Memories of Madurai: A photo essay

Earlier this year, on the 2nd of January, I took a flight out of Mumbai for Chennai to join a small group of music and culture enthusiasts for a 3-day tour of Madurai.

Known variously as Halasya Kshetram, Koodal Nagaram, Aalavai and Kadamba Vanam, among others, Madurai is better known today as a temple town and is synonymous with the Meenakshi Amman Kovil. But Madurai has rich history that predates the temple and one that goes back to more than 2,000 years making it one of the oldest cities in the country. The city has been the seat of Tamil literature, culture, learning, politics, religion, and more.

An overnight train journey later, our group was in Madurai looking forward to exploring the city and getting to know it better. This was my second trip to Madurai, but it could very well have been my first for the previous visit in 2005 was only about visiting the Meenakshi Temple ! This trip, too, began with a visit to the Meenakshi temple — considered to be the heart of the city and the point from where the city is believed to radiate out like a lotus — before we moved on to explore other parts.

Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India

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The Meenakshi Amman Kovil at Madurai

The door to the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) is closed when our group files into the antarala or the outer chamber. We arrange ourselves around the barriers placed there and wait expectantly for the door to open and for the deity to give us darshan or audience.

One of the priests goes around the group asking for our names and other details for the archana or offerings to be made. As I wait for my turn, I look around the poorly lit chamber which is dark with years of accumulated soot and smoke. There are baskets of flowers, coconuts and bananas, and lamps and sundry puja items piled up against the walls. I can smell flowers and incense and some sandalwood as well.

The priest soon finishes with our group and disappears into the garbha griha. The initial murmurs and excited whispers give way to silence as we wait in anticipation for the door to open.

Madurai Amman, Meenakshi Amman Kovil, Madurai Meenakshi, Temple, Goddess, Travel, Temples of Tamil Nadu, Sacred Site Just when I feel that I can’t wait any longer for darshan, Bharat Sundar, the musician accompanying our group starts to sing softly [1]. It is a kriti by Muthiswami Dikshitar, Maamava Meenakshi, in praise of the deity we were all waiting to get a darshan.

Almost on cue, the doors open and the curtain inside parts and I see Her — Meenakshi Amman of Madurai. With the illumination provided by numerous oil lamps, I can see that she is wearing a green saree, much like the one in the Tanjore painting I have at home (left). The jewellery she is adorned with sparkles and twinkled in the light.

Carved out of a dark green (rumoured to be jade), almost black-coloured stone, Meenakshi Amman’s graceful form is mesmerising. She is far more beautiful than I imagined and I can’t take my eyes off Her, so compelling is Her gaze.

The priest finishes the aarti and distributes the prasadam, marking the cue for us to leave. As we make our way out, my mind is filled with stories of Meenakshi Amman and the temple she is enshrined in — stories that Sriram, our tour leader, had narrated.

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The Lord’s Tour: A visit to the home of cricket

If you had been anywhere near the Lord’s Cricket Ground on 4th September 2009, at around 9.50 am, you might have seen a woman running around trying to find a way into the grounds. It is also possible that you might have heard some loud cursing in at least 3 languages from her. That woman was me.

In case you thought that I was trying to break in to see some cricketer, perish the thought. I was running (and cursing) as I was late for a pre-booked 10.00 am Lord’s Tour, which meant that if I didn’t find the correct gate in the next 5 minutes or so, I was going to miss the start of the Tour. And my experience of guided tours in England was that They. Started. On. Time. Period.

Now I am not a cricket fan. Never was, and never will be. If India is on a winning spree, I might just listen to the talk around me, but that’s about it. So then why was I going to Lord’s then? It was because of my sports fanatic brother’s parting words at Mumbai airport before I boarded my flight for London in September 2008.

Don’t come back to India without having watched a cricket match at the Lords.

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The golden city of Bath

Bath is a rather funny name for a city, isn’t it? I first came across the city of Bath in Charles DickensThe Pickwick Papers, and later in Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Over the years I “visited Bath” through other stories, essays, films, paintings and photographs, and discovered a deliciously decadent life of leisure and luxury, fashion, intrigue, matchmaking, music, dance, poetry… I further discovered Bath’s history of healing and curing through its mineral rich, hot water springs. In fact, archaeological evidence exists of the waters of Bath being used for healing purposes since pre-Roman times. In 1987, Bath was declared a UNESCO Word Heritage Site.

When I spent a year in London in 2008-2009, Bath was on my list of “must see places before return to India”. And on one beautiful July day in 2009, I set off for a day trip to Bath, organised by London Walks. It was a day that the English, rather mistakenly, call an Indian summer’s day—pleasantly sunny with a cool breeze and intermittent light showers. A lovely day to travel and have a bath in walk around Bath.🙂

Located in the green and gold Somerset countryside of England, my first impression of Bath, or Bath Spa as the city is called now, was that it did not look or feel like England at all—it had a very European air about the place. The River Avon flows through Bath and it is the first thing that you see when you come out of the station.

The River Avon at Bath

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The Elephanta Caves

“I couldn’t tear myself away from the image of the Maheshmurti. It was so beautiful. So mesmerising. Elephanta was so nice,” gushed Iskra, an exchange student from Bulgaria.

I listened to Iskra’s description of her visit to Elephanta Caves with part fascination and part envy. The reason? In spite of having lived in Mumbai for nearly 23 years, I had never been to the Elephanta Caves. Listening to Iskra, and that too a foreigner, rave about them needled me into resolving to visit the caves at the earliest opportunity.

And would you believe it? The opportunity presented itself to me the very next day, almost as if it was just waiting for me to make up my mind. My Facebook wall announced that Girls on the Go (GOTG), a women’s only travel club, was conducting a guided day trip to the Elephanta Caves on 13 March 2011. Would I be interested? Not one to let go of an opportunity like this, I signed up for the trip within seconds of seeing the intimation.😀

Gateway of India

So, on D-Day, I was at the Gateway of India much before the reporting time of  7.45 am. While waiting for Piya Bose, the founder of GOTG, and the rest of the group to assemble, I tried to recall what I knew about the Caves. They were … um… really old rock-cut caves, were located in Elephanta Island some distance away from Mumbai, could be accessed only by boat, and was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In short, I knew nothing about the Caves. Of course, by the time the tour got over I was a little wiser thanks to Lakshmi Kishore, our guide, and a booklet on the Elephanta Caves that I purchased from the ticket office.

Elephanta Island has traces of habitation from 2nd century BC in the form of remains of a Buddhist stupa, reportedly built by Emperor Ashoka himself. But what the Island is really famous for are 7 rock-cut caves, whose age is not well established due to absence of written records. Various theories exist as to the age of the caves as well as to who built them, and according to the Archaeological Society of India’s (ASI) booklet, the caves were excavated during the middle of the 6th century, during the rule of the Konkan Mauryas.

Locally, Elephanta Island is known as Gharpuri and is located about 11 km from Mumbai. It was called Elephanta by the Portuguese, who found a stone statue of an elephant at one of the entry points to the Island. Though they tried their best to destroy the statue, they only succeeded in severely damaging it and today the restored elephant is installed at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

Aquatint of the Stone Elephant by Thomas Daniell and William Daniell, 1786. Photo Courtesy: Elephanta by George Michell

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Hampi: Where mythology, history and today coexist

Vali and Sugreeva. Relief at the Hazara Rama Temple, Hampi

Where do I begin writing about Hampi—its many stories and histories, its kings and legends, its glorious past and ultimate ruin, its temples and other monuments, and its present day avatar. At the beginning, of course !

By Hampi (which is situated on the banks of the river Tungabhadra), I not only mean present day Hampi, but also the region around it.

Many millennia ago, the area was called Kishkinda or Kishkindanagari. This was the kingdom of the vanar Vali and later his brother Sugreeva, and home to the vanars who formed the bulk of Rama’s army in his battle against Ravana in the RamayanaAnegundi, the birthplace of Hanuman, is also located in this area. Anegundi was the erstwhile capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, before it was shifted to Hampi. One can still see the remains of old stone bridge connecting the old and new capitals.

Remains of the bridge across the Tungabhadra connecting the old capital, Anegundi, and the new capital, Hampi, of Vijayanagara

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