28 January 2010

Cycling through Mandu

The road to Mandu leads through lush green countryside and then upwards through the forests of the Vindhya Mountains. We arrived at a gate to this fortified city and crossed into another time and place.

We found enchanted lakes and the ruins of majestic mogul palaces, mosques and pavilions. These were built between 1401 and 1529 by the Sultans of Malwa who called it Shadiabad, the city of joy.

What better way to explore Mandu’s 23 square kilometres than by bicycle? There was little traffic and the leisurely pace allowed us to soak in the fresh air and lush countryside.

Mandu is considered to be one of India’s most romantic and picturesque sites. But all the guidebooks unanimously recommend that the best time visit is during the monsoon – considered to be the most romantic season in India!

I had another Kodak moment that didn’t happen in Mandu. Many men in Madhya Pradesh wear huge, colourful turbans. I saw two men go by on a motorcycle. They were wearing turbans: one was neon green… and the other fuchsia! But before I could reach for my camera, they were gone!

22 January 2010

On the Island of Omkareshwar

After a two-hour drive from Maheshwar, a boat took us the short distance across the Narmada river to the island of Omkareshwar. We arrived at an ashram on a quiet part of the island. We were welcomed by a friendly Israeli swamy dressed sadhu-style in saffron robes and rudraksha beads.

There are many things that are special about Omkareshwar. First of all, this small island is supposedly shaped like the Sanskrit letters for OM. I didn’t see the island from the air so I can’t confirm this, but having walked around the island I do find this theory a bit implausible...

Omkareshwar is also one of the 12 sites in India to have a jyotirlingam (a natural rock linga where the god Shiva manifested himself in the form of light). Some people told us that the lingam is found in the towering Sri Omar Mandhata temple on the island. Others said that it’s in the Amareshwar temple just opposite on the mainland. The third version I heard was that there are two lingams, one in each temple!

The island is a popular pilgrimage destination. We took the pilgrim trail which circumambulates the island and were greeted with a cheerful “Hari Om!” by every sadhu, pilgrim and child we met on the way. We also got a taste of what it must be like to be SRK when we were mobbed by a crowd of college kids who all wanted to shake our hands and have their pictures taken with us!

Along the way we passed several shrines and temples. One part of the island had a Disneyland-feel to it, with temples crudely painted in bright colours. But in contrast, the 10th century Siddnath Temple was stunning with its natural rock and beautiful sculptures.

Later we joined the horde of local tourists and took a boat trip around the island. It was smooth sailing until we reached the sangam, the place at the tip of the island where another of India’s seven sacred rivers, the Cauvery, gushes violently into the Narmada. We all had to disembark and walk the short distance to the Cauvery side while the boatmen jumped into the water and pushed the boat through the strong current around the tip of the island. In the meantime many people took the opportunity to have a dip in the sacred waters.

At the other end of the island we passed in front of the massive (and controversial) Narmada dam, another significant landmark in Omkareshwar.

My next post will be on another magical place in Madhya Pradesh: Mandu!

15 January 2010

On the ghats of Maheshwar

For the Christmas holidays we decided to visit a state we have never been to and didn’t know much about. So we chose Madhya Pradesh in central India. Sure enough, some of our foreign friends had never heard of it and our Indian friends asked us what there was to see in MP. Madhya Pradesh actually has a lot of interesting historical and natural tourist sites. It is also the second biggest state in India. Of course we could not see all of it so we decided to visit only the western part including Indore, Maheshwar, Omkareshwar, Mandu.

I had read about the bad roads but obviously the information I had was out of date because a new highway took us from Indore to Maheshwar in less than two hours. I’m glad I had the chance to visit Maheshwar because it is one of my favourite places in India. The town is dominated by the Ahilya Fort and adjoining Ahilyeshwar Temple which are directly on the banks of the Narmada, one of India’s sacred rivers.

Looking down from Ahilya Fort, I found the view both breathtaking and fascinating. The riverfront was a flurry of activity at all hours of the day. I spent most of my time either observing the scene from the Fort or sitting or strolling on the ghats by the riverfront. As the sun rose over the Narmada each morning, people would already be on the ghats offering their prayers and flower garlands to the sacred river. Men paced up and down the length of the ghats reciting ‘Om Namah Shivaya’. The mornings were a little chilly but this did not deter the faithful from taking a holy dip in the river. They cupped the sacred water in their hands while reciting prayers in Sanskrit and then carefully poured the water over their heads, and even into their mouths! Others were busy lighting incense and garlanding the numerous small shines dedicated to Shiva, represented by a Shiva linga and a small statue of Nandi the bull.

Meanwhile, the women and girls would be busy doing their laundry. The ghats echoed with the beating sound made by the wooden bats (which looked like small cricket bats) they used to pound their clothes clean. They would then dry their saris by laying them flat on the stone ground to dry in the hot sun. Or a woman would hold each end of the sari and it would dry by fluttering in the breeze.

By mid-morning these peaceful morning rituals would be interrupted by the loud sound of the sputtering engines of the numerous colourful tourist boats. There were many tourists and pilgrims who would come to visit the temple and take a trip on the Narmada or have a swim. There were few foreigners around so we were also a curiosity. Everyone wanted to ask us from which ‘village’ we came from and take their picture with us. On Christmas Day, many random strangers wished us a ‘Merry Christmas’!

At sunset, the sputtering engines of the tourist boats would finally stop and the faithful would be back for the evening puja. Once again all the small shrines would be carefully decorated with flowers and incense and the sing-song of prayers would be heard all along the ghats. As darkness quickly fell, prayers and flowers were offered to the sacred river, followed by the lighting of small oil lamps which were floated on her waters.

Back up at the Fort, I witnessed the spectacular sight of hundreds of lamps slowly floating down the dark waters of the Narmada. A sight I will not soon forget!

12 January 2010

Madras magic

I just got back from Chennai (Madras). The Chennai December Season has become an annual pilgrimage for me. I have been attending it almost every year since 2002!

For two months the city pulses to the sounds of music and dance. The atmosphere is magic and it is an event that every lover of Carnatic music and Indian classical dance looks forward to. This is an opportunity to see all the great musicians and dancers as well as upcoming artists.

What better way to start the year than the Madras Music Academy Dance Festival? It runs for a week at the beginning of January. The Hindu has published a series of photographs from the festival. I am featuring some here. To see more, visit the following links:



Photos © The Hindu