31 March 2015

Pondicherry


Dedicated to Bagmita Sarangi who touched my life for a fleeting moment but turned it upside-down for ever.

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“In the midst of hate, I found there was within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was within me, an invincible calm.
In the midst of winter, I found there was within me, an invincible summer.
No matter how hard the world pushes against me,
Within me, there’s something stronger, something better, pushing right back.”
– Albert Camus, Author-Journalist-Philosopher


Promenade Beach - 180° panorama


Its streets flaunting their distinguishably exquisite colonial architecture interspersed with enviable natural bounty in the form of colorful bougainvillea and coconut trees and its mesmerizing sea coast carpeted with an exquisite scattering of multicolored, multi-patterned seashells, the Union Territory of Pondicherry/Puducherry, that tiny, serene city on the south-eastern coast of the country, abundantly endowed with charming natural and exquisite architectural features, ended up proving to be more than just a weekend holiday destination for me and culminated into an eye opening, pensive discovery of priorities and lifestyle choices. The girlfriend dragged me along on an impromptu trip after my friends cancelled a pre-planned visit to Ooty-Pykara falls – with not even the slightest clue about where Pondicherry was nor any idea about its history, monuments or tourist destinations, in fact, with no itinerary or even the basic prerequisite knowledge of where to go and what to see/eat (so very unlike me!), we travelled to the picturesque, laidback city on a whim and ended up visiting almost every single tourist destination it had to offer in two days – but the journey and the subsequent discovery of the beautiful city’s unheralded secrets proved to be more than a study of its impeccable history, numerous magnificent temples, alluring colonial architecture and awe-inspiring beaches – I realized that the spirit of adventure and of travel, of discovering and forgetting, of exploring gastronomic haunts and perceiving love and affection was still teeming and kicking within me even though I had (wrongly) begun to feel that the rut of corporate life and the pressures of achieving success had blunted them. The credits of course go, in their entirety, to the girlfriend who has become an unabated stream of motivation, affection and understanding.


A thing of beauty - Vibrant stucco artwork inside Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges church


Pondicherry’s history traverses eons prior to its colonization by French (ruled AD 1674-1954), British and Dutch trading companies and their subsequent territorial wars, unobserved treaties and interrupted reigns – in fact, even centuries before it came to be successively ruled by some of the most prominent of south Indian kingdoms like the Pallavas (ruled 4th-6th centuries AD), Cholas (ruled 10th-13th centuries AD), Pandyas (ruled 13th century AD), Vijayanagar (ruled 14th century AD – 1638) and Bijapur Adil Shahi (ruled AD 1638-74), the tiny functional city-port, in the form of a now ruined, monumental settlement known as Arikamedu, facilitated ancient international trade by connecting Roman sea highways to the Indian mainland. Spirituality and religion seeped into its humble existence through the lives and charitable acts of the numerous sages who chose to meditate on its serene beaches ages ago. And the city unequivocally assimilates each facet of its interminable history and continues, even contemporaneously, to reveal unambiguously spiritual, commercial and colonial sides that are unabashedly unique and immiscible with each other. Our first foray into the former colony’s vivid culture was soon after stepping out of our guesthouse and walking on foot towards the Promenade Beach which is flanked, as far as the eye can see, by relics of the city’s not so ancient past – colonial heritage buildings, painted in shades of grays, pinks, gray-green and white, set in neat, impossibly clean rows demarcated by wide tree-lined avenues and blossoms of bougainvillea that exhibit a dexterous ability to foray into every nook and cranny.


Impossibly uniform! - The French enclave


This is the French part of the city, where the streets have both Indian and French names, displaying besides the impeccable architectural and horticultural preferences, a taste in unembellished simplicity and urban landscaping – after all, the entire beach front and even the open spaces between many of the more prominent buildings are littered with statues from the city’s eventful past – there is one of Gandhi, housed within a white canopy and surrounded by eight towering tapering pillars (brought purposefully from the fortress at Gingee, Tamil Nadu (70 km from Pondicherry) after its capture in AD 1751) carved in the likeness of the sacred monoliths in Hindu temples, that gives the beach its alternate nomenclature “Gandhi Beach”; facing the former and looked over by an ancient, towering, nonoperational lighthouse composed externally in a tapering fluted pattern is a sculpture of Jawahar Lal Nehru and nearby stands an imposing, sword-wielding Joseph Francois Dupleix, the renowned French Governor-General of Pondicherry (in office 1742-54 AD). The wide, unending stretch of sea water continues to intimidate me the same way as it did years ago when I visited Mumbai as a toddler with my parents, but surprisingly, the beach is never too crowded nor unclean though at times slightly foul-smelling owing to the accumulation of washed up organic wastes along the barrier face. The girlfriend, being from Mumbai and deeply in love with the sea, rushes to it swiftly, leaving me in a dilemma to follow her or stay at a comfortable, safe distance – soon love takes over and we jump across the boulders scattered across the sea wall, pausing only momentarily to get photos clicked or collect gorgeously colorful seashells. We would return to the sea again and again over the next two days, at the same time intimidated and fascinated by its majestic expanse, inconsiderate existence and perennial presence. Far in the background, one can even see remains of a port's pier that was washed away by a cyclone in 1952, stretching into the sea its destroyed, decimated fingers, composed of iron poles and wooden walkways and yet dangling lifeless and forsaken. Opposite the beach face, near the statue of J.L. Nehru exists a small, beautifully and solemnly landscaped, walled-in compound featuring a modest white commemorative edifice dedicated to the memory of the brave French-Indian soldiers who laid down their lives in the First World War – raised in 1937-38, four tall pillars nest in their midst a monumental tablet inscribed with names of the fallen soldiers and the inscription –

Aux Combattants des Indes Francaises morts pour la patrie
1914–1918

The fighters from French India who died for their country
1914-1918

Standing attention in front of the wide tablet is a distressed, blue-painted soldier with his gun pointing downwards, while the back of the tablet is embossed with more inscriptions and embedded with a bronze bas relief depicting the arrival of Dupleix in Pondicherry. Sadly, entry to the memorial grounds is restricted and it is particularly heart wrenching since one would have liked to walk through the small silent garden, read the sober inscriptions carved into the tablet’s undulating surface and understand the courageous trials and sufferings undergone by the unknown martyred soldiers. It is at the same time interesting and melancholy to note that while the India Gate war memorial in Delhi corners the national attention and adulation (refer Pixelated Memories - India Gate), the evocative French memorial here lies thoroughly ignored in its pristine, aesthetically excellent garden compound.


Sober - The French War Memorial


But prior to reaching the unsullied French quarters and the expansive sea front, one passes through an extensive bazaar very thoughtfully christened as "Grand Bazaar" and situated along the length of J.L. Nehru Avenue, one of the longest arterial streets of the city – boasting of rows of restaurants, cafes, makeshift grocery shops, street-side flea shops stocking cheap jewellery, bracelets and cloth accessories punctuated by showrooms trading in antiques, brass-bronze-wood-clay sculptures and collectibles, the highlight of the bazaar were the unending rows of street-side textile outlets merchandising in women wear, especially one-pieces, dresses and jumpsuits – the girlfriend ensured that she shopped to her heart's delight, taking her own sweet time and making her own independent decisions, and I had to trail along whining to be allowed to go to the renowned museum near the French enclave. But she had other plans – after traversing through the bazaar and running around in the scorching sun on the smouldering sand and jagged rocks lining the beach front, it was eventually decided that we should first visit one of the numerous cafes that the city possesses for some chilled coffee and delightful lunch. And that is when we spotted La Cafe, a delightful little waterfront cafe offering sumptuous chicken sandwiches, cheesy delicious lasagnas and various varieties of lip-smacking coffees; it's small rectangular interiors surrounded by wide verandahs facilitating an open-air atmosphere breezed by the cold, salt-tinged sea air; the verandahs themselves surrounded by a hemmed in compound interspersed with lily pads brimming with crystal clear water and teeming with miniature white and black fishes; a tree fossil, 20 million years old, occupied a forgotten corner like an old, deaf grandparent, ignored like an ordinary log, its only solace the small, similarly-hued information board propped against its meager, ancient existence! Given the affably delectable gastronomic choices, reasonable prices and the equally well ambiance it offers, Le Cafe, run by Pondicherry Tourism and open from 5 am to 12 pm everyday, manages to attract a clientele that is largely composed of foreign tourists, but the service left a bit to be desired given that the orders take very long to materialize and the servers have to be reminded of even the simplest of requirements 2-3 times. But then, given the mystic background of shimmering blue waters of the Bay of Bengal and the overall relief that the tables are against the scorching sun, one doesn't mind the delays much. Suggested – order the coffee-flavored ice cream. It's simply mouthwatering!


Rolling blue sea, brilliant sunshine and the perfect cure for hunger!


Done with the lunch, we finally were now ready to head to the Pondicherry museum – located close to the beach in the French part of the city (Rue Romain Rolland to be exact. Most people do not know where the museum is (speaking of the apathy of tourists and visitors, Indians and foreigners alike, towards culture and history – yes, it does extend to this French-inspired city as well) so better ask for the Lieutenant-Governor's residence which is just a stone's throw away) and surrounded by several other prominent landmarks that too are remains of the city's lengthy colonial past like the Romain Rolland Library, Raj Bhavan ("Le Palais du Gouverneur"/Lieutenant-Governor's residence) and an alluringly landscaped garden referred to as Bharathi Park, the tiny double-storied museum proves to be a study in over-hype and appears like a poor, dwarf cousin of the mighty museums at Delhi and Calcutta! Refer Pixelated Memories - National Museum, Delhi and Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum, Calcutta for comparison. The museum is housed in a restored and extensively repaired late 18th-century villa that was once owned by a Portuguese tradesman who went by the surname Carvalho – nothing else is known about his identity and life. The ground floor is divided into three interconnected chambers – the first dedicated to sculptures and weaponry crafted or used by the numerous medieval dynasties that reigned over Pondicherry, the second displaying a mixed collection of paintings, weaponry, numismatic collection and furniture originating from the everyday lives of French Governor-Generals and Indian monarchs, and the third exclusively features archaeological finds from Arikamedu, the aforementioned ancient port city-township that lay on the highway for Roman trade.


Treasure from Arikamedu


The first floor again possesses two large chambers – the first dedicated to French sculptures, porcelain showpieces and large replicas of French monuments in the city with extensive descriptions inscribed alongside, the second again exhibits the finds from Arikamedu, especially beads and ornamental fashionware, with very interesting captions and information charts about the manufacturing and features. Photography is prohibited within the museum by permission but I was able to quickly sneak a couple of clicks. A wide verandah, shielded from the sun's fiery rays by shutters, exists along the side of the first floor and here are displayed few modes of transport like palanquins, hand-pulled rickshaws and early motorcars that were favored by the late-medieval and early-modern monarchs and colonial officers. Hence concludes the tour of the museum in slightly over an hour – the shortest I have ever stayed in one (contrast this with the three entire days I spent within the Delhi museum!). Also we were disappointed by the lack of information panels and brochures that could guide us around the place; neither are the antiques and exhibit pieces displayed, curated or maintained very well leading regrettably to the deterioration of their condition, accumulation of dust on the glass frames and an overall air of neglect and ignorance seeping through the ancient relics and medieval art pieces. The place is open from 10 am – 5 pm everyday except Monday and national holidays.


19th-century representations of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of sex, death and destruction


Given that we were very tired by now and the girlfriend wanted to have a look at the new stock of merchandise and garments for sale brought about by an increase in the number of peddlers as the evening bazaar had come alive, we decided to head to the bazaar and then to the guesthouse for a short siesta before embarking again on a long night walk for dinner and beer (along with an assortment of meats – roast chicken, fried fish and sauteed indistinguishable meat that looked like eels but was textured rubber-like – that we bought from a roadside stall that served these and over half a dozen other kinds of meats like chicken livers, shrimps, candied oyster-like shelled sea creatures etc). And lest I forget, the guesthouse we stayed at – Blue Star Guesthouse – is best avoided – the bedbugs are very real and there are huge rats that know how to drag entire chicken legs up vertical surfaces and finish them in a very clever manner leaving the bones entirely untouched (making us wonder if there was someone else, a human or a ghost, in the room, who finished the chicken so well but scattered it around, including in bathrooms! Terrifying!). Though the staff, including the elderly caretaker, stay out of the guests' way most of the time, the late night, alcohol-induced parties and irritable noises and shouting are not what one would expect from a decent guesthouse, nor the lending of rooms on monthly basis and the allowance to the people to treat the place like a PG accommodation with the added facility of drying washed clothes on lines stretched in the balconies! We checked out the very next morning! Anyway, the next day was our last day here in the mesmerizing city and the first thing we did after waking up was book bus tickets back to Bangalore.


Parrot astrology! - Remnants of ancient Indian traditions and beliefs in an erstwhile French colony!


The plan for the second day included firstly a visit to the city's churches and given that it was a Sunday we had hoped we would be able to see the morning prayers in their full glory. It is another matter that we did not take into account the extremely long time it would take us at the ticket counters. By the time we returned, via an auto, to the Promenade Beach, close to where one of the most splendid and oldest churches of the city – Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges ("Chapel of Our Lady of Angels"/locally referred to as "Kaps Koil") – is located, the prayers were long over and the area wore a deserted look disturbed only by the sight of occasional policemen and tourists like us. The church's prominent dome and towers can be spotted from the beach and their flamboyant colors present an interesting clash against the otherwise drab and uniform color scheme of the city. Seated within a compound of its own and painted in shades of orange-pink with yellow highlights, the church is a magnificent structure designed to resemble a massive cross laid horizontally with conspicuous Greco-Roman architectural influences including two lofty three-storied towers and a simplistic triangular pediment over the facade existential along the base of the cross and a similarly high gateway surmounted by a pyramidal roof on the other side. A dwarfish semi-circular dome seated upon a very high octagonal drum (base) marks the intersection of the two arms of the cross while ornamental bearded human figurines dressed in blue robes and sashes compete for space with bells in the arched alcoves, two to each side, lining the two towers. To our dismay, the church was closed for visitor entry when we visited and the priest had left for his residence.


Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges - A whiff of color in the otherwise bland cityscape


Further inquiry led to the knowledge that the priest lived nearby in another, much smaller church – the original church, first raised in AD 1707, was reconstructed after it fell into disrepair and was afterwards destroyed by the British in AD 1761 and reconstructed for the third time shortly afterwards by the French – the priest's residence and an orphanage are housed in the third of these which has along its exterior wall a large board pinned with a chart depicting the different portrayals of Mother Mary. The fourth and last Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges, the aforementioned colossal edifice for the entrance to which we were seeking permission from the priest, was designed by architect Louis Guerre and commissioned in AD 1855 by Napoleon III, French President from 1852-70 who took a keen interest in reconstruction and urban landscaping of French cities and colonies, as the royal church for his family to offer prayers at when they visited Pondicherry. The priest was kind enough to allow us entry to the serene church and sent two young boys with keys to open the premises, but soon after our entry, seeing the church to be open, there came hordes of locals and tourists and within minutes the interiors were packed wall to wall!

The church interiors are a rococo of intricate plasterwork patterns painted in myriads of hues (blues, white, orange and yellow), exquisitely surmounted Corinthian pillars and pilasters (fake pillars) facing the wall surfaces, striking plasterwork floral medallions of numerous individualistic designs and patterns, moldings and borders enclosing the individual design motifs – there is simply no end to the degree of unmatched grace endowed to the elegant structure by the unparalleled artwork. The most detailed and bewitching are the four floral medallions, each circumscribed by a hexagonal depression lined with even more detailed edges and the entire scheme surrounded on three sides by smaller triangles each embedded with a single, tiny, simplistic flower, that exist around the base of the dome – captivatingly mesmerizing!


The devil is in the details


Also eye-catching is the spellbinding ornamental pattern introduced by the juxtaposition of these floral medallions against the high dome whose base is punctured by eight vibrantly colorful stained glass windows (painted in very ordinarily patterned mosaics); the dome's concave surface too flaunts another floral medallion of an altogether different, albeit much simplistic, design. The walls are lined with painted plaques depicting important events from the life of Jesus while sculptures of Jesus, Mother Mary and several angels occupy prominent positions around the semi-circular altar which houses a Holy Cross as its centerpiece; more sculptures line the small altar on each side of the central one. I used to think that the Church of St. John's at Calcutta is truly impressive (refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church, Calcutta), but Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges is far ahead in terms of architectural and artistic features and the overall design blueprint and placement of antiques and sculptures – one wonders what it would have looked like originally when the interiors and exteriors were painted glistening white in their entirety. Opposite the church on the sea facing side is an open grass-shrouded ground wherein sits a single sculpture of Joan of Arc (lived AD 1412-31), a legendary Roman-Catholic saint and French martyr in the Hundred Years War against the British (see links in the footnote). The sculpture was donated by Edouard Goubert, the first Chief Minister of Pondicherry (1963-64) on the condition that no construction be committed on the open ground thereby facilitating the priest to have a clear, uninhibited view of the rolling sea while delivering sermons.


Sacred symmetry


Wandering around, we had the opportunity to explore some of the streets of the French enclave – there are several smaller churches (many of them also housing orphanages and schools), haberdasher shops, book stores and cafeterias. The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, a massive, uniquely designed, white structure fringed with golden-yellow highlights and touches of blue, features as part of its ornamental Portuguese architecture (even though the origins are French!) flowing scrolls and numerous statues. The cathedral sits within an equally enormous compound of its own that does complete justice to the former's majestic dimensions, especially if one is visiting specifically for the purpose of photography. Like the Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges, this church too has an extensive history – it was constructed, with the financial support of Louis XIV of France (reign AD 1643-1715), in 1692 but was demolished by the Dutch the very next year and recommissioned in 1699. The second church soon fell into disrepair and was demolished and reconstructed between 1728-36 but it too was leveled, this time by British at the same time as the annihilation of the Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges along with the rest of the French quarters. The present structure took an enormous time in making – the design and planning began in AD 1770 and the actual construction, with various architectural and functional additions, continued till as late as 1987! Sadly, we couldn't find anyone who might allow us entry within the compound and had to return disappointed – the photos on Wikipedia reveal that the interiors are as enchanting, if not more, as the exteriors. Do check here – Wikipedia.org - Immaculate Conception Cathedral.


Of colors, curves and sculptures - The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception


We also visited a book shop where browsing through literally left me with pangs of nostalgia and remembrances – there were books that I had read back in class V-VI and I simply had to purchase them! What's more, most of the books were second hand and the caretaker informed us that most of these were sourced straight from the bazaars of Daryaganj, Delhi – what's a Dilliwala who hasn't been to Daryaganj for its weekly bazaars? (refer Pixelated Memories - Daryaganj Sunday Book Market) The girlfriend, who is herself a voracious and intellectual reader, had to pull me back from the world of memories and flashbacks and together the two of us ended up purchasing over half a dozen books, including many that we had already read in libraries and as ebooks! Tortured by hunger and guided by the paradisaical smell of some gastronomic delights cooking, we traced our steps towards Cafe Xtasi nearby which specializes in mouth-watering wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas, including those topped with pork and beef, some of the best that the girlfriend and I have had.


O delicious sandwiches! Thou shalt be missed!



After the churches and the lunch, with great difficulty and after promising ourselves we'll be here again before we leave could we tear ourselves from the bazaars that had begun to line up the streets and the pavements near the Cafe. We were now headed to Auroville ("City of Dawn") – a utopian experimental township conceived to bring together humanity from all nationalities, races and socio-economic status without any differences or inhibitions whatsoever in order to lead an idealistic, harmonious life dedicated to universal progress and unity – also perhaps the most famous tourist and spiritual site in the city, especially given its credentials as being associated with and dreamt by the influential freedom struggle revolutionary and spiritual reformer Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and his foremost disciple Mirra Alfassa Richards ("The Mother"). Designed by the French architect Roger Anger in 1968, the massive complex houses an enormous exhibition-information center where details of the complex's conception, construction and enshrinement within the charters of global bodies like the United Nations are displayed along with photographs from its day-to-day existence and blueprints of the city and its outstanding gigantic centerpiece – the Matrimandir ("Mother's shrine"). The exhibition center also houses a publication department that primarily stocks books and essays on spirituality and India's cultural, ethnic and sartorial heritage; a corner of the publication division is also dedicated to collecting voluntary contributions for "Tsunamika", a project initiated at Auroville to financially support the female survivors of the terrible tsunami that devastated much of southern India on December 26th 2004 besides claiming thousands of lives and homes and leaving hundreds of thousands of people destitute, homeless, starving and without any relatives to look after them. The fisherwomen are trained to craft simplistic dolls from fabric leftover from other uses and visitors are allowed to take as many of these dolls as they want for free and leave behind (if they wish to) cash contribution towards the cause of any denomination they see fit. The project and the tremendous response it received have been largely successful in transforming the lives of hundreds of fisherwomen, many of whom have been since trained in arts and handicrafts, by providing relief, rehabilitation, healing and satisfactory livelihood. The small cardboard placard pinned to every Tsunamika doll reads, in simple, sober words –

"She has been hand-made by women, The women who live by the ocean,
The women whose lives changed forever after the tsunami,
The women who are exploring a new way of living,
The women who are empowering themselves."


A world of photos and descriptions - Auroville visitor center


The verandah around the publication division hosts a display of paintings, 3D artworks and crafts created by residents of Auroville during their stay here. The artworks are fascinatingly detailed and overwhelmingly stunning, but the prices are quite simply beyond the reach of average Indians – indeed several of the paintings cost nearly as much as my monthly take home and more!

Past cafes and small workshops displaying handicraft merchandise and traditional textiles and also past thickly vegetated forestlands crisscrossed by clearings and slithering tracks, Matrimandir, supported on twelve earth-red masonry wedges, is a colossal spaceship-like spherical edifice whose entire surface is covered with large gold-plated discs that reflect the sunlight to generate a brilliantly radiant luminescence. Possessing no prior knowledge about the restricted entry to the unique meditative center on Sunday evenings and learning about it after having reached it (it opens from 9:30 am – 5 pm on all days except Sundays when it is only open till 1:30 pm; passes can be obtained free of cost from the information center), we had no way to return to the information center and seek permission since the two are separated by slightly over a kilometer long unmotorable vegetated land and connected by snaking, oft-trodden pathways. We might have returned for the permission had we not had an autorickshaw waiting for us in the parking lot who was going to charge us even more if made to wait longer (Auroville's international population is quite secluded from the rest of the villages and cities that constitute India and there are no to and fro means of public transport between Pondicherry and Auroville. It is thus advisable to have an autorickshaw/taxi idling in the parking – they charge around Rs 500 for the journey and back and a one hour waiting time in between). We had to be content with observing and photographing the enormous sphere from afar and the photos too left a lot to be desired given that the open vantage grounds lay on the other side. The interiors house a huge meditation chamber possessing the world's largest optically-perfect glass globe – rays of sunlight are reflected and focused perpendicularly down through the Matrimandir's roof to touch an intricately conceived "lotus pond" on the ground level thereby symbolizing a point association between the realms of spirituality and matter.


Matrimandir - The golden spaceship


Heading back, we contemplated upon the message that the Mother delivered regarding Auroville's conception, commissioning and construction, and also upon how truly great our country is to set aside land and resources, both territorial, financial and spiritual, for the existence of an international zone within its borders –

"A dream
There should be somewhere on Earth, a place which no nation could claim as its own, where all human beings of good will who have a sincere aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world, and obey one single authority, that of the supreme truth; a place of peace, concord and harmony where all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his sufferings and miseries, to surmount his weaknesses and ignorance, to triumph over his limitations and incapacities; a place where the needs of the spirit and the concern for progress would take precedence over the satisfaction of desires and passions, the search for pleasure and material enjoyment. "

After returning to the city and having on our hands enough time before the bus to Bangalore departed, we could finally visit the unending street-side bazaar that was beginning to come up while we were going towards Auroville. Now in its full glory, spreading its uninhibited and much adored multi-hued, multi-textured tentacles through the pavements and side alleys, the bazaar was a mishmash of people, metal ware and clay items – gleaming utensils, numerous animal and human-shaped piggy banks, vibrantly colorful sculptures (no dearth of them here! And the variety and kinds are simply breathtaking!), earth-hued lamp holders, mind-blowing display pieces, glittering jewellery and more articles than words could picture!


Pondicherry's hidden secrets - A bazaar like no other!


Over an hour later, out of free cash to splurge and exhausted at the moment with the shopping and overall with the whirlwind tour that it had been, we spent the next few hours catching our breaths at a majestic, richly vibrant temple referred locally as Sri Varadaraja Perumal Temple. Synonymous with typical Dravidian temple architecture, the complex boasts of several interconnected though entirely individualistic shrines, each surmounted with towering pyramidal spires covered throughout with arrays of colorful, breathtaking sculptures and symbolic mythological and mythical patterns. The most eye-opening is the temple's towering "Gopuram" (pyramidal entranceway) that has more sculptures, that too on each of its sides, than words can thread or photos can depict! Interestingly, the temple, dated to 600 AD, is considered to be the oldest in Pondicherry – dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment, it was initially meant to house only those idols of Rama, an ideal emperor-brother-son-husband-student-administrator who is regarded as an incarnation of the Lord, and his wife Sita and brother Lakshman that were originally found in the sea by fishermen, but has since been expanded into a large complex with multiple shrines, each exquisitely and colorfully adorned and highly ornamented. Were it not for the never-ending conversations and the sight of the girlfriend's beautiful face framed by her long, curling tresses, the cool breezes would have definitely lulled me into a deep slumber.


A riot of colors! - Sri Varadaraja Perumal Temple


Soon it was time to go and Pondicherry became a blur, a distant beautiful memory that continued to evade description and slip through the fingers like the words that were needed to describe its ethereal beauty and glorious past. What was it that made the journey so tranquil, so evocative and so heartrending memorable – was it the girlfriend's loving, affable company or the unmistakable whiff of uniquely French culture in Pondicherry's existence or the unabated, desperate need that brewed in my heart to escape Bangalore's cement jungles and corporate culture and travel? I find solace in Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" to describe both the feelings towards the girlfriend and the unquenchable urge to travel –

"If he loved her he couldn't leave, if he spoke he couldn't listen, if he fought he couldn't win."


How to reach: Pondicherry is well-connected with the rest of the country by an efficient rail and bus transport system.
Time required to explore the city: 2-3 days
Charges/person inclusive of food and lodging: Approx. Rs 4000 for a two-day, one-night stay.
Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Daryaganj Sunday Book Market, Delhi
  2. Pixelated Memories - India Gate War Memorial, Delhi
  3. Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum, Calcutta
  4. Pixelated Memories - National Museum, Delhi
  5. Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church, Calcutta
Suggested reading - 
  1. Archive.auroville.org  (Official website of Auroville)
  2. Auroville.org (Another official website of Auroville)
  3. Art.puducherry.gov.in - Pondicherry Museum  (Official website of Deptt. of Art and Culture, Govt. of Puducherry)
  4. Auroville.org - A Dream: Envisioning an Ideal Society
  5. Boloji.com - The Auroville Experiment  
  6. Columbia.edu - Pondicherry 
  7. Come2india.org - Church of Our Lady of Angels 
  8. Infochangeindia.org - The Tsunamika doll: a symbol of solidarity and regeneration 
  9. News.bbc.co.uk - Article "Local concerns over Indian utopia " (dated May 24, 2008) by Rachel Wright 
  10. Pondytourism.in - Arikamedu (Official website of Pondicherry tourism)
  11. Scoopwhoop.com - 14 reasons why Pondicherry should be your next travel destination
  12. Thehindu.com - Article "A French colony that fought the British" (dated July 02, 2012) by V.B. Ganesan 
  13. Thehindu.com - Article "A slice of history" (dated March 03, 2012) by Kavita Kishore 
  14. Thehindu.com - Article "Pondicherry Museum sheen lost due to lack of information, showmanship" (dated Jan 31, 2014) by Olympia Shilpa Gerald
  15. Thehindu.com - Article "Puducherry comes out with list of State symbols" (dated April 21, 2007) by Deepa H. Ramakrishnan
  16. Thehindu.com - Article "The right spot to relax" (dated May 28, 2005) by Deepa H. Ramakrishnan 
  17. The-shooting-star.com - A Guide to Auroville: Things to know before you go.
  18. Tsunamika.org (Official website of the Tsunamika project)
  19. Wikipedia.org - Auroville
  20. Wikipedia.org - History of Puducherry
  21. Wikipedia.org - Immaculate Conception Cathedral
  22. Wikipedia.org - Joan of Arc
  23. Wikipedia.org - Joseph Fran├žois Dupleix
  24. Wikipedia.org - Mirra Alfassa ("The Mother")
  25. Wikipedia.org - Puducherry
  26. Wikipedia.org - Sri Aurobindo 
  27. Womensenews.org - Article "Tsunamika, a Doll of the Tsunami, Turning 10" (dated Dec 16, 2014) by Deepa Kandaswamy 

18 March 2015

Nandi Hills & Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple, Chikkaballapur, Bangalore


Reminiscences – This post is dedicated to Mubashshir, Kulwinder, Harish, Snehal and Pravin – dearest friends, until recently posted at IBM Bangalore, who made the stay here interesting and enriching through their company, laughter-filled discussions, meaningless debates and everlasting memories. Thank you guys, simply for being your affable selves!

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Rare would be the Bangalorean who hasn't heard of Nandi Hills, that surprisingly famed, naturally landscaped, unbelievably crowded and yet magnificently spectacular mountain getaway located three score kilometers away from the city outskirts where we at present reside, but very few would have ever ventured to or even heard of the numerous exquisite medieval temples that exist on the summit and in the vicinity of the enchanting hill cluster. And it was these little known, nondescript gems of ancient ruined temples that made my day when we, i.e thirteen sleep-deprived, grumbling but cheerful friends from IBM and me, journeyed early morning few weeks back from our dreary existence to the laid back, fog-enshrouded, serene hill town. We had booked a Traveller to pick us at 4 am from outside the office campus and the ride to the hill base was an uneventful one, not because we were all sleepy (on the contrary, we travelled laughing, gossiping and listening to music on FM radio), but because the sheer blinding darkness outside the windows numbed us to the indescribably enjoyable pleasures of road trip that are experienced when the sun is up and about. A hour and a half later, refreshed by steaming cups of (poor quality) coffee and cigarettes at one of the several roadside eateries lining the base of the hill route, we still stood in complete darkness that was punctured only by the headlights of hundreds of cars moving in long slithering queues and waited for the gates leading further upward to the parking arena to be thrown open, while the unspoken tension to reach the summit before sunrise, for which it is so highly renowned, had begun to become palpable.


In the vicinity of Nandi village - A countryside framed


From the parking area, after purchasing the tickets, the pace at which we climbed the nearly 4-kilometer long slithering route, punctuated only by momentary breaks to click selfies and admire the unbelievably thick fog that nearly obscured everything beyond a couple of meters, would have been reminiscent of forced marches with which armies move during emergencies! The photos, of course, came amazingly well thanks to the unparalleled walls of fog that removed any and every background disturbance and left us with beautiful white backgrounds, though yes, our hair were left wet and clinging and the spectacles rendered fogged and wet because of the dew accumulating all over them. The rapid climb upwards combined with the solid walls of fog left little time or opportunity to appreciate the landscape, flora or the numerous viewing shelters and gently rising staircases built in the beautified hill sides; the granite walls and the cusped-arched gateway of the fortress "Nandidurg", raised atop the hill and enclosed within thick curtain walls interspersed by bastions and viewing towers, appeared beckoning, and so did the small ruined and ignored summer palace of Emperor Fath Ali Khan Tipu Sultan (ruled AD 1782-99) that is nestled in the bounty of thickly forested hilly area said to be the source of several streams – but we had to leave these for the return journey – anyway the fog would have rendered landscape/architecture photography nearly impossible! Signboards all along the slithering route also direct visitors to a small landscaped area near the hill's summit that is cultivated around a beautiful guest house now christened as "Nehru Nilaya" ("Nehru's abode") after Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru who once stayed in it but originally conceived and commissioned as a summer house by Mark Cubbon, the British army officer and administrator (in service of the British East India "trading" Company from 1801-61), while he was posted as the Commissioner of Mysore.


A palace spoiled - Tipu Sultan's summer residence


Eventually, drenched and slightly overcome by fatigue and cold, walking along the winding, spiraling pathway flanked on one side by the deep cliff face and on the other by bountiful, gently sloping, grass-shrouded hills, eventually we reached the summit only to realize that the journey wouldn't fruit as desired – the heavy fog ensured that the sun couldn't be spotted till it was nearly 10 am – but, as the saying goes, the journey is as essential as the end, and the trip proved uniquely refreshing and exhilarating. Running around, clicking group photos and sipping hot coffee at the small eateries at the summit, time for us flew quickly; the fog's impenetrability could only be gauged from the fact that I got separated from the group while we were having coffee and I ventured to clean some of it that had spilled on my shirt and then couldn't find them again for over two hours – there is no mobile phone signal, except of BSNL, anywhere beyond the base and hence I had no way to contact my colleagues nor did they – only after walking down four kilometers to the base and making a frantic phone call from there could I locate them and walk back to the summit to regroup! By then the sun was high in sky and the mist had very nearly disappeared – on the way back, I could observe the fortress' bastions built along the hill way which permitted strategic lookout over the entire valley for signs of approaching armies and were equipped with spaces for soldiers to mount guard and shoot. The fortress is said to have been commissioned by local chieftains, whose names have long disappeared from the biased pages of history, and was strengthened by Tipu Sultan.


Bird's eye view


With the sun shining bright, also came out numerous monkeys, many of them little suckling babies, others snapping for food and ice creams but almost all of them posing handsomely for the numerous cameras pointed at them by tourists – they were also intelligent enough to remove layers of chocolate from the ice creams and bite only at the vanilla core! Numerous bridal and model photo shoots were also in progress against the mesmerizing background of deep cliffs and remnants of flowing dew-laden mist clouds.

Soon after reuniting, we headed to the beautifully simplistic medieval Hindu shrine, referred to as Yoga Narasimha temple, built immediately next to the summit but ignored by almost all visitors except few devotees aware of its forgotten existence. The concept of twin temples is prevalent in south India where one temple dedicated to the enjoyment ("bhoga") phase of a deity exists at the base of a hill and another dedicated to the meditative ("yoga") phase exists in isolation atop the summit (more on the former later).


Unshakably solid - The granite entrance to Yoga Narasimha temple complex


Representing the renunciation form of Lord Shiva and entered via a simplistic gateway supported on mighty granite walls and pillars, the formidable structure of the Yoga Narasimha complex consists of a large central chamber constructed from granite blocks and surmounted by pyramidal spires plastered over and adorned with stucco figurines of mythological deities, Kirtimukha (refer the previous post for description – Pixelated Memories - Bangalore Fort) and Nandi, the bull steed of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction to whom these temples are dedicated. Colonnades composed of simplistically carved, rough granite pillars encircle the temple courtyard and function as circumambulation passages around the shrine – occasionally here too one can spot idols embedded within plain whitewashed walls. A small shrine has also been reverentially set aside for the worship of "Nagas", serpent deities usually depicted singularly or entwined around each other and worshiped, especially fervently in south India, for their ability to grant blessings of life and fertility.


Sunshine yellow! - A relatively simplistic spire surmounting one of the shrines within the temple


Heading towards the central shrine which is composed of two interconnected chambers and whose exterior granite walls and doorway flanks are also sparingly ornamented respectively with small sculptures of deities and vegetative flourishes, symbolic of prosperity and fertility, emerging from sacred pots. Stepping into the first of the two interconnected shrines, one is for an instance dazzled by the exquisiteness of the sanctum and the idols gracing the chamber – the sanctum, entered via a doorway ensconced within gold framework extremely intricately carved into numerous patterns and designs, houses a single "Shiva linga" (Lord Shiva's phallic representation) enshrined within a silver throne sculpted with more depictions of mythological deities and serpent Gods, while outside, facing the sanctum, sits a sculpture of the bull-demigod Nandi; two brass sculptures of armed deities stand guard on either side of the doorway; several smaller stone sculptures remain strewn around the chamber, especially in the corners, as if they were simply stacked there with the intention of adding further holiness to the already divine chamber by the royals who originally commissioned the temple.


Ancient elegance - Yoga Narasimha temple sanctum


The second chamber sends shivers of discovery down a visitor's spine – it literally feels as if one has suddenly stepped into a realm still ensconced in the time when primordial deities reigned the Earth and were worshiped in the form of nature, animals and unique mythical creatures. The dark chamber, lit only by the sunlight seeping through the exit doorway, is supported upon pillars sculpted with panels depicting different forms of prominent Hindu deities like Shiva and his consorts, Vishnu (Hindu God of life and nourishment), Ganesha (the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God of auspiciousness and learning), Nandi and other Goddesses being showered with milk and nectar by elephants – even the lintels surmounted on the pillars are carved with these simplistic, but nonetheless eye catching, sculptures. A stone platform, mounted upon which are more idols of the divine deities, sits flanked between two pillars on one side while facing it on the other side are unique, glossy and oily-looking sculptures, crafted not from stone but perhaps from polished wood, of human figurines, multi-limbed insects, strange creatures like elephant-headed humans, big lizards, crocodiles and what can only be considered dinosaurs (probably Spinosaurs!) – what are these creatures, what worship are they used for, are these village deities or primordial entities?! I still cannot fathom. Following the exit from the shrine and exploring and photographing the colonnades around, it is worthwhile to walk past the mammoth jagged rock face to the wall overlooking the cliff face – it is fun to run uninhibited like a juggernaut across the sloping rocks and then gaze down the deep valley – the area is referred to as "Tipu's Drop" and it is contended that the cruel and atrocious ruler used to have his condemned political and military prisoners thrown to their death from this point. Horrific!


Jurassic Park?!


Returning back, we finally did stop at the aforementioned summer residence of Tipu Sultan, a double-storied, rundown, decrepit structure most of whose chambers were locked for visitor entry and whatever remaining is accessible is in such poorly maintained condition that one feels appalled by the conservation authorities' indifference and apathy. A gateway through the palace leads to the other side from where a rock staircase built in the hill face leads to greener valleys and some more ancient temples, but by now we were so terribly exhausted that we decided not to proceed further and head back to the base for lunch. The site at which the palace has been built is said to be associated with Jain saints who performed austerities here – in fact, heavy stone monolith slabs carved with depictions of Jain saints and mythical scenes can still be seen placed on a lengthy platform besides the front face of the palace. Remnants of stucco artwork such as bird figurines and design patterns can also be spotted marking the arched passageway through the palace; on both levels, the balconies are adorned with balustrades composed of multiple ornamental patterns and wide "chajja" (eaves) run underneath them; a huge, deep square tank accessible by flights of stairs on all sides also exists close to the palace. The area was originally referred to as "Anandagiri" ("Pleasure Hill") when the Jains used to meditate here, but the name was modified to "Nandigiri" ("Nandi's Hill") when the Hindu Chola Empire (ruled 300 BC – 1279 AD) incorporated it in their territorial domain and commissioned the fortifications. Tipu Sultan's father Hyder Ali (ruled AD 1761-82), the Commander-in-Chief and Chief Minister of Mysore, captured the impregnable fortress from the Maratha chieftain Peshwa Madhavrao I and Tipu further strengthened the defenses and expanded the area militarily – it eventually fell to Lord Cornwallis of the British East India "Trading" Company who also played a prominent role in defeating Tipu's forces garrisoned at Bangalore Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Bangalore Fort). Later the palace was converted to a hill resort by British administrative officers but the structure was allowed to fall in a state of decay and despair subsequently and at present exists in a heart wrenching poor condition. It is hard to imagine that a mighty historic personality like Tipu Sultan could have stayed in a palace this plain, but stay he used to here every time he visited the area for a hunting/travel expedition.


Miserable existence - Tipu's erstwhile regal residence


After a quick lunch composed of south Indian cuisine at Nandi village nearby, we headed past massive rock outcrops, majestically wide ravines and sparsely vegetated rocky valleys nestled in the shadows of bare brown hills and pockmarked by deep craters to finally explore two of the ancient temples that exist so close to the renowned tourist site that its popularity dwarfs their sorry existence into a state of uninhibited neglect and unabated ignorance. The rugged hills and the scarred valleys rolling outside the windows proved conducive to a gentle sleep but very soon we were standing outside the first of the two temples – referred to as Sree Kanive Basaveshwara Nandi Swamy temple, the shrine boasts of a massive stone idol of the bull Nandi that is said to have originated on its own ("Swayambhu") in such perfection over a thousand years ago. The temple priest informed us that the sculpture, presently at least 10 feet tall and 15 X 5 feet across, was only a couple of feet tall some 40-50 years back and will perennially continue to grow in its proportions till it comes alive in its enormous majesty on the Judgement Day as foretold by ancient Hindu scriptures! Consequentially, the shrine surrounding the sculpture has to be regularly expanded into an increasingly huge rectangular chamber to accommodate the former's ever-expanding physical existence. Apart from the sculpture along one of its shorter sides, the present shrine, having been recently rebuilt and being given a coat of plaster and paint when we visited, also encloses within itself along one of its longer sides a cluster of three interconnected shrines reverentially dedicated to Lord Shiva and his family .


In a state of perennial extension - The Nandi statue from Sree Kanive Basaveshwara temple


Through the gradually narrowing streets of the village, past dried up fields, grape vineyards and boulder clusters comprising entire hills, we traveled, stopping every few minutes for directions since it proved unimaginably difficult to accept that such a small village uniformly composed of box-like houses and rows of haberdasher shops could house a temple so magnificent that everyone, at least in the village, talked of its existence in such glorious terms. And a magnificent gem did the historic, rock-hewed Bhoga Nandeeshwara Uma Maheshwara temple, reverentially dedicated (as the aforementioned twin of the Yoga Narasimha temple) to Lord Shiva and housed within a massive complex enclosed by rows of colonnades and possessing towering ancient trees, prove to be! Locally referred to as "Ishwar mandir" and said to have been commissioned somewhere around early 9th century AD by Queen Ratnavali who belonged to the ancient and long forgotten Bana Dynasty that reigned over these areas and claimed ascent from mighty demon lords, the exemplar temple, presently a national heritage site and a splendid epitome of Dravidian religious architecture, was subsequently expanded and improved upon by four successive dynasties – Cholas (reign 300 BC – 1279 AD), Hoysalas (reign AD 1026-1355), Pallavas (reign 3rd-9th century AD) and Vijaynagara Empire (reign AD 1336-1646) – who remained devoted to its protection, maintenance and glorification.


Composite of three individual temples and yet architecturally and artistically uniform! - The central shrine within the Bhoga Nandeeshwara complex


The majestic temple complex, accessed via a small gate built into a rundown boundary wall, is such a striking architectural marvel that one is immediately overawed by the sheer magnitude of the artistic and sculptural prowess of the artists who painstakingly toiled through its construction and the ambitious desires of the emperors who expanded and multiplied several times its grandeur. As marvelous as the complex itself, a colossal wooden chariot, indescribably richly detailed with carvings of mythological figures, stands adjacent to a royal congregation hall near the entrance. Though the fine complex, said to be the oldest temple complex in entire Karnataka, is distinctly divided into four major structures, the centerpiece comprises a very prominent rectangular superstructure shrine that is actually a composite of three nearly identical temples dedicated to Arunachaleshwar, Uma Maheshwar and Bhoga Nandeeshwara – three forms of Lord Shiva, respectively representing his youth, marriage and renunciation. The huge temple is exceedingly exquisitely ornamented with monolithic stone pillars that are adorned with sculptures of divine deities and mythological entities and demarcate the grids of passages that comprise the temple and eventually culminate into the massive structure that the shrine is; in front of each of the two side shrines sits a majestic granite sculpture of Nandi surrounded by smaller similar sculptures and enclosed by cylindrical pillars that add just a touch of irregularity to the otherwise symmetrical and uniformly laid grid of rectangular pillars. The magnificently conceived, superbly executed and intricately sculpted pillars and design patterns force one to observe and photograph each and every artwork individually – it is impossibly hard to tear one away from these and head to the shrines.


Stone sentinels - Rows of colonnades encompassing the temple structure


The central shrine revering Uma Maheshwar form of the Lord has a black-faced, gold-plated composite idol depicting Lord Shiva (Maheshwar) and his consort Parvati (otherwise referred to as Uma) springing from the same lower body which is exceptionally unique since generally Parvati is depicted either sitting next to Lord Shiva or on his left lap, only in some cases is she represented as merging with Shiva and possessing a lateral half of one body ("Ardhanareshwar"), very rare is the representation of the two as Siamese twins. But prior to seeing this unique sculpture that is silhouetted by a five-headed, hooded serpent, one passes through a small square where an ancient canopied square pedestal ("Kalyana mandapa") exists – composed of black granite, the pavilion, erected by Vijaynagara Dynasty emperors (ruled AD 1336-1646), possesses four stunning pillars mindnumbingly intricately carved with patterns and human forms and representing a divine couple each (Brahma-Saraswati (the God of creation and the Goddess of ancient knowledge and learning), Vishnu-Lakshmi (the God of nourishment and the Goddess of prosperity), Shiva-Parvati and Agni-Swahini (the God and Goddess of fire)) – the entire structure thus culminates in a representative witness of Shiva-Parvati's wedding. The walls enclosing the shrine and the mandapa too are adorned with such a wide array of sacred sculptures and carved patterns that one miserably fails to even photograph these divine artworks in their ethereal grace and feels terribly ashamed upon comparison with the ancient sculptors and craftsmen who were such superior artists.


Singularly unique - The depiction of Uma Maheshwara in the central shrine


The sanctum within the Arunachaleshwar temple houses a rather thick "Shivalinga" (Shiva's phallic symbol) and outside it sits a two-feet tall strangely terrible sculpture of Ganesha referred to as "Simha Ganpati". The Bhoga Nandeeshwara temple, said to have been constructed during the last days of the reign of Chola Dynasty (ruled 300 BC – 1279 AD), on the other hand, boasts of relatively simplistic pillar designs but is endowed with several statues gracing its sanctum including one that is believed to be that of Emperor Parakesari Rajendra Chola I (ruled AD 1012-44). The pillars display rectangular panels embossed with mythological and historic scenes, graceful dancers and fierce sages depicted as existing within the flourishes originating from the diabolically bestial face of a divine Kirtimukha, but as a whole the chamber is exceedingly plain compared to the other two. It is fascinating to note that while the three individualized temples and their constituent shrines were built in different eons – commissioned by the Banas and expanded by the Cholas prior to further modification and ornamentation by the Vijaynagara kings and the Hoysalas – they culminate in a majestic structure externally exceedingly uniform and seamlessly composed.


Simplistic and yet architecturally opulent - Bhoga Nandeeshwara shrine


Stepping outside the shrine and walking around the courtyard, which is itself enclosed by strikingly symmetrical colonnades that allow circumambulation of the deities and also possesses a few sacred pillars ("stambha") erected immediately opposite the entrances of the shrines, one notices that while most of the exterior pillars of the Bhoga Nandeeshwara shrine are simplistic rectangular in nature with very minimal design pattern work, some of them, especially the ones next to the entrances, are elegantly sculpted to represent divine figures bareback riding mythological figures known as "Yali" which are part-lion, part-elephant beings possessing the body and head of a lion and the tusks and trunk of an elephant and are themselves mounted upon another mythological being known as "Makara" which possess the face and tusks of an elephant, the body and tail of a fish and the feet of a lion. The colonnaded passages, with their interplay of light and shadows, provide excellent visual compositions for photographic purposes.


More colonnades, this time surrounding the central shrine (right)


Along its back side, the rectangular shrine boasts of an inconceivably brilliantly detailed pyramidal tower ("Gopuram") adjacent both its corners that feature such an eye-opening display of mythological creatures, powerful deities and intricate pattern work that one is left spellbound and wordless – the unparalleled designs and exemplar figures are mesmerizing to such an extent that one is hard put to describe the majestic scene in words and that the same have survived over a millennium is unsung testimony to the exceptional skill of the accomplished artists who gave form to these. Slightly offset from the temple courtyard's entrance and built in continuation with the colonnaded passages is a smaller square shrine dedicated to the Goddess who is revered as a gold-ensconced idol. Very elegantly adorned with murals and sculptures depicting several other deities and mythological scenes, the hallowed shrine is the site for devout veneration by numerous visitors who visit it with their entire families and offer passionate prayers for fulfillment of deep-seated wishes and dreams. Possessing some of the most beautifully carved sculptures of Naga/snake deities endearingly drenched with brilliant red vermillion and hibiscus blossoms, another smaller shrine dedicated to the worship of the former exists close to the small square shrine and is flanked by the numerous "Stambha" pillars that are minimally ornamented with embossments of Nandi and geometrical patterns.


Sculpted divinity - Snake deities


Accessed via a towered gateway built within the colonnaded passageway that separates it from the central shrine, the third major structure within the entire complex happens to be an eye-openingly intricately adorned square pavilion "Kalyana Mandapa" that is itself surrounded by a wide courtyard and possesses two rows of sculptural-detailed pillars running along each of its sides supporting the unique slightly sloping roof. Serving the functional purpose of a sacred marriage hall, the pavilion, constructed by the Hoysala monarchs (reign AD 1026-1355), is so notably beautiful that it is to be seen to be believed! The fog of mythology engulfing the temple in its currents is most prominent around this pavilion and its numerous pillars comprising the exterior row depict the legendary Yali and Makara figures in their complete majestic glory. The charm of the entire structure is further magnified by the presence, around the courtyard, of colonnaded passageways the roofs of which are surmounted along one side by crumbling decaying pyramidal towers boasting of blackened, disfigured and nearly ruined, but nonetheless gloriously bewitching, statues of deities and mythical creatures.


Architecturally unparalleled - The mesmerizing "Kalyana Mandapa"


Commissioned by the Vijaynagara Emperors (reign AD 1336-1646), the last of the prominent structures within the complex is a massive in-house water tank ("Kalyani") that is accessible on each side by rock-cut steps descending to the water level – referred to as "Shringi Teertha", "Shringa" being "horns" and "Teertha" translating to "site of pilgrimage", it is said to have originated when the bull deity Nandi dug its horns in the ground. The tank is assumed to be the source of Dakshina Pinakini river – the river's nomenclature ("Pinakini" translates to "bow-shaped") too is said to have been inspired by Lord Shiva who is considered to be the almighty wielder of "Pinaki" ("the mighty bow"). Another legend is that the site served as the abode of a renowned mendicant sage named Shringi who used to meditate here. The colonnades around the tank are symmetrically surmounted by numerous stepped pyramidal towers of which the ones in the corners and the centers of each side are considerably larger than the rest. The alcoves within these towers still possess inimitable embossments of several deities but most of these sculptures have been rendered decapitated and mutilated – possibly as a consequence of the subsequent Islamic reign over the area following the decline of the architecturally and sculpturally glorious Hindu reign. Hundreds of thousands of earthen oil lamps are lit on the steps around the tank on all the major Hindu festivals like Shivaratri, Pongal and Diwali.


Grace and symmetry


Retracing one's steps back, one cannot help once again admiring the various structures within the complex and their numerous design pattern works and sculpted figurines. These ancient temples have stood here as sentinels watching the blue mist-laden hilltops and green barren fields since time immemorial. They now appear ruined and damaged beyond recognition, ignored and neglected by conservation authorities and heritage enthusiasts and relegated to a decrepit condition that defies comprehension and the spirit of monumental conservation and heritage pride. And yet, seated in the heart of hilly valleys and barren lands, they culminate into droplets of magnificent grandeur emanating from ancient architectural and artistic expertise combined with deep-seated devotion and religious patronage, prompting ever-continuously the fire in one's belly to travel throughout the countryside and visit as many monuments as one can!


The two "Gopurams" - Photo best viewed zoomed to observe the fine sculptures adorning the surfaces


Location: Nandi village, Chikkaballapur, 60 km from Bangalore
How to reach: One can book a Traveler/taxi from Bangalore to Nandi Hills. The charges for 14 and 8-seater Travelers are around Rs 4000 and 3000 respectively, plus the additional kilometer and hour plan charges.
Photography/video charges: Nil (for both the hill area and the twin temples)

Regarding Nandi Hills:
Entrance fees: Rs 20/person
Parking fees: Rs 370
Time required for sightseeing: 4 hrs
Facilities available: Snacks, coffee, cigarettes and drinking water are available at several small outlets near the summit of the hill and along the village roads leading to the hill base. Washrooms (very horribly maintained) can be accessed at the base on payment of Rs 5. Near the summit is a large restaurant managed by the Karnataka Horticulture Department – we found it to be too expensive for our simpler tastes and did not eat there, hence cannot comment on the quality

Regarding Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple:
Location coordinates: 13°23'12.3"N 77°41'54.8"E
Timings: 6 am - 9 pm
Entrance/parking fees: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1-1.5 hrs
Other attractions in the vicinity: Devanahalli fortress, established in AD 1501 by Mallabaire Gowda, who belonged to the same family as Hiriya Kempe Gowda, the founder of Bangalore (refer Pixelated Memories - Bangalore Fort), is located close to Yelahanka air base on the road connecting Bangalore to Nandi Hills.
Suggested reading –
  1. Bangaloretourism.org - Bhoganandishwara 
  2. Myworldfoodandtravel.com - Birding in Nandi Hills 
  3. Trippinonlife.wordpress.com - The Unsung Nandi