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 temples of Kiradu

About 180 km south-west of Jaisalmer, where the Thar Desert meets some isolated outcrops of the Aravalli mountain ranges, lie the ruins of the temples of Kiradu. It is believed that there were around 108 temples on this site, but today only 5 temples remain — 4 of those are dedicated to Shiva and 1 temple is believed to have been dedicated to to Vishnu.

I first heard about the temples at Kiradu when I received an invitation from Suryagarh. The itinerary attached with the mail included a visit to these temples. I was intrigued enough to look up for more information on the internet immediately — even before I accepted the invitation. To my surprise, I found little substantive information online. This only made the temples more intriguing and mysterious for me and I couldn’t wait to see them for myself when I visited Suryagarh in July 2016.

And after lunch on my last day at Suryagarh, we set off to see the Kiradu temples. It was a beautiful, but long, drive through the Thar, through dramatic changes in the landscape from desert to hilly.

It was around 6 pm when we arrived at the Kiradu temples, which meant I had an hour or so before sunset and before the light faded. The next hour saw me racing from temple to temple, pumped with adrenaline, trying to take in as much of the details as I could and photographing whatever I thought was interesting or significant.

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A nritya (?) mandapa with elaborately carved toranas and pillars. One of the pillars has been reconstructed as part of the restoration work undertaken by the ASI at Kiradu

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Itchan Kala: The inner fortress of Khiva

There are places that leave an impression on you after you have visited it. And then there are places which leave an impression on you even before you have visited it. Like Itchan Kala, the inner, fortified town of Khiva, an ancient city on the Silk Route in Central Asia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Itchan Kala was the first of the sites to be inscribed in the list from Uzbekistan in 1990.

I came across Khiva and Itchan Kala, while researching on places to visit in UzbekistanWhile the photographs of Itchan Kala were uniformly breathtaking, not to mention tempting enough make me want to pack my bags and head there immediately, the descriptions were varied and the reactions mixed — a living fortress, a perfectly preserved medieval fortress, a fort museum, a museum city, former hub of slave trade, lifeless and artificial, a film set, a somewhere else place, over renovated and restored, lifeless, touristy… I found the multitude of opinions and impressions about Itchan Kala even more enticing than the pictures, and couldn’t wait to visit it for myself.

The sun was setting when I arrived on a September day in 2015 in the rather nondescript city of Khiva. It had been a long day of travel from Nukus, exploring the scattered ruins of Khorezem along the way. As my car wove in and out of twisting roads, I kept a lookout for the walled town, already familiar from the numerous pictures I had seen online.

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And then, as we drove through a market, the mud walls of a fortress suddenly loomed up. It was the Itchan Kala. I barely had time to recover from that first sight before the car entered the fortress through a gate and stopped outside my hotel. As soon as the registration formalities were completed, I set out to explore the place.

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3 forts and a dakhma: Exploring a bygone era

Scattered across the vast Karakalpakstan region in the north-western part of Uzbekistan are the remains of many fortified settlements. These fortified settlements or qalas extend into the Khorezm Province in western Uzbekistan as well and also into the neighbouring country of Turkmenistan.

Archaeologists say that these fortified settlements were built over a 1,000-year period with the earliest fortifications making an appearance around 700 BCE. The qalas, which were constructed from compressed mud or clay bricks, were built in the fertile region created by the Amu Darya delta. It is believed that the number of qalas in the region run into hundreds; however, only about 80 or so have been documented.

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I visited 2 qalas in the region — Toprak and Ayaz — and saw a third (Gyaur) from a distance, after visiting Mizdakhan and on my way to Khiva. I also made an arduous climb (my knees are still protesting after 3 months) to see the Chilpyk dakhma or Tower of Silence, but more on that later.

To travel through a vast area in a single day, see these intriguing bits of history scattered about in a desolate and barren land was quite an experience. Continue reading

The Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum

I love museums, and I can spend hours inside them pottering about and looking at their varied collections. And yet strangely, for some inexplicable reason, I have never really explored the museums in my city of Mumbai. Of course, I have visited them as a child but not really visited them, if you know what I mean.

Bhau Daji Lad Museum 2So one rainy day in August last year, I took the afternoon off from work to see the Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (BDLM). This was a museum that I had never visited, but one that I had heard about a lot from Appa. I went without a camera as I automatically assumed that, like most Indian museums, photography was not allowed. Big mistake. Non-flash photography was allowed in the Museum, though they don’t really advertise the fact.

The dazzling 3-hour BDLM visit was a visual treat all the way — right from the stately Museum building to its grand interiors (that reminded me of a ballroom) to its tastefully displayed collection — and one that stayed with me longer than the time I spent there. I knew that I didn’t just want to write about the BDLM’s artefacts in my Museum Treasure series, but write an entire post on the Museum itself. And since I wanted to include photographs, I had to wait for an opportunity to visit the BDLM once again. And last month, I got that chance and when the Museum opened it’s doors that Friday morning, I was the first to enter with a big smile and my camera.🙂

Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai

The entrance to the Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum

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Discovering Roman Britain

I was introduced to Roman Britain quite unexpectedly on a cold, windy day in October 2008 in London. I had been in London for about 3 weeks then and was already head over heels in love with this beautiful city. Each day was a new day of exploration and between settling into a new city and classes at the university, there was always something wonderful to discover and delight over.

That afternoon, I took a path leading off from Tower Bridge Tube station, a path that led me past a hotel and then, quite suddenly into a walled dead-end. I was about to turn back, when I saw an information board there and walked over to read it. Good thing I did that as this turned out to be the most interesting dead-end !

Part of the original wall surrounding the Roman city of Londinium or London

Part of the original wall surrounding the Roman city of Londinium or London

The information board announced that this was no ordinary wall, but a slice of London’s history. Built by the Romans in 190–220 AD, this wall used to run around the city of Londinium, the Roman name for London. About 9 ft thick at the base and about 20 ft. in height, it was one of the most important and expensive developments in the city at that time. (By medieval times, the height of the wall was increased and though it is not evident in the photograph, the colour of the mortar distinguishes the two sections of the wall.)

My first reaction was, “Wow! So Asterix and Obelix wasn’t an exaggeration; the Romans were really here. Dear old Julius Caesar was really here !” For the rest of the day, I walked around in a kind of daze as the Roman fever took hold. It was a fever that refused to go away and one that I had great pleasure in indulging when I visited erstwhile Roman cities in the UK and explored a part of history that I thought only existed in comic books !🙂

So join me on my journey of discovering Roman Britain through visits to Camulodunum (present day Colchester), Aquae Sulis (present day Bath), and Verulamium (present day St. Albans) in England. (Strangely, the wall remained my only encounter with Roman Britain in London.) It was a journey that left me breathless, awestruck, and delighted in turn, but always richer in having gained knowledge of something new, and of having discovered a whole new world.

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