The Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur stands as the quintessential example of Chola temple architecture. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple features the tallest temple tower in the world. It is also regarded as one of the great living chola temples along with the temples of Gangaikondacholisvaram and the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram.
They say you should visit the Brihadeeswarar temple twice if you want to get good pictures – once in the morning and in the evening! And I went in the evening. And Thanjavur is blessed with sunny evenings most days of the year.
Up close with a dash of blue sky, the Gopuram is spectacular with its detailed sculpting…
Sometimes from some angles the gopurams look like they are juxtaposed…
The main gopuram stands tall and according to legends, its shadow never falls on the ground…
It is of course the ‘bird-flying-in-the-frame’ shot but these pigeons that reside in these gopurams are a staple sight in the temple premises…
Some of these Nandis on the wall have been chipped away but the remaining little Nandis promise to keep a watch…
Have you been to Thanjavur? Leave a comment and let me know.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Before your imagination runs wild, I went to the forests around Agumbe in the Someswara Wild Life Sanctuary range as part of a volunteering exercise assisting the Forest Department of Karnataka in a monkey census. This was to assess the population status of the endangered lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus) in the rain forests of Kudremukh in Western Ghats. The lion-tailed macaque is classified as endangered because of its highly selective feeding habits, limited range of occupancy (ca. 2500 km2, majorly in three southern Indian states namely Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala), delayed sexual maturity, long interbirth intervals, low population turnover, and a small remaining wild population. The population census is also crucial because comprehensive information on surviving numbers in the fragmented rain forests is not readily available.
The census had faced a roadblock earlier owing to the severe resource crunch, an acute shortage of field staff, in the forest department of Karnataka. The department, however, has found a novel way to tackle its resource crunch. The Forest Department of Karnataka and the Ecotourism Board are enlisting civilians into its fold as volunteers, tapping into the pool of willing enthusiasts to forge long-term partnerships and provide a rare glimpse into the department’s wildlife conservation efforts. Owing to the successful programs conducted earlier to enlist volunteers, the department can afford the lion-tailed macaque survey without any glitch to its existing resources.
I attended the Volunteer Training Program (VTP) conducted in May and was certified as a eco-volunteer. When announcement for this census came up, I jumped at it though I was back from a rather long trip only recently. After all, who wants to pass up on an opportunity to trek in the forests everyday (otherwise inaccessible for civilians), looking for an endangered monkey?
So armed with a GPS (the readings of which I botched up a first few days) and a local forest guard named Santosh, I walked in the forests braving leeches, mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies looking for the elusive monkey. I didn’t find one until the last day of the survey. But instead, I breathed fresh air, saw giant malabar squirrels skittering in the high reaches of tall trees and numerous birds. The exercise only lasted for a few hours in the early morning so I had the rest of the day for myself.
Creatures like this are found in and around the forests of Agumbe.
We made complete use of the better part of the day by exploring the nearby towns and villages. The fish curry meals at Hebri, the neeru dosa at the Ganesh Hotel at Agumbe, the charming Udupi, malpe’s sunset and the numerous walks we took inside the campsite (Seetanadi Nature Camp) made the entire trip worthwhile. Here are a few images.
You could be part of the Volunteer Training Program (VTP) run by the Forest Department and Ecotourism Board of Karnataka as well. Leave a comment and I will keep you posted on when it happens.
The second Kochi – Muziris Biennale, the contemporary art festival, has been kick started recently in Kochi, Kerala, India. The festival runs from December 12, 2014 to March 29, 2015. Spread across 8 venues in Fort Kochi, this year’s festival will feature 94 artists from 30 different countries. Themed Whorled Explorations, the biennale will “bring together sensory and conceptual propositions that map our world referencing history, geography, cosmology, time, space, dreams and myths.” according to its website.
I attended the first biennale held in 2012 at the same venues and came back with some interesting images for a post. But I did not have a blog back then and posting these in Facebook seemed like a disservice to these complex renditions. Here are a few of these images since I think blogs elicit a bit more discerning audience.
‘Ways of Seeing’ by Vivek Vilasini
Vivek Vilasini’s works (and their titles, more so) seem pretty self-explanatory without a synopsis. Here, the artist explores the duality of perception through these images.
‘The Last Supper – Gaza’ by Vivek Vilasini
Yet another work that depicts the famous Last Supper painting but in an extremely unlikely setting.
‘Veni, vidi, vici – I came, I saw, I conquered’ by L.N. Tallur
Synopsis: Conquest is a basic human characteristic. At a macro level, history of mankind is full of conquering of the land, its being and its possessors. At a micro level, it is an attempt of conquer death, hunger and ageing. Hatha Yoga is the Yoga (union) of Ham (vital life force) and Tham (mental force). Hatha Yoga teaches how to conquer hunger, thirst, and sleep; how to overcome the effects of heat and cold; how to gain perfect health and cure disease without using drugs; how to arrest the untimely decay of the body resulting from the waste of vital energy; how to preserve youth even at an age of one hundred…
‘Untitled’ by Sun Xun
The Malayalam phrase reads ‘sathyathinu tolvi matram’ – loosely translated as ‘truth only loses.’
‘Untitled’ by Subodh Gupta
Synopsis: The boat suggests notions of migration and survival, experienced most acutely by the deprived masses of the society, which feature prominently in several past works of the artist. When the familiar world and home ceases to be what we know it to be, then the natural instinct of man compels him to convert that piece of boat into his home.
‘Untitled’ by M.I.A
Yes, she is a rockstar artist. True to her personality, this installation consisted of ‘ten brightly colored, 8 foot long print collages, framed with custom-built mirror mosaics. Built up of layers of saturated, digital colors and reflective, light-catching surfaces, the works feature 3D images of parrots, jungle foliage and gemstones, layered with photographs of crowds, children and cars.’ Totally multi-colored, totally M.I.A.
‘Tug of War’ by Jalaja
Duality in human identity. In Jalaja’s words: “Singly, person gains vitality; his emotions and aspirations become central to us all. When we look at him in a wider context, he is just part of a queue, a mob.”
‘The Sovereign Forest by Amar Kanwar’
Synopsis: The Sovereign Forest attempts to reopen discussion and initiate a creative response to our understanding of crime, politics, human rights and ecology. The installation seeks help from film, books and multiple media of various dimensions.
‘The Ship of Tarshish’ by Prasad Raghavan
Synopsis: The Ship of Tarshish, while a Biblical reference, illustrates the essential deceptiveness and darkness of man’s heart. It is evil and self-seeking and in its wake are conflict and slavery. They (the British) came bearing their spiritual greatness and left bearing the wealth of the conquered.
‘Fado music in reverse’ by Robert Montgomery
“The strange new music of the crying songs of the people we left behind mixing as your boat touches stone here as my new bones touch your bones.” This poem, composed by Robert himself, is about “exile in light on the sea-facing facade of Aspinwall House.”
‘Erase’ by Srinivas Prasad
Synopsis: At the end of the viewing period the cocoon is set ablaze at night in a ritual that destroys the structure along with the thoughts, memories and confessions uttered within. All remnants of the construction are destroyed leaving nothing behind except sand.
‘Cloud for Kochi’ by Alfredo Jaar
Synopsis: The texts are written in reverse making them unreadable but poetic signs. By looking at their reflection in the water, they become readable. A fragment from one of the most beautiful poems ever written in any language: Kalidasa’s Cloud Messenger, choosing the segments related to water and clouds, and ideally locate these texts on the wall in the shape of a cloud. On one side, the text is in Sanskrit. On the other side in English.
‘Celebration in the Laboratory’ by Atul Dodiya
Synopsis: The photo installation Celebration in the Laboratory celebrates some of the contributors who have made Indian modern and contemporary art significant.
’72 Privileges’ by Joseph Semah
Synopsis: The story of the copper plates tells us about the 72 privileges that were granted to the Jewish and Christian communities by the last king of the Chera dynasty, Cheraman Perumal.
Miscellaneous Wall Arts
Are you going to the Biennale being held this year in Kochi? Leave a comment.
Ooty is ridden, in fact overtly so, with tourists and is completely stripped off its colonial charms during the season. Though things to do in Ooty are plenty, the crowd can be tad overwhelming if you are visiting the little hill station in the Nilgiris during say, March – May. Precisely for these reasons, Ooty has never held its charm for me. However, unpredictable showers and a broody sky notwithstanding, off season is the best time to visit – as I discovered on a recent trip. The roads are devoid of tourists and drives around the hills of the blue mountains are rewarding with sights of tiny village hamlets and dams securing water from the scant monsoon rains.
If you are still not convinced, here are 5 things to do in Ooty to keep you occupied during your visit.
1) Drive for the sights
The tiny hill town itself has only a handful of interesting sights but if you hire a taxi and take a ride around its windy roads, the real Ooty and its hillside villages will greet you with toothy smiles and hospitality. Sights like these will win you over.
2) Visit a mushroom factory
Button mushroom cultivation seems to be catching up big time in Ooty. So much so that a village in one of the hill’s valleys is dubbed ‘mushroom village’. Usually a trip is not difficult to arrange to visit the mushroom factory. Just ask your driver to talk to the security at the factory’s gate and he will take care of the rest.
3) Visit an organic farm
Extremely rich, fertile soil, conducive climate and good rains make the hills a good bet for vegetable cultivation. Organic farming is slowly being adopted in Nilgiris with organizations like The Earth Trust working with the farmers to convert their chemical farming methods into organic.
4) Visit the bee museum
There are about 20,000 types of bees in the world but only few of them produce honey, explains a documentary played at the bee museum. The bee museum is a place where you can learn about the bee extraction methods of tribals in the hills. There is also a display of honey related products in the museum. When you visit the bee museum, do not forget to take a look at the charming little organic shop located on the ground floor that sells produce. The bee museum is prominently located in the Hill Bunk area.
5) Visit the Willys
There is no other way to say it – options to eat out in Ooty are pretty dismal. There are indeed a couple of high-end restaurants but if you are looking for a quick grab, a sandwich or a coffee you will be left to walk for hours without any luck. But we found Willys and fell for it hook, line and sinker. Located in a nondescript building on the Walsham Road, this little eatery serves up sandwiches, coffee and other baked items at reasonable price. Try the banana cake for a measly twenty bucks (INR) with a cup of coffee.
Have you been to any of these places in Ooty? How was your experience? Have I missed anything on things to do in Ooty? Why not let me know by leaving a comment?
As the battered jeep heaved on the uneven, boulder-strewn, mud road towards the Pandaramukki peak inside the Kudremukh National park, a mild rain started to fall. Evenings have been drippy in the past week with pre-monsoon showers already in order. Just as the monsoon sets in the shores of Kerala, Kudremukh also receives considerable rainfall in the Western Ghats. The rain increased into a strong banter, lashing on the metal sheets of the jeep and when we reached the camp site it had literally started raining on our parade.
We were to pitch tents at the location identified as the temporary Anti Poaching Camp up by the forest officials, as part of the certified volunteer program conducted by the Karnataka Ecotourism Development Board. Overnight stay at the APC, inside the reserve park area, is mandated to provide the volunteers with real-time, hands-on experience and ground level realities of the park conservation. Kudremukh National Park is located in the central Western Ghats covering 600.57 km2. The park is also a UNESCO world heritage site and home to numerous endemic species of animals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.
The third batch of the Volunteer Training Program, conducted in the third week of May, saw participation from 29 individuals from all walks of life. As similar as their interests are, their professions are as varied – fitness instructor, software engineer in their yesteryears turned organic farming consultant, software engineers in their present lives, students. The weeklong program aimed to impart knowledge on the basics of wildlife and conservation with speeches and presentations by naturalists, herpetologists, amphibian specialists and forest officials. The trained volunteers would be used for activities like pilgrim management, animal census and other areas where the forest department is crunched for staff.
The clouds ushered in more rains as we arrived at the campsite and we quickly set about pitching tents before the ground got too wet. As though on cue, as soon as the tent pitching was over, the rain stopped. With it, a red-wattled lapwing that had her nest somewhere close to the water body by which we had our tents, realized there is trouble in sight and started her ‘did you do it’ alarm call. She didn’t have to worry too much because lapwing nests are extremely difficult to spot – their dirt-colored eggs are camouflaged with their nesting ground.
With the rain out of sight and concern, the enterprising among us helped setting up the makeshift kitchen by collecting rocks, starting a fire and chopping vegetables for dinner. The others wandered off to the nearby peaks their arms extended with phones in search of cellphone network, like diffusers looking for landmines. After volunteering with Girish, the solar instrument entrepreneur from Hassan on preparing dinner, I took a short walk and was rewarded with sightings of Sambar and Gaur in packs, in distant hillocks heading home after a rewarding day of grassland grazing.
The Anti Poaching Camps are typically located deep inside the jungles where animals and the forest wealth (timber and other valuable plants) are vulnerable to the greater predator – the human being and other natural disasters like forest fire (also, sometimes started by careless humans). The forest guards usually set out on foot early everyday aided by a GPS device and record their observations and enter the same in the evening into the HULI software, developed by the forest department. This enables the department to monitor wildlife and habitat health.
Having decided on an early morning trek through the thickets of sholas and grasslands, we zipped ourselves up, retiring inside the tents quite early wishing each other an early night. The morning sun rose pink and purple above the peaks of Kudremukh as we commenced our trek the following day. The lapwing wasn’t letting up on her warning calls. We ambled along as the forest guards lead our way. The grass was awash with last night’s rain and snails, in yellow and white stripes, lugged themselves ahead languidly.
The thickets of shola forests are just a few yards away and everyone, except me and the forest guards of course, is armed with leech-proof socks that prevent these blood thirsty monsters from raiding your legs. Without much forethought, in an act brimming with pointless bravado, I refused to accept the leech proof socks when they were offered back at the base camp. I would soon pay for that ignorance. Thanks to their perennial water supply, shola forests are home to numerous endemic evergreen trees. Which also means the mulch inside the sholas is squirming with millions of leeches trying to hop onto a host to feed on blood.
Strewn with mossy boulders and haphazard tree growth, sholas are the antithesis of trekking routes. Walk precariously but if you are in a danger of slipping, holding onto your dear life and to the nearby tree covered with lichens, will be of little help. Lichens are organisms found in rain forests on trees with the perennial moisture supporting their growth. There began my dance with the leeches. Amid fear of unsettling nesting cobras and driving out grazing Sambars, I started stamping my feet to shake the leeches away but in vain. By midway, I realized I was hopelessly hosting at least 50 leeches, sucking blood from a single entry point they have made in my leg. A few enterprising ones have moved on to other unmentionable spots as well. Ineffectively, with the help of a twig, I got rid of the cluster of them and by the end of it I realized I had slowed down the trek party’s efforts as well.
The agile forest guards walked swiftly pointing to trees and plants to us and describing their medicinal values. A fig tree had borne the brunt of bear claw marks and another stood victim to a gaur’s horn marks that had stripped the tree of its bark considerably. Though poaching is not that rampant in Kudremukh the threats forest department faces include forest fires, some amount of local timber felling and eradication of invasive plants (predominant of them being the pteridium, a fern).
Later, as we tracked our way back to the base camp and as the debriefing session was in progress, DFO Dr. Ramesh mentioned that staying inside the Kudremukh National Park was a rare experience. Kudremukh is one of the newest National Parks in the country and hence the virgin forests and grasslands are left untouched with little access to tourism infrastructure. Much of it is off public access and it is one of the few places where the shola forests and grasslands with their birds and animals are preserved in their natural glory – with bare minimum human intervention. On the other hand, the leeches would love to have some human company, I suppose.
An edited version of this appeared in Deccan Herald and can be accessed here.