Thanjavur aka, Tanjore Brihadeeswara Temple, on a sunny evening

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...
Up close…

Up close with a dash of blue sky, the Gopuram is spectacular with its detailed sculpting…

Framed against the blue background...
Framed against the blue background…

Sometimes from some angles the gopurams look like they are juxtaposed…

One against the other
One against the other

The main gopuram stands tall and according to legends, its shadow never falls on the ground…

Standing tall...
Standing tall…

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…

Pigeons flutter around the gopuram
Pigeons flutter around the gopuram
A UNESCO world heritage site
A UNESCO world heritage site

Some of these Nandis on the wall have been chipped away but the remaining little Nandis promise to keep a watch…

The Nandis on the wall...
The Nandis on the wall…

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

Advertisements

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.

5 things to do in Ooty

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.

A hillside hamlet
A hillside hamlet
Tea gardens and misty mountains
Tea gardens and misty mountains
The hills are thickly populated with pines
The hills are thickly populated with pines

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.

Mushrooms ready to be harvested
Mushrooms ready to be harvested
This gentleman explained the mushroom process and made the trip worthwhile
This gentleman explained the mushroom process and made the trip worthwhile

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.

Organic Broccoli waiting to be harvested
Organic Broccoli waiting to be harvested
The Earth Trust
The Earth Trust

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.

The indigenous equipment used for honey collection
The indigenous equipment used for honey collection
The bee museum
The bee museum
Honey and related products
Honey and related products

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.

Willys has a charming library
Willys has a charming library

 

The banana cake
The banana cake

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?

Dhanushkodi – The ghost town

Year 1964: A devastating cyclone hit the Dhanushkodi fishing village off the Pamban coast destroying the railway line, a passenger train, drowning out hundreds of passengers in the train. Owing to its structural instability and the threat of Tsunami recurring, the Indian government has abandoned efforts to rebuild the station. As a result, Dhanushkodi and the Pamban railway line are left as stark reminders of a terrible calamity.

Owing to its proximity with Sri Lanka, Dhanushkodi has witnessed its share of political turmoil. This is also where you can witness the confluence of Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Dhanushkodi has become a disaster tourism destination. Jeeps / Buses ferry people from Rameshwaram.  Few pictures.

Destroyed Settlements
Destroyed Settlements
The booking office
The booking office
A Tsunami destructed structure
A Tsunami destructed structure
The ghostly church
The ghostly church
Dhanushkodi beach
Dhanushkodi beach
Confluence of Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean
Confluence of Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean

The Hidden Hamlet – Manappad

The name Manapad stimulates merely a fleeting interest that subsequently turns into faint registration of the tiny fishing hamlet off Kanyakumari. I had asked more than a handful of strangers since I got into the bus in Kanyakumari (that ordeal of finding a bus to take me to Manapad makes for a different story altogether) and most drew blank – the bus conductor, the matter-of-fact local passengers and even the shopkeeper who sold me dosas during the journey’s breakfast break looked at me amusingly before helpfully rattling off names of other important churches in the vicinity because he has only ever heard of pilgrims visiting Manapad. So if I am visiting Manapad, I might as well visit the other churches – his perfectly rendered logic.

View from the Manappad church
View from the Manappad church

During my research of Manapad, before making it the last leg of my coastal Tamil Nadu trip, I came across numerous legends laced in historic facts on the tiny fishing village – that the catholic church there was built in the 1500s, that Francis Xavier – the Catholic missionary whose embalmed body is now in Goa’s Basilica of Bom Jesus – performed miracles in this village, that the cave in the beach near the church has a well, the water of which is considered to have healing powers attracting hordes of pilgrims from far-fetched places. In recent times, I also read about a Chennai based couple who made Manapad their base in their effort to convert it into a surfing destination.

Meanwhile, the piercing August sun notwithstanding, my bus spewed me out before disappearing down the undulating road. I had boarded the bus at about eight in the morning from Kanyakumari hoping to get to Manapad before it gets too sunny. Having that purpose defeated, I needed to figure out a place to stay because my requests to the only tourist accommodation in the village (run by the aforementioned couple) went unanswered earlier because presumably – I was too late and also that I was a single traveler.

All Manapad hosts, other than the Catholic Church, is a tiny cluster of houses just wedged between the main road and the seafront. To get to the seafront, however, I will need to take another local bus that will drop me straight on the beach or wait for a shared auto / jeep. I attempted conversing with the local folks at the tiny bus stand to figure out if there is a chance to stay over. Nobody answered in the affirmative but for the elderly woman whom I met in the local bus asked me to walk up to the church and seek accommodation. “The church has options for pilgrims to stay. If there are free rooms, you will get it,” she told me.

But by the time I disembarked from the bus and the assault of briny sea breeze began, I had forgotten about the harsh sun. I did traipse up the long walk to the church, located in close proximity with the beach but decided against renting a room out. Rather, I sat at the porch-like structure facing the sea along with a bunch of college going children who are evidently bunking their classes by hanging out in their secret hideaway. I felt like an intruder barging into their privacy, having discovered their tiny little secret and walking in on them. Soon enough, they left and I was left all by myself with an absolutely unoccupied beach.

The Manappad Church
The Manappad Church

The view from where I sat was of the beach, beyond the plunging sand dunes extending till my eyes could travel. There are knolls of bushes, a smattering of them, being whipped up vigorously by the sea breeze – only greenery in the otherwise blue-gray landscape. On the other side though, the fishing boats were moored amid tiny islets of ocean. Locals drudge along the beach to carry drinking water, from a fresh water well dug up on the beach. I take it all in and slip into a glorious siesta despite having had an abysmal breakfast of poorly made dosas.

Lunch was an issue, I soon realized. The village has absolutely no tourist facilities and though the church houses a very tiny shop that sells objects to cater to the pilgrims, it stocks nothing edible for human consumption. The eatery, I was told, is back in the village. Fortified with the gusty breeze, I walk back to the bus stand by the beach take the bus and go back to the main road. And then I discover food nirvana. A tiny restaurant – not so much of a restaurant as much as it is a utilitarian shack constructed with thatched coconut palm leaves (even the walls are thatched), it is run by a family whose patriarch served me the most amazing fish meals I have ever eaten.

It was the most basic of meals – a mound of rice (unlimited service, of course) with fish curry and fried fish, both that day’s catch it would seem and taste, served in the most unassuming of places. I devoured the first serving and delightfully sought out for the second. The fried fish came unlimited too. That afternoon meal was immediately supplanted by yet another inglorious siesta.

Owing to Manapad’s geographical location – it is among many of the ragged edges, narrow curvature, of the southern coastline of the Coromandel Coast before it travels further and tapers at Kanyakumari – it is one of the few places where you can enjoy the effusive dramatic display of the sun during dawn and dusk. I did not linger and stay the night in wait for the sunrise the next day morning but I had already visualized how it would be – the brick-red roof tiles of the whitewashed houses render a character to the village and when they are awash with the orange glow of the morning sun, from a distance, they would look like a curious menagerie straight out of the imagination of a novelist.

This appeared in The New Indian Express and can be accessed here.