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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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….

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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.

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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

 

 

Losers tell all July 30, 2016

Convention mania has gripped all those watching the American election circus across continents as much as across the United States.

Donald Trump had his dooms-day at the Conventions the week before and this week belonged to Hillary Clinton to bask in the glory of being the first American woman to be nominated to contest for the highest office in the country, and well, presumably in the world.

Okay, remember that keynote speech by then state senator Barack Obama at the 2004 DNC convention? Like many pundits, that night I too thought I was looking at a future President. And boy, were we right about that!

And earlier this week I thought I saw something similar happening at the DNC 2016 – Michelle Obama’s rousing speech that, I am sure, had everyone from Bill Clinton to Joe Biden to President Obama and even Hillary Clinton reworking their own speeches to match up if not better it.

Revisiting the historic moment of the young(er) Obama’s speech in Boston that summer, I thought I might as well start accepting a few truths of the present day election cycle that will soon become part of political history.

History as we all know is written by the winners. Don’t lynch me in the public square for saying this but in varying degrees I would give the benefit of the doubt to even such losers as Hitler. A cursory Google search throws up questions like: ‘How did Hitler really die?’ or ‘Did Hitler really die in that bunker?’ proving my point in the very ambiguity of the widely accepted ‘fact’ that Hitler committed suicide.

So coming back to today’s leading contenders for US Presidency, they have already made history for being the first ever woman and the first ever ‘outsider’ to have reached this close to the White House.

The many supporters of Trump will agree that if he loses, history may not be kind to this maverick billionaire who has bulldozed his way to the frontlines through sheer money power and more accurately, a false ego power.

He has been for years, and continues to be the butt of vicious liberal media jokes; therefore, win or lose, one can only imagine what it would be like for the Trumps in the years to come.

So for the record, I would grant it to this man for challenging status quos in a way that Hillary Clinton can never do. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be foolhardy if only to be able to say: “I don’t like your face” to whichever Chinese Premiere you are dealing with for pig-headedly keeping their currency undervalued.

And why fuss about Trump’s overtures to Russia? C’mon, everyone thought it was cute when in 1988 President Reagan put his arm around Gorbachev in Moscow’s Red Square and told a group of Russians nearby, “I’m glad we are standing here together like this.”

For better or worse – perhaps only worse – Trump will shake up the political and diplomatic world, and turn the world economy topsy-turvy. And if we don’t ask ourselves the questions: ‘At whose cost?’ or ‘For whose benefit?’ we might after all be able to let Trump have his spot in the annals of history

I don’t like this guy Trump. Never did. But hey, I won’t wait for the winners to tell all, I’ll be my own chronicler.

 

Srirekha Chakravarty

 

 

 

 

 

100 years of world history August 25, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 11:41 pm
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I had to share this with everyone. For all of us who were born in and lived through the past century, this video is a reminder of all that we have survived and hopefully not an indication of what can be expected in future!

A 100 years in 10 minutes …