Welcome to this travel blog which is inspired by the wandering clouds effortlessly gliding through distant lands. Sometimes almost still as if watching the beauty of the earth below and at times rushing to some place far away – as if on an endless travel mission. This is where I share my observations, experiences and thoughts gathered during my travels

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Taj of the Deccan

I have blogged about my jinxed trip to the Taj Mahal but I must say that I have visited the Taj of the Deccan. Bibi ka Maqbara is called the Taj of the Deccan because it is inspired by the architecture, carvings and landscaping of the Taj Mahal. Located in Aurangabad, Maharashtra which had become an important centre for the Mughals in the 17th century, the Bibi ka Maqbara is said to have been built somewhere between 1651 and 1661. Although the name means it is the ‘tomb of the wife’, it was actually built by Aurangzeb’s elder son Azam Shah (Akbar’s brother) in memory of his mother Rabbia Ul Durrani or Dilras Banu Begum. When I cross-checked the dates through a search on Wiki, I found that Azam Shah was born in 1653 so it is unlikely that the construction would have started in 1651 although these are the dates mentioned on the inscription put up by the Archeological Survey of India. The same inscription states that the monument took shape under leadership of Ata-Ullah, who was the architect and Hanspat Rai, the engineer. It is also called ‘poor man’s Taj’ because it was built with a fraction of the resources spent on the Taj Mahal and tries to copy the grandeur of the Taj.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Russian Winter

It was middle of January and the temperature at St. Petersburg had dipped to minus 25 degrees Celsius. The tourist guide asked us once again, “Are you sure you want to go ahead with the sight-seeing tour today”. I was fully prepared to face the bitter Russian winter and so gave a double thumbs-up. The bus took ten of us around for the entire day and we had a truly memorable time. I will write about the places we visited in a separate post, this one is dedicated to sharing the sights and experiences of Russian winter.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Some things change and some things don't

Spaces for children in urban areas are dwindling rapidly and Mumbai is no exception. Very few parks have been designed keeping children in mind. One of the oldest parks that has been the top favourite among children is the Kamala Nehru Park. All those who have grown up in Mumbai would recollect that this used to be a regular spot for school picnics. After all these years, when I passed by Kamala Nehru Park some time ago, it was heartening to see that at least some things in life are still the same.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Silent and Mesmerizing - Hail she is

It was early summer and we were driving through South Dakota. It was around three in the afternoon. The skies were beginning to turn grey and the sunshine seemed undecided if it wanted to stay or hide away.  We thought it would be a good idea to head back to the hotel instead of getting stuck in a sudden thunderstorm. But we pushed our luck and decided to drive on and thank goodness, we did not return. Because what we saw in the next few minutes was absolutely magical. Suddenly the open fields and the valley got filled with cold thunderclouds. There was no storm, no thundering, no noise; just a silent and mesmerizing entry of clouds carrying hail. The horses grazing in the fields paused for a moment to enjoy the beauty. The white clouds swept in spreading themselves as a carpet. They slowed down for a while shedding the hail they had carried with them and silently moved on, leaving us completely dumbstruck. Here are some pictures where I have tried to capture the magical experience.

Kabini - In the lap of nature

One of the places in Karnataka where one can enjoy wildlife and get immersed in the lap of nature is Kabini. It is about 80 kms from Mysore and located inside the Nagarhole National Park. It is named after Kabini, a tributary of Kaveri. We visited Kabini a while ago and stayed at the Jungle Lodges Resort. For a long time, this used to be the only place to stay at Kabini and therefore always heavily booked. Now there are other resorts too but if one is planning to stay at the Jungle Lodges, it is advisable to book well in advance because it is still sought after.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Zero Mile Marker at Nagpur

The geographical centre of India is located at Nagpur, Maharashtra and the ‘zero mile marker’ located in the heart of the city is considered to be the central-most point in the country. This stone pillar is supposed to have been erected during the British period although it is not clear for what purpose they thought of building it. We can see the old names of cities marked on different sides of the pillar indicating the direction and the distance between the city and the zero mile marker. Located adjacent to a busy road junction on a small patch of a green lawn, one can just pass by it without even recognizing its importance.

Next to the pillar stands a sculpture with running horses. Although the sculpture is nice per se, it simply does not go well with the old stone zero mile marker (hence it has been smartly cut off from this picture). I would have rather appreciated the tourism department putting up a small board indicating the significance of the place and a little bit of its history. I am not even sure if all the local autorickshaw drivers know about the place because we had to ask many people on the way for directions and not all knew what we were looking for. But if you are in Nagpur, you should certainly check it out at least. Whatever said, it is a nice feeling to be standing at the centre of our vast country.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Puri - a picture of faith

When I was at college, an Oriya friend of mine had gifted me a magnet with a picture of Lord Jagannatha which still finds a place on my refrigerator after all these years. So when work took me to Puri some time ago, I thought I must visit the temple if schedule permitted. Early one morning, I skipped my long run on the beach and instead took a cycle rickshaw to the temple. Puri is basically a temple town and all roads lead to the temple. When I started at 7 am, I thought I would be the early bird but was surprised to see that the crowd had already started building up. The rickshaw stopped a little distance away and I had to walk the last few hundred metres. Outside the temple, I had to deposit my footwear, mobile phone and my camera. I was somewhat reluctant, but they had a fairly decent system to ensure that the personal belongings of hundreds of devotees were kept safely. Moreover, I did not have a choice.

As I entered through what is called the Lion Gate facing eastwards (there are four gates facing four directions called the Lion Gate, Tiger Gate, Elephant Gate and Horse Gate), I came across the Aruna Sthambha, a stone pillar that has been moved from Konark to Puri. After bowing to the pillar, I climbed up the sacred twenty-two steps and saw the devotees either kissing every step or touching their forehead to every step. The priests (called the pandas) were thrusting themselves on all visitors and it took me some time to get used to their nagging presence at every spot without getting irritated. Everyone around seemed to be carrying pooja thalis and elaborate offerings and I looked somewhat out of place because I was not carrying even a single flower and was not even interested in doing any pooja.

The temple itself rests on a raised platform and is built in Kalinga style of architecture. The walls and the dome have beautiful intricate carvings and considering that it was built in the 12th century, it is in an excellent condition. The main temple is surrounded by thirty other small and not-so-small temples and the devotees were distributed across all.

There is also a huge kitchen that can serve food to large gatherings during festivals. Lord Jagannatha is said to be worshipped by all sects of Hinduism thus symbolizing spiritual eclecticism. It is also among the four ‘dhams’ which must be visited by every Hindu before departing from this life. The idol of Jagannatha is actually made out of wood and is said to contain an object that lends the deity an extra mystical and spiritual significance.

As I entered inside the dark corridor on the periphery of the sanctum sanctorum, there was a huge rush to get a glimpse of Lord Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra. Looking at the crowd, I wondered if I should just head back, but there was no choice. Before I could make up my mind, I was pushed by the crowd away from the exit. The priest ensured that the crowd kept moving and all the devotees got just a couple of seconds to fold their hands and lower their heads when they were straight in front of the trinity. I too got my two seconds before I was pushed away. The image was just the same as the one on my refrigerator but here the trinity was almost coming alive with the prayers and chantings reverberating inside the high dome and adding to the radiance. The deities were dressed elaborately and exquisitely.

As I came out, I saw many devotees sitting in the courtyard with rosary beads praying and reading from the texts. I saw there was an unusually high proportion of elderly women devotees, some so old and bent that they could barely walk. I realized some of them must have waited their entire lifetime to finally make this yatra.

Some devotees were distributing and eating Prasad. I quickly went around all the other temples, but spent more time sitting and observing the devotees and marveling at the picture of faith that was spread around. The sun had risen quite high by now and the temple looked brilliant with a golden hue created by sunlight. I realized that I should now return. As I walked down the steps, I once again saw the devotees touching every step as they entered and the temple bells ringing continuously beckoning them as they came closer and closer. I wished I had my camera with me, not so much for taking pictures of the beautiful architecture but for capturing the expressions of those who were nearing their destination. As I stepped out of the temple and rode through the narrow lanes of Puri in a cycle rickshaw driven laboriously by someone who was of my father’s age, it seemed like I had stepped into a different world altogether.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sinhagad - a chapter from Maratha history

Having grown up reading Maratha history at school and a dose of Amar Chitra Katha stories about Shivaji, a trip to Sinhagad was a great way of refreshing all the history lessons from my childhood. Sinhagad literally means Lion’s Fort. It is located around 30-35 kms from Pune on a hill (about 800 metres high) and is a lovely spot for making a day trip.

Sinhagad, which was earlier called Kondhana, was strategically important for the Marathas because it was located at the centre of other important forts like the Purandar, Rajgad and Torna and they captured the fort every time it was snatched away from them. But Sinhagad is significant in Maratha history primarily because of the Battle of Sinhagad which was fought in 1670 to recapture the fort from the Mughals. During the battle, Tanaji Malasure, Shivaji’s most reliable lieutenant surprised the enemies by climbing up the steep cliff of the fort with the help of a monitor lizard and putting up a brave fight. Although he died fighting valiantly in the battle, the Marathas were victorious and recaptured the fort. Shivaji is said to have then remarked, ‘Gad aala pan Sinha gela’ (The fort has been won but the lion is lost). Today, when one looks down the sharp vertical cliff standing on top of Sinhagad at the same spot, one can only imagine the sheer courage and loyalty of Tanaji.

Although one can trek right up to the fort from Sinhagad village at the foothills, we drove up as we were traveling with little kids. However, the road was in a bad shape. From the parking lot, the climb up to the fort was comfortable. It was very hot and there were not many trees on the top providing shade. The steps were uneven in many places and had a lot of gravel. Thankfully, we were prepared for both these conditions with caps and comfortable shoes. 

Pune Darwaza at Sinhagad

There were two entrances to the fort – Pune Darwaza taken by most visitors and Kalyan Darwaza. A tour around the fort can take even an entire day, depending on how much one wants to explore. There is a Tanaji Smarak (memorial) on top; several water tanks, including the Elephant tank; several temples including a small temple dedicated to Kondhaneshwar; several towers, ammunition storehouse, a rock-cut cave-like horse stable and also the Doordarshan TV tower. One can not only see the majestic Sahyadri ranges from top, one can also spot other forts around. During summer, the mountain ranges look blackish because they are dry with little vegetation. But in monsoons, we were told that they look as if they are covered with green velvet. We would have liked to see more displays depicting a map of the fort, explanation about the history and significance of every spot. The place somehow assumed that every visitor would be familiar with Maratha history. Back in the parking lot, there were many places that served typical Marathi food, but we settled for a glass of buttermilk.

On the way back, we wished we had spent the entire day at the fort, wished we had trekked instead of taking a bumpy road ride and wished that the kids were slightly older to understand what they saw. Anyways, now we have more than one reason to visit Sinhagad again.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A day in Agartala

A few months ago, I was in Agartala on work. Given that I was spending only 24 hours (from Friday noon to Saturday noon) in the city and with some important work that required hundred percent focus, I was not expecting a chance to go around. I was staying at the Circuit House, a sprawling newly constructed sarkari Guest House which offered superb food and hospitality; so there was no reason to step out either other than for my scheduled business. The traveler in me was getting a bit restless, but work always comes before pleasure! Luckily, all the scheduled work was completed late evening on the first day itself freeing up the next morning. The government officials whom I had come to meet suggested that I should also see the city since I had not been there before and had come all the way from Bangalore. Although it was a holiday the next day, they deputed a person to take me around.

Next morning as I woke up, I found thick fog enveloped outside the window and I could see absolutely nothing beyond. It took a good couple of hours for the fog to clear up. My escort showed up exactly at the scheduled time and I allowed him to work out my itinerary for the morning. He had come equipped with a camera and a USB cable so I could carry the pictures that he was planning to take as we went around. His idea was that I could look around and he could take the pictures, so we could save time - I had never met such a thoughtful and enthusiastic escort before!

On the way I was told how the international border with Bangladesh is only 4-5 kilometers away from Agartala, how 80% of Tripura’s border is shared with Bangladesh (on north, west and south), how the border is just a fence with barbed wire and covers most of the border leaving out certain pockets, how trade and exchange takes place across the border on a daily basis, how the cultures across are more or less identical because of the Bengali identity and so on. We talked about the two famous personalities from Tripura – legendary S.D. Burman and upcoming tennis star Somdev Devvarman. I saw that Agartala had a few signs of having joined the globalization era- a small mall (which I preferred to skip), advertisements of cell-phones and computer courses…however, my Reliance Netconnect did not get any signal and I did not find any surfing centre easily.

Ujjayanta Palace getting renovated
We first went to the Durga Bari temple and Laxminarayan Bari temple. These simple, non-ostentatious temples (compared to what I am used to seeing in the South) hold great significance and had many devotees although there was no special occasion. We then went to the Ujjayanta Palace which is where the Tripura Legislative Assembly was housed since Tripura attained statehood in 1972. The gates were closed as it was a holiday but since I was in a sarkari car and with sarkari escort, they opened magically. The long pathway after the entrance went around Mughal styled gardens leading upto a two storey white palace. It was built by Maharaja Radhakishore Manickya more than 100 years ago. I saw that the palace building was covered with scaffoldings and was undergoing some renovation. I was told that the Assembly would move to a new and modern building sometime after summer this year. We then went to Jagannath Bari temple which had several beautifully decorated statutes of Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra. The entire life of Krishna was depicted through the colourful statues. I also saw statues of Shiva-Parvati tucked at the back, beside a small tank and a dharamshala.
Shiva at Jagannath Bari temple

I realized I had seen almost all the must-see places in Agartala within just three hours. It was time for me to head back to the airport. On the way, my escort transferred the pictures he had taken onto my laptop and the ones I have displayed in this post are actually clicked by him. He insisted that I should return to Agartala so that I could visit some more important and beautiful temples located a few hundred kilometers away. In his excitement, he copied some of the pictures of those other temples also on to my laptop from his camera and said, ‘If you see these pictures, you will feel like returning again to Agartala’. I was really touched by this sweet gesture.

As the plane flew from Agartala to Kolkata, it went over Bangladesh for most of the time. The sky was clear and I could see the blue tinged rivers, green fields and grey houses. I tried to locate the fenced border but could not find any.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Scientists in Steel

Just outside the Tsukuba Expo Memorial Park in Ibaraki, Japan, there is an amazing stainless steel installation that keeps up with the city’s reputation as the Science City. Constructed with the help of hundreds of steel balls suspended from a square frame, images of four great scientists namely, Archimedes, Newton, Edison and Galileo, have been created. 

View from below the structure
The square frame rests on four polished steel pillars and on the top it has connected the diagonals and the sides. Hundreds of steel balls are suspended with the help of thin but strong wires from top in such a manner that faces of the four scientists can be identified by looking at the installation from each of the four sides. The most amazing part of this installation is that when one looks at say Galileo from one side, the other steel balls making the images of other scientists are not even visible because they are integrated into the design of Galileo. The design is extremely neat and without any distortion although it simultaneously showcases four images facing four different sides. I thought, perhaps if I stood under the square frame and looked up I would get to see some messiness of the artist, but I was wrong. It was impeccable and absolutely Japanese. Although I am unable to find the details of the creators in my notes, my strong hunch is that it must have been a team effort, that too an inter-disciplinary team effort. 
Image of Galileo

The team would have relied on first, the artist or designer for conceiving and visualizing the installation, then the people with backgrounds in math, computer graphics, 3D modeling to come up with simulated virtual models, then the people with background in material sciences in helping select material that has withstood the weather conditions and then finally those who actually worked on it hands-on to erect the structure and translate the designer’s vision into a reality.  Kudos to the team which has beautifully converged multiple disciplines and for a flawless execution that brings the four great scientists together!

Till the last drop...

Broadly speaking, there are two types of drivers when it comes to making decisions about when to refuel during long road journeys- the cautious ones who refuel even before the arrow tips to the E mark and the slightly bindaas ones who rely on their gut instinct about the capacity of the reserve fuel in the car and are willing to push the car to the nearest fueling station, if need be. Besides there are those who seem to be on some kind of a loyalty programme and refuel only at particular fuel stations and there are also those who refuel only if the price is within a particular price bracket (like in US where prices differ across vendors and stations). Whatever be your type, sooner or later you are bound to come across an experience that may nudge you to reconsider how you make refueling decisions and when you make them.

We had a nail-biting experience while driving from Lafayette to Baton Rouge on I-10 in Louisiana after which the E mark on the car does not look the same to us anymore. We were so engrossed in talking, eating, taking pictures, listening to music and all that is usually done during long drives that we did not notice how long we’d been driving with the arrow on the E mark. And before we knew it, we were already driving on the Atchafalya Swamp Freeway, a long stretch of elevated freeway that rests on pillars over the swamps. The bridge is an architectural feat because it is constructed over the Atchafalaya river and large tracts of swamps on all side and runs for over 18.2 miles. 

Initially we joked about who would push the car for the remaining distance in the hot sun; but soon we realized that there was no way we could turn back and all we could do was to keep driving until we ran out of fuel. Jokes were soon replaced with arguments about who was responsible or rather irresponsible to get us into this situation. Arguments rarely provide answers or solutions, so for the sake of self-preservation we kept aside the verbal duel (to be continued at another time and place) and tried to find some solutions. The first step was to take a baseline by trying to calibrate the exact position of the arrow relative to the lettering E and making some quick calculations on mileage, distance covered, fuel efficiency etc. As per the calculations, we thought we may just be able to cross the 18.2 miles elevated highway if we conserved. The AC was switched off immediately and the windows were rolled down to let the swampy air flow into the car and add to the foul atmosphere inside the car. Then there was an argument if switching off the car stereo would have any impact on fuel conservation. Although we did not arrive at any consensus, we decided to err on the cautious side and switch off the music. Instead of listening to the other person say ‘I had told you to switch off the music, now push the car’ we preferred to rather listen to each other sing. There was no question of stopping or changing gears, but we did try to argue if the changes in speed would affect the fuel efficiency. We tried telling each other that staring at the arrow would not elevate it in any way and we should leave the poor 'E' alone instead of hypnotizing it with our constant glare. We tried to figure out what emergency features the expressway was equipped with. We saw that there were several call phones marked by numbers for easy identification and we figured out that help will not be too far away even if we indeed needed support. With all eyes on the movement of the arrow which was way below E, we forgot to even take pictures of the Atchafalaya river and swamps. The 18.2 miles ride seemed so long that we even began wondering if there was any digit missing from the hundredth place and if it was in fact 118.2 kms or even worse if the decimal was actually not supposed to be there before 2? But finally we did see the end of the freeway and our car was still running on the reserve fuel. 

Once we got off, we still did not see any fuel station but the fact that we were in a human habitation and not suspended over a swamp gave tremendous relief. Soon we spotted a fueling station- it was not selling fuel from our preferred company and the price was also somewhat high but that did not matter anymore. We had stared at the E mark for too long than what it deserved.