Exploring Greenland, Viking Style

It was two minutes past midnight, as I reclined on the comfortable couch of a luxurious expedition ship, somewhere on the high seas that surrounded the largest island in the world – Greenland.  Miles of crystal icebergs stretched as far as the eye could see, scintillating in the soft glow of the Midnight Sun. A cup of hot chocolate in hand, I gazed out dreamily. It was difficult to believe that it was twelve days already since the time we set sail from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.

The sailing route, the remote lands we visited, the friendly Innuits I met had been nothing short of extraordinary.

From Reykjavik, the ship had taken us to the unpronounceable Grundafjord in the Snaefellsnes peninsula in Iceland. Known as ‘Iceland in a nutshell’, massive snow covered hills, gurgling streams and waterfalls greeted us. Here the population of sheep and horses easily outnumbered the number of people. During a hike around the emerald pastures, a dog befriended me and bought me several stones in its mouth to play with. In a while, to my amazement, he decided to turn tour guide as he led me to a clearing where right in the middle of a farm was a huge pile of soft, pink shells. After rolling in the shells for a while, he led me to his master, a friendly farmer who was the owner of 700 sheep! Soon after, he ran at lightning speed with the farmer to round up errant sheep, saving me the pain of a tough good bye.

Over the next three days, we sailed through the windiest area in the world, where wind velocity could go as high as 44.7 miles an hour! Known as the ‘Greenland Tip Jet’, climatologists believe that these winds were a key factor in influencing climate change. The combination of strong winds and floating ice on the seas has challenged the most formidable navigators.

But very luckily for us, the Labrador Sea, the Strait of Denmark and the narrow, mountainous fjords were as calm as a lake. This was extremely rare and unusual, we were told. Sailing through a sea covered with vast stretches of sheet ice, ice floes and icebergs was definitely challenging to the captain, but was an absolute treat to our senses.

It is fascinating the number of places that start with Q in Greenland. The names of both our landings on our first day in Greenland started with Q. As a guide book wisely warned, never attempt pronouncing these names if you have toncils or a mouth full of food.

At the quaint town of Qaqqortok fringed by icebergs, the first thing that struck me was the very colourful houses sprinkled like paint on a giant canvas.




Half way across the world, at the very edge of civilized world, I had half expected people to be dressed in fur and traditional clothes. To my surprise, the first of the Innuits I met were dressed in denim and the latest fashion, using fancy mobile phones and smoking cigarettes! The extra large supermarket in the tiny town had fancy imports of virtually everything from Denmark and Sweden. Luckily on that day there was a Christian ceremony of confirmation taking place at a local church. There I met several locals dressed in their traditional dress made of fur and decorated with intricate multi coloured embroidery, with red being the dominant colour.


Qassiarsuk, our next stop was where the Vikings first settled and even today one can see archaeological ruins of Viking settlements and also a reconstructed house of ‘Eric the Red’, the Viking who discovered Greenland. Eskimos are also believed to have settled here earlier. This is a photo of innuits dressed as vikings.


The pretty, coastal fishing village had a sense of surreal beauty that filled me with a sense of meditative peace.


But, for all the sense of peace I felt, it was difficult to believe that Greenland was discovered due to a series of gruesome murders.

Hot headed tempers ran in the family of the red haired and red tempered ‘Erik the Red’. Erik’s father was exiled along with his family from Norway in 960 AD as a result of several cases of man slaughter. They then settled in Iceland. In 982 AD, Erik kept up the family tradition when he was exiled from Iceland for 3 years due to a series of murders and sailed north till he discovered Greenland. He returned to Iceland and using his great marketing skills, spoke of ‘Greenland’ that contrasted visually with ‘Iceland’ and managed to convince several people to return with him and start life afresh.

Before he ‘discovered’ Greenland and gave it an official place in the map, it had already seen a wave of several immigrations from the Paleo Eskimos and the Innuit tribes. By the year 1,000 AD Viking societies numbered around 3,000 on 30 – 40 farms and survived for around 500 years and then disappeared mysteriously. Possible reasons could be a colder climate, conflicts with Innuits and European Pirates etc.

Modern day Greenland has a self government rule under the political umbrella of Denmark.

Nuuk, the capital of Greenland was fascinating as a modern town on the surface, with a well developed local transport system, supermarkets and branded shops that coexisted with Innuits trying to keep up traditional ways of life, selling fresh catch of the day, dried seal blubber and hand made artefacts. A visit to the local museum and seeing the display of weapons, utensils, ornaments etc opens up a window to understanding more about the history of the Innuits, their lifestyle etc. The most interesting was a description on how the modern digitized world has bought traditional Greenlanders closer to the world outside, embracing so called ‘modernity’. It was disturbing when I thought about globalisation and digitization and how in such a short span of time, indigenous communities who had for centuries retained unique cultures had significantly given up their cultural identities like local dress and food that were so unique to them and embraced a homogenous culture of denim, coke and burgers.

At Sisimiut, I treated myself to a lavish buffet to traditional Greenlandic cuisine. Reindeer meat, musk ox meat, snow crabs, whale skin and blubber, dried fish and a variety of other local food were a gastronomic delight.


Later, I happened to stumble upon a husky dog farm, where several ‘off duty’ huskies sat stalwart against an interesting backdrop of snow covered hills, taking a break from long, dark winter months when they would pull sledges. Not wanting to mess with the large, wolf like dogs that were chained to their posts, I cuddled some adorable pups who had warmed up to me.


200 kms north of the Arctic Circle lies Incredible Illulisat. No trip to Greenland is complete without taking a boat trip through the ice fjords there. Surrounded by massive mountains of icebergs, each one sculpted beautifully over centuries by the very hand of God, one cannot help but feel like a mere pawn in a very large game plan. No words can ever do justice to what I felt, as the boat noiselessly took us through a landscape that resembled what in my mind, the world must have looked like at the beginning of time. The only sound that I heard was of melting ice that broke off in chunks and fell into the sea with a resounding crash.


This is a photo of a man on our boat ‘fishing’ for ice.


In the little fishing village of Ittilek, I attended a ‘Kaffemik’, a traditional affair of tea and Greenlandic snacks. My gracious hosts comprised a large joint family of Innuits, right from the great grandmother (to be) to her granddaughter who was expecting soon. They treated me to little slices of home baked bread topped with delicious prawns and eggs and a selection of sweets. We connected despite an obvious language barrier and our cultural exchange included me giving them some Indian earrings and they gifting me a handmade brooch.


The football World Cup fever had reached the tiny little village and we sat for a while watching a match tohether. It was interesting that this seemingly primitive settlement still had to dry fish in summers to eat in winter and, as they were cut off from the world in winter and a dry pit toilet was used. But, they had satellite TV!

This is a photo of a father and son duo who came to watch the football match.


Typical scene of animal horns used to decorate local houses.


Since this was our landing of our voyage, it was celebrated in style with a football match between the villagers and passengers from our ship.Both parties put up a very good show, with the match coming to a draw.

We headed south to Kangerlussaq, where I was surprised to see mosquitoes, that I hitherto thought was only a ‘tropical’ problem, travelling with us in our bus ride to the airport!

As our chartered flight took off for Copenhagen, giving us a spectacular aerial view of massive ice fields beneath, I felt a twinge of melancholy, mixed with a shot of divine bliss. The friendly Innuits and this landscape of superlative beauty had pushed me to many moments of self realization and to ponder seriously on issues ranging from global warming to globalization.

A quote by Huraki Murakami sums up my feelings best, “Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.”

In this one sublime journey, I had lived a hundred beautiful lifetimes and a million wonderful dreams.

This article was published by DNA at this link.

If you wish to experience the stunning beauty of Greenland and say hello to the Innuits, please contact us by filling in the form below.




Love Cast in Stone – Erotic Temple Art

India is dotted with many glorious temples, but erotica on the walls of some arouses curiosity and even puzzles tourists. There are various theories about the reason for such vivid depiction of erotica–mass sex education, warding off natural calamities and the devdasi system. Due to the presence of 64 Yogini temples near Khajuraho, Padawali, Konarak/Lingaraj etc., scholars also attribute the erotic art to Tantric practices, which revolve around the ultimate union of the male and the female energy and forms referred to as Maithuna. Whatever the reason be, the brazenness or ethereal beauty of temple erotica will never cease to amaze us.

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

Built by the Chandela Kings who were greatly influenced by Tantric traditions, this temple is said to represent the ultimate seductress.


Wile the fine sandstone statues built earlier have a well rounded finish, the ones made later are more angular. In his history of the Kamasutra, Mc Connachie describes the amorous sculptures as “the apogee of erotic art”, where the twisting, broad hipped and high breasted nymphs, fleshy apsaras and extravagantly interlocked maithunas run riot along the surface of stone.

The various scenes of passionate love making, in acrobatic postures that sometimes border on the physically impossible, strike viewers. Look out for the bold panels of multiple partners engaged with each other. For an interesting perspective on Khajuraho, watch the Sound and Light show. The best time to visit is during the Khajuraho Dance Festival in the first week of February.


Markandeshwar Temple, Maharashtra

Near the naxal district of Gadchiroli, the Markandeshwar temple complex, by the River Wainganga, showcases a sprinkling of erotic art. A couple performing ‘fellacio’ will raise eyebrows. Know to be built by danavas (evil forces) in one night, the temple is made from stone, and follows Hemadpanth architecture.


The annual fair during Mahashivratri attracts devotees from far and wide every year. Hiring a car from Nagpur is recommended, unless you fancy hitch-hiking with villagers past moonlit fields or changing several buses and autos. If you’re stranded, look for the dharamshala near the temple.


Padawali Temple, Madhya Pradesh


In Morena district near the Chambal Valley, once notorious for dacoits, lies the fortress of Padawali. Two stalwart lion statues greet you at its entrance. The temple inside has earned the reputation being a ‘Mini Khajuraho’ due to the prevalence of erotic art. The difference between big brother Khajuraho and Padawali Temple, is that the erotic art here seems less acrobatic and more ‘real life’ and ‘doable’. The carvings of maithunas in various positions, ranging from simple to difficult almost brings the Kamasutra to life.

While in the area, do visit the ‘non erotic’ Mitawali temple. It is rumoured that the makers of the Indian Parliament derived their inspiration from here.



Ranakpur Jain Temples, Rajasthan

This marble temple of superlative beauty is a ‘vision in white’ with its domes, shikharas and turrets. Over 1,444 intricately carved marble pillars hold up the temple and a monolithic marble rock depicting over 100 snakes catches the eye. Look out for a panel depicting several experimental love making scenes, in a line with a central queen-like figure seated on a throne, with an amorous midget on her lap. It’s interesting to note that not only Hindus, but even Jains decorated temples with erotic art. It hints at how nudity had a religious connect due to the ‘Digambara’ ideology or the Tantric cult.

Konarak Sun Temple, Orissa

When I first visited the Sun Temple at Konarak in Orissa, as a giggly 16-year-old , I was taken aback by how the panels revealed way more about the ‘birds and bees’ than our biology classes had taught us. My second visit recently, helped me appreciate the beautiful erotic art better. The brazenness of the sculptures here gives Khajuraho stiff competition; one of the most scandalous panels is of a dog licking a woman’s genital area. I overheard a guide say, “this was considered a cure for sex related infections, as the dog’s saliva has antibiotic properties.” Scenes of polygamy, polyandry and lesbian love are blissfully abundant.


An architectural genius, this temple shows the Sun God on a colossal chariot drawn by seven horses. The word Konarak is a combination of Kona (corner) and Arka (Sun). The temple was previously located closer to the sea, but the magnetic properties of its stone caused shipwrecks. This, along with the dark colour of its stones, earned it the tile of ‘The Black Pagoda’. An interesting study in contrast is the famous Jagannath Temple at Puri, also referred to as ‘The White Pagoda’ due to its whitewashed walls. If you are an art enthusiast you must visit the Konarak Archaeological Museum nearby that contains fallen sculptures from the temple.

Modhera Sun Temple, Gujarat


It is believed to be the place where Lord Rama conducted a yagna here to purify himself of the sin of killing a Brahmana-Ravana. Like Konarak, its architecture is such that the temple catches the first rays of the rising sun. The most striking feature of the temple is a perfectly designed Kama Kunda (water tank) meant for ablutions and for a reflection of the temple in the water. It has lateral stone steps leading down to the tank, allowing both direct and diagonal descent from all sides. Carvings of men and women in various acts of sex with small midget like creatures are prominent. However, due to erosion the detailing of the stone carvings is blurred in places.

Osian, Rajasthan


Amidst the sand dunes of Thar, Osian has a cluster of Hindu and Jain temples dating back to the 11 century AD. The Sachiya Mata temple dedicated to the resident Goddess has a gorgeous carved archway leading up to the shrine and has some beautiful depiction of erotic love locked couples, complete with details like the bed on which the couples lie.

Virupaksha Temple, Karnataka

On the banks of the Tungabhadra River, this temple with beautiful pillars and towered gateways dedicated to Lord Shiva in his avatar as Virupaksha. It is one of the oldest functioning temples since the 7th century AD. A panel that catches the eyes depicts a nude woman being ‘admired’ by men and women around her. It is best to visit the temple, during the Hampi festival in November. While in the area, also check out the erotic art on the pillars of the Achyutaraya temple.

Several other temples in South India like Belur, Halebidu, Somanathapura and Nugguhalli, the Badami and Banashankari temples of the Chalukya times and the Vijayanagar temples of Bhatkal and Lepakshi also have a profusion of erotic art. The Meenakshi temple of Madurai and Veeraranarayan temple of Gadag have erotic sculptures on their Gopuram. (Information about other temples with erotic art in South India taken from http://www.kamat.com)

No one has summed up the beauty of erotica on temple walls better than Tagore while he was referring to Konarak, ‘The language of man here is defeated by the language of stone.’

This article was published by DNA at this link.

Photo courtesy Aadil Desai.

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The Burning Mountains of Iceland

“There are depths of thousands of miles that are hidden from our inquiry. The only tidings we have from those unfathomable regions are by means of volcanoes, those burning mountains that seem to discharge their material from the lowest abyss of the earth,” said the Anglo-Irish writer and playwright, Oliver Goldsmith.

By the time you learn to pronounce names of Iceland’s notorious volcanoes like the Eyjafjallajökull and the Theistareykjarbunga, somewhere on the island another volcano would have erupted. Located on the mid Atlantic ridge between the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia, which are moving apart, Iceland has an extraterrestrial looking landscape, making it a favourite playground of astronauts like Armstrong and Aldrin, who trained here before venturing to the moon. It also allures lovers of geology, Hollywood sci-fi film makers and those into spirituality!

Flight over Fire

Take a helicopter tour over a spectacular lunar landscape teeming with volcanoes, vast lava fields and rocky coastlines. One can fly over the infamous Eyjafjallajökull that caused havoc in Europe’s air space with ash emissions and head down its glacial tongue Gígjökull that was split in half by hot melting lava and land on a volcanic crater on Fimmvörðuháls . One can also land on surreal glacial landscape and and connect with the silence of the raw power that has sculpted Iceland.


Photo courtesy: http://www.helicopter.is

Test in a Tube

To pass the test of ultimate adventure, hike deep into ‘lava tube caves’ like Raufarholshellir and Gjabakkahellir formed in natural underground channels that have drained out lava post explosion. Inside the caves, feast your eyes on spectacular lava falls, natural sculptures, hanging icicles, stalactites and stalagmites.

Fifty Shades of Blue

cathedral-1Photo courtesy: http://www.extremeiceland.is

Tease your fantasies with delicious shades of blue in the snorkelling haven Silfra, a narrow volcanic fissure in the lava field located between the continental plates of America and Europe. The mixture of groundwater and glacial water fed by the Langjökull glacier makes it one of the clearest water bodies in the world with visibility up to 70 – 80 metres!

Trek up to magnificent crater lakes like the Öskjuvatn and watch geysers like Geysir spout water up to 100 feet!

Follow the Viking tradition of taking a dip in volcanically heated pools. Soak yourself in natural geo thermal crater pools like Viti at Aksja caldera or closer to Reykjavik, enjoy a health spa in the milky blue waters of the Blue Lagoon that is actually an outflow of a geo thermal plant. Say goodbye to Botox as these mineral rich waters help cure wrinkles and skin problems.

The Chamber of Secrets


Photo courtesy: http://www.extremeiceland.is

Less than an hour from Reykjavik, one can descend 400 feet down into the crater of a real volcano, using an open elevator and accompanied by trained cave explorers.

Usually a crater is plugged by solidified lava after an eruption, but Thrihnukagigur volcano, with ground size equal to three basketball courts, is an exception as the magma has mysteriously disappeared into the depths of the earth, leaving the magma chamber open for exploration. Its colourful rocks and underground caves are said to be home to huldufólk or mythical ‘hidden people’.

Energise Your Chakras at the Heart of the Earth

A two hour drive from Reykjavik towards west Iceland, takes you to an active volcano, Snæfellsjökull, whichwas the inspiration behind Jules Verne’s epic book, ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’. It is perhaps no coincidence that mystics also consider this to be the ‘Heart Chakra’ of the planet. The glacier here is noted to be one of the seven greatest energy centres of the earth, and has been attributed various mysterious powers. People from around the world come here to absorb the energy radiation and meditate. Explore the surreal glacier on the volcano on snow mobiles and snow cats.

Black Beauty

Highly sought after by film makers to provide exotic backdrops for science fiction films, the black sand lava beaches like Vik set against cobalt blue waters are an exotic twist to your regular white beach experience. The finger shaped cliffs here are home to several seabirds, including puffins.

A volcano, like man has many emotions. It is almost as if the crux of all human emotions is condensed in these mysterious inverted cones. A pulsating heart capable of unpredictable explosions from bottomless depths of uncontrollable passion and sudden withdrawals, tears of magma and sounds of anger and longing. Romance a volcano once, because no other lover can pull the cork off your bottle of unexplored dreams and unearth your repressed desires as well as a sublime, burning mountain can.

A version of this article appeared in DNA at this link.



Photo courtesy: http://www.helicopter.is

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In Quest Of The Forbidden Fruit

There lies a fairy tale land in the bosom of Himachal Pradesh blushing red in autumn with the allure of the ‘forbidden fruit’.

Sangla Valley in Kinnaur was the starting point of my exploration of Himachal’s Apple Trail. Set in the midst of a sprawling apple orchard with plump, red apples glistening like rubies while the milky white Baspa River gushed through the backdrop hastily, my abode at the Banjara Camp was literally the Garden of Eden.


Since there was no tempting Adam or conniving Satan for company, I sat enjoying my solitude on a white boulder on a silver beach overlooking the Baspa, pairing hot aloo parathas with delicious apple preserves from my picnic hamper.

Later, during an evening trek to the Batseri village, I was invited by a local ‘Pahadi’ lady in a long, checkered tunic called ‘Reshta’ to her hut for a cup of hot ‘chai’. While lighting a wood fire, she told me that the Pahadi community is primarily engaged in apple cultivation in the region, but the younger generation of this simple community are now mostly working in the corporate world in cities, are air hostesses with leading airlines etc. She showed me the beautiful mountain architecture of her village, miles of apple orchards and took me to the Badrinarayan Temple that interestingly had carvings from all religions, showing the religious outlook of this peace loving community.


Himachal is the second largest producer of apples in the country after Kashmir. Apples account for the largest and primary produce in Himachal and the economy is largely centered on apples directly and indirectly through apple grading houses, processing plants, tourism etc. The major commercial varieties of apple are Red Delicious, Royal Delicious, Rich – A – Red Delicious and Golden Delicious that are grown all over the state. Apples are grown at elevations of 5,000 ft to 10,000 ft. The higher the elevation, the later is the harvesting season and usually better is the quality of apples due to better hours of chill.

Next day I took a day trip to Kalpa (50 Kms/2 hrs). Located at 9,711 ft, it is noted for its high quality apples, pine nut forests and deodar. The gurgling Sutlej River below cut deep gorges and the beautiful winding mountain roads were
fringed by Chilgoza trees. As I sat wrapped in a light shawl, taking in the spectacular views of the sun playing hide and seek over the Kinner Kailash peak, locals told me in a few months from now as winter will set in the temperatures will drop
to -20°C and the entire area will be covered in 5 – 7 feet of snow, creating the perfect condition for the next batch of high quality apples to grow. This is also the time that they will brew homemade alcohol with apples and apricots for personal consumption to keep themselves warm through eight long winter months.

One can also visit Chitkul, the last inhabited village on the Indo – China border that was earlier part of the ancient silk route.


I headed out for more adventure at Kotgarh.  In 1882, Captain Lee, an English army officer planted the first apple orchard in Kullu. Unfortunately, the green apples (Ross Pippen) did not become popular as they were sour and could only be used for cooking. However, entrepreneurs Kartik and Anu, who quit their corporate careers in the television industry to set up a fruit processing unit at Kotgarh called ‘Fruit Bageecha’, have collaborated with the local Mahila Mandal to create an exciting and
much in demand ‘Green Apple and Ginger Chutney’ using the Ross Pippin
apple that is retailed in luxury hotels around the country. The dynamic duos are now planning to launch a new preserve that combines the heat of Naga chillies with Ross Pippin apples.


Photo courtesy ‘Fruit Bageecha’.

It was almost sun set by the time I reached charming Thanedar in Kotgarh at a
height of 7,700 ft, after a drive through winding hills bursting with
crimson apples.

apple-treePhoto courtesy ‘Fruit Bageecha’.

As I reclined in the quaint garden chair in the lovely Banjara Orchard
retreat, breathing in the apple scented air and looking out at a panorama
of mountains and farms, the hospitable owner Mr. Prakash Thakur told
me a most inspiring story. Samuel Stokes, an American, came to India
in 1904 to work in a leper home in Shimla. He realized that the people
there were battling not just disease but also poverty. In 1916, he
brought apple seeds of the ‘Red Delicious’ variety from Philadelphia
and distributed them free of cost to the locals and helped them to
plant and nurture them. This was the start of an economic revolution
in the area as the plants bore fruit around 6 – 7 years later. This is
the Red Delicious variety of apple that we eat today. Stokes also was a leading
activist of the Indian freedom movement, married an Indian lady and is
known popularly as Satyanand Stokes.

One can still see the orchard planted by Stokes in Thanedar. Parmjyoti
temple, built by Stokes in Pahari style and St Mary’s Church built in
1872 are worth a visit. One can also see the Nag Devta temple at the
Tani Jubbar Lake and trek to the Saroga forest.

With some assistance from your hotel at Thanedar, one can also take
part in apple cultivation, fruit plucking, visiting a fruit processing
unit and buy homemade preserves from locals in all the above mentioned
places. Winters in apple land and is a great time to stay indoors and watch surreal, snow clad landscape.

apple-orchards-from-our-cottage-in-snowPhoto courtesy ‘Fruit Bageecha’
If Adam’s example is anything to go by, don’t even try to resist the
lure of this curvaceous, red beauty. Switch off your phones, get off your latest ‘app’ and head out to Himachal to explore the enchanting Apple trail.

A version of this article was published by DNA at this link.

Art and Awakening in Puri

Like me, the overnight train that I was travelling on, seemed to believe in slow travel. Shamelessly, without a care in the world, the ‘slow coach’ chugged in five hours late at Puri, Odisha’s famous sea side resort. This gave me more time to enjoy the rural landscape – acres of lush farms dotted with contented cows and little village boys racing with the train. This, being my fifth visit to Puri, I decided to do more than just be a beach bum and explore various art forms in and around the coastal town.

Later, as I strolled by the breezy beach promenade ‘Marine Drive’, interestingly named after Mumbai’s iconic sea front, I noticed that the surrounding market was bustling with scores of tourists haggling over prices of Sambhalpuri sarees and Kotki printed cloth.

I learnt from an elderly shopkeeper who was keen to talk about local craft forms, that most textiles are hand woven. The masters of weaving are well versed with centuries of knowledge of silk worm cultivation and most of their designs were inspired by temple architecture. He showed me some beautiful silk ‘ikat weaves’ where threads were tied and dyed to produce designed patterns on the loom while weaving. The designs were of birds, animals, seashells and temple spires. Beautiful and rare silk fabric produced at Cuttack embellished with verses from the Gita Govinda that is used to dress up idols at the Jagannah Temple, lined the shelves. Now that was a fresh way to look around a town that was noted more for its sea and fish!

Further on, I crossed shops where the tinkling of wind chimes made of sea shells greeted me. Shell necklaces and wooden effigies of Lord Jagannath and his siblings Balabhadra and Shubhadra were being sold in large numbers. Konarak Chakras (inspired by the Sun temple at Konarak) in fine filigree design woven with threads drawn of strips on silver as fine as a spider’s web, were a spectacular sight.

I paused to watch a man design animal shapes using coconut coir and wire. As he churned out camels, horses and elephants like a master magician, I marveled at the unsung brilliant craftsmen that the country has.

No visit to Puri is complete without a visit to the intricately carved temple of Lord Jagannath (Lord of the Universe). The economy of Puri depends largely on this temple and almost everyone is involved directly or indirectly in the temple’s activities.

The magnificient temple is situated in a narrow, crowded road filled with pilgrims and the air is thick with incense. My guide was a Panda (Priest) who took me into a fascinating trip into the temple’s history and architecture.

This shrine of Lord Jagannath (Lord of the Universe) is one of the four holy ‘dhams’ and is considered to be the holiest. The temple, he explained stands on an elevated mound called the ‘Nila Parvata’ (Blue Mountain) and has four gateways. Statues of lions, tigers, elephants and men on horseback guard these gates. The main shrine of Lord Jagannath, brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra are represented by three profusely decorated wooden images in black, white and yellow respectively, with glaring eyes, legless bodies and undersized arms. The shrine is inside a dark, stone room with a rather slippery floor, caused due to the water and oil used for bathing the Gods. Tread with caution when inside.

Cooking of the Mahaprasad (ambrosia) and its transportation around town is an art that deserves mention. Multiple huge pans of food are balanced one on top of another and cooked on a single flame. One can actually choose from a Bhog menu and I sat cross legged at the temple eating a delicious meal of pulao, khichdi, sweet rice, dal, an assortment of vegetable, chatni, payasm and malpua. A meal fit for a king!

Fed and content, I walked in the dingy lanes fringed with quaint, old buildings and watched temple workers carrying Mahaprasad to thousands in the town in earthen pots suspended in two baskets along the ends of a bamboo stick.

Giving in to my sweet cravings later, I tried out Chana Pora, Malpua and other delicious local sweets. This was definitely no time to count calories!

Next morning, I headed out towards Pipli, a little village an hour’s drive from Puri, renowned for its appliqué work. The drive through the coastal country side, past a coconut research centre, gently flowing rivers and ancient temples was deeply soothing.
In Pipli, I was immediately caught up in a whirlpool of colours. The craft of appliqué involves stiching of one cloth over another and in most cases using plenty of glass work. This was originally started to serve temples, providing intricately stitched coloured covers for deities. Traditional motifs like peacock, fish, flowers and geometric designs are cut out of brightly coloured cloth and sewn on to a cloth background. These artists produce the chariot covers and giant umbrellas used in the annual Rath Yatra at the Jagannath temple.

A fair bit of shopping later, I headed off to Raghurajpur, another artisan village 14kms from Puri.I realised I was totally off the beaten track as there were very few tourists in the vicinity. The idyllic setting of the village on the southern bank of the Bhargavi River surrounded by trees, looked straight out of a fairytale. This village has attained a considerable amount of international fame for being home to a community of artisans who produce Patta Chitras, palm leaf engravings, stone carvings, papier mache toys and masks, cow dung toys, tusser paintings etc.


I could not resist buying this beer bottle converted into a work of art.



Being the only tourist around, I found myself surrounded by many of the families, all of whom wanted me to see their art. Visiting the homes of several artists, I was amazed to see the quality of their beautiful paintings.


One of my finest conversations was with Gopal Maharana, descendant of the original family employed years ago by the King to decorate the Jagannath temple. In fact the clay hut in which he stayed was also a gift from the King. I marvelled at the international accolades that lined the shelves of his humble abode.

He explained to me that the village is most famous for ‘Patta Chitra’, a classical Odisha painting. The Patta (cloth) is specially prepared and coated with earth to stiffen it and finally finished with lacquer after painting, producing colourful motifs. They are now used as wall hangings. The subjects are mostly from the Jagannath cult and famous epics. He showed me a thin brush that he used to paint the Pattas and explained that it was made from the hair at the back of a mouse’s neck. He even showed me a mouse trap that he used to catch mice and kill them for the hair!


Another prevalent art form in the village was palm leaf paintings, the use of which dates back to the medieval period. I watched a lady skillfully inscribe text and design on the surface of a palm leaf and then apply a paste of tamarind seed, oil and charcoal. She explained that once the residue was rubbed off, the groove would stand out after which vegetable and mineral colours would be used to brighten the effects.

The village itself is an interesting work of art. Two rows of neat houses face each other and in the centre is a line of temples, as well as the Bhagbat Tungi, the community meeting place of villagers. All the houses were living art galleries and had ancient paintings on the walls outside, depicting scenes from various religious texts and rural life.


At the end of the rows of houses is a school where the Gotipua form of dance is taught. An earlier form of Odissi, here men dressed like women danced outside temples. Incidentally, the revered Odissi dancer Kelu Charan Mahapara is from this village. At the entrance of the village is a titanic amphiteater, where Odissi performances are done. As I was heading out of the entrance I noticed some men cooking meals in enormous pots on a wooden fire. I found out that they were cooking for the entire village and got paid by each family for cooking everyday. The concept of community meals both at the village and the temple level was striking. Very reluctantly, I bid farewell to the little colouful village and headed back to Puri.

I ended my trip with a long walk on the breezy beach, feeling at one with nature. The simplicity and humility of all the artists I had met had forced me to introspect into my own fast paced urban life, where the sensex ruled supreme over our senses.

At a distance, I noticed a sand sculptor immersed in creating exquisite life sized sand carvings of various Gods on the beach, oblivious to the applaud of the crowd that watched him work. What puzzled me was why was he taking such pains to create these beautiful sculptures, knowing fully well that the next big tide will destroy his creation completely?


(Image source at this link)

I suddenly remembered the Tibetan practice of monks creating exquisite sand ‘mandalas’ (intricate geometric representation of the world in a divine form) over several weeks and then ritualistically destroying what they had created and immersing the sand in a body of moving water, back to nature. This signifies the impermanence of materiel life and the purpose is to reflect on something larger than one’s own small, perceived world. Suddenly, in the backdrop of temple bells and the crashing of the restless sea in the darkness of the night, the meditative nature of art and the humility of a true artist started making sense to me.


(Image source at this link


This article was published by We Are The City at this link.

Monkey Business in Mathura

Ever since I reached the age of reason and resistance I found myself questioning all religious customs that I was expected to conform to.

Over the years however , I have developed a strange curiosity perhaps bordering on spiritual, to explore popular religious hubs associated with major world religions and experience first hand the vibe that attracts pilgrims by the bus load.

One winter, the roads of Mathura, the birth place of Lord Krishna called out to me.


The tapestry of mighty, decorated bulls with titanic horns meandering through narrow lanes, sound of bells, the gushing stream of devotees vying for a peek of the idol of Krishna at the beautiful Krishna Janma Bhoomi temple, street food stall owners calling out to pilgrims to try out their chole bhature or the famous sweet Peda created an electric energy in this ancient town that is hard to describe.



Thriving in the midst of all this activity is a unique business where man and his ancestor apes are astute business partners.

Thanks to endless nights of hiding under my blanket way past bed time reading story books, I was blessed with myopic vision shortly. My glasses and I have over the years developed the kind of comfortable relationship that comes from being clear from the very beginning that we don’t like each other but have no choice but to coexist. So, it was a sudden shock for me when one fine evening while seated on a moving cycle rickshaw in Mathura, I suddenly realised that my glasses were missing from their usual perch.

The world was suddenly a blur, as was my head. I certainly had not dropped it and neither had my glasses disappeared by magic and clear vision restored by some divine power of this mystic land.

Suddenly, out of my foggy world emerged a young chap who pointed to a monkey sitting on a roof who he had just  spotted stealing my glasses. I was shocked! An entire ape had hopped into a moving cycle rickshaw and had picked my glasses right off my nose and I had no clue!

My knight in shining armour volunteered to fetch my glasses. Unlike in the Aesop fable where only after several rounds of negotiations a monkey threw down the clothes he had stolen from a man, when he was duped into ‘aping’ the man who put up an act of throwing ‘down’ his belongings, this ape threw down my glasses into the hands of this man as soon as he threw ‘up’ a packet of peanuts and the negotiation was complete in the blink of an eye.

As my glasses (with its stem chewed upon) were handed back to me gallantly, I profusely thanked my unexpected saviour.

Just as I was about to ride away,  he suddenly ran up to me and demand Rs.500! I was shocked and realised that the monkey was in fact his partner in crime. When I flatly refused, he asked me to reimburse him for the cost of the peanuts at least so that he could break even!

It was only after I threatened to report him and his buddy to the police that he fled from the scene. His accomplice who was watching us from a distance now leapt over the roof, tail up in the air and escaped promptly at lightning speed.

Angry as I was, I couldn’t help but laugh at my predicament. This monkey’s skill would put the most experienced pick pocketers in Italy to shame.

Unfortunately this cute little plan flopped because unlike the monkey who had the business sense of taking the peanuts first before parting with his booty, the man was not cunning enough to negotiate a sum with me before handing me back my glasses.

Mathura did give me a shot of much needed spiritual bliss, but the life lesson I really learnt is that if I ever need a management course in business administration, I now know which species to approach.

This article was published by We Are The City. Check out the article at this link.

In the departure lounge of Charminar, Hyderabad

In my solo travels around India, I have experienced many strange reactions. But this one beats them all hands down.


At the entrance of the over 400 years old, stalwart Charminar (Four Towers) in Hyderabad, the security guard looked at me strangely and asked me if I was travelling solo. After due consideration and a chat with someone on his transmitter, he finally gave me the clean chit to go up.
After climbing up what seemed like a never ending spiral matrix of high steps in the narrow tower choc a bloc with huffing and perspiring tourists, I finally reached the mid level access area. Barely had I caught my breath when a female security guard marched up to me and asked me if I was ‘the’ solo traveller and asked me to follow her. I figured her colleague downstairs had passed on a description of me.
What followed was a VIP tour of the Char Minar where I was zipped past all crowds, given access to the best view points with a running commentary by her on the history and anecdotes on the grand old monument. I was seriously impressed with the treatment I received and made a mental note to send a thank you letter to the Telengana tourism for looking after solo women travellers so well. I even tipped the lady for her help.
Just then, a young man walked up to the guard while she was taking photos of me against the panoramic view of old Hyderabad. He wanted to know why tourists were not being allowed to go right up to the very top of the Charminar. She then told him that in the last few years several heartbroken urban single ladies who had troubled and failed relationships had committed suicide by jumping off from the top of the Charminar or had been pushed down by their lovers, forcing the Charminar administration to beef up security.
While it was disturbing to know this and I wondered what juggernaut of emotions pushed one to end their lives or kill someone, I could not also help but reflect on the need for drama even in death. Ancient monuments with a morbid angle has always allured man. Some like the Taj Mahal are famous because they are dedicated to the departed and some like the Charminar are famous, hence used as departure gates for take off.
Suddenly all the VIP treatment I was getting made sense. I asked the guard if she was escorting me to ensure I don’t commit suicide and she said yes. Then she looked at the young man suspiciously and asked us if we were together and we emphatically said no. I then scurried down the tower at record speed to end this saga of being viewed as a potential suicide/murder suspect. It was only after I had gifted myself a string of pearls at the surrounding Pearl Market that I was able to laugh at this ridiculous, morbid experience.
This article has been published by We Are The City under the title ‘Leaving Charminar, Hyderabad’. Here is the link.
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