The Residency – A Surprise Find at Lucknow

I quite enjoy cycle rickshaw rides as opposed to my friend and travel companion, who thinks it’s not right to let a frail man (most of the rickshaw pullers are frail) lug our combined weight. We’re contributing to his livelihood, is what I think. The slow pace of a cycle rickshaw is a great way to get a feel of the busy streets of any Indian City.

We were in Lucknow and just strolling around in the Hazratganj Market area, with no particular agenda in mind. A random conversation with a shopkeeper when he mentioned some park by Gomti River that we should visit. He meant Gomti Riverfront Park, which we realized much later. But, at that time we misunderstood and conveyed something to our rickshaw puller, who dropped us at Shaheed Smarak Park.

Pic 1: The Shaheed Smarak, built as a tribute to soldiers who lost their lives in the First War of Independence against the East India Company in 1857.

When we made the payment, the rickshaw puller told us that instead of this place, we might want to walk a few meters in the road opposite and go to another park. He claimed we would really like it. And that’s how we landed up at The Residency. Maintained by ASI (Archeological Survey of India), it is also known as the British Residency and constitutes a cluster of ruined buildings in one enclosure.

Pic 2: A brief about The Residency at the entrance.

The Residency is associated with Seige of Lucknow that had happened in the 1857 rebellion, The Sepoy Mutiny or The First War of Independence against the British Empire. It’s ironical though that the Residency was built by Nawab Asaf Ud-Daulah in the 1700s to house the British Resident General, who was a representative in his court. Spread across an area of 33 acre, it was the largest inhabited British colony in the Awadh region and several British officials lived here.

Pic 3: The Baillie Guard Gate, which still serves as the main entry gate to the complex.
Pic 4: The Main Building, used to be three-storeyed, was the residence of Sir Henry Lawrence. Atop now flutters the Tricolour. Notice the marks of canon balls that is clearer in the featured photo.

The shattered walls bearing gaping holes of cannon shots inside this residential complex are tell-tale signs of the siege. There are detailed descriptions outside most of the structures that give a sneak peek into what had happened during that time. One of the buildings is converted into museum that includes items like, inscriptions, old photographs, paintings, actual letters, guns, swords, cannons, and a model of the Residency.

Pic 5: The Memorial Museum with two large cannons in front.

Apart from the museum, here are some of the other ruined structures that we saw:

Baillie Guard Gate: Constructed by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan to give the First Resident, Colonel John Baillie a special Guard of Honour.

The Treasury: Severely damaged two-storyed structure that was used to manufacture and store cartridges.

Pic 6: The Treasury

Bhojshala or Banquet Hall: Built by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan to welcome British expatriates and distinguished guests, its grandeur with high ceilings, elaborate hallways, and intricate carvings will draw your attention instantly. At the entrance stood a fountain on a grand marble floor, a clear indication of the opulent gatherings of those times.

Pic 7: The Bhojshala or Banquet Hall. I have no idea why I didn’t click pictures of the inside, including the fountain and the kitchen!

Doctor Fayrer’s House: Dr. Fayrer was the chief surgeon of The Residency. This structure was used as a hospital to treat the injured and also a safe house to shield the women and children during the siege. (I couldn’t find a picture of this one, looks like I didn’t click one.)

The Main Building: A three-storeyed structure that served as the residence of Sir Henry Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of Awadh. On top of this building now flutters the tricolor Indian flag. In front of this building is the huge memorial cross, dedicated to Sir Henry Lawrence.

Pic 8: The huge memorial cross, dedicated to Sir Henry Lawrence.

Beyond the above, there are several other structures in the complex that we could not visit due to lack of time. The complex closes at 5 PM and we were asked to leave. The place can easily take up half a day if you want to explore it well.

Back at the hotel that night, we did a little more research to learn about the structures we had missed. Among them, three of them stood out. Begum Kothi, Mosque and Imambara, and the Church and Cemetery. Begum Kothi belonged to Vilayati Begum, a foreigner married to Nawab Naseeruddin Haider. After the death of Vilayati Begum, the Mosque and Imambara were built by her sister as a memory. The ruined church was used as a food-storage house during the siege. The surrounding graveyard is said to have graves of 2000 men, women and children, including that of Sir Henry Lawrence.

Thankful to our rickshaw puller. Had it not been for him, we wouldn’t have known about The Residency.

Benaras Revisited

CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT

Life is unpredictable. Don’t we all know that! Yet we land up spending a lot of energy seeking permanence and familiarity. Consciously aware of the fleeting impermanence of everything around us, we still have this innate tendency to cling on to our pasts. In fact, it’s the unpredictability of life that makes it exciting and beautiful. What a monotone life would otherwise have been!

The world around us does its bit of continually reminding us of the fact that nothing lasts forever. We are just unable to internalize it. Last week, I spent five days at Benaras when River Ganges ascertained that I resonate with this thought of change being the only constant.

Pic 1: A section of Darbhanga Ghat clicked in 2019.
Pic 2: The same Darbhanga Ghat in 2021 (clicked on the third day when the water had receded a bit)

This was my second visit to the Spiritual Capital of India. The purpose of my visit this time was particularly special too. It was in 2019 that I had first visited the holy city, just before the pandemic.

The wonderful experience of the city had been etched in my memory forever. It was Christmas time in the month of December. There was no Sun and the days were very cold. The weather was least of our concern though. The long walks through the ghats, maneuvering through the confusing galis (narrow lanes and by-lanes) particularly around Bangali Tola, soaking in the divinity of the evening aarti, observing the crowd and contemplating on our perception of their quirkiness, gorging on the best of the street food, and the best chai in the world, are things that still bring a warm glow to my heart.  

Pic 3: A section of Panchganga Ghat clicked in 2019.
Pic 4: The same Panchganga Ghat in 2021. (clicked on the third day when the water had receded a bit)

With that mental picture in my mind, I found myself swiftly alighting the steps of Dasheshwamedh Ghat. I couldn’t wait to walk through the ghats (centuries old riverside stops). R, my photographer friend, was my travel companion in this trip and this was his first visit to the city. I had already talked enough and more about my previous Benaras experience. The anticipation building up in the past few days was at its peak now, and I couldn’t wait for R to experience it all. But why do things appear to be a little different this time? The ghat seemed to be smaller and more congested than how I had seen it. I tried to look around and walked towards one corner of the ghat in the hope of hopping over to the next ghat, but I couldn’t find a way.

Soon enough the story unfolded. River Ganga was overflowing due to water released from two dams in Allahabad, all because of a cloudburst up North. The ghats were inundated and large portions remained submerged. As a result, there was no connectivity between the ghats. One could access the different ghats only through the road. The essence of Benaras was totally lost and I am not exaggerating. If you have experienced walking through the ghats in Benaras, you’d exactly understand what I mean.

Pic 5: Just before Panchganga Ghat clicked in 2019
Pic 6: The same structure just before Panchganga Ghat in 2021. (clicked on the third day when the water had receded a bit)

I was distraught and visibly upset. As I reasoned with myself, I wondered how could I think that the ghats would always remain just how I had first seen them! Water levels in a river is always subject to change. What made me think that I would experience it just the same way. I could do nothing but accept the present situation and go with the flow. This encounter was certainly going to be different. And, sure enough the enriched experience this time was only because it wasn’t the same as the last time.

As they say – live in the present instead of dwelling in the past because only the present exists. But do we really learn!

Chasing Ruins – Gummanayaka Fort

“You guys carry on, I’ll wait here.” I was certain I would slip on the mammoth rock that appeared as smooth as butter and seemed quite steeply inclined too. My shoes didn’t have a good grip and I was taking no chances. Moreover, stepping onto the rock from where I stood would be another task altogether, given my rather short height and consequently short legs. S and A were, however, not leaving me behind at any cost. I relented only after a lot of assurances and some bit of cajoling too. All of this turned out to be unnecessary when we discovered on the way back that there were well laid out steps all the way to the top. The steps remained hidden because of the tall bushes that had grown all around.

Pic 1: Entrance through the first gate leads to a second one, beyond which is a temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. The temple seemed to have been recently renovated.

Earlier that day, we were at Gudibande Fort. Thereafter, an impromptu decision found us heading straight to Bagepalli in the hope of exploring Gummanayaka Fort. We had no plans of visiting this place. In fact, we didn’t even know that it existed. It was purely by chance that a friend happened to notice it on Google Maps the day before and had casually mentioned it to me. The pictures looked impressive and when I mentioned it to S and A, they readily agreed. Quick research on the spot and we learnt that we needed to go to a village named Gummanayakana Palya.

Pic 2: Hints of Indo-Islamic architecture in the ruined structures. This was in the open area just outside the temple complex. Scattered ruins lay around all over this area.
Pic 3: We climbed up the structure in Pic 2 through a narrow cemented staircase.

The drive towards the village was characterized by large stretches of wilderness on either side of a well tarred road. Empty lands covered by green shrubs, dotted with boulders of various shapes, and tiny hillocks greeted us most of the way. For most of the road there was no settlement at all. After a long stretch, some signs of civilization started appearing. We were about 10 Km. away from the village when we had to take a left turn into a smaller road. Right there, was a tiny tea shop where we learnt that there would be no shops beyond this point. It was well beyond lunch time by then. On enquiry, we got to know of a place in the immediate vicinity where a lady sells Rice-RasamSambar. We decided to pack the food and at a shockingly cheap price of just Rs.110 for three plates. And, it was piping hot! Oh, she gave us some curd too.

Pic 4: Somewhere at the base of the hill in the open area outside the temple.
Pic 5: Ruins lay all around.

Soon, we arrived at the village. The quaint village had just a few huts and it looked charmingly tiny. We curbed our interest to explore the village in the larger interest of exploring the fort. It had started to drizzle by then. The fort was standing majestically right in front of us, but we couldn’t locate the entry point. Not knowing the local language only added to our difficulty. It took us a little while before we figured out the entrance. The entrance gate took us by surprise. It was truly impressive compared to the other two forts we had recently explored. This was the third ruined fort we were visiting in the outskirts of Bangalore over two consecutive weekends. It had started with Hutridurga just the previous week.

Just beyond the entry gate was a temple that had a huge carving of Hanumanji on a stone wall. Beyond this temple was an empty area that has ruins scattered all around. The fort could be seen on top of a hillock that we would have to climb. The soft drizzle had intensified, and it had started to rain. We continued walking towards the base of the hill in the hope that the fort could provide shelter from the rain, if required. The ruined structures all around beckoned us but that had to wait, and we would explore them on our way back.

Pic 6: Large boulders lay precariously as if ready to slide down on the slightest nudge. The first picture is a part of the mammoth rock.

The rains stopped by the time we reached near the mammoth rock. There was another temple up here at the base of the mammoth rock. Here we found a nice little comer to sit down and have our lunch of Rice-RasamSambar. Surprisingly, it was still warm. The delightsome ambrosial feeling cannot be replicated even in the best of restaurants, which goes without saying though!

A had already started climbing and exploring the butter-smooth mammoth rock while S and I were finishing off our food. We could see the walls of the fort towards the upper edge of this huge rock. Once I started climbing up, I realized that the rock wasn’t as smooth as it looked and the roughness made for quite an easy climb. I had panicked unnecessarily. However, I did cling on to A all the way up. It was nothing more than a mental block.

Pic 7: The largest of the five lakes we saw from the top. We could see that the lake was easily accessible from the road nearby but we ran out of time to go and explore it.
Pic 8: A portion of the fort wall from the top and another one of the five lakes we saw from the top.

As we reached up, we found ourselves on a sort of a plateau formed by the top of the mammoth rock, supported by other huge rocks. The ample open space provided the perfect place to sit and laze around. And, we did just that in the accompaniment of mildly strong winds, a cloudy sky, and gorgeous views. There was nobody other than the three of us. What more could we ask for! We could see five lakes below. At least one of them was quite large. We ran out of time and promised to come back and explore the lake and the village another day.

Gummanayaka Fort surpassed our expectations in ways more than one. We definitely have to go back another time with more time in hand.

Chasing Ruins – Gudibande Fort

It was nearly two months that S was here, but we were yet to meet up. Both of us were occupied with something or the other and we could never make it. This weekend we were determined to make it happen. I had met S during the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, where we had shared a tent together. It was an instant connect. Subsequently, she even visited my home in Shillong. S is quite an inspirational woman. She left her high-profile corporate job to follow her dreams and went on to set up her own homestay at Manali. It’s quite a story and guess I should write about it. Meanwhile check out her fabulous homestay, Firdaws. I haven’t been there yet, but the Instagram pictures are drool-worthy!

We decided to do go for a hike together instead of the usual meeting at a café or in our homes. I just suggested Gudibande Fort and that was it. A joined us too. A and I had just been to Hutridurga the previous weekend.

About 100 Km away from Bangalore, Gudibande is a small town located in Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka. It’s very close to Andhra Pradesh border. On a hilltop of this town is located the 17th century fort that was built by Byre Gowda, a local chieftain of the Vijayanagar Empire. An interesting trivia that we learnt from the Internet is that Byre Gowda was a Robinhood of sorts, who was a messiah for the poor but a terror for the wealthy.

Pic 1: Ruins of the fort wall seen halfway through the climb.

It was a pleasant early morning drive as the car sped through the highway. Seated on the front seat of the car, A was relaying all kinds of information about the fort that he was reading up on his phone. Among other things, the Internet also said that the fort was closed due to the pandemic. We were already on our way and this information was conveniently ignored by all of us.

Soon the car took a turn and we found ourselves passing through winding village roads flanked by lush green fields, dotted by tiny boulder-strewn hillocks in the horizon. Large sections of these fields were dominated by tomato plantations. Certain sections had marigold plantations and the carpets of yellows and oranges were a sight a behold!

Pic 2: Bhairasagara lake filled to the brim. The colour of the water emphasizes the season of monsoon. The conical hillock seen towards the right is where the fort is located.

Soon we arrived at the large Bhairasagara lake. Located just a few kilometers ahead of the Gudibande fort, this lake was part of our itinerary. It being monsoon, the lake was teeming with water. At places, it felt like the water would overflow onto the road at any time. The hillock with the fort stood prominently and distinguishably in the background. After spending a little while by the lake, we decided to proceed towards the fort. The huge expanse of water deserved some dedicated time and we thought we would do that on our way back. Eventually, that never happened as we changed our plans went exploring another fort instead.

Pic 3: Bhairasagara lake as seen from the top. Google says it resembles the map of India. We didn’t quite find that resemblance from any angle though.

Soon we found ourselves at the base of a conical hill, on top of which sits the Gudibande fort. We could see a flight of broad cemented stairs going up, but it was barricaded by a red and white tape that ran across the breadth of the very first stair. A person sitting on a chair under a tree, who appeared like a guard seemed to be monitoring the place. So, the Google Map information was right afterall!

This was not a happy situation after having come all the way. As we wondered what to do, we found a couple of families coming down the stairs. This was our moment, we walked up to the guard-like person and asked if we could go up. He flatly refused. After requesting for a while, he allowed us charging a small sum (read bribe). Yes, we plead guilty!

Pic 4: We passed through a couple of such doorways. I forgot to keep a count, probably three or four.

It was a very easy walk up to the top and we made it in about 45 minutes. Most of the way we climbed through steps, some concrete, some just rocks, some carved out in the boulders. We passed through a couple of ruined doorways and through underpasses created by large boulders that touch on their vertices but widen at the bottom to create narrow passageways.

Pic 5: One with my inspirational wonder-woman!
Pic 6: We crossed several such large boulders that touch on their vertices but widen at the bottom creating a narrow passageway. Notice the indents on the rock right beside the stairs, those would have been used to climb up earlier.

The weather was perfect with a patchy sky covered in floating clouds and no rain or sun. We met a few people who were going down and wondered if they had bribed the guard-like person too.

On reaching the top we realized that we had the entire ruins to ourselves. There was nobody other than us and that certainly was a privilege. We spent a good hour at the top accompanied by the light breeze and the gorgeous views of the plains below. S and I were meeting after a long time and had a lot to catch up on. We found a comfortable place at the edge of the fort wall overlooking the Bhairasagara lake down below, while A went about exploring the ruins all around.  

Pic 7: Just before the entrance of the fort.

Besides the ruins, there is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva on top, which is believed to be one of the 108 Jyotirlingas that Lord Rama established in various parts of India. A filled us in with this and other information that he collected from Google while exploring the ruins.

Apparently, the fort edifice comprises of seven gateways though we saw only three. Ruined temples, caves sliced deep into the hillocks, and many secret passages that might have served as escape routes for the soldiers constituted the other highlights. Also, there are/were 19 rock ponds that could have been some form of water harvesting system. Again, we saw only a few. Byre Gowda seems to have been quite a visionary as he ruled this place only for three years and managed to leave behind this impressive legacy.

Pic 8: A flight of stairs carved out on the rock just after entering the fort.

A was back, not just with his freshly gained Google information, but with a bunch of dry twigs that he collected while exploring the fort. Those twigs will add glamour to his newly designed living room. S and I were in the middle of an exuberant conversation, but we had to pause. It was time to leave.

Pic 9: That’s where S and I spent our time chatting away.

Chasing Ruins – Hutridurga

“Look at all the people here!”, I directed my comment to R as A chuckled away. The place wasn’t crowded but we encountered several groups of people all through the way. Two days back when we were planning this R was reluctant to give me the name of the place saying that I would just blog about it and make a less frequented place popular. Well, R had forgotten that there aren’t many hidden places anymore.

Pic 1: That’s Uttari Betta or Hutridurga. Look at the refreshing greenery, all thanks to the monsoon.

Bored with the monotony of being home, I had reached out to two of my friends and we decided to go on a day hike in the outskirts of Bangalore. It’s been raining almost everyday in Bangalore. Keeping that in mind we wanted to go somewhere nearby. R recommended Uttari Betta and that was it.

Pic 2: A proper road leads up to the base of the hill but we parked the car well ahead and decided to walk.

Uttari Betta, also known as Hutridurga, is a fortified hill about 70 Km. away from Bangalore. Situated at an altitude of 3708 feet above the sea level it overlooks several villages all around. The village located at the immediate foot of the hill is known as Santhepet while It derives its name from Hutri, a village about 3 Km away from the hill. Hutridurga is one of the Nava Durgas (nine fortified hills) that was built by Kempegowda, who founded Bengaluru in the 16th Century. Later Tipu Sultan used this fort as his military bastion against the British.

Pic 3: It was a lovely day, the ever-changing cloud patterns making it all the more beautiful.
Pic 4: Remnants of the fort remain scattered at various places.

We left Bangalore early and drove through a scenic stretch of road with Savandurga looking out on us most of the way, sometimes from the right side and sometimes from the end of the road. Though we woke up to a rainy Saturday, the weather had become perfect and remained that way for the rest of the day.

Upon reaching our destination, we were welcomed by an arched gateway that welcomed us to Hutridurga Trek. It appeared like a Karnataka Tourism board. We alighted from the car and pretty soon realized that wasn’t the starting point. A little bit of asking around and we found our way to the actual start point, which was a good 2 Km drive away.

Pic 5: A quick pose with ‘A’. There are several doorways all along the hike, this was right at the start.
Pic 6: ‘R’ and I steal a moment at the top of the hill.

It was a very easy hike to the top. In many places there were steps craved out on the rocky surface, making it even simpler though robbing off its natural appeal altogether. Probably done for the villagers who hike up to the temple situated on top.  As we started the walk, I was surprised to see two families with little boys and girls coming down. While it was nice to see adventurous parents, I wondered if I would have done the same. I don’t think I would have quite dared, especially with the pandemic being far from over. The worst part was nobody was masked. And that was true for most of the groups we encountered all along. The only masked people were us.

Pic 7: In many places ‘R’ and ‘A’ created their own route, rather than follow the trail. I couldn’t master the courage to follow them though!
Pic 8: Some good candid shots. Byproduct of hiking with a professional photographer, which happens to be ‘R’.

The total distance of the hike is about 5 Km. up and down. We took our own sweet time to climb up, stopping or sitting wherever we felt like. Ruins of the fort lay scattered all around. We passed through a couple of enchanting stone doorways, some of which had interesting engravings. There were six doorways in all. Most of the times R and A would steer away from the actual path and find their own routes. On one such occasion R got badly stuck in a precarious position from where neither could he climb up nor climb down, making me more than a little nervous. It took him sometime before he could figure a way out.

Pic 9: The temple at the top. In front of the temple is a clear pool of water known as ‘Dodda Donne’, which means big spring. Painted on a rock beside the pool is a large sign that reads ‘Danger’ leading us to assume that the pool must be deep.

The views from the top are just as stunning as one would expect. The cloud patterns on the sky on that day made it even more beautiful. Savandurga was standing out and was clearly visible from the top. The temple on top is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The three of us spent some wonderful time soaking in nature’s splendour while munching on the sandwiches and fruits I had carried for us. It was a good break after a very long time.

An Unexpected Trip to BR Hills

Back in December last year, my cousin came over and stayed with me for little over a month, making the most of the work from home situation. On the very first weekend of her visit, we planned a trip to Mysore. The plan was made such that we would be at Mysore Palace on Sunday evening. The reason being the entire palace is illuminated with about a lakh bulbs and remains that way for 15 min. It’s a spectacular sight and I wanted her to experience the same. (Thanks to the pandemic that didn’t happen, which is another story.)

Our weekend was sorted, we were all geared up to leave Bangalore on Saturday morning, and head straight to Mysore. Late Friday night, a friend called up and his casual recommendation changed our itinerary altogether. We were still going to Mysore but would go to BR Hills as well and spend a night there. Located about 90 Km. from Mysore and 180 Km. from Bangalore, it fitted in quite perfectly.

Pic 1: Stretches of Kans Grass right up to the entry gate of BR Hills made for a blissful experience.

Saturday morning, we left Bangalore at the stipulated time and visited Shivanasamudra. After that we headed for BR Hills or Biligiriranga Hills. Located in the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, at an altitude of 3500 feet above sea level, BR Hills bridges the Eastern and Western Ghats. It houses the BRT wildlife sanctuary, which is an official tiger reserve. BRT is just an abbreviation of Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple wildlife sanctuary. The temple of Biligiri Rangaswamy being the other main attraction of this place. There are hiking and trekking opportunities too, which we didn’t explore this time.

Pic 2: A pond at BRT Wildlife Sanctuary right where the Jeep Safari starts.

The native inhabitants of BR Hills constitute the Soliga tribe. They make a living by selling honey, gooseberry, bamboo and other non-timber forest products. The government has been trying to resettle them with a focus on forest conservation. The Soligas aren’t in agreement and have won a legal battle to continue staying in their homeland. Certainly, they know how to live harmoniously with nature. The battle is far from over though.

Another interesting trivia about BR Hills is that the notorious and dreaded bandit Veerappan, who had terrorized a large part of South India for a very long time, operated out of these jungles till he was killed in October 2004.

Pic 3: The small settlement at BR Hills as seen from the temple.

Driving through a green and soothing stretch of meadows and farmlands, we reached the entry point of BR Hills. The entrance is marked by a forest check post, where we had to provide details of our visit including duration of stay, place of stay, vehicle number, etc. Beyond the gate is a stretch of perfectly tarred narrow winding road with thick forests on either side. Gradually the car climbed up through the road as we remained engrossed in the heavenly marvelous surroundings. A drive of about 30 mins through this paradise, and we arrived at Giridarshini, the homestay we had booked the night before.

It was well past lunch time by the time we had settled down and arrived at the dining hall. Soon after, we proceeded towards Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple.

Pic 4: The home stay was surrounded by coffee estates and various trees of pepper, ginger, etc.

Located on a hilltop, the ancient temple provides a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest down below. The temple was under renovation at that time but that didn’t affect its quaint little charm. The strong wind blowing across threatened to throw us off the edges, and that only added to the temple’s mystical magic.

A huge, handcrafted leather slipper kept reverently just outside the main temple piqued our interest. Asking around yielded no results, thanks to the language barrier. It was only later that we got to know it’s significance. The Soligas believe that the presiding deity of the temple, Lord Ranganatha, wanders through the forest every night wearing that slipper. The slipper apparently wears out every 2 years as a result, and then they present a new pair.

Pic 5: At Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple
Pic 6: The temple presents a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest

We walked down from the hill and spent the rest of the evening exploring the narrow lanes and bylanes, sipping a coffee or a tea from the tiny shops here and there. As darkness fell, we retreated to our homestay. Dinner was over a bonfire that was arranged exclusively for us. The three sisters laughed and giggled talking about the antics and idiosyncrasies of our extended families, making this one of the most memorable times of our being together. “Now, this justifies all the money we’re shelling out!”, quipped my cousin. The homestay charge had seemed a little exorbitant, but the last minute plan had left us with no time to research any further.

Pic 7: Sunset at BR hills on a cold December evening.

Early next morning, we headed towards the sanctuary for a wildlife safari. We jumped onto the Forest Department jeep with a lot of anticipation and excitement. The two hour-long safari was a great disappointment. All we saw was a couple of sambar deer, one or two mongoose, a couple of birds, a wild boar or two, and that was all. We did spot a bison too.

Pic 8: A pond inside the wildlife sanctuary, seen during the safari.

After a while, we just wanted the safari to end. Even though we were driving through the jungle, everything felt dull and monotonous. Our expectation was a little over the top having heard of people spotting elephants and leopards. It certainly wasn’t our day at all.

Pic 9: Very unlike us, but we couldn’t wait for the safari to end.

Back in the homestay, we had a sumptuous breakfast and headed towards Mysore. On the way, we stopped at the magnificent Somnathpur Temple.

The Saga of Savitri Brata

I was on the usual everyday call with my Mom. But something was different today. The awkwardness in our conversation was just too obvious. Both of us were consciously staying away from ‘that topic’.

“It’s high time to do away with all this!”, I would have repeated umpteen number of times, persuading her to stop participating in Savitri Brata. Each time she had the same response, “I’ve been doing this right from the time I got married, can’t stop now.” This would be followed by give-away pretentions of blaming my grandmother (her mother-in-law) for initiating her into practicing the same. Nothing is ever enforced in our family, so we both knew how lame her accusations were. The feminist in me would sometimes struggle to understand her sentiments.

Savitri Brata is a religious event consisting of Puja rituals where women pray for the well-being and long lives of their husbands. I have been witnessing this annual tradition right from my childhood till the time I left home, a good decade-and-a-half ago. Prevalent in the East Indian states of Bihar, Bengal, Assam, and Orissa, this festival is celebrated mostly by the Bengalis, Maithilis, and Odiyas. It’s essentially a counterpart of the North Indian festival of Karva Chauth minus the fanfare and extravagance of dressing up as brides, adorning mehndi, and seeing your husbands through sieves against the backdrop of the Moon. Savitri Brata is relatively a quieter affair of getting together and participating in Puja rituals with the accompaniment of some harmless chatter and heartfelt laughter.

Usually Savitri Brata happens around the end of May or early June, the dates depend on the lunar calendar. This year it’s happening now. My mother used to actively participate in the annual festival and has been doing so for the last 40+ years. With my father’s demise, the very purpose of this festival doesn’t exist for her anymore. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for her!

The description of the rituals I provide in this post is based on how I have seen the festival celebrated in my home and in the neighbourhood. Hence, this is an account of the manner in which this festival is observed by the Bengalis living in Assam, Meghalaya and other states of North East India. The rituals and traditions in other states could be different, I have no idea.

Savitri Brata is spread over three days. Women wear new clothes and partially fast, living on a diet of fruits for the whole of the first two days and half of the third day. Preparations begin 2-3 days in advance. The sacred grass Durva (Bermuda grass) is collected from the garden, cleaned, and sorted. They are bundled into neat packs of 108 along with flowers. During the Puja, each woman dedicates a bundle to their respective husbands.

Long ago, when my grandparents were around, the puja was done exclusively by a priest at our home and was attended not only by women in the family, but those in the neighbourhood too. As the years passed by, the elaborateness of the puja coupled with reduced manpower made it challenging for my Mom and Aunts to continue conducting the puja at home. Now, the puja is conducted at a centralized location where everyone assembles (except for the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021).

Many a times, we have urged Mom and Aunts to quit the puja. My Dad and Uncles also persuaded to the best of their abilities. They disliked the additional task of making the necessary arrangements and ensuring that everything was in place. Moreover, carrying the psychological guilt of not doing something similar for their wives didn’t make them feel any better. But the women, in a world of their own, were relentless. In fact, they would enjoy those three days of merry making in the form of prayers, get-togethers, laughter, incessant chatter, new clothes, and not to mention the special attention. Logic, blackmail, humble cajoles, we tried it all. Finally, we just gave up!

However, like many other traditions and rituals, Savitri Brata will soon be gone without a trace. I don’t know a single woman of my generation who observes this festival. In just a few years, it will become a forgotten thing of the past.

Many may condemn this as a regressive affair reflecting our inherent patriarchal mindsets. Probably they are right, but over the years a new realization has dawned upon me. I see nothing wrong in following rituals or traditions, especially when they do no harm to others. Rather, they bring forth few moments of joy and happiness. If offering a prayer for your husband/partner puts a smile on your face, there cannot be anything wrong with that. It’s all about individual choices.

Legend of Savitri Brata

(Source: Wikipedia)

The brata was named after Savitri, the beautiful daughter of King Aswapati of Madra Desa. She selected Satyavan, a prince in exile who was living in the forest with his blind father Dyumatsen, as her life partner. She left the palace and lived with her husband and in-laws in the forest. As a devoted wife and daughter-in-law, she went to great lengths to take care of them. One day while cutting wood in the jungle, Satyavan's head reeled and he fell down from a tree. Yamraj, the God of Death, appeared to take away Satyavan's soul. Deeply hurt, Savitri pleaded to Yamraj not to be separated from her husband. If anything, he would have to take her along too. Yamraj, moved by the devotion of Savitri, returned the life of her husband. Soon Satyavan regained his lost kingdom too. 

Click here to read more.

Lepakshi – Nandi and Jatayu

Nandi is looking towards the Nagalinga”, my sister stated standing right behind me, while I was busy staring at the colossal structure. Thinking that she was trying to be funny, I turned back with a chuckle. But, in all seriousness, she was reading from the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) description board that was located just next to us. I joined her and in turn read aloud the part that stated – The head is held at an angle higher than usual. Consequently, the typical expression of submission before Lord Shiva is conspicuous by its absence here.

I have seen many other Nandi idols or statues in South India but had never noticed the expression of submission. Well, made a mental note to do so next time.

Pic 1: The massive monolithic Nandi statue.

Nandi is the sacred bull, the vehicle and gate keeper of Lord Shiva. It’s no wonder that the giant monolithic Nandi is located just a stone throw away (about 500 m.) from Lepakshi Temple, dedicated to Veerabhadra, a form of Lord Shiva. Possibly, the Nandi would have been part of the temple complex in the olden days. We had just left the temple, after having spent a little more than 2 hours admiring the 16th century architectural splendour.

The monolithic Nandi, carved out of a single granite rock, is 20 feet in height and 30 feet in length. The details of the carvings, including the necklace and the bells are truly praiseworthy.

Pic 2: The Jatayu Theme Park

Now that we had a close inspection of the giant Nandi, we were all set to go to Jatayu Theme Park and take a closer look at Jatayu. The park was just across the road, hardly a walk of 5-6 min. The giant bird, perched on a huge rock, was clearly visible from here.

Jatayu is a mythological character from the epic Ramayana. No less than a demigod, Jatayu is the form of a large eagle. Jatayu had tried to rescue Lord Rama’s wife, Sita, from being kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. In the fight that ensued, the demon king had chopped off one of Jatayu’s wings. It is believed that the bird had fallen on this rock and remained alive to narrate the incident to Lord Rama. Le-pakshi – meaning rise O’ bird – is what Lord Rama had told the dying bird, blessing him to attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death).

I remember having read of another huge rock in Kollam district of Kerala that claims to be the rock where Jatayu had fallen (Read Here). So, when my sister narrated this tale from her ‘Google-Guide’, I protested that she was reading about the wrong rock. However, a description at the park corroborated her findings. Well, nobody will ever know which of these claims is more accurate than the other.

Pic 3: Jatayu statue atop the largest boulder
Pic 4: A foot impression in a boulder just below Jatayu statue, no description provided.

The manicured park is dotted with large and small boulders. On the largest boulder sits the big statue of Jatayu. We climbed up through iron stairs build in the space between the boulders. The park was artificial, so was Jatayu but the boulders and the view from the top were as natural as could be. We found a nice spot up in the boulders and sat there for a while enjoying the cool soothing breeze, which certainly wasn’t artificial.

Temple Tales From Lepakshi

There it was – the hanging pillar – our main reason of visiting this ancient temple that dates back to the 16th century. We stood there for a while along with other bystanders watching someone slide a scarf, someone else a paper underneath the pillar to ascertain that it didn’t touch the ground. It was mind-boggling to imagine the kind of design that enables this wafer-thin gap between the pillar’s bottom and the stone floor. And, to think that our modern era of hi-tech technological advancement is unable to unravel the mystery of this architectural riddle.

This pillar is just another testimony to the engineering genius of ancient India. It is said that the pillar is slightly dislodged from its original position. This is attributed to the British Era when a British engineer made an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the secret of the pillar’s support.

Pic 1: The mysterious Hanging Pillar at Lepakshi. Notice the thin gap between the pillar’s bottom and the surface of the stone floor.

We were at Lepakshi Temple, located in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Also known as Veerabhadraswamy temple, this Vijayanagar style temple is just about 120 Km. away from Bangalore. Hence, it’s a favourite destination for daytrips from Bangalore. I was always intrigued by the mysterious hanging pillar of Lepakshi but with my preference for places of nature superseding I hadn’t landed up here before. Lepakshi, however, turned out to be so much more than just the hanging pillar.

Pic 2: At the center are pillars in the Assembly Hall of the main temple, just outside the sanctum sanctorum. Among these stand the Hanging Pillar. Left and Right are close-ups of the ornate sculptures on two pillars.

Dedicated to Veerabhadra, a fierce form of Lord Shiva, Veerabhadraswamy temple was our first stop at Lepakshi. As we stepped into the temple, the first thing we noticed was that it felt extraordinarily cool. It’s always hot in this part of the country and this day was no different. The design of the temple certainly has something to do with it. Apart from Veerabhadra, the sanctum sanctorum has idols of Bhadrakali, Vishnu, Lakshmi, and Parvati.

The brilliant  mural paintings in the temple represent some of the finest artwork of the Vijayanagar dynasty. The fresco of Veerabhadra on the ceiling before the main sanctum sanctorum is supposedly the largest in India. The strikingly contrasting colours of black, brown, orange, green, white, black, and shades of ochre-gold are simply astounding. (Unfortunately, I realised that I have no pictures, possibly was lost admiring the artwork.)

Pic 3: Just outside the main temple. The main temple is the pillared structure on the right.
Pic 4: A Shiva Lingam just outside the main temple complex.

Having seen the hanging pillar and the sanctum sanctorum, we moved around exploring other parts of the temple. The temple houses 70 pillars, each uniquely engraved with gods, goddesses, mythical animals, dancers, saints, and the like. The place was quite crowded with a lot of tourists on that day. It was early January, 2021 – a time when we had happily forgotten that we were in the middle of a pandemic. Not many people wore masks and there was no social distancing at all. The marvelous architecture kept us engaged and we had little time to worry about the pandemic. We remained masked though, taking them off only when clicking pictures.

Pic 5: The incomplete Kalyana Mantapam or Marriage Hall
Pic 6: A close look at the sculpture of one of the pillars at Kalyana Mantapam.

Moving on to the temple’s outer enclosure, we were now in the Kalyana Mantapam or the marriage hall, meant for the marriage of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. There were intricately carved pillars, each representing a God or Goddess supposedly attending the marriage ceremony.

This was an incomplete structure with no roof and has a gruesome story associated with it. The temple was constructed by two brothers, Viranna and Virupanna. While the king was away, Viranna used up the royal treasury to fund the increased cost of construction. On his return, the King was furious and ordered that Viranna’s eyes be gouged out. Upset with the King’s sentence, Viranna gouged his own eyes and rubbed it on the temple wall. The two red blotches on the western wall of the temple is said to be blood marks of Viranna’s eyes.

Pic 7: The unique monolithic Ganesha. Spot the snake coiled around it’s rounded belly.

A little away from the marriage hall is the monolithic Ganesha, a unique one at that with a snake coiled around it’s belly.

Next, we found ourselves standing before the impressively massive Nagalinga with seven hoods and three coils that shelters a black granite Shivalingam. It is believed that the Nagalinga was carved from a single block of stone while the sculptors were waiting for their mother to cook lunch for them.

Pic 8: The astounding gigantic seven hooded Nagalinga. The associated belief that it was carved out by the sculptors while their mother prepared lunch makes it even more fascinating.

We walked around the temple courtyard, admiring the archaeological and artistic splendour. The courtyard was characterised by pillared hallways and several tiny chambers. We found an empty spot and sat there for a while. We should have hired a guide we thought, as we watched others enjoying a guided tour. My sister thought Google could be our guide for now.

Pic 9: The temple courtyard characterised by ornate pillars and small chambers.
Pic 10: The sisters managed to request someone to click a picture for them – precious memories!

As she googled, we learnt several fascinating tales of the temple, including the legends of the incomplete Marriage Hall and the Nagalinga. She also read about Sita’s footprint, which we discovered on our way out. It’s the impression of a huge foot on the stone floor that has a perennial flow of water. Apparently, the source of the water or where it drains out to is unknown.

Pic 11: An enormous foot impression, which is believed to be of Sita Mata.

After spending close to two hours at Lepakshi Temple complex, we stepped out and headed towards the Jatyayu Park. Read more in my next post.

Pic 12: The sublime flowering Frangipani tree on the way out. It reminded me of a similar tree that had captured our imagination at Virupaksha Temple, Hampi.

Temple Tales from Nandi Town

Nandi Hills is perhaps the most visited place in and around Bangalore. Bangaloreans literally flock to Nandi Hills, especially to view the amazing sunrise from the hilltop. Also known as Nandidurg or Nandi Betta, it is located in the small town of Nandi about 60 Km. away from Bangalore in the Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka. I have no count of the number of times I’ve been to Nandi Hills.

Pic 1: At Nandi Hills in 2010. The place looks a lot different now. It’s no longer open as you see here. There are guard rails all around, which does affect the experience to a large extent

This post is however not about Nandi Hills, though I guess I should write one. This post is about Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple – an ancient temple located close to Nandi Hills. We happened to visit this temple quite accidentally when we were on our way to another place. A friend casually recommended that we could stop by this temple as it’s on the way. And, what a miss it would have been had we not take his recommendation seriously!

Pic 2: Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple entrance. Note the stone wheels on the right.

Dedicated to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, this is supposedly the oldest temple in Karnataka. It was built in 9th century by the native Kannada Nolamba dynasty. It is now a protected monument, maintained by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The heritage temple has a unique aesthetic charm, accentuated by stone carvings of Gods and Goddesses that adorn the walls and the pillars. It is believed that the temples of Belur and Halebidu were inspired by this temple.

The first thing that caught our attention even before entering the temple was the base of a giant chariot. This chariot would have probably been used during temple festivals but now it did a good job of taking us on a flight of imagination. The stone wheels of the chariot were also neatly arranged just outside the temple entrance.

Pic 3: The chariot lying under a tree just before the entrance.

On entering the temple complex, we discovered that there were three shrines housed in three separate temples that were adjacent to each other. Uma Maheshwara is at the center flanked by Arunachaleshwara in the North and Bhoga Nandeeshwara in the South. Arunachaleshwara depicts Lord Shiva’s childhood while Bhoga Nandeeshwara, depicts Lord Shiva in his youth. The temple of Uma Maheshwara or Goddess Parvati has a Kalyana Mantapa or a marriage alter. The exquisitely carved black stone pillars of the Mantapa is gorgeous. Sadly enough, photography is prohibited in this area of the temple.

Pic 4: Bhoga Nandeeshwara temple on the South, dedicated to the youthful form of Lord Shiva .

The temple also has a lovely pond, which is locally known as ‘Kalyani’. A series of steps encircle the pond. It would have been amazing to walk down and dip our feet in the waters, but the entry to the pond was closed on that particular day.

Pic 5: The ‘Kalyani’ or the temple pond. During special festivals about 100,000 lamps are lit here.

The Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple is a magnificent piece of Dravidian Architecture. It preserves the architectural legacies of the five dynasties that ruled this region. The temple was constructed by the Bana Queen Ratnavali, it was then expanded successively by the Ganga dynasty, Cholas, Hoysalas, Pallavas and finally the Vijayanagara Kings. As a result, the temple can be a real treat to history buffs, conservationists, and architectural analysts.

Pic 6: There are several such corridors in the temple.

As I walked around the temple, I thought to myself how did I miss visiting this marvelous structure in stone before. Especially when I have been to Nandi Hills so many times. Rather, I didn’t even know about its existence. I wondered why my friends, some of whom who were locals from Bangalore, never mentioned this temple. Perhaps they had no clue, or they weren’t interested.

Pic 7: Carvings of Gods and Goddesses on the temple wall.
SIDE NOTE
As Covid-19 surges in India and the pandemic takes an ugly turn in its second wave, I feel somewhat frivolous writing this post. Nothing seems to matter anymore. The situation is extremely distressing, and everyone is affected in one way or the other. Even though the virus hasn’t caught my near and dear ones yet, it feels like it’s just a matter of time. It’s difficult to digest the visuals of how much people are suffering. And, the feeling of helplessness is killing. Well, nobody ever promised that all our experiences would be pleasurable. Trying to keep myself and those around me positive. Sending healing prayers for everyone. May the Divine give me the strength to accept the bad just as I easily accept the good.