September 29, 2016

The Great South Indian Roadtrip : Tanjavur

The final stopover of our south India roadtrip was the ancient city of Tanjavur. And this city is predominantly famous for the temple which has entered into the UNESCO world heritage site. This temple along with 2 other temples in the vicinity are collectively known as Great Chola Living temples, "living" because these temple are still functioning unlike majority of other Indian temples which have the  UNESCO tag. We decided to visit only the temple within the city, known as Brihadeshwara Temple or known simply as The Big temple. And yes, it does live up to its tag of the "Big Temple" , because this temple was HUGE !!!!!.

Outer Walls and Nandi 
We visited the temple in the evening. Hence we got the day and the night views which were both spectacular. There are many huge temple complexes in India, but I had never seen the main temple to be of such size and proportion. The main temple houses a huge Shiva Linga under the gigantic gopuram. Everything is of enormous size here, glorifying the legacy of the Chola empire. This 1000 year temple has 3 layers of outer walls, each having a spectacular gopuram to enter. There is also a huge Nandi statue right in front of the main temple. By nightfall the temple is lit by huge halogen lamps giving it a completely different feel. One of the must visit places in Tamil Nadu for sure.

Darbar Hall

The following day our next stop was the Maratha Palace. Prior to visiting Tanjore I was unaware of the fact that the Maratha Kings had conquered so far south. There are a lot of places to visit around the palace, and it is worthwhile to visit these places only once. First we entered the Saraswathi Library which housed a lot of old manuscripts and had a pretty good collections of books, paintings, coins etc. Second was the Darbar hall, which was not maintained as it should have been. There is a museum. Some sections of the museum were pretty decent, but the other sections had completed gone to the dogs, especially the hall housing the huge skeleton of whale. There is a huge bell tower and unfortunately one is not allowed to go up. Sadly there was graffiti everywhere and it was heartening to see the off limit areas free from these pests.

We left Tanjavur and started our final leg towards Bangalore. But not before we made a detour to Srirangam near Trichy. Srirangam is one of the largest temple complexes in the world, second only to the Angkor Wat and that makes it the worlds largest functioning temple complex. Moving from one of the largest temple in the world to one of the largest temple complex in the world :). The temple has 7 concentric walls which needs to be crossed to enter the temple. But even though the sprawling Vishnu temple was huge , there was no wow factor like the Brihadeshwara temple in Tanjore. There are temple after temple inside this complex and the whole architecture seemed a bit haphazard and not grandiose. And having been already saturated with an overdose of temples during this trip, we didnt spend more than an hour at this place. And finally it was a long drive all the way back to Bangalore , with the some good roads enroute !!!!

September 14, 2016

The Great South Indian Roadtrip : Rameshwaram

Rameshwaram was the showstopper of our South Indian road trip. If given an option to cover just one place during this trip, then it definitely would be this place and this did meet our expectations. The good thing about this place is that the journey to this destination and the destination itself are top notch. We took the Kashmir- Kanyakumari Highway till Tirunellveli and from there took a diversion towards Rameshwaram. The roads are totally deserted in terms of vehicular traffic, a complete contrast to the highways through Kerala. Yet it was quite scenic with endless salt fields on both sides of the highway. Eventhough from google maps it looks like the route goes along the sea, one hardly gets a chance of driving with a sea view. Unless , ofcourse you reach the great Pamban bridge !!!!

Pamban Bridge
Pamban bridge is one of the most circulated images within India for the purpose of tourism and it does have those elements which makes it picture perfect. Legally speaking no one is supposed to stop on top of this bridge, with multiple boards advising the same, but we saw a huge line of vehicles parked and this temped us to do the same. We stopped only for 5 mins before a police patrol car came in and ordered the vehicles to be cleared. Fortunately by this time we had already experienced the view from the bridge. Shouldnt the Govt make provision for the tourists to view one of the best scenes in Rameshwaram, I hope they do some arrangement in the future.

Offroading through the Marshlands
The first thing we did was to go to the main Ramanathaswamy temple, which was huge, supposedly has the longest corridor in the world. It seemed like we walked atleast a km from the temple entrance to the main deity :P. The temple interiors were very good and interesting. There are a lot of holy theerthams in and around Rameshwaram wherein one is supposed to take a dip to get blessed. We saw a lot of pilgrims doing the same. After exploring the temple we proceeded to our hotel (Jiwan Residency), a recommended hotel to stay in Rameshwaram.

The following day it was time to explore Danushkodi. It is famous as the Rama Setu which according to mythology was build by Rama in order to reach Sri Lanka. The roads from Rameshwaram are very good till a check post wherein we had to abandon our private vehicles and had to get into rickety 4x4 vehicles. This vehicle takes a semi solid terrain route via marshlands which cannot be crossed by normal vehicles to reach the "Ghost" town of Dhanuskodi. But there were 2 surprises in store for us. First, was that there was a perfect all terrain road all the way to the town, but apart from the locals no one was allowed to use it. Looked like a collusion to force tourists to buy tickets to the 4x4 rides. And second being that Dhanuskodi is no longer a ghost town and is being inhabited. Dhanuskodi is infamous as the town which got washed away in the cyclone of 1964, which also included an entire train.

Danuskhodi Beach
The beaches of Dhanuskodi are gorgeous and we had a great time exploring the ruins of the village, including church, post office, railway station and so on. It was a fun ride through the marshlands. This excursion to Dhanushkodi took close to 4 hours of our time, but it was totally worth it. From Dhanushkodi we started to search for the infamous floating rocks of Rameshwaram. First we went to the Gandamadana Parvatham in search of it. But alas we couldnt find it here, but we got some good views of the entire Rameshwaram island. Next stop was the 5 faced Hanuman temple. It was here we stuck gold, with the floating stones. But the fact is the floating stones are nothing but porous pumice stones covered with corals, which gives it the ability to float. But the touts at this temple were making a quick buck selling poojas to the gullible .

Overall Rameshwaram is certainly a must visit for not just the religious, but also to the wanderlust junta trying to discover interesting parts of India.

Rameshwaram Temple Competing with the Rameshwaram Tower :)

August 7, 2016

The Great South Indian Roadtrip : Kanyakumari

Kanyakumari is a bit of a letdown considering the aura it projects across the Indian subcontinent, such as the southernmost tip of mainland India, the place where all the 3 major water bodies meet (Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal). There are only a couple of places where one can visit. They are the Kumari Amman temple, the Vivekananda Rock memorial , the Thiruvalluvar rock statue and the sangam beach.

The first place we visited was the temple. Frankly speaking this was the least impressive of all the temples we had visited during our South India trip. It was small, hidden in some back alleyway, with no spectacular gopuras or intricate carving. But the best thing about this place is you get some good  views of the Vivekananda memorial and Thiruvelluvar statue.

From the temple we went to the docks, from where ferries are run to and fro the rock memorial. The time taken is hardly 10 mins and after some recent tragic incidents, they have made it mandatory to put on life vests. The Vivekananda rock memorial is a pretty interesting place to visit . The place where Swami Vivekananda had come to meditate before making his way to Chicago. There are a lot of memorials of the saint and the best part is the meditation room. Visiting this place was quite soothing, with it being surrounded by sea in all direction. Entry to the Thriruvalluvar statue is banned due to choppy seas. Don't know whether this has been done recently with the onset of monsoons , or whether its a permanent affair. The last time I was here was close to 20 years back, and I clearly remember visiting the memorial like it was yesterday. How time flies :).

The best and the unknown part of Kanyakumari not to be missed is the huge farm of windmills along the Kanyakumari-Kashmir National Highway. It was a very pretty sight driving along this deserted highway. Next stop Rameshwaram :).

August 4, 2016

The Great South Indian Roadtrip : Kerala

A normal weekend getaway swelled in size with more and more places of interest being added,  and in the end we had a full blown South India road trip, with the total distance of 1950 km to be covered in 5.5 days, making this my second longest road trip after my Ladakh bike trip. With Southern India dominated by many major temples, by the end of this trip we were saturated with temples. We took the Kerala route to reach Kanyakumari, passing through Thrissur, Kumarakom, Trivandrum and while on the return journey took the route via Rameshwaram, Tanjavur, Srirangam etc.

So left Bangalore on a friday evening and drove non-stop till Coimbatore with a dinner break at Salem. Covered the entire 370km distance in around 6.5 hrs and that demonstrates the condition of the tolled multi-lane highway all the way to Coimbatore. Covering maximum distance was the only criteria and we were able to achieve that with ease. The following day we got up early and headed towards Pallakad. Road between Pallakad and Coimbatore is good and we entered the state of Kerala. Visited the Pallakad fort , which was mildly interesting , but the greenery and the cool monsoon breeze made it a pleasant experience. The fort has a small temple in the centre and a functional sub-prison too. Other than that , there is nothing much to view at this place. Left this place soon enough. Thrissur was our next destination. However the route between Pallakad and Thrissur was in bad condition, with lot of ongoing road widening work.

Reached Thrissur and directly went to the Vadakunnathan Temple, which is famous for the line of elephants adorned in attractive attires during a specific festival. Unfortunately the gates to this temple closes at 11 am and we reached at 11.05 :P. Hence had to content ourselves from the outside. From here we started towards Athirepally falls and in my opinion its one of the best falls in India. This falls has been made famous by a lot of movies such as Bahubali (where they have added a lot of special effects on top of the original) , Raavan , Dil Se etc. The route was a pleasure to drive from Thrissur, including a drive through forest. Reached the forest entrance, paid the required fee and then walked towards the falls. The first view of the falls i.e. the upper side view takes around 15 min easy walk from the road. The falls drops from nearly 100 ft and is really breathtaking, kinda like a mini Niagra, with the width of the falls more dominating than the height. From this viewpoint one has to take a steep 15 min walk to reach the base of the waterfalls, from where one gets the lower front of the falls and without doubt the best place to experience the falls. Due to the onset of monsoons the falls was brimming with capacity and the entire base was shrodded with thousands of droplets drifting from the main falls. However no one was allowed to take bath directly under the falls.

From the falls our next destination was Kumarakom, where we had booked a houseboat for the night. In my previous visit to this area I had gone to Allephey and hence decided to explore the backwaters of  Kumarakom. In comparison Kumarakom is a lot quieter, with fewer house boats running through the backwaters. It has a more village feel to it in comparison to the city feel offered by Allephey. However reaching Kumarakom might be a bit tricky, if not having a private vehicle at ones disposal. We enjoyed the view of the huge backwater lake and were accompanied by hundreds of ducks which were flying and feeding along with the houseboat. In short Kumarakom was much was soothing and relaxing than Allephey.

The following morning after the 2 hour boat ride in the morning , we left for Trivandrum. One unique thing about Kerala is that the entire state is highly urbanized and you dont get the feeling of riding on an isolated highway. At any section of the highway there would be houses flanking both sides of the highway, unfortunately leading in higher traffic density and narrow roads. We reached Trivandrum by noon. Only thing we wished to visit in this place was the famous Padmanabhaswamy temple, which has been in headlines for value of the treasure found in its underground vaults. Since we had still some time we decided to visit the famous Kovalam beach. This beach is unique for having black sand and was pretty neat and clean . Spent some time in here and had our lunch.

We were back to Trivandrum sharp at 4.30pm when the temple doors open. This temple has one of the most strict security measure I have seen anywhere, and even eclipses the airport security measures. You have to deposit pretty much everything. No phones, camera, remote car key, fitness band etc. And one is expected to strictly follow the dress code. For men its white dhoti and for women its either sari or a white dhoti wrapped around the waist and no salwar etc. We came across a temple representative and he acted as a guide detailing the history and mythology of the temple. The temple was huge and very beautiful from inside. The kings of Travancore believe that the main deity of this temple is the actual ruler, and they are just the caretakers on his behalf. Hence because of this reason all the taxes collected would be deposited in the temple and this has resulted in such a huge stockpile of gold and other precious stones.

From Trivandrum , it was again through the narrow highways of Kerala and by nightfall we reached Kanyakumari, the southern tip of mainland India.

June 10, 2016

Chalo Dilli !!!!!

Having visited the nation's capital innumerable number of times, especially on transits into other regions, it was never a priority to visit all the attractions offered by the city in one go. Therefore I have visited many of its gems in smaller installments over the years. During this trip we visited the Jantar Mantar, the Lotus temple, Akshardham and  explored Chandni Chowk area. On the first day of our trip, prior to boarding our Shatabdi to Amritsar we had some time to explore near the NDLS railway station. Hence we decided to head towards the Jantar Mantar. Build in the year 1723 , this marvelous monument was used in the field of astronomy such as finding the time of the day based on the sun's shadows, position of the sun , moon and the planets for the Indian field of astrology and so on. Even though this site is quite small , right in the middle of the urban New Delhi, it was a respite from the afternoon heat. Spent close to 2 hours exploring this monument. There is also a cloak room available near the entrance.

Jantar Mantar
Once we were back from Amritsar, we decided to explore Akshardham temple. We had booked a room in the Paharganj area which is a numero uno  destination for backpackers, with all sorts of accommodations available and just a stone's throw away from the NDLS station. We took a metro to the Akshardham station and after a fool-proof security check, which could even make the airport security check-ups blush in shame , we were let into this modern wonder of Delhi. The things which are prohibited inside pretty much include everything, including phones, cameras, food etc. There are primarily 5 interesting attractions inside this temple complex.

The first one is the huge temple itself, which sits in the center of the complex. Made out of sandstone, this temple seems to be inspired by all the ancient temple architectures of India. For starters the star shaped structure of the temple is inspired by the Hoysala architecture and so is the outer walls. The inner walls are made out of pure white marble and simply spellbinding in every sense. The intricacy with which the walls and the roofs are carved are simply mind blowing. This monument looks more majestic once it is lit up in the night. The other attractions include the 3 exhibition areas. Akshardham temple is actually dedicated to a certain person known as Swaminarayana. Hence majority of the exhibition area is dedicated to increase his popularity, and seemed more like a propaganda material , glorifying his life to astronomical proportions. The first 2 exhibitions which included the giant screen movie and the series of exhibits using animatronic figures illustrating his life , was a bit boring. However the indoor boat ride exhibition explaining the scientific achievements and the history of India was interesting , mainly because it had nothing to do with Swaminarayan.

Finally the day ended with the spectacular sound and light show aided by the some high quality pyrotechnics. This show starts at 7.45 after sunset , in the open air theater. It lasts for around 25 mins and quality is as good as those shown in Singapore, if not better. However sadly all these things couldn't be captured by us , since as I said camera's and phones are strictly banned and have to be deposited at the entrance counter.

The following day before we could head towards Agra, we decided to head towards the Lotus temple. On the way our taxi driver took us to Dilli Haat area which is especially good to buy any souvenirs and other handicraft items. From there we were dropped near the Lotus temple entrance. Unfortunately came to know that the there is no luggage cloak room and they don't allow heavy baggage inside the premises. Hence we had to split, with one person visiting the monument and the other looking after the baggage. The temple was peaceful, dedicated to the Bahay faith and was designed in an elegant way. There is also a turquoise colored pool at its base.

Finally before we caught our flight back to Bangalore, we got an opportunity to explore the Chandni Chowk area. The missus was content shopping and I was content gorging on some lip smacking street food, especially in the paratha-wala gali deep inside the narrow lanes of Chandni chowk :).

Parathe Wali Gali-Chandni Chowk
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