Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Kesava Temple of Somanthapur

The turn of the 2nd Millennium A.D. witnessed a marked resurgence of temple building traditions in South India furthering the new styles and techniques developed in the latter half of the first millennium when cave temples gave way to towering monuments of granite and sandstone. Though this era was mired in dynastic feuds between the Chalukyas of Kalyan and Cholas of Thanjavur, heralded the decline of Gangas of Talakad and beheld the rising Hoysalas of Dwarasamudra (present day Halebid) temple architecture reached new heights surpassing the glory of the bygone days. Kings and nobles showered patronage on gifted artisans and architects commissioning grants and lands for building temples. These temples which were the center of religious and social life also served another purpose of ensuring that the legacy of the Kings survived for a thousand years long after the winds of time razed their pompous kingdoms to dust. Today some of these temples lie forlornly in quiet villages sitting on the shore of a placid lake and reminisce of their heydays; the bustling capitols of the yore have lost their sheen but the temples still stand steadfast narrating the tales of proud Kings who have been forgotten.

Somanathapur is a non-descript village located 30kms from the heritage city of Mysore. However its narrow muddy lanes and lush green paddy fields harbor a well kept secret – the Kesava Temple. Dating back to 1268 A.D it is a classic example of Hoysala architecture and is considered to be one of the most striking Hoysala temples matching in poise and beauty to the Chennakesava Temple in Belur and Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebid. 

The monument is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India and a nominal entry fee is charged for all visitors. Here on a weekend one can observe a teeming crowd consisting of school children seemingly on a picnic, foreign tourists, pious devotees, enthusiastic photographers and budding historians. Historically this temple was revered by the Maharajas of Mysore and records show that even in the late 1880s and early 1900s various dignitaries visited this marvel of human engineering and craftsmanship. 

The temple is accessible from the eastern side by a doorway, in a high boundary wall, which opens into a gallery running around the temple. The sight of the shining black towers rising against the cloudy blue sky is a delight; though watching the rain wash over the sculpture studded walls during the monsoons is equally enjoyable. A flight of steps descend to the stone-paved courtyard surrounding the temple which is raised on a raised platform (Jagati). Another flight of steps rise to the platform and then to the intricately carved entrance flanked by heavily ornamented Dwarpalas (Gate-keepers). The doorway leads to a dark closed hall supported by rounded pillars bearing minute carvings. A narrow vestibule connects the hall to the three shrines dedicated to Vishnu in the form of Kesava, Venugopala and Janardhana. The ceilings are covered with sculptures of gods and goddesses, blooming lotus flowers, stories from epics and mythical beasts.   

A soothing calm permeates the surroundings complimented by the filtered sunrays creeping through the perforated stone windows bathing the hall in a dim light. One can sit on the stone benches which are projections on the outer wall and escape into the nothingness experiencing a fleeting moment of unadulterated peace. 

This temple, as all other Hoysala temples, is truly remarkable for the thousands of sculptures which adorn the outer walls rendered possible by the use of soapstone as a building material. Soapstone has a unique quality – it is soft when mined and becomes hard on exposure to air thus making it possible to be carved into meticulous idols and shapes. A circumambulation of the temple gives an insight into the skill and precision of the erstwhile artists as not an inch is spared with carvings spread over the outer walls of the star-shaped cella, hall and the towers. An eave runs along the outer wall separating the upper section decorated with towers on pilasters and the lower half covered by images of myriad gods, goddesses and demi-gods. Vishnu resting on Shesh Nag in Baikuntha, Krishna playing his flute, Lakshmi with Narasimha, Durga slaying the demon Mahisasura and Saraswati playing the Veena are some of the noteworthy sculptures. Six friezes also run along the temple walls depicting birds, riders atop elephants and horses, makaras (mythical aquatic beasts), floral designs and tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata. One can spend days analyzing and understanding the significance of these artistic relics as they not only reflect upon the religious aspect of that era but also shed light on the social norms and how creative expressions evolved over time.

Visiting the temple is being led down the annals of history though the grandeur has been swallowed by the forces of nature and man. The stoic sculptures on the walls stare into the past and hark back to a period when a vibrant settlement flourished in this region and the sweet water of Cauvery nurtured the hopes of budding artists who aspired to leave their mark on this world. And although these nameless dreamers have long since been gone their ambitions live on unfazed by the incessant march of time.

Deeptangan Pant
April 2014

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Travel Another India - Newsletter March 2014

No Looking Back – A Review

I met Shivani Gupta in 2010 when Travel Another India wanted an access audit done for itineraries in Ladakh. At that time, I was just starting out in the bad world of business after having spent about 18 years in the good world of social development. I was very cynical of the world I was coming from and that cynicism tinted everything that I took in the world I was entering. Shivani’s attitude and audit report helped to blow apart the clouds of cynicism long enough for me to see that there were people out there who really made a difference.

I have met Shivani off and on since then to talk about Ladakh but also because I draw from her positivity each time I met her. She is one of those rare persons who is totally pragmatic – she looks at what is possible; not just on all that could go wrong or have gone wrong. Given how critical I am of everything and everyone, this is a refreshing attitude for me. I have been practising ever since, but miles to go before I get there.

I have often wanted to ask her about her life, but have held back out of politeness. So when Shivani posted on Facebook that her book was to be released, I ordered 3 copies right away. When I got them, I read it in one sitting. I enjoyed reading the book – cried and laughed in equal measure. And inspired by the end of it to try and make a difference.

I cannot think of a better way to commemorate the strength of women than to share the review of “No Looking Back” by Shivani Gupta.

The book is about two decades of her life from an accident at the start of her career to now. Along the way she describes how she finds herself, family, love, death and herself all over again. Shivani has written this book from her heart – in a simple narrative that is easy to read. The lack of hyperbole and exclamation marks serves to highlight her life. I am sure it was not an easy book to write – to showcase your life, warts and all, to the world is tough.

I like the way that Shivani has explored the many identities of a person. Too often when we see a person in a wheelchair, her entire identity is reduced to that. It is difficult to think of her with dreams, wants, desires. In her gentle style, Shivani lays bare all the facets that go into making her the person that she is.

When she had the first accident that affected her spine, she was in her early twenties – a time when we all sow our wild oats. Becoming physically immobile does not change her need for all the other things that we do at that age, especially the risks we are willing to take. And why should it? That to me is the highlight of the book – the way in which her many identities keep asserting themselves even though everyone around her tries to focus on only one aspect, simply because it is the most evident.

As a woman from a middle class Indian family in Delhi, she wants what her peers want – to dress up, have male admirers, get married, be accepted by her husband’s family. It is touching to read about the “regular” side of her innermost thoughts. Becoming an icon in the Disability Rights movement doesn’t change who she is fundamentally. And I appreciate the ability to share that.

And as a woman from a middle class Indian family she also knows the need to be financially independent. She describes her attempts to earn an income - in those few words you can see the struggles of so many people. They dont want charity for their disability; they want to use their abilities to earn an honest income just like so many of us. And yet, the unthinking majority that the non-disabled are put up barriers, whether they mean to or not. 

The second highlight of the book for me is her constant positivity. She ascribes a lot of her strength to her sister, her father and to her husband, Vikas. I am sure they bolstered it, but it is her own attitude and strength that has brought her this far and will take her further. In her usual direct manner, she paints portraits of her family as normal human beings – strengths and weaknesses equally. She looks at society, “the system”, the State et al with that same impassion. She gives the benefit of doubt to every one of these actors. Maybe they don’t mean to be nasty, maybe they just don't know. So let’s work on making sure they know! I think many of us in social development need to borrow this attitude. It is just so much easier to get into the mode of thinking other actors to be good or bad (mostly bad), that we don’t make the effort to see any of the zillion shades of grey in between.

An inspiring, honest book that is not preachy – do read and share it around. You can order it on Flipkart – the print version or the e-version. http://ow.ly/un43b

Or if you send me your postal address, I will order it for you.

If you would like to share this review with your friends, on your blog, or in your newspaper or magazine, please do so.

Update on Travel Another India

On behalf of Travel Another India, I would like to thank Meenakshi Chhabra for all the time and inputs she gave us. She has moved to Singapore to a new job. Meenakshi came to us after the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award as a Mentor. She was soon roped in to join the Advisory Board. Her contribution has been her keen business sense, marketing acumen and attention to detail. She was available for over three years regardless of her already busy schedule with her work and helping other start-ups. She gave us of her vast repertoire of skills but never pushed knowing that a start-up is a total juggling act. Meenakshi was truly an unexpected prize for TAI from CWIA!

Travel Another India experimented with offering customised itineraries based around themes - crafts, history, a river - last year. The fabulous response makes me offer it to all of you. If you want to interact with craftspersons directly, delve into our varied history, simply follow a river or any of your travel dreams, call or write to me. 

Here are some of the itineraries and the feedback from guests.

“Anne and I are very grateful to you for making our vacation a great success. We appreciate your kind and thoughtful attention to our needs and reassurances on arrangements for travel, lodging, and tours. For sure, I will recommend your group very highly to our friends and colleagues interested in "alternate India" experience.”

“Thank you so much for arranging hotels, visits to the Taj and other beautiful sites- and for arranging visits to the heritage walks to see other sides of India. Thanks for taking care us at each step of the way. I enjoyed taking the trains and it was interesting to experience and not just read about 1st and 2nd class train travel.”

Hassan Virji and Anne Weinberg
Itinerary – Delhi, Agra, Jaipur
February 2014

“...fantastic choice of locations - suiting interests of all four of us PLUS was away from the maddening crowds, yet giving our kids a great flavor of India.. EXACTLY what we wanted.. thanks a lot once again.”

M G Ram
Itinerary – Exploring Chambal River over two weeks with a stopover at Agra
December 2013 and January 2014

“We had a really great time traveling with you too! Honestly it was one of my favorite trips we have been on and it was so special to see all the amazing craft people you connected us with.”

Katy Tanis
Itinerary – Exploring craft in Eastern India, Jaipur and Delhi
September 2013

“Thanks again so much for helping us arrange our amazing vacation in Goa.  It was also wonderful to meet you in person.  We would recommend you, Olaulim Backyards, or Arco Iris to anyone in a heartbeat.”

James Pickett
Itinerary – Exploring Goa
August 2013

Thank you all for helping me show off another India to you...

As always, do write back to me with news of your travels - photos, doodles, travelogues, video - anything goes...


Friday, 7 February 2014

A winter day in Binsar

As the warmth of the Diwali lamps fades and the smoke from the crackers disperses winter creeps in the hills of Uttarakhand ushering in the cold freezing chill from the belly of the great Himalayas. Woollen   garments, which have been gathering dust, are fished from the depths of steel trunks and dried in the harsh afternoon sun. People hurry through their morning chores and gather in their courtyards to soak in the sun and engage in discussions ranging from politics to light-hearted gossip. Local delicacies like Sana hua Nimbu (made from curd, cannabis seeds and big lemon) are prepared with jovial revelry even as the snow covered peaks stand aloof in the distance. Unlike the haughty haze during the summer months and the relentless fog during the monsoons, winter offers the most unadulterated views of the majestic peaks. The allure of the silk draped mountains, which stretch for hundreds of kilometers, rising to embrace the crystal blue skies hypnotizes the onlooker. And it is in Binsar nestled in the heavily wooded hills of the Kumaon Himalayas that these peaks bare themselves with unrestrained pride and tease the wild spirit dormant in all humans summoning them to relish this spectacle of nature.

Beyond the hill station of Almora, on the motor able road to Kafadkhan, is located the entrance to the Binsar Wildlife Reserve. A narrow tarred path straddled by thick forests of oak and pine climbs in serpentine hair-pin bends leaving behind the banalities of civilization. Ultimately it escapes from the grip of the jungle and rides on lofty ridges to culminate at the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam guest house. Rows of mountains stretch to the horizon playing hide and seek with bluish green rivers which flow stoically along sandy valleys looking up to the towering bastions of rock and snow. Green terraced fields ornament the mountain slopes, dotted by traditional hill houses, where bored cows and goats graze. As the afternoon sun beats down on the landscape one can take a leisurely stroll along the jungle trail to Jhandi Dhar. The silence here is enchanting – the birds sing in the forest complimenting the crunching of dry leaves as one walks deep into the jungle. The call of a barking deer whistles through trees intoxicated by the nectar of nature. Time, abandoning its hasty pursuits, relaxes in the shade of the oak trees relishing the playful games of langurs. 
Jhandi Dhar
Another rewarding endeavour is a walk to the Forest Rest House and beholding the sun disappear behind the rolling hills bidding adieu to the day. In the courtyard of a quaint colonial building, one can sit with a steaming tumbler of sweetened tea and witness the sky change colours from blue to orange to red to bright pink. As the sun slips behind the distant mountains, the wind returns with its icy breath even as the nuthatches create a ruckus in the adjoining woods. These woods mother and nurture some of the most important animals and birds of the Himalayan ecosystem like the Himalayan Monal, leopard, goral, musk deer, chital and barking deer. For those in the quest of an adventure, Binsar offers a trekking trail - 22kms in distance - to the revered shrine of Vridhya Jageshwar and the temple town of Jageshwar which has Shiva temples dating from the 7th to 18th century. The trail passes through dense sections of the Binsar Wildlife Reserve with splendid views of the Himalayas and a glimpse into the beauty of its lower reaches where one can find solace far from the maddening bustle of the cities.
Forest Rest House
However the final act of this overwhelming spectacle of raw power of nature in Binsar is ironically the sunrise. At pre-dawn, a pall of shadow looms on the gigantic bulwarks of the Indian Himalayas; Nanda Ghunti, Trisul, Panwali Dwar, Nanda Devi, Maiktoli and Panchachuli, all rising above 7000m, grace the canvas as the first rays of sun break free from the grip of the dark night and illuminate the landscape. Its fire ignites the summits like the wicks of the Diwali lamps fighting the winter winds to spread the light. The hundreds of kilometers of Himalayas glow in the energy of the exuberant morning heralding a new day full of hope and dreams. Suddenly the frostiness infecting the air is burnt in the blaze of the sun which provides warmth and comfort to numb feet and hands. The trepidations of a modern life which trap the imagination of the mind fade away even as the heart appreciates this unsullied camaraderie with nature. And it rejoices as the shackles of servitude are broken and it transcends a mundane existence to bask in the shadow of the great mountains – if only for this fleeting forgotten moment far far away from the prying eyes of civilization!

Deeptangan Pant
December 2013