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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Memorable travel memories

If there is one thing that I find really difficult to resist, it is participating in travel writing contests—in the last 2 years I have participated in 3 of them. Though the possibility of winning is definitely a motivating factor, what really pushes me to participate is the challenge of writing a travel post based on a ‘prompt’ or a ‘structure’, quite unlike my usual travel rambles, er… posts.

So, when @raghavmodi asked me if I wanted to be part of a Blogger Relay Race, I immediately said yes. Organised by Lowcost Holidays on the theme of “Top 3 Travel Memories”, this competition involves members of 5 blogger teams (Red, Blue, Green, Yellow and Purple) writing blog posts on this theme. All members of a team do not post at the same time; instead one person writes a post on this theme and passes the “baton” to the next blogger on the team, who also writes a post on his/her top 3 travel memories, before passing the baton on to someone else in the team to continue with the Blogger Relay Race.

I am member of #TeamPurple and yesterday, I picked the baton from Ashley of Fun As We Go. As I sat down to race, er… write about my top 3 travel memories, I realised how difficult it was to narrow down my top 3 travel memories since all my travels have been special and memorable in one way or the other. But since this called for just the top 3 memories, I decided to go with the first 3 memories that popped up in my mind.

And they are…🙂

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A visit to Dakshinachitra

A welcoming Kolam and flowers greets visitors

The glass of chilled mosambi juice was a life-saver. The blinding white heat and the humid haze that had assaulted my senses from the time I had landed in Chennai dissipated a wee bit.

I became aware of the quiet and calm of Dakshinachitra, “a living museum of art, architecture, crafts, and performing arts of South India”.

Located on the East Coast Road in Muthukadu, Dakshinachitra is about 21 km south of Chennai. The sprawling, 10-acre complex houses carefully recreated heritage structures, traditions and culture from the four southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is also a hub for performing arts, a retreat for artists, a learning centre for students, an exhibition space, a place to visit for the culturally inclined tourist… And a place that I had been wanting to visit for a long time, particularly to see the heritage structures.

So when the opportunity to visit Chennai came up about 10 days back, I planned my itinerary in such a way that I would go straight to Dakshinachitra from the airport itself. So far so good. What I had not accounted for, or rather ignored what everyone told me, was the severity of the infamous Chennai heat. I mean, how much more different could Chennai humidity be from Mumbai’s? By the time I reached Dakshinachitra, I was almost dehydrated and was having fond thoughts about Mumbai weather !

A shady courtyard at Dakshinachitra

Though the mosambi juice and lots of water revived me enough to brave the heat and take a walk through the heritage houses, the relentless heat made it difficult for me to really enjoy my visit there. I did manage to walk through the entire section of heritage structures, but my mind and camera did not register or record everything I saw.

But do allow me to share with you what they camera recorded.🙂

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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?

Disappointment @ the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary

“Hurry up ! The bears are already there. We need to get to the observation site quickly,” urged Doreen, our tour organiser. We scrambled out of the vehicle and followed Doreen to climb some rather steep steps that seemed to go on forever.

Our tour group had just driven to the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary from Hampi (about 15 km) over some rather bad roads, through beautiful scenery, and imminent rain. We were at the Sanctuary to see the Indian sloth bear or karadis, who came out of their caves every evening to have a special paste of rice and honey (or was it jaggery?) that was smeared on the rocks near their caves by the Sanctuary guards. For me karadi brought forth images of Baloo, the Jungle Book bear, resplendent in his Disney avatar or Jambavan, the wise bear king from the Ramayana. I was rather keen on what the karadi really looked like!

Created in 1994, the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary covers an area of about 5.58 sq.km. In addition to the bears, the Sanctuary is also home to wild boar, leopards, porcupines, striped hyenas, monkeys, hare, and peafowl, along with many bird species. Though we had come here to see the sloth bears, I secretly hoped to spot a leopard or two as well.

After about five minutes of huffing and puffing, we reached the observation site which is at the top of a hillock with fencing all around. Quite a few people had gathered there to watch the bears and they all seemed to be looking across the fencing and pointing at some black dots on the opposite hillock quite some distance away. It took me a while to realise that those black dots were actually the karadis.

A view of the black dots, sorry sloth bears, from the observation point

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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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