Sunday, September 25, 2011

Munia Mania

It all began when i noticed my Lemon Grass in the kitchen garden looked like it had been pruned by a 5 yr old. At first I thought it was the cook doing some gardening and gave it no further thought. That was until on a sunday morning while making tea, I heard soft twitters from the balcony and peeked out the window. I had caught the lemon-grass thief in action!

Spotted Munia with lemongrass

I moved over to the other bedroom window and from there I could get a good view of them ( yes, there were of them ). One sat on the grill as a lookout, while the other picked at a leaf ( they are tough leaves and difficult to cut ). All the while the one doing the picking would give out a soft 'chee' sound periodically. When it was done, it made a 'ti tee ti tee' like sound and the two of them took off with a long green streamer of lemon grass behind them.

This wasn't the first time I had seen a Scaly Breasted Munia (also called Spotted Munia). It was the first time I had heard it though. This has been a daily occurrence since June, there are 2 of them outside the window tweeting away as I type this out. They visit in the morning and in the afternoon.They are nesting in our apartment campus in a Ficus.

Last week there were four of them sitting on the grill near the plant. They are now used to my presence and I was able to open the window slowly and push out my lens between the grills and take these photos. 

Spotted Munia in Action

Spotted Munia Info (Lonchura punctulata)

Spotted Munia are a species of Finch   They are native to India. They look quite distinctive so are hard to confuse with other birds. They are sparrow sized. Male and Female look exactly alike. Research says that the male sings more than the female and has a slightly darker head.

Nesting season is June - August ( monsoon ). It seems that the Munias are dedicated builders, they seem to be showing no signs of stopping. I don't know how much longer my lemongrass can take the constant pruning. They must be having the most fragrant nest in the neighborhood.

Spotted Munias are easily spotted in flight by the long green streamers they fly around with as they ferry them back to the nest. Ive seen them nest in Ficus quite a bit. We even had one nesting in a potted Ficus in the Office open air cafeteria.  My first sighting of them was at Madivala lake.

Spotted Munia pair

Food: Munia eat grass seeds and small insects. They dont seem to like rice grains or mixed dals, because I put a few out and they weren't interested.

Spotted MuniaAre there other Munias ?

Yes there are indeed :

1. Red Munia - Avadavat ( seen only once and record photo by K in Manchinbele )
2. White Rumped Munia - seen in Ranganthittu
3. Silver Bills - seen in Maidanhalli and Manchinbele
4. Black Headed Munia - Seen in Ranganthittu 
5. Green Avadavat - (north and central india) very rare and Threatened species.

Highrise Birding

Living in an apartment building in the middle of the city doesnt mean you are bereft of birds. The Munias are not our only visitors. Other birds that we see on a daily basis from our 9th floor abode:

Large Pied Wagtails
Purple Sun Bird
Bush chat - male and female
Blue Rock pigeons ( these I dont encourage )
Tiny Bats ( we had one as a house guest for a day )
Red rumped swallows

Other birds we've seen from the terrace or on walks around the campus:

Shikra (regular sighting)
Spotted Owlet (regular sighting)
Jungle Myna (not the regular myna, these have a tuft on the beak)
Tree Pie
1 Peacock - ( I kid you not! )

We saw the peacock a month or so ago, walking on the terrace of the neighboring apartment building. We still cant believe it ourselves. (Checked with people, its not a pet). I also saw a few years ago an egyptian vulture on top of the ITPL building. There is a forested area not too far way, so I'm guessing the peacock, tree pie and the monkeys come from there.

Spotted Munia backlit
Can I get these birds to visit me?

Certainly, You can grow lemon grass for starters. ( just kidding ).

A bird bath is a good bird magnet. But it will encourage pigeons ( which make quite a mess ) so unless you have a large balcony or terrace, I wouldn't recommend it. Place an earthen ware pot filled with water in a shaded area. Place a stone in the middle ( as an island ) for smaller birds.

The best way is to attract small nectar drinking birds like sunbirds. Plant native species of Hibiscus ( Red, Pink, White) or the Blue Clustervine, Yellow Trumpet or butterfly pea vine and with some luck, you will soon have a few sunbirds drop by.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Halebidu v1.0

Its been a while since my last post and it isn't because of not trying; there's a bunch of partially written drafts covering Bodhgaya, Goa - A RoadTrip, Hampi in various parts, Hogennakal and a few more that have now skipped my memory. The long holidays saw us return from a road trip to Goa, the plan of a similar trip to Pondicherry has been postponed to a different time.

What better way to start than with the remover of obstacles?

This Ganesh Chaturti we thought of doing Halebidu and Belur. What we did not factor in our plan was the monsoon, the sheer size and innumerable carvings of the Halebidu Temple and the sheer size and innumerable pot holes that were generously sprinkled enroute. We'll get to the nittigritties of travel in Karnataka later. First, some background. ( As always I will refrain from providing details easily available from wiki )

The spots on the sculpture are rain drops
Observe the bells swaying

Quick History Lesson

Halebidu started life as Dwarasamudra, the Gate to the Sea, named so because of the lake in the city that looked like the sea. The lake is still there and is part of the temple complex. In the early 11th century this city was the capital of the Hoysala Empire. Halebidu means old or ruined city; the name and the ruin came thanks to Alauddin Khilji of the Mughal Sultanate. The city was laid to ruin twice, once in 1311 and then again in 1327.

By 1336, the Sultanate in Delhi had conquered the Pandyas of Madurai, the Kakatiyas of Warangal and the tiny kingdom of Kampili. The Hoysalas were the only remaining Hindu empire who resisted the invading armies. Veera Ballala III, the last king of the Hoysala Empire stood strong against the destroying forces and managed to hold them off until he was killed at the battle of Madurai in 1343.

But before we lose hope, be aware, all was not lost. Veera Ballala had 2 commanders, Harihara (Hakka) and Bukkaraya (Bukka) - do the names sound familiar? Thats because the remaining regions of the erstwhile Hoysala empire merged and formed itself into a kingdom under these able commanders. This new Hindu kingdom resisted the Mughal invasions and would later find fame and fortune as the great Vijayanagara Empire. This empire would give Karnataka the wonders of Hampi, which I hope to cover in satisfactory detail in a following blog.


This set of images depicts the Holy Trinity ( usually represented by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (Mahesh) ).
Here, I have placed them as they appeared on the temple wall, which featured Shiva in the middle, since this was after all his temple. Identifying is easy, Brahma has 4 heads ( 3 are visible 4th is behind ), Shiva is identified by the Drum, for Vishnu ( shanka, chakra, mace, padma ).

The Temple

The temple at Halebidu is actually a pair of shrines joined together. The deity is Shiva. The 2 shrines are for Hoysaleshwara ( Shiva given a name after the king ) and Shataleshwara. ( Shiva named after the Queen Shantala ). The King was Vishnuwardhana. Work on the temple began in 1121 AD ( ASI tells us that it was in 1120, funded by 2 merchants Ketamalla and Kesarasetti ).

The merchants must have had very deep pockets indeed because like the Energizer bunny, the sculptors kept on going and going. 190 years later, they were still not done. If you're guessing that either money or patience might have run out, you're wrong, the first invasion had occurred.

( Note: wiki says 87 yrs of work, the guide said 190. If you do the math, 190 matches exactly. Also some parts of the temple do look incomplete, so I would go with the guide on this one )


These two images show Shiva vanquishing baddies and doing the Tandav. Many of the sculptures are quite gory, showing severed heads, dripping blood, which is being lapped up by skeletons, dogs etc. Both these are the quite sober in comparison. Observe the right image, Shiva depicted with 14 arms, the left has only 12. I like how on the right image, the snake has made its way through the eye socket of the skeleton and exited through the ear hole. On the left image, the tail of Nandi the Bull ( the transport of Shiva) is depicted raised in anger as it does its bit, stamping on the villian in question.

What to See, How to see

The outer surface is covered with freizes that contain detailed storylines from Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. Be aware, to read the story in the right order you need to go clockwise. That's because circum-ambulation ( pradakshina ) is done clockwise in Hinduism. The best parts begin from the Royal entrance. The main "public" entrance has the shoe rack so you will start from there in all probability.

If you want to see Hindu mythology in glorious 3D, this is the place for you. The images fairly leap off the walls. Be warned this movie has gore, violence and explicit content which may not appropriate for younger viewers. ( I would give it a PG rating ). Where is all this you ask? The standard Hoysala building guidelines have 6 levels of decorative lines ( you can see it in the Somnathpura temple ) Here, there are 8. One of the additions is a running line of erotica from the Kamasutra.


This depiction narrates the story of the Parijata Plant ( flowering shrub ). This is an action sequence from the scene of the crime ( our gods were pretty human in their faults ). Vishnu and Satyabhama ( his consort ) are fleeing from the gardens of Indra with a cutting of the plant, their getaway vehicle is Garuda ( the eagle, Vishnu's mount ). Hot on their heels is the mighty Airavat ( 4 tusked white elephant of the God of Gods ) Indra is driving the elephant hard, Sachidevi his wife is barely able to hold on due to the speed. The raised tail of the elephant depicts agitation. 
After our tour of the temple with the guide, we began taking the photos; I started with the 70-300 to get the hard to reach ones and closeups. The heavens opened up with a drizzle that lasted 30 min and then finally became a downpour that had us imprisoned inside the temple for a good 30 min. So the photos I have are just the initial images, I hadn't even got to the good parts yet. So I didn't get to take any images with the 18-55, so no landscapes and big picture images.


The gatekeepers. The handsome chap on the right seems a tad over adorned for someone who is just a security guard. Important to note is also that the weapons and dressing style seem to be very similar to the god being guarded. Observe the Drum he is carrying.

This seemed interesting to me, so I did a little research which yielded more info than I had hoped. See "All about dwarapalas" at the bottom for the link.

Apparently the grandeur of the gatekeepers is a reflection on the grandeur of the temple and the god.

Dvarapalas of Shiva have names & are:
(i)Nandi and Mahakala (to the East)
(ii) Herambha and Bhringi (to the South)
(iii)Durmukha and Pandura (to the West)
(iv) Sita and Asita (to the North).

The first named in each pair stands to the right of the doorway; and the other is stationed to the left.


From the Dashaavatar, from left to right, ( Vishnu Avatar version 3.0, 4.0 and 8.0 respectively )
Number 3 - Varaha - the boar, rescuing Bhoomi Devi - Mother Earth - from the demon Hiranyaksha
Number 4 - Narasimha - as Prahlad looks on, he extracts the intestines of his dad Hiranyakashipu

The demon names sound similar, coincidence? No, they are brothers. Hiranyakashipu was the elder brother of Hiranyaksha. Mystery solved.

Number 8 - Krishna - 2 armed ( mortal ) Krishna holds up the Govardhan Mountain to protect his village from the torrential downpour. The people are shown sheltering beneath.Infact if you look carefully ( follow flickr link and see large size image ) you can see the detail that has been carved, showing the inhabitants of the mountain, 2 tigers in a cave, 1 monkey, 2 hunters, 1 lizard, 2 birds, a cat catching a mouse.

The details

Wiki mentions that the temple is in dilapidated state, nothing could be further from the truth. The temple is in use and "in worship". And that for you and me means no footwear.
Entry is free, temple is open from Sunrise to Sunset on all days. There is a bored looking priest inside the temple, who will allow you to photograph him. There are guides, and here I must concede they are good. They know their stuff and they give a bill and have a standard charge. Guides speak in Hindi, English and Kannada. There are female guides as well, something I haven't seen anywhere else!

We had Raghu as a guide, and I tested him with lot of questions, being skeptical at first, he passed muster for me, his english was very good as well. Apparently there is a 6 month training provided by ASI to the guides that gives them all the info. Be warned though, later as I wandered taking photos, I found another guide giving a slightly modified version of what had just been explained to me. If you decide to hire the guide, and I suggest you do, ask questions. Do not let them parrot away, take them to the sculptures that they skip and point out areas of doubt. You may be surprised with what you learn. The guide will take 30 min usually, 45min - 1 hr if you ask questions.

The Mayura Hotel from KSTDC is directly opposite the temple. I recommend you eat there, it is clean and also has toilets. We had the Veg. thali meals there. Very simple food, but very yummy indeed.

The first image is a depiction of GajasuraMardhana ( the killing of Gajasura - the elephant demon). Here, Shiva has entered the body of the elephant and is killing the demon from within. Observe the 2 rear legs and tail of the demon at the top. The hollow being the inside of the elephant.
The next is a happy domestic scene, of Shiva and Parvati sitting on his lap, both looking pretty calm. The Mongoose beneath Parvati is her mount in her Calm State. In her Angry phase, she rides a lion.

Other Temples to be visited

Bellavadi - 5 km from Halebidu - we drove there in the rain to check it out for future reference - its smaller and in a tiny street, closely placed with people's houses. Parking will be a problem for the larger cars. But it looked most promising, so I would definitely recommend it. The road is tedious and potholes are many.

Belur - Halebidu and Belur can be done in a single day if you really want to, but I don't recommend it. These are leisurely pursuits, keep in mind that these temples took close to a hundred years to build, the least we can do is give it a few hours time to appreciate the work.

What we will probably do the next time: Stay in Hassan, and make take day trips.


Here we have Saraswati, identified by the beads in her right hand, and the book in the left. They signify spiritual and worldly knowledge, both of which she is the master of. Her mount, the peacock is at her feet. Musicians play as she dances.

The next is an action sequence, showing us in 3D, Gajendra Moksha. ( The liberation of Gajendra - king of elephants ) Here, we see that Makara ( the crocodile - a gandharva ( divine being ) cursed to be a crocodile ) has caught hold of the elephant's leg and is refusing to let go. Gajendra seeks divine intervention to rescue him, and it appears in the form of Vishnu on Garuda. Gajendra offers Vishnu a lotus, raised in his trunk as he prays for help.

Dont Miss These

Due to rain and shortage of time I couldnt get even half of what I wanted to capture. These are a few things you dont want to miss.

Ravana lifting Kailash mountain as he tries to move it to Lanka
Vamana Avatar's encounter with Bali, and his subsequent transformation from Dwarf to Giant.
Mahishasura Mardhini
Vishnu and Lakshmi sitting in the pose of Shiva-Parvati

Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

From the Mahabharat:
Arjuna and Karna Yudha
Chakraview and Abhimanyyu
Arjuna at Draupadi Swayamwar - targeting the eye of the fish

Moral Stories depicted, I was just wowed by how cool this is:
1. Consume Alcohol in moderation. Sage with Alcohol in a pot, bird drinking from it, Snake under the pot. Lesson - drink alcohol in small quantities and you will fly high. In large quantities it is as poisonous as a cobra.
2. External Beauty. Man with a Donkey headed woman. Love the inner qualities of your spouse not the external features.

Route Map

It took us close to 5 hours to get there. With a stop for breakfast and some for nature calls. We left at 6am and were there by 11:30am

View Larger Map

Further Reading:

Wiki - Gothic Art
Wiki - Hoysaleswara_temple Wiki - Halebidu
Wiki - Hoysala_Empire
Wiki - Veera_Ballala_III
Hoysala Empire from Kamat Potpouri
All about Dwarapalas
Gangaikondacholapuram by R. Nagaswamy Indian Temples and Iconography

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bhoganandishwara Temple

The Stepped Tank

When I first saw this online, I knew we had to go here. I was beside myself when I found it to be just a stones throw away, at the foot of Nandi Hills. I chanced upon this while looking for ancient architecture to photograph within driving distance from Bangalore. I learnt of it from this blog - A Protest of Romance.

Finding it was easy, since we are regular visitors to Nandi Hills, we also found a surprise along the way. This temple is very much in use and accordingly you need to leave your footware outside on a shoe rack. The grounds are extensive and the tall trees offer excellent shade and the lawns are very comfy should you need it for some quite contemplation. Happily there are no beggars or hawkers. Parking and entry is free.


History and Info

There is a board by the ASI that provides details at the entrance. The temple was commissioned by Queen Manikabbe (the board calls her Ratnavalli) of the Bana King - Bana Vidhyadhara sometime before AD806 ( the board says 810 AD). And who am I to question the all knowing board you ask? Well, I get my reference from here.

This is a good size temple complex, having 3 shrines, the North to Bhoganandishwara, South to Arunachaleshwara and a small one for Umamaheshwara. I googled extensively to find the story of origin of the names of these forms, but didnt come up with any concrete answers. I'm going to hazard a guess that Arunachaleshwara refers to the Loard of the Arunachal Mountain ( in Thiruvanamalai, TN ). Attached to the small shrine of Umamaheshwara is the famous Kalyanamantapa of black stone with massive pillars and incredibly intricate carvings.

The board tells us helpfully that each temple consists of a garbhagriha, sukanasi and a navaranga. Hmmm. But what does that mean exactly?


Important terms you should know

Garbhagriha - Inner sanctum - The garbhagriha of each temple is a sanctified space in the temple. It is where the deity is placed and is the religious center of the temple.

Sukanasi - the space between the garbhagrha and the navaranga, is a small thick walled chamber without windows, its open doorways leading to the garbhagriha and the navaranga. The sukanasi, identified with the antarala, is the same size as the garbhagriha.

Navaranga - The navaranga, generally referred to as the mandapa in Hindu temples, is a hall (ranga) divided into nine (nava) sections. The central section of the navaranga is generally bigger than the others and slightly raised, the latter feature being a particularly notable characteristic of the Hoysala temples. This is the place for singing and dancing in honor of gods.

The Big Fat Divine Wedding

Weddings are always a big deal. But when gods get married, they are truely spectacular. The mortals have wedding albums and videos, but if you are an important god, you get to have stuff like this made for you! I was stunned by the friezes that depict the marriage of Lord Shiva with Goddess Parvati, it was unlike anything I've seen before.


Here, the tridev are depicted on their respective mounts ( I admit I was a bit foxed by Garuda's appearance, I wish they had depicted him as the eagle instead of the human form ). Shiva on Nandi, Vishnu with Garuda and Brahma on the Swan.


I'm guessing that they are being seated on arrival and are being welcomed by their host. I'm not sure who the man with the flowing hair is. Perhaps a priest?


Kanyadan (giving away the bride) performed by the parents of Parvati. I'm not sure what the animal is doing there. Looks too small to be nandi. Im not quite sure what animal it is. If you know, please leave a comment, I would dearly like to know. Notice the sacred fire in the back, just behind Parvati.

Priest performing marriage
Priest seated on a platform, performing the marriage

Do also check this blog - A Turquoise Cloud for some photos of the sanctum that I couldn't photograph due to a maha yagna in progress. The details and mythology behind the wedding is also very well described and useful to appreciate the art for someone unfamiliar with hindu mythology. Just one correction from myside to the story. Kamadeva - god of love did not die, like all gods he is immortal, he lost his form and became formless, burnt by Shiva's third eye and later took form as Pradyumn son of Krishna and Rukmini. For details - see wikipedia

I was surprised to learn that weddings of mere mortals can also be conducted here (using the Vasantha Kalyanamantapa). If you want to get married here, helpful details at the end of this post.

While its a reletively unknown place, its certainly not empty; there were a few devotees, but there were no tourists other than us. The lone guide ( yes, there is always an annoying guide ) pounced on us like we were manna from heaven. He spoke only kannada to the delight of Keshav who happily left it to me to deal with him. After enduring him for 30 min, I paid him to get rid of him. If anything, these guys are a pain and should be prohibited from annoying people who have come to explore on their own. The guide told me that the black stone kalyanamantap cannot be photographed but I see photos of it all over the internet.


The god is in the details

That phrase could not be more apt for this glorious structure (and I mean that both literally and figuratively). The intricacy of the carvings here speak of great attention of detail. I wont say much more, I took a lot of pictures, here are a few. I assure you though, none do justice to this monument. For a building that is 1200yrs old, it is in terrific shape. (for the sake of comparison, the famous Angkor Wat of Cambodia is just 800yrs old)

Lakshmi & Ganesh
Shiva as Nataraj
3 Figures

Almost every conceivable surface is covered with tiny faces, each one having different expressions, every edge is covered with small armies of animals and little figures. There is very little damage to any structure, I guess its because this temple is very much in use and hence well maintained. A refreshing change in this temple I found was the varieties of style. While the familiar hoysala tiger makes his presence felt every now and then, I thought the temple as a whole did not have a rigid adherence to the style. A little research on coming home revealed why, the temple was progressively built over the years by the various rulers, the Banas, the Cholas, the Hoysalas, the Gangarasas, the Pallavas and the rulers of Vijayanagara. A rare case of multiple cooks who over time made a wonderfully inspired broth.

To compare styles, an example of Pallava architecture is Mahabalipuram built during the reign of Narasimha Varman I (Mamalla) (630-668 AD). The rider on the half tiger-horse pillars are exactly similar to the vijayanagara style and are seen all over Hampi ( the hampi blog is a work in progress ). Here though, the temple doesn't rest on the backs of elephants as it does in Somnathpura, it is supported instead on the backs and shoulders of short, plump and rather stressed looking humanoid creatures. ( I have a lot of photos and they will be added to flickr )

Celestial Dancer
Who is this? And who is on his shoulder?

Along with the peacefully seated gods and goddesses and the dancing deities, there is also ample depiction of the wrathful side of the gods. Below is seen, Vishnu in Narsimha avatar, making short work of Hiranyakashyap ( daddy of Prahlad ). The other with the 6 arms, is I guess, Shiva in one of his more fearsome forms spearing some baddie. I dont know who it is at the moment, and welcome any suggestions on who it may be.

Vishnu as Narasimha
Id Help Pls

The shrine to Uma-maheshwara is the most beautiful and the only one we didnt get a good look at. There was some restoration work in progress so part of the narrow walk way around the inner sactum was blocked by pipes. The front was occupied by devotees performing some yagna, and no photographs could be taken. It was pretty dark as well. The walls surrounding the sanctum have friezes similar to the wedding depictions in style, though I thought they were more pronounced, almost popping out of the walls.

The flowing haired guy - who is he?

There was also a God with two heads depicted on the other side of the wall here ( Im guessing its Agni - each head representing his two sides, destructive and beneficial ). However, at another part of the temple, i saw that he is depicted with only 1 head but the presence of the Ram next to him ( this mount ) confirms that its him ). Its discovering these little things for yourself which really helps you appreciate the trouble the artists have taken to ensure the meanings are conveyed to their audience. This is not a place to hurry. Slow down, and take your time to soak it up.

Getting there

Those familiar with Nandi Hills know that we turn left to climb up towards the hill. To reach this place, go right instead. Follow the scenic road till you reach the temple ( dont worry, there are boards ). Park in front of the whitewashed outer compound. Tripods are not allowed inside the temple. You can leave it in the temple office if you happen to have brought it in with you.


Wear dark colored socks. Carry cash to pay off the guide. Reach early, preferably before the devotees, guides and purohits and who ever else comes there.

Admiring ancient art is hungry work, and when the tummy rumbles, you need to head up the Nandi Hills and eat at the restaurant there. Or you can try the resorts at the bottom of the hills ( We haven't tried them, so if you have please let me know )

If you liked this place, you may also like Lepakshi ( a place we havent been to yet, but its definitely on our agenda ), If you've been there, please leave a link to your blog, I need to do research :)

Address and Info to get married here
Sri BhogaNandiShwera Swami Devalaya
Nandigrama, Nandi Village, Chikkabalapura
Contact Mr. Vijay Ph. No. – 09341170852

Source for the glossary of terms : A Study of Spatial Composition of the Hoysala Temples - PDF

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry

Weekend Getaway

Long long ago, in a land not too far away, a couple vacationed, took photos and on coming home, completely forgot to blog about it. This is their story.
While freeing up the hard disk just now, I chanced upon the largely unprocessed photos of the trip and realized that I had postponed the blog writing long enough to forget!

Sometime last year, during the monsoon, K and I elected to spend a few days in 'romantic Chennai' to celebrate our anniversary. Think Chennai isn't romantic? You cannot be more wrong, read on for proof. The monsoon is an excellent time to do Chennai, so we booked ourselves a cottage at Taj Fisherman's Cove, Covelong; and being off season, we got excellent rates.

Last time we drove to Chennai we had done so in the evening, this time we left in the morning and were in our cottage by lunch time. During the monsoon, the route is particularly scenic and lush. If you're sharing the driving duties, elect to drive the first half, because the second half involves crossing Chennai traffic just before lunch.


Morning Walk
K taking a walk along the beach

The Fisherman's Cove property is wondrously beautiful, its gardens are lovely and the cottages are by the sea with a private beach. The gardens are well shaded with tall trees and there are plenty of birds. We however, had resolved to be "tourists" - no waking up at dawn and crouching in the shrubs looking for birds. We were here to unwind, sleep, eat ( the food is delightful ), take walks on the beach and most importantly take photos of each other preferably in front of famous monuments.

The little House on the Prairie
This little shed like structure is also on the beach, quite a contrast. I only wish the sky had not been grey

As Murphy would have it, in the evening, while we had tea on the porch, a woodpecker dropped by at the tree in front of our cottage (Lesser Flameback). He was soon followed by what at first seemed to be a spotted owlet, but on closer inspection revealed itself as a Shikra ( quite small, possibly juvenile ). Dinner at the sea-side restaurant is a definite must do. It is open air, right on the beach with thatched umbrellas and candle lit; manicured shrubbery prevents sand from landing in your food. As we sat at our table, we had a shy garden lizard watching us at a distance of 2 feet from his home in the bush.

Drongo on the Beach
Friendly Drongo

The next morning, we woke in time to see the sunrise ( force of habit ), we met the fauna of Covelong as we took a stroll on the beach. I spotted a lonely drongo on the sand watching the sunrise. I couldn't help myself, he was almost begging to be photographed. The little guy would fly up occasionally and catch a fly and then return to his place on the beach, he let me get pretty close.

Crab and Surf
Really Fast food :) and easily spooked

His catch after 5-6 throws was 3 very tiny fish


We decided to visit pondicherry after a late breakfast and thought of trying out some of the famous french food we had heard about. Driving distance from Covelong to Pondicherry is around 170Km. There are 2 routes, ECR or NH45. We took 'the scenic ECR'. I'm not calling it scenic, the boards say so. It is pleasant enough, but suffice it to say that no breath taking scenery will distract you from the road. Time taken 2.5 hrs. There was no planning of the route or consulting of the GPS, we just followed the road and tried to keep towards the sea.

We reached Promenade Beach and parked. It was oppressively hot as we exited the car, I was drawn by the tall carved pillars around a large Gandhi Statue. Gandhiji himself was besieged with tourists who seemed to have climbed up the podium and were hugging his legs and getting their photos taken. So I contended myself with the pillars, thankfully no one was trying to climb up them. It was just too hot to continue, so all I got were these. There was a guy selling sea shells by the sea shore :) made a nice frame in my opinion.


We couldn't find any restaurants ( other than Le Cafe ) and google places also did not seem to throw up anything of interest, we drove on, not realizing that we were leaving the french side and going into the chaotic non-french areas. The traffic was maddening, we got fed up and got back on the highway.

Lessons Learnt 1 : In Pondi, know where to go and eat. If you know the name of the place, its easy to find it on the map.
Lessons Learnt 2 : Always carry emergency rations.

Fortunately, with me around, there is always something to eat in the car! We made a meal of some fruit, Amul Lassi, biscuits and some salted cashews.


The next morning, we had an early breakfast and headed to Mahabalipuram (60Km from Covelong - 1hr). This was our second visit, so we were prepared. We decided to see the Five Rathas which we had missed last time. We found the parking place easily, near the souvenir shops, and were assisted by a guard into the vacant lot. You need to buy a ticket, so look for the booth, no one will ask you for it until you're too far ahead and its a long walk back from the monument in the heat.

The 5 Rathas are packed in pretty tight, and the area is quite sandy with several large boulders dotting the area. It is surrounded by a well maintained garden with tall trees that provide much needed relief from the hot southern sun. The official guide book costs 99Rs and is pretty handy and a must for the serious art appreciating tourist. In the morning, the famous elephant statue is backlit, it may be better to take shots of it in evening.

LionPillors of DharmarayaRatha
(L to R)Ardhanarishwara & Harihara

The layout makes it particularly hard to photograph and I was glad to see that the photos in the guide book weren't spectacular either. Also, like in all ASI sites, tripods are not permitted. The confined space also means a lot of tourists in a confined area, taking photos not including people is hard, so I switched to the 300mm. The areas out of human reach are surprising well maintained, so the roof carvings are still sharp and very fine, while the rest sadly, bear the brunt of the adoring tourists who cant keep their hands to themselves.

The 5 Rathas include one for Draupadi, Nakul and Sahadev share a twin ratha, making the total number five. Draupadi's ratha is the smallest and most elegant, it has a Lion standing in front of it, the mount of Durga. The Lion is there, because a statue of the goddess is present inside Draupadi's Ratha.

Draupadi Ratha
Arjuna Ratha
Draupadi and Arjuna Ratha are next to each other, notice how closely placed they are.

As in all places, the guides, hawkers and beggars will pounce on you at every opportunity and it is exceedingly annoying. Especially since one is already dealing with the oppressive heat and the rather tight space. If you are white, god help you. For some reason small children want to sell you ugly and cheap glass beads, i dont know why. It would make sense if they sold small stone work or guide books.


Our first trip yielded no results in the form of souvenirs, so this time we were determined. Fortunately, the Taj had a small selection of artists who displayed their wares inside the hotel. These were beautiful stone pieces, I purchased a small anatomically perfect rhino which i instantly loved.
The souvenir shops at the Five Rathas sell silly cheap crudely made handicrafts and several plastic flowers in colors not known to nature. As you walk by, the shopkeepers harass you to enter their shops.

Only one large shop had a shopkeeper who sat silently reading the paper while we looked around. He had lovely stuff, and he knew it. We finally decided on one wooden carving of the DashaAvatar, it proved just a tad big to fit in the car ( it was 5.5 feet). He asked us to wait ( he spoke very little english ). 15 min later he returned with his wife and an unfinished smaller replica (just under 5 ft). He said we had to wait. We waited over an hour while they finished it. We paid him 9K ( no bargaining ), and both seller and buyer were delighted. It is one of our most priced possessions now.

He gave us his card: Sri Sakthi Handicrafts (No. 47 Five Rathas, Shopping Complex ) - A Manoharan - 9840361249. He has wooden carvings and metal statuettes ( I loved the hand bells and the areca nut cutters in wonderful shapes )

The side roof of the Bhima Ratha, notice the tiny faces carved on it - For larger size, see flickr

Dharmaraya Ratha Roof
Roof of Dharmayara Ratha
Im not going into any details of the Five Rathas, the guide books do a good job of that, also since we were not there on a serious photo-taking mission, I will not be able to do justice. Another trip will probably see us do it again and we will go with the intention of being more thorough.

In general like most places of archaeological interest, this place is best done at leisure, and with some research done ahead of time. This helps you to know what to photograph and what to look for. Also the whole Mahabalipuram complex is pretty large, walking from one region to the other is close to impossible, we suggest you have a mode of transport. Cars are allowed, and there is a separate if inadequate parking at each site.

While purchasing tickets, note carefully the text on it which tells you which sites it gives you admission for. Some tickets grant entry to multiple sites, don't lose them. The ticket booth is usually hidden away somewhere, and it wont be apparent that you need a ticket until its too late.

It is my belief that souvenirs should be representative of the place visited. It should be the best art one can afford. It may be small, but it should be of excellent quality and hand made. Crudely made cheap works that will be forgotten or thrown away once home, only encourage mediocrity.

Yesterday, we visited Hogenakkal Falls, photos and blog soon. What did you do this weekend?

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