photo essay: tamil nadu’s colourful gopurams, stories told and untold

This is the part of Tamil Nadu I was most smitten by. Colourful and packed with gods, goddesses, myths and secular life, its gopurams are a peculiar feature unique to the state. True, gopurams or entrance towers are a part of temple architecture across southern India. But in Tamil Nadu, they have a life of their own, larger in design and scale than the overshadowed holy sanctums inside the temple complexes. They are pure art. And I loved them.

I visited scores of temples during my week-long exploration of the southern state’s temple towns. From the incredible Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai celebrating the town’s beautiful and gracious patron goddess to the ancient Pillaiyarpatti Temple in Chettinad, site of an electrifying abhishek ceremony of the god Ganesha.

From the Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, the only Hindu temple to worship Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, to Thirukadaiyur Temple on the outskirts of Tranquebar where married couples celebrate their 60th, 70th, and 80th wedding anniversaries for it is renowned to defy death!

From the monumental Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tiruchirappalli, India’s largest functioning temple and a mini-city in itself with a whopping 21 gopurams, to the string of lively temples lining the streets of Kumbakonam where I temple-hopped from one to the other for a different kind of night-life.

Dedicated to various deities, one architectural feature yet bound them all together. Their animated, multi-coloured, towering gopurams. Continue reading

why tipu sultan’s dariya daulat bagh will take your breath away

Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago lived a man renowned for his opulence, and bravery. He was fearless. Nothing scared him. Or perturbed him. He also had a deep abhorrence for the British East India Company and its colonial inroads into India.

His name was Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. And his capital was Srirangapatna [spelt Seringapatam by the British], an island plonk in the middle of the mystical Cauvery River in present-day Karnataka.

It was to this tiny little, steeped in history, sleepy town that I found myself one day during my Mysore travels. Where.time.stood.still. And there were stories galore. Continue reading

the ancient art of tibetan thangka painting in dharamshala

I was first introduced to the ancient Tibetan religious art form of thangkas in Gyangtse, in the heart of Tibet. It was the summer of 2004. I was travelling solo through Tibet—I had hired a 4X4, got a driver and a guide, and we drove through the majestic Himalaya mountains for seven days, stopping at monasteries, stupas, and temples on the way.

A four-day visit to Dharamshala this June, home to the 14th Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile brought all my memories of Tibet gushing back.

The street that faced the nine-tiered 15th Century octagonal Kumbum stupa in Gyangtse had been lined with stalls. The stupa, by the way, contained a staggering 77 chapels, 108 gates, 100,000 Buddhist paintings, and 1,000 sculptures of the Buddha. In the little shops in the street meanwhile, ancient Buddhist silk applique and cotton paintings, which I was told were called thangkas, were on sale along with other religious paraphernalia such as prayer wheels and prayer flags.

All the thangkas, I remember, looked more or less alike to me. They were filled with intricate mandalas or exotic gods and goddesses from the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, were framed in rich satin brocade, and had a deep yellow ruffle on the top. Many were dusty. Most looked old. The yellow ruffle, I learnt much later on, opened into a pair of “curtains” which covered the painting. I also remember they were frightfully expensive. Needless to say, I did not buy any. Strange, because even after 15 years I remember them vividly. Continue reading

art focus – half empty or half full – a. ramachandran

Is the cup half empty, or half full?

This was the one thought which kept flashing through my mind the day I came face-to-face with A. Ramachandran’s art.

One of India’s leading contemporary artists, when Ramachandran [b. 1935], a native of the South Indian state of Kerala and alumnus of Santiniketan started painting, the world he saw around him was a sad, painful one filled with conflict and anguish. It was post-1947 and India was reeling from the aftermath of the partition whilst the world at large still carried the wounds of World War II. Continue reading

india’s classical masterpiece: the ellora caves

Be prepared to be bowled over.

No matter how many incredible photographs or videos you may have seen or paragraphs of eloquent text in guide books and articles you may have read, the real thing will.still.take.your.breath.away.

The Ellora caves are grander and more magnificent, yet full of intricate detailing, than you may ever have imagined.

Three ancient Indian religions are housed here. Three arts converge here. The site, spread over a two-kilometre long basalt massif, is one of the world’s largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes with more than a hundred caves. And if that were not enough, these ‘caves’ were excavated out of living rock over a millennium ago, between 550 and 950 AD to be exact, with chisel and hammer, to create ethereal art and architecture in its wake.

Come, let me take you on a virtual tour of India’s Classical masterpiece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. And in the process, inspire you to also make the journey to the Ellora caves in person. For what is life, but moments which take our breath away. 🙂 Continue reading

the painted and sculpted caves of ajanta

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If you were ever of the opinion that Buddhist art was all about asceticism and restraint, think again. The caves at Ajanta, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, are a lavish statement to the contrary as I discovered earlier this month on a five-day trip exploring the region in and around Aurangabad. But then, isn’t that what travel is meant to do? Break perceptions. 🙂

Imbued with sensuality borrowed from its sibling, Hinduism, ancient Buddhist art in its parent country is filled with nudes performing graceful mudras, figures wrapped in erotic embraces, and faces marked with raw emotion. Interspersed in this human carnival are serene, silent, meditating Buddhas, perfectly at peace in their company.

The mix of spiritual with secular, ordinary with sublime are common traits in Indian aesthetics. Why then should Buddhist art have been any different! Continue reading

art focus – traversing terrains – s.h. raza


Bindu (1984)

“You have to concentrate on one idea. I usually offer one advice to young men, concentrate on one woman. One woman gives everything. One idea, in the same way, is sufficient for an artist.”
~ S.H. Raza

For Sayed Haider Raza [1922 – 2016], his one idea was the Bindu. The dot. He never tired of exploring and expressing it. The brackish circle against a passionate red square hanging on the wall in front of me reiterated his words, sucking me in, into another world. A world which Raza saw and was determined to give a voice to. Continue reading

photo essay: the hidden graffiti of rishikesh

What do “Across the Universe” by the Beatles, “TM Song” by Beach Boys, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan, and “Jesus Children of America” by Stevie Wonder have in common?

Okay. Let me rephrase it. What do Transcendental Meditation, an Ashram on the foothills of the Himalayas, the top pop bands of the 1960s, and Canadian street artist ARTXPAN aka Pan have in common?

Gotcha! 😀

The most fascinating permutations and combinations are often revealed in the most hidden places. Like the street art decorating the ruins of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram in Rishikesh where the Beatles spent the winter of 1968 in search of spirituality and came up with a whopping 48 songs, a bulk of which went into their “White Album.” Continue reading

delhi’s national museum bronze gallery: where bronzes sing tales of god and art

A babel of meditative Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist chants fills the gallery. Breaking the rhythmic loop is the tinkle of bells on a dainty anklet wrapped around a goddess’ voluptuous leg. Almost in competition, I hear the stomping of feet as Shiva, the destroyer, dances in passionate abandon, flames emanating in a fiery ring around him. Bharata, Rama’s brother from the Ramayana, a mere couple of feet away, holds up his brother’s sandals on his head to place them on the throne to rule as regent of the Ayodhya kingdom, accompanied by verses from the epic.

“Excuse me.”

The clipped British accent snaps me out of my reverie. And that of the deities too, who freeze mid-dance, mid-song, mid-chant, in sparkling glass cubicles scattered across the air-conditioned hall—lurching the room to pin-drop silence. And I wonder if I had imagined it all. Continue reading

preserving a disappearing heritage: the bagh cave paintings at bhopal state museum

Nestled deep in the heart of India, on the banks of the seasonal Baghani river in Madhya Pradesh, are a series of nine rock-cut Buddhist temples covered with jewel-like murals. Known as the Bagh Caves, they date back to the 4th to 6th Centuries AD. According to legend they were built by a Buddhist monk called Dataka.

Contemporaries of the better-known Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, only five survive of its original nine. Very few even know of these five. I for one, did not. Did you? Continue reading

a 1,000-year-old royal couple’s expression of love and piety: modhera and patan

Do you like stories? I do. A lot. 🙂

Especially stories of those who live larger-than-life lives in spirit and feat.

This post is the tale of one such story—of a king called Bhimadeva I and his lovely, loving queen Udayamati, who lived a thousand years ago. And no, it is no myth. There are colossal monuments they left behind as testimony of their love and piety, as I discovered one sunny wintry day I travelled 75 kilometres north-west of Ahmedabad in Western India, in the state of Gujarat.

Come, let me tell you more.

Son of Agni, the fire-god’s, Sun Temple of Modhera

Continue reading

global travel shot: an ethiopian soldier’s gift to ahmedabad

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Yin and yang. Negative and positive. Feminine and masculine. Dark and light. Two sides which together make a whole.

Sidi Saeed, an Ethiopian who found his way to the Gujarat Sultanate’s army via Yemen, way back in 1572, seemed to have some inkling of this. Armed with 45 sculptors, “the nobleman who helped the poor and had a large collection of books,” created a series of jalis or stone screens as part of the Sidi Saeed Mosque in the heart of Ahmedabad. The most exquisite was the “tree of life” with its swirling, leaf-lined, abloom branches, topped with a palm motif; its beauty heightened when seen from both the outside and inside. It was hard put to decide which side was a lovelier sight. Continue reading