On the Vanthiyathevan trail – II

Day 2 was far more interesting than we expected it to be. The beautiful Vadavaaru accompanied us much farther than we thought it would. The first stop on Day 2 was the Thillai Nataraja Temple.

Day 2 – Stop 1 – Thillai Nataraja-Sivakama Sundari Temple – Chidambaram

Not that this temple requires much introduction. Purported to be over 1000 years old, this temple was added on over the centuries, with practically every major dynasty contributing its bit to the construction and architectural style. The grandeur of the temple is awe-inspiring, making you want to spend the entire day inside. Although not exactly a part of the Ponniyin Selval trail, this temple is a must-visit, especially since our journey on Vanthiyathevan’s footsteps actually begins only after this.

Day 2 – Stop 2 – Veeranarayana Perumal-Maragathavalli Temple, Kattumannarkoil

This temple dates back to the time before Sundara Chola. Built by Prince Rajaditya just after the construction of the lake, the temple is quaint and quiet, just how temples should be. It is a simple structure, with an even simpler Sannidhi. The Veeranarayana Perumal though, stands at a massive six feet, a sight to behold.

Day 2 – Stop 3 – Amrithaghateshwara-Vidyujothi Nayaki Temple, Melakadambur

When we first thought of the Kadambur palace, we knew there was a temple in the vicinity. However, initial Google searches only showed us a Kadambur somewhere neat Kumbakonam. While we initially put it on our route map, we quickly realised that there had to be another Kadambur somewhere near the Veeranam lake, for our hero reaches the Kadambur palace almost immediately after his meeting Azhwarkadiyan Nambi at the Veeranarayana Perumal temple at Kattumannarkoil. So, we delved a little deeper and came up with this temple. Situated just off the road in the tiny village of Melakadambur not far from Kattumannarkoil. This Shiva temple’s door was partially closed when we got there, making us wonder if there was anyone around. To our relief, we found a priest who was more than happy to see visitors in the place.

This temple is shaped in the form of a chariot and is clearly a predecessor of the 12th Century Darasuram temple that we visited later in the day. Our guess is that this temple was also built around the 10th Century, towards the end of Sundara Chola’s reign.

Day 2 – Stop 4 – Brihadeeshwara-Brihannayaki Temple, Gangaikoda Cholapuram

The journey from Melakadambur to Gangaikonda Cholapuram was the most beautiful I’ve done in recent years. The road runs right next to the Vadavaaru, that meanders through fields, sometimes widening, sometimes narrowing, teasing it by coming closer and then abruptly moving away, only to come back in some time. The almost 15-km stretch is breathtaking, with vast, green paddy fields and little rivulets dotting the landscape. When we got to the highway, we almost regretting having to leave the Vadavaaru behind.

The Brihadeeshwara temple rises out of the emptiness, welcoming you with its majestic presence. Grand, yet feminine, this temple is a smaller replica of the Thanjavur temple. Built by Rajendra Chola in the 11th Century, this temple aspires to be everything Thanjavur is, but with a feminine grace. There isn’t much left to be said about the temple because several annals have been written about it, including Rajendra’s famous letter to his father from the banks of the Ganga, “I want a Thanjavur.” What we found particularly interesting was that excavations have revealed an underground passage from the temple, probably leading up to the ancient palace, whose remains we still see 2 kilometres away.

Day 2 – Stop 5 – Rajendra’s Palace – Maligaimedu

Maligaimedu is exactly two kilometres from the temple. A protected ASI monument, we still see remains of the foundations of one part of what was supposed to have been the palace of Rajendra Chola. There isn’t much to see there, since most artefacts have been shifted to the museum near the temple. We still felt like taking a look and went there. We didn’t regret it, for what can be better than seeing an excavated site?

Day 2- Stop 6 – Airavateshwara-Periya Nayaki Temple, Darasuram

Built in the 12th Century, this temple represents what we can consider the pinnacle of Chola architecture. In the form of a chariot, the temple boasts of several intricate sculptures, and also a musical staircase that’s not protected by a metal cage to prevent damage by people dancing on it. If only we were more conscious about preserving our priceless heritage!

The day ended with us crashing out at Kumbakonam out of sheer exhaustion at having visited so many places on a single day. The next day would be even more interesting, taking us on what I can only describe as a wild goose chase of temples of which we only had a cursory idea.

On the Vanthiyathevan trail – I

There are vacations. And there are vacations. The first kind are those you plan, you book yourself into a nice resort or hotel, you take a train or a flight and you go. The destination is clear. And so is the plan. And then there are other vacations. You have no idea where you want to go. You’re not sure of what you’ll find where you go. You’re not even sure whether you’ll find anything at all when you get there. And these vacations are the most memorable ones you’ll ever take.

I first read Ponniyin Selvan when I was 17. Caught in the limbo between school and college, barely able to read more than two sentences in Tamil, I picked up the book, encouraged by my grandmother first and my father later. Forty-six pages into the book, I was hooked. Never have I been so enamoured by a novel that I have read it time and again, four times at last count and the fifth in progress. After my third reading in five years I decided I wanted to go to all those places mentioned in the book. Irrespective of its historical accuracy, and inspite of myself, I fell in love. In love with Chola history. In love with the brave Vanthiyathevan and the handsome Arulmozhi. Has I been born during those times, I would probably have wanted to marry one of these men.

This love affair with the Cholas continues. Almost two decades have gone past and I’m still enamoured by the men who built such pieces of art as the Thanjavur temple. This dream of visiting the places on the Vanthiyathevan tail is not a new one, nor is it a solitary one. It is a decade-old dream, shared with Sriram. A dream that we’ve spent a decade discussing and refining. A dream that we’ve spent years trying to make a reality. Somewhere in-between, life happened and the dream didn’t quite materialise. Until this year. When we heard of the Kollidam being full and flowing into the sea after many years, we arrived at an unspoken agreement that we would do it this year. Come what may.

We would have wanted to start our trip on the iconic Adi Thirunaal festival, just like the novel does. But bad planning at our end meant that we could leave only a week later. Not that it mattered. The journey was beautiful nonetheless. We set off from Chennai one bright Friday morning. Our timing was good because the sun was merciful almost through our six-day trip, never getting too hot to handle. After breakfast in Pondicherry, we headed out to Cuddalore, the first of our six-day, multi-city road trip. The Vanthiyathevan trail would have to wait until the next day, when we were done with the minor detour that we were planning to take in Cuddalore.

Day 1 – Stop 1 – Thirupathiripuliyur, Padaleeswara-Periya Nayaki temple

Almost inside Cuddalore town, the Padaleeswara temple at Thirupathiripuliyur dates back to the medieval Cholas (Parantaka I) or even earlier to the later Pallavas. There wasn’t much we could photograph inside the temple because it is maintained and run by the HR&CE and photography banned in most places within the precincts of the temple. We went here because it was on the way and it made sense to visit the temple given its antiquity and importance.

Day 1 – Stop 2 – Devanampattinam, St. David Fort

St. David Fort was the centre of British possessions on the Coromandel Coast until the end of Second Carnatic War, when the French destroyed the fort in a bid to seal their victory against the British. This fort is almost on the sea shore and is currently in ruins. There’s not much that remains of the fort today, except a two-storey building that resembles a house more than a fortress. The building was open when we arrived and a bunch of people sitting there invited us to feel free to explore it. One of the guys there lamented that nobody was even visiting the place, leave alone maintain it, except for a few foreigners who seemed to like visiting old, abandoned ruins. A closer observation shows remains of the rampart walls and a tunnel that probably led out into the sea. I wish we had some access to someone who could tell us more about the fort itself and about whether there is any effort being done at conservation at all.

We also planned to visit Porto Novo or Parangipettai where some remains of old Portuguese buildings dating back to the 18th Century are still around. We learnt that these buildings are now government offices and inaccessible to the public. What’s the point in going if you can’t see anything anyway? So, the Porto Novo plan was dropped and we went ahead to Chidambaram that was to be our stopover on Day 1.

We decided to visit the temple only the next morning as Sriram anyway had work in the city then. We were both exhausted and decided to take a quick nap before deciding what to do in the evening. We learnt from the hotel owner that the Veeranam lake was less than ten minutes away.

Day 1 – Stop 3 – Kattumannarkoil, Veeranarayana Eri

Originally known as the Veeranarayana Eri, the name progressively changed to what we know today as the Veeranam lake. This lake supplies fresh water to much of South Chennai via aqueducts that were constructed in the recent past. The lake however, resembles more a natural waterbody than a manmade one. Constructed by the Prince Rajaditya during the reign of Parantaka II, this extends over about 15 square kilometres and supplies water via 74 aqueducts dating back to over 1000 years ago. Each aqueduct is controlled by a shutter mechanism to control the flow of water from the lake. This lake is supplied by the Vadavaaru river, which is a distributary of the Kollidam. The view of the lake brimming over with water was a joy to behold. We could actually hear the sounds of the waves hitting the lake bund, much like the waves on the shores of the Marina.

Day 1 – Stop 4 – Kattumannarkoil, Vadavaaru River

We knew that the Veeranam lake is watered by the Vadavaaru river. We also knew that the Vadavaaru river plays a significant role in the plot of Ponniyin Selvan. So, how could we skip seeing this river? So, we drove about 17 kilometres, past the Kattumannarkoil town to the banks of the Vadavaaru. It was again brimming over. Perhaps this is why we needed to wait so long to realise our dream? To see the rivers full of water?

When we returned to the hotel that evening, little did we know that the Vadavaaru would accompany us much farther than we thought she would. But that’s another story for another day.

Travelling solo…

I really missed travelling solo. The world seems to have a problem with solo female travellers. Especially Indian tourists travelling with an entourage. Two aunties asked well-meaning questions on why I’m travelling alone in a space of two hours. Not that it’s any of their business but for some reason, people don’t seem to get it. Some of us actually LIKE travelling alone. We like travelling without an agenda or a plan. We like to decide what we want to do on the fly. We really do like it.

This time took the idea of “deciding on the fly” to a whole new level. My travels are usually planned weeks, if not months ahead of time. Every minute detail, from travel to accommodation to forex is meticulously accounted for and executed to ensure minimum glitches. I’ve been almost obsessed with the need to know literally everything before I set foot out of my house. And it’s worked every time. I’ve usually travelled with zero problems or roadblocks. I believed that this was the only way to do it.

This time was slightly different. I didn’t have time to plan. Except that I wanted to arrive in Singapore a day earlier than needed, I wasn’t quite sure of much else. I wanted a vacation. I needed one. And I knew that Bintan was a good bet. But other than that I literally had no clue what I was going to do.

With four days to the travel, I managed a hotel booking. But I still had no clue how I was going to get there or get back. And then, with one day to go, I booked the ferry. If you think the story is over, you’re mistaken. I checked the time taken from Changi airport to the ferry terminal and for some reason, Google Maps told me it was in Malaysia. That’s when the panic set in. But it was too late to do anything about it. I checked again and still no updates. I was sure I’d booked myself into the wrong ferry from the wrong country and there was nothing I could do. And I did the only thing I could at that point. Took a beauty nap.

I woke up to leave for the airport and shelved the reflection around the ferry and the terminal. It was only when I arrived in Singapore that I checked again and to my relief, the terminal was less than fifteen minutes away from the airport. To cut a long story short, I got my ferry. From the right country and the right terminal. And I also managed to book my return to Singapore. But that’s when it hit me. It’s a simple life truth that lack of time to plan taught me.

Sometimes you may not know where to go and how to get there. You may not even know what the hell you’re doing. That’s ok. It’s ok to not control every minute of your life. It’s ok to not know how to control or direct it. It’s perfectly ok to not know what next. You just need to trust that it will be ok in the end. Otherwise it’s not the end. And yes, while you’re at it, travel more. Travel alone. Reconnect with yourself. Especially if you’re a woman. It’s ok to sit down and have a drink in solitude. It’s ok to do NOTHING in solitude. If you don’t enjoy your company, who else will?

Leaving Prague

It was a wonderful three days in Prague. I haven’t seen all that I wanted to, but I come away feeling there is so much of history to discover in this charming little city of Central Europe.

Sitting in this flight that takes me to Paris, I feel the same sense of elation that I did when I left Chennai. The sense of going home to a place to you love and enjoy. Paris really does that to me. And I’d like nothing more than to go back and live there sometime again.

This trip has helped me clear my mind a little bit and redefine my priorities. I’ve made a bucket list of things I would like to accomplish in the coming years. Nothing really fancy. Just take care of my health and be happy. Shouldn’t be difficult I reckon!

Another thing I’ve realised is that I need a physical space of my own in which I can be happy, regain my composure and clear my mind. Having this space helps me think and makes me write more. And write better if I may say so myself.

My ideal home would probably have a comfortable couch with a reading nook and a fireplace (or air-conditioning considering I live in Chennai) where I can curl up and read after a long day of work.

I probably just need to work towards creating this space for me in order to be truly happy. I don’t know.

But, as a writer, I feel like this trip has helped me rediscover myself. I feel like I’ve regained what I thought was permanently lost: my ability to articulate feelings and emotions. I also realise that I probably just need to start writing again and stop looking over my shoulder and wondering who’s reading the blogposts. I probably will. Because the writer in me in an inseparable part of my soul. To lose that would be to sell my soul to the devil. And my soul is far too precious to lose.

A day with art…

A dreary and raining day once again. Prague seems to conspire against me in my quest for sightseeing.

But, I decide that there is no point in coming all the way to Prague and sitting at home, however cozy and inviting it may seem.

First stop: National Gallery. Three exhibitions. Starting with Neoclassicism in the Salm Palace.

This is so quiet. With so few tourists. Stark contrast to the galleries in Rome and Florence.

Discovering the works of one Ludvík Kohl. A proliferation of greys. Neoclassical painting. Captivating. I wonder why I’ve never heard of him before.

Still life paintings seem quite taken with the idea of lizards. But why?

There is something powerfully attractive about nocturnal landscapes. Perhaps it’s the mystery, or the use of colour, or perhaps it’s simply because the night seduces.

Lake in the Mountains by Charlotta Piepenhagenova. Breathtakingly beautiful in its use of light.

It’s only after someone mentioned it that I am beginning to see the several shades of grey in painting. Grey indeed is beautiful. I had always assumed that landscapes had more green.

Second stop: Schwarzenberg Palace: Baroque in Bohemia. Fascinating experience mainly because Baroque is a very important period in the history of the Czech lands. Not that I understand Baroque very well apart from the fact the themes are Christian. I did notice two portraits of a penitent Mary Magdalene though. Quite in contrast with Catholic art where she is a companion of Christ.

Final stop: Sternberg Palace: European painting from over 300 years. The great masters. Interesting study of Rembrandt’s “A scholar in his study”. It’s fascinating how paintings are studied under infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray lighting. Must do some further research.

Fascinating. That’s the only word I have for these art galleries. Makes me wish my creativity extended beyond the verbal. But I’m so bad at using my hands that I will probably not be able to fashion a single tea cup or draw a straight line. The sooner I accept this limitation, the better.

Random thought: Human anatomy is notoriously difficult to master. If the great masters were such great fans of nude paintings, there must be something powerfully attractive about the female form to an artist.

The Prague castle

Dragged myself out of a very warm and welcoming bed to go see the Prague castle. It’s raining. And six degrees. Not very motivating for someone from a place where the Mercury rarely dips below 30.

Boards with explanations must be bilingual. This way, we’re not obliged to buy pointless audio guides.

The Czech Republic has an interesting history. Protestant initially, the influenced by the Jesuits and progressively Catholic, a lot of people today identify themselves as atheist. With the Habsburgs, the Czech lands have been under foreign rule from 1526 until the end of the First World War. Must look this up more in detail. I’ve never really paid attention to the history or Central and Eastern Europe. It seems terribly interesting.

There is something very powerful about the inside of churches and cathedrals. The St. Vitus Cathedral is no exception. Part of the Prague castle complex, you need to pay to see all parts of it. Even then, the Royal Crypt and some underground chambers where closed when I was there.

The old royal palace is a large stone castle with multiple rooms, passageways and paths. Interesting. No photos are allowed inside though.

The St. George Basilica is a simple structure. A central nave with with an alter and some chapels. A crypt downstairs is shut but seems interesting to explore.

The castle alone took me close to five hours to explore. If you want to see Prague well, take at least three full days. Tomorrow is a day if museum visits. So until then, so long!

PS: “A young girl was dating an Italian and Italians are known to be very potent.” I overheard this at the St George’s Basilica! What actually happened? So apparently, that particular Italian was not potent but possessive. He suspected his lover of being unfaithful and killed her!

Prague – First impressions

Prague is a living picture post card. Medieval, beautiful. First impressions are fabulous.

I seem to have arrived in Prague on a most interesting day. Demonstrations, freedom festival, celebrations. Feels like I’m in a carnival of some sort. Except that it’s cold.

Still getting used to a currency other than the euro. Not easy. And I have trouble identifying the coins.

Apparently the Czech Koruna does not have a cent equivalent. Everything is in whole numbers. That’s one thing I find quite unusual.

The European adventure – VI

This vacation draws to a close. On the way from Florence to Pisa to take a flight back to Paris, I feel free. This is the first time I’m taking a vacation alone. It’s taken me 31 years and over 10 years of work life to gather the courage to go somewhere alone, just to take a vacation. When Pratibha said she couldn’t make it, I had serious second thoughts. I’m glad I took the plunge.

There is something liberating about not planning every minute, not being required to be at a certain place at a certain time. That dictated my decision not to take guided tours. And I’m happy about my decision. It’s been the best vacation I’ve taken so far.

Italy lends itself beautifully to the idea of a solo vacation. Lovely place with the most amazing sights and sounds. The people are cordial and willing to help. You might have some trouble if you don’t speak Italian but their cordiality more than makes up for it.

The police and officials at the tourist information desk seem to be trained to help non Italian speaking foreigners and are almost always willing to go the extra mile, at least in the major tourist attractions such as Rome and Florence. It might be different in the smaller towns.

On the whole, if you’re planning to take a few days off, Italy must be at the top of your list. Yes, even higher up than Paris.

The European adventure – V

Special exhibition happening in the Galleria dell’Accademia on “Acknowledging Michelangelo”. Starts today and open until May 18. I’m just plain lucky!

No photos allowed inside the gallery…am so disappointed.

David simply adds itself to my list of not-to-miss works of art. Capturing a fluidity and grace that’s hard to explain David captivates even the casual observer. Not that I am an artist, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful to behold. It’s sheer perfection, from the tip of the toe to the top of the head. It’s very easy to see why this statue is called the symbol of 7000 years of human art. My words do no justice to David’s perfection. It’s perhaps for the first time today that I’ve been struck dumb by what the human intellect is capable of.

This is well and truly Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Every muscle on the leg, the rippling abs, the exposed male genitalia that symbolise virility and fertility in ancient Greek and Roman art and every curve of the body is perfect. Perhaps the most difficult thing to do in art is to capture human anatomy with any degree of accuracy. That’s precisely why artists must master the nude in order to be recognised as good artists.

David is a masterpiece precisely because that aspect of art is perfectly done. It’s hard to compete with perfection.

Over time, David has become symbolic of civic liberties and freedom. And,for good reason. It’s easy to see why the Florentines are so proud of their heritage. If only we Indians cherished what we have as much.

Plaster model of Machiavelli in the gallery. Aptly cunning expression on the face.

The theme of Mary Magdalene’s sainthood recurs through the centuries in various art forms: painting, sculpture, murals…

Also, the Virgin appears frequently in Catholic art, something that completely disappeared in the Protestant sect.

Some lovely sketches in the Galleria degli Uffizi.

In ancient Greek sculpture, elaborate hairstyles signified power. That’s interesting! Loose hair meant a woman of loose morals…seems familiar in the refrain “thalaiya virichi podathey”

It’s amazing to see how Europe preserves its past. We must learn the art of conservation. We have many thousands of years of history that has been list due to negligence.

Birth of Venus by Botticelli is impressive. A large painting approximately 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall, it deserves it’s fame. There’s quite a lot of detail in the painting.

Interesting to note that in every variation of Pieta, there is Mary Magdalene along with the Virgin. Da Vinci’s painting is so realistic…even the tears seem real.

Stormy landscape by Jacob Isaaksz van Ruisdael is captivating in its use of colour.

Since when did I begin to analyse painting???

The judgement of Paris. A captivating theme about the triumph of love (Aphrodite) over power (Athena) and wealth (Hera). Greek mythology is so fascinating…

I wish I could sketch…there is so much to record. Too bad my creativity is limited to the verbal and does not extend to the visual…

Two striking paintings, The Burning of Troy and Hell, both belonging to Don Lorenzo di Medici. A burning Troy bears a very close and striking resemblance to Hell as described in Dante’s Inferno.

Random thought: women with bare bosoms and loose hair always have copper or red hair.

The European adventure – IV

It’s confirmed now. The Italians are different from their other European counterparts. They don’t understand the meaning of the term “queue”.

The train is quite nice. Comfortable with on-board WiFi for a cent!

Found the hotel quite easily. The lady at the tourist information desk was nice enough to hand me an English version of the guidebook and give me directions to get to the hotel.

In a lovely little trattoria. They have lots of vegetarian food!!! But, Piccadilly Square is a very inappropriate name for a restaurant that’s exclusively Italian…