Oct 28, 2014

World Heritage Site : The Great Living Chola Temples

As a kid, I'd go to Kumbakonam from Hyderabad almost every summer to visit my grandparents. But in those days, neither photography nor heritage interested me, so I never realized that three exquisite specimens of Indian architecture were so close by! They are collectively called the Great Living Chola Temples, because they were built by the Chola dynasty. The group is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Brihadeeshwara Temple in Tanjore (or Thanjavur, more correctly), the Brihadeeshwara Temple (not a typo - it has the same name!) in Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavateshwara Temple in Darasuram form the trio. All three are dedicated to Lord Shiva. I posted about Darasuram a couple of years ago. I think I'll do separate posts about the other two soon and link to them here - this one is like an overview :)

The Cholas were one of the most powerful Tamil dynasties of South India. They ruled for a really long time - from the 3rd century BC to the 13th century AD. Raja Raja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I were two of the greatest Chola rulers, and built the temples in Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram respectively. The third temple in Darasuram was built by Rajendra Chola II, who came about 8 generations later. Read more about the Cholas here.

This temple is the grandest of the three and was built by King Raja Raja Chola  I in the beginning of the 11th century. It will make your jaw drop, I promise you - I'm not exaggerating even a teeny bit. It now has a small museum in it and the knowledgeable staff will tell you at least a million things that make this temple unique.
This temple built in the 11th century is strikingly similar to the one in Tanjore. Not surprising, since they were built by father and son. This year marks the 1000th anniversary of the coronation of King Rajendra Chola I, the builder of this temple.
This temple built by King Raja Raja Chola II in the 12th century is quite different from the other two, but every bit as stunning. The front of the temple is shaped like a chariot. Here's my post about the temple.
The three temples are almost in a straight line. Darasuram in the middle, is practically in Kumbakonam - it's just 3 kms away. Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram are on either side, at 40km and 35kms respectively. You can go to Tanjore (310 kms) or Kumbakonam (270 kms) by bus/train/car from Chennai. Both have decent hotels and taxi services.

I took an auto rickshaw from Kumbakonam to Darasuram. To the other two temples, I went in a taxi. There's a bridge on the way to Gangaikonda Cholapuram on which they don't allow buses (as of Feb 2014).

The temples are closed approximately from 12 to 4 in the afternoon. Kumbakonam has many gorgeous temples that are totally worth visiting but pretty much all of them are closed in the afternoon. I think that's about it - was this useful? If you want any other details, feel free to ask in the comments or on twitter :)

Aug 6, 2014


I had the opportunity to visit Avudaiyarkoil (or Avudaiyarkovil), a really small temple town near Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu, some days ago. These parts are very close to the popular Chettinad region, which I unfortunately didn't visit. Some other time, I hope!

The Avudayairkovil Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva was built by Manikavasakar, a 9th century Tamil poet who was the Prime Minister of the reigning Pandya king. Apparently, he used money meant for purchasing horses for the army, to build the temple. And then Lord Shiva had to appear in the angered king's dream to sort things out! Additions and modifications were probably made over time, and most of the current structure is believed to date back to the 15th century. What's special about this temple is that there is no idol of the main deity - he is called Atmanatha, which means formless! Hot pulihora (tamarind rice) mixed with bitter gourd (karela) is spread out on a stone slab in the innermost part of the temple and the steam that rises from it is the only offering to this God.

The temple is a treasure trove of seriously intricate and gorgeous sculptures based on Hindu mythology, but for some reason, it isn't too well known. The temple is about an hour away from Pudukkottai, which you can reach by train or road from Chennai. You could also drive down if you are visiting the Chettinad region and have a few hours to spare. We were shown around by the very knowledgeable and well-read Mr. Manikam - do ask at the temple if he is available - he will show you hidden gems that you'll never spot on your own. Read more here.
This mural on the ceiling of a corridor is of a saree washed and spread out to dry! See the wet patches on it?

Jun 26, 2014

From Armenia To Madras

In the 7th and 8th centuries, groups of merchants from a small land far beyond the Hindu Kush mountains started coming to India to sell silk, muslin, spices, timber and precious stones. Starting with the Malabar coast, over the next many centuries, they formed small settlements in different parts of the country from Kerala to Kolkata, and from Agra to Madras. By the 17th century, there was a sizable population of their people in Madras, and the street where most of them lived, came to be known as the Armenian Street.

These merchants were Armenians. Armenia is an ancient mountainous country in Eurasia, surrounded by Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It is said that Noah's Ark came to rest on the Ararat mountains in Armenia after the flood waters receded. It is one of the oldest Christian civilizations, and in the 4th century AD, it became the first officially Christian state in the world.
The Armenian street is home to the Church of St. Mary, India's oldest Armenian Church. At this point, I'm beginning to count the number of times I use the word 'Armenian' in each sentence! The church was first built in 1712, but after getting destroyed in a French siege in 1772, it was rebuilt in its present location - the grounds of what was an Armenian cemetery. 
 Since it is built on a cemetery, hundreds of flat graves with inscriptions in the Armenian script are scattered all around the church and in some places it is difficult to move without walking on them. 
While all the other graves are flat and at ground level, a raised one in the garden adjoining the church is clearly special. Buried here is Rev Harutiun Shmavonian, who printed the first Armenian newspaper in the world, sitting in this church! And hence, the open stone book on his grave :)
There are no Armenians in Chennai anymore, and the church is maintained by the Armenian Church Committee in Kolkata, which still has a small population of Armenian Christians. Regular service is not held here, but the church is open to visitors from 9 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon. Here's more about the church if you are interested.

After we spent a while at the church, Ashwin's father took us to a cafe called Hotel Zum Zum (yes, seriously) where he'd hang out sometimes when he was young :)
For lunch, we went to an old restaurant called Menaka in Hotel Palm Grove. Coincidentally (it wasn't father's day or anything :Pmy dad regularly ate at this restaurant when he was young (he went to college in Chennai). I had the 'Madras Meal', a traditional thaali - simple and very yummy.
My birthday was earlier this month, and Ashwin gave me a Fujifilm X-Pro 1. I love the camera so much - it is small and unobtrusive, the colours are gorgeous, the lens (I'm using an 18-55 at the moment) is brilliant and the shutter sounds beeeeautiful ! I used it to shoot the pictures in this post.

May 12, 2014

Afghan Church, Mumbai

Afghan Church, Mumbai
The first time I heard about the Afghan Church was when I saw this picture on Ashwin's Flickr stream. At that time, I never thought I'd visit the same church with him one day! :D
Afghan Church, MumbaiAfghan Church, Mumbai
The beautiful basalt and limestone church in Colaba is actually The Church of St John the Evangelist, but it is locally called the Afghan Church, because it was built in the memory of the soldiers of the British army, including members of many Indian regiments, who died in the First Afghan War fought against Afghanistan from 1839 to 1842. The church has a spire that is almost 200 feet high, because the government granted land for its construction on the condition that it must be the tallest structure in the area, and the spire must be visible clearly even to the ships at sea. The exquisite stained glass work on the windows depicting scenes from the Bible came all the way from England, and the tall pillars and imposing arches came from Iran.
Afghan Church, Mumbai
These grooves were for praying soldiers to rest their rifles in:
Afghan Church, Mumbai
The highlight of this church would have to be the shafts of light streaming through the stained glass panels! Gorgeous!
Afghan Church, Mumbai
Afghan Church, Mumbai
Afghan Church, Mumbai
I first went on a weekday - I was allowed to take pictures of the exterior, but the main church was closed. So I had to go again on a Sunday to see the inside.

May 7, 2014

Squirrel Love

We live in a building surrounded by trees, so squirrels hang out in our balconies and terrace a LOT. Remember the time we found baby squirrels in a shopping bag? So now, a couple of very hungry squirrels keep coming to our balcony - if the door is shut, I can get really close to the glass and they don't get scared at all. Putting sunflower seeds in a small metal bucket and standing behind the door with my camera has become a game! Let me show you some of the results :)

Are those....SUNFLOWER SEEDS???
Almost there
Popping in
Popping out
Nom Nom Nom!

May 5, 2014

Two temples in the Gingee Fort

I shared this photo in my previous post - do you see a temple tower on the top right?
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
That is the stunningly beautiful Venkatramana Temple inside the Gingee Fort. It is unlike any temple I have ever seen. I never imagined I'd use the word eerie for a temple, but I really cannot think of another word to describe it. It was built by a Nayak king in the 16th century, but is now dilapidated and not in use even for worship. It was a little unsettling that many of the inner shrines that usually have idols of deities are empty! When we went, free food was being distributed outside the temple, but there were very few people, and inside, there was hardly anyone. It probably looks a lot more cheerful when it is sunny, but in the rain, it was very dramatic and super gorgeous despite the decay. It was raining pretty heavily by now, so those strange circles you see in some pictures are raindrops on my lens!
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
Spot the people in the picture to imagine how big and imposing the temple is
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
The 7 storeyed 'gopuram' or entrance tower
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
Stories of Lord Vishnu on the walls of the entrance passage
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
A large courtyard with many pillared pavilions
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
Remains of beautiful sculptures
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
The ruins of the temple with the hills of Gingee behind them
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
The huge empty passage around the temple
Now the next temple - I don't remember for sure, and am unable to confirm looking at my photos, but I think this tiny temple by a pond is dedicated to Lord Ganesh. So charming, no?
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
There are still tons of photos from Gingee sitting on my hard disk, but I'm not going to bore you with any more :) Check out part 1 and part 2 for more about the fort and how to get there.

Edited to add this warning: This was on a rainy day - on a regular day, the place gets really hot - don't get misled by the mist in these photos :D