criticalvoices

On issues that matter …

Of stunning vistas and simple lives… June 11, 2018

It’s easy to get philosophical, if not spiritual, when in Himachal Pradesh. Nature is what nature does. It makes even the most tone deaf among us sing paeans to the divinity one experiences in witnessing overwhelming natural beauty, delving into that heightened sense of emotional gratification one feels when real time experience matches fantasized expectation.

 

Five days of living with the majestic Dhauladhar range of mountains in the Kangra valley region of Himachal Pradesh and I knew I didn’t experience even a fraction of what this amazing state has to offer.

 

The reason I chose to visit the Kangra region as my initiation to Himachal was this wonderful homestay opportunity with a native family in Baijnath that would effectively allow me to pretend I always lived there.

It was in a cluster of houses separated by impossibly narrow lanes bordered by gutters carrying gushing mountain waters, a veritable maze that within walking minutes takes you as suddenly to the bus stand or bustling market or the single-track-no-platform railway station, as it suddenly widens your eyes to take in the beautiful vista of snowcapped mountains and swaying green fields.

20180415_165544

Not too bad for a backyard

 

Rose laden creeper shrubs everywhere are as ‘so what?’ to the locals as are the stunning mountains surrounding them. And a visiting family member among them is as welcome as a friend of a friend’s relative’s cousin thrice removed.

So besides being famous for the 13th century Baijnath Shiv temple (the myth surrounding the Shivling in the temple varies depending on who you ask), the town is just 14km from Bir and Billing, the paragliding capital of India.

Of course I had to do it. Paraglide, that is. One of those moments of my life when I really lived it up, literally! Sitting in the lap of the most benign of winds, surrounded by the imposing closeness of the Dhauladhars, looking at the red and blue roofed miniature looking houses in the greenest of valleys almost 10,000 feet below, it was 30 minutes of sheer joy.

What was unexpected though was the ride from the pickup point in Bir to the mountain top that is Billing – a steep 14km of hold-on-to-dear-life wild ride in the open back of a pick-up truck on the roughest of two-way mountain drives with some of the blindest of twists, guaranteed-to-kill drops and the most spectacular of views, driven at break neck speed by an unassuming maniac. Having survived that drive the actual jump off of the mountain with the glider felt a piece of cake.

The locals don’t do it – they think it’s the madness of outsiders and foreigners. They’d rather you visit the many temples dotting the plains and the mountain tops, not to leave out the holy Babaji who rarely “comes out”, “never speaks” and is assuredly 140 years old. Himachal is not called ‘Dev Bhoomi’ (Land of the Gods) for nothing, literally and metaphorically.

So, in deference, I did. Visited temples, that is. I also visited the ubiquitous Tibetan monasteries, which invariably are set in the most scenic of locations. And couldn’t help asking “Why?” Hindu temples are not able to maintain the same levels of cleanliness that these monasteries are able to do. Well, I guess that’s a sensitive subject.

 

To each of the places I visited – Barot Valley, Dharamshala (cricket stadium), McLeodganj (Naddi viewpoint), Palampur (tea gardens), Bir/Billing, Bhattu (monastery) and more – the journey was as exhilarating as the destination itself, reinforcing the organic bonding I was born to cherish with the mountains.

However, the conflict of emotions that arose from time to time was whenever I passed through the popular tourist locations where commercial construction – ugly, even to the non-discerning eye – proliferated the pristine mountainsides. These mushrooming multi-storied structures, mostly hotels, are undoubtedly in violation of norms, but hey, that’s the value we as a country place on our natural wealth.

20180415_131710

Should this even be allowed?

The highlight of the trip for me – besides the paragliding adventure of course – was the authentic Himachali food I gorged on at the amazing Heritage Village resort in Palampur. Reaching the place itself, at the bottom of a steep valley, the last stretch of which is rough, unpaved road worked up an appetite which was more than satiated not just by the food, but also by the friendly couple who owned the resort, not to mention the god awesome views all around.

20180417_142254

Heritage Village

 

In sum, the only takeaway from this visit was the wonderment whether it is the beauty of the place that makes the people there so good or whether it is the good people there that make the place more beautiful. In these valleys, they make simplicity as a way of life, believable.

Well, leaving my spirit behind to linger on the snowcapped mountains a while longer, physically I did return home but with the promise to go back not just one more time, but season after season…

Srirekha Chakravarty

Advertisements
 

Two cities – benign and chaotic May 28, 2018

Chandigarh:

For an ancient history and heritage buff like me, Chandigarh, the capital city shared by the states of Punjab and Haryana, has little or nothing to offer. Obviously, because it was kind of built just yesterday (1960, to be precise), that is, if you don’t consider archeological evidence of the 8000-year-old Harappan civilization in the general geographic region. But there’s another reason why I wanted to visit this city, the only planned city of its kind to be built from scratch in post-independence India: My father. He would always talk about Chandigarh’s unique civic discipline.

So as one who has seen enough Indian cities and towns where unruly traffic, rotting garbage, trash, spit, poo and pee ridden streets, and uncouth shopkeepers, hawkers and filthy food carts are a norm, I had to see this city to believe it can exist in the same space as the rest of the country.

To understate it, Chandigarh is clean. It’s orderly. It’s very, very green. Not a single hoarding, poster, billboard, notice or graffiti defaces its walls or the street profile. Not a single encroachment of public space; no untidy, ugly-front small shops or hawkers. The roads are really wide, with more space occupied on either side by large, shade-giving trees than by traffic. Every sector has its own park, hospital, school, parking and contained market area and every road intersection has a beautifully landscaped roundabout. Few buildings rise above the tree tops. All residential buildings are no more than two stories high.

The traffic cops in this city take their duties seriously and the effect shows.

Of course for the touristy minded there is the famous Rock Garden that houses installations and sculptures made of recycled materials, Sukhna Lake, Rose Garden, and some modern architectural specimens, but they didn’t interest me much. All I wanted to do was simply drive through these magnificently tree lined and clean, hoarding and hawker-free streets. And I couldn’t get enough of it.

20180412_074304

Sure, sitting in Mumbai I wouldn’t prejudge every Indian city to be as unclean as Mumbai, but Chandigarh is an amazingly successful template for civic administrations on how not to mess up your cities, literally. All they need is the will to do it.

I have long given up the idea that Indians in general, could be self-motivated to keep their immediate surroundings and their cities/towns at large clean. But apparently strict civic laws work when imposed diligently.

Moving on, Chandigarh, I think is the gateway to authentic Punjabi food. At least my initiation to it happened here. The butter-soaked kulchas and parathas are worth sacrificing a year’s worth of being on a gluten-free diet.

But when ordering food, whether at a dhaba or a restaurant, one needs to remember that it is Punjabi hospitality… each dish served can feed a mini army.

My takeaway from Chandigarh:

The city is like a loving, old uncle with OCD and perhaps tired of his own affliction; it’s just that a lot of its buildings desperately need a white wash job. Just that.

…………………………………………………………………………………….

Amritsar:

If Chandigarh is benign, Amritsar asserts its vibrant presence by embracing chaos like a birthright.

To anyone at all that I may have mentioned my intended visit to Amritsar, they all had only one thing to say: “Oh, you must visit Wagah border!”

Visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar itself was a given – like you can’t visit the Vatican and not see the Apostolic Palace (Pope’s home, in case you didn’t know) or go to Mecca and not visit the Kaaba or go to Benares and not bathe in the Ganges (well, you get the point) …

For the uninitiated, Wagah is the village on the border of India and Pakistan, about a 45-minute drive from Amritsar. And for anyone visiting Amritsar, a trip to Wagah has become a testament to their nationalism. The first bastion of the border patrols, both India and Pakistan have over the years choreographed a daily flag lowering ceremony when briefly the gates between the two countries are opened, hands cursorily shaken and gates closed again. Thousands flock to see the ceremony on both sides, every single day.

But then I am not one to wear my patriotism on my sleeve. So I guess my particular lack of enthusiasm about witnessing the ritualistic ceremony was beyond their comprehension and I suspect, seen as un-patriotic if not un-Indian. Particularly upset was my rental car driver in Amritsar who couldn’t fathom how anyone can NOT want to be part of a national pride fest especially one that involves out-shouting the not-so-friendly neighbors visible up close across the international border.

So he (the driver) unilaterally decided to take me there insisting I would love the experience. And there I was in 40 degree sweltering heat, walking the last two kilometers to the India-Pakistan border (because vehicles are not allowed), telling myself that this had better be worth it.

20180412_154549

20180412_160723

The grass not so green on the other side of this fence… dividing India and Pakistan

 

I guess it would be politically incorrect to judge this brand of patriotism, one that involves loudspeakers blaring patriotic songs of the Bollywood variety; dozens of women and children dancing like in an open-air disco to the beats of that same music including for some reason, A.R. Rahman’s ‘Jay ho’ from Slumdog Millionaire; a hyper-gesticulating crowd energizer who literally orchestrates the crowds to varying levels of crescendos whether it be cheering, or sloganeering or throwing a fist at those gathered for their own show of nationalism on the other side of the border.

In the lead up to the flag lowering, the Indian BSF men and the Pak rangers put on what can only be seen as a passive aggressive show of muscle flexing if you will, much to the perverse delight of people watching on both sides.

If there ever was a far remote dream of seeing a future of Indo-Pak peace, this spectacle is not going to help realize it.

But like I said I am not going to judge, especially people who were cheering for their country while trashing the whole place with snack foods, wrappers, paper and plastic bottles.

I failed to intellectualize it though, patriotism that is, at Jallianwala Baug. I felt shaken by a voiceless rage when I saw bullet ridden walls and the dry well into which innocent men, women and children jumped to escape the firing ordered by the British General Dyer in pre-independent India; and felt goosebumps all over when I peered into the ancestral home of Shaheed Bhagat Singh.

Jallianwala Baug is just a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple, while freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s home sits pretty in its original neighborhood now as a protected and renovated site in Khatkar Kalan village about half way between Chandigarh and Amritsar.

What I did find heartwarming at Wagah though, was this cycle rickshaw puller who dropped me a kilometer closer to the border sparing me the walk in the sun, but refused to take money just because he decided to call me “sister”. At the end of the flag ceremony, I was surprised to see him waiting to drop me back to my car in the parking lot, again refusing to take money. “I called you sister, how can I take money from you?” Difficult to argue with that even if we were non-existent to each other until that moment.

Well, I guess that’s Punjabiyat for you or Indianness for that matter. Just connecting with that rickshaw puller – a fellow Indian – somehow felt like a patriotic act for me.

And of course, a salutary shout out to our Border Security Forces, without whose presence at the border perhaps I wouldn’t be sitting and opinionating in the cool safety of my home.

Back in old Amritsar, one must experience the jutti and dupatta shopping in the cramped shops dotting the entire area and take a rickshaw ride through the streets which time seems to have forgotten. The Golden Temple Plaza itself is shiny new and has a European feel to it with its marbled surface, monumental statues and shops neatly pushed back.

And oh yeah, about the Golden Temple … I’ll say this to all non-Sikhs, non-believers and non-pilgrims: Go visit the temple. It’s a national treasure.

My take away from Amritsar… was what I didn’t take away: The experience of savoring Amritsari chole-kulche and sweet lassi at Brothers dhaba. Laugh all you want at my missed opportunity but for time constrained poor me it was a trade-off between that food heaven and langar at the Golden Temple. Well, there’s always a next time.

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

…………………………………

 

The historic, the academic and the mundane March 22, 2018

Mahabalipuram:

“The Pandavas never really came here. These caves, carved stones and temples only tell you their stories…” my guide was upfront with the disclaimer as I stared into what were supposed to be the individual living quarters of the Pandavas, carved out of a monolithic stone. Legend has it that during their years of banishment to the forests, the Pandava brothers with their common wife Draupadi, had lived in the picturesque port city of Mahabalipuram.

Like with many of India’s heritage sites religion, mythology, folklore, verifiable history and fertile imagination blend seamlessly into the many stories that surround them.

Honestly, walking around these ruins of Mahabalipuram elicited a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions that ranged from the divine to historical to academic to the mundane, wondering once again about India’s rich and checkered past and if and how much of it has a bearing on my identity today.

the historic…:

The ancient seaside temples and other heritage monuments of Mahabalipuram on the southeastern shores of the country were commissioned and built by the Pallava Kings between 7th and 9th century. Historians will tell you that most of those relics were destroyed or submerged in the sea following tsunamis, notably one in the 13th century.

Explorations did uncover remnants of temples under the sea, some of which had popped up as recently as 2004 when the sea receded just before a devastating tsunami.

But ask some of the old locals and they’ll tell you that it was a wrathful Lord Indra, King of the heavenly devas, who, overcome with jealousy at the beauty of the earthly city being enjoyed by mere mortals, caused a stormy deluge that destroyed most of the temples. To his credit, Indra saved one – the Shore Temple – which, of course stands forlornly even today, mercifully protected as a UNESCO heritage site.

20180308_144103

Elsewhere as the guide interprets for me the gigantic rock murals, whether depicting Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhan or the descent of the mighty Ganga, or an ascetic looking Arjuna standing in penance – all artistic renderings of popular narratives from the epic Mahabharata – one realizes how stone as a medium of communication has not only survived through civilizations of the ancient past to the present, but may perhaps outlive the virtual media civilization of the future.

20180308_150427

20180308_150221

The academic…:

Indeed, as Canadian theorist Harold Innis posited in the early ’50s, applying the dimensions of time and space to various forms of communication media can actually give a better perspective on their significance to civilization, and the rise and fall of empires.

Innis saw stone as a time biased medium, which, although limited in reach, carried its stories over generations, and bolstered stability, community, tradition and religion –  stuff that’s so deeply ingrained in the Indian ethos that even in the 21st century we do not know where one begins or ends, incorporated as it is in the form of story, song and myth in our daily lives.

20180308_154123

The lack of sophistication in these carvings indicates they were not so much about showcasing artistry as they were about perpetuating legends.

20180308_143850 - Copy

Is it any wonder then that legends carved out on some of these stone mountains are as alive today and might remain immortal as the mountains themselves? Which also makes me bow in deep reverence to all those uber visionary emperors and kings of ancient India who knew the importance of preserving history and how!

… and the mundane:

For all the fuss heritage buffs like me make about preserving these ancient treasures, one has to give space to the young Indian who believes in the here and now. Like the vain among them who think nothing of scratching out their names on these treasures of history, the lovelorn too should be tolerated for finding the conducive nook under the giant rocks of this protected site. The entire area is nothing but a local park for couples attempting to make their own memories not without the blessings of the old kings and gods.

Uncomfortably close, the past here is literally jostling with the present.

20180308_151958 - Copy

……………………………………………………

My most exciting sighting: The countless small open workshops scattered along the streets of Mahabalipuram producing amazing traditional hand carved stone sculptures. This is sculpture heaven!

20180308_154521.jpg

My takeaway from Mahabalipuram: The harshness of the salt-laden wind and surf is evident in the sandpapered look of the many indistinguishable carvings on the temple walls, on the parapets, etc. of the Shore Temple. There’s an uncanny eeriness around it, as it stands alone, pining the loss of its companion temples in what was supposed to have been a colossal complex – conveying melancholic whispers over the warm sea breeze, beseeching the sea to part and restore old glory. I dare wish for another tsunami if it can be of help.

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

 

 

 

 

Tweaking your expectations March 17, 2018

Pondicherry:

Now, I don’t know what I was expecting… laughably perhaps, but a cross between New Orleans, Goa and somewhere in the south of France. Wishful imagination, no doubt, but really, I wanted to see meandering sand speckled streets along the sea, white and gray bungalows with bougainvillea-laden balconies, tree-shaded outdoor restaurants, quaint looking curio shops and access to the commune of the world ….

It could be a matter of perspective, but, honestly, I didn’t see any of that in Pondicherry, the famed Union Territory on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in southern India.

To be fair to myself, there was some basis to that imagination, even if exaggerated. I had heard so much about the French Quarter, about Aurobindo Ashram, about Auroville, and of course about the big blue sea.

Visiting Pondicherry’s French Quarter is akin to visiting a single monument or tourist attraction in any place; it’s not an entire town. It takes less time to check out this French Quarter than it takes to check out the Eiffel Tower from the street below.

For anyone who doesn’t understand the ‘French’ connection in Pondicherry, well, it all began with the French East India Company in the late 1600s when the occupiers ensured their quarters were separate from those of their Indian subjects. And thus came about the French Quarter or the more racially specific White Town, and the rest being of course the Indian/Tamil Quarter or Black Town (at least no one says that anymore).

The French occupiers formally left India in 1954, but successive Pondy administrations have managed to retain the colonial influence or the ‘White’ hangover if you will, over at least a few square blocks on the seaside.

To be fair to its claims, there are a number of those charming old French villas on clean, tree-lined streets, many of which have been converted to heritage hotels and fine restaurants. Those few blocks do look different from the rest of the country or just a street off of it for that matter.

 

20180306_175453

20180306_175723

The famous Aurobindo Ashram lies in that quarter, but again, keep your expectations low because visitors/tourists are allowed nothing more than to sit in quiet contemplation around the Samadhi of Aurobindo, rest everything in the building being ‘private’. If you aren’t really the contemplative type, you’ll come out thinking: “That’s it?” Well, that is about it.

 

I am not one to complain about communes. Especially if they profess an ideology of non-distinctive humanity. More power to them, I guess. But for the uninitiated tourist who has just heard about a modern city of alternative (spiritual?) lifestyle and lands up at Auroville, I’m afraid his/her curiosity is not likely to be fed well. What you get is a ‘free pass’ to walk really long stretches of wooded pathways to come up to a spot about half a mile away from where you can see a giant orb-shaped building covered in golden discs sitting in the midst of several acres of manicured lawns. That’s supposed to be Matri Mandir or the meditation center of Auroville, which one can enter only with prior booking.

20180307_103217

Since looking at a giant orb-shaped building covered in golden discs sitting in the midst of manicured lawns from half a mile away is not my thing, I came out thinking: “That’s it?” Turns out, that’s about it, if you are not a commune member that is.

To be fair, this alternative city is indeed conducive to peace and a lot of quiet. It makes you want to listen to yourself.

And now about the big blue sea. Promenade Beach is the most prominent beach area, more so for the locals who make good use of the road alongside it for walking, as it is cordoned off to traffic in the mornings and evenings. But, although crowded, who doesn’t like happy (traffic free) streets, right?

Whether intended or unintended, the wide promenade with its parapet diminish the sandy beach to just about a width of 10-15 feet; and the wave erosion and force-resistant concrete tetrapods  down below greatly discourage wetting your feet in the sea.

20180306_183447

 

20180306_181004

There are other full-fledged beaches – Paradise beach (an island beach which is accessed by boat on a river that joins the sea at that point); the Serenity beach, Rock Beach, Auro beach, etc., but unfortunately, walking the beach all by myself is not my thing. So, instead I reserved a table for one at the fanciest French villa restaurants in White Town and enjoyed my two-beers-potato wedges-white sauce penne pasta-crème brule-1500 rupee dinner, in the quiet company of my smart phone picture gallery. That, I can tell you, was my most satiating experience in Pondicherry.

So what’s left of this experience, you ask? All of the rest of Pondicherry, of course! What I described so far is just the best and only a fraction of the union territory. The real Pondi is a teeming, cacaphonic small south Indian town where you sense nothing other than the loud, incessant blaring of a few million horns from every single vehicle that’s out on the roads. Traffic rules are as vague and dispensable as in any part of India.

But this town is not without its own quirks.

So I was stuck in traffic one day. My driver pointed to a huge flower bedecked truck up ahead following a ‘festive’ procession with drums, others loud instruments, random street dancers, fire crackers, chants, etc. Turns out it was the funeral procession of one of the most dreaded gangsters in town who was apparently killed in a gang war (I’m not making this up).

So I was stuck in traffic again another day. Luckily I was on foot and somehow managed to move through the stalled traffic. Turns out, up ahead was the entrance to a famous temple in town and right at the entrance, in the middle of the road, were four men performing vahana puja (prayers for a new vehicle) of their new scooties!

So I see these huge bill boards all over town akin to movie hoardings, each with dozens of smiling/laughing faces on them with either a garlanded couple or a garlanded man in the foreground. Turns out they are hoardings sponsored by ‘friends’ of newly married couples or someone celebrating a birthday! Who says only politicians, movie stars and models adorn hoardings. You got money, you got a hoarding!

My takeaway from Pondicherry: To get close to your expected experience

  1. Stay only in a sea-facing French villa accommodation in White Town at whatever the cost
  2. Book in advance to better access Auroville’s offerings
  3. Visit the quieter beaches
  4. Get onto the streets only before 8 am and after 8 pm. That’s before the traffic wakes up and goes to sleep at those hours respectively.
  5. Go with friends

My two random acts: Walking into a free exhibition of photographs of the sadhus of Benares at an art gallery on the Promenade; and spending a half-hour in a discounted book fair full of fiction best sellers on a side street and not buying anything.

My moments of happy in three days: Going nuts in an agarbatti shop next to Aurobindo Ashram.

Wait, the best of all sights in Pondy: As I waited on the tarmac of the tiny Pondicherry airport to board my flight out, noticed a neat line of little kindergartners in uniform on a field trip with their teachers, to see the planes! Death by cute!

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Motorcycle diaries and other stories March 15, 2018

For the most part, my travels this month were a breathless race against the oncoming summer heat. While adrenaline – for getting better at solo-tripping – carried me through some, the people I met along the way made the journey easier and the experience absolutely new.

Of all the southern Indian states, Karnataka, I think, is the most underrated. While Tamil Nadu tends to be chauvinistic about its temples and Kerala its beaches, Andhra Pradesh and now Telangana come across as a tad arrogant in what they may or may not have to show leaving it to you to find out for yourself; but Karnataka’s sits almost shyly with its abundant treasures of history, heritage, religiosity and nature.

……………………………………………..

Hampi:

I think I left a part of my heart and soul here, among the boulder-laden mountains of Hampi strewn with magically hallowed stone temples and still majestic looking ruins of Emperor Krishnadevaraya’s prosperous empire, as I time traveled through ranges that seemed to hold more intriguing stories set in time and space than the depths of the seas.

What made Hampi memorable was the making of my own version of motorcycle diaries – pillion riding on my guide Ravi’s bike as he zipped over hills and dales, through lush fields and along docile rivers, past somnolent villagers and intrepid foreign tourists and from sunrise vistas to sunset points – pretending I was on horseback galloping my way into the 15th century.

At one point I almost blamed Ayn Rand and her fictional hero Howard Roark for influencing my architectural orientation towards the post-WW II steel and glass structures, or what we would like to believe to be the ‘modern’ age of building construction. The question is what hits the emotions deeper: Is it the functional neatness of the square and stark skyscrapers that rise in defiance of nature and its benign laws, or the symphonic lyricism of ancient sculptural architecture that harmoniously blends into its natural geography.

The answer perhaps lay between the degenerative and slumming potential of modern urban architecture, and the stoic withstanding of temporal vicissitudes by the mesmerizing temples and excavated remains of fabled kingdoms that I witnessed in Hampi.

Case in point: The Vijaya Vittala temple complex here houses a beautiful mantapa with 56 musical pillars that use the elements of nature –and ancient Indian ingenuity – to produce music when tapped rhythmically.  No electricity, no batteries, no software chips. Hundreds of years on, they still work!

20180227_110427

20180227_112018

Remnants and ruins of the prosperous Vijayanagara dynasty that include gigantic monolithic Ganeshas, Lingas and Nandis; idol-less temples atop the hills; urban engineering ingenuity in the water systems, the endless stone plazas that made up the bazaars of yore where gold, silk and spices were sold by the sack; the Emperor’s royal platform from where he surveyed and enjoyed the performances and festive celebrations of his people; folklore about Mongol traders, carved depictions of a society of empowered women; sculpted perpetuation of the religious epics, mutilated sculptures that bear witness to hateful and intolerant Mughal invaders,  all transport you to an era of riches in art, culture, piety and royalty seamlessly blending Jain, Buddhist, Islamic, Persian, Portuguese, Egyptian and Chinese influences.

20180227_101342

Who were those people with such strength and softness in their hands to create such magnificent monuments? What was their typical day like? Were they treated well by the King? What were their aspirations? What made them laugh or cry? Were they happy?

I saw a number of mammoth boulders with a series of rectangular holes in them. My guide Ravi tells me they used to pour gun powder, salt and hot water through those holes to blow the rocks into submission before sculpting them. Well, I haven’t verified that story or the one about Lord Krishna and his 16,000 girlfriends that Ravi interpreted from the carvings on one of the temple walls.

As I wistfully searched for my likeness among the many sculptures on those stone walls, I was sure I lived then with the same spirit even if in a different body.

***

My best accomplishment: Topping the Anjanadri Hill (575 steps J) in Kishkindha, the birthplace of Lord Hanuman, about 5km from Hampi town.

My most picturesque moment: The coracle ride on the Tungabhadra. Getting off the coracle from time to time to climb wily rocks that led to small hidden temples. Crouching low on the coracle to get under a cave formation in the rocks overhanging the river, and just listening to nature, was the high point.

My moment of surprise: Café Italiano across the road from lush running fields on Hippie Island in the Kishkindha valley. Foreign tourists, whiff of high smokes, Latin music: Suddenly Goa!

My moment of Zen: The abode of poet-saint Purandaradasa on the banks of the Tungabhadra River.

Shout-out to Archeological Survey of India for their amazing excavations of Krishnadevaraya’s lost kingdom and relics far beyond, and the dozens of priceless sculptures now displayed at a museum in Hampi.

…………………………………………………………

Belur, Halebid, Shravanabelagola:

Toward the south of Karnataka, the Chennakeshava temple in Belur and the Hoysaleshwara temple in Halebid are perhaps the finest specimens of some of the most intricate of Hindu temple carvings and architecture, standing almost intact since the 12th century. Although built in the Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions respectively, both temples are adorned with extensive depictions of Jain and Buddhist friezes as well, a testament to the inclusive society prevalent at the time.

Much as I relish the idea of living in the glorious past when temple architecture flourished, I must thank modern technology which made the amazingly handy smart phone camera possible that can take as sharp a picture as the best of DSLRs (in my humble opinion), otherwise I would’ve needed at least two more sets of eyes and a couple of layers more in my brain’s memory to fully register these two wondrous temples.

What blows the mind is the sophistication and mastery in craftsmanship of the sculptures inside and on the outer walls of the temples. The precision, the cut, the smoothness, the finesse and the beauty that preface the stories makes you desperately want to know those sculptors, artisans and designers by face and by name.

20180305_112617

My takeaway: Since there isn’t much else to do or see in Belur or Halebid, it is tough to plan a visit specifically to these two places. So plan a big one across Karnataka and make sure to include them. If Indian, you will find renewed respect for your existential identity.

In Shravanabelagola, Gomateshwar Bahubali has been standing tall (58ft) and stark but for a supple creeper around his arms and legs, since 993 AD. Of pilgrim importance to Jains, this sacred son of the first Jain Tirthankara, purveys the holy land from atop the Vindhyagiri hill that takes more than 700 stone steps to reach the top.

With a visage exuding equanimity, the majestic bare torso of Bahubali, which had changed color to a rust red thanks to the elaborate Maha Mastakabhisheka (anointment), is a glorious sight to behold whether you are a follower or not.

And yes, I climbed all those steps – barefoot – to reach the top of the hill and at least 300 more to level with the Bahubali.

20180305_165118

My takeaway: Jainism is as serious a religious business in this country as any other. Unless you are a devotee, avoid the mastakabhishekam period to visit; the huge, elevated platforms for devotees and mammoth scaffolding around the statue kind of minimize the spectacular impact of the towering statue.

And do pause long enough to savor the view from the top before you climb down.

………………………………………………………..

Coorg:

Coorg for me was as much a luxury getaway as it was an aspirational fulfilment to pretend to own a plantation. I managed both by opting for a homestay deep inside a 50-acre coffee plantation chirpily named Chilipili Estate.

Now there are people and there are places that make travels memorable. Chilipili Estate and its generously companionable owners – Dilip Ganapathy and wife Darshan – epitomized the Coorg of my imaginations. Long walks on winding hilly roads, trees and nothing but tall greens everywhere, spice in the air, songs of birds by the day and crickets by night, homemade wine on the porch, precious solitude and actually audible thoughts.

One has to get to Madikeri first, the big town with the bus stands, big restaurants, and the multitudes of noisy cargo shorts-holiday T-shirts-cap-and sneaker wearing desi tourists, about 20km from Coorg. Madikeri is also the closest shopping point for the residents of Coorg. Dilip, who was running errands in Madikeri at the time, picked me up and there from began my true vacation.

The sole heir to the family’s property, which his paternal grandfather had gained as a war grant for his service during World War II, Dilip is a warrior in his own right, fighting along with other concerned plantation owners to safeguard Coorg’s environment from mercenaries and colluding governments. His wife Darshan is a story unto herself. A pro-trekker, she’s circumambulated Mt Kailash twice already, last winter trekked 105km on the frozen Chadar River in Ladakh, and is planning another trek this fall in Spiti Valley.

But that’s not just what is likeable about them. They are the perfect hosts. He can fill the mini-fridge in your room with the beverage of your choice, and she makes meal spreads, whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, with at least eight courses. Milk is fresh from the two in-house cows (both about to deliver baby cows!). Five varieties of homemade wines on the house with each dinner (available to buy). Coffee, black pepper and cardamom from the estate (also available to buy). Dilip also gives you a guided walk through the estate.

20180302_183905

A half-day trip from the estate covered Tala Cauvery (origin point of Cauvery River) and a bare-foot climb of the Brahmagiri Hill (356 steps) where the Sapta Rishis are fabled to have sat in penance. The view all around, is to live for.

My most enjoyable moments: Long, chatty evening walks with Darshan. And my own morning discovery on a 6km walk around, the Chilipili Shiva temple – a tiny naturally formed Lingam nestled under a canopy of two gigantic rocks, with a bubbly stream traipsing next to it. I could have died there from sheer tranquility.

20180303_083731

Those two evenings on the Chilipili Estate, sitting on the porch downing a couple of pints, staring into the pitch dark, in the knowning comfort of the protective trees all around, time was irrelevant because I owned every breath and beat, I owned my life.

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time and Travel February 2, 2018

Few in this world today have the luxury of owning absolute time. Time that is free of schedules, time that is free of mundane needs, time that is free of responsibility and time that is not entangled in relationships.

And then if you have someone generously enabling you to spend that time any which way you want, consider yourself blessed royalty, that is, if you don’t give in to conceit and consider it your good karma.

So with time and money taken care of all I needed was to pool in my latent energies, dig up my buried enthusiasm and set out to tick off the only item on my bucket list – Travel.

Thus begins this discovery of places, not some unexplored, exotic destinations, but places that everyone has been talking about forever – yeah, kind of like watching ‘Godfather’ forty-five-and-half years after everyone’s watched it – to show my gratitude to time that gives and preserves. Loosely, I would call it a heritage trail but along the way if I find something meaningful, I’ll tag it under “Purpose found.”

There’s also this sudden sense of urgency to visit these places – places that clock history, places that stand testimony to time, places that I could easily have belonged to. The urgency stems from an innate sense of distrust of the age and era that I am living in where human fickleness is enough to wipe out my inheritance as a human being.

So, stretching the theme of unbounded time, I set out to gallivant across India first, landing in whichever part that works out best, but sticking to the intent of touching every state, with no purpose other than to feel and experience. The jottings are to be nothing in depth, just the first thoughts, a whispering journal, if you will.

So here I go….

…………………………………………………………………………………………..

Ajanta & Ellora Caves (Maharashtra – India)

In understanding German philosopher Immanuel Kant even peripherally, one can concur with his theory that a thing of beauty has no purpose other than being beautiful. Beauty, I paraphrase Kant, is the form of finality in an object, when perceived separately from the representation of an end.

So it didn’t matter to me that the beautiful sculptures in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora nestled in the western mountain ranges of Maharashtra represented the revival of Buddhism or Hinduism or Jainism, but simply that they came from a rather fertile part of human creativity called aesthetics. From the gigantic to the intricate, the caves and the carvings are simply fluidity in rock.

The scale and scope of human imagination, the pure mathematics of structural design and architecture, and sheer strength of human endeavor that one witnesses in these caves is mindboggling. From a time perspective, some of the Ajanta Caves range in antiquity between second century BC to second century AD and others are from fifth and sixth centuries. And of the Ellora Caves, the Buddhist caves date back to 500-700 AD, the magnificent Kailash temple (of the Hindu excavations) to 760 AD, and the caves with the Jain sculptures date back to the ninth and eleventh centuries.

Besides being wonder struck at the physical strength of the men (and women?) who carved such beautifully lyrical sculptures out of hard rock mountains, what made me wonder was the survival over the centuries, and consistency in narration of the great epics and puranas, be it the Ramayana or Mahabharata or stories surrounding the innumerable gods and goddesses of the Hindu scriptures or the Buddhist lore, all of which are depicted on the walls and ceilings of these caves.

A critique, if at all, would be of the Indian authorities who, at some recent point, found the worth and usefulness of preserving these treasures.

As for my take away from Aurangabad, the point of stay to reach the caves (a town Kant would otherwise have found no inspiration from): Families first, super helpful friends of friends, hurda party (please google it), and a dozen rich versions of the humble paan from Tara Paan Center.

20180124_123618

 

20180125_094853

The images here don’t do justice to the feelings they evoke when you see them in the caves.

Until my next discovery in time…

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

 

Alternative Hopes for Alternative Facts January 24, 2017

Ah well I guess it behooves this blog to talk Trump because it’s the first since he has been sworn into the Oval Office – an already refurbished Oval office to be precise.

The new Donald Trump administration in the US has ably, and expectedly, started off on a brand new theme that is likely to be the bedrock of his reign. The theme being: Alternative Facts. Oh yes, that’s the new mantra the post-truth world seems to be waking up to and although it has been a guiding light for many a political leader across the world, it has found legitimacy in the active lexicon of the Trump Administration.

This is an era when truth is simply what you believe in and what you want to believe. Where there are facts, there are always “alternative facts”, they would have us believe.

Coming from administrations, as with regimes, people are used to a certain amount of secrecy, the closed door meetings, the situation room decisions, the intelligence briefings, the classified dossiers, the need-to-know-only files and so on. Although a lot of that got blown thanks to platforms like WikiLeaks and people got a good glimpse into the shenanigans of the government agencies and top administration officials, by and large the media community trusts the information released by the White House, and in turn people trust the media that reports on that information. And that unwritten rule, it would seem, has been dispensed with by the Trump yarn spinners who are peddling information from the sacrosanct podium in the White House briefing room, that they have labelled, “alternative facts”.

For the die hard supporters of President Trump, alternative facts, much less facts, do not seem to matter. Clearly, they see a proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. My only prayer for these people is that his many promises to them do not end up as alternatives to hope.

The most common refrain among the more rational of Trump supporters and some of those that didn’t vote for him seems to be “let’s give this guy a chance” and see what he can do. And I would like to think I am among those that holds an unapologetic, if not indulgent curiosity on how transformative the Trump era will prove to be for America and the rest of the world.

So, here I am preparing myself mentally to overlook the fact that he loves to stress upon and exaggerate his audience numbers and ovations; that it will be a long time before he gets over the fact that he won the primaries (!); that he lies with impunity; that he has surrounded himself with waxy ‘yes’ men and women; that he keeps reminding us of how smart he is; and that he has created a sphere of alternative reality which his followers have unquestioningly embraced. And these are ‘facts’ that can be cross checked.

But in all fairness, as I expect the worst of President Trump in the years to come, I am also open to his unexpected best to show up. Alternative hope, maybe?

Srirekha Chakravarty