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

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

a self-guided walk through biblical mount of olives

Caution: This post is for travellers. Not tourists.

Whew. Now that I have got that out of the way, let me write on. Comforted by the thought you and I are on the same page.

Some of us like to wander. To immerse ourselves at a particular site just because, inexplicably, it touches a chord within us. To gaze at the details. Behind and under the obvious. To look at all versions of history and legends with an open mind.

The reason I bring it up particularly for my post on the Mount of Olives is because one cannot not visit the Mount of Olives while in Jerusalem. For that would be blasphemy. But you’d like to do it at your own pace.

Why? Because you are in the Holy Land. And Jesus Christ spent his last night before his crucifixion as well as ascended to heaven from here. Christian communities from around the globe have built a string of lovely churches down a near perpendicular street between these two key sites. Because you do not have to be believers of the Old or New Testament to believe in a higher sacred self. Or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. But also, because the view from the top and the walk to the bottom is what memories, which make you all starry-eyed once back home, are made of. 🙂 Continue reading

36 hours in tel aviv

Flashback. 11 April, 1909. There are 66 Jewish families standing in a circle on a desolate sand dune, just north of Jaffa, the ancient Arab port-city on the Mediterranean coast. Inside the circle are two boxes. One contains 60 grey seashells with plot numbers and the other has 60 white seashells with names of the families. A girl randomly picks up a grey seashell while a boy picks up a white seashell.

And hence, the first 60 plots of Tel Aviv meaning the ‘hill of spring’ are assigned and Israel’s future city is born. Within one year all the homes are built along with the main streets.

Flashforward. November 2019. The Tel Aviv I am standing in is futuristic and forward-looking. It is an IT hub, gay capital of the Middle East, vegan capital of the world, secular, hedonistic, and has an all-night party scene and 15 kilometres of sun, sand and sea.

There are around 3,000 high-tech companies and start-ups in the city, the highest outside Silicon Valley, to the extent Tel Aviv and its surrounding areas are called Silicon Wadi [Wadi is Arabic for valley]. The technology behind all chats, the world’s first anti-virus software, and USB stick were invented here.

I see lesbian couples indulging in heavy PDA and muscled men in leather briefs strut down the jogging paths on Rothschild Boulevard. Everyone seems to have a dog. According to statistics, Tel Aviv has a 17-to-1 people to dog ratio and 60 dog parks. And yes, it is also one of the top 10 cities for the most beautiful women … and men.

But Tel Aviv is not just all beauty and brains and their furry best friends, as I discovered. Continue reading

the three magnificent jewels of israel’s judaean desert

It was 2 am and I could not take my eyes off the exhilarating landscape in the travel documentary. I sat hunched over my computer with goose bumps on my arms, infatuated at the desert and oasis and sea which unfurled in front of me. I was leaving for Israel in a couple of weeks.

“This can’t be for real???” was all my cynical mind could muster at regular intervals. But numerous other media reiterated the same splendours with stubborn vendetta to my doubting self.

Not many places live up to their hype—except the Judaean Desert. As I discovered last year in November. Continue reading

nazareth, in search of jesus christ’s hometown

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

“Come and see.”

The above conversation took place between two of Jesus Christ’s would-be disciples, Nathanael and Philip, some 2,000 years ago and has been recounted many times over through the Bible.

Nazareth back then was a city steeped in vice. Against a backdrop of crime and derelict morals, a young innocent virgin was told she would give birth to the son of god. This son went on to spend his childhood and youth in Nazareth’s by-lanes and eventually lead a religion that has 2.4 billion followers today or almost one-third of the global population.

Though Bethlehem is more closely associated with Christ during Christmas, I thought I’d write about his hometown instead this festive season, and the sites connected with his home and family—for is that not what Christmas is about? A time for celebration with family. 😊 Continue reading

global travel shot: uninterrupted prayers at the wailing wall

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Welcome to my blog post series on Israel, a tiny country where world politics and religions converge, and it takes a mere five hours to drive across its entire length. 🙂

So, is Israel on your bucket list? It was on mine. For a very long time. But I was filled with doubts on how to go about it. It turned out that the one country I was most unsure and nervous about travelling to solo and independently was in fact the easiest to explore on my own. Israel is an independent traveller’s dream come true.

Don’t believe me?

Come along with me as I blog about Israel over the next few months, the land of Yhwh’s “Chosen Ones,” in a series which traverses three Abrahamic religions and countless natural sites of mind-boggling beauty over a 15-day voyage—at the epicentre of which is the “Wall.” Continue reading

the spectacular treasures of samarkand

Registan, Samarkand

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

~ James Elroy Flecker

One cannot claim to be a traveller, and not have made the journey to Samarkand. Or at least have thought of it, fantasised about it. It would be blasphemy.

Samarkand is everything the traveller searches for, within and outside of oneself. It reveals secrets about life held gently amidst its spectacular edifices in blue and gold. The romantic exotic tile-clad mosques, madrasahs, tombs, bazaars and squares transpose one back 500 years in time to a grand fairy-tale city, deep in arid windswept Central Asia. On a philosophical note, Samarkand is the semi-mythological place of “justice, fairness, and righteousness” in Islamic Classical literature.

Much like Flecker’s reference to it, a lust for knowing more about ourselves and these ideals, makes the passage to Samarkand one of those non-negotiable, mandatory journeys one just has to take. 🙂 Continue reading

why tashkent needs to be in your travel bucket list

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I bet you never thought of Tashkent as a candidate for your travel bucket list. Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand in Uzbekistan—of course. But Tashkent? It’s the administrative centre. Aren’t capital cities of historically rich countries drab and dry in comparison? Well, at least that is the assumption we most often live with. A fair enough one, for they often are so, serving as entry and exit points for air travel, or are confined to business and politics.

But some are a bit more. Tashkent is one of them. Now I am not saying it is steeped in history or burgeoning with attractions like the rest of the country. You may well be disappointed if you expect too much. You may even get cross with me for my recommendation. 🙂

Known as Tashkent or Toshkent, meaning ‘Stone City’ since the 11th Century, it is a showcase of ‘modern Uzbekistan’, a sparsely populated country proud of both its rich heritage and recent independence in 1991. Continue reading

shakhrisabz, warlord tamerlane aka temur the lame’s hometown

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The grandeur of the Ak-Saray Palace and the simplicity of his own intended tomb—both in Shakhrisabz—perhaps best describe Amir Temur the person, better known as Tamerlane [Temur, the lame]. Complex, multi-faceted, termed history’s most callous butcher, conqueror of southern, western and central Asia, he was the founder of the Timurid dynasty, and the great-great-great-grandfather of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire in India. He lived from 1336 – 1405 AD.

Ahmad ibn Arabshah, Temur’s Arab biographer, had to say this of him when the latter was 70 years old:

“Steadfast in mind and robust in body, brave and fearless, firm as rock. He did not care for jesting or lying; wit and trifling pleased him not; truth, even were it painful, delighted him … He loved bold and valiant soldiers, by whose aid he opened the locks of terror, tore men to pieces like lions, and overturned mountains. He was faultless in strategy, constant in fortune, firm of purpose and truthful in business.”

Continue reading