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

Ringing in the new

Mylapore

LocalOn any given Friday evening, Mylapore is at its festive best. Men dressed in white dhotis (unstitched cotton garments knotted at the waist and allowed to fall free), with thick lines of sacred ash smeared on their foreheads, stand in groups of twos and threes, catching up over the news of the day. Women swathed in the traditional nine-yard saris, with strings of fresh jasmine in their hair, are busy decorating their courtyards with intricate kolam (auspicious floor patterns) created with dry rice powder. And then there are the flower sellers and the gypsy bead vendors on the streets.

Some parts of this Chennai suburb indeed seem like they are stuck in a time warp. The feeling is especially intense in the areas surrounding the towering Kapaleeswarar temple and water tank, fine examples of 7th century architecture by the Pallava dynasty.

TempleLegend has it that the village of Mylapore – now one of Chennai’s most vibrant neighbourhoods – predates the city by at least 2,000 years. It has seen the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese and the British come and go. And it finds a mention in the writings of Ptolemy (2nd century AD) and Marco Polo (late 13th century AD) who made their way there. City historian and author Pradeep Chakravarthy confirms this and says that there are fragments of inscriptions inside the temple, which indicate that Mylapore was always an important commercial centre.

Glitter and glamour

However, ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that Chennai’s real twin deities are silk and gold. And these are worshipped just around the corner, the first at Radha Silk Emporium. At this century-old shop, which locals know as Rasi, ignore the modern collections and stick to the heavy, traditional silk saris.

Pair your silks with dazzling gold and diamond baubles from NAC Jewellers, just a few minutes’ walk away. If you are on a tighter budget, then head to Sukra Jewellery down the road for its temple jewellery collection, typically worn by classical dancers. With a base of silver, coated with gold and studded with precious or semi-precious stones, the jewellery here comes with a classy antique finish.

About kaapi and coffee

In the heart of Mylapore, your best eating options are Saravanaa Bhavan (70 North Mada Street, Tel: 91 44 2461 1177) or The Grand Sweets and Snacks restaurant, both Chennai legends in their own way. Drop in for South Indian snack favourites (known as tiffin) such as masala dosa (crepe made with fermented rice batter) and vada (savoury fritter-type snack), rounded off with a cup of strong coffee.

Just around this little nucleus of history and tradition is also a world that has comfortably marched ahead with the times. As you move away from the four streets that form an almost perfect square around this ancient temple, hole-in-the-wall dosa joints give way to trendy global fusion cuisine cafes and there are as many mini skirts to be seen as silk saris. And the average Chennaite comfortably straddles these two avatars.

BrewRoom

Take the Brew Room at Savera Hotel, on Radhakrishnan Road, known locally as RK Salai (Salai means road in Tamil). While homegrown filter coffee (or kaapi) is still available here, this new kid on the block offers coffees from around the world, from Ethiopian to Thai blends.

Lifestyle hub

For brews of a different kind, Chennaites love Dublin at the Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers. At this pub and discotheque, which stays packed even on weeknights, sip on a Guinness beer or Bushmills Irish Whiskey, in a nod to its name.

Lamandier

L’amandier Bistro (57, 2nd Main Road, RA Puram, Tel: 91 44 4282 7882; above) has brought fresh and light European cooking to Chennai. You will find the interiors cheerful and inviting, with a clever use of Mediterranean colours. And in a city that has for generations tucked into rice-based idli (savoury steamed cake) and dosa in the mornings, L’amandier dishes out a hearty and popular Continental buffet breakfast, starting from 7.30 am.

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In this area, Chamiers is your best bet for an afternoon of eating and shopping. A white bungalow set in tree-filled premises, Chamiers is an oasis of calm away from the sweltering Chennai heat. Pick up garments in hand-block prints and earthy tones from Anokhi at ground level, or splurge on some Kama Ayurveda skincare products at the gift shop on the first floor – look out for the quirky illustrations on the staircase as you walk up. After shopping, rest your feet with a tall glass of watermelon juice or a slice of rich chocolate cake at the cafe next to the gift shop.

For modern silhouettes and comfortable work wear in Indo-western styles, make your way to Brass Tacks. Designer Anaka Narayanan uses dying traditional prints such as ajrakh and ikat in modern garments to create interesting style statements.

Along the way, spare a thought for the way modern businesses like spas, salons, and boutiques are housed in stately bungalows of old: perfect metaphors for the way Mylapore has enfolded the emerging into its existing self.

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Published in the September issue of Silverkris, the inflight magazine of Singapore Airlines, as “Ancient Indian City Buzzes with New Life”
(temple image courtesy: silverkris.com)

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