Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Hampi – The Epochal Love Story

From a distance it seems pebbles have been strewn around carelessly forming mounds. Coming closer, the huge loose granite boulders begin to take shape. Stretched among these precariously balanced boulders piled high, paddy fields glow in the morning sun. Coconut palms sway to the music of the breeze. The sparkling Tungabhadra River flows serenely. High up, a lone mantapa perched on the side of the hill standing guard for centuries watches this scene dispassionately. This is the hauntingly enchanting landscape of UNESCO World Heritage Site Hampi in Karnataka that witnessed the rise and downfall of one of the greatest Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagara.
The Classic Hampi Landscape - you could look at it for the rest of your life - boulders, palms, Tungabhadra and the ruins
The love story that started few years ago has grown stronger over several visits. It was love at first sight with the austere and grandiose Hampi and now every visit is a joyous homecoming. The ochre boulders, the green banana plantations and the grey ruins seem to hold you into a lulling embrace filling your entire being with surging bliss. You want to see, feel and experience more of Hampi.
The Bazaar area of Krishna Temple - One of the four temple complexes in Hampi and as with every temple complex there is a huge Pushkarni
This is Kishkindha, the Monkey Kingdom where several episodes of Ramayana were played out. Ram & Lakshman had arrived here looking for the abducted Sita when they met Sugriv and his chief minister Hanuman. Upon Hanuman’s request, Ram kills the usurper brother Vali restoring the kingdom to Sugriv whose help was needed to find Sita. Across Tungabhadra, overlooking the Pampa Sarovar where Ram bathed, Sabari fed berries to Ram. The stories don’t end here. The Pampa Sarovar or Lotus Pond is named after Brahma’s daughter Pampa who performed penances on Hemakuta Hill attracting attention of Shiva. Shiva seated in meditation after destroying Kama, god of love, finally relented and married Pampa and she became identified as his consort Parvati. The God and Goddess are worshipped in Virupaksha Temple; Hampi or Pampakshetra’s oldest temple. Locally, Shiva is known as Virupaksha.
The King's Balance - the kings supposedly got themselves weighed in gold and silver and then donated it to the public - on the walking trail along the Tungabhadra from Virupaksha Temple to Vitthal Temple
In 1336, two brothers Harihara and Bukka, who probably ruled over the tiny principality of Anegundi, crossed over the Tungabhadra to establish the capital city of Vijaynagara – City of Victory - which grew into the formidable Vijaynagara Empire. Over a period of 200 years, the kingdom would become fabulously rich, powerful and the largest in South India. Vijaynagara became an important trading centre. Chroniclers from Persia, Italy and Portugal who visited during this period were dazzled by the unrivalled imperial splendour, the likes of which they had not seen before.
Last time the serene Tungabhadra raged during the monsoons and you wimped out and refused to climb the boat. This time you jump across the boulders to discover the Bohemian piece of Hampi with shacks and budget hotels catering to backpackers
The magnificence of Hampi is best appreciated by walking. Virupakhsa Temple, patronized by the founders and around which the city grew is the logical place to start. Hemakuta Hill with its smattering of temples and mantapas lies to the south offering atmospheric views of the temple and its towering gopuras. The sprawling temple complex has a 100-columned hall and coronation mandap decorated with fantastic yalis and makaras. The ceiling has brilliant paintings depicting mythological scenes and royal life. The living temple sees the most visitors and devotees thronging the mandaps and sanctum. Don’t miss Laxmi, the petite elephant blessing the visitors. Emerge out from the north gateway to the Manmatha pushkarni. Just beyond the Tungabhadra flows.
Hampi's skies are always atmospheric and here they seem to be in a mixed mood - Manmantha Pushkarni at the living Virupaksha Temple
Come back to Hampi Bazaar where a long colonnaded bazaar stretches in front of Virupaksha Temple, one of the four street bazaars, a feature common to all the temples in the sacred centre. At the far end, a colossal Nandi is seated in a mandap with the backdrop of Matanga Hill.  
You can keep going to Hampi forever for this sight. Ride the the circular boats made of reed and bamboo. Just like the inhabitants of Vijaynagar did hundreds of years ago. In the distance is the Anjanadri Hill in Anegundi where Hanuman was born
If you want to go back into time, turn left from Hampi Bazaar and walk along Tungabhadra with perhaps the most remarkable setting. Time seems to have stopped here. Devotees dressed like they did 700 years ago rest on the rocks at Chakratirtha, the holiest bathing spot, after paying obeisance at the Kodandrama Temple. Circular boats made of reed and bamboo called coracles rest on the riverbank like they have done through the ages. Sit with the devotees as you watch the tranquil waters flow through a gorge towards Anjanadri Hill, where Hanuman was born. Hampi is a window where you can watch mythology, lost glory of Vijaynagar and the present in the same frame.
The lofty gopurums of the temples in Hampi are built of bricks with stucco bas relief ornamentation. Exposure to elements have damaged the gopurams. Conservation efforts are underway at Krishna Temple 
Continue walking along the river, as you pass the Courtesan’s Street, another bazaar that leads to the third temple complex Achyutaraya Temple, until you reach a double storeyed pavilion like gateway with the King’s Balance next to it where the kings were weighed against gold and gems. This brings you to the most ornate temple complex called Vitthal Temple. Here the iconic Garuda shrine in the form of wheeled chariot pulled by horses stands splendidly under blue skies.  
Hampi - Every visit to Hampi reveals more surprises. Here you meet the most enchanting and the prettiest woman in whole of Vijaynagar - what flair what verve and what a hairstyle - You are in love!
But then all good things come to an end. The Deccan Sultanates to the North form a coalition. Vijaynagar army is routed in the Battle of Talikota in 1565. For next six months, the beautiful city is ravaged and pillaged. The ruined town is soon abandoned. The lively streets and bazaars that saw merchants from across the world trade gold, gems, ivory, brocade, silk and horses were soon overgrown and forgotten.
You love the blue skies over Hampi. They add that extra dimension to the ruins and the landscape. Here, last time you were treated to a beautiful sunset; this time ruins and wrestling sculptures
The Royal Enclosure bore the brunt of the pillage that followed the doomed battle. Nothing survives except the beautiful unearthed pushkarni with elevated stone aqueducts and the massive three-tiered Mahanavami Dibba platform. During the nine days of Navaratri, the king sat on a gem studded throne on top witnessing the grand celebrations with dazzling display of wealth and power.  Foreign chroniclers have left glowing accounts of the extravagant pomp and splendour.
The Zenana Enclosure is relatively damaged and houses the prettiest structures - The Lotus Mahal incorporating distinct Islamic architecture is one of Hampi's most recognisable monument

Hampi - The Elephant Stables

The high fortification walls bring you to Zenana Enclosure. Inside, the Lotus Mahal and the elephant stables with pointed arches, vaults and domes built in distinct Islamic architecture are apparently inspired by the contemporary neighbouring Bahmani Kingdom. In fact, there is an entire Islamic Quarter near the Malyavanta Hill which points to cosmopolitan spirit of Vijayanagara.
The higher you climb the Matanga Hill, the more spectacular Hampi turns - Here is the bird's eye view of the massive Achyutaraya Temple
After a full day of exploring on foot, there is one last promise to keep. You are back at the entrance of Achyutaraya Temple. Unfrequented by the tourists, it is all quiet here. On the right rises the craggy Matanga Hill. The rounded boulders have inexplicably arranged themselves to form the highest peak in Hampi. You have promised yourself that this time you will climb to the top for the breath-taking sunset views. A passing shower has made the steep climb on the broken steps built during Vijayanagara times treacherous. With every step the views turn stunning. 

For the first time you get bird’s eye view of the most surreal landscape in the country - the same pebble like boulders, the patches of green and to the north the sliver of Tungabhadra. The Virupaksha Temple radiates golden aura under the setting sun. The prayers from the temple wafts up along with the cool breeze. The sky changes colour every minute. You want to savour every moment. This is your Promised Land.
The views were worth waiting for five years - On top of Matanga Hill and looking towards Virupaksha Temple

You just realise that not a day goes by when you don’t miss Hampi. It seems you have known each other for ages. The next time you will come for a longer visit. You want to spend more time with her. You feel her anguish. We will both sit holding hands looking into each other’s eyes. And then we will let the tears flow. We will cry together – at our ruins, at our fate and our lost glory.

Must Do Things in and around Hampi
Ride a coracle on Tungabhadra river
Watch the sun go down over Hampi from top of Matanga Hill
Walk along Tungabhadra river from Hampi Bazaar to Vitthal Temple
Enjoy a slice of bohemian Hampi across the river from Virupaksha Temple
Marvel at never seen before pre-historic art at Onake Kindi near Chikkarampur Village
Enjoy some fish angling at the sublime Sanapur Lake
Discover the quiet Anegundi Village where the story of Vijaynagara began

A Version of this story appeared in the March-April issue of Inflight Magazine Trujetter

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Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Boulevards of Bougainvillea – ‘Holi’ Day in Delhi

March 2018

Holi afternoon has a special vibe in Delhi. It is the time when you can actually hear sounds and voices that are usually drowned out in the cacophony of the pulsating megapolis. It is an afternoon when you actually see things that were always there but in the hurry of getting to somewhere, were always missed. 

Holi is the time of change. Seasons change, trees lose their leaves, flowers bloom on the roundabouts. Skies shake clear of the pollution of the last few months. This winter has been strangely mild. There have been no rains and the leaves are covered with soot. You are looking forward to the new leaves to put some fresh greenness on the roads; especially the Peepal trees that turn into Claude Monet’s canvasses with the new leaves taking colours of all hues.

Boulevards of Bougainvillea
Last year on Holi, you were away witnessing the incredible Holla Mohalla festival up close in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab. This year you will resume the annual tradition of driving around Delhi on Holi afternoon.

Noida Skyline is rapidly changing
Leaving home, you are greeted by Cotton Silk blooms everywhere – framed against glass buildings of Noida; hanging out with the yellow pods of Siris trees and carpeting the asphalt. They are probably the biggest and heaviest flowers in Delhi. And you love them plopping on the ground.

Silk Cotton Blooms are everywhere
Mingling with Siris Pods
First thing you notice as you set out on the DND is that there are lot more cars this year. Well, it is the sign of things to come – mild winter, no rain and lots more cars everywhere. 

The first stop is on the Barapullah elevated road that takes you directly to your weekend haunts of IHC and IGNCA. The Barapullah flyover constructed in the run-up to Commonwealth Games of 2010 to ferry athletes from the Commonwealth Village to Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium in Lodhi Colony is constantly spreading its tentacles. On the West it is being extended to AIIMS and beyond; while to the East it will glide over the Yamuna connecting Mayur Vihar and therefore East Delhi to South Delhi. Yes that’s what we need more of – roads and more cars.

Driving on the Elevated Barapullah
Today, you decide to stop midway. On any other day, getting off the car on the elevated Barapullah will be almost suicidal but on Holi, even the passing PCR Van looks at you amusingly.

The encroached Barapullah built in 17th century with the new parallel bridge. No construction can take place within 100 metres of protected monuments; here the bridge is three metres away
The old, new and the modern - Timelines juxtapose in a story called Delhi
You are just lucky that you stopped at this spot. Looking down, you can see the original Barapullah. The 17th century bridge with 12 piers and 11 arches, hence the name, built during Jahangir’s time once straddled a Yamuna tributary. Today, you feel sorry for it. Once the mighty Mughal armies marched over it; today a vegetable market has swallowed it while a foul sewer flows below it. What you see down there is everything that is wrong with preservation of built heritage in our country as pressures of development clash headlong with the past. 

A train departing from the Hazrat Nizamuddin station ambles away lazily. For a moment, the Holi afternoon does feel languid. This is the story of Delhi’s changing face in a frame – a 17th century bridge used by caravans and marching armies, a 20th century railway line carrying hundreds of passengers along the same Deccan route and a 21st century elevated road soaring above the apathy of both citizens and government.

Khan-i-Khanan & Humayun Tombs together
Up ahead, you can finally frame Khan-i-Khanan Tomb (Akbar’s general who wrote those adorable dohas under the name Rahim) with Humayun Tomb’s Dome. You still can’t figure out why they are renovating the Khan-i- Khanan Tomb – it looked just right with its stripped look conveying the essence of Rahim’s life. They could have better used their resources elsewhere. But then you are not a fan of Aga Khan Foundation restoration work. The restored structures in Sunder Nursery and Humayun Tomb complex are already coming apart.

Barapullah straddling the Mathura Road

Enough of the rant. You get off at the Pragati Maidan exit. Up ahead is the Lodhi Road flyover. On the right is Nizamuddin Basti with the famous shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya where you recently witnessed the incredible Basant Panchami celebrations and the Humayun Tomb complex just ahead. On the left is the Lodhi Road with IHC and the pleasant Lodhi Gardens that you can frequent any number of times.

More Silk Cottons - In front of Lodhi Hotel
Looking towards Nizamuddin Basti - Domes of Sabz Burj & Humayun Tomb

View towards Purana Qila with Oberoi Hotel on the left - Roads look so lovely without traffic
And then you see the scene that you have missed so far. From the top of the flyover you can see the domes of Subz Burj and Humayun Tomb framed together with Silk Cotton blooms. Eagles soar in the skies in the pleasant breeze. A part of city that is furiously in motion otherwise, seems to have frozen in a stupor. The sounds, the voices, the din has all dimmed. It is as if you can listen to the flap of wings of the eagles. You could watch this scene forever. This is only possible on Holi afternoon.

The Magical Scene
Driving down the flyover, the sight ahead makes you stop in your tracks. While the major blooming is still few weeks away, Delhi still has its surprises. So even as the now common red and orange blooms of bare Silk Cotton trees light up the skies, it is the little surprises that can only be found on Holi when you can actually take your eyes off the road.
Kachnar, (Bauhinia variegata) or is it candida (?), Oberoi Hotel, New Delhi

Last year it was the discovery of seemingly diamond encrusted trees of Leza (Lagerstroemia tomentosa) on Rajpath by India Gate; this time it is another tree glinting with opals and moonstones.

The newly refurbished Oberoi Hotel looks resplendent in the company of Kachnar (Bauhinia variegata). Usually the Kachnars are purple with another variety candida that are white with lemon green stripes. However, these orchid like flowers are white with purple stripes. That is not surprising since the tree is also called Poor Man’s Orchid!

You are pretty sure, the tree was not blooming during the earlier Holis and the photographs also confirm that. Has the warm winter preponed the flowering? You are pretty sure the changing seasons are scrambling the plants’ cycles too.

The Khairul Manazil Mosque built by Maham Angha, Akbar's wet nurse
The mighty walls of Shergarh, the Sixth City of Delhi built by Sher Shah Suri - Lal Darwaza Complex
One of the prettiest trees in Delhi - Lal Darwaza Complex
Mulberry or Shahtoot Tree with fresh green foliage
The rear of Khairul Manazil Mosque, Opp Purana Qila, New Delhi
At Purana Qila, you turn left. On the right is Bapa Nagar with the mosque Khairul Manazil built by Maham Angah in 1561-62, Akbar’s famous wet nurse and mother of Adham Khan. Yes, though Akbar built his capital in Fatehpuri Sikri and was buried in Sikandra near Agra, Delhi has lots of buildings built during his time by people that played major roles in his life. Just beyond is the area around Lal Darwaza built as part of Shergarh, Sher Shah Suri’s city, in and around Humayun’s Purana Qila.

Crossing back you enter another government colony housing babus and bureaucrats. Another Delhi’s surprise awaits you.

Dargah of Bibi Fatima Sam in Kaka Nagar, New Delhi

One of the rare Dargahs dedicated to Woman - Dargah of Hazrat Bibi Fatima Sam (died 1246 AD), Kaka Nagar, New Delhi
Delhi has several Sufi shrines dedicated to male saints, but there is one little known dargah situated in the leafy interiors of Kaka Nagar that is dedicated to Bibi Fatima Sam. This is a huge surprise considering that women are barred from entering most of the dargahs. The Mutawali, Haji Abdul Rasheed, caretaker for over 50 years, informs that Bibi Fatima is considered to be the sister of all Sufi saints.

And because she called you that you have come.

Hazrat Nizamuddin would come to her grave to pray. His dargah, the most famous in Delhi, is not far away. Today few pilgrims, probably from Central Asia, have arrived. It is serene here. And this is what you love.
Humayun Road

Lot of familiar DTC Bus Routes on that sign! But where is the Sunheri Masjid on Krishna Menon Marg - something to explore!

Roundabout in front of PM Residence
The roundabouts are sadly subdued and lacklustre this year. You were spoiled by the sheer variety and the mindboggling displays last year. Maybe all your gushing over has jinxed them this year. NDMC apparently is having an off year.  Armed guards meant that you have never braved stopping at the roundabout in front of Prime Minister’s residence. This roundabout has always been beautiful. You are desperate this year. Fountains spew water. South Block looms in the distance. Your cover is blown. Whistles ring out – you scoot out immediately in one piece.
The newly christened Teen Murti - Haifa Chowk
You are back at your favourite roundabout where you played hide and seek during summer nights and rolled down the grassy slopes. You can still feel the coolness of the grass on your face. The place has got a name makeover. But thankfully the original name survives hyphenated with an extension. 

During Israel’s Prime Minister’s recent visit, the roundabout has been renamed as Teen Murti – Haifa Chowk in the centenary year of Battle for Haifa in 1918. Teen Murti is a memorial to Indian soldiers of Hyderabad, Mysore and Jodhpur princely states, part of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade who died in the Great War of 1914-19. Nearly 900 Indian soldiers are buried in Israel, their ultimate sacrifice liberating Haifa from 400 years of Ottoman rule.

Petunias, Candytufts and Roses of Teen Murti
The theme is white this year and the beds are covered with white petunias (Petunia hybrid) and candytuft (Iberi samara) flowers. A commemorative ceremony seems to have been recently conducted. The statues are garlanded even as marigold garlands light up the white flowerscape.

The bare Silk Cotton Tree that almost looked like Baobab - Satya Marg
A bare Pilkhan tree

The always atmospheric Shanti Path

Shanti Path flanked with embassies on both sides, is probably the most atmospheric street after Rajpath. You still remember the faintly fragrant white petunias lining either side of the road last year. This time they have been replaced by marigolds. You were looking forward to inhaling the scent of the petunias. Nevertheless the huge marigolds that seem like the Orange African varieties are quite hot.

The Bougainvillea Bonanza

Blooming Bougainvilleas, Bangladesh Embassy, Dr. S Radhakrishnan Marg, Chanakya Puri, New Delhi

Moving deeper into the Diplomatic Enclave beyond Satya Marg, you turn left on to Dr S. Radhakrishnan Marg. The sight leaves you breathless. The pavement hugging the Bangladesh Embassy seems to have been doused in kaleidoscopic Holi colours. Bougainvillea of all colours forma canopy over the pavement. This is hands down the prettiest street all day. Imagine if all the roads in Delhi were like this. Delhi would be the prettiest city.

Will be sad to see these disappear

You need to go deeper. Moving on to San Martin Marg, you turn right onto Abai Marg. You find the sign for what you were looking for. This is the Chanakya Puri Railway Station. A bunch of Black & Yellow taxis wait outside. The drivers sit around waiting for telephone calls. Do people still call for taxis?Maybe they don’t have smart phones. Black and yellow taxis in the city seem to be on the endangered list.

Chanakya Puri Railway Station

No you don't know them
Stairs lead down onto the platforms. This being the ridge area, the railway line has been cut through the hills. One of these days you have to ride the ring railway introduced during the Asiad Games of 1982. Few men wash their holi coloured clothes in the drain flowing in the middle. Some cops, wonder what you are doing here. You ask them the same question. They are on VIP duty. Really! On the other side the ticket booth seems to be close to being demolished. More cops play badminton.

The Sangam Cinema Hall has school time connection
There is one last place to see before you head out to Vijay Chowk. It is time to leave the NDMC city limits, cross the Ring Road and turn left into Major Somnath Marg and drive into RK Puram to see if the Sangam Cinema has survived in its original avatar or turned into a multiplex or worse a shopping mall. This is Tamil territory as men in lungis mill around. Well Delhi is changing and why would Sangam remain the same. Sangam has changed into a hip-looking almost Dubaisque multiplex with high-end stores and restaurants. The charm of childhood will soon be lost. The government colonies of Kidwai Nagar, Lakshmibai Nagar are being flattened to build monstrous multi-storey buildings. It is just a matter of time when Lutyens Delhi too will lose its character and charm.

Oh well before that happens it is time to move to Vijay Chowk as dusk descends. The entire secretariat and Rashtrapati Bhawan has got new set of cool lights. The already beautiful Raisina Hill looks even more gorgeous.  

After a quick round of the India Gate, you come back to Rajpath to set your tripod and wait for the moon to rise. The moon always appears catching you with surprise. Somebody just flicks a switch and it is there. The moon in all its glory, full and red, seems to be suspended over the Rai Jamun trees. It is hard to figure out who looks prettier – the moon or the India Gate. The sight gets etched inside you. You are transfixed. By the time you snap out of the reverie and figure out the settings of the camera, the moon has already climbed over India Gate.

The sight is simply fascinating. It was as if Edwin Lutyens had designed the entire vista with the rising moon in mind. You just wonder, in the grind of our daily lives, how many times do we actually pause and observe all this beauty around us – especially in a city which for few months becomes unliveable. But for you these few hours take you back to the innocent times when New Delhi was just a slow-paced city as you rode a scooter.

As you drive back over the Yamuna a smile plays on your face. Even with growing years, a few hours in New Delhi brings back the childhood Wonder Years. Those memories, those times will always be fresh and fragrant like the petunias, candytufts and roses of Teen Murti. Alright Teen Murti – Haifa Chowk!


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