#3 abandoned fatehpur sikri: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

“Jesus, son of Mary said, ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.'”
~ Persian inscription,
Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, 1601

My recollections of Fatehpur Sikri trace back to a family holiday many eons ago. I was 10. I remember being mesmerized as I wandered through the vast, desolate expanses embellished with exquisite stonework. Long fingers of golden sunshine stroked the edifices, setting the scattered, towering, red sandstone walls aflame.

For a 10-year-old it was a surreal place totally removed from all reality as I knew it.

Over the years I would often close my eyes and go back in time to re-emerge starry-eyed about life’s wonders. Amazed about a whole city built by one of the greatest emperors history had known, in honour of a Sufi saint who predicted the one thing he wanted most—a heir to pass on his empire to. Crafted with incredible passion and precision, the emperor Akbar himself oversaw the building of the site from its floor plans to the hand-chiselled columns and doorways to ensure it reflected his secular beliefs and heightened sense of aesthetics. Continue reading

#2 majestic agra fort: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

Sunrise at Agra Fort. Why sunrise ? Why not noon, sunset, twilight … Simple. Because at sunrise, when the warm golden light dapples over the 450-year-old walled Mughal palatial precinct and its deserted sprawling expanses, something close to magic happens. Plus I like mornings. 🙂

Built in the Indo-Islamic architectural style, the bow-shaped Fort with its 70-feet-high bastioned walls facing the Yamuna river, served as the Mughal empire’s military strategic point, as well as their royal residence.

The story of the Agra Fort is the story of three of its Mughal emperors—their resolute ambition, blinded passion, and romantic love is emblazoned over the red, intricately carved sandstone and translucent marble edifices. The story has been recounted countless times in Indian history books, movies, and music. Agra Fort lets one relive it, in what was once their home, in the company of its memories.

The emperors were Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. Continue reading

#1 poignant taj mahal: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

“The world believes it was built by love but reading Shah Jahan’s own words on the Taj, one could say it was grief that built the Taj Mahal and it was sorrow that saw it through till completion.”
~ Aysha Taryam, The Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of Commentaries

This last week I travelled to Agra. I was keeping a promise to myself to revisit the city at a slower pace, in a more mindful way. It was my 4th visit. Needless to say, my previous ones were of the mass-produced variety.

The universe, weaving its magic in my favour, decided to back me on my plan and gave me one of my most memorable and beautiful travel experiences ever. I did not use any guide. I merely read up a lot, and wandered around the sites a lot more, often seating myself at a quiet spot or another to absorb the place at leisure. May I suggest you do the same? Live Agra’s treasures. Don’t just visit them.

In this post I am uploading a series of pictures of the Taj Mahal, easily Agra’s biggest attraction, taken from 7 am to 12 noon [yes, I was there for five hours 🙂 ], and some basic context one needs to know. I hope it inspires you to let your soul and feet revel in the 350-year-old monument, like mine did. They will both thank you, profusely. Continue reading

top 15 memorable things to do in jerusalem, capital of the holy land

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
If I do not remember you,
If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
~ Psalm 137:5-6

For those who have made Jerusalem their home and those who find their way to it, across the seven seas, this verse sums up perfectly what the city in the Judaean Hills means to them.

One of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem is a holy city for all three monotheistic Abrahamic religions. Over the millennia, these three religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have all laid claim to the city as theirs. So have civilizations, empires, and kingdoms. It has been razed to the ground at least twice, laid siege to 23 times, captured 44 times, and attacked 52 times. Yet, through it all, it has survived. And always, been madly loved.

The current walls which surround the Old City date back to 1538 AD and were built by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent. Inside its walls, the city is divided into four quarters: the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Quarters, and that’s the way it has traditionally been. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jerusalem is also on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Both Israel and Palestine consider it to be their capital.

Complicated? There’s more. Three Jerusalems comprise Modern-day Jerusalem. The Old City. West Jerusalem [the new city]. And East Jerusalem [the annexed city]. Pilgrim or traveller, the fact is, Jerusalem with its eclectic mix of heritage and sights, needs to be visited at least once in one’s lifetime.

There are countless unique experiences only to be had in Jerusalem because of its volatile history and spiritual role in the scheme of things. This is by no means an exhaustive, exclusive list. But these are my top 15 memorable things to do list! 🙂 Continue reading

travel diaries: unravelling west bank’s area ‘a’

Was it Area A, B, or C. I struggled to get my head around them as the highway wound its way through all three, one into the other in a convoluted mix. At each crossroad and Area juncture there were checkpoints galore. Israeli soldiers behind bullet-proof glass and on watch towers pointed their guns at every vehicle and person that passed by on the road.

“Sit still please and no pointing.” Our Arab driver insisted as we slowed down at each checkpoint. I was torn between ducking under the seat and staring at the soldiers in warped fascination. Before I could decide, we had moved on. Only to be met by another checkpoint and red road signs.

“This road leads to Palestinian Village. The entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous.”

“This road leads to Area ‘A’ under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law.”

Area A turns out to be a string of typical Middle Eastern cities with markets, mosques, and a well-worn homely feel. To get from one to the other though, one needed to travel through the war zone highways. Makes for a difficult commute if one had to do intercity travel on a regular basis. 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

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

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

shakhrisabz1
shakhrisabz2

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, silk road’s legendary trading post

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