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A beautiful ‘Assumption’ leading to discontent!


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Almost 5,500 kms from Delhi, far down in Indian Ocean just about 600 kms from coast of Tanzania in Africa, an unimaginably beautiful tiny island with an area of just 11.6 sq. km is a source of discontent because of India. It must be something we rarely know about, but despite its small size Assumption Island, which is part of the Aldabra Atoll in Seychelles has a lot to cherish about. Debate is about India’s plan to make a Naval base at the island. Much to the concern of environmentalists and Seychellois, this island has already been leased out to India for 20 years and just 20 days back India and Seychelles signed a military agreement to develop the Naval base.

Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)

Good things first. Often called the jewel in the crown of Seychelles, Aldabra is the world’s second largest coral atoll. The site has been designated in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, purely for three things—it contains superb natural phenomena; superlative on-going ecological and biological processes; and significant natural habitats to conserve biological diversity. Because of its remote location in the Indian Ocean, Aldabra Atoll remains unspoiled by human influence and provides an excellent example of natural habitat where evolutionary and ecological processes can be studied. The atoll comprises four large coral islands which enclose a shallow lagoon; the group of islands is itself surrounded by a coral reef. This atoll has an area of 150 sq km which is about one-third of the landmass of Seychelles, but has no human population other than the staff of the Research station.

Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)

Aldabra Atoll thus is a rare and beautiful tropical paradise. Seen from above, the coral islands form a nearly closed ring that is home to a riot of marine biodiversity. The undisputed rulers of the islands are the thousands of giant tortoises. Due to difficulties of access and the atoll’s isolation, Aldabra has been protected from human influence and thus retains some 152,000 giant tortoises, the world’s largest population of this reptile. Biologists have also documented 400 endemic species and subspecies, including birds such as the Aldabra drongo. Extremely isolated, Aldabra is almost untouched by humans. Aldabra atoll is closer to the coast of Africa 630 km than to Mahé, and is in the most southwesterly part of the Seychelles. It is 407 km northwest of Madagascar and 440 km from Moroni on the Comoro Islands. The atoll is the largest raised coral reef in the world with an elevation of 8 metres (26 ft); and the second-largest atoll in the world after Kiritimati Atoll. The name Aldabra is said to be of Arabic origin. Arabs had settled in East Africa in 7th century. But first recorded visit to Aldabra is said to be in 1742 by a Frenchman Lazare Picault. Human settlement in Seychelles is said to have started in 1770. But this human settlement was immediate threat to giant tortoise as well as Green turtles. Both of these rare species almost went extinct in 19th century when some sense prevailed and conservation efforts started. By then their population had got limited to Aldabra atoll.

Assumption Island with its airstrip in the centre

The island of Assumption lies about 37 kilometres to the southwest. This island has a landing strip and a handful of buildings, it is home to the scientists that are the only continuous human presence on the islands. Assumption is also the gateway to Aldabra atoll. The airstrip of Assumption is the fastest link to the outside world for the Aldabra group. Assumption was devastated by guano mining in the early 20th century. Over 160,000 tons of this deposit was scraped off the tiny island and the vegetation removed to facilitate exploitation. With the loss of the plants, the birds that depended on them were also lost. Giant tortoises were wiped out. Seabirds suffered, especially boobies. Today it is slowly recovering.

In recent years, birds from Aldabra have been sighted for the first time in more than a century. The main beach is one of the finest in Seychelles and some Green Turtles still nest here. Diving too is excellent. Aldabra is said to be biogeographically much more closely related to Madagascar than the rest of Seychelles. All the land birds have their nearest relatives in Madagascar, including the Aldabra Rail, the last surviving flightless bird of the Indian Ocean. Other endemic species we will encounter ashore are the Aldabra Drongo, Madagascar Coucal, Souimanga Sunbird and Aldabra Fody. Seabirds include 10,000 pairs of frigate birds breeding in one of the world’s largest colonies. Shorebirds include large numbers of crab plovers, a speciality of the western Indian Ocean. If that’s not enough, this atoll is also the one of only two oceanic nesting colonies of flamingos. There are large ray and shark populations in the lagoon as well.

Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)

The fringing reef Astove averages about 250 meters from the shoreline, and beyond this the floor plummets steeply. The wall off Astove is one of the most awe-inspiring and spectacular dive sites in the world and has been rated by diving experts as one of the finest in the world. From the shallow edge of the reef, the waters plummet to incredible depths. Huge groupers, reef fish and shoals of pelagic fish congregate alongside forests of Gorgonian fan corals as Green Turtle drift slowly past. Hundreds of species of fish, Green Turtles and even the anchors of wrecked ships are to be seen.

Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)

Now this rare beauty is embroiled in a huge debate. India wants to build a military base on Assumption, and the Seychelles government is ceding the control of the island to India for 20 years. For India, the atoll is not just an isolated speck of land, but a potentially vital strategic outpost in its rivalry with China, who acquired its first African Naval base in Djibouti in November 2015. Once ready, this base will help India exercise greater control over the Indian Ocean’s western region all the way up to the piracy-prone east African coastline. India already acquired a fully operational coastal radar system in Seychelles in March 2015.

Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)

Environmentalists are alarmed at the prospect: The atoll has remained pristine because of its remote location and the limited number of people allowed to visit. That would change dramatically – and in the worst case, the island could become a battlefield. Construction workers and military personnel could introduce invasive animal and plant species to the islands with unpredictable consequences for the ecosystem. Soldiers would litter the island with plastic and other waste. Ships and aircraft would cause noise and pollute the air. Leaking fuel and oil could contaminate the soil and water – not to mention the possibility of major oil spills. These pristine islands are feared to be sacrificed to military and geopolitical interests.

Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)

Let’s go just about half a century in past. In 1962 for the first time British and American governments initiated surveys for a military base here. That also included a plan for a deep sea port. But because of huge outcry from scientific and environmental organisations, plans for the military base were abandoned. Instead a research station was established in 1971. In 1982, Aldabra was declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. So, life seems to have gone a full circle for the biodiversity of Aldabra in just about 50 years, with another threat looming.

Also Read: Seychelles Islands welcomes Bollywood

Among those opposing the India’s military base in Aldabra is the former Tourism Minister of Seychelles Alain St. Ange. He says that these pristine islands must not be sacrificed to military and geopolitical interests. He plans to send a petition to the government of the Seychelles and UNESCO to protect Aldabra Atoll. There was also a protest in capital Victoria on this issue few days back. Ralph Volcere, one of the organisers of the protest, said that Seychellois do not want this project, as the details were not made public. Volcere said that though there has been talked about the base since 2015, everything was kept secret, adding that it was only a couple of weeks ago that the issue was brought back again and the signing was held soon after. Volcere added that it is not right for the government to give away the island which is part of the Seychelles heritage. Another demonstrator, Vicky Lanza, said that a project of this magnitude has catastrophic impacts on the islands pristine environment. “Once there is a military base, there will be an element of control and locals will not have access even in the vicinity the island,” said Lanza. Many locals are just worried of the fact that just how can one of our islands be given to another country.

Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)

The agreement was signed for the second time on 27th January this year after revisions were made to the previous one. In the revised agreement, the main aim is to provide a framework for assistance to Seychelles by India. It will help enhance the military capabilities in control and maritime surveillance. The project will cover about a quarter of Assumption, which is some 1,140 southwest of the Seychelles main island of Mahe. However Indian High Commission says that the revised agreement will benefit both countries.

Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)

The Indian High Commissioner to Seychelles, Ausaf Sayeed, said the agreement will provide Seychelles with the opportunity to enhance its military capabilities and safeguard its marine zone. “In return, India will benefit through better communication and safe trade in the region as most imports of goods pass through the Indian Ocean,” Sayeed said. The Indian High Commissioner also said that although the project is being financed entirely by India, Seychelles retains full ownership of the facilities and sovereign rights over the island. He added that the project will jointly be managed by both countries and will not limit the movement of citizens to the island nor to the island of Aldabra as many are speculating. However it is said that 7 villagers here were given an option to stay on island with restrictions or get transferred to Astove island, where Indian government has already built residential houses. India has targeted to complete the construction of all military buildings by this year itself.

Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)

On the other hand the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) , the organisation mandated to protect the Aldabra atoll, says that “it is certain that an enforcement presence is needed in the area to cut down on and prevent illegal activities currently happening in the Aldabra Group.” SIF is hopeful that the Seychelles Government and National Assembly will ensure that the implementation of the agreement will benefit Aldabra. But the question of threat to the bio-diversity of Aldabra atoll still remains unanswered.

What do you think? Is the development of military base at Aldabra justified? Share your views in comments section below.

Have you been to Aldabra or Assumption island? You can share your experiences here.

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Hampi in Monsoon : The three monoliths!

After coming out of the Virupaksha temple, we climbed up the Hemakuta hills and after visiting all the cluster of temples and pavilions, we go down the other side. But there are lot more archeological marvels in store in this part of Hampi, one of the most important UNESCO world Heritage site in India. Probably the rocky terrains around Tunghbadra River have given local sculptors abundant opportunities to carve their excellent crafts. Hence, huge statues were carved out of boulders.

Also read: Hampi in Monsoon – Virupaksha Temple

Other side of Hemakuta hill

As we get down from the Hemakuta hills on the other side, right in the front is first of the three great monoliths- Sasivekalu Ganesha. Sasivekalu means mustard (सरसों). This four armed monolithic Ganesha is 2.4 metres high and is enclosed in an open pillared pavilion with plain, rough square pillars. Here Ganesha is seated in half lotus posture (अर्ध पद्मासन) and bears a tusk, goad, noose and bowl of sweets in its four arms respectively.

Also read: Hampi in Monsoon – Images from Hemakuta Hills

Sasivekalu Ganesha

In this statue a snake is seen tied around the Ganesha’s belly. There is a mythological story behind this but ironically, you don’t get any mythological explanation behind this named as Sasivekalu. An inscription engraved on the rock nearby records that the pavilion for the temple (Vinayaka Mantapa) was built in 1506 AD by a trader from Chandragiri near Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh in memory of King Narasimha II (1491-1505 AD) of Saluva dynasty.

Sasivekalu Ganesha

Nearby there is another Ganesha monolith, interestingly called as Kadalekalu or gram seed (चना) Ganesha. It is said so as the belly of Ganesha in the statue resembles a gram. This 4.5 metre high seated statue is said to be one of the largest Ganesha statues in South India.   This statue is enshrined in a large temple with an open-pillared mandapa. This mandapa has tall, slender carved pillars (unlike Sasivekalu Ganesha temple) decorated with various mythological characters and stories. Pillars are cubical and constructed in typical Vijayanagara style of architecture. This temple gives a panoramic view of Hampi.

Getting further down from Sasivekalu Ganesha temple

Coming further down, there are another two monoliths- one is Shiva temple called as Badaviling Temple. This has got a 3 metre high shiva linga carved out of one rock. The base of the circular pedestal remains constantly in water which flows through a canal coming out of Tunghbadra river.

Badaviling Temple

This shivalinga is said to be the second highest in South India after Brihadeeswarar temple at Thanjavur. This remains within a small damages shrine said to be commissioned by a poor woman. In local language Badva means poor, hence it got the name. Shivalinga is also said to have a three eye mark on its carving (त्रिनेत्र). As typical of shivlings the pedestal or the yoni pitha draws into an outlet- pranala (प्रनाला). Temple is very small but the huge, intact shivling makes for a majestic view.

Badaviling temple

Very close to this Badaviling is another monolith housed in yet another small temple. This magnificent statue of Narasimha is 6.7 metres in height and is said to be the finest examples of Vijayanagara sculpture. The roof as well as the outer structure of the temple is damaged.  Narasimha is seated on giant coils of Adishesha (आदिशेष या शेषनाग) whose seven hoods make a canopy arched by a Kirtimukha Torana (कीर्तिमुख तोरण).

Lakshmi Narasimha temple

The four arms of the statue with its various attributes have been broken. The seated figure of his consort Lakshmi on his left lap is altogether missing, but the presence of the right hand of the goddess embracing the lord at the back around the waist is said to be the proof of this being a Lakshmi-Narasimha statue.

Lakshmi Narasimha temple

This statue was consecrated by a priest Krishnabhatt at the behest of Krishnadevaraya in 1528 AD as per the lithic records. Made out of a single granite boulder, this statue was one of the last additions of Krishnadeva Raya to heritage of Vijayanagara. It indeed is one of the most striking sculptures of Hampi.

Boulders which inspire

Reaching Hampi: All the three monoliths are very close by, walking distance from each other and also near to Virupaksha temple, Hemakuta hills and heart of Hampi village. Hampi is located in Bellary district of Karnataka. Although closest big city to Hampi is Hospet, just 12 kms away. Hospet is also the closest railway station. Hospet is located on National Highway 63 which connects Ankola to Bellary via Hubli. Hubli is 160 kilometres from Hampi and has the closest airport to the erstwhile capital of Vijayanagara empire. Hubli is in Dharwad district and also has a railway station. There are also many daily trains from Hubli to Hospet which normally take between 2.30 hours to 2.45 hours to cover the distance. Actually Hubli is on railway line connecting Madgaon in Goa to Hospet. Similarly, you can also come by train from Pune-Kolhapur to Hubli and then move to Hospet. From Hospet you can even take a taxi or auto rickshaw to Hampi. Hubli is also the second biggest city in Karnataka after capital Bengaluru. Bengaluru is bit far from Hubli- roughly 335 kilometres.

Hampi in Monsoon : Images from Hemakuta Hills

We are in UNESCO World heritage site of Hampi in Karnataka and have already went through the Virupaksha temple which is considered to be the most sacred of Hampi’s all temples. Right to the north of Virupaksha temple in Hampi is a big rock face which is known as Hemakuta Hill. It is not a big hill per say, but it is located very strategically. You can have a grand view of the Virupaksha temple and the Hampi Bazar from the top of the hill. There are ruins scattered all around.

Also read: Hampi in Monsoon – Virupaksha Temple

It is aptly also called as a canvas of rocks. And its actually a very amazing sight of the temple ruins around and the very strange rock formations. This rock hill has small temples, gateways and pavilions scattered all around.

There are also remains of a fortification. It is said that in ancient times the whole hill was fortified with stone walls. Traces of that ruins are visible even today.

There are many temples around the Hemakuta hills and they are called as Hemakuta group of temples. There are numerous shrines and mandapas included. There are said to be 21 Shiva temples on and around hills. Some temples also have architecture resembling to Jain temples. It is said that architecture of Hemakuta group of temples is different from Vijayanagara style of architecture.

Its lovely to be in monsoon time here. After visiting Virupaksha temple as I was strolling on Hemakuta hills, heavens opened up and I had to take a shelter in one of the temples, and what a fantastic view that opportunity gave me.

It was raining and rocky slopes of the Hemakuta hills had converted into various small waterfalls giving me a very pleasant sight. Many small pools are also formed.

Rocks on Hemakuta hill are very strangely placed and you often wonder, how these rocks are balancing themselves . Looks very scary at times and equally amazing too.

Even few of the pavilions or mandapas on the hill look so weirdly placed as in the image below. One might often wonder if they have been placed here at later stage.

And this is one of the iconic images of gopuram of Virupaksha temple between the rocks of Hemakuta hills. The mythology of Virupaksha temple is closely associated with that of Hemakuta temple. This mythology and history predates to history of Vijayanagara empire. Most of the temples around Hemakuta hills appear to date between 9th and early 14th century. 

This region holds the mythology of marriage of Lord Shiva (in form of Virupaksha) and Parvati (in form of goddess Pampa). It is said that Pampa was the daughter of Brahma and performed many austerities to woo Shiva, who was meditating on Hemakuta Hill.

It is said that Shivs finally agreed to marriage.  When he actually did… it started raining gold on the hill. Gold is called Hema in the sanskrit and hence this place got the name Hemakuta. This wedding is still celebrated annually at Virupaksha temple and it is big occasion for local people to come here.

a watch tower… or?

This place also has many Shivlingas cut out of rocks. In the image below you can see three lingers in single formation.

There are also five lingas in single formation like in the image below. You can find many such formations in Hampi.

Hemakuta temples have very distinct architecture and surprisingly even these temples have a mix bag of architecture, including Trikutachla style in which there are three shrines facing east, west and the north with a common  ardhamandapa and a front porch. Going towards south on the Hemakuta hill, we will also a group of stone shrines facing in different directions (image below). East facing shrine is said to be the original Virupakasha temple. Its is called Prasanna Virupaksha or Mula Virupaksha. This temple is still under worship. Just behind this temple is another chamber with 3.6 metre high image of Anjaneya or Hanuman. his temple is known as Prasanna Anjaneya temple.

There is a double storied gate towards the south (image below) to access the Hemakuta hill (image below). Just see, how precariously close to this gate is this rock placed… was it there before or this accident happened later on?

Past the gate, you can see other temples down south including Krishna temple (image below). I shall be writing about them in later posts.

The top of Hemakuta hills is also said to be one of the best place here to watch sunset. Drawback of coming here in monsoon is that you don’t get to see that perfect sunset, as you can see in winters.Another amazing aspect of Hemakuta hills and its rocks is the holes in these big boulders (image below). They were of course man made and it is said that they were made to break the rock from that point, thus to make smaller stones from these huge rocks so that they can be used in sculptures or construction of temples.

See, in the image below- the rock has been broken from exactly the same point where holes were made-The stairs carved out of the rocks in the souther side of the Hemakuta hills. From the double storied gate, these stairs lead down to other temples.

It is often said that there is much more in ruins of Hampi than what is obvious. They have a rich history. Time spent on Hemakuta hills just makes you able to soak yourself in marvel that is scattered around you. You can easily spend more than couple of hours on this hill enjoying the architectural wonders.

Reaching Hampi: Hemakuta hills are just north of the Virupaksha temple in heart of Hampi. Hampi is located in Bellary district of Karnataka. Although closest big city to Hampi is Hospet, just 12 kms away. Hospet is also the closest railway station. Hospet is located on National Highway 63 which connects Ankola to Bellary via Hubli. Hubli is 160 kilometres from Hampi and has the closest airport to the erstwhile capital of Vijayanagara empire. Hubli is in Dharwad district and also has a railway station. There are also many daily trains from Hubli to Hospet which normally take between 2.30 hours to 2.45 hours to cover the distance. Actually Hubli is on railway line connecting Madgaon in Goa to Hospet. Similarly, you can also come by train from Pune-Kolhapur to Hubli and then move to Hospet. From Hospet you can even take a taxi or auto rickshaw to Hampi. Hubli is also the second biggest city in Karnataka after capital Bengaluru. Bengaluru is bit far from Hubli- roughly 335 kilometres.

Hampi in Monsoon : Virupaksha Temple

Hampi is indeed one of the most prominent heritage sites in peninsular India. In our childhood, we all had been deeply associated with stories of Raja Krishna Dev Raya (Krishnadevaraya) and Tenali Raman (Ramkrishna). It is always fascinating to be there where all those immortal stories of Vijayanagara empire would have taken place. Hampi is also a place which can be included in our monsoon travel itineraries. Having there been in monsoon, I can safely say that it is one of he best time to visit Hampi. Summers are indeed a torture here and winter would be fun but it is the monsoon which brings the best out of this historical place in Hemakuta hills of Karnataka.

So here are few images from monsoon travel in Hampi, starting with the Virupaksha temple. Few striking ones to begin with- views of Virupaksha temple from the Hemakuta hills:

Right before the rain-

During the rain…

…and immediately after the rain

See, how the colours change so dramatically. Virupaksha Temple is the heart of Hampi, as this is the temple which is centre of all activities in Hampi- markets, bus stop, restaurants, shops- all are in surrounding areas of Virupaksha temple.  This temple dedicated to Shiva is considered to be one of the holiest and most sacred in Hampi. Hence it gets the most steady stream of visitors, all the year round. It is main centre of pilgrimage to Hampi.

Main gopuram of the Virupaksha temple, which makes the main entrance. This nine storied 50 metre high gopuram is one of the highest in Hampi.

Temple has a history that dates centuries earlier than the birth of Vijayanagara empire. Although this region of Hampi has mythological association with Ramayana, but the temple history is available only from 7th century onwards. But indeed during the rule of Vijayanagara empire that this temple reached to its glory. It was also amazing that though Raja Krishnadevraya was a vaishnavite, but it was the Virupaksha temple dedicated to Shiva that represented the glory of his empire.

Once you enter through this gopuram, you come to the outer courtyard of the temple.

A show stand and the souvenir shop in the outer courtyard

In the outer courtyard, there are many smaller shrines and mandapams.

Three faced Nandi, the vehicle of Lord Shiva

From this outer courtyard, through another smaller gopuram, we enter the main inner courtyard, which houses the main shrine and mandapams.  Some views of the inner courtyard.

Centre view…In the image above we can see third gopuram towards the north which takes us to some more shrines and it eventually leads us to river Tungabhadra, which flows besides the temple.

….the left view of the inner courtyard

….and the right!

In the image below you can see the main pillared hall on the left and mandapams on the right, which were used in the past by the pilgrims to stay while visiting the temple. In the front is the same main gopuram, through which we entered the temple. Pillared hall in the left quite rich in architecture as well as sculptures. This hall also has some inscriptions related to Krishnadevraya. 
Temple has gone through various phases of renovation and restoration. In the image below you can see the difference between the original work (towards right) and restored work (towards left).

Ceiling of inside hall has still got intact some of the paintings of past (image below)

Temple got different types of constructions. While the gouprams have been prepared with brick, main hall has beautifully sculpted pillars. Some of the pillars are even in black marble. Inner sanctum sanctorum of the temple is quite rich in its sculptures.

Family of Lord Shiva

Just behind the main shrine at an upper level is this display of the photography technology. In a dark room there is a hole in the wall (left on the image below) You can see the main gopuram from this hole. But this small hole actually coverts itself into a pin-hole camera and hence through this pin-hole you can see an inverted image of the gopuram (below right) on the wall just opposite the hole. Looks astonishing. It is unlikely that the hole would have been originally created that way. But it would have been interesting to know, how and when this phenomenon was discovered here.

Moving out, it is almost ritualistic for the pilgrims to feed the temple elephant (image below). This elephant is normally used in festivals and processions.

Erotic sculptures: But my story of the temple won’t complete without referring to these It seems that erotic sculptures were part of temple architecture in down south as well, at least in medieval times when Krishnadevaraya would have renovated these temples. Although the  sculptures don’t have finesse of the ones of 9th and 10th century, that we find in North India, or even of Kalinga region, which might have inspired few of Krishnadevaraya’s ideas around Hampi.

A sculpture depicting various sexual acts inside the inner courtyard on the outer wall of the main shrine

But more striking are the sculptures on the main gopuram of the Virupaksha temple. They are big, although due to height of the gopuram, they are not clearly visible to naked eyes from the ground level.

Interestingly, some of the poses in these sculptures are quite different to what I have seen anywhere else in India. (You can click on the images to have a bigger and clearer view). That makes me wonder about the idea behind them. Its is very unfortunate that we don’t have any authentic account on origin of these type of sculptures in this temple.  Perhaps no inscriptions, only hearsay.

Due to these sculptures, I had often considered Virupaksha temple as one of the top erotic temples in India. It is very interesting to have different insights while visiting a temple of this huge cultural and historical importance.

Reaching Hampi: Virupaksha Temple is in heart of Hampi, close to bus stand. Hampi is located in Bellary district of Karnataka. Although closest big city to Hampi is Hospet, just 12 kms away. Hospet is also the closest railway station. Hospet is located on National Highway 63 which connects Ankola to Bellary via Hubli. Hubli is 160 kilometres from Hampi and has the closest airport to the erstwhile capital of Vijayanagara empire. Hubli is in Dharwad district and also has a railway station. There are also many daily trains from Hubli to Hospet which normally take between 2.30 hours to 2.45 hours to cover the distance. Actually Hubli is on railway line connecting Madgaon in Goa to Hospet. Similarly, you can also come by train from Pune-Kolhapur to Hubli and then move to Hospet. From Hospet you can even take a taxi or auto rickshaw to Hampi. Hubli is also the second biggest city in Karnataka after capital Bengaluru. Bengaluru is bit far from Hubli- roughly 335 kilometres.

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A Shiva in Indonesia at Prambanan

Having talked about Borobudur Temple in Indonesia earlier, Prambanan temple can’t be left far behind. We have seen some sunset  photos of the Prambanan Temple earlier,  its now time to talk in some detail about it. Prambanan temple is in central Java and close to city of Yogyakarta. It is largest hindu temple in Indonesia located in area which is termed as Prambanan plains. It is also one of the biggest in South East Asia.

Prambanan1

Prambanan temple is dedicated to tridev- Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (Shiva). There are six main temples- Shiva in the centre, Brahma to his right and Vishnu to his left. And right opposite to temples of these three deities are the three temples of their respective vahanas- Nandi in front of Shiva, Garuda in front of Vishnu and Hamsa (swan) in front of Brahma. All temples are although built in typical hindu architecture, but there are few signs of fusion with Java architecture. For its cultural and architectural importance this temple compound is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Prambanan2

The temple was built in 9th century and in that context it predates many of India’s most famous temples. In this area, it was the period of tussle between Hindu and Buddhist dynasties. And it is often said that Prambanan was an hindu answer to Buddhist Borobudur. But both temples were built in almost same time period and are very close to each other. Nevertheless, fact is that Prambanan plains are home to classical cultures of Hindu and Buddhism periods. A number of inscriptions, statues, temples as well as ruins of royal residences from that classical period of Java are dotted in the plain.

Prambanan3

The inscriptions say that there were originally 240 temples in the complex built in a concentric Mandala layout. Besides those six main temples there were 2 Apit temples on north and south ends of the row between the tridev and their vahana temples, 4 Kelir temples in four directions facing right the four main gates of inner zones and 4 Patok temples on four corners of inner zone. These temples completed the inner zone and then there were 224 temples in four concentric square rows in outer zones. But the abandonment, neglect, weathering and catastrophes like quakes and volcanic eruptions damaged almost whole of the complex. They were rediscovered first by Britishers during their very short occupation of the are and then by Dutch. Later Indonesian government after country’s independence under Sukarno took the massive reconstruction exercise.

Prambanan4

But it was too damaged to reconstruct it completely. Hence only the six of the main temples and a couple of other temples were reconstructed. Most of the 224 temples in the outer zones can be seen only by there foundations. No upper structure is there. But even in what was reconstructed, this is a glorious temple and a precious piece of world heritage.

Prambanan9

Temple gets a steady stream of visitors from Indonesia as well as world over. There number is more than a million every year.

In Prambanan complex a Shiva temple at the centre is of great significance as it denotes the patronage to Shaivism or shaivite hinduism by local hindu rulers. Shiva temple is also the biggest and it has three smaller temples inside- Agastya rishi in south, Ganesha in the west and Durga in the north. Vishnu and Brahma temples don’t have any other temples inside.

Among the vahana temples, only Nandi temple has a statue. But statues of Garuda and the Hamsa (swan) are missing. There are many narrative panels, statues on the outer walls, corner stones depicting many hindu mythologies.

The most significant part of the temple is the relief panels inside the temples. These narrative bas-reliefs were carved on the walls of the corridors around the temples sanctorum (pradakshina path). Interestingly reliefs on the Shiva temple are from Ramayana while those on the Vishnu temple are from Krishnayana (Bhagavata Purana). A look at some of the reliefs.

The hindu stories in reliefs at temples from 9th century is amazing. It is rare to find anything like that even in India.

Overall, this temple has been a sort of revelation for us during our trip.

 

Borobudur Buddhist Temple: spectacular & outstanding!

We visited Borobudur temple in the third leg of our Indonesia trip, when we were stationed at Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is the biggest city close to this UNESCO world heritage site. Borobudur at Magelang in Central Java province of Indonesia is a Mahayana Buddhist Temple built in 8th and 9th centuries. It has been recorded as the largest Buddhist Temple in the world. But not just that… it is not just because of its size. It is considered to be one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world and for that matter, among the greatest monuments in the world.

Complex is huge and very artistically and geometrically built. It wasn’t possible for us to see it from the top, but this aerial image (below) taken from internet gives an idea of what this structure is like. In the image below you can see a volcano in the background. This complex is surrounded by two twin volcanoes. Surrounding area is highly fertile and lush green. The temple itself is said to be made of volcanic rocks, found in the are in abundance. Ironically the temple itself lay hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth and that kept it away from the human eyes, until it was rediscovered first under Britishers and then under Dutch between 1814-1835. Restoration of the temple although started in early last century but major restoration work was undertaken only by the Islamic Indonesian government in seventies. That finally led to its nomination as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1991 “to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.”

Borobudur-Aerial
Photos Source : Lonely Planet

The history of the region during the time of its original construction has been very confusing. The Buddhist and the Hindu kingdoms have been constantly fighting for the supremacy of the region. The Hindu Prambanan temple, not too far away from Borobudur were also constructed almost during the same time period. Well, a lot is there about it on the internet. No point in recollecting that all.

The whole temple structure was built in nine stacked platforms in three tiers. It has a pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces, then there is a trunk of a cone with three circular platforms and on the top is a monumental stupa. Practically people go upto eighth level. Ninth one is the position when one attains the nirvana. The whole structure is based on Buddhist philosophy. Among the three tiers are- Kamadhatu, Rupadhatu and Arupadhatu. It is said that the base is the Kamadhatu, while five platforms above it are Rupadhatu and the three circular platforms are Arupadhatu. Finally is the nirvana. Borobudur is still used for pilgrimage. Every year Buddhists celebrate Vesak here.

The temple is decorated with 2672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. Borobudur is said to have the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world. The five square platforms (Rupadhatu) have corridors with reliefs on both the sides. These relief panels describe life of Buddha and various incidents related to his life, previous life, his enlightenment and his teachings and Jataka tales. Religious people will go left and make a round of that platform to make a ‘parikrama’ and then they will repeat it at every level. The Buddha statues in niches these five square platforms are facing in four directions- North, South, East and West. And mudras (posture) of these statues are different in all four directions. For a keen traveller, interested in history, religious history and architecture, it will take a huge time to visit the complex and understand all these reliefs panels, even a day would be not enough. Interestingly, reliefs panels at the base of the temple have all been covered (and many removed). Only one relief panel at the base is open for the public to see. Rest all are covered by foot encasement from public eyes, presumably to protect the base. The 160 hidden panels of the base depicted scenes from the daily life, a full panorama of samsara. This was the base that is termed as Kamavibhangga (Kamadhatu)!

The top dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues on three circular levels (Arupadhatu). Each statue is seated inside a perforated stupa- 32 on first, then 24 and finally 16. Hence it is not possible to see these statues inside. But to make it possible for visitors to have a look at the statue, one of the stupa has been left uncovered. The mudra of Buddha statue on this level is different from what is at Rupadhatu level.

The monument guides pilgrims through extensive system of stairways and corridors. There is a stairway on the centre of the each side to take visitors till the top. There are arched gates at every level. Stairs are bit narrow and steep. Not so easy for those who get tired easily. But then there are railings to help those in need of support. Climbing up the stairs, going around the corridors at the every level, needs a lot of time and energy. But it is worth every step.

For its historical, religious, heritage and architectural value, this place gets a healthy number of tourists all the year round. It is said that Borobudur is Indonesia’s single most visited tourist attraction. As a tourist destination of high heritage value Borobudur ranks itself in line of Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Even locals visit this place in large numbers. We found many young Indonesian muslim girls enjoying the complex, completing their architectural projects, interviewing tourists or simply excitingly getting themselves photographed with tourists. It was a very pleasant sight indeed.

Yogyakarta is the nearest city to touch base for Borobudur. Yogyakarta is well connected by road, train and air network. There is only one hotel close to temple- very beautiful Manohara centre of Borobudur Study. There are also many options of homestay in surrounding villages. People will often like to stay close to the temple during the time of sunrise and sunset. This area is also promoted for village tourism.

The whole of Bruges is a public art gallery

Bruges is one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium and perhaps on the northern coast of Europe. The entire historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As with many other cities in Europe, one of the most interesting part about Bruges is its public art. A public art space is reflection of a vibrant, open and inclusive society. It also denotes that how a society respects different ideas and preserves them. Art plays an essential role in formulating new alternatives and it provides starting point for dialog. Art and art installations are there to see all around in Bruges- roadsides, house tops, balconies, city centres and even on public water taps. Well I am not an art critic, but I found the different forms of art in public places very fascinating in Bruges.

From the Canal

Bruges has been famous for being the cradle of Flemish Renaissance art. And while strolling around in the streets of this medieval city, we can understand why.

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City was also host to Bruges Triennial of Contemporary Art and Architecture last year, when 18 international contemporary artists created installations which were displayed throughout the city.

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Another public art seen from the canal.

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Beautiful paintings as souvenirs at the market-

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Even the public drinking water taps are art among themselves

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Few more of city’s art insatallations

A different side: Below is a painting about Stoofstraat in the actual Stroofstraat- an narrow alleyway of Bruges. It’s called ‘stoofstraat’ because of the baths (or ‘stews’ in Shakespearean English) that were here. ‘Stood’ also has a pronunciation of ‘stove’ which were here for hot baths. And baths  in the middle ages weren’t much better than brothels. Wealthy man used to come here to take’ baths’. It used to be said, “the rich could get cleaned up and at the same get dirty with the ladies.” It was infamously referred to as Bruges’ Red Light District, but no more.

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Philadelphia named 1st world heritage city in US

Love park

The City of Philadelphia has become the first World Heritage City in the United States. It received the designation through a vote taken by the XIII World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities in Arequipa, Peru. The designation comes as the result of a two-year campaign and is expected to enhance the City’s international stature and provide a new growth engine to drive tourism and commerce in the region.

As a World Heritage City, Philadelphia is being officially recognized on the global stage for its wealth of contributions to the world as the epicenter of American democracy and for its enduring commitment to preserving the unique historical and cultural assets in its diverse community.

From its Colonial history to the present day, Philadelphia has rightfully earned its place as one of greatest cities in the world.  Becoming a World Heritage City is a reflection of all that it has accomplished and a confirmation of the fact that the best is yet to come as Philadelphia continues to evolve and transform itself. This opens new doors of opportunity for Philadelphia while raising awareness of the City’s importance in today’s highly competitive global arena.

Philadelphia’s strong case to become the first World Heritage City in the U.S. began with a revolutionary foundation – the fact that the City is the home of Independence Hall, where America’s Founding Fathers forged democratic ideals into the Declaration of Independence and changed the course of history to give birth to a nation in 1776.  It is also where the United States Constitution was written and signed.  Independence Hall became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.  In 2013, Philadelphia was approved as an Observer Member of the Organization of World Heritage Cities. Earlier this year, the World Heritage Philadelphia Executive Committee submitted an application to become a Full Member.  Philadelphia, the fifth-largest U.S. city, joins 266 other World Heritage Cities in the Organization of World Heritage Cities.

At a symposium in Philadelphia last month, the Global Philadelphia Association and the City of Philadelphia invited more than one hundred leaders in the public and private sectors to discuss ideas and strategies that could be implemented following the World Heritage City designation. Now, these partners will develop and coordinate a plan of action in the months to come. As the birthplace of America, with its rich heritage of history, arts and culture and an ideal location on the Northeast coast of the United States, Philadelphia has so much to offer the world. The World Heritage City designation is a great honor for the City. It further enhances the value of our global brand and will help to attract even more tourists and conventions to Philadelphia.

 

 

Spring in Khajuraho – A photo diary

Well when we talk about Khajuraho, what comes to our minds of this UNESCO world heritage site is its beautiful temples and world famous erotic sculptures. But then nature has its own carvings and sculptures. Spring being one of the best of them. What about a spring in Khajuraho? Lets have a photo journey of Khajuraho with a nature’s view in all its splendid colours. What a break it would be from dancing divas on and off the temples of Khajuraho! Truly romantic! Isn’t it!

A fairytale trip on Glacier Express

Naetschen2If you think that it is tough to be in Europe on a vacation in winters, then think again. There are many things you will simple fall in love with during winters, when everything is white as snow, literally. Glacier express is among the top of them. Any sight that comes closer to this one in India is a train trip from Ramban to Baramulla in Kashmir Valley. But then Swiss beauty is something everybody craves for. A journey on the Glacier Express in winter has its own uniquely special charm. The Glacier Express is the most famous railway in the world. It travels from Zermatt to Davos or St. Moritz in around seven hours. It is a day trip through untouched mountain landscapes, glamorous health resorts, deep gorges, delightful valleys, 91 tunnels and across 291 impressive bridges. The train winds its way through the snow-covered landscape and even travels through metre-high snow walls.

WW5S0746aFrom December to February the whole Glacier Express route is a snow-covered fairytale landscape. The train winds its way through the snow-covered landscape and, at the highest point along the route – the Oberalp Pass Davos at 2,033 m above sea level – travels through metre-high snow walls. In spring guests will be able to savour two impressive seasons on a single journey: the magic of spring in the valleys and the wonderland of winter in the higher elevations – a natural spectacle of a very special kind.

im GomsWhether travelling between Zermatt and St. Moritz or between Brig and Chur – the Glacier Express also equates to exclusive travel in the winter. The slowest express train in the world operates daily with its modern 1st and 2nd class panoramic cars. On the 8 hour train journey, guests will be enthralled by the spectacular Albula route, which has attracted UNESCO World Heritage listing, the Goms, a fascination winter-wonderland and many other spectacular landscapes. A commentary in 6 languages via headphones serves to provide backgrounds about the life and culture of the people along the route. Two channels with easy-listening music complete the auditory offering. A-la-carte service including three Indian dishes is also available during the winter season. The bar section in the centre of the train offers 24 standing places.

Im Winter am OberalpWinter operations start from December 14, 2014 and continue until May 8, 2015. During this period the Glacier Express experience is very economical for guests travelling with a Swiss Pass. The train journey is included in the pass; the reservation fee is only CHF 13 instead of 33 during summer season. Summer operations start from May 9, 2015.

In the roaring 1920s, and because of adventurous reports from alpine enthusiasts, the travel-keen upper-class from all four corners of the world at long last discovered the rustic charms of the Swiss Alps; previously remote mountain villages such as Zermatt and St.Moritz were transformed into chic health resorts. The three railway companies of that period (VZ – later BVZ, RhB and FOB) respectively successfully took advantage of the tourism potential at hand with the opening of the route between the Valais and Graubünden in 1926: the introduction of the through coaches Brig – Chur and Brig – St.Moritz exclusively in summer was met with a lot of interest amongst the travelling public. By the way, it was to take more than 50 years before the trains were able to also cross the impassable Furka alpine route in winter.