Category Archives: Travel

Varanasi and the holy spirit

Hordes of people sit patiently on the steps in front of a makeshift stage. They seem unfazed by the chilly weather on a December evening. Men garbed in dhotis, sherwanis and turbans are already on the stage gearing for a performance. Suddenly the sound of cymbals fills the air, and the men on stage start swaying to the music. With lighted lamps in their hands, they gracefully perform the arathi. The stunning show of sound and light goes on for nearly an hour. At repeated intervals, the sound of the drums reaches frenzied heights. My family and I are on a boat along with a group of friends watching the scene unfold on the Dashashwamedh ghat. The sound of cameras clicking in the background is a mild intrusion. The city of Benares — known for its spirituality, saris and paan — has begun to weave a spell on me.

When we drove through the city earlier in the day, I was startled by the picture of incongruity. SUVs and jeeps rubbed shoulders with two-wheelers and cows on the road causing traffic pile up at several junctures. The mall with its flagship stores of international brands stood out like a sore thumb in a neighbourood of dusty ramshackle buildings. The sylvan surroundings of the Banaras Hindu University gave me a sense of a wormhole. Tree-lined avenues, endless rows of playgrounds and distant buildings greeted me at every turn. The Birla Mandir, a white sandstone building stood tall, like a sentinel guarding the campus.

At the crack of dawn on the second day of our trip, we head towards the famed Kashi Viswanath Temple.

Our guide who whisks us as soon as we step into a bustling thoroughfare near the temple is on a roll. ‘As today is Monday, its very crowded here, come quickly!’ he mumbles as he deftly steers us through narrow lanes. I walk through a labyrinth of small streets jam-packed with stores. Chants of “hara hara mahadev” echo in the air. Any semblance of a single line queue becomes distorted as we get closer to the sanctum sanctorum. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple built by Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore is believed to house the first manifestation of Lord Shiva in the lingam. I barely catch a glimpse of the lingam on the ground, when I am jostled by a burly man chanting feverishly under his breath. The devotees are unmindful of the slippery ground or the lack of breathing space.

“I’m ready for some lavanga latha!” my husband says. When I give him a bewildered look, he explains in detail about that special Benarasi sweet. After that surrealistic visit to the temple, I’m having a hard time making that transition back to the real world.

A quick stop at Pahalvan’s eatery outside the BHU campus reveals a hole in the wall, nothing fancy. Tossing aside all concerns of hygiene and willing my stomach to behave, I dig into the kachoris, the jalebis in hot milk and the frothy lassi. It’s a gastronomic delight. When I look back at the campus behind me and the dusty roads ahead of me, I realise the city has multiple facets.

The town and the village trying to meet halfway on one of Hinduism’s hallowed grounds, even as visitors come here seeking answers to the mysteries of life. My sticky fingers holding the jalebis keep me grounded though.

That’s when I remember this is Benares, the city that makes one think beyond the mundane. Even as it offers a feast for all the senses.

This article first appeared in the Hindu Metro Plus.

The magic of Venice

A realist, in Venice, would become a romantic by mere faithfulness to what he saw before him. Arthur Symons

When he breaks into an aria, we roll our eyes in embarrassment. The gondolier passes us with a flourish on the canal. The hint of drama evokes a smile in the elderly couple across from us. This is Venice, where the very air breathes with romance and magic. Every alley and piazza hides a multitude of secrets. The city is a labyrinth of criss-crossing canals and pretty stone bridges. I can’t decide if it is prettier on foot or from the water.

Our vaporetti (water-bus) glides almost silently past gothic-style buildings that line both sides of the canal. The reflection of the Santa Maria della Salute draws a collective gasp from our boat. The marble facade is like pearl drops shimmering luminescently in the water. The church with its magnificent dome and impressive exterior, a Venetian landmark, is beautiful to behold.

Just when I wonder if its early season for tourists, I hear the murmur of crowds. Our vaporetti is approaching the Piazza san Marco (St Mark’s Square). Here is the pulse of the city, where the action lies, and what Napoleon once described as one of the “finest drawing rooms of Europe”.

Read the rest of the article here.

This travel piece was published in a few years back.

Mharo Pranam to Banke Bihari

Just the main temple in this area.”

Our driver nodded and without a word took the road towards the Banke Bihari temple in  Vrindavan.We’re on our way to Agra from Delhi on a wintry morning when I decide to take a short detour.  The fog has considerably slowed down our progress and the driver is tempted to step on the gas so that we reach the temple before it closes in the afternoon.

Despite a puncture on the way, a mad dash through the by-lanes leading to the temple and the jostling crowd of devotees in the main hall we manage to get a darshan of Banke Bihari in Vrindavan. My husband’s “special” lifeskills, garnered in his college days, helps us push through the packed crowd and get to the front of the line. The frenzy and fervour in that hall has me baffled for a moment.

Photo Credit: HITESH BIDKAR via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: HITESH BIDKAR via Compfight cc

The sight of the deity is mesmerizing and as I focus on the arresting image of Banke Bihari (Lord Krishna),the bhajan Mharo Pranam plays in my head. This beautiful Meera bhajan is a salutation to the deity of Vrindavan. Here is one of my favourite renditions of Mharo Pranam in the voice of Kishori Amonkar.




A musical experience in BHU

The melodious notes of a bhajan on Lord Shiva in raag Bhairagi Bhairav resonates in the air. The voice is rich, the atmosphere is meditative and I’m hooked. The Birla Mandir in the Benares Hindu University campus has excellent accoustics. It’s a cold wintry day and there is a sparse crowd at the temple. The music and serene ambience has me rooted and my feet automatically lead me to the singer seated in front of the idol in the open balcony on the first floor. I learn that the singer is a trained classical musician fron the Kirana Gharana (Bhimsen Joshi school). We start talking and he suddenly points to the microphone and invites me to sing. I sing Mahadeva Shiva Shambo in raga Revati, a composition of Tanjavur Shankara Iyer.

The first time I heard this song was during a concert of Carnatic vocalist D.K. Jayaraman in Chennai. I ended up in tears – the lyrics, the melody and more importantly the rendition made all the difference. Raga Revati is meditative in nature and the melody often associated with Vedic chanting.

Carnatic raga Revati is similar to Hindustani raag Bhairagi Bhairav. Here is a rendition of raag Bhairagi Bhairav by Pandit Jasraj.

The musical experience at Birla Mandir in the BHU campus on that foggy morning will stay in my mind as a priceless memory.

Poseidon on a hill

This article first appeared in The Hindu.

Sitting way up high, it seems appropriate that the Temple of Poseidon commands the sea on three sides, find CHITRA SRIKRISHNA & K. SRIKRISHNA

romancing the ruinsAn impossible moon lights up the Temple of Poseidon

An impossible moon lights up the Temple of Poseidon

Land’s End. The words conjure up an image of a windy bluff, beyond which a restless sea, its waves tipped in white, stretches as far as the eye can see. Since time immemorial men, particularly sailing men, have been fascinated by the idea of the end of a peninsula. They’ve given them evocative names such as the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. They’ve built lighthouses and temples and buildings that have often served as both.

Cape Sounion, 60 km south of Athens, marks the land’s end of mainland Greece. When you approach it on the winding road heading south from Athens, the Aegean sea appears tantalisingly around each corner. It is only when you wind your way up a hill on the last kilometer that white columns appear ahead of you. The marble columns are what’s left of the Temple of Poseidon whose very sight, indicating that home was near, has cheered weary Greek sailors for over two millennia.

Perched on a flat area, about 60 m above the sea, sheer cliffs and the azure waters of the Aegean surround the temple of Poseidon in Cape Sounion on three sides. Though only 15 of the original columns stand — their Doric style a reminder of their age and origin — you can easily visualise the magnificent sight the temple would have presented to returning sailors.

The temple was first built during the Archaic period (750-480 BC) and likely destroyed during the Greek-Persian wars. The ruins that remain today are from the temple that was rebuilt around 440 BC by Pericles, the famous statesman and general, who had the better known Parthenon re-built at around the same time. The earliest mention of Poseidon’s temple was in Homer’s Odyssey where Poseidon, the God of the Sea, is spoken of as having caused untold mishaps to the hero on his voyage back home. Even though the god’s statue is now at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, the grandeur of the temple is undiminished.

At first glance, the ruins look very like the others that spot the Greek countryside — a vaguely familiar rectangular floor plan with pillars on all sides. In fact, the largely intact Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, also built during Pericles’ reign, gives a good sense of what the Temple of Poseidon would have looked like. Yet, the temple, despite absence of roof, pediment or even pillars on one side, is remarkable because of its setting, on a promontory where the Aegean itself is an integral part of its architecture. The legends of Poseidon, Odyssey, and marauding Persian and Greek sailors down the ages imbue the temple with even more significance. Watching the sun set over the temple is unlike anything else we have experienced.

Apparently, we are not the first people to be enchanted by the magic of the temple. Nearly 200 ago, Lord Byron, then still relatively unknown, was so captivated by the temple that he carved his name on one of the columns. Authorities, of course, take a very dim view of such activities these days!

Cape Sounion is remarkable in that it is relatively unspoilt by tourists and has a beautiful natural setting. Today’s Sounion is an upscale summer getaway for wealthy Athenians, and easily accessible by road.

Later that evening, the setting sun forms a crimson splash on the horizon where it touches the waters. The scene is that of an artist’s canvas. A happy confluence of mythology, history and beauty, this is one of Greece’s lesser known but no less valuable treasures.

Beyond Blue and White

This article originally appeared in the Metro Plus edition of the Hindu

I’m hanging onto dear life climbing up a steep staircase with rickety banisters. I have to hold onto the next step with my hands before I get on it. My friend Marcel makes it look easy as he quickly climbs the stairs carrying a toddler in his arms. We’re inside a working windmill and it’s our first day in the charming town of Delft.

On reaching the top, I get my first aerial view of the town. The gently rotating blades of the windmill frame the canals lined with red brick houses below.

Delft, located in southern Holland between Rotterdam and the Hague, is a text book university town. Famous for its eponymous porcelain and pottery, it seems like a stretched canvas of gentle blue hues and students riding bicycles in the foreground. This is Vermeer country — immortalised by Johannes Vermeer in his beautiful paintings using the streets and houses of Delft as background.

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Flautist on the hill

This article originally appeared in the Metro Plus edition of the Hindu

The yellow is almost blinding as I catch my first glimpse of the temple. The brightly-coloured figurines lining the walls of the temple look freshly painted. I’m at the ancient Himavad Gopalaswamy betta temple near Bandipur in Chamarajanagar district of Karnataka.

Built by Chola king Ballala around 1315 AD, the temple sits on a hill (hence the term ‘betta’ in Kannada) at nearly a height of 1400 mt, overlooking the Bandipur National Forest.

I notice two flights of stairs as I get to the base of the hill. The bright yellow gopuram draws me, and I try to keep up with my children who run up the stairs. At the end of the first flight, the stairs take a 90-degree turn. I pause to catch my breath before climbing the remaining steps.

Read the rest of the article here.

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