The stepwell at Lohargal

One place that everyone I spoke to in Shekhawati said I must visit was Lohargal. And all gave different reasons for visiting it.

It is our hill station, said one. You get the best pickles in the world there, said another. It is a holy place and a dip in the tank will remove your sins, said the third person. There is an ancient sun temple there, said the fourth. The mention of the sun temple got me intrigued. Then another person said, “There’s a stepwell at Lohargal. If you’re interested in history, you must go there.” The stepwell was the clincher to visit Lohargal.

That’s how on my return journey to Jaipur from Nawalgarh, at the end of my Shekhawati trip, I took a detour to visit the stepwell at Lohargal. It was an hour’s drive from Nawalgarh through steady rain, narrow roads skirting the Aravali ranges, and some beautiful scenery.

When we arrived at the stepwell, which is on the road, the rain had lessened to a light drizzle.

Lohagal stepwell, Chetan Das ki Bawri, Travel, Rajasthan, Shekhawati

The stepwell. At the far end is the well and the well shaft and beyond that are the Aravali mountains

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The Rudra Mahalaya Temple at Sidhpur

The gates to the Rudra Mahalaya Temple at Sidhpur are locked when I arrive just before 6 pm that December evening in 2014. Surrounded by modern-day residential houses, the centuries-old temple is deserted and looks like it is holding out against a seige.The twilight makes the temple, which is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, look lifeless as well. As I’m wondering what to do, a passerby stops to say, “Call out for the watchman. He’ll come and open the gate.”

I call out for the watchman and the driver of the auto-rickshaw I have hired also adds to my calls. Soon, I can see someone coming out of the temple and walking towards us.

‘Yes?”, he asks.

“I want to see the temple,” I say, prepared to argue it out with him if he says something about closing times or anything else.

“Okay,” he says simply, pulling out a key bunch and deflating my ready arguments immediately. “Put your camera away. No photography allowed here.”

“Why not?” I ask, getting ready to argue again.

“Rules,” is the simple and frustrating answer.

I realise I have no choice in this matter and put away my camera. Only when I put away the camera and close my bag does the watchman open the gates and allow me inside. “You can take pictures from outside the gate, if you want to.”

Rudra Mahalaya Temple, Shiva Temple, Sidhpur, Siddhraj Jaisinh, 12th Century, GujaratI just shrug and follow him inside and stop when I reach the temple. And stare at the sight in front of me. Continue reading

The grand and empty Vohrawads of Sidhpur

I first heard of Sidhpur about 6 months back when I shamelessly eavesdropped on a conversation while commuting to work by bus. In my defence, the conversation, which was between two women from the Dawoodi Bohra community (as was evident from the colourful ridas they wore) in Gujarati and English, was really loud.

It was an animated conversation in which they spoke about their ancestral homes in Sidhpur and the holidays spent there. They spoke of chandeliers, Belgian glass windows, wooden antique furniture, fine linen, tableware, feasts, parties, and antiques among other things. There was gossip, as well as an element of ‘my-ancestral-house-is-grander-than-your-ancestral-house”, but it seemed to be in good fun.

The “conversation” on ancestral homes in Sidhpur intrigued me to look for more information on the Internet. Thanks to my good friend Google, I found in Sidhpur mansions with distinctive European style architecture, each one grander than the other. This information was enough for me to include a visit to Sidhpur when I toured North Gujarat in December 2014.

It was a little after 4 pm when I arrived at Sidhpur. While asking for directions from a local tea stall, I learnt that the Bohra houses were called Vohrawads and also that I needed to go to the Najampura area, which had the best and maximum number of such houses. A short rickshaw ride later, I was standing in front of the house that you see in the photograph below.

Sidhpur, Vohrawad, Comminity housing, Gujarat

Locally, this mansion is called the “house with 365 windows”

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Travel Shot: Brihadeeshwara Temple

Brihadeeshwara Temple

My parents and I visited the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur, in December 2005. We couldn’t have chosen a worse time as it was raining heavily and there a flood alert as well. The upside was this had deterred a lot of tourists and we arrived to a practically deserted temple at around 8.30 in the morning. Needless to say, I was delighted at the lack of people around.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Brihadeeshwara Temple Complex is very well maintained and remains, to this day, one of the most beautiful and cleanest temples that I have seen. The temple, which celebrated in 1000th anniversary earlier this year, is huge and yet, very compact and intimate.

I took many photographs of the Temple, but the one featured here is my favourite as the wet temple ground as well as the perspective add a mysterious depth to this magnificent temple. Don’t you think so?

The Banashankari and Mahakuta temples: Examples of neglect and apathy

My recent trip to some heritage sites in North Karnataka (Aihole, Badami, BijapurHampi and  Pattadakal) was an eye-opener in more ways than one. While I was amazed to see the excellent work done by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in restoring and maintaining the sites, as well as the efforts taken by the Karnataka Tourism Board, I was appalled to see condition of heritage sites not maintained by the ASI. My visits to the Banashankari Temple and the Mahakuta Temple Complex, both near Badami, are perfect examples of this.

The Banashankari Temple site has been a place of worship for about 14 centuries or so, though the current temple building is only about 200 years old. The temple’s name is derived from its location in the Tilakaranya forest. The main deity, Banashankari is also known as Shakambari or the vegetable goddess. Banashankari was the kuldevata or the tutelary deity for the Chalukya kings of the 7th century.

Our tour group arrived at the Banashankari Temple after spending a magical and enchanted evening at the Bhoothnatha Temples and the Agastya Teertha, near the Badami Cave-Temples. And came back to earth rather rudely with a ride through narrow, dusty, potholed and dirty access road to the temple. It was an inkling to the state of the temple itself.

Outside the Banashankari Temple. The guard-cum-lamp tower at the entrance to the Harida Teertha in the centre of the photograph

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The temple ruins of Hampi – 2: Vittala Temple

If Hampi was the showpiece of the Vijayanagara Empire, then the Vittala Temple is undoubtedly the showpiece of Hampi. Everything about the Vittala Temple is designed to make a statement—right from its settings and surroundings to its architecture to the temple complex itself. Everything. It is for this reason that the Vittala Temple is the most visited monument in Hampi, thereby making it the most talked about or written about or photographed monument. It is also the reason why our tour group was standing outside the Vittala Temple complex at 8.00 am one Saturday morning last month. Doreen, our tour organiser, was insistent that we visit the Vittala Temple before any other monument that day to avoid the tourist hordes. It was a good thing too, as the tourists started arriving in waves as we were leaving.

Located on the banks of the Tungabhadra with Anegundi on the opposite river bank, the approach to the Temple is through the stone ruins of a bazaar. We also passed a water tank and some manadapa-like monuments.

Bazaar outside the Vittala Temple

I also saw what looked like an enormous, narrow gateway, sans surrounding walls/ fortifications, a misconception that was clarified as I got nearer. The stone beam placed on two carved pillars was not a gate — it was the remains of a giant scale or a tulabharam. The ruling kings of Vijayanagara used to be weighed against gold, precious stones, food grains, etc., which would then be distributed to the poor and needy. At least this is what our guide told us, but I think that the gold and precious stones would have gone to the temples and the food grains to the poor and needy.

The stone frame of the King’s Balance or Tulabharam is all that remains of the original structure

As one nears the Vittala Temple, the burnt entrance tower captured my attention. The rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire were quite open to experimenting with building materials and styles. While experimenting with building styles seemed to be reserved for their royal buildings, their temples were experimented upon with regard to building material — at least for the temple towers. Brick towers replaced the heavier granite towers seen in the Virupaksha Temple at Hampi. While this made the temple towers easier to build, it also made them vulnerable to destruction by fire. Which is what happened when Hampi was sacked after the loss of the Vijayanagara Empire at the Battle of Talikota.

Entrance to the Vittala Temple

When I entered the Vittala Temple complex, the first thing that struck me was the geometric precision of the layout of the various structures within.

Inside the Vittala Temple Complex

Inside the Vittala Temple Complex. Part of the Mahamandapa is visible on the right, while part of the Kalyana Mandapa is visible on the left. One of the burnt temple towers is also visible in the background

It was difficult to concentrate on the guide’s orientation talk, as my eyes kept straying all over seeking details and delighting in the beauty around me. Once his talk was over, I set out to explore the Vittala Temple complex in greater detail, making the most obvious and best known structure there—the Stone Chariot—my first halt.

The Stone Chariot is built on a rectangular stone platform and its inner chamber once enshrined a Garuda idol. The Stone Chariot was originally drawn by 2 stone horses (now destroyed), and are currently drawn by 2 stone elephants brought from some other place. The Stone Chariot looks so amazingly real, right down to its stone wheels, that I felt all it needed was a tap or two with a magic wand for it to come alive! I’ve got goosebumps on my arm even as I am typing this out.

The Stone Chariot at the Vittala Temple

The Vittala Temple complex is also known for its hall of musical pillars. When I first heard about the musical pillars in Hampi, I imagined a long, seemingly endless, hall along which tall pillars would be lined up. These pillars would resonate with musical notes when struck gently. Nothing was further from this imagined structure of mine!

The Mahamandapa of the Vittala Temple, which contains the hall of musical pillars, is a many angled structure. Like the Stone Chariot, this too stands on an ornate platform, decorated with bas reliefs of traders, animals and floral motifs. There are 5 halls within this Mahamandapa corresponding to the four cardinal directions and a central hall, which does not have a roof, thereby leaving it open to the elements.

The temple pillars are composite pillars, with each individual pillar made up of many smaller and slender pillars (see photo below). The Eastern Hall of the Mahamandapa is the Hall of Musical Pillars. Each of these pillars are carved with figures of musicians, musical instruments, and dancers.

Details of the pillars of the Mahamandapa

A miniature temple on the walls of the Mahamandapa

Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the pillars, we could not test out the musical quality of the pillars. Over the years, too many people had tested the musical prowess of the pillars culminating in one of the pillars actually breaking a few years back. This resulted in the Mahamandapa being kept out-of-bounds for tourists. Eagle-eyed and strict guards are posted in the Mahamandapa to prevent tourists and tourist guides from testing the pillars. You can see one such guard lurking behind a pillar in photograph above.

This is probably a good thing as tourists can look at the beautiful carvings on the walls and pillars of the Mahamandapa, instead of only tap-tapping the musical pillars. I saw some particularly stylish carvings of miniature temples with a deity, on almost every side of the temple (see photo on the left). The Vittala Temple complex also has other attractions like the Kalyana Mandapa or the ceremonial marriage hall, a many (100?) pillared hall, as well as another mandapa whose name I forget now. Photographs of these attractions are given below.

The perfectly proportioned Kalyana Mandapa

A sampling of carvings from the Vittala Temple. Clockwise from top left: Krishna, with traces of the original painting still evident; a rare carving of Ravana; armed men on a mythical creature with a tiger’s legs, horse’s body, hare’s ears, and lion’s head; a drummer is rapt in his music.

One of the last things we saw at the Vittala Temple is the inner sanctum, which used to have an idol of Vittala (a form of Krishna). The idol is no longer there and our guide was not sure as to where and when the idol had disappeared from there. I wondered if it was destroyed during the sacking of Hampi or if was it shifted to another temple.

The Anjanedri Hill as viewed from Vittala Temple Complex

As we leave the Temple, I take one last 360° look around the complex and spot the Anjanedri Hill at Anegundi. From my explorations earlier in the day, I know that the Tungabhadra and the submerged Purandara Dasa Mandapa is somewhere close by. This was place where the saint-composer Purandara Dasa spent his last years in Hampi singing and composing songs dedicated to Krishna. More specifically, he composed songs dedicated to Vittala and signed all his compositions with “Purandara Vittala”.

And some things suddenly became clear to me. Purandara Dasa’s Vittala was the Vittala of this temple, and not the Vittala of the Pandharpur temple (in Maharashtra) as I had thought for all these years. At that point, I felt really blessed to be at the place that was an inspiration for the compositions of Purandara Dasa, one of my favourite composers. His simple, fresh and timeless compositions appeal to me like no other. Though most of his compositions are in Kannada, a language I can just about comprehend, I can somehow understand his compositions (you can listen to one of his compositions here).

I left the Vittala Temple with the hope that some of the inspiration rubs off on to my own creative pursuits.

P.S.: This visit was part of a tour organised by Doreen D’Sa of Doe’s Ecotours. She can be contacted at does_ecotours@yahoo.co.in.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Read more about my trip to Hampi through the following posts: