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

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 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

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

top 15 memorable things to do in bukhara

Bukhara is the third stop on my journey to Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

Whilst Khiva is a compact fairy-tale town enclosed in medieval walls, Bukhara is scattered, both geographically and thematically, as well as bigger: There is the marketplace, learning and spiritual hub, royal grounds, and necropolis. If one is not aware of its various facets, it is easy to give some of them a slip.

And hey, Bukhara does not come into our lives every day. So here are my top 15 things to do in Bukhara, a World Heritage Site, and why I chose to put them in this list. If you have any that you feel merit a place, please do share. 🙂

1. Get up close and personal with Nasreddin Hodja, the Islamic world and Bukhara’s most loved trickster

bukhara_nasreddinhodja Continue reading

zoroastrian khorezm: the ancient viloyat of uzbekistan

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A journey to Samarkand is about medieval mythical cities and ancient forts going as far back as 500 years before Christ. First Zoroastrian, followed by Islamic, the sites still stand in all their glory today—many restored, others in ruins. But in spite of this, the journey is not just about geographies, edifices or time. It is to the grandeur within us. But that, I hope, will become clearer as my blog post series on Uzbekistan unfolds. 🙂

I started in Nukus. You may well ask why Nukus for it is not the usual starting point. Well, my answer is: It is the western most city, has the finest collection of historical and cultural artefacts at its State Art Museum Savitsky Collection thereby offering a splendid introduction to the country, and is the most low key in the circuit. Everything only gets more fantastical from here onwards.

Nukus also lies on the outskirts of Khorezm [or Khwarezm or Chorasmia (Persian)]—an oasis, the site of an ancient civilization by the same name, and now a province. Continue reading

top 15 memorable things to do in fes, morocco’s cultural and spiritual capital

Fes.

It was everything I’d imagined it to be, and more.

When travellers claim no journey to Morocco is truly complete without a halt in the Kingdom’s oldest imperial city, it is no hogwash.

Fiercely spiritual and traditional. A centre for learning with the world’s oldest university. Yet fearless when it comes to voicing contradictory ideas.

Here the arts and crafts thrive, unhindered and unadulterated, as they have for 1,200 years. At the peak of the Almohad empire in the 12th Century AD, Fes had 372 mills, 9,082 shops, 47 soap factories, and 188 pottery workshops. But Fes is also politically voracious.

Its nine thousand alleyways are notorious as a place guaranteed to get lost in. Even locals claim they stick to the lanes they are familiar with.

Enigmatic and mysterious, it has secrets it does not divulge to the casual feet and eye. Continue reading

meknes: the story of a bloodthirsty sex-addict sultan and his beloved imperial city

“Green is the sweetest colour; white is a good sign for those appealing to him; but when he is dressed in yellow, all the world trembles and flees his presence, because it is the colour that he chooses on the days of his bloodiest executions.”
~ Dominique Busnot, Histoire Du Regne de Moulay Ismail, Roi de Maroc (1704)

Once upon a time lived a Sultan in Morocco who loved his imperial city called Meknes with every fibre of his being. The 55 years he reigned, the longest by any Moroccan Sultan, were spent building gates, mosques, madrassas, palaces and gardens in it, each more magnificent than the other. When he died, aged 82 in 1727 AD, he had one of the most beautiful mausoleums ever built in the Kingdom made to house his corpse.

A slender man of medium height, a long face and dark skin [his mother was an African slave], he was the 2nd ruler of the Alaouite Kingdom. His name was Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif aka the Warrior King of Morocco.

Apart from Meknes, if there was anything else Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif loved—it was women, and sex. A lot more than the ordinary. Better known as the Sultan who had 10 wives, 500 concubines, and 1,171 children, his 700th son was born just after his death. His 10th wife was an Irishwoman by the name of Mrs. Shaw. He also proposed to his contemporary, Louis XIV’s, daughter. He was quite smitten by her charm and beauty. However, she declined.

The other two things he is still remembered for, nearly three hundred years after his death, are his cruelty and his army of Black Guards. Continue reading

discover ancient roman volubilis through a self-guided walk

There is a reason I travel solo. I tend to get lost when I travel. No, not physically. That would be impossible in today’s day and age with Google Maps and diligent service providers busy at work with their mobile phone tracking systems to keep you connected. What I mean is I get lost in the experience. I lose track of time. Which is great for me, but, have come to realize, is not so great for others. 😀

This post is about one such lost-in-the-experience day I spent at a place called Volubilis in northern Morocco, in the foothills of Mount Zerhoun. And how you too, if you wish [that is], could lose yourself in its magic!

Volubilis was a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire. Though dating back to the 3d Century BC and occupied till the 11th Century AD, its hey-day lasted from 44 – 285 AD when it was capital of the Roman province Mauretania Tingitana.

It was a wealthy town—fertile grain and olive oil-producing lands surrounded it—and its 20,000 Romanised Amazigh inhabitants lived in fancy villas lining broad avenues. Today, the archaeological site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 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

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