Mahabalipuram part 2

With the Elephant Wall on my left, I walked up a hill and saw the large round boulder known as Krishna’s Butter Ball. 

The story goes that as a child, Krishna liked butter so much that he would steal it from his mother. There are many stories about this in Hindu mythology. Here is a link to a cartoon in English about baby Krishna and butter. The rock  is famously lodged in place despite many attempts, including the notable 1908 one that involved seven elephants, to push it down the hill. Here’s another pic from a different angle with people nearby for perspective:

My guidebook was not too useful as a map at this point. I meandered around the largely unlabeled park to see if I could find  the structures from the book. I think the next place I saw is called Tirumurthy Cave, carved into the hillside rock.

Note the lingham below. Incense and candles were recently burned here. I also saw visitors praying at some sites. These temples are still used! 

The terrain was dry and the day was hot and sunny. I kept going, despite being confused on exactly where I was and what I was looking for. My map insisted that there were many structures here and I found several. It is very possible that I missed some, too, but I really enjoyed walking around and not knowing what was around the corner. It was not very crowded and if it hadn’t been for the scattered litter I would have felt at times like I was discovering the place. 

There were goats and monkeys, too!

I climbed up a hill and many steps to see this temple, perched up high and with a view of the ocean. 

I went back down to the driver and we headed to the next site a short drive away.

Chennai and Mahabalipuram, India, March 2017

Back in Chennai we went to a fancy movie theater. We watched a great movie based on a true story – Lion. A young boy in India gets lost, becomes adopted by an Australian couple, and goes back to India to locate his biological family 25 years later. Details from the ornate theater:

We also went to the beach. It was  ten minute tuktuk ride from MB’s place. Despite what I had heard, it was a clean beach with people swimming and anti-litter announcements on a loudspeaker. I was excited to see the ocean from India, since I had spent the previous visit mostly in the desert. We were at the Bay of Bengal, across the water from southern Myanmar.

The last big thing I wanted to do before leaving Chennai was see the ruins of Mahabalipuram. This is a UNESCO world heritage site 50 km south of Chennai. It has gorgeous ruins from the 7th and 8th centuries when it was an important commercial and cultural center and seaport. I stressed out about how to get there and back- I am so programmed to take the frugal option (local bus) but I ended up hiring a cab for the day. The bus station was far from MB’s apartment and the bus ride was three times as long as the car ride. The cab would take me to the various sites and cost under $30 for the entire day. It felt indulgent to have an air-conditioned car and driver all to myself, but I splurged. It was my last day of this excellent trip, and I would be back in plenty of time to meet MB after work for a last evening hanging out. The driver picked me up at the apartment and off we went. The drive had some rural parts, but was almost completely through commercial urban streets. It felt like the city of Chennai stretched on and on. There were occasional glimpses of the water. Eventually we came to the first stop, the Shore Temple. 

According to the guidebook I bought here, this is the only surviving of seven original temples built on these shores in the 7th and 8th centuries by the Pallava Dynasty kings Mahendravarman and his son Narasimhavarman I. This southern India dynasty ruled from 275 CE to 897 CE and introduced influential script and architectural styles in the region. This particular temple has UNESCO World Heritage status and is known as the best example of Pallava architecture. It was awesome to see, especially with the Bay of Bengal so close by. 

The next stop was the Elephant Wall, which seemed to be at the main Mahabalipuram site and town center. The driver took my photo by the impressive carvings, then I was let loose to wander the ruins of the main park. 

The wall is called Arjuna’s Penance, referring to the trials endured by the Mahabharata hero in order to obtain Shiva’s weapon. It also tells the story of the birth of the Ganges river though actions of the sage Bhagiratha and the Hindu deity Shiva. My guidebook describes “the triple world of Gods and demi-Gods, of human beings, birds and animals and of Nagas and Nymphs- all fitting harmoniously”into the 100 feet long by 45 foot tall bas-relief. It is stupefying and stunning and gorgeous. 

The middle structure above is a few feet away from the Wall. It is carved into the rock and has lovely columns and more wall carvings inside.

More in next post!

Bangalore part 3

Shrine on a busy street around the corner from our hotel. It was open in the mornings and evenings for people to pray and offer flower garlands to the dieties.

I still had two days more in Bangalore! I felt satisfied with the sight-seeing and decided to hang around Kormangala, the neighborhood of our hotel. I walked around quite a bit, went to a hyper-modern mall called The Forum, and a kind of dated cement building, “the BDA complex” that was a sort of mall. BDA was very local with food stalls, bus ticket vendors, fax services, and guys with typewriters sitting outside ready to type documents for locals.  Up the unlit staircase, though, were three tourist shops and no western tourists to be seen. Two of these shops were unremarkable but I liked Tribes India. I enjoyed shopping there and at the modern mall, and looking at the shops in-between as I walked around. I also got a Thai style foot massage (yes, I was on vacation!), had as many coconuts as I could handle from the street vendors, and ate great Indian food. With MB, we went out for excellent Italian food, and to one of the many dessert places afterwards. 

Fancy dessert above, street coconuts below

Our last day was only half a day since we were leaving on an afternoon train. This was to be one of my favorite events of the trip. I love India Rail. My family and I had ridden many times last year but never in the Business Class Express like we were to do today. We had an adventure getting to the station, since the taxi dropped us off at the subway entrance and a station employee had to walk us, laden as we were with our luggage, across a scorching hot field to the back entrance of the train station. It felt a little desolate and strange but we found the train platform after a short walk. 

We were early so there was time to savor the vibrant milieu of the large train station. We saw women in every type of sari from the sequined to the basic, all with unexpected combinations of color and pattern. Many women had ankle bangles, bilateral nose rings, and other adornments. Men, some with hennaed hair, wore skirts or suits or buttoned shirts with dress pants. Some children had startlingly elaborate outfits of shiny fabrics and more bling than BeyoncĂ©. Often, people were carrying suitcases, even the wheeled style designed to be pulled behind, on their heads. Hand painted wooden signs marked the platform numbers. A loudspeaker informed of arrivals and departures in several languages with a musical trill before each announcement. A shrine and food vendors filled the cement area where people awaited their trains. I sighed happily into one of my favorite things in the world: travel, more specifically train travel, and even more specifically, an India Rail station waiting for my train. 

It got better as our train arrived on time and we were able to negotiate sitting together. We had assigned seats that were bought separately and weren’t together, but fellow travelers were pleasantly accommodating. We had padded, upright seats unlike the benches and beds of my previous experiences. Then the five-hour trip began. 

We were given about four snacks and one large meal by attentive servers rolling serving carts down the aisles. Welcome drink, evening tea, dinner, snacks. No vendors in he aisle, just uniformed ‘meals on wheels’ guys bringing us treat after treat. Outside the window: fields, farmers, sheep, a rocky hill, a deep round stone-lined well with floating stairs spiraling down, trash, parrots, cement buildings, coconut trees, so much to see out the window. 

And the sounds: the rhythmic clacking of the wheels on the rails, the tinkling of tea cups on saucers, people talking in Tamil and Kannad and Hindi, the food cart rolling by, random pop music from a cell phone, and the background rumble down the tracks as we went back to Chennai. 

Bangalore, India, part 2

After the Cave temple, we went to the Ganesh temple, known for a Ganesh statue made of 90 kilos of butter and for the Bull temple next door. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but other people were taking selfies next to the ‘no cameras ‘ sign, plus I had to document the scene, so:

Ok that’s what I get for taking a selfie at a holy site. Here’s a slightly better photo of the butter elephant god with his shirtless caretakers:

The statue reminds me in a big way of the Ohio State Fair Butter Cow, the pride of Ohioans everywhere and which I know about because I lived in Ohio for many years. Only of course, this is India, and this is Ganesh and the American Dairy Association is nowhere in sight! There were people lined up at the railing getting blessed. It was also a bit of a tourist scene with vendors lining the sidewalks outside. Here is the outside of the temple:I followed a fellow bus tourist to a set of steps next door, which we ascended to find the Bull Temple. And there it was, a 14-foot tall sculpture of Nandi, the bull vehicle of Krishna. 

Here is the outside of the Bull temple:

Our next stop was a diner for lunch near Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, which goes back to 1700’s royal gardens and is now run by the government horticulture department. After lunch, we walked through the park and saw some of its sights: a bonsai garden, large lake, many trees, flowers, and this rock area said to be 300 million years old. I liked the small temple and the view of the city from there.

large tree, topiary trees, bonsai tree:

Many flowers!

It is 240 acres and I could have spent more time here. But it was hot, and the air-conditioned bus awaited at the other end of the park. We walked through and got on the bus. We next went to see two government buildings that face each other. We couldn’t enter the buildings but we admired them from the road. The red one is Attara Kacheri and houses the high court of Karnataka. By the way, we were in Bangalore in Karnataka state now, not Tamil Nadu, the state of Chennai. The white building is Vidhana Soudha and houses the Karnataka legislature. It had a carving that tells us ‘government work is God’s work’ and a golden central dome supported by four lions back to back. Wow!

I’d love to see inside, but it is restricted. The day was getting on and we were headed to the government museum. As we rode on the bus, I spoke with the other passengers and we saw Bangalore life out the window:

We made a brief stop at a silk store, which sold garments of famous Karnataka silk. Several fellow passengers mumbled complaints about high prices and I don’t think any of us bought anything. We were ready for the museum. The building was as lovely as the photos I had seen- red with red columns and white accents. There were prehistoric articles in simple displays inside and many sculptures inside and outside.

Next door is the Venkatappa Art Gallery, named for a noted court painter from the early 1900’s. The friezes and paintings by the eponymous artist were beautiful, and as a court artist born in 1886 to a family of court painters, he surely led an interesting life. 

On the upper floors were displays of wood carvings by a man named C. P. Rajaram and paintings by an artist named Hebber. 

I wasn’t allowed to take photos of Hebber’s works, but here is a screen grab from some search images for his name.

He lived until the mid-1990’s after a life of international study and accomplishments. His work was colorful and bold and focused on his home country. 

Leaving the museum, I was struck by the contrast of the historic museum building and the modern construction nearby.

That was the end of the bus tour. I found my way home from the museum area, since the bus driver told me it was closer to my hotel than the bus station where we had started and where the bus was headed. I was tired and happy to meet MB for dinner. That was day one in Bangalore!

Bangalore, India, March 2017

Our taxi driver took us from Bannerghatta to the Shiva temple, then to our hotel in the Kormangala section of Bangalore. Here MB had to work for a few days because it was exam time for the students learning to be Montessori teachers. 

I was told repeatedly that Bangalore is not a tourist place, but rather it is a corporate city with many IT companies. Looking online, the things to do here are heavy on team building i.e. Escape Rooms, ropes courses and the like. There are also, of course, several spots of interest to the traveler such as myself. The state sponsored KTSDC tour boasted that all the Bangalore hot spots could be visited in a day in their air-conditioned bus for about $6 USD. The pickup point was an hour from our hotel, per the internet. I would find me a tuktuk and get myself to the Kempegowda bus station and join the tourist brigade. What could go wrong?

Hindu statues outside the cave temple 

There are many bad reviews online about this company, but damn the torpedoes, I thought, how bad can it be? For one thing, I just can’t go wrong with the story. I either have fantastic material for an entertaining cautionary tale, or I have a great time and enjoy it again while writing. For another thing, MB was teaching for 3 days in Bangalore and I was being a solo tourist by day and hanging out with her in the evening. 


Bull temple in Bangalore 

I am pleased to report, dear reader, that it was awesome!! I saw the best of Bangalore, and I met people and had such a great day. I was the only foreigner on the bus, rather make that the only European descended foreigner because we were all visitors to Bangalore. I met two families with children and an older couple. I saw at least seven places during the eight-hour day, much more than I would likely have managed on my own. I felt I had enough time at each place. The guide made announcements in English for me. We stopped at an affordable diner type of restaurant for lunch and my fellow travelers helped me get back to the bus each time we stopped. 

Lunch above, free food from the Krishnas (Dahl in a leaf bowl with yellow jalebi I bought) below

Back to Kormangala. It’s a rather affluent neighborhood with the Montessori school, many restaurants and large mansions. There were street cleaners whisking litter into piles with a branch broom in each hand.

It was cleaner than Chennai and, as everyone liked to point out, cooler with less humidity. I would miss MB as she worked but I was quite happy traveling on my own. 

First stop the ISKCON temple above, bus with our guide (standing) below.

My first day in Bangalore I joined KSTDC on their day-long tour of Bangalore sites. This excursion looked promising; I would be taken around the city in an air conditioned bus to major sites on a full day tour over about eight hours. Online reviews were grim, but it sounded great to me, and how bad could it be? The price was low and I had a couple of days afterwards to see the sights on my own if I didn’t like it. I made plans to get up early and go. 

Japanese garden with sculpture and bonsai trees

I found a tuktuk and went to the Kempegowda bus station. This took close to an hour from Kormangala. I loved seeing the city from the back of the tuktuk as people went through their morning routines: kids going to school, street sweepers with their two brooms each, prayers and offerings at roadside shrines, the jumble and color of people and traffic. 

The bus station was enormous. The driver seemed to know where I was going, though, since I had told him KSTDC. I got out and wandered, eschewing the advice given to me by a local guy to go ‘that way’. Turned out he was right as he directed me to an air conditioned waiting room for the bus tour. I paid and waited and watched a nature program that was on TV and happened to be in English. 

So what do you do on a whistle stop tour of Bangalore? The modern ISCKON temple was first. ISKCON, built in 1997, is the International Society Krishna Consciousness. We left our shoes on the bus as advised and followed a circuitous route past different information posters, donation areas, and places to leave shoes. It felt like a line for a roller coaster. Then we ascended the stairs into the temple. It was very large and had beautiful wooden doors and a very high ceiling. There were robed men near an altar at the front of the temple, and people lined up for blessings. A carpeted central space had many people sitting, praying, and enjoying the place. They gave us rice and dahl. No photos were allowed in the massive, modern temple, but here are a few of the door and outside. 

Next we went to Sultan palace. The foreigners price was over 12x the locals price, which we all agreed was exhorbitant since there wasn’t much to see and we would only be there a few minutes. Here is the view from behind the gate:The guide apologized and showed me the historic Vishnu temple next door. I wandered around. A monk gave me flowers. There were people lined up at a rail for blessings and a Chinatown style Hindi gate inside. I have seen these gates in Bangalore streets as well.  I bought a coconut to drink. I did this as often as I could on this trip because they are so good. The vendors will slice them for you after you drink the water so that you can eat the tender juicy coconut meat inside. They thoughtfully cut you a spoon from the coconut shell as well!

Next was the Cave temple. Sra Gavigangadharashwariswaml Temple, to be precise. It is an underground, rock cut temple going back to the 9th century. After descending the steps into the damp dimly lit cave, I joined the other able-bodied in walking the full circular path to the left in a statue laden tunnel behind the altar. It came out on the right side of the altar. It was damp and musty for sure but what an extraordinary place! Over a thousand years old and full of magic. I had to bend over to fit in places, passing statues with red powder on their faces from all the faithful experiencing this place. 

This post is getting too long, I’ll continue next post! 

Shiva temple, Bangalore, India, March 2017

We left Bannerghatta in a taxi and headed for Bangalore, but first we had to see the sixty-foot Shiva. We went to the RVM Foundation Shiva temple on Airport Road. Shiva is the creator and destroyer in Hinduism, also described as creating, transforming, and protecting the universe. The large temple was a place of worship and had definite funhouse vibe as well. We walked through the tunnel in the fabricated “mountain” below: 

Below is the outside of the tunnel. The rounded black object near the center is a lingam, a representation of Shiva that is found in natural and man made sculptures. 

There was music and chanting piped into the tunnel, which had dioramas of different Hindu sacred sites and was lit with black lights in some places. Many scenes depict the location of lingams throughout India. We bought a plate with items (below) which were thrown into a fire by a Hindu priest who blessed us with each item one by one.

There was a thirty-foot Ganesh there as well. 

A different Hindu priest tied red bracelets around our wrists as we walked through the temple grounds. Another area had 108 bowls into which people dropped coins, one coin into each metal bowl. It was an interesting place, a little commercial and fabricated perhaps, but full of colors and music and incense in the air. 

Bannerghatta National Park, India, March 2017

MB had work obligations in Bangalore and I was thrilled to tag along. She also scored some time off so that we could relax a few days in the area. She set us up on a trip to Bannerghatta Biological Park, about 20 kms outside of Bangalore. We planned to see the animals there and certainly didn’t expect that we would encounter Holi!

Getting there and Holi First, we awoke early and took a taxi to the Chennai airport. We took a short domestic flight to Bangalore on India air (which was kind of a time trip with the 1960’s style uniformed stewardesses) then negotiated with a taxi driver to get us to our hotel inside the park. This ride was about an hour long. Arriving at the hotel, we were in an area with several hotels and a large temple. It was not a pristine natural area, but it is popular with domestic travelers. We saw no westerners there at all, and the prices were quite low. We settled into our room and relaxed. At one point I looked out the window and saw a party gathering on the lawn below. There were several women in fancy saris, drummers in sparkly clothes, a catering area, some kids running around, and- could it be? A wooden cart with small colorful mounds of Holi powder! We both looked out the window and saw the kids with squirt guns shooting colors at each other. But it only appeared to be three or four young kids, maybe 10 years old or younger. Meanwhile, our observation of the scene did not go unnoticed. The sari clad women could see us and beckoned us to join the party. We waved and made ready to go down and check out the goings on.

There was a small stage with a bunch of men singing and dancing in a circle. These men started to play Holi and the women were mostly just watching. MB and I were trying to stay clean at this point and only got a few smudges on our faces. But then we saw the spray tent, the wave pool, and more grown ups, specifically women, throwing Holi powder and cups full of colored water at each other. And people were turning colors as they threw and were thrown pink and green and blue water all over. We briefly consulted and realized we had some clothes we could ruin and we ran back to our room to change. I couldn’t take photos for the colorful Holi splashing that ensued but we had a great time! We took photos after.

What a great party! We chased people with powder and water, and we were chased in return. We jumped into the pool and danced on the lawn. We joined the revelers in the spray tent and drank the sweet milky drink we were offered. My suspicions were confirmed that this was ‘bang’- a marijuana laced beverage sometimes drunk during Holi. I might have worried if we had been in Pushkar like last year, cavorting like this with strangers, but here we were at a family party at our hotel and it all felt very playful and fun. A lot of people spoke English, so after the splashing madness calmed down, we learned that this was a child’s birthday celebration. MB was elated because she thought she wouldn’t be able to experience Holi, it being more of a north India holiday, but we really lucked out and had an amazing time. 

The Park But the reason we had come here was Bannerghatta. We bought tickets the next day for the park. The ticket includes a bus safari through the park as well as admission to the butterfly museum and a zoo on the grounds. We started with the safari. 

We sat right next to the driver as we went through the herbivore area and then the carnivor area, separated by sturdy gates and what is known as an Elephant Proof Trench. The elephants and barking deer and other herbivores seemed to have plenty of room to roam and I enjoyed watching them. We didn’t stay long, though, and it was off to the lions and tigers. These were in smaller enclosures, more like a zoo. 

It was a very different kind of safari compared to our more natural and tiger-free Sawai Madhopur safari last year. It is not a true wildlife safari in a reserve where animals fend for themselves. It is more like a large zoo, especially the carnivore area. The elephants did seem to roam more freely and I would like to have watched them for much longer. Oh, we also saw these adorable sloth bears!

We decided to skip the zoo, but we did want to see the butterflies. It turned out to be a hatchery as well as a butterfly garden and museum. An eager guide showed us around and even let us release new hatchlings! 

This metallic gold pupa really surprised us:

Funny enough, the best thing about Bannerghatta wildlife did not involve the species advertised at all. We really enjoyed watching the local monkeys just being themselves. There were two mana monkeys with toddler aged youngsters who were very entertaining. The mamas would hold the babies’ tails like leashes to keep them close as they ventured into the world.

The temple next door The temple next to our hotel looked interesting and we visited it one day. There was a building in front of the temple for the sacred cows.

You can see Holi powder on the ground in that last picture! Some young men showed us around the barn and the temple. I thought they might be angling for a payment, but my cynicism was unfounded. They not only accompanied us to the temple but they gave us flowers and also a ride on their motorbike! 

Above is the altar area of the temple. We went to the front alter and kneeled there, a monk gave us a swipe of red on our foreheads then a spoonful of water in our hands which we were to put on our faces, then brushed us each on the head with a kind of feather duster then gave us each a little orange ball of some kind of grain he pinched from a large bowl of the grain. Then we walked around the alter three times.  I’m not sure what we were supposed to do with the ball of grain; I discreetly abandoned mine in a temple shrub. It was nice to join the other temple visitors and get a blessing there. Near the ceiling of the temple were paintings depicting events in the life of Krishna, like a Catholic Church would have stations of the cross. Out front were colorful flags along the stairs. 

That was our time in Bannerghatta. From there, we took a taxi to the Kormangala section of Bangalore. Stay tuned!