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.

Revenge Tourism

Revenge Tourism! What the hell is this? I exclaimed as I heard this term for the first-time last evening.  Apparently, it’s been doing rounds of social media. Having stayed away from Instagram (the only social media I actively pursue) for a while now, naturally I have no clue. Being overly occupied in certain other aspects of life also does its bit in contributing to such ignorance. Quite often, I find myself staggering behind and completely lost about these current trends and other such things brewing out there. Certainly, they aren’t important and hence don’t matter. But people pick up these terminologies and casually use them in everyday conversations. Sometimes, they go a step ahead and make you feel foolish and dumb when you express your unfamiliarity. I couldn’t care less though!

Revenge Tourism, as I understand, means tourism with a vengeance to make up for all the times people couldn’t travel. The phrase feels somewhat negative to me. Are we challenging Mother Nature in some way? – was my immediate thought. Probably, I am being judgmental as I have no idea how this terminology came into being and under what circumstances it might have been coined. Probably I am just envious as I haven’t had the opportunity to participate in Revenge Tourism just yet. However, to travel with a vengeful mindset feels strange and weird, doesn’t it? Afterall, what we think is just as important as what we say and do. Our thoughts matter, they make us who we are. It’s important to be mindful, not just of speech and action, but thought too. I wouldn’t dare to invite Mother Nature’s ire by indulging in any form of activity that might upset her, least of all by making a blatant display of my arrogance.

Revenge Tourism or Reward Tourism or whatever Tourism be it, the most important thing to remember is the entire economic angle around it. Tons of people have their livelihood dependent on tourism. So, let travel happen while making sure that protocols are adhered to and the right amount of balance is maintained.

To me travel still feels like a faraway dream, at least the kind of travel I used to do. Pre-pandemic travel sometimes feels like a thing of another life – a past life. I would go on long trips at least thrice a year and that would be interspersed with smaller trips to nearby places. All of that, feels like a dream now. I shouldn’t be just blaming the pandemic though. Life has changed personally in certain other ways too and it feels like a new phase. I had never given much thought to the fact that travel can be dependent on extraneous factors, many of which aren’t in one’s direct control. Well, life waxes and wanes and all we can do is just flow along.

Now, I hadn’t set out to put down my thoughts around Revenge Tourism today. Neither did I plan to tell my travel sob stories. This post was supposed to be about something else altogether. I wanted to sum up all the things I did between the end of December and beginning of January, which incidentally includes some bit of travel too. Let me just keep that aside for my next post.

The Frustrations of Travel Sabotage

Ever been in a situation where your travel was sabotaged by fellow travelers or others? If yes, I feel your pain. After navigating such situations a couple of times, I made some simple travel rules for myself. I can’t always stick to them for reasons beyond my control but do try my best to adhere to them whenever possible.

An important lesson I learnt in the hard way is that a great friend does not necessarily translate into a great travel partner. Habits and the way you go about doing things, which do not affect you otherwise may become a major mood spoiler in travel scenarios. For e.g. a friend of mine regularly spends a long time in the shower. I don’t care about that and why would I. When we traveled together this became a big botheration to me as I can never imagine spending precious travel time in routine activities. My friend on the other hand would not relent. She was here to relax, it was a holiday afterall. Not my idea of relaxing in any way.

I have a list of multiple such incidents. Let me narrate two.

At New York

The first time I went to the US, I had a connecting flight from New York, both during the onward and return journey. Obviously, in no way could I miss the opportunity of visiting the Big Apple. The plan was to stopover for the weekend in NY. A colleague, who was traveling with me, joined in only to leave me in the lurch by changing his plans at the last moment. Irrespective, I went ahead with my plan.

L: Times Square; R: Staten Island

A cousin’s girlfriend was stationed at New Jersey, during that time, and it was decided that I would stay with her for that weekend. I had never met her before but that didn’t matter as my only interest was exploring NYC. My cousin’s girlfriend, on the other hand, had a different idea about entertaining me. She wasted more than half a day cooking and feeding me. That I am not a foodie and I wasn’t there to eat was none of her concern. Moreover, she wouldn’t let me venture out alone. By the time we could step out it was late afternoon and soon it started snowing. My Saturday was bitterly spoilt. Left with only Sunday, I wasn’t going to let that go waste. It was a sunny day, I ventured out early in the morning and spent the day in my own way, salvaging whatever little I could of my most looked forward to NYC trip.

Trying to be the best host, my cousin’s girlfriend missed the larger picture that defeated my very purpose of visiting NY. The saddest part is that in most likelihood I will never make it to NY again.  

At Miami

The second incident is also associated with a trip to the US, though this is purely coincidental. Just two months before WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic, we were at the city of Miami on an official visit. Among the various places I planned to visit, I wasn’t going to miss Everglades National Park. Unlike other official visits that are quite crammed with meetings and events, this trip was quite relaxed providing us ample time to indulge in personal activities.

The picture on the left is significant for the date, we had no idea what awaited us for the rest of the year.

Two of my colleagues (or friends), whose travel ideas are drastically different from mine, started accompanying me everywhere translating into a kind of an unsaid rule that we would always go out together. And, all the trips would mostly end up in malls, shopping, and eating. Neither would they let me be nor would they do what I liked to do. They were simply being well-meaning friends without realizing that they were interfering with my ideas of experiencing the Magic City of Miami. As a result, I couldn’t visit half the places I had in my plan. Everglades National Park didn’t happen too. And once again, the saddest part is that in most likelihood I will never make it to Miami again.

While I can be quite accommodating and adjusting in other aspects of life, when it’s about travel it utterly frustrates me. Compromise in travel I shall not do! Can’t live upto it always though…

Karnataka’s Twin Waterfalls

I stood there staring at the gushing cascading waters, aggressively bouncing off the craggy moss-covered rock cliff. It always feels happy to be near a waterfall and this was no different. The white shafts of water complemented by the surrounding greenery of various shades did their job of lifting my spirits and boosting my energy. But my mind was agitated. It kept slipping into the past as scenes from the last time I was here fleeted before my eyes like a motion picture.

I was at the exact same spot a decade ago when I had just shifted to Bangalore.

The waterfall is just the same, but the surroundings look quite different – the usual story of manipulating the natural surroundings to make it more touristy. Such ugly human interventions always disturb the nature lover in me. Today, however, my mind was consumed with other thoughts – the memories of my last visit here. I was here with my parents (dad). Life’s changes are just too fast. And, the decade ago visit feels like it happened just yesterday.

Pic 1: This was clicked during my previous visit. The serene pool formed at the bottom of a waterfall always seems to me like the water needs a quick rest before carrying on.

We were at Barachukki Falls – one of the two waterfall that are collectively known as Shivanasamudra. The other one is Gaganachukki Falls. Shivanasamudra, literally translating as Shiva’s Sea, is formed by the dropping waters of River Cauvery as it makes its way through the Deccan Plateau. The river splits into two branches resulting into the two perennial waterfalls of Barachukki and Gaganachukki. While Barachukki is the eastern branch of the waterfall, Gaganachukki forms the western branch. In between lies the island town of Shivanasamudra that marks the boundary of Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district and Mandya district.

Pic 2: The segmented cluster of Barachukki that spreads broadly across the cliff.

Located 140 kms away from Bangalore, Shivanasamudra has another claim to fame. It boasts of the second hydro-electric power station set up in colonial India in 1902. The power from this station was primarily used to run the Kolar Gold Fields during the gold rush of the early 1900s. [The first hydro-electric power station in India was set up at Darjeeling. These two were among the first ones in Asia.]

The twin waterfalls of Barachukki and Gaganachukki are separated by 10 Km. and can be covered just by a drive of 15-20 minutes. The twin waterfalls do not have much resemblance to each other, and they stand out significantly in their look and feel. The only similarity, I thought was the topography of their surroundings.

Pic 3: The horsetail parallel gushing and vivacious streams of Gaganchukki.

Barachukki gushes down fulsome and enthusiastically in all directions. It constitutes a cluster of segmented waterfalls that spreads broadly across the cliff, falling from a height of 69m. The multiple side-by-side waterfall is a consequence of the water dividing into several channels before dropping off the ledge. Gaganachukki is a steep waterfall that thunders down from a height of 98m. with an incredibly fierce velocity. It consists of two large parallel streams, quite aptly referred to as horsetails that cascade down through the rocky bed.

We were there in the month of December, 2020. It being the season of winter, the quantity of water was less in both the falls.

Barachukki Falls also has a flight of about 200 concrete steps, well-guarded with railings, to reach the bottom of the falls. During our visit, this was temporarily closed. It was pandemic times, so not surprising. During my previous visit, I had also seen people taking coracle rides right up to the falls. This time there were none. There is no way to reach the bottom of Gaganachukki and it would be dangerous to do so, given the sheer force of this falls.

Pic 4: L – A decade ago with my parents. R – This time with my sisters.

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.

Temple Tales from Somnathpur

It took us a while to get into the temple premises. The temple is a protected monument and maintained by Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Tickets for entry to such places now require scanning an ASI QR code. Our phone network happened to be unusually slow causing some unnecessary delay, testing our patience, and sufficiently frustrating us.

As I entered through the doorway after reading the description displayed at the entryway, my jaws literally dropped. The magnificence of the temple caught me off-guard. I knew about this temple but hadn’t expected such stunning architectural brilliance. “How did I never happen to come here before!”, I couldn’t help wondering, having stayed in Bangalore for more than a decade now. This reaction was triggered off just at the very first glance. As we walked around exploring the temple, every corner only left us even more astonished.

Pic 1: The mantapa on entering through the doorway adorned with lathe turned pillars, which happens to be a typical feature of Hoysala architecture.

The 13th century Keshava Temple, also known as Chennakesava Temple, is located in a small town called Somnathpur in the Mandya district of Karnataka. It is at a distance of about 140 Km. from Bangalore and just about 35 Km. away from Mysore. Situated in the banks of River Cauvery, the temple was built by Somanatha, a celebrated army commander of the Hoysala Dynasty. He established the town of Somnathpur, which he named after himself.

The temples built during the rule of the Hoysalas are unique in their intricate sculptures and great story telling. The temples of Belur and Halebidu are said to be the best ambassadors of Hoysala architecture. I haven’t been there yet but have heard a lot about their spectacular grandeur. I had no idea that Somnathpur Temple belonged to the same league and was another masterpiece of Hoysala architecture.

Pic 2: The Western and Southern Shikharas. Notice the star-shaped elevated platform on which stands the temple.

The temple is carved from soapstone and is dedicated to Lord Krishna in the three forms of Keshava, Janardhana, and Venugopala. The main temple is at the center of a courtyard, built on an elevated star-shaped platform which, I learnt is one of the unique aspects of Hoysala temples. Surrounding the courtyard is a pillared corridor that has several chambers all along. Perhaps they would have housed deities at that time, they are empty now.

Pic 3: The pillared corridor that surrounds the courtyard.
Pic 4: The pillared corridor from another angle. Notice the chambers all along.

The temple wall on the exterior has intricate carvings and sculptures depicting stories from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, and also Bhagavata Purana. The exquisite attention to detail that has clearly gone into these carvings was mystifying to say the least. The dancing Goddess Lakshmi, the angry Lord Ganesha, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the four headed Lord Brahma, the intricate Mahisashura Mardini – just to name a few. The meticulous carvings also depict battles, folklore, music, dance, and much more. The stories in carvings are in a clockwise direction, thoughtfully designed as it is the same as the direction of a pradakshina or circumambulation.

Pic 5: The fascinating and exquisitely detailed sculptures on the exterior wall.
Pic 6: The magnificence of these sculptures are a delight to the eyes.

After spending a decent amount of time walking around the temple admiring the detailed carvings, we stepped inside. The inside of the temple is just as fascinating. The magnificent ceiling with all the intricate ornate carvings and miniature sculptures is simply amazing. A guide, who was with another group, explained that the ceiling constitutes of 16 finely carved symmetrical squares, some of which are depictions of the Lotus flower at different stages of development. The main idol of Keshava is situated on the sanctum sanctorum while Janardhana and Venugopala  are on either side. According to ASI, the original Keshava idol went missing and has been replaced. The idols of Janardhana and Venugopala are damaged.

The temple is not functional and is not used as a place of worship anymore, the idols being broken and desecrated by invaders of that age and time. It stands as a monument today bearing testimony to the superior craftmanship of the artists and sculptors of the bygone Hoysala era.

Pic 7: The extraordinary craftsmanship is like a poetry unfolding.
Pic 8: One can spend hours examining the details that have gone into these carvings.

I am a nature person and usually get disengaged very easily with things that are lifeless. Museums and places of architectural significance as not quite for me. That explains why I overlooked visiting this place earlier. However, when it comes to such intricate artwork it’s a different story altogether. My mind weaves stories thinking about the artisans, their unparalleled creativity, the lives of people at that time – the royalty, the commoners, their festivals, their triumphs and hardships, and so on and so forth. It’s mind-boggling and fascinating.

Now, I can’t wait to explore the Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebidu. Had it not been for the pandemic, I would have long been on my way. Smitten by Somnathpur Keshava Temple, I was curious to know about the other Hoysala temples in the state of Karnataka. I learnt that there are 137 Hoysala temples of significant value in the state. Quite a number that is, isn’t it!

A Bizarre Travel Experience

Didi, for heaven’s sake be careful…..that sari may just slip from your hands!”, she pleaded. My wavering attention was immediately back to the precarious situation we were in. I controlled the urge to rebuke her at that moment for being so insistent on wanting to be at this place. A noisy family of more than a dozen people had just landed right beside us. My attention was quite automatically diverted towards this freshly added commotion. As if the already chaotic situation wasn’t enough!

We were at Triveni Sangam and had just taken a dip in the holy confluence of the three rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati.

My cousin had made sure to include Triveni Sangam in the itinerary when we were planning our visit to Varanasi. During her previous visit to Varanasi, she couldn’t make time for Triveni Sangam and this time she wasn’t going to miss it. I wasn’t much keen but agreed on her insistence.

Pic 1: Boats that take people to Triveni Sangam.

Triveni Sangam is located at Allahabad and is about 83 Km from Varanasi. It is a sacred place, one that is of religious importance to the Hindus, where the historic Kumbh-mela is held every 12 years. It is believed that a bath in the Sangam washes away all sins and paves the way straight to heaven. That’s not the reason why my sister insisted to come here though. It was just sheer curiosity. As for me, I just accompanied her though experiencing a Kumbh Mela is in my bucket list.

The Sangam is located some distance away from the banks and one must take a boat to reach there. At the confluence, the greyish and opaque waters of River Ganga is distinctly differentiable from the greenish and clear waters of River Yamuna. The mythical River Saraswati is invisible, believed to be subterranean. A series of boats were set up forming a sort of a platform where people performed religious rituals. There was a special arrangement for taking a dip in the waters. You step onto a log of wood holding the ropes on either side that are tied at the two ends of the log, much like a swing. The rope is slowly lowered till you are immersed in the water.

My sister was keen on taking a dip and also in conducting the rituals. I wasn’t sure for a while but then decided to take a dip too. It was going to be an interesting experience I thought, but no rituals for me. All the more, as the priest there demanded Rs 500 just for a coconut, some flowers, and a little vermillion.

Pic 2: Triveni Sangam marked by the flags seen here where a series of boats are set up to form a sort of a platform.

Now, the only problem was that we couldn’t see any place to change into dry clothes after the dip. It was the month of December and hence quite cold. We would have to get out of the wet clothes. Our boatman assured that he would make the necessary arrangements. “Yeh sari hai na” (we have this sari), he said, picking up two bamboo poles, as he spoke. Both of us assumed that he would use the bamboo poles and the sari to create a makeshift arrangement in the boat with enclosures on all four sides. We didn’t bother to clarify.

When we were done with the dip, he just handed over the sari to us. One of us was supposed to hold the sari from one end and stretch our hands up. The cylindrical sort of an enclosure created by the 9 yards yarn is where the other would change. It was a HORRIFIC proposition. The sari even seemed quite transparent to me. We resisted a bit but soon realized that it was the only solution and we could either do as instructed or shiver our way to the banks. Opting for the latter would most certainly cause us to fall ill. We were also quite shocked to see other women doing the same. Nobody seemed to have a problem, except the two of us.

Pic 3: Siberian Seagulls that migrate during winters making the holy rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, their temporary home.

My sister had to admit our Varanasi trip didn’t have to include Triveni Sangam, at least not now. However, it’s an experience that we hilariously recall each time we talk about our Varanasi trip. All said and done, our wish to be at Triveni Sangam during a Kumbh Mela remains as strong as can be.

Padmanabhapuram Palace

The Most Charming Palace I have Seen so far….

“Seems like some kind of natural air-conditioning in here!”, exclaimed my sister. It indeed felt cool inside. Surely, it’s got something to do with the way this place was constructed ages ago.

We were at Padmanabhapuram Palace, located about 30 Km. away from Kanyakumari at a place, known as Thuckalay. Built in the 16th century, this palace is situated in the state of Tamil Nadu, however, it remains under the administration of the Government of Kerala. The wooden palace, in its typical Kerala architectural style, is a masterpiece that left us completely spellbound. Once again, all thanks to fellow blogger Sugan for having recommended this place.

The pillared entrance with intricate wooden carvings.
The main entrance leads to the reception area. Notice the marvelous wooden carvings and terracotta tiled roof.

The unusualness of the palace is what charmed us the most. It was very different from all the palaces I have seen so far. It lacked the glam and glitter that one would expect of a palace but was majestic in its simplicity and intricacies. Some highlights from the palace are, elaborately detailed rosewood and teak wood carvings, exquisitely carved wooden columns, huge earthen urns, jackfruit tree columns, multi-colored windowpanes of various patterns, spacious hallways, ornately carved wooden ceilings, and so on.

There were different artistic representations of the Lotus flower, the favourite flower of the royalty (and also of Lord Padmanabhaswamy). The floors of the palace wore a unique look. It was glossy, smooth and of shining black colour. This is apparently the result of a unique combination of egg shells, lime, coconut, charcoal, river sand, and jaggery that was used in the raw material.

The Mantrasala – Here the King held important meetings with his ministers. Notice the elaborately designed ceiling.

Padmanabhapuram was the capital city of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, the rulers of which were dedicated to Lord Padmanabhaswamy (another name of Lord Vishnu) and considered themselves to be servants of the Lord.

The Covid protocols were very strict here. We had to buy gloves from the shops outside, which were selling only woolen gloves. That was no fun on a hot and sultry afternoon, with a temperature of nearly 30 degree centigrade. The palace was crowded with tourists, but all were locals. We stood out in how we looked and the clothes we wore, leading to us being mobbed by a gang of local people. The gang of 20-25 people followed us everywhere and wanted pictures with us every now and then. They meant no harm and we did indulge them initially but after a point their intrusion managed to irritate us enough and more.

Here’s a visual tour of some sections of the palace.

Ottupura (Dining Hall) – A description board here says that over 2000 people were served free meals in this grand dining hall on a daily basis.
These are huge Chinese jars that were used to store pickles for the daily feasts.
The Dance Hall. Notice the shining black flooring, which is the result of a combination of egg shells, lime, coconut, charcoal, river sand, and jaggery.
The palace temple. It was closed at that time so we couldn’t enter.
Curved shuttered wooden windows
Left: The Royal Bed, made of 67 different medicinal wood. Right: One of the Royal Toilets.
Here’s a picture of the people who followed us everywhere wanting to click pictures with us every now and then. And, here are only some of those from the large gang. The gang even made one of my sisters pull her mask down for a proper photo.