Of poets and pints: a literary pub crawl in Dublin

Let me start this story with a couple of “bet you didn’t know” bits of trivia: author and playwright Oscar Wilde played boxing for his alma mater, Trinity College. And Oliver Goldsmith, of The Vicar of Wakefield fame, also wrote the popular nursery rhymes Jack & Jill and Hickory Dickory Dock.

I know these interesting tidbits because of an evening in Dublin spent on a pub crawl, punctuated by not just pit stops for beer but also generous amounts of information about the city’s poets and authors. The Dublin literary pub crawl is the perfect mix of everything the city has to offer: history, architecture, green open spaces and literature, all of it washed down by pint after pint of glorious beer.

Actors

After all, Dublin has produced four Nobel Prize winners for literature (William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney). And it has been home to literary greats like James Joyce, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. In a nod to this rich heritage, Dublin is a designated UNESCO city of literature.

And on the other hand, Dublin is also home to over 850 pubs. As the joke goes, “How do you cross the city without passing a pub?” The answer, credited to James Joyce, “Go into every one of them.” Pubs were, and still are, to Dublin what coffee houses were to Vienna – social and cultural hubs. And for many writers, their favourite watering hole was a haven and sometimes even a muse.

We cannot, of course, go into every one of them this evening, but the aim is to get us into atleast a few pubs with literary associations. I reach The Duke at 7 pm sharp, all ready to start crawling my way through Dublin’s pubs. Colm Quilligan, the brains behind this literary pub crawl says, “At the end, you won’t be too drunk, but you won’t be too sober either.” And on that promising note, the pub crawl begins.

The group – about ten of us, mostly Americans – meet in the “snug” on the first floor of The Duke, a room that is just as small and cozy as the name suggests. Every pub has a snug, although the idea is redundant now. Till the middle of the 20th century, women were barred from entering pubs, a rule supported by the Roman Catholic Church to “prevent the spread of vice.” It was only when the men went away to war – in the 1940s – that women were grudgingly allowed into these hallowed premises, and even then only in a small, segregated area called the snug.

The Duke

Colm and his colleague Frank get the audience to loosen up a bit with their rendition of the Waxie’s Dargle, a traditional Irish folk song about local candle-makers. Then they don black bowler hats and enact a scene from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, ending with a quote from a London reviewer at the time it was first performed, “The only play ever seen in which nothing happens – twice.”

While the Irish take great pride in their famous literary works, they are not beyond laughing at them too. The duo then act out a bar brawl from Ulysses, claiming that this is the most familiar scene from this quintessential Irish novel, “since it is in the first chapter, and few people get beyond it.”

Performance

From The Duke, we head out as a motley procession towards Trinity College, which Colm calls “a cultural stop without a drink.” Standing in the front courtyard facing the grand buildings, he talks about its illustrious students, including Oscar Wilde. The writer hated the college, referring to his classmates as a “dreadful lot” and dropped out to study at Oxford instead. But during his days at the college, he refined his drinking skills, following in the footsteps of others like Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Beckett before him.

Trinity College

Our next stop, which Colm declares a “drinking stop without culture,” is O’Neills, housed in a beautiful Victorian building. This bar is filled with locals and tourists, drinking away after a hard day’s work. The vibe is warm and friendly, and the pub itself is a warren of several tiny rooms and nooks (including, of course, a snug). There has been a pub in some form at this same spot for over 300 years, with a reputation for serving some of the best beer in the city. Another of Colm’s colleagues, Jessica, joins us here.

By the time we leave O’Neills, a few pints of Guinness have gone down among the group, and while we are not actually crawling yet, we are walking very slowly. Although the origin of the term “pub crawl” is from another university town, Cambridge, Colm says, “There have always been pub crawls in Dublin, even way back in the 17th century, when Trinity students went rampaging through the city’s taverns, narrating from the works of classical Greek and Latin poets.”

ONeills

Colm should know, given that he founded this modern version of the pub crawl over 20 years ago. This one comes off as a great experience since the guides are all professional actors, with a passion for literature. Not surprisingly, this literary pub crawl is one of the most popular activities for any visitor to the city, and ranked high on the Sunday Times’ list of the world’s 50 best walks.

From O’Neills, we walk across to the Protestant St. Andrews Church, built in 1665 but closed in the 1980s thanks to dwindling patronage. Today, it serves as the Dublin Tourism Office, still providing guidance to the masses, although not of a spiritual nature. On the pavement outside the erstwhile church, Colm and Jessica perform a hilarious scene from Strumpet City, James Plunkett’s story about a massive industrial strike in the early 20th century, known simply as the Lockout.

The scene is about a dialogue between two of the strikers, Toucher Hennessy and Rashers Tierney, both begging on the street for a spot of beer money. Rashers gives Toucher a quick lesson on spotting the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant, so he could customise his appeal. Colm and Jessica live the parts with their gestures and accents, taking us back to a time of great strife in Dublin.

Toucher

Following that is another halt for more beer and more stories at The Old Stand, once a haunt for political activists and now favoured by professionals in finance and law. Our final stop for the night is at Davy Byrnes, a trendy bar now, known for being featured in several scenes in Ulysses. Its other claim to fame is that Samuel Beckett lived in a room above it during his student days at Trinity. However, I like Davy Byrnes best as the pub where novelist Brendan Behan uttered his famous line about him being a “drinker with a writing problem.”

Through the walk and the pub stops, Colm has been throwing pop quiz questions at us (including the ones about Wilde’s university sport and Goldsmith’s nursery rhymes). Finally, in front of Davy Byrnes, the winners get coveted Dublin Pub Crawl T-shirts as prizes. Of course, most of us stay back for that one last pint at Davy Byrnes and exchange of notes about the experience. It has been a long – and entertaining – walk and I am glad to rest my feet. But I cannot complain; Colm had warned us that the whole thing takes over two hours “depending on how fast you walk and how slow you drink.”

Davy Byrnes

QUICK FACTS

Getting there: Fly to Dublin on Jet Airways, connecting via Abu Dhabi with partner airline Etihad.

Accommodation: Stay at The Fitzwilliam, located close to the main shopping areas. The cozy Brooks Hotel is another popular choice, also ideally situated for shopping and eating options.

For more information: log on to http://www.dublinpubcrawl.com

***
This was published in the July issue of Jet Wings International – see it in pdf form here

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

Silent forest, teeming life

It is a strange feeling, this: half hoping to spot some wildlife and half fearing that I may indeed come across some wildlife. I have never been on a walk inside a forest before and don’t know what to expect.

On a misty winter morning, we have just crossed over the Denwa river into the Satpura National Park. I am the only participant in the walking safari this morning, with six people to guide me through the lush greens and scorched browns of the forest. There are Raju and Anurag, naturalists from Denwa Backwater Escape, where I am staying. There is the official forest guide Lakhan Singh who knows the forest and its multiple, confusing pathways like the interiors of his own home.

And most importantly, there is Lakhan Singh’s lackey; nobody seems to known his name and in turn, he doesn’t open his mouth for the next three hours. He is important because he is carrying the bugle meant to (hopefully) scare away the animals that get too close for comfort. I look around nervously, thinking of all the fauna hiding in the shrubbery, watching this strange procession of humans. “Don’t worry, we have never had to use the bugle even once,” says Lakhan Singh reassuringly.

Oh great, so we don’t even know if this sound is enough to repel a bear on the prowl or a bison in a temper.

Forest walk

Spider webIn any case, it turns out that my fears are unfounded. For the first hour of our walk, the forest is absolutely still, slowly stirring to life. We make our way past dry grass, thorny plants and uneven mud paths into thickets where the sunlight is muted.

All around us are the towering sal trees typical to this part of central India and masses of teak trees, constantly calling out to smugglers. And then there are the palash trees, whose flowers (flame of the forest) paint the entire forest a rich shade of red in summer.

At this time, it is impossible to not recall poet Bhavani Prasad Mishra’s ode, where he describes these dense forests as languid, almost drowsy:

Satpura ke ghane jungal
Neend me doobe huey se…

Lakhan stops to point out interesting trees and plants; there are over 1200 species in this forest, many of them of great medicinal value. My guides say that locals once knew just the right herb to treat every ailment; from minor indigestion to severe injuries, the forest served them well.

So I learn that the milk that comes out of akona works wonders for swollen joints, when rubbed with warm mustard oil. And that van tambaku is the perfect antidote for dog bites. We walk past harra and bahera plants whose extracts go into popular ayurvedic health potions, mahua trees whose flowers are used to make local liquor and unexpectedly, clusters of lavender blossoms.

And then our first wildlife sighting: a sloth bear digging for food (predominantly ants and termites). Initially, we see only a bent back, till he suddenly looks up on hearing our muffled voices and scampers away into the bushes. We amble on, catching glimpses of giant spiders spinning gossamer webs and wild boars that rush past in a great hurry, as if running late for a breakfast appointment.

Sloth bear
(image credit: Ashish Tirkey)

Later on, after our own quick breakfast, we walk by the riverbank to watch chitals drink water, keeping a wary eye out for crocodiles. When the sun comes up in full force, we return to the resort, after an exhilarating three hours in the forest.

Unlike the more popular national parks like Kanha and Bandhavgarh, Satpura is still an undiscovered gem. Apart from the numerous varieties of deer, gaur (Indian bison), wild dogs and jackals, sightings of sloth bears and leopards are common here. So far, it is off the beaten “tiger trail” for most travellers, giving serious wildlife and birding enthusiasts enough time and space to explore its rich biodiversity.

Gaur

Chital

Birds
(image credit: Ashish Tirkey)

This also means like unlike some of the other tiger destinations, Satpura is not littered with hotels and resorts. Of the handful of luxury options, The Denwa Backwater Resort has an idyllic location, right by the river. The jetty is just a few minutes away and we head for the boat safari one evening.

In the complete stillness of the water, the only sounds are from the avian life: cormorants on top of dead tree branches, white-throated kingfishers fishing for their supper, red-wattled lapwings basking in the mellow evening sunshine, wooly necked storks building a nest for their young and Indian vultures circling high above.

Denwa

CottageAfter the boat safari, Raju is in a mad rush to get me back to my room. I cannot afford to miss the spectacular sunset, he insists. And so, from the verandah of my treehouse, I watch the Denwa river turn a molten golden, as fishing boats make their tired way home. Although many of the cottages directly face the river, my room in the treehouse commands expansive views, all the way to the boundaries of the national park across the water.

Sunset

Satpura National Park gets its name from the surrounding Satpura hills, contiguous with the more famous hills of Pachmahri. The park itself is reached only by boat, a five minute ride across the Denwa. I go into the forest a couple of times on a jeep safari. On these drives, we spot groups of langurs, gaur, chital, sambar deer, and four-horned antelopes.

Our guide, well trained and sharp-eyed, points out a Malabar Giant Squirrel, endemic to this region and now endangered. Its tail, golden brown and bushy, measures nearly two feet in length. I get a glimpse of more sloth bears, this time a mother and cub walking together. There are several alarm calls from the deer and the monkeys, indicating the presence of predators. We stop and wait patiently each time but no leopard or tiger emerges during our forest drives.

Every other activity, however, pales in comparison to the thrill of the night safari organised by the resort. The light fades early at this time of the year and we are driving in pitch darkness. The night safari is in the buffer zone of the forest, which feels just as dense and untamed. As always, an official forest guard accompanies us, standing in the jeep with a powerful flashlight. The only way to spot an animal is by its shining eyes, when the flashlight is focused on it. The drive is exciting, sometimes even scary but totally rewarding, for that feeling of being one with the wilderness. My guide tells me that leopards are often seen on these drives but I don’t seem to have “leopard luck” and find only peacocks, hares and more deer.

Of all the Indian forests I have been to, Satpura has given me the most varied opportunities to explore its beauty. Not surprisingly, this National Park regularly wins awards for being the most visitor friendly wildlife destination.

Satpura

Yet, Satpura sits quietly and patiently, awaiting discerning visitors. As the poem goes:

Ghaas chup hain, kaas chup hain
Mook shaal, palash chup hain

The grass is still, the thatch is silent,
The sal tree is mute, the flame of the forest is silent…

QUICK FACTS

Getting there: Jet Airways has regular flights from several Indian cities to Bhopal, from where Satpura is roughly 150 km away (three hours drive)

Accommodation: Choices are limited in Satpura: consider Denwa Backwater Escape or Forsyth Lodge.

For more information: Visit Satpura National Park

***

This was published in the January issue of Jet Wings International as Silent Forest, Teeming Life

The Chalukya kings and the cradle of temple architecture

The cradle of Indian temple architecture. Before I leave for the Chalukya temples of north Karnataka, I come across this phrase in all the guidebooks I read. And once there, I find that this phrase rolls off the tongues of tourist guides with a practiced smoothness. And not just cradle; other well-worn metaphors like abacus and blackboard too are soon pouring out of my ears. Alright, I get the point. The sculptors learnt, slowly and painfully, to carve these magnificent temples (or groan, ‘epics in stone’, as my guide would say), using nothing but their imaginations. And the patronage of their Chalukya rulers, especially Pulakesi I.

Pulakesi I is the kind of ruler we today would call a dude. Back then, in the 6th century A.D, he built over a hundred temples across his kingdom, stopping briefly from time to time only to conquer and annex further kingdoms to his own. At the height of his reign, he ruled a vast swathe of the south of India, extending all the way to what is now Maharashtra in the west and Orissa in the east. And the architecture in his temples reflects the influences from diverse parts of his empire.

The Chalukya temples comprise three main groups: those in Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal. For centuries, these temples have remained in the shadow of their more famous cousins in Hampi, built much later and just over 100 kilometers away. And it remains so even now, even though Pattadakal was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987 and the other two are now in the running.

sunflower fieldsI first head to Aihole, a bumpy ride through roads lined with sunflower fields glowing in the mild morning sunlight. This route is more the dreamy countryside of North India – immortalised by countless Hindi movies where the heroine dances to a catchy tune waving her yellow chiffon sari in the wind – than the rough and ready landscape of Karnataka. At the entrance to the temple complex, Basava waves his tourist guide badge and latches on to us. As an introduction to Aihole, he says that on the skills scale, this group ranks as elementary school, since according to him (and experts, I presume), the architecture and carvings are at a very basic level here – going up to college level in Pattadakkal.

The Durga temple

Many of the original hundred temples survive in Aihole today, though some of them lie hidden behind thorny bushes, dusty rubble and thatched huts. Aihole, which served as the capital of the Chalukyas for two centuries, is today a forgotten village, the locals looking with wonder at the way we tourists look at their temples. Living in the middle of so much grandeur, they have come to take it for granted.

There is nothing elementary about the first temple I step into, dedicated to Durga, the all-powerful goddess. The sun has just begun to climb up into the sky, as a bunch of giggling school children make their way into the temple, shepherded by a couple of teachers trying their best to keep them in control. The walls and ceiling are covered with intricate carvings of gods, goddesses, demons and animals. None of the other temples here were consecrated since they were meant to be only learning models; the experimentation is obvious from the different shapes and sizes of the temples dotting the landscape. Behind it stands the 7th century Lad Khan temple, which folklore says, owes its name to a Muslim noble who lived in the temple during the British rule.

Mahishasuramardhini

Adisesha

And outside the temple complex is another interesting tableau: the village market under the sprawling banyan tree. Fruit sellers, vendors of soda, fresh buttermilk and coconut water, kids hawking picture postcards – everything is geared to the odd tourist who finds his way into Aihole. Every lane I wander into has a few ruins, a cluster of broken temple steps or an occasional intact statue scattered about. In this setting, it is easy to wonder if every large stone lying along the road dates back several centuries.

And then on to Badami. It is believed that Badami gets its name from Vatapi, a demon who lived in the region, and in the manner of all self-respecting demons, terrorised the locals. Why that should be so in a country with enough gods to name all towns and villages, and still have some left over, is of course a mystery. The more likely explanation for the name reveals itself as I near the town; the sandstone hills around the region reflect the colour of almonds – Badam in most Indian languages.

The colour of almond

In Badami, I climb up the hill where the famous cave temples are located. As I huff and puff my way up the steps, I am accompanied by a posse of monkeys who seem to think that they have a right to anything I am carrying in my hand, camera included. They play tag with a bottle of Coke and then, in front of my astonished eyes, twist the cap and drink straight from the bottle. The kids all around, who have been complaining loudly of boredom (these are old temples after all, not the most entertaining places for children) watch enraptured and parents have a tough time dragging them back down the hill.

Badami has four cave temples, each with a beautiful mélange of statues, primarily of Vishnu and Shiva. I almost get a crick in my neck, straining to look up at the ceilings covered with frescoes painted from glorious natural dyes, which even the passage of time has not managed to fade.

The first cave has what is possibly my favourite image from all the temples, Shiva as Nataraja, the god of dance, with 81 classical dance poses carved in a single statue. I know this because I have read about it, but I am just not able to make out more than a few. And so I eavesdrop shamelessly on the guide pointing out the various poses to the couple standing next to me. And on the opposite wall is a statue of Ardhanarishwara – literally ‘the half woman god’ – signifying the primal and equal partnership between Shiva and his consort Parvati; the right side of the statue is an all angled and sinewy male while the left is a soft and curvy female form.

Vishnu in Cave 3

Nataraja

Pattadakal, my final destination, is clearly higher up on the architectural learning curve given the sophistication of the structures here. This cluster of ten temples – one of them a Jain sanctuary – was built between the 7th and 9th centuries when the royal sculptors had honed their skills considerably. It is late evening when I get there and the setting sun casts it golden rays on the temple walls, making the old sandstone gleam as if burnished specially for my visit.

UNESCO site

Today, the Archeological Survey of India does a wonderful job of maintaining this temple complex (along with those at Aihole and Badami). According to a local official, the sculptors managed to bring in the best elements of north and south Indian architecture to this group. Pattadakal also served as the Chalukyan capital for some time, though historians say that it was used mainly during special occasions like festivals and coronations. Indeed, the name itself translates into coronation stone (pattada kallu).

Among the temples, I linger at the almost perfect 8th century Virupaksha, dedicated to Shiva. Built by Queen Lokamahadevi to honour her husband’s victory in war over the Pallavas, it is considered a masterpiece of Chalukya architecture. Later, I spend some time by the banks of the Malaprabha river which flows right behind the temple complex, bearing silent witness to centuries of splendour.

Sangameshwara

Pattadakal

Surprisingly, I am not all templed out by the end of the trip, as I had expected. Each of these towns and temple clusters has been a different experience. And as for the stock guidebook phrase, what can I say? If such magnificence is the stuff of cradles, then bring on more of them.

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Published in the August issue of Jet Wings, the inflight magazine of Jet Airlines as An Inheritance In Stone.

Antwerpian Extravagance

Temple to chocolates, diamonds and high fashion (Published in the July issue of Jet Wings International…)

Antwerp has been positioned by Flanders Tourism as the “so cool it’s hot” city. And rightly so. Visitors to Belgium largely ignore this town, which is overshadowed by the more picturesque Bruges and Ghent. The next time though, be sure to make a pit stop at Antwerp, to take in its wealth of heritage, art and most importantly, shopping options.

Unlike some other European cities like Paris and Rome, Antwerp is understated and reveals its charms rather slowly. However it is definitely a city for the lover of all things sensuous. So make up your own chocolates, diamonds and fashion tour and get going. Your best bet would be to stroll along Meir, Antwerp’s main shopping street and follow it up with a splash at the diamond district. End your exploration at Antwerpen Centraal, regularly counted among the most beautiful railway stations in the world.

Meir

Here is our guide to the best shopping in Antwerp.

Chocolate

In Antwerp, as in the rest of Flanders, they cleverly programme their desserts to wink at you from shop windows. Really. Here you are, walking innocently on a cobble-stoned street or a leafy boulevard and the next minute, you are drawn into the vortex of the Bermuda triangle of a chocolate shop. It is futile to resist.

Chocolate lovers (and that means all of us) will be spoilt for choice in this elegant European city that offers some of the best-loved brands in the world. Pick up some “chocolate diamonds” from the true artist, chocolatier Burie, and if you are in the city around Easter, Christmas or Valentine’s Day, drop by the store just to stare at his stunning chocolate sculptures displayed on the windows.

Find something quirky to take away at self-styled shock-o-latier Dominique Persoone’s The Chocolate Line. Whether it is chocolate with a hint of cola or bacon, chocolate flavoured lipstick or a unique sniffer that sends some fine and heady chocolate powder up your nose, Persoone has it all in the renovated Royal Palace in the Meir shopping district.

ChocolateShooter ChocolateLine

And definitely don’t leave Antwerp without buying some of the famous Antwerpse Handje – chocolates in the shape of hands – from Elisa Pralines. Recognized by the European Union as a ‘guaranteed traditional specialty,’ these chocolates celebrate the myth of an evil giant defeated by a local hero.

Diamonds

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Although Antwerp is known for its high quality diamonds, it is best to look for certification from the Diamond High Council before you splurge on these sparklers. Take a walk along the ‘diamond square mile’ at Appelmansstraat and Vestingstraat close to the train station for your pick of shops with their glittering window arrays.

diamonds1 Diamond Land is Antwerp’s largest jewellery store and known for its reliable quality and reasonable prices. The store offers short guided tours of the workshop where visitors (and potential shoppers) can watch artisans at work.

Another recommended seller is J. Katz, who has been around for a few decades and is a founding member of the Antwerp Diamond Jewellers Association. For antique jewellery, the best source is Adelin owned by Salomon Wijnberg, whose vintage diamonds are praised as poetry in stone.

Also pay a visit to the Diamond Pavilion at the MAS museum, set up by the Diamond Museum Province Antwerp and the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. This exhibition explains the journey of the diamond from its original rough state to the smooth and gleaming precious stone. There is also a small shopping area here for last minute diamond souvenir hunters.

Fashion

Fashion Antwerp’s fashion scene is dominated by the celebrated Antwerp Six, a group of avant-garde designers who took the world by storm after their display at the London fashion fair in 1988. Graduates of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (which shot to fame on their success), the designers now have their own labels.

For elegant minimalistic styles in shades of white and black, head to Ann Demeulemeester’s shop, striking in its stark white spaces. Others from this band of six include Dries Van Noten who comes from a family of tailors, and Walter Van Beirendonck whose work is known for its unusual colour combinations. Also visit the Coccodrillo, exclusive shoe boutique of Geert Bruloot, acknowledged as the mastermind behind the promotion of the Antwerp Six.

MOMU

And to get a true sense of Antwerp’s dedication to fashion and design, make your way to the ModeNatie building – literal meaning Fashion Nation. Along with the Flanders Fashion Institute and the MOMU (Museum of Fashion), it also houses the boutique of the popular Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, said to look more like a museum than a store.

In Antwerp, also shop for:

– Olive oils (Tuscany herbs and Virgin oil with white truffle come highly recommended) and exotic vinegars (try the asparagus and tomato flavours) at the fabulous Oil and Vinegar shop with branches in several countries.

– Tintin memorabilia at Mekanik Strip comics store at Sint-Jacobsmarkt, or indulge your inner child with a set of Tintin covered packs of chocolate from NeuHaus.