9 day trip

Cappadocia – Of womanly sins and underground cities

We went to bed with the intention to wake up early. However, the rooms in the cave hotel were so dark and optimized for sleep that it was 8AM by the time any of us realized it was morning. A quick round of freshening up and we made our way to a yummy breakfast of fruits, cheeses, wafers, corn flakes, milk and omelettes.IMG_8733 Due to waking up late, we missed the view of the hot air balloons filling up the Cappadocia sky but had 2 floating into our view towards the end of our breakfast just to cheer us up! Sometimes that is enough to make up a memory that brings a smile to your face.IMG_8734

After freshening up we headed to the Ihlara valley which is a canyon of about 100 m depth formed 1000s of years ago by the Melendiz River. It extends to 14 km making 26 bends along the way so one can only imagine how large the area is.IMG_3357

Unless you’ve several days in Cappadocia this is one place you may benefit from either limiting yourself or taking a guide along to visit a few spots to get an idea of the space.  Despite the heat, it is a pleasant place to wander with the river flowing by your side and the pistachio and poplar trees providing some respite.IMG_3372

Byzantine monks and Christians fleeing the Roman army dug their houses and churches since the 7th century out of the stone deposited by the volcanic Mount Hasan. It’s said that due to multiple languages spoken in the region, low literacy rate and knowledge of Latin the illustrations within these churches were used to aid understanding of Christianity. IMG_3382Depending on one’s interest and energy levels one can easily spend an entire day out here stumbling upon caves and the 105 churches to explore at every turn. We, however, had limited time and decided to check out 3 of them.

The serpent church: The paintings in this church are relatively very well preserved. The walls of the church are full of scenes from the bible- the Ascension of Jesus, the Crucifixion, the last supper and scenes of Mary with the infant Jesus, myriad prophets. However the name of the church itself – in addition to patterns of intertwined snakes on the ceiling, comes from the scene of 4 women attacked by snakes.

  • 1 for leaving her children
  • 2nd from not feeding the children
  • 3rd being bitten on the tongue for slander
  • And the 4th because of her “disobedience”

It’s interesting how women-specific these sins seem to be. As an articulate modern woman, all I have to say to it is..Pbbbbtt…

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Sumbullu(Jacinth) church: The exterior of the churches gave us flashbacks of the Ajanta caves especially with its structure that was 2 storeys high. Below was the church, also with numerous frescoes and above was a long room. From there you get a nice view of the canyon walls.IMG_3413

Agacalti (daniel pantonassa) church: A surprisingly large amount of the frescoes on the ceilings are still visible in lovely shades of red, blue, yellow and white. In addition to the scenes from the Bible, it had an abundance of angels on the ceilings and more prophets on the walls.IMG_3367

Kaymaklı Nevşehir Merkez

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In a search for directions and lunch, we stumbled upon a charming restaurant and were treated with the sweetest smile from an Afghani waiter on knowing we were from India. IMG_8746With the babbling brook beside and the quacking of happy ducks in their waters for company, we enjoyed our meal and then made our way to Kaymakli .IMG_8741

At a depth of 200 ft depth Derinkuyu underground city is the deepest multi-level underground city in Turkey and Kaymakli is the widest. Both are connected through tunnels of several miles in length. Due to limited time, we just headed to Kaymakli since it was the closest to where we were.  The concept of an underground city itself takes a moment to fathom for those of us hearing of it for the very first time. This space housed 3500 people along with their livestock and food storage. The 80 feet deep ventilation shaft was meant to get sufficient oxygen to the residents but they made me nervous since I couldn’t but think of horrific scenarios where it could get blocked. The stone was said to naturally absorb smoke thereby allowing them to cook indoors. IMG_3462The residents even made wine indoors, had a well for their needs of water, had churches and schools too. One of the large stones had 57 holes carved into it for copper ore to be poured into and hammered with rocks via a pre-historic metallurgical process.

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The space was optimized for security with a long list of features not limited to

  • narrow tunnels that you (still) need to crouch through so enemy soldiers can only attack in a single file.
  • All water sources self-contained so that it all couldn’t be poisoned at one time.
  • Peepholes on entrances that could only be opened from inside.

Note: Supposedly the Kaymakli underground city tunnels are steeper, narrower and more inclined than Derinkyu. If you’ve any form of claustrophobia we’d strongly advise against visiting either of these spaces.

Even when it was not occupied by people to live in, the underground cities continued to be used for housing animals, food storage and as a winery due to the stable indoor temperatures. It is not completely clear who first built the underground city, however, Christians and Cappadocian Greeks used this place as a refuge at various times against Muslim-Arab raids, Mongolian attacks, Turkish-Muslim rulers. Unfortunately despite that, even in the early 20th century, thousands of Greek Christians had been massacred and therefore forced to leave Cappadocia and abandon their underground refuge.IMG_3423

Personally, we found this place extremely moving- on one hand one cannot but admire the ingenuity of the design of space while on the other it’s heartbreaking that humans can drive their own into a situation so desperate as to need to use it. We felt extremely privileged to have the opportunity to see this place and hopefully learn from it-if nothing else, as a reminder of the continued need for tolerance and humanity.

Meanwhile, we hadn’t realised how time flew and had just enough time for freshening up in record time and getting to our bus to Ephesus.

9 day trip

Cappadocia: Of rose coloured valleys and fairy chimneys

Early the next morning we took a flight to Cappadocia and 3 buses later landed in Goreme. The buses took a couple of hours to get us to Goreme and at the centre of the town we booked a car to use within Cappadocia for the next 2 days.

Note: Cappadocia is tourism optimized. Every travel agent or even your place of stay can help you with 3 “tours” which include a specific set of places. It goes by the names

  • Red tour
  • Green tour
  • Blue tour

The red tour can be done in 1/2 day if you go with someone who’s offering it but the other 2 require a day at least. The red and green ones are considered must-dos in comparison to the blue one.

We, however, chose to hire a self-drive car to go around at our own pace. Our trip already included quite a few early mornings due to connecting internal travel in Turkey in a short time so we wanted to have a slower pace when within each area. With the car in hand, we made our way to the hotel to check-in. The hotel manager was gracious enough to help us with information about how we could spend our time in Cappadocia. While our rooms were getting set up, we enjoyed some tea and a long chat with him about tourists, cultures, Rumi, tolerance, food, and politics.

Note: Wrt stay, a must-do is to stay in a cave hotel/cave house. It may be touristy but it’s an experience hard to find elsewhere in your travels so you might as well, there are options for every budget with various degrees of facilities.

Now hungry we had a lunch of what’s referred to as Turkish pasta, rice wrapped in grape leaves (it was sour if you’re wondering), some chicken and rice, fries, and a repeat order of the vegetarian testi kebab.IMG_8709.jpg

The Uchisar castle makes you update your expectations wrt a castle. If we thought the one in Leh was bare, this gave a whole new view of what a castle could look like. It was carved out of the rocks, with no adornments or decorations.IMG_3152.jpg It was optimized for defence and security while retaining the appearance of natural rock. This was mostly used by families as retreats during attacks by enemy armies while in peaceful times just used as a place to stay- perhaps the earliest multi-storey apartments! Today there are hollow rooms connected by narrow tunnels and stairs.IMG_3161.jpg You get a vantage point of view of the surroundings in all their glory. I’d say it’s a good start to your trip in Cappadocia since it provides you with a snapshot of what’s to come.IMG_3164.jpg

Pigeon Valley: This 6km long valley gets its name from the numerous dovecotes carved out of the soft structures made of volcanic rock. The pigeon poop has been long used as fertilizer for the arid soil of the region. The farmers even believe that the superior taste of the local produce is due to its properties. While we ourselves just stopped a while for a view of the valley, taking a hike through it is a popular option if you have a day to spend. If not for the minarets or houses in the distance, it’s easy to think for a moment that you’re on another planetIMG_3243.jpg

Urgup 3 graces fairy chimney /Three beauties: The structures that are so casually referred to as fairy chimneys in Cappadocia that you tend to forget the beauty and magic in the term itself.IMG_3265.jpg

2 references wrt stories about them

  1. In Greek mythology, a Charis (/ˈkeɪrɪs/; Greek: Χάρις, pronounced [kʰáris]) or Grace is one of three goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility, together known as the Charites /ˈkærᵻtiːz/ (Χάριτες [kʰáritɛːs]) or Graces. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. 
  2. A story where a princess marries a shepherd against her father’s will. They go on to have a child and hope the King will have a change of heart. However, the King sends his soldiers to kill the family and when escaping the Princess is said to have prayed to be turned into stone to escape suffering at the hands of the King’s soldiers. This the Princess, her husband and child are now believed to be the 3 structures one can see today, immortalised forever, together.

 

Devrent valley known as the Imagination valley is believed to have been formed by volcanic lava from the Erciyes and Hasan mountains that have worn out over time by the elements. And before that, it was one of the rare inland seas in the area. The formations here are said to resemble everything from dog, alligator, camel, seal and even the Mother Mary as left to your own imagination. We enjoyed walking around the slippery slopes to enjoy stunning views of the surroundings. Even if not too far ahead, we’d recommend taking just a few steps more from the tourist buses to get an other-worldly view of the place. Despite being in a bit of a hurry we couldn’t resist taking a few minutes to sit and stare. Photos do not do justice.IMG_3295.jpg

Rose Valley – is yet another spot in Cappadocia to view the unreal landscape, but what makes it special is the beautiful pinkish-orange colour it turns into with the gentle rays from the sunset. Our best view was from the road since by the time we got to the actual spot it was just past sunset with bad lighting.IMG_3334.jpg

Note: While we ourselves didn’t hire an ATV, there were groups of people riding their ATVs causing a dust storm where they went. We met another couple during our trip who recommended it highly- so if that’s your jam, then it may be worth a try! If you have the time, another option is to just take a hike around the Rose valley early afternoon so you’re done by sunset.

After getting back to the hotel, we again stepped out for a simple dinner of roasted vegetables, glasses of ayran(buttermilk) and the best baklava with ice cream on the trip.

While all of Goreme is stunning what really blew me away was the view we had at night from our stay. With lighting in most caves, it looked like a snapshot of 100s of sky lanterns just frozen in time and space.IMG_3339.jpg

Note: Taking a hot-air balloon ride is the thing to do in Cappadocia. However, our provider cancelled on us – possibly due to either overbooking or having found other tourists to pay a higher amount for the same ride. We’d recommend getting the booking done via your stay provider for a little added guarantee. It was disappointing but ah well, it made us avoid picking up any of the 100 hot air balloon souvenirs 😉

9 day trip · Uncategorized

Topkapi Palace: Of 1300 person kitchens and an angelic singer

The Topkapi palace served both residential and administrative purposes for the Ottoman sultans. Throughout our trip to Turkey, we found silly glee at identifying Turkish words that occasionally were the same in Hindi too. So the Topkapi palace literally meaning Cannon(top in Hindi) gate was a fun titbit. Though still very grand, the structures within have undergone multiple renovations due to earthquakes and fire incidents.

The area is broken up into 4 courtyards and the Harem. Unless you’re really checking things off of a list it’s a bit hard to visit every single place within it all. We took the route of wandering in and out of what we pleased.

Within the 2nd courtyard, we dropped into the imperial kitchens and bakery. It had displays of utensils used in the era in addition to silverware and porcelain. The kitchen staff had an elaborate hierarchy in order Head of the pantry->Superintendent of the Imperial kitchens assisted by the clerk of the kitchens->  Chief cook-> Master cooks, journeymen and apprentices.

The simple-sounding “kitchen” consisted of

  • The imperial pantry
  • 2 bakeries
    • One for fine bread for the Sultan and his family
    • One for ordinary bread
  • A butcher’s shop
  • A poultry shop
  • 2 dairies
    • One specializing in making yoghurt
    • One to produce butter, cheese and other milk products
  • A candle-making section
  • A vegetable store
  • A water distribution office
  • A flour mill for fine white flour was the one part which was housed separately in Bursa a town near Istanbul.IMG_3028

At its peak, it employed 1300 people in the 17th century and understandably was the largest kitchen in the Ottoman empire. We found particularly interesting with meticulously arranged exposed brick used to make both the walls and the domed ceilings.IMG_3031.jpgIMG_3033

On the opposite end of the 2nd courtyard are sections displaying armoury and various clocks of the era in addition to staying quarters for the halberdiers(who provided services for the palace quarters).IMG_3123.jpg

We walked into the 3rd courtyard and the Audience Hall– the place where the King met ambassadors of other kingdoms, his ministers and other officials.IMG_3066.jpg

Next was the Library of Ahmed the III. This space changed by definition of what I thought would be my dream library. Floor level seating, stained glass windows, gorgeous mosaics.IMG_3049.jpg

The last area we passed by was the Chamber of sacred relics in the 3rd courtyard. As named it housed stunning versions of the Quran with the most amazing calligraphy and we heard a lovely voice in the background. Wondering if it was a recorded bit of music, we were taken aback to realize it was a gentleman who was singing it live and genuinely appeared angelic in his immaculate white outfit. Since it’d be rude to just stand and stare, we walked out and plonked ourselves on the benches just outside to enjoy his singing infusing its fragrance into the gentle evening air. The large open garden area just ahead which supposedly had peacocks and gazelles during the Ottoman times now had quite a few seagulls being chased enthusiastically by toddlers seemingly just for our amusement.IMG_3052.jpg

We made our way out through the Imperial gate– a massive gate with gilded calligraphy of verses from the Quran and seals of various emperors surprised that it was only our very first day in Turkey and that so much seemed to have been experienced.IMG_3077.jpg

Note: The term Topkapi palace is misleading. It’s an immense complex which takes a few hours to cover on foot and will have you taking a few rest stops. We recommend you visit this just after your breakfast or lunch so you’re not hungry mid-way. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to even carry a packed lunch and some snacks. Your ticket is for single entry so unless you want to pay twice you’d rather come prepared to spend the time for a while.

Munching on some corn from a vendor and a chocolate simit ( a circular bread often sprinkled with sesame seeds found with stalls all over Istanbul) we made our way back to the Airbnb. We truly felt lucky to also be back to a lovely view of the Ottoman mosque of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha till it was too dark to see it anymore.

A bit rested by now and not too hungry after the simit and corn we still made our way to dinner at a nearby restaurant and shared the vegetarian version of the testi kebab. A dish cooked within sealed clay pot brought in on a plate of flames. The pot is broken open with a theatrical flourish and the dish then served.  For Indians, the vegetarian version tasted more like a milder version of sambhar with loads of vegetables. However the testi kebab is supposedly more famous in Cappadocia, and that’s where we were headed the very next day.

9 day trip

Blue Mosque and Tile museums: Of beautiful homes for the dead and the living

Munching on some fresh warm chestnuts, we walked to the Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque just opposite the Hagia Sophia. IMG_2896.jpgThis mosque, in contrast, was more of a PR move by Sultan Ahmed after a crushing defeat in a war against Persia to lead his people to continue to believe in the Ottoman power. Verses from the Quran and names of the caliphs in calligraphy adorn the walls of the mosque. However, personally, the gorgeous stained glass windows and the hand-painted ceramic Iznik tiles are what I could spend hours just to admire and enjoy.IMG_2911

Fun trivia :

  • Something new learnt – Ostrich eggs repel spiders and were therefore then placed in the chandeliers of the Blue Mosque. I’m surprised this is not more common knowledge considering the annoyance of cleaning out cobwebs! I wonder if, after a while, the eggs didn’t get rotten and stink themselves though.
  • Apparently, the 6 minarets were made at the mosque because an architect misheard the Emperor’s request for gold(altin) minarets as six(alti) minarets since the words in Turkish for both are similar.
  • Problems of long-running projects. The sultan had fixed a price for each tile and as time passed and the work was more expensive the quality of tiles diminished.IMG_2918

Note: The Mosque is still used for prayers 5 times a day, so plan your visit accordingly. We entered by 1130AM and by 12PM we saw the entrance doors were closed for prayers at 1PM. You need to take off your footwear before entering the mosque since the carpeted floor is still used for prayers. However, they provided covers to put your shoes in to carry along with you so you can wear the same on your way out. While Istanbul itself has a mix of people covered head-to-toe contrasting with others in bold, skimpy clothes, we’d urge you as a tourist to err on the side of modesty. While being comfortable, do cover up. Long dresses/skirts, regular jeans, long trousers/tights work just fine for women across locations. Carry a scarf along (which works for the sunny weather too). Long trousers are expected of men when visiting mosques, tombs.

We stopped for a while at the Tomb of Sultan Ahmed from the 17th century. Built by the architect of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue mosque it had a sombre version of its grandeur too. It now houses 32 tombs including that of the favourite dowager of the Sultan and various family members.IMG_2922.jpg

After a round of fruit juices, we set out to find the Topkapi palace and lunch whichever of them would come first. The maps were terrible at leading us on a while goose chase till the shore – so we missed the Topkapi palace despite passing by it! However, we needed food by now and stopped at a place for lunch.

The vegetarian option was literally French fries wrapped with cheese, more cheese covering some slices of fresh tomatoes, some fried bell peppers and cream on the side and all of it topped with parsley. Even with all 4 of us(we had 2 friends who had joined us for a few days on this trip) contributing, it was tough to actually finish the plate due to the inordinate amount of cheese we weren’t used to having. The non-vegetarian option was chicken with rice, bread and a side of a salad. A side of ayran(buttermilk) and we couldn’t ask for more.IMG20190929165127.jpg

We headed off to the Topkapi palace next while the rest decided to take it slow and head back to the Airbnb.

There are multiple paths from the main road and the one we took led us to the group of museums first.

Istanbul Archaeology Museum– This was referred to as the Imperial museum when first set up in the 19th century. The highlight was the display of numerous sarcophagi which was a novelty for us to see. The sarcophagi were typically set above the ground level so that friends and family could visit the deceased after they were gone, meanwhile, the limestone inside was meant to speed up the decomposition of the body. They are home shaped structures in which individuals were buried in with the belief that it would be used by them to live in the afterlife.IMG_2962.jpg Several of them were richly decorated in marble exteriors with everything from cherubs to mourning women to a scene of a battle of Alexander the great on their surface. IMG_2969.jpgAdditionally, the museum consisted of busts and statues from ancient temples of Athena and Zeus. But the most special 2 displays have got to be tables with the oldest known peace treaty (between the empires of Egypt and Hittite) and the oldest known love poem. Just goes to show that aspirations haven’t changed over the ages – for immortality, peace and love.IMG_2976.jpg

Tiled Pavillion museum–  This was a favourite of mine and is also referred to locally as the Glass Palace. The Iznik and Seljuk tiles and ceramic utensils have a rich variety of calligraphy, plant and animal patterns.IMG_2995.jpg

The Life Water Fountain has hand-drawn designs and poetry written in an old Islamic calligraphy style is believed to be a masterpiece of tile making from the 15-16th century in relation to tile making. IMG_3005.jpgIt is believed that the sultan sat on the portico of this beautiful structure to watch his sons play cirit(a version of horseback polo still played in turkey to this day). Everything inside the structure itself is stunning and if anyone wants to gift us a house please use this building for design inspiration.IMG_3000.jpg

9 day trip

Turkey- Hagia Sophia – The magical wisdom of the ages

A rickety flight landed us, a sleepy twosome, at Istanbul one evening. The only plus of the dismal flight was that we spent the time without a single magazine or inflight entertainment by learning basic Turkish. So Merhaba to everyone.  We had to board a bus from the airport to get to where we had booked our stay and we had an early peek into the kindness of the Turkish people when the bus driver drove into not one but 2 fuel pumps just to get us our change with not a word of complaint. An hour later we reached Sultanahmet.

We alighted from the bus only to feel we were dropped into the embrace of the history and architecture of Istanbul- right in front of the Hagia Sophia(pronounced Aya Sofiya) looking very inviting in the evening light.  It was also our first view of the friendly cats that are found everywhere in Istanbul. Grinning to ourselves while staring at it all – it was only the strain of carrying our large rucksacks and our sleepy eyes that dragged us across the cobblestone paths to our Airbnb for the night.

Note: the dogs are gorgeous too but didn’t seem to be used to being petted by people, so were a little more aloof. Leave them alone unless one comes to you obviously looking to be petted.

To our delight, we were adjacent to one of the most beautiful mosques designed by the same architect as The Blue Mosque- The 16th century Ottoman mosque- of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha. WhatsApp Image 2019-09-29 at 21.06.23.jpeg

Day 2 :

We were woken up by the azaan since we had left a soundproof window open, so after freshening up decided it was the perfect time to go to the terrace. Even when walking to our Airbnb the steep slope of the area was apparent. The architect of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha mosque has sensibly used the slope to create multi-storey courtyards. The first very prudently to house shops, the rent of which would cover the mosque’s maintenance and the second as living quarters for the residents of the madrasah. All of this was visible to us from our perch on the terrace of our stay but we hesitated to visit the mosque itself since it wasn’t particularly a touristy spot and there was a constant stream of people coming in for prayers so we didn’t want to cause them disturbance. Images online of the interiors also look beautiful though.

We were lucky to reside at walking distance from Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque so happily set out on foot. We decided it was only apt we started the very first day with a Turkish breakfast. We thoroughly enjoyed it, especially, the honeycomb and honey cream which gave it a perfectly quaint end.

We then joined the short queue to Hagia Sofia and bought a general ticket in. One constant amongst the mosques we visited in Turkey is the very, almost industrial exteriors with cement grey walls only slightly softened by the dome. This is hugely deceptive considering the gorgeous art, mosaics, colours and architecture in the inside of them.

The Hagia Sofia has always been my mental image of Istanbul and it was all I ever wanted and more. It’s both moody and magical. The immense chandeliers, the mosaics, the humongous works of calligraphy, the warm yellows, reds, and blues, the light streaming through the tall windows, the juxtaposition of the image of Mary with Islamic verses – it’s like another world where all is quiet and lovely. Even the continuous stream of tourists constantly clicking photos hoping to capture the image for posterity doesn’t deter from the place itself. Or maybe I’m just biased.IMG_2742.jpg

Since it’s construction in 537AD it was first an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, then a Roman Catholic Cathedral and stayed the largest cathedral for a 1000 years after it was built. Currently, the Turkish Govt refers to it as a museum and there are no longer prayers held within its premises. It’s said to have taken more than 10,000 people and shy of 6 years to build. The name Sophia itself refers to the Wisdom of God. All religious pictures and icons were removed in 726 during a period where they were opposed by religious and imperial leaders. Individuals attempting to restore the structure have a challenge today- when unravelling the older images related to Christianity that were covered by plaster,  it would be at the expense of historical Islamic art. It’s a delicate balance that to us, has somehow let both of them shine through.IMG_2781.jpg

If that was not enough, Hagia Sofia continues to mystify historians with its literal hidden depths. Below the floors are tunnelled passages presumably to let a 5th century Emperor avoid the paparazzi or traffic of the time. While covering the expanse of Constantinople(current Istanbul) it contained graves, crypto rooms, and even a section large enough to sail a small ship in!IMG_2848.jpg

 While I don’t encourage ignorance, I’m glad I read further about the history of Hagia Sophia after my visit or my experience may have been marred by some of it. The structure has been damaged and repaired by numerous earthquakes and vandalism by the Crusaders and the Ottoman forces at different points in time. This too, like typical to churches then, was considered a refuge for people from persecution during times of war. However, the Ottoman forces tragically enslaved, violated or slaughtered women, children, the elderly and sick who were within it for 3 full days after capturing the city. It’s ironical that a place that was witness to such horrors was then made the first imperial mosque in Istanbul. Numerous restorations have added minarets, madrasah, soup kitchen, the sultan’s lodge, mihrabs etc to the building itself.IMG_2771.jpg

In addition to the numerous mosaics, there are 3 giant doors of note too.

  • Marble door– My favourite, it has images representing heaven and hell on either side of the door and led to a space used for official meetings.
  • The Nice door– the oldest of the lot and
  • The Emperor’s door– the largest one there solely used by the Emperor and his posse. Above the door is a mosaic artefact of the Emperor taking blessings of Jesus Christ with Mother Mary and the Angel Gabriel on either side. It’s believed to have been made from the wood off of Noah’s Ark! Now that’s a claim I haven’t heard off before.

Before leaving you can’t miss the queue of tourists waiting in line to touch a pillar. Supposed to feel moist to the touch, it’s called the Wishing pillar while touching it is believed to cure all sorts of illnesses. We, however, can’t confirm that since we didn’t join the line, so I guess we will have to deal with the illnesses when they come!

Note: We had read online about the pre-paid card for most of the tourist place entrances but didn’t realise there were multiple choices among them based on how long they’re valid and how many places they cover. So it led to us, as a group, making complex calculations on which of the cards would be “worth it”. Unfortunately, this is hard to decide unless you’re really sure of your plan within Turkey. We still found the card useful if only to avoid dealing with cash and it helped sort of pre-budget entrance fees into our expenses.

Up next: Blue Mosque and Tile museums: Of beautiful homes for the dead and the living

2 day trip

Mysore and BR Hills – Of culture and confluence

An easy decision when we want to get away from the city of Bangalore without much of a plan in place, is Mysore. So we drove down there one Saturday morning. Despite having been there before, we headed to the Venugopala Swamy temple in the backwaters of the KRS dam. When we were there last, it was still under construction and now it was fully operational. The original temple had to be submerged due to the construction of the KRS dam and was restored as it is today with the all the slabs from the original temple.IMG_8276.jpg

There are a few small pavilions outside and folks were lying for a bit to relax. I can definitely see why. Due to the open space around, there’s a cool breeze here at all times, which in the Indian warm weather, is brilliant at lulling you to sleep.IMG_8267

For those who are religious – do note that they explicitly insist on no offerings(fruits, flowers) to the temple, so don’t bother carrying any. I particularly loved that they had used the tulsi (holy basil) plants all around for landscaping – it made the perfect choice with its health benefits, mild fragrance, and religious use. Within the temple, the corridor has numerous deities both known and not so well known from Hindu religious references. It makes for a fun story-telling opportunity , if traveling with kids, and firstly if your familiar with their stories yourself!IMG_8264.jpg

We reached Mysore by late afternoon and decided on a place called The Old house –  admittedly because the 2 of us have an instant attraction towards heritage homes and buildings (if anyone reading wants to give one away, we’ll be happy to take it off your hands!).  A pizza later we were ready to go onwards to BR hills – this is one place possibly everyone else we know has been to, but we haven’t. We didn’t know what to expect either.

The Biligiriranga Hills or as commonly known – BR Hills is amidst what is both a wildlife sanctuary and a tiger reserve at the border common to both the Western Ghats and the Eastern ghats resulting in a unique ecosystem of its own. On our way through the miles of lush greenery, we even spotted a couple of very impressive looking gaurs(wild bison).IMG_9293.jpg

Note : In any route that passes through a wild life sanctuary, ensure you do not stop your vehicle (even to take pictures), and definitely do not feed the animals. Also they have right of way, even for the little frogs crossing the road, so keep your eyes open and alert. Ensure you are respectful and keep your distance from the animals. Also keep noise levels to a minimum and avoid honking.

We reached at 4:30PM and the original plan was to return to Mysore to stay the night, but being the monsoons, it had already gotten quite dark so we had to re-plan. There seemed to be pretty much 2 places to stay there- the govt owned Mayura hotel and one more on the same road. Both were full but the gentleman in the Mayura hotel directed us to another place to stay which while in a beautiful space, we aren’t entirely sure was legitimate so we’ll skip the recommendation. On the brighter side, he also invited us for a dance performance at 6pm that evening within the Mayura hotel premises!

Note : Book your stay in advance to BR hills. There are other places to stay but the internet connectivity was also wonky by the time we got there. Alternately, if you leave early from Bangalore and make no pitstops you could still get back to Mysore in time- so plan accordingly. If interested in rafting and trekking do a bit of research but there seem to be options for that too. The temperature is also colder than Mysore so get a sweater at the least.

We quickly found the place of stay, dropped our luggage and made our way up to the top of the hills before it turned completely dark. The top of the hill houses the temple of Lord Ranganathaswamy (Lord Vishnu) where part of the hill’s name comes from.IMG_9287.jpgThe bili(white) is said to come from either the fact that the top of the hill has a lighter colored stone surface or attributed to the mists that cover the hill. We followed online maps and reached an entrance that leads to a few steps up the hill. If traveling with people having mobility issues, there’s also a different entrance with very few steps just a little diversion ahead- so do explore.

From the temple itself, there’s a brilliant view of the sea of green only interrupted by a small hamlet of the Soliga tribes who are local to the area.IMG_9281.jpg

We made our way back just in time for the event. A group of the Soliga tribes sang and danced and we watched enthralled at the whole performance. Their voices were clear and powerful, the dance form energetic and with very unique steps compared to other dance forms we’ve seen before. Both children and adults performed and we were lucky to be witness to it all just by a stroke of luck.IMG_9300.jpg

By now we were starving and food wasn’t yet ready in the KSTDC hotel which again is the only option we found. We requested the restaurant manager for some simple curd rice since we were eager to go to bed. He seemed curt and asked us to wait. Some very spicy chilly bajjis later(they were the only items “ready”), we were craving for the curd rice even more. He finally brought out the curd rice tempered with coriander and onion, and came back in a minute asking for how we liked it. We told him it was very nice and instantly his entire face lit up. Turned out that since we were hungry, he had made it himself though he was not the cook and had tried making it for the very first time! Needless to say we were touched and it brightened up our day too 🙂

We got back to the stay and crashed for the night- waking up to a lovely view of the trees around us. A quick breakfast at a small eatery nearby and we made our way to Mysore. On the way back, we stopped on a whim at the Sri Mahalakshmi Gunja Narasimhaswami Temple  at Tirumakudalu Narasipura.IMG_9362.jpg

Legend: A washerman has a dream where Lord Narasimha appears asking him to build a temple. He is also told that below his washing stone he’ll find gold to actually use for the temple’s construction. After constructing the temple, the washer man is offered a boon where he mentions his interest to visit the holy city of Kashi. The Lord then declares that whoever visits this temple will have punya of one gunja(weight of a particular seed) more than that when visiting Kashi and declared this town Dakshina Kashi(Kashi of the south). That gives the temple its name and the idol also is seen holding a stalk of the Gunja plant.IMG_9367.jpg

The commonality between Kashi and this place doesn’t end there. While Kashi is at the confluence of the rivers -Ganga ,Yamuna, Saraswati, this temple is at the confluence of the rivers -Kaveri, Kapila and Spatika Sarovara. Not sure if allowed due to the legend or not, but people still wash clothes by the waterfront of the temple.

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A further way along and we stopped at a large banyan tree for a fun break. Kids were even able to climb into and hide within several portions of the trunk. Some of its branches were so low that they were also enjoying climbing straight up the tree from almost ground level. IMG_9378.jpgWe spent out time alternately watching them, wishing we had a better sense of balance ourselves and watching the parrots flitting into and out of the trees hollows.

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Next, as per what’s become customary for us on a visit to Mysore, we made our way to Karanji lake for a short cycle ride and seeing our feathered friends at the aviary. Unfortunately most of the birds we’d seen earlier seem to have been replaced by only peacocks now. Hopefully not to ill health or just humans’ behaviors. However since it was the monsoons, the peacocks were in the height of their impressing phase and were oh-so-often bursting into dance. The pea-hen seemed disinterested but no matter how many times we’ve watched it, we can’t help but stop and stare at the sheer beauty of the scene.IMG_9426.jpg

I have a special fascination with markets- though I genuinely am not much of a shopper. Just passing through them makes me happy- especially those with produce and flowers. So for no other reason other than to smell the fragrance of the flowers sold in heaps and to just breathe in the ambience of the ancient market ,we made a stop at the Devaraja Market. If you’re heading back to Bangalore the same day you can even use this opportunity to do your shopping for all the produce in neat heaps. The market itself has everything most Indian homes need- from fruits, vegetables, flowers to bangles, kitchen utensils in all shapes, sweets and even items used for poojas.IMG_9454.jpg

After the trip filled with colour and culture we made our way back to Bangalore already wondering where we’d go next!

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 day trip

Aihole and the waterfalls of Uttara Kannada : Sathodi and Magod

We drove on to Aihole next , about 10km from Pattadakal. It is understood that the structures of Pattadakal were born out of the experimentation in Aihole. This region too changed hands between empires from the Chalukyas-> Rashtrakutas-> Vijayanagara-> Adil Shahis of Bijapur-> Mughals-> Marathas-> Tipu Sultan and finally the British.

Durga Temple: is the one that would remain with you when you think back about Aihole. It has a very unique shape and structure said to be similar to those found in the Ajanta caves. In addition to the pantheon of Hindu Gods, it also has scenes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and scenes of daily life.IMG_7995.jpg

Suryanarayana temple : Dedicated to the Sun God, the idol is seen holding a lotus in each hand and on a horse drawn chariot.

Lad Khan temple : Originally a Shiva temple, now named after an Adil Shahi commander who used it, for lack of better words, as an office to manage his military campaigns. It has 3 concentric areas – one with the sanctum sanctorum with the Shiva linga, the next one with Nandi the bull, and the last one with space for gatherings. The sculptures also are of the variety as the Durga temple.

Gaudargudi: one dedicated to Gauri (Goddess Parvati). Its known to be one of the earliest temples that included the circumambulatory path around it.IMG_8057.jpg

The complex also includes a stepwell.IMG_8049.jpg

As the sun set on us, we made the 3 hr drive back to Hubli ,now ravenous for something we’d been looking forward to enjoy- the meals at a Khanavali. We headed to Basaveshwara Khanavali in the center of town and plonked ourselves there. While they got out our plates we even ordered some shenga holige (a sweet crepe in this case made of peanuts). In addition to the jolada rotti and spicy curries and side dishes we found the salad made of both radish and radish greens particularly unique. And so we came to an end of another fun day looking forward to waterfalls in the next one!IMG_8075.jpg

The next morning we were excited for our first waterfalls this monsoon. But before that breakfast at another popular restaurant in Hubli- Karnataka Bhavan where we munched on hot pooris and soft Mangalore buns.IMG_8081.jpg

After a long drive, we got to Sathodi falls happy to stretch our feet for the short walk from the entrance to the waterfalls. But by now the breakfast was long digested and we were ravenous. Luckily on the path to the falls there is a board next to the only house there, urging us to order a meal before heading down so we can have it when getting back. A few steps later, we gleefully heard the roaring of the waterfalls through the greenery. IMG_9109.jpgThrough the gorgeous mist there was the muddy waterfalls powerfully gushing down 15meters into the dam backwaters and ultimately into the Kali river. There was something so perfectly raw about it that was riveting- so much that we didn’t even mind either the mild drizzle and the other visitors around. Comfortable in our poncho raincoats we were happy to find a boulder to sit on for a while, feeling lucky to be able to witness it in all its glory.IMG_9143.jpg

Hunger finally led us back and we were thrilled to bits at the warm meal awaiting us. An older couple ran the eatery out of their home and the food was flawless with plenty of dishes- I especially relished the tambuli. They are utterly charming and hospitable. A request to any of you visiting would be to carry along the days newspaper with you for the uncle there. Apparently getting newspapers with almost no neighboring homes around is very hard and so they rarely get one. We always carry one (see our road trip guide) but unfortunately ours was several weeks old.

Note: the road to Sathodi is terrible. There were young boys driving Activa scooters there, but we were mighty glad to have taken a sturdy car with great suspension on hire for this ride. We’d recommend you do the same if you have more of a “city” car. The route is very bumpy and the monsoons only make it worse. The distance from Hubli is less than 100kms but will take you 3 hours at the very least to reach there. Fallen trees if any may delay/block your path in the monsoons too. We chose to stay at Hubli,Yellapur is the options but accomodation options there are limited to home stays. Plan accordingly.IMG_8095.jpg

From Sathodi it’s a 1.5 hour drive to Magod. Just a few steps down and there is a viewpoint to enjoy the falls from. There are further view points below but it was already misty in the early evening and we decided to enjoy this while we could. Through the green cover, the waterfalls from the river Bedti cascade down levels and then seem to endlessly explode into thin air making for a hypnotizing sight.IMG_9237.jpg

A quick stop at the view point at Jenukallu Gudda and dusk had soon settled. This forced us back on our way and after a hot meal, memories of the gushing waterfalls gently lulled us to sleep.IMG_9255.jpg

2 day trip

Badami and Pattadakal- Of almonds and coronations

Where possible I love traveling by trains Vs buses. The option of a comfortable night’s sleep and availability of restrooms at all times, trumps buses any day. So this time, that’s how we traveled to Hubli. Early one sleepy morning we got to the Hubli railway station and in the mild drizzle managed to find an auto to our hotel. After freshening up, some rest, and picking up our hired car for the next 2 days, we were all ready to tackle what Hubli had to offer. But first -breakfast.

We made our way to the hotel Gurudatta bhavan that , as it announces on the board right at the entrance, has been around since 1958. We together polished some oggarne avalakki and khara bath-sheera. The glasses they use to serve both water and coffee are a unique shape and size- we’d recommend buying some on your trip and as a fun utilitarian souvenir.IMG_7911.jpg

Now well fueled, we started the trip with the 2.5 hr drive to Badami in Bagalkot. It’s my favorite of the places in the area including that in the much more popular Hampi.

Badami was once was the capital of the Chalukya empire which lead to its prominence.The caves are carved out off the sandstone rocks in warm red shades that give the place its name(Badami = almond-coloured). After visiting the Ajanta and Ellora caves this seems smaller relatively. However, it still has a charm and magic of its own.IMG_8767.jpg

As one ascends the 3 sets of caves at 3 different levels it gets increasingly windy. The first level from 559 CE is dedicated to Lord Shiva with large sculptures on either sides of the cave of Harihara and Ardhanareshwara on the right. The rest of the cave is also adorned with sculptures of mythical creatures like the vrishabha-kunjara(bull + elephant in one) and deities including one of Shiva and Parvati on the Nandi, Kartikeya on the Peacock and the Lord Ganesha.IMG_8786.jpg

The second cave dedicated to Lord Vishnu is from the 5th century CE includes equally interesting sculptures of deities- Brahma, Vishnu, Durga etc ; creatures like elephants, fishes, humans emerging from the mouths of aquatic creatures(Aqua-man version-1 maybe?) and imagery from stories in mythology including the samudra manthana and exploits of Lord Krishna as a child.IMG_8798.jpg

The 3rd is supposed to be the most ornate of them all from 578CE including that of the 8 armed Vishnu seated on the Shesha Naga(the celestial snake);imagery from mythology including both the Mahabharata and the Puranas; divine couples- Naga-Nagini(the snake Gods) , Shiva-Parvati, Kama-Rati(the Hindu Gods of love) and deities not limited to Indra(the King of the Gods), Kubera(the Lord of wealth) and Varuna(God of the oceans).

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The view of the surroundings area is beautiful from here.IMG_8800.jpg

The 4th cave- the smallest,  highest and therefore the windiest is relatively recent from the 7th century include the sculptures of Bahubali and several of the Thirthankaras(propagators) of Jainism including Parsvanatha. IMG20190629120752.jpgA lovely view of the lake Agastya and the Bhootanatha temple can be seen from this level of the Badami caves.IMG_8889

Note: It is extremely windy as you climb atop the steps of the caves and at any of the higher levels. Your hats may fly off too. So dress accordingly.
Also there are monkeys alert to grab food/water/anything interesting from your hands.  So try to carry things inside your bags firmly with yourselves Vs in your hands. Personally I prefer a backpack in such places.

This was the second time visiting Badami for both of us and we therefore decided to take our time and explore the small and big spots near it too. We set off on foot following the boards that directed us to the Archaeological Museum. Sadly the path through the surrounding village is quite run-down and not very clean. Seems like this part of the state could do with some attention from the authorities.IMG_8931.jpg

We walked further away to the caves that housed an inscription on one famous Kappe Arabhatta. However, in the absence of a guide and prior research we weren’t able to actually find it.

We finally made our way to the other side of the lake Agasthya to the 5th century Bhoothanatha temple.

On our way, a gentleman with heavily paan stained teeth, stopped us and offered to take our picture with our own camera. We were not entirely sure why he was asking for it but obliged.  Some struggle with the bulky camera and its controls later, he managed to click one. He also introduced himself and just mentioned he lived nearby. Our skepticism was high since we often encounter touts who try to get money off of tourists one way or another. But we were pleasantly surprised when he said we were a super jodi(couple) and he had offered just because he thought the picture of where we had been standing with the backdrop of the temple would look beautiful. It’s always lovely to have a moment to smile, with our trust a bit more regained in humanity.

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 The Bhoothanatha temple itself is quite a sanctuary of calm to just sit a while and admire the lake, the surrounding caves. Just as you make your way, there are also carvings on rocks- that while pretty, seem like just the place for the sculptors to practice their art- since the carvings are in various states of completion. The door of the sanctum sanctorum of the temple has the River Goddess Ganga on the makara(half-elephant half aquatic creature) and Yamuna on her own steed, the tortoise.IMG_7973.jpg

After a quick lunch, we headed to the 7th century Banashankari temple. Legend has it that Goddess Parvati vanquished the demon Durgamasura – the idol of the deity in the temple is a depiction of her with 8 arms seated on a lion crushing the demon with her foot. The location of the temple was what was earlier the Tilakaaranya forest which led to the name Bana-shankar-I the (forest + consort of Shiva). It is believed that the goddess was the family deity of the Badami Chalukya kings.

The main part of the temple that one cant miss is the Harischandra Thirtha, the stepped pond just outside the temple.IMG_8977.jpg

A path lined with pillars on both sides goes all round the pond. Yet another thing that’s impossible to miss are the large number of women selling, in baskets, the local meal of jowar roti, curd and typically a brinjal curry typical to the place. We had however already had our meal so gave it a miss this time. At one corner of the pond is a tall watch tower.

IMG_8987.jpg1/2 hr away is the UNESCO world heritage site-Pattadakal(Patta = meaning coronation). It’s older name was Raktapura (red-city) aptly reflecting the red-soil of the place. The region itself has shifted hands between the whos who of the South Indian history portion of our text books- the Guptas, the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas , Vijayanagara empire, the Sultanate of Bijapur, the Mughal empire, the Maratha empire, Tipu Sultan and finally the British.IMG_8990.jpg The temples themselves also reflect several of these styles depending on the era when they were built.

  • Kadasiddeshwara temple : The main deity is Shiva with the predictable Nandi bull facing it. The steps to it are similar to the Bhootanata temple flanked by the Godesses Ganga and Yamuna.IMG_9006.jpg
  • Jambulingeshwara temple : The dancing form of Shiva -Nataraja with Parvati and Nandi again.IMG_9012.jpg
  • Galaganatha temple : We don’t have the best knowledge of architecture, but even to us laypersons we had been reminded of Pattadakal when we visited the temple in Alampur, Andhrapradesh. Apparently this is supposed to be notable for being almost an exact copy of it. The similarity is said to be because both the places 300kms away from each other were part of the Chalukya kingdom
  • Chandrashekara temple : is yet again of Shiva with Nandi , in addition there are guardians at the door of the temple.
  • Sangameshwara temple : Includes numerous forms of Shiva and Vishnu.
  • Mallikarjuna temple : This one was supposedly sponsored by a queen with an amazing name : Trailokyamahadevi. In addition to Shiva, Vishnu there are sculptures depicting stories of Krishna, scenes of different Hindu fables and everyday lives too.IMG_9024.jpg
  • Virupaksha temple : supposedly was the one the Kailash temple at Ellora was modeled after. It includes sculptures of the numerous Hindu deities and the stories from Mahabharata, Ramayana, fables from Panchatantra. This was built by the also awesomely named Queen LokaMahadevi ( queen of the world).

There are other temples nearby away from this temple complex that one could visit if you had the time too.

Tip: Monsoons are a good time to visit Badami, Aihole, Pattadakal. The rest of the year all these places are very sultry and dry. Both Pattadakal and Aihole have over 100 temples spread across large areas. Typically the main group of temple clusters are what you’d be led to on following maps. It’s your choice based on time and interest to try visiting the less popular ones too. It’ll just take more time but one can spend a weekend just in Aihole, and another in Pattadakal. There are caves, buddhists and jain temples in addition to Hindu ones, dolmens and even a fort.

4 day trip

A Cool Kodaikanal Christmas

Early the next morning, we drove towards Kodaikanal just over the state borders. Its quite a long drive at all of 5 hours but it’s ridiculously picturesque. Set aside time to enjoy it and take enough breaks to make the best of the drive.IMG_6530.jpg

Streams gurgling over boulders sprinkled over their path, sunrise streaming through the lush greenery, there’s a postcard view at every step of the way.

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The misty roads had a wall of jagged rocks on one side and numerous pink blooms softening the view of the sheer drop on the other. Amongst the sight of the green cover, one could see the Anayirankal dam – a turquoise blob in the distance.IMG_6541.jpg

Another stop at yet another spot leads us to a view of the Thalaiyar waterfall through the greenery- though narrow, the sight of it still tears through the foggy view of the forest around.IMG_6578.jpg

Just 8km before reaching Kodaikanal- conveniently right beside the highway are the Silver Cascade Waterfalls. It holds the overflowing water from the man-made Kodaikanal lake and is a good spot to stretch your legs and even buy some of the local garlic sold in bunches! The waterfall is truly picture perfect and munching on some corn with chilly and lime while watching it, only makes it better.IMG_6592.jpg

At the end of the long drive, was our reward, Kodaikanal– The Gift of the forests. Unfortunately, the whole great country of India with all its population seemed to have had the same idea that weekend and had landed there too- so our first view of the town when escaping for a bit from the bustle of Bangalore was – hold your breath- a traffic jam!

So we decided on plan B- that was less of a plan and more of a spur-of-the-moment decision- to head to the tourist spots in descending order of popularity. And it turned out to be the best decision ever- it instantly took us away from the crowds and breathe in what’s truly gorgeous about this little plateau on the Palani hills.

Tip: Kodaikanal is insanely convenient for the average tourist. All you need to do is get to the centre of the town and there are rows of taxis and jeeps offering to cover different sets of around 10 places for a fixed amount of money. Personally, I hate bargaining, so this is fantastic if you don’t want to be bothered by the local travel.

We first decided we wanted to stretch our legs a bit and made our way to the Bryant park despite the drizzle. Sticks of airy cotton candy accompanied our meandering stroll around the park with gorgeous, misty views of the town and the Kodaikanal Lake too.IMG_6608.jpg

From here we headed to the evocatively named Fairy falls, the source of the Pambar river. After parking, we entered with some trepidation into a gate that looked like it opened up to a Govt facility but a gentleman directed us right inside to a view of the lovely Fairy falls. It’s a relatively small waterfall but it perfectly delightful. It wasn’t bad at all that we were pretty much the only visitors during our time there.IMG_6636.jpg

Peeling ourselves from there we headed to what was called the “Liril falls” on the map. We’d strongly recommend skipping it (especially during winter) since its not much more than a not-very-clean stream unless perhaps you’re visiting during the monsoons. It’s surrounded by stalls selling all kinds of spices and oils with very talented salesmen so be aware of prices outside before deciding to pick up your favourites.IMG_6680.jpg

It was getting dark early due to it being winter but we weren’t ready to end our day as yet, so we decided to just drive further away from the centre of the town without realising we were heading towards the Palani Hills Forest Conservation Area.IMG_6687.jpg

We had to stop and park just to catch our breath at the stunning beauty of the place. A Christmas evening, an endless forest of pine trees with raindrops just dripping off the tree leaves- it was simply magical. We had to just wander around with smiles pasted on our faces- picking up pine cones and feeling blissfully lost in the green wonderland.

Tip: As often as “popular tourist places” are popular for a reason it’s also worth your while to take a step away from them, and take a bit of a detour, to make memories that are so much your very own- a snapshot of time for yourself without the world trying to burst in to your moment of calm.

Later that evening, we made our way back into town for dinner and the restaurant walked into was right in the middle of the vegetable market that was wrapping up for the day. We did get our seat but unintentionally, we had dropped into a popular choice that quickly had people walking in. Some chatter with a group of girls playing Jenga in the neighbouring table and we made our way back to our stay to get to sleep reminiscing about the day that was and looking forward to the one that was to come.

The next morning, we headed away from the chilly Kodaikanal to the warm embrace of the 2500-year-old city of Madurai with a 3-hour drive. While there’s plenty to see in Madurai, on this trip we wanted to take it slow. We headed to the iconic 6th century Madurai Meenakshi temple. I’ve been there just once before and find more joy in the markets around the east side of the temple. They are still very much housed within an ancient pillared hall- the sheer variety of items found in the narrow lanes is mind-boggling. From fabrics of all kinds, iron utensils and knives to ghungroos with rows of tinkling brass bells made from scratch.IMG_6729

IMG_6737.jpgWrt the temple itself, one can easily spend hours just wandering even from outside the temple to admire its 12 pillars in all the 4 directions. The mythological significance of this temple is that it’s believed the Goddess Parvati (Meenakshi) married Lord Shiva(Sundareshwar) in the location of this temple.  You can spend a whole day and not be done strolling around the mandapas(pillared halls) and shrines. The shrines are dedicated most notably to the 2 main deities and their son, Lord Shiva.IMG_6764.jpg

Of the mandapas, there are 4

  • Ayirakal mandapam: The one with 1000 (945 precisely) pillars with detailed sculptures of mythological creatures. Large colourful blooms grace the ceiling.
  • Kilikoondu Mandapam – believed at some time to have housed parrots trained to say the word “Meenakshi”
  • Ashta Shakti Mandapam – with shrines dedicated to 8 Goddesses.
  • Nayaka Mandapam– a hall with 100 pillars and an idol of Lord Nataraja (the dancing form of Lord Shiva)

The last is a personal favourite.

If not particularly religious and eager to stand in the endless queues to see the deities in the various shrines, what we’d recommend is that once you go in buy some prasadam (we like the puliyodarai) , sit on the steps of the Potramarai Kulam(the pond with the golden lotus) and enjoy the sheer level of artistry that has gone into every inch of the mammoth temple complex.

Note:

  • Photography is not permitted inside the temple. You are also not allowed to take in phones – so stick to your group once inside the temple or it’s easy to get lost in its vast interiors. However, they have a cloakroom kind of area at all gates where you can leave your belongings just outside the temple. Ensure you remember which gate you parked kept your things at.
  • Food (including offerings to the deity, like oil for the lamps) is not allowed inside the temple.
  •  Parking is not easy once you come very near to the temple. However, you can search for parking spots on google maps and it shows up some paid parking options a short walk away from the temple.

While my personal favourite is the panneer soda when in Tamil Nadu- you may want to try some of the numerous sodas sold in the stalls around the temple, to cool yourselves too.IMG_6753.jpg

We realised that the next place we wanted to visit-  the Thirumala Nayakar Mahal was just a short walk away from our car parking spot. So we decided to take to the streets on foot even passing a couple of men who were painstakingly dying thread by hand to be used in sarees.

The palace itself is relatively recent ie., from the 17th century and its pillars are definitely the memorable part of the structure. It consists of the Swarga Vilasam- that enclosed space that housed the throne and perhaps even court meetings and the Ranga Vilasam – the large open hall with high pillars that was built for performances.IMG_6801.jpg

After the hills and the plains, for some reason, we had an urgent wish to see the beach! And so a short detour later, we landed in the city of Chennai. We polished off our lunch at a charming Sri Lankan restaurant – that I promised myself I’d visit again just for their yummy seeni sambol.

Even though the sun was at its peak by now, we couldn’t resist walking up to the Besant Nagar beach and just taking a minute to mentally capture the scene of the endless waves, so we could revisit it when back in good old Bangalore. Topping off the day with some fun ice cream flavours from a place by the beach we decided it was just the right end to another lovely little journey.

5 day trip

A winter trip : meeting Munnar

During a winter weekend we decided to search for the cooler parts of the tropical south India- while my colleagues at Canada will pooh-pooh the temperature in winter here, we’ll still consider it cold enough!

We started off in search of the hills in Munnar through winding roads and waterfalls ever so often making an appearance it almost feels like you’re taking a peek into an unspoilt wonderland. For those feeling like they just need the water to shower on them, there are plenty more just by the side of the road too.

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The drive takes us through the Annamalai tiger reserve with the Amaravathi river, the longest tributary of the Kaveri river, providing an occasional view through the foliage. Our first waterfall of the trip was a distant view of the Thoovanam waterfall,  which even in the winter, was quite impressive through the lush green cover of the Chinnar wildlife sanctuary.

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Thoovanam waterfall

 

While we had stopped there mostly to have a bit of tea from the stall right at the entrance, the next waterfall, was much more accessible Karimutty falls which as we learnt later, supposedly passes over medicinal herbs and is believed to cure ailments.  The location of the waterfall is also amidst what’s known to be Kerala’s only natural sandalwood forest so we have plenty of stores selling sandalwood products ahead.

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Karimutty falls

 

Our next unplanned stop at Marayur was towards a board that called out the “Rajiv Gandhi Nature park” which is a relatively small park but under the canopy of a single large banyan tree with monkeys to keep us entertained with their antics. While smaller than a the big banyan tree in Bangalore, it’s still a pleasant pitstop to stretch your legs and take a break during the drive.

 

We had actually reached Marayur,  searching for the dolmens( table shaped stone structures which functioned as tombs) with rock paintings dating back to the Iron age but weren’t able to get directions from the locals while the ticket seller at the park simply said it wasn’t accessible (it was unclear whether that day or no longer accessible to the public). Maybe one of you will have better luck and let us know.

 

A little ahead and the ubiquitous tea gardens of Munnar began to make an appearance with tender shoots of green covering the hillsides with more views of waterfalls flowing into the Pambar river.IMG_5854.jpg

 

We actually got to the Lakkam falls just a few minutes before the staff’s  time of closing (5pm) , still being graciously allowed in as long as we came back in 10 minutes! Wading into the clear water and with the pebbles and rocks polished smooth by the stream over it made for quite a lovely spot to let the water droplets occasionally shower over us.

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We hope to return someday to the guided trekking they arrange by the side of the Eravikulam stream by the waterfall.IMG_5874.jpg

 

While it was getting darker now, we followed maps and wandered into a tea garden on Gundumalai road (where thankfully some workers were kind enough to stop us and inform us we were lost since it only got to a dead-end through the tea gardens). A few more gaffes due to the not-so-uncommon name of our Airbnb and some atrocious roads and we finally got there grateful for a warm bed and a whimsical space with antique cars and scooters displayed at the entrance! Mercifully a local hotel delivered food as long as we paid the autorickshaw fare – we gobbled it all and fell into a relieved sleep after some talk with the chatty care taker.IMG_5957.jpg

Early next morning, we were gently lulled out of our sleep by the chirping of birds and realised our stay was also amidst a tea garden. Our morning stroll around the neighbourhood let us see that the atrocious roads from the previous night, were now just meandering paths perfect for a walk on foot! We had our dose of interaction with the locals too – with a tiny grocery stall owner insisting we get a pic of me in front of his stall covered with brilliant orange creeper vines and Anand’s camera as always garnering the interest for the local kids.IMG_5939.jpg

 

A view of the Attukad waterfall in the distance and we drove to “The blossom international park ” for a healthy dose of Flowers. IMG_5965.jpgWhile manicured and curated, the place is admittedly beautiful with blooms in a riot of shapes and colors. After a stroll there we picked up some seeds for the green thumbs in the family and made our way to the Mattupetty dam.

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Despite the volume of tourists, Mattupetty dam makes for a lovely view of the calm water while munching on some fresh pineapples with salt and chilly powder. A short walk away to the Echo point, and one can get to another view of the lake.IMG_6037

A little away is the Kundala lake that shows up in an opening right through the grove of eucalyptus trees with their fragrance wafting through the air.IMG_6057.jpg

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On our way back through the tea gardens we stopped for a minute at the Honey Bee Tree– popular being the lone tree housing numerous bee hives in beautiful shades of brown , though there are none on any other trees nearby. It is easy to miss this one unless you’re looking for it so you’ll only have the odd informed tourist stopping for a bit to stop and stare.IMG_6068.jpg

More than 10 years ago, we had visited Munnar as part of a college trip and Anand could actually recognize the place we had stayed at. We remembered vaguely there was a hill in front of it , where our gang of friends had taken a walk and even visited a church atop it. There was also a waterbody by its side, with a ridiculously perfect reflection of the gorgeous trees around it. The hotel itself had developed to become a fancy restaurant  but unfortunately the beautiful hills in front of it had been razed to make way for more shops and hotels. I’ve always been conflicted about the prettiness of the tea gardens since they’ve only been possible with significant amounts of deforestation. We were getting late for our next stop but we had to take a moment to have some refreshments at the hotel just for nostalgia’s sake.

We rushed quickly to just get in time for the much awaited highlight of the day – a performance of Kathakali and demonstration of Kalaripayattu.

The Kathakali performance was a humorous depiction of a demoness attempting to woo a king. The spot-on expressions, colorful costumes, accompanying vocals and instruments were all a complete joy to experience as we laughed along and marveled at the energy and work that went into it.IMG_6110IMG_6124

The Kalaripayattu demonstration was a riveting performance of a martial art that’s rooted in tradition and still manages to stay relevant and have us at the edge of our seats. IMG_6192From the prayers before starting to the displays of strength and expertise to the jumping through hoops of fire every moment had us cheering on the hard work that had gone into it all.IMG_6352

An exciting finish to a calm day we could not wait to see what the next day would bring- this time in the town of Kodaikanal.