Somnathpur – visit once and only once.

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“The construction of this temple was caused by Somanatha”, the notice-board put up by the Archeological Survey of India informs us at the entrance. That mild syntax glitch aside, the ASI has done a fair job at the Channakeshava temple at Somnathpur.

Built around 1268 AD, during the reign of the Hoysala king, Narasimha II, the Kesava somnathpur-1temple presents the connoisseur with the best of Hoysala architecture in a compact, one-day package. To the purist, Somnathpur is perhaps a more complete representation of Hoysala art, than its much bigger and more famous cousins at Halebidu and Beluru, a hundred miles to the west.

Not many people know that the Halebidu-Beluru temples are generally incomplete. They don’t have the vimana (or gopuram) on top. Somanthpur does, and while its vimana doesn’t tower over you, unlike the gopurams of Tamil Nadu, it is imposing all the same.

Walk around slowly, pause at an exquisite sculpture, admire the lathe-turned stone pillars, turn your eyes upward to the sixteen intricately carved ceilings, and as Whitman would put it, simply ‘stand and stare’. Each of the ceilings depicts a banana flower in different stages of growth.somnathpur-1-5

somnath-1-21Somnathpur is one of the few temples in India where you can walk right into the sanctum sanctorum with your digcam and snap away at the idols. somnathpur-1-8Try and locate the names of the sculptors, carved at the base of each statue. Ruvari Mallithamma, a famous temple sculptor of the time, sculpted most of the statues.

Somnathapur, until recently, was a good place for a quiet Sunday visit, especially if you like ancient temples. That said, the placid beauty of this historic Hoysala temple is rapidly being ruined by greed and neglect.

You will find patches of poorly done repair work all over the temple, junk and debris randomly dumped inside the courtyard, and the jarring sight of a solar panel placed right on top of the gopuram. Couldn’t they find a more discreet place to put it?

Once, you could park your vehicle under the shade of a nearby tree and stroll across Somnathpur at leisure. Now, there’s an unwashed thug breathing stale booze on you, demanding a hefty parking fee. There’s no parking lot though. You still have to look for parking space on your own. If you’re lucky, you might be given a receipt for the absurd parking fee extorted from you.

The local villagers were a benign, friendly lot, once upon a time. Now, you will find yourself being harassed by hawkers and beggars of all kinds. Even the ASI clerk who issues the entry ticket to you is a surly fellow who rudely informs you that camera tripods are not allowed, and will not tell you why.

Good luck with the stray dogs that infest the place. And try not to look at the urban slum that surrounds the immediate vicinity of the temple.

Best time to visit: Any time, but it does get hot during April-May.

Bottom-line: Visit Somnathpur only if you appreciate medieval Indian temple architecture and are capable of ignoring all the trouble and general filth you will be subjected to. And visit it just once. The residents of Somnathpur will ensure that you wouldn’t want to visit again.

Cheers … Srini.

Mahabalipuram … NEVER again!

Shore Temple - Centerpiece of Mahabalipuram.
Shore Temple – Centerpiece of Mahabalipuram.

Once, just once in my life, I want to visit one destination in India where I won’t get ripped off, cheated, abused, intimidated and generally made to feel like concentrated crap.

Just once, I want to walk into a place, relax and listen to what it has to say to me, and walk out in one piece. Just once.

Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, is a UNESCO heritage site that has been on my bucket list since many years. When I took a day off to visit this temple town that dates back to the 7th century, I thought it would be a memorable experience. It is after all, a UNESCO site.

Memorable it certainly was, for all the wrong reasons.

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Pancha Ratha – five temples carved from a single granite boulder. Thirty eight years in the making. Dedicated to the Pandavas and Draupadi.

The instant I got off my car, a horde of hawkers and touts descended upon me. Buy this, try that, come with me and I’ll give you a good time … they just would not leave me alone. And then I made the enormous mistake of hiring a guide to take me around. And I wound up paying him Rs.750/- for no particular reason. He took me around in my own car, to monuments that were easy to locate anyway, and gave me information that I had already looked up in Wikipedia anyway. But he did ensure that the right hawkers ripped me off.

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Arjuna’s Penance – bas relief sculpture, depicts various episodes from the Mahabharata.

The arrogant moron at the ticket counter gave me a nasty shock, as he refused to issue a normal ticket to me. The fee for Indian nationals is Rs.10/- only. For foreign nationals, it is Rs.250/-. I never understood why foreign tourists must cough out at least ten times what Indians do, wherever they go. Do they get anything more for the huge amount of extra money they pay? I hardly think so.

For some absurd reason, the afore-mentioned arrogant moron at the ticket counter was convinced I was a foreign national, and demanded Rs.250/-. And then demanded to see my ID. I offered my driver’s license, and he felt it was forged. I told him I’d rather go back to Bangalore than pay Rs.250/- to that arrogant jack-ass. Finally, he relented and gave me a Rs.10 ticket.

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Krishna’s butterball – an unusual balancing rock structure.

Hawkers, hawkers, everywhere. Every nook. Every corner. Every turn. And they will not leave you alone. They go on and on. They chase you. They harass you. Until you buy something. And my friendly guide ensured that I did buy a lot of worthless artifacts, at astounding prices.

The day ended with my taxi driver ripping me off, and forcing me to pay an extra Rs.500/- for a speeding ticket that he got on the way back from Mahabalipuram.

I had it coming to me. A fool and his money, after all. Should have just stayed at home.

Why do these hawkers and touts think that tourists from another land owe them a living? What value do they provide to the places that they infest? They did not build any of the magnificent monuments that people like me travel hundreds of miles to admire. They do not maintain the place, they in fact soil it with their presence.

They abuse the law with impunity. They loot tourists blatantly. They harass, they harangue, they intimidate. And the local custodians of the law simply stand by and watch.

And then we wonder why India’s share of the world tourism market is less than ONE PERCENT. That’s right. Mera Bharat Mahaan has less than 0.72% of the global tourism market.

Bottom line: Mahabalipuram is strictly avoidable. Admire this ancient temple town in the safety of the Internet.

Mahabalipuram was certainly the experience of a lifetime. That’s because I will never go there again in my lifetime.

Ah well, I did take some good pictures. Enjoy my pictures, and be happy you didn’t get ripped off, unlike me.

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Bole re papihara – the Pied crested cuckoo.

Pied crested cuckoo, at Tiruvannamalai, Aug 6 2011

‘Commence your journey, O messenger of the clouds, sprinkle rain upon this parched earth’.

Kalidasa’s poem Meghadootam talks about the yearning of the chataka bird for the first drops of rain. The chataka, alias the pied crested cuckoo, in Indian mythology, drinks only raindrops and is considered a harbinger of rain.

As I’m fond of saying, when Mother Nature gives, She really gives.

Through these years, all I could get were fleeting glimpses of the pied crested cuckoo. Clamator jacobinus, also called the Jacobin cuckoo is a summer migrant and its arrival down south precedes the arrival of the monsoons.

In an open field at the temple town of Tiruvannamalai, opposite my friend’s ashram Tapasyalayam, I was blessed with the sighting of not one but three pied crested cuckoos, sitting on an overhead wire. They allowed me to take a really long look at them. And for the nth time in my life, I rued the lack of a good DSLR camera.

The cuckoos were really close however, close enough for me to get one decent record shot with my little point-and-click camera.

Common Hawk cuckoo - Brainfever bird

The other member of the Cuculidae family that smiled on me at Tiruvannamalai was the Brainfever bird, Cuculus varius. Its characteristic call followed me everywhere on my bird-walk through the fields on the foothills of Arunachalam.

Other notables, all sighted at hand-shaking distance in and around the ashram, were – Indian treepie, a large flock of brahminy starlings, black-shouldered kite, shikra, innumerable white-headed babblers, indian rollers and black drongos. And also, Indian bush-lark, indian silverbills, black-headed munia, scaly-breasted munia, purple-rumped sunbirds and pale-billed flowerpeckers.

Inside the massive temple complex of Annamalaiyar, near the temple tank, one gets to see the white-browed wagtail and laughing doves.

I would strongly recommend a visit to Tiruvannamalai for those of you who are ornitho-spiritually inclined. There is plenty of birding to be done at Tiruvannamalai and en-route. The road from Krishnagiri to Tiruvannamalai is ghastly, all 100 km of it. The route via Vellore is much better, but longer by 80 km.

Either way, the route is scenic and avian-rich.

Cheers … Srini.