Once Upon a Time in Chettinad

”  Which Indian town has hundreds of mansions with  Burmese teak pillars,  Belgian mirrors, chandeliers, Italian marble, Japanese tiles, and Venetian glass?, “  I asked my friend.

” Delusions of grandeur!   Are you coming from a movie set?”   the friend was not convinced until I showed her the photos of Chettinad (land of Chettiyar).

Chettiyars, one of the richest communities in South India made their fortunes from banking and trading during the British Raj. They also established flourishing business ventures in South East Asian countries. In their heydays, they made palatial houses across  75 villages near Madhurai, Tamil Nadu.   This region came to be known as Chettinad. After independence,  declining economy forced many of them to move to the cities and other countries leaving their ancestral homes in the custody of caretakers. Many of the grand old mansions are now in a depressing state of disrepair; some are stripped off the valuables and demolished;  a couple of them are converted into heritage hotels.  Some houses are open to the public.

Our heritage trail started from  Karaikudi-the main town. The local driver Anand was an enthusiastic and enterprising guide. After a short visit to a temple, (there are a lot of temples around)   he brought us to Periya Veedu(Big House).

Periya Veedu

An old caretaker let us in for a nominal charge.   We stood at the foyer and took in the  visual feast.    Chettiyar houses follow a typical pattern: imposing entrance with arches,   huge courtyards,  granite and wood pillars, high ceilings, and they are aligned in such a way that from the entrance one can see right up to the back door. Some houses stretch along an entire street. The size and scale of ornamentation reflect their wealth and prestige.

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The reception area mugappu has raised platform thinnai on either side ; this part was used for the male guests. There was a clear demarcation between the public and private zones. With men away on business for long periods,  women were in charge of running the house. I wonder if the dynamics changed after they returned home for good!

The grand reception area

The ornate teak doors open to the main hall. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope and finding colorful surprises at every turn.

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The Main Hall

The influence of different lands and cultures is visible all around: Belgian mirrors(kept covered), Italian marble, Burmese teak pillars blend beautifully with the locally made Athangudi tiles.   Anand informed that this hall can accommodate thousands of people and was used for banquets, weddings, and festivals. It was interesting to know local masons were the chief architects for these “hybrid” homes.

Lord Krishna on the ceiling

Indian mythological figures and fairies

The windows and doors have a special charm:

Sparkling floor and grand pillars

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From the main hall, we moved to an open courtyard with large verandas and several rooms :

The Ladies Wing

The ladies’domain does not have the lavish ornamentation of the main hall but is more bright, airy, and personal. Many South Indian movies are shot in this house. Anand reeled off the names and I made a note to watch it on YouTube.

Next comes the dining hall which looks like the interior of a church:

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Only three sections of the house are open to visitors.  All the other rooms (40-50) are locked up. The family members come only for a wedding or other festivals. It must cost a fortune to maintain such a house! Out of the 50-60,000 houses, there are now only 10-15,000 (estimates vary widely) and they are scattered around Karaikudi, Kanadukathan , and Puthukottai. It seems the Chettiyars vied with one another in making bigger and grander homes.

We ambled down the deserted road marveling at the architectural splendours:

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Majestic Raja’s Palace was not open to visitors

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Stucco figure of Goddess Lakshmi,goddess of wealth and prosperity is seen in many houses.

Central courtyard in a mansion-this is my favourite spot.

Open to the elements

 

Many are crumbling: IMG_9854

Frozen in a time warp

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Another repository of memories

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After the heavy dose of history and art (I was getting a bit disoriented), it was time to visit the local market. The lively place was full of people and produce: fresh and seasonal. It was fun watching the buyers, sellers, and the range of items on display.IMG_0001

We went around buying as much as we could eat and returned to the hotel.

Spiti Tales, Bhimakali Temple- The Jewel in the Crown

I woke up to the sound of temple bells and devotional songs. The time was 5:30.  I went up to the roof of the hotel hoping to see the sun coming up the mountains but was greeted by the mist rising from the valley.

Good morning, Sarahan.

On a clear day, we can see the Shrikhand peak of the Himalayas. There was no point in waiting. So I  decided to go to the temple before the devotees start coming for the morning puja. There is a short path lined with apple orchards leading to the temple gate.

The Bhimakali temple is over 800 years old and is one of the 51 shakti peeths. It is dedicated to Goddess Bhimakali, the presiding deity of the erstwhile rulers of Sarahan.  The majestic temple complex is made in the traditional kath-kuni style using stone and wood which is suitable for the climatic conditions.

Bhimakali Temple

From the main gate, you enter a  large courtyard and the temple complex comes into view. It looked more like a castle. The heavily carved building in the front used to be the old palace of the ruling Bushahr family.  The temple resthouse, canteen, and administrative office are in this courtyard. It was slightly unnerving to see a gun- toting guard in this pristine environs and a grim reminder of the times we live.

The temple guest house and canteen

Exquisite wood carvings

The premises are kept very clean and one can feel a sense of peace and serenity all around unlike most of the temples which are always crowded and noisy. The present chief minister of Himachal Pradesh is also the king of the Bushahr dynasty.The signs of royal patronage are quite evident.

From the first courtyard, an ornate silver door opens to the smaller second courtyard.unnamed (11)unnamed (6)

Embellished with deities

The doorknob is a knockout!

A short flight of steps flanked by two tigers takes you to the main temple towers.

The old and new temple towers

The tower on the right is the old temple which was damaged in an earthquake and was deemed unsafe for regular worship. The new tower was made in 1943. Photography is not permitted inside the temple. The Goddess is enshrined in the top floor of the functioning temple.  From the windows on the top floor, I  could see the spectacular mountain range still covered in the mist.

There are three other temples in the complex dedicated to Lord Raghunath, Narasimha and Lanka Veer. Legends and mythological tales abound in the Bhimakali temple. It was surprising to know that human sacrifices used to be held here until the 18th century.

The Lord Narasimha temple

There is a  mini museum showcasing old utensils, weapons, musical instruments, and relics. Staff quarters of the temple priests are seen near the old tower. Each structure seems to blend with the surrounding mountains.

The slanting roof made of slate stones protect the structures from strong winds

Majestic snow-capped mountains, lush green meadows, orchards, and a temple with stunning architecture makes Sarahan the quintessential Himalayan town. The Goddess Bhimakali could not have chosen a better place to reside and watch over her devotees.

Dragon Tales,Punakha-Seeking Bliss

Besides the Tiger’s  Nest  Punakha Dzong is the most iconic and revered monument in Bhutan and  is also known as The Palace of Great Happiness or Bliss.It is also the headquarter of Punakha district.This was the last dzong  of my trip and  I found it  the most beautiful and majestic.  .Words and pictures can’t do justice to this magnificent fortress/monastery.

Situated at the confluence of the Mo Chhu(mother river) and Po Chuu( father river) Punakha Dzong was built in the 16th century and  holds a special position in the history of Bhutan. This  regal dzong is closely associated with Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal – the Tibetan Lama and the  founding father of Bhutan. He was the one who unified this country  and established the dual system of governance. Many dzongs were made during his time  as  defence fortresses against invaders. .He  fought many Tibetan invasions and consolidated the country  giving it a distinct  Bhutanese identity. He went into retreat in  1651 and was  believed to have passed away  in this dzong..His death was not revealed for a long period for  fear of  unrest. His embalmed body is kept in the most important  section of the dzong along with certain sacred relics and he is  worshipped all over the country.Most of the temples have  statues of Buddha,Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung and now I can identify him as the Lama with  a flowing beard.

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Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel pc-wikipedia

This was the first sight of the dzong and  I was struck by its picturesque setting.They could not have chosen  a better  location.

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The Palace of Bliss pc Dr Bruno

 

 

There is a charming cantilever bridge connecting the main land with the dzong over the Mo Chhu.The original bridge was washed away in a flood in 1957 and this new bridge was made in 2008.

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Tower of the cantilever bridge over Mo Chhu

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School children on the bridge

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Sparkling Mo Chhu

 

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Dzongs are made of mud,stone and timber and painted in bright red,white and black.

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Seen from the bridge

 

 

Leaving the bridge tower  the imposing facade  of the dzong comes into view.Now you will  see the massive scale of the  structure and  I wonder how they made such a perfect  building in that period with  limited tools and technology.
A strict dress code is enforced . Bhutanese have to put a scarf ‘Kabney ‘ and visitors have to be in formal wear.I appreciate that.Can you imagine going to  this grand citadel in  casuals?
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The stone and wooden staircase leading to the dzong

The wooden stairs can be pulled up in the event of an attack   and there is a huge wooden door .A unique feature of this dzong is the three courtyards(Other dzongs have two ) The first courtyard  has the two storey administrative wing .There is  a huge white stupa and  a Bodhi tree at the centre of the courtyard.

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The giant Bodhi tree standing like a sentinel

A six storey central tower  UTSE   separates it from the second courtyard which has the monastic  quarters.

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The central tower.This little girl was very excited and was dancing around.

Compared to the rest of the dzongs the art work  and colours are magnified and one can’t help   but stop  and gasp  at the intricate carvings and paintings on the doors,windows,staircases,balustrades and balconies.It looks as if each part is made with great diligence and devotion.I remember the master in the art school saying that creating a piece of art is a also a form of worship. . Seeing the abundance and mastery of the exquisite art all around  I felt  I was having symptoms of Florence Syndrome.d7d15d11

All of a sudden  there was a commotion  and  I could see many important looking people assembled  in the courtyard .I thought they were waiting to receive  someone from the royal family  or  a VIP and decided to  wait and watch from the balcony.

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Kabney spotting. Green is for judges ,white with red stripe for headmen and white with fringes for the common man

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Monks are also waiting.

Soon  the the courtyard  was resonating with chorus chanting , booming drums,blaring horns ,  gongs,cymbals and  a religious procession started.It was a fascinating  sight and I was spellbound.

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Yellow hatted monks pc Dr Bruno

 

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Monks with drums

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I did  not know the religious significance of this ceremony but it was thrilling to  be part of it.

The third courtyard  houses  the temple. The sanctum santorum has  gigantic statues of Lord Buddha,Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung .There  are huge gilded pillars  and every inch of the walls and ceiling are adorned with  exquisite murals depicting the life of Lord Buddha.The silence and serenity   of the temple was overwhelming . One need not be a believer or follower of Buddhism to appreciate the energy  and power of this sacred hall.

Next to the main temple is the     Machey Lhakhang  containing the embalmed body of the great Zhabrdrung  and  its entry is limited to the King and the Chief Abbot.

Punakha Dzong was damaged in flash floods,earthquake and fire several times(most recent was the flash floods in 1994) and each time it was restored   to its former glory.In 2011 the wedding celebrations of  the present King was held here.What impressed me most was the way the Bhutanse have preserved their national heritage sites.India takes pride in its rich cultural heritage but most of our ancient monuments are in a sad state of neglect and some have even disappeared.It is sad seeing our protected sites in ruins and  defaced with graffiti.We have a lot to learn from this neighbouring country.They don’t forget their past even when they are adapting to the challenges of  the modern world.

Punakha Dzong-a perfect blend of  religion,art and architecture and I will always remember it as  the Palace of Sublime Moments.

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Punakha Dzong- Timeless and invincible

Dragon Tales,Thimphu-Out and about

Another day in Thimphu  and it began with a visit to The National Memorial Chorten – a  prominent landmark and  religious centre  for the Bhutanese.It was not far from the hotel and the huge white  structure with the gleaming golden spire could be seen from far.Going to this shrine every morning  is a ritual for the devout   Bhutanese.

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National Memorial Chorten

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The Temple

 

Many elderly men and women are seen in the premises engaged in prayers  and circumambulating  the main shrine.Some are  seen spinning the giant prayer wheels and prostrating in prayers.This is  not so easy and I was wondering how some of those frail  old Bhutanese  were  doing  it with such ease and remarkable grace.  A group of ladies were  relaxing around the central  pavilion.This must be their favourite place for meeting friends.

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From the chorten I went to see the Centenary Farmers Market.This sprawling 2 storey building  is   the largest domestic market  for the local farmers. Being a week day it was not  crowded  and I could explore it leisurely.There are about 400 stalls displaying local  and imported  produce of vegetables,fruits,cheese, rice,spices etc.The whole market is kept remarkably clean and everything is clearly marked.

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Fresh organic local fruits

Bhutan has banned the use of pesticides    and agriculture is  wholly organic .Most of the Bhutanese are non vegetarians  and red rice,meat,cheese and chillies  form their staple diet.Chillies  are an integral part of their cuisine and  is used more like a vegetable than a spice.  Ema datshi is the national dish and it is  made of chillies and cheese. Cheese  products are seen in  all shapes and sizes.Asparagus and fiddlehead ferns called  Nakey were in season .I had  them almost every day and found it quite tasty.There is a section for dried fish and meat   but the odour kept me away.

 

As I came out of the market I saw a bridge  and had to  go there.Bhutan being a country with rivers has many bridges and most of them are pieces of art unlike the nondescript structures I have seen in India.This one  was also painted in  bright colors and decorated with prayer flags .

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Aesthetic and elegant

I spotted a pair of school girls and followed them to the other side and found many empty stalls . The  bubbly girls  informed  that this is the place for  the weekend handicrafts market.

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Leaving these charming girls I made my way to the National Institute  for Zorig Chusum(Zo=to make,rig=science,chusum=13)Here the students learn 13 forms of  art and craft which includes weaving,masonry,sculpting  and painting. It is admirable that the government has taken measures to preserve and promote their  traditional art.The courses take 4-6 years.

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National Institute for Zorig Chusum

I went inside  the  classrooms and  saw many young students . Some of the classrooms looked crowded  – could be the  junior grades. They  seemed to be engrossed in their  studies and I felt I was invading  with my camera though I was told that they are quite used to visitors. I was not convinced and preferred to observe their meticulous work .It was impressive to see  the talented youngsters.Girls were  seen mostly in the embroidery and sculpture classes  and boys dominated the painting section.I spoke to one of the teachers who showed  these sketches   by the students and gave  an insight into the  curriculum.

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Bhutanese art is also deeply rooted in Buddhism and was formally categorised into the  13 traditional art forms  towards the end of 17th century.Some of the eminent lamas themselves were great artists .

It was interesting to know that they use natural pigments and dyes and they have to  follow a set of iconography rules.Art is  considered a pious act and the artists remain anonymous. So what about artistic freedom?There are some art studios in the city that promote contemporary art.I must say that this glimpse into the traditional art  was the highlight of the day and I regret that I could not spend more time out there.

From the ‘Painting School’ I went to see the national animal-Takin.I have not heard of such an animal before and was curious .Legend has it that takin was created by the famed Lama Drukpa Kunley  who is also known as the Divine Madman for his unconventional ways.It seems he fixed the head of a goat on the skeleton of a cow and created this new species.Wikipedia informs that takins  belong to the category of goat antelope and they are also found in Tibet and China.Motithang Takin Preserve  is on the outskirts of Thimphu and  we drive through  a dense forest    and walk up a  short distance and there he stands.They do look rather odd  and  docile.

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Takin-national animal of Bhutan

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He looks melancholic

 

Can I leave Thimphu without seeing  the famous dzong? Tashichho Dzong  is the seat of the government and houses the throne room and office of the King,secretariat and ministries of finance and home affairs.It  is also the headquarters of  the central monastic  body and their summer retreat.By the time I reached it was closed and I could only see  the magnificent building  and surrounding gardens from far..

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Tashichho Dzong-Fortress of the glorious religion

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From the lookout point

It had been a memorable day and I went back to the hotel after a stroll in the central square.

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Clock tower square at night

Dragon Tales,Thimphu-A walk down the streets

From the rustic hamlet of Paro, I found myself heading for the equally sylvan surroundings of the capital Thimphu and Bhutan’s most populated city.

Getting there took  about an hour and a half, vending through highway and all the while being treated to a still unblemished scenic beauty on either side. The capital city came into being in 1961 and the valley that envelops it stretches along the Wang Chhu river. It does have some of trappings of a bustling city but omits some features that we have come to accept as standard fare these days – airport,  traffic lights ,MNCs  and billboards.

My hotel was  near  the main street and opposite the National Stadium. This  stadium has historical significance as it is built at the site of a famous battle which led to the unification of Bhutan and the coronation of their first king.  When I went in  a football match  was going on. Though archery is their national sport, football is quite popular.

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CHANGLIMITHANG NATIONAL STADIUM

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A short walk took me to the main throughfare of Zorin Lam Street and the clock tower square. This is a  city landmark  and  remains an ever popular hangout for the young and the young at heart. A gig in connection with 4G launch was going on .For a country which introduced internet  as recent as 1999,their telecom sector is booming.
I was quite tired after the epic Tiger nest trek  and was looking forward to a comfortable night’s kip . Clearly, I knew nothing about the notorious dogs there. They  were barking all night and the canine symphony kept me awake  most of the time.

Later I came to know that stray dogs are a major problem here and being a Buddhist country they  cannot euthanise  them.Singey told me that they have an ongoing spay neuter and vaccination program.Well,that did put me at ease.These dogs are fiercely territorial and  one can see chorten dogs,monastery dogs , restaurant dogs,etc.My tormentors  could be the downtown pack.

I got out of the hotel   as the city  was waking up to a new day. My first stop was the clock tower centre.  Souvenir shops,restaurants,cafes, and bars are seen around the  well maintained streets.A few elderly ladies were seen   turning the prayer wheels.I think this is their  morning ritual.

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CLOCK TOWER SQUARE

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From there I walked down towards the  traffic kiosk. Thimphu being the capital has the  heaviest traffic  in the country and it also boasts of having no traffic lights.Traffic police from the Royal Bhutan  Police controls the traffic.In 1995  traffic  lights were installed  but they were taken off soon as most people failed to follow  and there were accidents.So  the  traffic cops were reinstated   and this spot has become a major tourist attraction. The kiosk also sports  the  traditional  look.  The night revellers  were seen curled up and sleeping cosily.They must be the kiosk pack.

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The picturesque traffic kiosk.Don’t miss the sleeping beauties.

Symbols of Buddhism and pictures of the King  and the royal family  can be seen everywhere.

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Most of the commercial buildings are 4-5 storey structures  made in the traditional style with  brightly coloured  hand painted floral, animal  and religious motifs on the walls and  embellished windows.All the shops are numbered.bldgb19b16

Few old mud houses   share space with their modern concrete counterparts.

Impressive government offices are also scattered in and around the main street.

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UNITED NATIONS OFFICE

I wandered into an alleyway and  couldn’t help noticing the red stains on the wall.These are betel nut stains.Doma pani is the local term and quite a few  Bhutanese are addicted to its use.

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STREET ART &DIRT

The high point of the morning was  seeing the flowers  in bloom and I knew I  was in the right place.appleyellowflora

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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