Conservation, at what cost?

A quick glimpse at a couple of small temples, to continue my series on the recent Tamil Nadu road trip. Our host at the Swamimalai resort, knowing our interest, had recommended them highly for their architectural details (temple carvings mainly). So that evening, we headed to the Pullamangai temple near Ayyampettai, half an hour’s drive from Kumbakonam – and what a delight that was. Predating the Thanjavur Big Temple, Pullamangai has one of the most exquisite statues of Parvati (as Mahishasuramardhini) I have ever seen. Beautiful, confident, sexy.

Durga

At first sight, the temple was not very promising, with the outer gate painted in “modern” colours and a priest who could only be called to the temple with a special appointment over phone. The interior of this Shiva temple was dark and dank, the smell of lamp oil and years of neglect hanging in the air. The husband and I exchanged puzzled looks: were we at the right place? what was so special about this temple?

It was only when we walked around this diminutive temple that its beauty became apparent – rich carvings from Ramanyana, Shiva Puranam and Vishnu Puranam on every inch of space on the outer walls, and finally, around the corner, the Durga statue we had come to see.

Pullamangai

Nataraja

A total worthwhile excursion.

In contrast, the second one, the Nageswaran temple inside Kumbakonam was a serious disappointment. While Pullamangai was not maintained well and did not attract hundreds of devotees, there was still a sense of history and (dare I say it?) piety there. Nageswaran temple, built in the shape of a chariot, does have its regular worshippers but any history or beauty had been coloured into a senseless and garish mass. All in the name of conservation.

What a sad state, when the trustees of such temples cannot recognise the inherent beauty of the brown stone and detailed architecture.

Kumbakonam

Exploring Agra with Padhaaro

A few months ago, I was invited by the people at Padhaaro to enjoy a local experience with them in any of the cities they offer their travel experiences in. Padhaaro is an interesting enterprise, offering customised and offbeat tours in different cities, seen through the eyes of a local (expert). This way, you get to see the side of a city that you may otherwise miss, or not even be aware of.

Right now, they have local “greeters” in 18 Indian cities. And I chose Agra during my December trip. In Agra, there is a choice of activities, from viewing the Taj Mahal along with a local, to exploring Agra on a bicycle, to food tours. We had the unique and extremely fun experience of exploring old Agra in a battery powered rickshaw. Our guide was Amit Sisodia, who came with years of experience in the travel trade in Agra.

libraryAnd so we set off, on Sunday morning, in the super dense fog. We took the rickshaw to a main spot and then walked our way through the crowded markets and narrow lanes. Agra, to most travellers, is about the Taj Mahal. And to the more adventurous, or those with more time on their hands, it is also about the lesser monuments like Agra Fort and Itimad Ud Daula. But on this tour, I came to discover the rich multicultural history of Agra, starting with Dara Shikoh’s library from the mid 17th century. This red sandstone building used to be a centre for scholarship and studies during Shah Jahan’s time, under the patronage of Aurangzeb’s brother.

We then went on to wander through the old markets of Agra and had a pitstop at Jami Masjid. I really enjoyed the fact that I was able to interact with locals and find some great photo ops. We stopped to admire old, exquisite buildings all along the way, with interesting inputs from Amit.

Masjid

people

buildings

We then found ourselves at some old churches – the most fascinating of them called Akbar’s Church. After that, a Roman Catholic Cemetery, filled with memories and whispers from centuries ago.

church

cemetery

puriAmit then took us to a small eatery for a brunch of the Agra special bhedei aloo and jalebi, before dropping us back to the hotel. In all, it was a great morning, with an experience of Agra that my husband and I will cherish. Although I knew in a vague manner that there was a thriving old part of the city, I would have never been able to discover it on my own. So I am thankful to Padhaaro for helping me discover this.

The next time you are in any of these cities, go ahead and given yourself an unforgettable Padhaaro experience.

Monumental Love

The sky is getting darker, as the storm clouds gather, plump and menacing, carrying with them the faint smell of wet earth. Shivering in the cold breeze, I hug my thin shawl closer around my body and look at the tableau on the terrace. Families are sitting together inside the domed alcoves that bookend this balcony. Groups of local women from the neighbouring villages – perhaps on a day’s outing – are putting up a brave fight to hold their flimsy quick-dry saris in place. Suddenly, the clouds burst open, making them turn around as one woman, and rush for cover inside the monument, silver anklets clinking melodiously, rubber slippers flapping on the stone floor.

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I am at Rani Roopmati’s Pavilion, a three-storeyed building perched prettily on top of a hillock. From a recess in the terrace, I can see the Narmada snaking its way through the arid plains in the distance. The countryside, dotted with brown monuments, comes to life in this unexpected spell of rain.

Apart from an abiding fascination for the Taj Mahal, I don’t much care for the Mughals in general. But in case of Mandu, I have to agree with Emperor Jahangir’s words: “I know of no other place that is so pleasant in climate and with such attractive scenery as Mandu in the rainy season.” No surprise then that this town also served as the monsoon retreat of a succession of Mughals, who sought the cool breezes and green spaces of Mandu.

Once the capital of the Malwa kingdom, Mandu is all about the 16th century love story of a king and a commoner; in this case the ruler of Malwa, Baz Bahadur and a shepherdess Roopmati. The story goes that on a hunting trip, Baz Bahadur caught sight of Roopmati bathing in the Narmada, and captivated by her beauty, made her his queen. It was idyllic for a while, but like all great love stories, this one too ended in tragedy (‘happily ever after’ never makes for exciting history). When captured by Akbar’s general Adham Khan, the king deserted his queen and kingdom. And Roopmati committed suicide by consuming poison.

Despite this less than perfect conclusion, remnants of this romance lie scattered everywhere in Mandu. The Roopmati Pavilion itself, for instance, was built by the indulgent king to ensure that his queen was able to see her beloved Narmada whenever she wished to. However, Baz Bahadur’s Palace, despite its open terraces and luxuriant surroundings, does not carry any whispers of romance. Or perhaps, in my mind, I see the king as a deserter and therefore his palace as devoid of charm.

My guide, no doubt quoting from unverifiable sources, says that Mandu was once a massive fortified city, dating back to the 6th century BC. Today, it is a small dusty town in the heart of India, dotted with monuments and ruins that tell their own stories.

Standing in front of the Jami Masjid, I reflect on the way we talk blithely about global influences. As if we, our generation, thought up the very idea. This mosque, built in the mid 15th century, is modeled after the Ummayad mosque of Damascus; a long way for architectural influences to travel. I love the bleak brownness of it, with bits of blue enamel work peeping out from the walls of the inner chamber. All this brown is contrasted sharply by its neighbour Hoshang’s Tomb, also India’s first marble structure.

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At first glance, this domed monument seems plain but I walk past beautiful pink granite pillars to the other side – the main entry into the tomb – and notice the intricate latticework on the windows. This tomb is supposed to be a fine example of a marriage between Indian and Afghan styles of architecture. Here again, the Mughal presence makes itself felt; it is said that Shah Jahan drew inspiration from this tomb for the Taj Mahal.

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However, the place I return to again and again is the Royal Enclave – built around the same time – containing the Jahaz Mahal and the Hindola Mahal. While entirely willing to be charmed by Mandu, I still find it a stretch of my imagination to see a ship (Jahaz Mahal) and a swing (Hindola Mahal) here. But these monuments are the highlights of Mandu, adorning all the picture postcards sent out of here.

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Mandu6Jahaz Mahal is 120 metres long and sits between two artificial lakes, the Munj Talao and the Kapur Talao. During the monsoons, the palace feels afloat – like a ship – between the two full lakes. Seeing the barebones structure that exists today, it is tough to believe that it once served as a “pleasure palace” of Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khilji, housing his harem of over 15,000 women. The only embellishments on the open terrace are the small domed pavilions and intriguing water channels on the floor. The Hindola Mahal is similarly stark, with graceful arches and sloping outer walls, and perhaps sways gently in the calming monsoon breeze.

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After a couple of days in Mandu, I head to Maheshwar, just an hour’s drive away. If Mandu feels like a place from the past; Maheshwar is very much here and now. Life in this town revolves around the ghats of the Narmada; gossiping local women wash their clothes, boatmen call out to tourists for pleasure rides, priests fill river water in their little round vessels and tourists record their visit for posterity on phone cameras.

Despite the many temples in the town, the undisputed goddess here is queen Ahilyabai Holkar, who governed this territory in the mid 18th century. The fort she ruled from is now a heritage hotel and the palace or Rajwada, a small unassuming space filled with a quiet charm, much like the town itself.

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But the star of Maheshwar is the gossamer fabric that lends itself to beautiful saris that carry the town’s name. The art of weaving Maheshwari saris was introduced over two centuries ago by the queen and revived two decades ago by her descendants. There are now over 2000 weavers skilled in this art, which came close to dying out.

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After an hour at the ghats and a quick stop at the Shiva temple on the shore, I make my way to the Rehwa Society Store inside the fort complex. A dozen women are at work here, silent and focused, the stillness broken only by the movement of the looms. Some of them look up and smile as I point my camera at them; to others, I am only a mild annoyance. And in the shop, each sari looks more enticing than the other, and I walk out with far more than I had intended to buy.

Back at the Jahaz Mahal at sunset, I think of the various avatars this overgrown village has seen over the centuries: Mandapadurga, Mandavgarh and now Mandu. My favourite name though, comes from the late 13th century: Shadiabad, or ‘City of Joy.’

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE

Jet Airways has regular flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Indore, from where Mandu is 90 km (2 hour drive) away.

ACCOMMODATION

The best options in Mandu are the government-managed Malwa Resort and Malwa Retreat. For a more upscale experience, choose Jhira Bagh Palace on the Indore Highway. At Maheshwar, stay at the Ahilya Fort.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Log on to MP Tourism

Friday photo: Fenced

In a recent trip to Agra, we were completely fogged out. At 10 in the morning, from a distance of 20 feet, the Taj was not visible. Our resourceful guide had to use a picture postcard for his spiel.

We were lucky the earlier evening though, for we got this glimpse of Taj Mahal from Mehtab Bagh, on the other side of the Yamuna. The light was fading fast and the mist was threatening to envelop the scene, when I got this.

Taj

You know, of course, what this means. Another trip to Agra towards the end of winter.

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Also see: Friday photo series

Film trail in Chettinad

At the ‘Periya Veedu’ (Big House) at Athangudi, the caretaker rubbed his fingers together as soon as he spotted me getting off the car. It took me a moment to understand that he was making the time-honoured gesture for money, the way he did with all visitors. The magnificent – a word that I would use again and again during my time in Chettinad – house remained locked for most of the year under his beady eyes, opened only for such curious visitors who found their way there.

Looking up

Magnificent interiors

After the dry and dusty landscape of the region, the cool and spacious interiors of Periya Veedu came as a pleasant shock. As I stepped into the first level of the house, known as the mugappu, I could see through the long, narrow corridor all the way to the back door. “That opens out on the parallel street, that is how large houses in Chetttinad are,” said my guide with a proud smile.

The mugappu itself was stunning, with its low and wide seat called the thinnai running along the wall on both sides of the main door. This used to serve as one of the social hubs of the house: to welcome visitors, catch quick afternoon naps and hold intensive gossip sessions.

Like most of the big Chettinad mansions, the Periya Veedu was built in the early 20th century. Several mansions across the region fell into disrepair over the years along with the migration of their owners to larger towns like Chennai and Coimbatore. While some have recently got a fresh lease of life in the form of conversion into luxury heritage hotels, others like the Periya Veedu have stayed afloat by hiring it out for film shootings.

Immortalized on celluloid

Kanadukathan

Indeed, Chettinad is a popular location among filmmakers from the Tamil and Telugu film industry, and increasingly, Bollywood. And within Chettinad, the star attraction is the opulent Chettinad Palace in Kanadukathan. One look at the exteriors of the palace – as stunning as the interiors, with the brightly painted walls glittering in the sunlight – and it is easy to see why.

The most memorable film set here is Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000) with a stellar cast that included Tabu, Aishwarya Rai, Mammooty and Ajith, among others. A few months ago, director Hari shot the climax scene (an exciting chase sequence) for the sequel to his blockbuster Singam, on the streets of Karaikudi near Pandian Cinema.

And among Bollywood filmmakers, Priyadarshan has shown his fondness for Chettinadu, filming at Kanadukathan in Raja’s Palace (as it is known locally) and at Chettinadu Mansion (now a heritage hotel) for Virasat and Maalamal Weekly. He later went a step ahead and recreated a slice of Bihar in Karaikudi for Aakrosh, his thriller based on the theme of honour killings.

Chettinadu Mansion

Raja's Palace

The local red soil and lavishness of the mansions lend themselves readily to stories ostensibly set in Rajasthan or wealthy homes anywhere in the hinterlands (cue the rich Thakurs of Priyadarshan movies). Add to that the liveliness of the local markets and street scenes, which draw filmmakers repeatedly.

Sometimes, filmmakers have chosen Chettinad over their usual favoured locations like the snowy Alps and the streets of Paris for song sequences. A couple of Tamil hits come to mind: Iruvizhiyo siragadikkum from ‘Pirivom Santhipom’ (a story about a joint Chettiar family) and Idu daana from ‘Saamy’ (again a movie by Hari). Interestingly, both feature scenes from a traditional Tamil engagement / wedding.

In a way, this seems quite fitting, since many of these homes remain closed, with families staying in far away cities and coming back home only for weddings and major festivals. The mansions, which remain uninhabited, and often desolate and dusty, come alive to the sounds of the silver anklets of the women of the house and the booming voices of the men only once or twice a year.

These wedding scenes are set in the large courtyard (a typical feature of these mansions) just following the mogappu. These are open to the skies and used for drying appalam and pickles, and occasionally for cooking. And branching off to a side are large halls used just for feeding guests during weddings, some of which can hold up to 500 at a time.

Lavish interiors

Status symbols

Chettiars belong to a trading community, with ties once extending as far as Singapore and Malaysia. They were known as bankers and moneylenders to the British Raj and flourished under their rule. Chettiars invested their wealth in their hometowns, building large mansions. The larger the mansion, the higher the status. And they brought in the best from everywhere in the world: glass from Murano, teak from Burma, chandeliers from Belgium and tiles from Athangudi. They threw in some Victorian furniture and Art Deco influences to the mix to form arresting architectural masterpieces.

Round the world

Dining room

The other highlights of these homes are the intricate woodwork on doors depicting Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth who presides over these homes. And then the smooth, still gleaming plaster on the walls made of a ground mixture of egg white, lime, powdered shells and a local fruit.

As I stepped out of the Periya Veedu at Athangudi, I craned my neck to look at the statues above the main gate. I saw vibrantly painted stuccowork of gods and goddesses, animals and birds, even British soldiers with horses and guns. They stood peering at the passersby on the streets, as they have done for over a century now.

FACT FILE

At a glance

Barely 80 kilometres from the temple city of Madurai, Chettinad is the collective name for 75 odd villages and towns once inhabited by the Chettiar community. The biggest of these towns today is Karaikudi, which is also the commercial hub of Chettinad. Kanadukathan, Devakottai, Kothamangalam, Kottaiyur and Athangudi have some of the most opulent mansions in the region.

Things to do

Mansion visits

Hop across towns, visiting the old mansions to take in the splendor of the art and architecture. Although many are locked, some have caretakers willing to give you a guided tour for a nominal fee of Rs. 50 or so.

Athangudi tile factory

Athangudi tilesThese handmade tiles, made from local sand, are a visual delight. Walk into any one of the several home factories in Athangudi to watch the workmen fill the moulds with the bright paints mixed with a little cement. These tiles, which stay new and glossy for decades, come in typical floral and geometric motifs.

Tile factory

Pillayarpatti temple

The rock-cut temple to Ganesha is located 12 kilometres from Karaikudi and is believed to be from the 4th century A.D. Among the nine temples dedicated to Ganesha in this area, this is one of the most significant, with a six-feet tall state of the main deity.

Shop

Buy cotton Sungudi saris straight off the loom at the Mahalakshmi Weaving Centre at Kanadukathan. The local tie-and-dye technique of this area is used to weave Sungudi and Kandangi saris in soft cotton. They come in traditional patterns and bright colours, usually worn by the elderly Chettiar women.

Go antique shopping at the main market on Muneeswaran Koil street in Karaikudi. Shopkeepers are friendly and willing to chat with you about the rich history of their wares, most of them from local Chettiar homes. Look out for Mangalam Arts (Tel: 91-4565-239679) with multiple levels of hidden gems.

Antiques market

Traditional cookware

Eat

Tuck into a traditional Chettinad meal (both vegetarian and non vegetarian) at The Bangala, complete with local delicacies like milagu kuzhambu (pepper stew) and Crab curry. Classic Chettinad snacks include kuzhi paniyaram (shallow fried snacks served with chutney), idiyappam (string hoppers served with coconut milk) and adhirasam (deep-fried sweet made with rice flour and jaggery).

Breakfast at Visalam

Stay

Base yourself in one of the heritage hotels to explore the region: Visalam in Kanadukathan, Chidambara Vilas in Kadiapatti, Saratha Vilas in Kothamangalam and The Bangala.

When to go

The area can get unbearably hot in summers, so the ideal time to visit is the cooler months between November to February.

Getting there

Take a train or flight to Madurai, the nearest large airport and railway station and hire a cab to your destination within Chettinad. The roads are excellent and the journey takes less than two hours.

Getting around

While you can take cycle-rickshaws or even walk within the smaller towns and villages, auto-rickshaws are available for longer distances. Local bus connectivity between towns and villages is sketchy, so it is best to hire a cab to explore the region. Cab drivers often double up as guides and help gain access into some of the local homes.

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A slightly different version of this was published in the July-August 2014 issue of Time Out Explorer as ‘Keeping It Reel’.

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