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 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 Little Bit of Jamnagar

When I was planning my Gujarat itinerary last year, the most important consideration was my parents as this trip was for them. I had to plan an itinerary with enough and more breaks so that it would be comfortable for them. This was crucial as my father has acute motion sickness, something that developed as he aged and it’s so bad that he cannot travel at a stretch even when moving from one place to another within the city. That’s why Jamnagar ended up being part of the itinerary as a break between Ahmedabad and Dwarika. The travel of 7-8 hours by car from Ahmedabad to Dwarika wouldn’t work for my father. So, we took a train to Jamnagar, stayed back one night, and then proceeded to Dwarika.

Jamnagar, the city of Jaamsahebs, was known as Nawanagar when it was established centuries ago at the banks of Rangmati and Nagmati rivers.

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Pic 1: Ranmal Lake, at the center of which is Lakhota Fort

The feeling of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) would have made me sick if I was to leave the city without experiencing anything of it. So, before leaving for Dwarika, we decided to go to Jamnagar’s signature tourist spot – Lakhota Fort located in the middle of Ranmal Lake. The fort was not quite like the fort we expected but was not bad either.

Ranmal Lake, also known as Lakhota Talav was constructed by the Maharaja of Jamnagar, Jam Ranmalji-II, between 1820 to 1852 and spreads around 5 lakh sq. meters. A sprawling garden surrounds the lake with pavilions for resting and pathways for walking around. The pathways were very spacious and I would not be exaggerating if I say they were larger than many a road in my city of Bangalore.

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Pic 2: Walkways inside the garden

It was morning time and we found elderly people walking around or seated at different places gobbling up the morning newspaper while youngsters were jogging through the morning air. On the back ground was playing old Kishore Kumar melodies throughout the garden making the morning refreshingly soothing and beautiful.

My parents and I walked around leisurely and the garden was turning out to be a good place to start the day. The lake and the garden was very well maintained. There were several entrance gates and a nominal entry fee was charged.

We learnt that the well-maintained lake was used for pearl culture during the times of the Maharaja.

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Pic 3: Lakhota Fort or Lakhota Palace

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Pic 4: Lakhota Fort or Lakhota Palace as you enter from the connecting bridge.

At the center of the lake is the Lakhota Fort or Lakhota Palace, the latter being a better description of the place. A short causeway that runs over the lake like a bridge connects the garden to the palace. The palace houses a museum that stores artifacts and pottery dating from 9th to 18th century. Photography is not allowed inside.

The palace was built in the mid-19th-century by Maharaja Jam Ranmalji-II, at the same time when he built the lake. I am not much of an architecture person but the fine woodcarvings at the palace did catch my attention.

At the south east side of the lake, is Bala Hanuman temple. The specialty of this temple is that it is in Guinness Book of Records for non-stop chants of “Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram” that have been going on continuously since 1st August, 1964.

With my FOMO put to rest, we happily exited Jamnagar and proceeded to Dwarika.

[Click Here to read my Dwarika experience.]

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Pic 5: The Bala Hanuman Temple

 

Bekal Fort – A Glimpse into the Past

And a Birthday Gift to Self…

 “Tu hi re……tere bina……”  [“Uyire”]

I could almost see the scintillating Monisha Koirala sauntering around with her long flowing gown behind her and Arvind Swamy yearning for her as he sings the famous soul stirring romantic melody of the late nineties. Composed by A.R Rahman, this masterpiece was sung to perfection by Hariharan.

We were at Bekal Fort, located in a quaint little place called Pallikara in North Kerala. This remarkably well preserved fort gained popularity after the legendary lyrical song from the critically acclaimed Bollywood Movie ‘Bombay’ was filmed here.

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Pic 1: The fort as seen from the outside.

It was that time of the year – the month of April – the time to keep a promise to myself. Time for my birthday and I had to gift a travel to myself. It’s the mountains I prefer above everything else, precisely Himalayas. I have a few treks in mind that I want to do but there was a clash here. None of those were happening in April. So, I booked one for May and decided to do a small 1-2 day trip somewhere nearby just for my birthday. That’s how the trip to Bekal Fort happened.

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Pic 2: Somewhere inside the fort.

I was all set to go alone when my sister decided to come along. Both of us are going through some financial constraints and this trip fitted well into our pockets. Google told us that Bekal Fort is about 65 Km away from Mangalore and can be reached in about an hour and a half from there. This was the best route for us from Bangalore. We took an overnight train to Mangalore. With our current financial situation, we opted to take a bus rather than a cab from Mangalore. However, we had to change two buses to reach Pallikara – Mangalore to Kasargod to Pallikara.

We had booked a homestay at Pallikara at a very reasonable rate. The room was quite small but the people were wonderful and the food they served was stupendous, at a price that is unthinkable. It’s pretty good for just a night. (http://www.bekalforthomestay.com/)

An auto from the bus stand took us to the homestay and everyone seemed to know the ‘retired Headmaster’s house’. It was late morning when we arrived and the sun was blazing. At this time of the year, Kerala is sweltering and the humidity only makes the weather even more miserable. Notwithstanding, we stepped out after a quick shower.

The lady of the house warned us against venturing to the fort at this time. She advised early evening and recommended the beach for now. We had a quick lunch at a roadside shop trying to ignore the gazing curious onlookers who are probably not used to seeing many tourists and especially women on their own. The shop owner, unable to control his curiosity, asked us a couple of questions and every answer seemed to flabbergast him.

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Pic 3: Roasting in the sweltering heat of Malabar Coast

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Pic 4: Sis finds a cooler place to chill for a while.

After lunch, we went to Bekal Beach and thereafter took an auto and went to the fort. It was around 3.00 PM and the Sun was shining mercilessly. April is definitely not the best time to visit this place. The roasting heat of Malabar Coast was exhausting as the lady of the homestay had rightly warned us. The aura of the age-old fort managed to keep us engaged though we were drenched in sweat from head to toe. A pleasant surprise awaited us at the fort though. It was ‘World Heritage Day’ and entry was free. I took that as an unexpected birthday gift!

 

Perched on a steep rocky shore overlooking the Arabian Sea, Bekal Fort intrigues and fascinates with its architectural marvel and picture perfect location. The rusty red fort owes its colouration to the *laterite slabs that have been used to build it. The polygonal fort, shaped in the form of a giant keyhole surely houses a million tales of bygone ages.

[*Laterite is a soil and rock type rich in iron and aluminium, considered to have formed in hot and wet tropical areas. Nearly all laterites are of rusty-red coloration, because of high iron oxide content. Source: Wikipedia]

In the 13th Century AD, Bekal was an important port town in Kerala. The fort has changed hands a couple of times from Shivappa Nayaka to Tipu Sultan to East India Company. This is the biggest and best preserved fort in Kerala that is now maintained by Archeological Survey of India (ASI).

The Fort has several unique features, such as, the water tank with its flight of steps, a tunnel that opens towards the south, a magazine to store ammunition, an Observation Tower with stunning view of the surrounding landscape.

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Pic 8: Note the rusty-red laterite slabs

The majestic fort in its entirety against the backdrop of the mighty Arabian Sea on one side and the sea of greenery on all other sides was as picturesque as one can imagine. The vast expanse of tall coconut trees that spread out as far as the eyes can see adds charm to the already scenic location. And it’s the scenic beauty of the place that appealed to me the most.

The weather was taking its toll and we were drained after having loitered around for about 90 minutes at the fort. With no shade around, we decided to go back to the beach.

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Pic 9: The sea of coconut trees, just so typical of God’s Own Country – Kerala

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Pic 10: The winding pathway just outside the fort by the side of the Arabian Sea reminded us of ‘King’s Landing’ from Game of Thrones!)

We got to know that monsoon is the best time to visit this place. Besides the pleasant weather, the fort walls are covered with a layer of green owing to the growth of mosses, lichens, and tiny plants that apparently makes it look even more gorgeous. Our April adventure was nonetheless a good one.

With another promise kept and another birthday well spent, armed with a bagful of wonderful memories we retraced our path towards the beach.

When I said Wah Taj!

On a very special trip with my parents

The other day I came by an article that listed out quotes of famous people who have visited the Taj Mahal. Amongst the great names of Rabindranath Tagore, Lord Curzon, etc, the one that caught my attention was Bill Clinton, the former President of USA, who said:

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it, and those who have not seen the Taj Mahal and love it. I would like people to watch the Taj Mahal and fall in love with it.

I could instantaneously relate it to my own experience of the historical monument. Memories of my visit to the Taj Mahal came flooding by and I thought I should write about it.

And so, here it goes…

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Pic 1: A very special moment with my parents

“I’m very satisfied with your service. Thank you so much!” I heard my father say to the guide who we had hired for a tour of the Taj Mahal and who had painstakingly explained every little detail taking care to answer all the questions asked by us, especially my father.

We let the guide leave while we sat on the marble floor just outside the main dome to rest for a while. It was late morning on a sunny October day and the monument was teeming with tourists from all over the world. I sat there feeling gratified looking at my parents who seemed quite delighted with their tour of the iconic monument. This trip was for them and I couldn’t be happier.

This was my second visit to the ivory-white marble mausoleum that grandly stands on the banks of River Yamuna in the city of Agra. My first visit had been seven years back. Needless to say, I was floored when I saw this exquisite piece of marble for the first time. I was with a friend and her husband. As we entered the West Gate or Fatehpuri Darwaza and I laid my eyes on the monument for the first time, I was awestruck. Dazzling in the afternoon sun, its splendor was beyond words and somehow appeared unreal to me.

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Pic 2: Throwback to my first visit to the iconic monument 7 years back and that’s my friend

I had read and heard about its grandeur several times since childhood – from history books to Bollywood movies, from photographs and paintings to travel stories of friends and relatives, from news feeds about the effects of pollution on the white marble to the surreal experiences on a moonlight night, and so on and so forth.

All of these had imprinted the Taj’s form into my mind’s imagery and I thought I was going to visit just another historical monument knowing exactly what to expect. But, when I saw the real structure with my naked eyes for the first time, its sparkling magnificence was something else altogether. Its prettiness was overwhelming. I had never imagined the Taj Mahal to be this beautiful.

The experience was way different from my visit to other historical monuments. Being an ardent nature lover, architectures and museums do not enthuse me much. So, I never quite get it when people stare at an Eiffel tower with those admiration-filled eyes for hours on end. With this existing state of mind, my expectations of Taj Mahal were pretty limited. Not until I actually saw it…

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Pic 3: Just outside the West Gate

The stunningly magical Taj Mahal had left me literally speechless. It was only after I experienced the Taj in person that I truly understood the genius of its craftsmanship. And, I thought to myself — no wonder this iconic monument gets millions of visitors every year from across the globe; no wonder it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; no wonder it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The first thing that came to my mind at that moment was – I got to get my parents to see this. This is one of the seven wonders and it’s in my own country. This is an opportunity. It will be a pity if they were to miss this.  So, here I was experiencing the magic for a second time and this time with my parents.

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Pic 4: While we admired the superb craftsmanship

Built by 22,000 workers in 22 years, the Taj Mahal is famous as the ultimate symbol of love. That’s what I knew during my childhood and as I grew up. Later, I read some speculative counter arguments, which I think cannot be ignored (Read Here). Keeping that aside, it is the finest and most sophisticated model of Mughal architecture in India, which also incorporates elements of Persian, Turkish, and Hindu influences.

We walked our way around the tomb, my mother and I silently appreciating, the unique marble carvings, the incised paintings, the incredible Urdu calligraphic inscriptions, etc. and my father earnestly discussing all big and small historical detail with our guide. All along I was feeling deeply satisfied that I could have my parents experience Taj Mahal’s incredible wonder.

This was the Agra leg of our Golden Triangle trip (Delhi – Agra – Jaipur). The same evening, we visited the Agra Fort.

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Pic 5: While they share a special moment at the Agra Fort

My parents love travelling and my father has taken us on many a trip across India during our childhood despite all the limitations he had at that time. It’s my turn now to take them around and it gives me immense joy whenever I am able to take them on a trip with me. However, with old age and their current state of health, they cannot travel a lot and that’s a limitation I now have.