palaces of madurai and thanjavur, a peek into tamil nadu’s 17th century royal lives

Where gods are celebrated there are usually rulers behind it.

Where there are temples … There are also, thus, palaces.

The Temple Towns of Tamil Nadu were no different.

Most of these palaces have crumbled to the vagaries of time. These are after all a couple of thousand-year-old cities we are talking about. But what remains is mind-boggling. Colossal as if made for giants. Filled with art as if it were the only language spoken and understood.

This is my last post in my Tamil Nadu Temple Town series. I thought it befitting I end it with the spectacular palaces in Madurai and Thanjavur, cities which housed India’s most magnificent temples. These palaces were the last homes of its rulers, a peek into royal life four hundred years ago. Continue reading

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

trankebar: 5 danish memories in tamil nadu

Of all the sagas on colonial rule in India, one stands out apart—for its miniscule scale and perseverance to hold on to its holdings. I am talking about the Danish.

Did you know the Danish colonised India? More importantly, did you know they colonised not one, but three disparate and far apart locations for over 200 years. These were Serampore [near Kolkata], Nicobar Islands [of Andaman and Nicobar Islands], and Tranquebar.

My post is about the last one in this list. Tranquebar, or Trankebar as the Danes called it, on Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast. A patch of “5 miles by 3 in extent” which they ruled from 1620 – 1845 and was their capital city in this part of the world.

I was on a week-long exploration of the temple towns of Tamil Nadu in early-March this year. Tranquebar was a breath of fresh sea-air in the mix. One I was determined to include.

All that remains of this once bustling trading post is a series of sand-washed forlorn monuments hugging the coast, and Danish memories. Five memories to be precise. Happy time-travel to Danish India. 😊 Continue reading

chettinad: opulent mansions and spicy chicken in sleepy villages

India is full of surprises. Do you agree?

There are the usual suspects in India’s travel mix: Temples, forts, palaces, beaches, the Himalayas, and wildlife reserves. Throw in some yummy food, colourful festivals and yoga, and one may well be duped into believing—India, aah! Been there, done that.

Then, almost out of the blue, is a collection of around 75 sleepy villages in southern Tamil Nadu filled with uber-rich villagers’ mansions dating from the 1850s to 1940. Often filled with a hundred-odd rooms, they span across two streets in the neat grid plans which swathe the villages.

On their walls are massive mahogany framed mirrors all the way from Belgium while the floors are decorated with dainty English ceramic tiles spangled with roses, hand-made Athangudi tiles and Italian marble. Smooth Burmese teak pillars hold up ceilings from which enormous sparkling Venetian Murano glass chandeliers dangle. Continue reading

the unesco-listed ‘great living chola temples’ of tamil nadu

The lady next to me, wrapped in a fuchsia pink saree and fragrant white jasmine flowers tucked into her plait, gently tugged her ears and patted her cheeks repeatedly. This was accompanied with murmured mantras under her breath. There was absolute love and wonder in her eyes as she stared at the gigantic lingam in the ancient sanctuary in front of us. I turned around and lo behold, everyone around me was doing exactly the same!

So as not to look downright ignorant or disturb the others, I asked the busy priest in hushed tones what the gesticulations meant. He replied with a bemused smile and booming voice, “They are praying.”

Of course.

Nothing has changed in the temple towns in Tamil Nadu. Neither the rituals, mantras, towering granite edifices, or the hand gestures. A thousand years ago when the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur was built by King Rajaraja Chola I, the devotees most likely stood just like this, pulling their ears and tapping their faces. Every cell of their beings focussed on the lingam, and through it on Brahman, the universal fundamental Hindu truth. Continue reading

dhanushkodi: the indian border ghost town where mythology and cyclones meet

Dhanushkodi.

Meaning ‘End of Bow’.

It is 5:30 am and the alarm on my phone wakes me from my deep slumber with its cacophonic ring. I had slept late last night after taking part in an elaborate ritual at the 12th Century Madurai Temple which drew to a close only around midnight.

Known as the Palliarai pooja, the hour-long event saw the faithful escort Shiva from his shrine to that of his consort Meenakshi’s to spend a night of love-making. A ritual that has taken place every night uninterrupted for the past hundreds of years in the temple’s inner sanctums.

It was slowly dawning on me that in this part of the world common folks honoured their gods with much affection and awe. They were never separate or divided from them. Even their gods’ emotional and sexual desires were fondly celebrated. But more of all that in another post.

Today, I am on my way to Pamban Island connected by a road and railway track over the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. On to India’s international border with Sri Lanka under a radiant blue sky, surrounded on three sides by equally radiant blue oceans. My destination is a tiny patch where land, sea and sky meet, and where one of Hindu mythology’s most significant events took place, at a distance of 192 kilometres south-east of Madurai. Continue reading

india travel shot: wonders of trichy’s vishnu temple—travel like today is all you’ve got

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My beloved mom on our long-distance WhatsApp call: “You have just come back from Mysore!”

Me: “The temple towns of Tamil Nadu are a world apart.”

My beloved mom: “Why don’t you go later, say in April?”

Me: “Nooooo. That will be too late!”

I often have conversations like the above with my mom. She is a homebody. I am usually looking for the next travel adventure.

This time it was no different. Wrong, it was different.

When I said it will be “too late” I had no idea that barely two weeks after my return from a 7-day exploration of the temple towns of Tamil Nadu, the world would be turned completely topsy-turvy by a virus called COVID-19. Especially my own city, Mumbai. Curfews. Lockdowns. Flights, trains, buses, cabs—all services cancelled. I have been living, like others in the Maximum City which never sleeps, in self-isolation since the 22nd of March. No one in my gated community is allowed to step out of one’s main doors. Today is the 9th day. Continue reading

once upon a day in mysore: a one day itinerary of south india’s royal city

What if I told you there is a small town in South India which will forever remain your favourite, long after you visit it. What if I told you that in this town, frangipani trees sway gently and history, heritage, art and literature sit in easy camaraderie. That people here are simpler and the sky is bluer. Would the traveller in you jump for it?

I am talking about Mysore, renamed Mysuru, its original name, in 2014.

Less than a million-population live under its green shade of aged fig trees and their sprawling branches. Its wide dusty roads weave their way through a life where nothing much has changed over time.

From 1399 to 1950 Mysore was the seat of the Wodeyar dynasty, rulers of the Kingdom of Mysore except for a brief interlude when Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan snatched the reigns. The Wodeyar family still lives in the Mysore Palace and the dynasty’s legacy permeates the entire town. From its seven palaces, of which two have been turned into museums, to its tutelary goddess perched high up on a hill, to its terraced gardens over the sacred Cauvery river. Continue reading

srirangapatna, historical capital of tipu sultan: the why, what, where, when, how guide

Some 18.5 kilometres to the north-east of Mysore city, on an island called Srirangapatna, lies a dusty town lost in time. Its current worn state belies its glorious past which still reveals itself shyly from behind its weathered structures.

Key historical events have taken place on its softly undulating plains. Larger than life rulers who till date evoke strong emotions made the island the centre of their universe.

Welcome to my guide on Srirangapatna, capital of the 18th Century ruler Tipu Sultan aka the Tiger of Mysore. The Why, What, Where, When and How guide of a town well off the usual tourist circuit, but deeply ingrained in every Indian history book, mass media, world museums and private collections.

[Note: Top image: Detail, Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, 4 May 1799, British East India Company painting.] Continue reading

travel diaries: in search of shravanabelagola’s bahubali

The entire 615 steps carved into the rock’s gleaming surface rose straight above me. No left or right turns. Just straight up, with a rudimentary metal rod for support along its length. Some of the steps were shallow, others steep. All equally worn out under the bare feet of countless pilgrims and travellers over a thousand years. The steps themselves were just as bare under the scorching sun, minus any shade whatsoever.

Only one spiritually legitimate way exists to reach the 58-feet-8-inch-high naked granite monolith of Bahubali Gommateshwara, the inimitable deity-hero in Jainism perched on top of the sacred Vindhyagiri Hill in Shravanabelagola. It is by climbing up these steps.

Though another flight of steps winds its way up on the western side of the 470-feet-high hill, this is the original path cut into the rock by Chavundaraya, a Ganga dynasty minister and commander way back in 981 AD. And by now you know me. It had to be the original path for me. 😀

It was 1 in the afternoon when I reached the minuscule town of Shravanabelagola after exploring the Hoysala temple at Somanathapur. My plan was to use one of the palanquins I had read about to reach the top. But do plans ever go as planned? Continue reading

poetry, myths and stone: the millennia-old sculpted hoysala temples of karnataka

Cries of “Hoy, Sala” [Strike, Sala] rang out as Sala, a Jain youth, single-handed fought a tiger to save his guru. It was around 950 AD, in the Deccan plains of South India. He immortalised this cry in the name of the dynasty he founded—Hoysala—which ruled the region till 1355 AD. The incident became its emblem.

Sandwiched between the Chalukya dynasty in Badami and the ruling Cholas in Thanjavur, Sala and his descendants created a flourishing agrarian empire populated by a sophisticated society, and where the arts thrived. Their capital was Belur, then called Velapuri. Vishnuvardhana [1108 – 1152 AD], the 5th Hoysala king, later moved his capital to Halebidu, 17 kilometres away, where it stayed till the end.

Though Hoysala palaces and homes are long gone, their stone temples still stand. Even time and wars have not been able to diminish their exquisite beauty, a fascinating peek into a by-gone society’s values and aesthetics.

So, if you ever thought all temples in India look the same, think again. Every dynasty and empire in the Indian sub-continent created its own inimitable style through history. Hoysala temples are typified by being star-shaped, compact structures on a raised platform, ornate with a focus on dance and music, and carved out of soapstone. 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