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- Mountains, valleys, lakes, and bridges.

After bidding farewell to the divine Kinnaur Kailash, we set out for  Tabo. This route is known for landslides and we knew the photo stops would be considerably reduced. We passed through Akpa, Morang, Spello and Pooh.The road conditions varied from smooth tarmac to narrow mud tracks.  On the way, there are some lovely bridges and waterfalls. This stretch has some of the finest bridges  I have ever seen, ranging from Bailey, suspension to massive modern ones.

The good roads

Mud roads.Don’t miss the Mummy rock. Pc: Ajay

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The Border Road Organisation (BRO) is responsible for the maintenance of these mountain roads and frequently we came across people engaged in clearing the rock_  strewn paths. They have put up a number of quirky sign boards all along the route doling out safety precautions. ‘If married, divorce speed’, ‘ Be gentle on my curves’,  ‘Mind your brakes or break your mind’ and ‘Be Mr.Late than late Mr.’  are a few I remember now.

Our first halt was at Khab. This is where the mighty Sutlej which originates from Tibet meets Spiti river coming from the Spiti valley. The landscape is barren, arid and vast. The greenery has almost vanished. Mighty mountains lead us to a narrow tunnel with overhanging rocks.  Though technically we are still in Kinnaur I  feel we have entered the surreal land of Spiti.

The gateway to Spiti

Khab Bridge adorned with prayer flags.

The confluence of Satluj and Spiti rivers. Satluj is muddy brown and Spiti river is ash gray.

The rocks show a range of colors and some of them have striations. Wish we had a geologist in our group!

This rock reminded me of a gargoyle with cold, evil eyes.

Rock art Pc: Ajay

Boulders perched precariously

Our convoy.

 

Khab has another significance. Shipki La-the high mountain pass and border post on the India-China border is about 40 km from here. You require special permits to go there.

A slice of the sky Pc: Mangesh

Face off! Mr.Snub nose and Ms.Sharp nose.

From Khab to Hangrung valley

From Khab, the road ascended through a series of switchbacks. There were no other vehicles in sight. It was like going into an alien, remote land. All we could see were the mountains in different colors and dimensions. The landscape is like Ladakh except that Ladakh is always bursting with tourists.

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A patch of green.

The next stop was Nako -a beautiful village and often a night stop for the travelers. Nako is an important center of Buddhism. There are two main monasteries (gompas) and many temples in the Nako village. Guru Rinpoche is believed to have meditated in the caves seen up in the mountains.We could not go inside the monasteries as they were closed to the public.

Old Nako Gompa

After a quick lunch, we went over to Nako Lake. After the rocky, dusty, barren terrains, the shimmering lake was like an oasis. It looks more like a  large pond.

Enchanting Nako Lake

Nako lake is a natural lake and remains frozen during winter. The water was crystal clear and green reflecting the trees around the periphery.  The tranquility and silence all around was overpowering.  Though Nako has become quite popular on the travel circuit, there were not many people around.  I can imagine how this place would look with a bunch of noisy, selfie_ obsessed tourists.

Circumambulating the lake

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The walkway around the lake leads to the Nako village and its cluster of houses made of earth and stone. Fodder and firewood are piled on the wooden roofs and most houses have a pen for their cattle.   Prayer wheels, colorful prayer flags, and cairns with inscribed mantras seen among the winding lanes reflect the age-old Buddhist traditions.

Nako Village homes

A pen with no inmates

All peace and quiet here.

Where are the people?

I wanted to peek inside.

Mani stones

Prayer wheels and Mani stones

The premises are kept very clean. But where are the people?   Most people-both men and women work in the fields.Their main crops are peas, potato, wheat, and barley. The Himachal government has provided many houses with solar panels and they also have a helipad to transport people in case of an emergency. New concrete buildings are coming up beside the traditional homestays and small guesthouses. I did not see a school or a hospital.

Two sisters were seen out there enjoying the sun.IMG_5245IMG_5246

I had not even heard of Nako before coming here and now I am leaving with pleasant memories of a small, peaceful village.

 

 

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,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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