Thursday 4 July 2019

Ancient cities - Ajanta and Ellora


 Ajanta Caves
Road to Ajanta from Aurangabad is through Maharastra State Highway 8 via Phulambri-Aland-Sillod-Ajinta-Ajanta Caves. Unruly motorcyclists, swamps created on the national highway thanks to the work in progress of road widening -by chipping off the existing road – and the rains altogether makes it an unpleasant journey. Be prepared for a bumpy ride!
The ride from the visitor centre to the entrance of caves acclimatises you for what’s ahead. Getting away from civilisation, towards calm and quietude. Ignore the uncivilised group of people creating chaos and spoiling the calmness of the place and you are in for a treat to eyes and soul. It is a marvel, how they managed to do it, many centuries ago, with minimal tools. Seems like they were highly dedicated to whatever they did. The main feature of these caves are the paintings, which range from floral to mythological interpretations. 

Rain changes the whole landscape, it was metamorphosed into a time when the Buddhist monks lived there. Waterfalls come alive from most of the cave tops gorging down with a  roar, feeding the river flowing under these caves. It’s worth the trip to understand how skilful and gifted our ancestors were. Not all the caves are accessible, so including your walk to the gorgeous viewpoints, you need to spend 4-5 hours here.

Ellora Caves
Road to Ellora from Aurangabad is butter smooth. The fascinating fort at Daulatabad is worth making a stop. The effort in planning and executing the construction is amazing. Those living inside the fort would  have felt secure and had a worry-free life. Towards the top, a dark tunnel leading up the way to citadel reminded me of the description from the book “The Buried Giant” where Kazuo Ishiguro talks about a tunnel that is set in 5th Century Britain. There is a new way to bypass some part of the dark tunnel. The short hike is worth for the sweeping views of the surrounding hills. You can also see the remaining of the fort walls and wonder at how large the place is.
Ellora is the more popular tourist attraction amongst Ajanta and Ellora. The two places are usually thought to be together or close to one another, but they are not. The terrain of Ellora is more of flat land, hence the caves are spacious and spread over. The focus is on sculptures and architecture. The carvings are intricate at places, with a few multi-storied caves, while many caves are uncomplicated with a few carved pillars in a big hall with simple Buddha statues. There is a lot of walking, to cover all the caves. For those who can’t walk much, there is bus service to some of the caves, which otherwise requires a lot of walk on the tarred road or the short hike along the hill. 

More tourists mean noise and nuisance. Off-season, weekday crowd was not forgiving, as there were noisy youngsters who came there to merely have fun and enjoy their echoes inside the caves. Cave number 16 at the main entrance is the most popular of all the caves. Some of the caves have very good, mesmerising sculptures of Buddha and those related to Buddhism. Hindu caves are more ornate, while the Jain ones are very minimalist. While returning to Aurangabad stop by the tomb of Aurangazeb at Khuldabad. For tea maniacs, a stop at Lukman ka Dhaba, is a must. The rich tea is full of flavour and the place is so popular, that people drive from Aurangabad to have a cup of tea here.

Tuesday 2 July 2019

City of Gates - Aurangabad

The diligence with which IRCTC manages to delay the trains is just mind-boggling. Chit-chatting and munching on junk we sat through the eventful thirty-odd hour journey. In recent times, travel meant a road trip on the bike. Instead of the speed and frantic nature of riding, it was a welcome change to unwind and enjoy the slow pace of backpacking. 

Alighting at Ahmednagar, we were welcomed by pleasant weather with drizzle.  Ahmednagar is a small town, with a heavy military presence. At the train station, it is no trouble to get a shared auto to transport bus stand – most buses stop at both Maliwada and Tarakpur bus stand. Boarding an ordinary state transport bus (Rs.145, 2.5 hours) to Aurangabad, we soared on the smooth four-lane highway. State-run buses have Fastag installed - that is the only luxury bus has seen in the recent past. Misleading milestones will put your arithmetic skills to test.   

The city of Aurangabad is very lenient and tolerant with flies, you’ll see them everywhere in bunches. The main and best way to get around the city is the ubiquitous auto-rickshaw. To get a feel of down-town and experience the local culture, head to  Aurangapura, Gul-mandi or Nirala bazaar markets. Nirala bazaar is the uptown market area and has some good vegetarian restaurants. Nearby is the Tilak road, housing one of the historical landmark - Paithan gate – the best place to shop footwear and clothing. A couple of shops offer Handloom Sarees. Bear in mind that not all sarees are locally woven, many come from other states. The speciality of Aurangabad is silk, so if you want something local, look for Himroo or Paithani. These are handwoven with intricate designs and best quality material used. Respect the effort and time spent for weaving, before whining about the price. 

Himroo fabrics give you a chance to watch live weaving – if you are lucky – and a decent selection of sarees, shawls and bedsheets. The store is opposite to another landmark “Jafar gate”. Out of fifty-plus gates, sadly a mere fifteen or so are remaining in the city. Many factories line the road towards Ellora offering to watch the weavers at work and many options to buy from. Within the city, choices might be scanty. 

A mausoleum built for his first wife - Bibi ka Maqbara- is the largest structure Aurangazeb had to his credit. Interestingly the architect is the son of the principal designer of Taj Mahal. It is then no wonder that Bibi ka Maqbara bears a striking resemblance to the Taj. The garden around the structure is a  nice place to stroll, however, it will be busy with the selfie-capturing populace.  Aurangabad is a good option to keep as a base to visit the remarkable Ajanta and Ellora caves.

Thursday 14 March 2019

Canterbury Tales

“It befell that one day in that season, as I was in Southwark at the Tabard Inn, ready to go on my pilgrimage to Canterbury” – Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Legendary amongst British literature students, a UNESCO World Heritage Site -Canterbury is home to The Canterbury Cathedral: Mother Church for the worldwide Anglican Communion. 

Serving as a backdrop for two acclaimed literary works, Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and Murder in the Cathedral by T.S.Elliot, it was here in 1170 Archbishop Thomas Beckett was murdered at The Canterbury Cathedral. The Cathedral is stunning and enormous too. Marvel at the mind-blowing architecture, paintings telling biblical stories and the detailed carvings on the pillars. Appreciate the hard-work put in painting the stained glass all around the church which is sure to take your breath away. Don’t miss the Martyrdom – the place where St. Thomas was murdered.   The oldest part of the Cathedral, a quiet place – The Crypt is an undercroft complex constructed in Romanesque (Norman) architecture. An ideal place to sit and reflect on life. 

The best way to explore the Cathedral is by following the audio-guide which will give you the freedom to traverse at your own pace. If you like more of an interactive session, go with the guided tour provided by them. The guides are locals and are a treasure trove of information. They also have guide books which you can take back home with you as a souvenir.  For opening timings and entry charges click here.

Amongst other things to do in Canterbury, St.Martin’s Church has the distinction of being the oldest parish church in continuous use in England. From the terrace of the church, you get a magnificent view of the city. Visit their website for up-to-date information on opening timings.
Some of the most important religious artefacts of Saxons’ are displayed in the archaeological collections at the St. Augustine's Abbey, which was one of the significant religious sites in medieval England. An audio tour is available to explore the evocative ruins. Click here for opening times and entry prices.

A fine example of Victorian Gothic architecture is the Catholic Church of St. Thomas. In the new extension, behind the altar is the beautiful mural depicting the saints associated with Canterbury.  Relics of St. Thomas Beckett can be found in this church. Read more.

For the literature enthusiasts, a trip to Canterbury is not complete until you visit The Canterbury Tales and experience Chaucer's famous tales in a captivating and authentic way. Plan your visit well in advance and secure a place by booking a guided tour ticket online, as the place is typically filled with students and visitors alike.

Stay overnight at one of the pretty hotels Canterbury has to offer, while you soak in the experience of the day. There are many good restaurants in the town to satiate the gastronomes.  

Getting there:

Frequent trains leave from London St.Pancras Station to Canterbury. Book in advance to save money, off-peak hours will have further discounts. “Anytime Single” tickets will you give you the flexibility of boarding any train going to Canterbury you choose and back. There is an option to select “Plus bus” while booking train tickets, this will help if you are planning to take bus to go around in Canterbury.  Canterbury is a small town and if you like walking, it is best to explore the town on foot. You can book tickets on South Western Railway

Sunday 13 January 2019

Mahabalipuram – the seaside hamlet with exquisite monuments

When the demon king Mahabali was killed by Vishu, this small fishing hamlet gained its name of Mahabalipuram. It was the King of Pallava dynasty Narasimha Varman, who had earned the title Mamalla – the great wrestler, who changed the name to Mamallapuram. Many renowned artists, poets, artisans, scholars and saints emerged during the reign of Pallavas. Spearheading new styles of art and architecture, Pallava’s mastery and finesse can be seen in the monuments and sculptures of Mahabalipuram. Nowadays it’s fondly known as Mahabs. Get carried away to the land of legends while watching the captivating annual dance festival held for four weeks in Dec-Jan. The prominent performances will be in Indian Classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kathak and Kuchipudi.


Crashing the waves

The sandy beach here has not really got into Swachh Bharath mission yet, as the sea mainly caters to the fishermen community. Be very mindful of your steps, especially at daybreak. Ignore this and the waves here are a treat to the surfers and body boarders. The last shop on the main street that leads to the beach, is Mumu Surf school. With an intimate knowledge of the waves, the instructors here will show you the best way to ride a wave. If you are more of a self-taught person, feel free to rent the boards and figure the sport yourself. Experience serenity while riding the luscious waves on your surfboard/bodyboard.


Stories carved in stone

The elegant Shore Temple - aptly named – is the solitary survivor of the seven magnificent temples, also called Pagodas. Three exquisitely carved shrines make the Shore Temple, with one dedicated to Lord Vishnu and two to Shiva, one facing east and the other west. This temple represents the first phase of structural temples constructed in Dravidian style and is one of the oldest in South India. A complicated, yet magnificent work of art is Arjuna’s Penance. The carving on the huge rock unfolds a scene of gods, demigods, birds, beasts, and natural scenery. Arjuna is depicted as a Sage undertaking penance to obtain the divine weapon is the focal point.

A further accolade of Pallava’s architecture are the five monuments called Rathas devoted to Pandavas and Draupadi, which look like the chariots of the temple. Four of them are carved out of a single rock. Arjuna’s Ratha has the most graceful figures of gods and mortals, while Dharmaraja’s is the biggest with eight panels of exquisite sculpture. Weighing a whopping 250 ton, the gigantic granite boulder -Krishna’s Butter Ball - resting on a short incline is said to be at the same place for 1200 years. In the early 20th Century, Arthur Havelock -the governor of the city - attempted to move the boulder due to safety concerns with the help of seven elephants, but in vain.


If you want anything carved in stone, Mahabs is the place to get it. From the utility grinding stone for the kitchen to a life-size statue of Buddha, there are skilled stone-smiths around here. Leather products are another highlight of Mahabs. Handcrafted custom-fit footwear, bags, and anything fancy in leather.


Bread and Bed

Oceanside Hotel (+91 7397 468 373, makes for a pleasant stay in Mahabalipuram. The cosy rooms are impeccably clean and so are the bathrooms. The humble owner, Yuvanesh will spare no effort in making your stay as comfortable as it can be, thanks to his vast experience of working with international hotel chains. There are not many restaurants for Indian taste buds around, especially if you are not carnivorous. At the start of Ottavadi street, there is an Ananda Bhavan serving hot Indian dishes– hurry or miss your breakfast at this place. Bread-coffee-pasta restaurants at every nook and corner are hit and miss. Try your luck! Seafood will be fresh and day’s catch will be sold to the seafood restaurants as soon as it arrives.