Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lost And Found Ancient Indian Treasure- Ajanta Caves!

Of the many wonders of ancient India, Ajanta Caves is one such monument that will make you proud of Indian Art, Architecture, History and Heritage. Surrounded by dense forest, this World Heritage Monument chiseled out of a horse shoe shaped cliff, 76 m in height, comprises of 30 caves and was forged in two phases- early 2nd century BC and in the 6th century AD. The location with a serene and calm atmosphere was perfect for the teachings of Buddhism and also for meditation. Each cave had their own entrance with a stairway that led to the edge of Waghora river flowing at the bottom of the cliff.

These caves over a period of time were abandoned when Buddhism slowly faded away from India and became a hidden treasure engulfed by thick jungle. It was only in the year 1819 that an accidental chance let to these caves being brought back to life by a British officer, John Smith, of the Madras Presidency, who was on a hunting trail.

Of course, it is not just the grandeur architecture of these caves that draws us to visit them but also the unique mural paintings of ancient times that tell tales of a bygone era. The paintings in Ajanta are world famous and are on the theme of various Jataka stories reflecting Buddha's previous incarnations and events from the life of Buddha. The colors on the walls and ceilings were made from pebbles and vegetable oil from the hills, the colored pebbles were crushed, ground and then mixed with glue. This elaborate procedure for the paintings was definitely worth the effort. It is said that during those days, the entire cave with the paintings would look like it was decorated for a grand event.

Of all the caves, five caves (9, 10, 19, 26 and 29) are chaityagrihas (shrines) and the rest are virahas (monasteries.) Some of the caves are unfinished but still manage to draw your attention for the sheer location and its surroundings. To admire the beautiful sculptures and craftsmanship head to caves 4, 10, 19 and 26 and the mural paintings leave you spellbound in caves 1, 2, 9, 11, 16 and 17.

The entrance and pillars of most of the caves have imposing sculptures, the walls are embellished with paintings and the inner sanctum houses the massive sculpture of Gautama Buddha. Cave 1 is known for its ornamented paintings, Cave 2 for the beautiful geometric patterns with the ceilings and walls brightly painted, Cave 16 has some paintings that have inscriptions on them and cave 17 is also called as the zodiac cave based on a painting of a gigantic wheel. 

The stupas are built in such a way that natural light seeps in and illuminates the entire stupa during certain parts of the day. The precision with which this was achieved centuries ago is unbelievable. In this modern day and age will it be possible to built a monument as grand as this? Or did we have alien technology that helped us in carving out such colossal monuments.

Even if you are no history buff, the sheer magnitude of these sculptures and the intricacies in each of the paintings will make you fall in love with history and art. The calm and soothing effect in the caves guarantees you inner peace and you tend to forget everything around.

The details in the paintings are hard to miss even in their deteriorating state. The detailed depiction of the jewels, the facial expressions, the geometrical designs on the ceilings, the lavish palaces, village life, wildlife all are depicted in a beautiful fashion.

Of all the age old paintings only a few have survived the test of time. Thanks to the efforts of the ASI, the remaining caves and sculptures are preserved in a decent manner. Flash photography is strictly prohibited inside the cave premises.

After visiting the caves, the trek path takes you to the view point from where you can have a panoramic view of the caves. It was from here that the British officer spotted the Ajanta caves around 200 years ago.

Ajanta caves can be easily reached from Aurangabad by road and the total distance of 120 km can be covered in 2 to 3 hours. State transport buses frequently ply to and from Aurangabad and leave from Central bus terminal commonly known as Baba bus stand. The ideal plan would be to leave Aurangabad by 7 am and catch a view of the stunning caves with the sun rays falling on the caves making it a very neatly timed moment to click pictures. Once you get down from the bus, head to the interpretation center and pay for amenity charged at INR 10 per person. Then a 4 km shuttle bus ride takes you to the caves and here is where the entry tickets to the caves are sold. If you are carrying a camera specifically buy a ticket for your camera for INR 5. Please note that you would be asked to produce this ticket in caves 1, 2, 16 & 17.

The path from the ticket counter to the last one of the caves is a trek in itself and therefore, the authorities have made porter services available for the benefit of senior citizens and folks who find it difficult to walk the entire stretch.

In the vicinity are a lot of shops that can be checked out to buy souvenirs. They sell wooden statues of Buddha, figures from the mythological epics, coins to crystals. After the walk, to satisfy your hunger pangs head to the restaurant run  by MTDC that serves good food and specializes in Thalis and on a hot day you can treat yourself with a chilled beer.

There are a few stay options in Ajanta owned by both Government and private entities. However, it would be a good idea to do a day trip from Aurangabad. If you leave at 7 am, you can be back by 6 pm after leisurely spending considerable amount of time in the caves.

Note- The caves are open for public from 9 am and are closed on Mondays.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mahabalipuram - Photo Tour Of Coastal Town With Rich Legacy

Mahabalipuram, fondly called as 'Mahabs' by locals rides with rich history, legacy and was mostly developed by the Pallava rulers. This town is mentioned in the Vaishnava Hymns written between the 6th and 8th Century. However, evidence such as Roman coins and pottery found here states that the town dates back to early Historic times. This ancient historic coastal town  buzzed with activity as this was a busy seaport and it was from here that Indian traders sailed to South-East Asian Countries. The mariners also called it "Seven Pagodas" as there were Seven Pagodas standing tall on the shore, of which, only one survived- the Shore Temple.

The Pallavas were renowned for promoting unique styles of art and architecture and this town stands as a fine example with its stunning rock cut or monolithic group of monuments and shore temples. 

The Magnificent Lighthouse with its beautiful tales of a bustling trade hub and a seaport.

Climbing the Light House to see the entire town, the roads, the sea and the breathtaking view of the Shore temple leaves you in awe.

There is a museum adjacent to the Light House which is worth visiting to know more about the port History. Deep Sea buoys are laid to mark shipping channels in the Bays and to prevent mishaps from rocks and wrecks. This Buoy was in use at Gulf Of Kutch.

The temples portrayed scenes from the epic Mahabharata depicting the Descent of the Holy Ganges and Arjuna's Penance. The story mentions Arjuna, one of the Pandava Brothers, performed severe austerities in order to obtain Shiva's weapon.

The following panel of Mahishamardani Cave depicts the battle where Goddess Durga killed the demon Mahishasura, who was considered unconquerable. The scene portrays Goddess Durga riding a lion in pursuit of Mahishasura with a bow and arrow.

The other panel of Mahishamardani Cave depicts Lord Vishnu in Tranquility State on a seven hooded serpent.

One of the many Cave temples in Mahabalipuram.

A village scene from the Krishna Mandapa Cave depicting their daily lives.

Varaha Cave Temples

The following panel depicts Four armed Goddess Durga standing on a lotus under an umbrella. This panel stands for victory over ignorance.

Trivikarma Panel depicting Lord Vishnu  overcoming the Demon king Bali.

The most prominent sculpture of the Varaha Cave is Lord Vishnu in his incarnated form of Varaha lifting Bhu Devi, Mother Earth, from the sea.

The Gajalakshmi Panel representing Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity. She is portrayed with her hands holding a Lotus flower surrounded by attendants and elephants.

Lord Krishna lifting the mythical Govardhan hill to provide shelter to villagers from torrential rains showered by Lord Indra.

The Massive Natural rock boulder,  popularly known as Krishna's Butter Ball, atop a hilly slope is no less than a wonder. It does a perfect balancing act defying all rules of Gravity.

Trimurti Cave temple- This is believed to be dedicated to the three Lords- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

The view of Bay of Bengal from the Shore temple.

The Shore Temple, is the only temple of a series of seven temples and the remaining now submerged in the sea.

The Pancha Rathas, perfect examples of Dravidian style architecture are monolithic rock cut temples.

Monolithic Five Rathas or Chariots dedicated to the Five Pandava Princes.

5 km from Mahabalipuram towards Chennai is the Tiger Caves.

Apart from the stellar monuments, there has been proof of many other monuments that have been submerged under the mighty Bay Of Bengal.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Marvels Of History Lepakshi

Lepakshi, a lesser known historic town in Ananthapur district of Andhra Pradesh dons many hats and never ceases to astonish one with its rich legacy and history. This temple town backtracks its roots to the epic 'Ramayana.' Legend has it that it is this spot where the mythological bird 'Jatayu' fell after being hurt by Ravan during his brave attempt to rescue Sita. Lord Ram on seeing the injured Jatayu on the ground commanded 'Le Pakshi' that translates to 'Rise Bird' and hence the name of the town.

This town which is very famous for its handicrafts and sarees has the temple as well in its list of wonders. This hidden treasure built by two brothers Viranna and Virupanna of the Vijayanagar period, attracts a handful of devotees and history buffs to explore and admire the history, engineering and architectural marvel of the Vijayanagara craftsmen and artisans.

The massive monolithic Nandi welcomes you to the town. Apart from the striking mammoth size, this is the place where the Nandi does not bow down his head in submission to Lord Shiva. There is lot of greenery around and the place is well maintained by Archaeological Survey of India.

Veerabhadra Swamy temple is built on a hill that is similar to the shape of a tortoise and hence is known as "Kurma Saila." The complex houses the main deity 'Veerabhadra Swamy' with excellent ornate mural paintings on the ceiling depicting scenes from Ramayana and different incarnations of Lord Vishnu and the wedding procession of Shiv and Parvati. The mural paintings made from vegetable colors and minerals stand as fine examples of creativity that seem to have withstood the test of time over all these centuries. The mural painting of 'Veerabhadra Swamy' in the inner sanctum is the biggest in Asia measuring 23 feet by 13 feet.

The most fascinating marvel here is the 'Hanging Pillar.' This mysterious pillar does not rest on the temple floor and hangs directly from the ceiling. It stills remains an unsolved mystery as to how this mind-blowing phenomena works. This pillar even today stands tall as a testimony to ingenious architectural engineering feat. Unfortunately, it is a little tilted thanks to the curious British engineer who wanted to unravel the mystery behind it.

Another classy structure is the Kalyana Mandapam. Though only partially finished, the magnificent architecture and craftsmanship casts a long lasting spell on you. The many pillars of the Kalyana Mandapam bear intricately carved sculptures of mythical creatures. The beautiful carvings on the pillars are the inspiration behind the well renowned Dharmavaram saree patterns. People spend months here studying the intricate carvings on the pillars to replicate it on the sarees as beautiful designs.

The unfinished Mandapam adds even more charm to the temple that you cannot help but imagine the beauty of the place during the Vijayanagar period. An era of kings, royalty, where the beauty of the temple is enhanced by the brightness of the moonlight and oil lamps and pillars are decorated with flowers. Truly history was royal and everything made or done was extravagant, unique and flawless. With no undo option, this finesse work required years of dedication and practice to master the skill with no place for a mediocre job.

Also, tucked away in the corner of the temple is a massive monolithic seven headed serpent shielding the Shivling. An interesting snippet about this carving is that it is believed to have been carved out at a lightening speed by the artisans while lunch was being prepared for them. On the other side of this huge rock is a massive sculpture of Lord Ganesha. We stood there awestruck on how a huge boulder was turned into a piece of fine art.

Take a walk around the temple and be spellbound by the carvings, the state of the art ancient drainage system, the rock solid structure and the creativity bringing life to these rocks and pillars. The temple is open throughout the year and daily rituals and pujas are performed. However, the inner sanctum is open from 7 am to 6 pm.

The temple hardly receives any crowd and hence is very calm and serene. It is a perfect place for soul searching. Time stands still here and you can forget all your worries and just live the moment. By sunset, birds of different feathers make the temple premises their home.

It is disheartening to see such an impressive piece of history and fine craftsmanship being neglected by the Government. In its heyday the temple complex is believed to have been spread over a whooping 100 acres but now it has been confined to mere 6 acres. Due to rampant encroachment by businesses, human settlements and government establishments, a great deal of history, artifacts, sculpture etc. are lost forever. The extraordinary mural art on the temple ceiling has not been preserved and has gone beyond a point of restoration.

To boost tourism, the Government has constructed a sparkling new Haritha Resort run by APTDC offering fine and spacious rooms at a reasonable price. Do use their online portal for reservations. The restaurant serves basic but exceptionally good food. This stay option is a steal deal for the money.

Another fine initiative championed by MLA Balakrishna is the water purifier plant for the benefit of the people.

Lepakshi, where life appears to be calm, peaceful and less chaotic. The entire town shuts down by late evening allowing one to soak in the beauty around. With too many rocks and boulders in the vicinity this place is perfect for rock climbing as well. Take the lesser known trail to Lepakshi before it becomes a hotshot tourist destination.

How to reach:

By Air: Bangalore International Airport 100 km from Lepakshi is the nearest airport.

By Rail: Hindupur 14 km from Lepakshi is the nearest railway station.

By Road: Brilliant NH 7 connects Lepakshi and Bangalore/Hyderabad.