the beach. Fisher folk prepare to set out for the day, sorting their nets out, and school bells herald the beginning of yet another day. The Masilamani Nathar temple stands facing the beach and is now awash in freshly painted glory – in preparation of an upcoming temple festival perhaps.

The fort - another view

The fort – another view

The fort has a rampart wall with bastions and also houses barracks, kitchen, church and lodging for the governor and other senior officials. There is also a lower storey used as arsenal storage. Though there were signboards announcing an ‘information center’ and ‘crafts on sale’, they are empty and fallen to disuse – understandably so owing to the insufficient visitors the fort attracts. The accompanying museum displays many artifacts unearthed in the area including lamps, decorated terracotta objects, sculptures, figurines, lamps and cannon balls.

The Tharangambadi fort

The Tharangambadi fort

On a clear day, the fort and its backdrop of azure blue sky provide excellent photo-ops. The breeze whips you up incessantly but it is a small price worth paying for a secluded spot of history tucked away in a remote corner of India’s colonial past.

Fact Sheet:

How to get there

Karaikal is the nearby town that is accessible by both road and train from major cities. From Chennai there are over night trains and from Bangalore there are buses to Pondy, from there Karaikal is 132kms away. From Karaikal, Tharangambadi is just a bus ride away (around 17kms).

Where to stay

Tharangambadi has premium range accommodations including the renovated ‘The Bungalow on the beach’ run by Neemrana hotels. If you want to do it in budget, Karaikal has numerous options providing clean and basic accommodation. I stayed at Atlantic Inn at Rs.600 per night, single bed. However, if you insist on staying on a budget, Hotel Tamil Nadu provides doubles at Rs.800 per night.

What to eat

The restaurant at the Neemrana run The Bungalow on the beach is legendary for its seafood. Tharangambadi has not too many eateries other than the tea-shacks, so plan your day accordingly if you do not want to stick around for food.

Nearby places of interest

Karaikal’s beach and port, Pondicherry’s beaches are worth visiting. If you are into temple architecture, visit Thirunallar, Thanjavur, Karaikal Ammayar Temple and the church of Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni.

Have you been to Tranquebar? Leave a comment and let me know.

This appeared in The Alternative and can be accessed here.

Walking tours of Mumbai!

Walking tours are a great way to know a city. Walking tours of Mumbai are no exception. You get to know the city from real close quarters. The city’s character, its people and its various layers are peeled in front of your eyes as you walk along its streets. I took a few walking tours of Mumbai when I was in the city recently (some paid, some with the help of knowledgeable friends in the city that never sleeps). Here they are for you.

The Heritage Walk

Mumbai’s colonial past lends itself to a variety of interesting walking tours. I took the one that covered South Mumbai, called the Heritage Mile Walk, conducted by Raconteur Tours. An able handed guide walked me through what is called the Heritage Mile starting from CST terminus along Dadabhai Naoroji Road towards Flora Fountain and touching upon Kala Ghoda, High Court, Mumbai University Building, ending the tour at Marine Drive. There was a lot of historical information, peppered with interesting anecdotes that made the tour likable. Also, I have noticed that when you go on a guided tour – where things are explained to you – you tend to remember details more accurately for a longer duration.

CST as morning traffic chimes in

CST as morning traffic chimes in

An old house in colaba causeway

An old house in Colaba causeway

Bombay when it was a bunch of islands

Bombay when it was a bunch of islands

The BMC building opposite CST

The BMC building opposite CST

A heritage structure opposite Cafe Mondegar

A heritage structure opposite Cafe Mondegar

The Flora Fountain

The Flora Fountain

The Highest Point Trail at Sanjay Gandhi National Park

Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National park is the green lung in the Northern suburbs of the city. I enrolled for the Highest Point trek conducted by BNHS. A slightly arduous trek that went on for about 4 hours, the trek takes one to the access point from where the Tulsi, Vihar and Powai Lakes can be seen. The trail also provides panoramic view of the city. Sadly though, the day I went on the trek, Mumbai’s smog decided to play spoilsport and I only saw a blanket of smog over the city’s skyline.

The highest point trek

The highest point trek

Bandra Art Walk

The hippest neighborhood of Mumbai, Bandra is where graffiti artists come to roost. Walk along the tiny lanes off Hill road and immerse yourself in the quirky street art that decorates the peeling, flaking walls rendering them a bit of character. Add to that, the recent St+Art festival has left the walls of Bandra’s villages with interesting graffiti and wall art. Walking along the lanes and stumbling upon children indulging in wall art is also a pleasure you can rarely find anywhere else.

Artwork in Progress - Bandra

Artwork in Progress – Bandra

An age old house in bandra

An age old house in bandra

Wall Art - Bandra

Wall Art – Bandra

Street art - bandra

Street art – bandra

Bollywood Wall Art - Bandra

Bollywood Wall Art – Bandra

Wall Art - Bandra

Wall Art – Bandra

Food Walk

The Vada pav city is also synonymous with street food of its own making – the healthy Maharasthrian bakris and the sweet-savory Gujarati farsans are proof. I got to taste Aloo Vadi, Bakris, Dhoklas, Teplas, Muthiyas and many such delicacies. But it is the dying breed of Iranian restaurants that got my fancy. This Keema Ghotala (minced mutton with eggs) is so rich it could trick your system into believing that it is time for your siesta. The berry pulao (that I did not get to taste this time) at Britannia restaurant also comes highly recommended by the city’s connoisseurs.

Kheema Pao Ghotala

Kheema Pao Ghotala

Where are you headed next this year? Leave a comment and let me know.

Strolling the Crab Island – Pulau Ketam, Malaysia

The aircraft shaped ferry arrives bobbing in the water. Chinese gentlemen unload the wares – fresh catch from the island in sacks, dragged by another set of men in black containers. When I stepped inside the boat, the air smells of paint, the windows are sealed over from rust and age. The boat would take me to Pulau Ketam island, Crab Island in other words, off the coast of Klang Port. The prospect of looking out of the window having been sealed, I turn to the only other in-boat entertainment – a supremely bad B grade Hollywood thriller with Chinese subtitles about bizarre beasts and skimpily dressed blonde women.

Soon enough, the boat bobs gently and picks up. I remember the ticket counter gentleman explaining that the boat is air-conditioned. I doze off and after a couple of hours, I reach a tiny Chinese fishing village. A narrow strip of wooden walkway lined with shops on both sides sell fresh produce of vegetables, fish and groceries. Restaurants slowly wake up to the morning, elderly Chinese men sit around on concrete benches and banter. “Sir, bicycle?” a friendly Chinese girl asks. I’ll come around later, I tell her and continue walking.

Row houses on stilts face each other, women squat and wash their utensils. Tiny shrines with Chinese idols – smiling baby faced Buddhas and monks with flowing beards – are painted red and incense sticks burn in front of them. I walk to the end of the road and find a Chinese temple without doors. The pagoda like structure has dark green paint and the wooden benches are cool and inviting. Chinese workers mill about in the workshop opposite. The humidity in the air hangs heavy.

I sit around, inhaling the incense, taking notes and listening to birds screech in the mangroves. I spend the better part of the day thus and wander around some more in search of lunch. Amid the din of fiercely competitive restaurants soliciting business from tourists, I settle in a eatery and ordered Seafood Mee Hoon with a bottle of Guinness.

On return though, in the boat, this time there was a bad Chinese movie. And it was about a woman who owns a cobra for her pet. If the movie was any realistic, I think, the girl would’ve had something the Chinese consider unpalatable for a pet. I dunno, say, a dog?

Some pictures from the trip.

the dock

the dock

Houses on stilts

Houses on stilts

inside the chinese fishing village

inside the chinese fishing village

a temple on stilts

a temple on stilts

a chinese temple

a chinese temple

the village square

the village square

a chinese idol

a chinese idol

sea food mee hoon

sea food mee hoon

Have you been to the Crab Island? Leave a comment.

The lost childhood of the beautiful children of Myanmar

Cherubic with round faces and streaks of thanaka across their cheeks, the children of Myanmar can be shy and curious like children across the world are. However, unlike children anywhere else Myanmar’s children start really early. To work. In a country whose natural wealth has been plundered by the military rule for about 50 years, its citizens have had it hard. The economy is in tatters and the crushing poverty among its populace forces parents to send their children to work to supplement the family income.

From waitressing at restaurants to hawking knick knacks across tourist attractions, children in Myanmar can be found in various places working hard to make money so their families don’t starve. They are subjected to hard labor though I did not find any instance of their managers / minders being rude to them. Notwithstanding the kindness of their masters, it is heartbreaking to note that these children are dropping out of school with no future in sight or a guaranteed income other than the measly wage they are paid as a result of their hard labor.

Media across the world has been paying attention to the child labor issue in Myanmar but with very limited success. Read this Huffington Post story on child labor in the booming construction industry of the country. According to this NPR report that quotes U.N., a third of the country’s children have jobs. Another report titled, ‘Child labor is declining worldwide, but it’s thriving in Myanmar’ in the Foreign Policy magazine is self-explanatory.

During my trip across Myanmar, I found numerous instances of child labor. I found children working in restaurants wiping tables / serving dishes, hawking souvenirs around temples, plucking peanuts in fields and tilling the land.  It’s a depressing state of affairs and there is probably very little one can do about the issue in a country that is still partially ruled by military. But these children are still pictures of innocence. They are beautiful, heart breakingly so. Cliches be damned.

The extremely little

These are the babies. Those chubby faces and perky mischievousness know very little that they will be put in school and pulled out of it very soon so as to assist in the family’s income. Nevertheless, for now, they are cute as buttons.

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The school goers

Many children seem to only finish primary schools. They are pulled out of their schools soon enough they can manage a day job, as it were. But they are cheerful when they go to and come back from schools as I witnessed.

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The shy and curious

Step into a village that is not frequented by tourists and you will be surrounded by these children. They haven’t seen a camera in their lives. Nor have they seen a soul that is not their villager visiting them. Each one of them is photogenic and they seem to know it as they confidently stare into the camera.

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The unfortunate teens

You can find them selling postcards in and around pagodas frequented by tourists. To them, postcards are still relevant because their world is full of them as stocks, waiting to be sold to make money. You can also find them tracing designs on lacquerware trays and other utensils. One entrepreneurial fellow even sold me a bunch of hand-drawn postcards he made with his crayons.

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The hard laborers

They till land to make patches for vegetable plantations or glean peanut plants after the year’s harvest. They are the least fortunate among the lot for their work involves hard, physical labor. And no child should be forced to do that.

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

The children of Myanmar

I am ending this year on a poignant note with this post. I have had a good year and I have very little to complain about (if at all, I have to).  I hope each one of you have had a wonderful year as well. I wish you all a great 2015 ahead. Stay safe. Stay well. Leave a comment wishing me a good year and telling me what your travel (and general) plans for 2015 are. I would love to hear from you.