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 ninth day.

There is absolute silence everywhere. Even the pigeons have decided to give my balconies a miss. I look out from my 16th floor apartment and whoa, I see them strutting on the highway and flying in low circles over the lawns below instead. Free. I can even hear sparrows chirping. And it hits me that maybe they came to my balconies for refuge, to save themselves from the noise and pollution we heap, unthinking, everywhere and anywhere we can.

I am, like you, cooped up in my home with no idea of when this will end. The numbers keep increasing every day. As I write this post the counts are: 722,350 cases in 199 countries and territories globally. 33,980 deaths globally. All in a matter of a few weeks. Even as I write this paragraph, the numbers keep going up.

Dear Reader, don’t leave your dreams and passions for tomorrow! This is the one key reiteration I have had from this ongoing pandemic.

When I went to Trichy [short form for Tiruchirappalli] earlier this month and stood on Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple’s roof, surrounded by the colossal, colourful gopuras over the gateways, I had gasped at the sheer beauty around me. Gods, goddesses, local legends, and secular folks were piled up high on the towers. A heady eclectic riot of characters and stories, surreal in its vivid intensity.

The temple complex is India’s largest functioning temple and a mini-city in itself with 7 enclosures, nestled within each other, punctuated with 21 towering gopuras [entrances with towers]. Vishnu, the presiding deity lies on a coiled snake in the innermost sanctum. Over the past 2,000 years, every dynasty ruling the region has added its bit to this mind-boggling structure.

When I close my eyes even now, I can feel I am back in Trichy. Back on that roof of the tentatively-listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. The deities all around me, partly lost in their own worlds, and partly amused at my bewitchment with them.

Once we are out of this pandemic, do travel, whenever you can. Or whatever it is that makes you super-happy and does not cause harm to others. Don’t leave it for another tomorrow. Gasp at the wonders whilst there is still a gasp and a wonder—and the twain can meet. ❤


Detail: Vishnu seated under the hood of the serpent god Sheshnaga with his consorts Sridevi [Laxmi] to his left, and Bhudevi and Neeladevi to his right.

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. Each dynasty and empire have 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

global travel shot: the durbar hall in mysore palace

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I could never get tired of exploring India. This past week, I stumbled upon a new found love. A love for India’s southern states. I was in Mysore.

The Durbar Hall, also known as Sajje or Dasara Hall, in Mysore Palace is the most photographed room, for a better word, in the city. I had visited the palace earlier, many moons ago, as part of a college educational two-week trip. I remember, distinctively, I had found it kitsch and over the top, and was quick to dismiss it.

I guess I have changed. It is still kitsch, but this time I found beauty in its perfect symmetry. The grandeur, imposing. The stories in its walls – riveting. Continue reading

volunteering diaries: a pan-indian carrom board match in mother teresa’s hospice

As India gears up for Daan Utsav, the national Joy of Giving Week festival held from 2 to 8 October, this year has a special significance for me. In my role as a volunteer with the festival’s Mumbai chapter, I organize various events of giving for the week. A handful of them are usually held at the housing complex I live in. And guess what, this year one of the events is centred around donating groceries and spending a morning at the Mother Teresa and Missionaries of Charity’s Home for the Destitute here in Mumbai!

If you wondering what’s so special about this, well, it is a reason for me to revisit some rather magical personal memories.

Some time ago I had spent an afternoon, just like the upcoming one on 5 October, volunteering at Mother Teresa’s hospice for the sick, destitute and dying in Kolkata. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life. A day I would like share with you today in my blog. 🙂 Continue reading

36 hours in dharamshala, home of the dalai lama

A visit to Dharamshala is on every Indian traveller, and every traveller to India’s, bucket list. With Tibetan monasteries snuggled in cedar-clad hills, crooked narrow streets, and the mighty frozen Himalayas for a backdrop, the city offers unparalleled charm. Why, even its name is a winner. Dharam Shala means “spiritual dwelling.” 🙂

For two thousand years though, Dharamshala was a mere hamlet, ruled along with the rest of the Kangra valley by the Katoch rulers based in Kangra Fort. A tiny colonial hill-station during the British Raj, it catapulted to international fame when it was presented in May 1960 to the 14th Dalai Lama by the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to serve as the former’s new headquarters. There has been no looking back for the settlement up in the Dhauladhar range since then.

Dharamshala’s sights can be broadly divided into three parts: All that is Tibetan, what little that is left of the British Raj, and Dharamshala’s past and present Indian heritage.

But hey, didn’t the Dalai Lama live in McLeod Ganj? 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

travel diaries: the true blue heroes of dharamshala

Meet Sunny from Chamba [left] and Rahul from Dharamshala [right]. Sunny is 23 and Rahul is just 18. They both work in a gift shop in McLeod Ganj.

Real heroes don’t wear shining armour. Neither do they strut across cinema or sport or on social media to the thundering applause of likes. Instead, real heroes live amongst us in our everyday lives, usually in anonymity. I met my two real, true blue heroes last week. 🙂

It all started with a mention of Dip Tse Chok Ling monastery whilst reading up about Dharamshala. The idea of a secluded monastery, perched half-way up the Dhauladhar range, wrapped in green forest was appealing. An alley, followed with a few hundred steps deep into the bowels of the valley, led me to it. On the way down, unfortunately, my hiking boots, perhaps at the end of their tether, gave way, and I had to pack my shoe’s sole in my camera bag. Continue reading

the essential travel guide to aurangabad

Some travels are utopian. From brilliant guides to a lack of raucous crowds. From welcoming hotels to incident-free rides. From one-in-a-million experiences to unforgettable random moments. My 5-day solo exploration of Aurangabad and its environs in the month of March this year was one such. Unmarred at every level.

This post is about paying it forward. It is my way of passing on all the wonderful things that made my trip memorable. Perhaps some of these tips and insights could make your journey to Aurangabad just as special as they had made mine.

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Aurangabad is no stranger to travellers. It is the springboard for excursions to the world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Ajanta and Ellora. It is from here that one usually sets off to explore the one-of-its-kind Lonar Crater Lake, a National Geo-Heritage Monument. Within the city itself are numerous edifices which bookmark key characters and events in India’s colourful history.

Yet, the sleepy town in the heart of the Indian state of Maharashtra seems unmoved by its role in the global tourism arena. Its traffic-free streets breathe at a leisurely pace. Its quiet neighbourhoods hum to a small-town rhythm reminiscent of the time when it was a village that went by the name Khadki. Continue reading