Big Temple
I reached Thanjavur early in the morning and was off on my way to the Brihadeeswara temple after a quick shower.

Curiously, the signs on the streets do not point me towards the Brihadeeswara temple, but they all say 'Big Temple', which is a translation of the colloquial name used locally - 'periya koil'. It is a short walk to the temple from the railway station, along broad, clean, and shady roads. There is a short bridge crossing the GA Canal which brings one to the main gopuram of the temple.

The Grand Anicut Canal (GA Canal) owes its origins to Karikala Cholan (2nd Century AD) who constructed the water reservoir of the Grand Anicut by raising flood banks in the River Cauvery to irrigate the wasteland beside the river. It has been maintained and enhanced by kings and governments since. The temple stands on the north bank of the canal.

The temple stands in a fortified compound, complete with a moat (fed by the Grand Anicut canal) and bastions. There are three successive gates to the temple, beyond the moat. The first of the gates is known as the Maratha gateway. It is an arched gateway with plain walls, but topped with beautiful stucco figures of Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh, Kartikeya, etc. There are two shrines on the left and right of the entrance door, dedicated to Ganesha and Subramanya. The second gate a towering gopuram, the Rajarajan Thiruvasal. It is richly decorated with sculptures. The third gateway, the Keralantaka, is a smaller gopuram, also richly decorated with sculptures. This third gateway forms part of the inner compound wall which forms the large courtyard (240 m x 120m) within which the temple stands. This compound wall features a number of nandi (bull) sentinels in various poses mounted on top of the wall.

The complex has, in addition to the main shrine, five sub-shrines, for Chandikesvara, Amman, Subramanya, Ganesha, and the royal priest, Karuvar. There are two open pavilions, one each for Nandi, and Nataraja.

The temple is an imposing and awe-inspiring sight to behold. The crowds are thin this morning, but the darshanam is still a hurried affair. I am bustled out of the temple clutching my share of coconut, plantain (still very raw), flowers, and vibhudi packet. I sit down on the parapet of the stairs on the south side. I am a long way from home, and still a long time before I can get home. I eat the plantain but there is not much I can do with the half-coconut. I give it to a young couple who are seated next to me.

It turns out the couple are from Sri Lanka, and are here on a religious trip, with plans to go to the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram next. We talk about tourism and temples in India, the beauty and allure of Sri Lanka from a tourism perspective, and how governments everywhere are falling short in their efforts to protect our heritage.

There are a number of sub-shrines in the complex, and ASI has done a good job of marking and annotating the structures in the complex.

An unusually shaped, red-coloured building with bulbous domes attracts my attention while on the way to the temple. I go back to the building after my visit to the temple. It is the old district collector's office, now converted into a museum. It is well kept and the exhibits are well annotated. There are several musical instruments on display here, including the famous Thanjavur Veena. There is also a model of the Kaveri basin, built to scale, showing the several dams along its path, and the location of the temple. The annotations for this model are in Tamil, and a young lady on a trip with her parents very helpfully translates and explains each of them for my benefit.

My visit to the temple has whetted my appetite, and I resolve to visit the temple's twin in Gangaikonda Cholapuram the next day.

I leave early the next morning for Gangaikonda. I have to switch buses at Ariyalur to make it to Gangaikonda. Thankfully, the wait time is minimal. The Brihadeeswara temple at Gangaikonda stands on the NH81 and I rush to the gate in excitement as the bus rumbles past it. This temple is the junior of the Big Temple in Thanjavur in every respect - age, scale, richness of sculptural ornamentation, reputation, and even the crowds that visit it - but is very impressive on its own, nevertheless.

A group of college students is visiting the temple on the day I was there, and posing for photographs. There is also a young woman who is having her photograph taken in various dance poses, with the temple in the background, obviously getting her portfolio made. She stops self-consciously as I approach closer, and I back off immediately.

The glory days of Gangaikonda have long gone, and there is little else in the town now other than the temple. There is a clean but modest establishment outside the temple where I have a quick brunch. I am advised to take the return trip via Kumakonam and do so. Kumbakonam is a bustling town, larger than both Ariyalur and Gangaikonda, but my wait for the return bus to Thanjavur is longer. I browse through the colourful bazaars and have a rich ice-cream sundae before I board the bus back to Thanjavur.

Bricks to melt even a heart of stone
I started early to catch the Rupashi Bangla train which leaves from Santragachi station at half-past-six in the morning. The road to Santragachi from my hotel is not that long, but it was packed with trucks standing still end to end, and my driver breaks every rule in the traffic book to get me to the station on time. I found my seat and settled down for a nap.

Bishnupur is a town in the Bankura district of West Bengal, known for its temples made of terracotta. These temples were built under the aegis of the Malla dynasty.

Adi Malla established the Malla dynasty. Jagat Malla, the 10th Malla king shifted his kingdom to Bishnupur. Raja Jagat Malla and his descendants built numerous temples made of terracotta and stone. Due to unavailability of stone in Bengal, burnt clay bricks came to be used as a substitute by the architects of Bengal. The art of terracotta buildings and figurines reached its peak during the seventeenth century.

I arrived at Bishnupur slightly later than scheduled. I was surprised to see the station name in four languages – English, Hindi, Bengali, and a fourth which I did not recognize. It is Santhali I was informed. I did not know Santhali has its own script.

I negotiated a rickshaw ride to take me to all the must-visit sites on my list. I got all of those, and more.

The temples in Bishnupur are in two clusters - the northern one has the Rasmancha, Shyamrai Temple, Lalji Temple, Radhashyam temple, Jod Bangla Temple, and the Garh Dorja; while the southern cluster has the Nandlal Temple, Radhagobind Temple, Radhamadhab Temple, Kalachand Temple, and the Jod Shreni complex. Other structures such as the Madanmohan Temple, Radha Binod Temple, Muralimohan Temple, etc. are scattered around other parts of the town.

The tour of the Bishnupur temples is heart-ache inducing. The temples are beautiful, even after much destruction caused by the ravages of time and men. I would never have imagined that so many stories can be told through the medium of bricks. The temples are covered from tip to toe in elaborate designs, with floral and geometric borders enclosing spaces where images drawn from a variety of mythological sources jostle for space and attention with scenes from everyday life such as boat trips, hunts, and festive dances, as well as images of deer, elephants, parrots, peacocks, and other birds and animals.

Many of the temples also had stucco images decorating their facades, of which a few survive.

‘Things are much better today thanks to the ASI. The influx of tourists from Kolkata has caused many improvements, repairs, and protective fences and guards,’ Munna, my rickshaw-driver-cum-self-appointed-guide told me.

Not all of the structures are ticketed structures, and on the day that I visited, the tickets were waived and I did not have to pay to access any of the structures.

Bishnupur has a small, but well managed District Museum, with a large part of it dedicated to the freedom movement in Bengal, including the many revolutionaries committed to the cause. The exhibits also cover archaeological discoveries, art, culture, and social life of the area around Bishnupur. It started as a private enterprise but then the Government funded and took it over.

I had lunch at the Annapurna Hotel which has a very tasteful décor, and food to relish.

I had an onward train to catch in the evening. With another day to spare, I would have visited some of the other temples spread over the other parts of the town.

Two Days in Aurangabad
Two days in Aurangabad was all the luxury I could afford at the moment, and was determined to make the most of it.

I booked a car and set off by seven in the morning from my hotel in Aurangabad, heading to Ajanta Caves, to start with. The name Ajanta is a corruption of the original name, Ajintha. The road is in very poor condition and it appeared that it has been under construction for very long. Our early morning start gave us the advantage of relatively open roads and we reached the complex just before nine thirty, the caves having been open since nine.

I was forced to leave the car at the parking lot and take a bus to the caves. These buses were diesel and petrol driven buses, however, and not the electric vehicles I have seen in the vicinity of other heritage monuments. This bus ride has to be paid for, one leg at a time. The bus drops us off at the ticket office, and a short climb later, we are at the mouth of the first of the caves.

Oftentimes, one hears of Ajanta and Ellora caves spoken of in one breath, but there is little to link the two, other than their geographial proxmity.

The caves are in the rocky northern wall of the U-shaped gorge of the river Waghur. They are understood to have been developed in two distinct phases - the first from the second century BCE to the first century BCE, and the second about five hundred years later. The first set of caves adhered to the Hinayana tradition of Buddhism, while the latter are attributable to the theistic Mahayana traditions.

The majority of the caves are viharas (or monasteries), with large square halls, usually lined with stout pillars, and an image of the Buddha carved into the far wall. Smaller dormitory cells are cut into the walls. The pillars of many of the caves are covered with carvings, some more elaborate than the others. The viharas of the earlier period are simpler.

Cave 6 is a two-storeyed vihara, the only one of its kind, with an internal staircase leading to the upper floor.

The other type of cave is the chaitya (or prayer hall). These have a narrower rectangular plan with high arched ceiling. This hall is longitudinally divided into a nave and two narrower side aisles separated by a symmetrical row of pillars, with a stupa in the apse. The four completed chaitya halls are caves 9 and 10 from the early period, and caves 19 and 26 from the later period of construction.

While several of the caves have murals that have survived the ravages of time, the best preserved ones are from Cave 1, Cave 2, Cave 9, Cave 16, Cave 17, and Cave 19. The famous Padmapani painting which has come to represent Ajanta caves for most people, is from Cave 1. The painting of a couple seated in a balcony on the right wall of Cave 2 indicates that the artists of this period had already understood the use of perspective to represent 3-dimensional space, an artistic invention that is often ascribed to the renaissance period, and more specifically to Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti.

The facades of Caves 9, 10, 19, and 26 are the most elaborately decorated, each with the famous horse-shoe shaped window that has been copied by several buildings in in India, including Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi and the Ramakrishna shrine designed by Vivekananda in Belur, Calcutta.

Cave 16 occupies a central position in the arch of the horse-shoe shaped cliff.

Many caves have dedicatory inscriptions - which recognizes the contributions of the primary patrons.

The caves were known to travellers from the medieval era, but were lost and forgotten for a long while. They were covered by jungle until accidentally "discovered" and brought to Western attention in 1819 by a colonial British officer Captain John Smith on a tiger-hunting party. The first cave he entered (and marked with his name), was Cave 10, which is probably the earliest cave in the cliff-side.

Many of the caves are unfinished, several because the builders discovered geological flaws in the rock which made them unsuitable for further development, while the last few appear to have been abandoned before completion as royal patronage and funding dried up before they could be completed.

What struck me as remarkable, beyond the sheer marvel of these caves being cut into the rock face of the cliff, and the beauty of both the sculpture and the paintings was how the builders had managed to make the best possible use of natural light to light up the central shrine in each of the viharas, lighting up the idol of the Buddha, with the (distant) opening along the cave face being the sole source of light.

I had ambitiously planned to spend half a day at Ajanta and the other half at Ellora, with about two hours of travel in between. I managed to squeeze both into the same day, with the Ajanta leg being from 9:30 to 1:00 and the Ellora leg from 3:15 to 6 pm. I ended up skipping the last set of caves in Ellora (the Jain caves). It would have been best to dedicate about six hours to each of the Ajanta and Ellora cave sites, with a leisurely viewing of all the beauteous sights they offer.

I made it to Ellora a little after three in the afternoon, following another 100km dash in the car.

The Ellora caves are spread over a 2km cliff face, with the southernmost ones being Buddhist viharas, and the northernmost ones being Jain caves. The vast majority of them are Hindu temples. The Hindu cave temples and the Buddhist Viharas merge fluidly into one another in form and content as well, for the most part, but for the presiding deity enshrined, with the magnificent Kailasha temple being the notable exception. The viharas at Ellora have a similar pattern to the ones seen at Ajanta - with large square colonnaded courtyard in the centre, aisles all around, a shrine at the center of the back wall of the cave, some chambers cut into the walls, and pillared verandah at the entrance of the cave. Unlike the caves at Ajanta, these caves have more sculptures along the walls and fewer murals and paintings.

The Kailash temple, aka Cave # 16, is the most magnificent temple in this group. At 90' height, and a base of 276'x154', its scale is already impressive. What makes it truly remarkable is that it has been carved top down from a single rock. The temple is partially obscured from view when one first enters the caves complex, thanks to a magnificently carved gateway.

On entering through the gateway, one is greeted with two massive elephants on either side, as well as two ornately carved square pillars. The temple has two floors. The frieze on the lower floor is lined with near life-sized elephants in various poses, creating an impression that these elephants are holding up the temple. There is a colonnaded gallery which runs on three sides of the courtyard, on the same level as the first floor of the temple, with scenes from the dashavatara and Shiva-Parvati's wedding. There are a number of sculptures all over the temple - from the Gaja Lakshmi carving that greets the visitor near the entrance, to the "Ravana shaking Kailasha" sculpture (which has copies in several other caves in the complex), Nataraja, and one panel with smaller sculptures telling the story of Ramayana, and another which tells the story of Mahabharata. The main temple has a detached Nandi mandapa, and a Sabha mandapa leading up to the sanctum sanctorum. There are five secondary shrines around the main temple.

There is a path that leads up to the innocuously named Cave 16A (and one to Cave 16B) which led me to the top of the cliff from which one gets a startling view of the beautifully carved roof of not only the main shikhara, but also the four lions on the Sabha Mandapa, the carvings atop the Nandi Mandapa and the gateway as well.

Of the remaining caves, I only made it up to Cave 29 which is a large cave temple with the central shrine not only having a circumambulatory pradakshina path, but also four doorways each guarded by a pair of giant dwarapalas along with their consorts.

Cave 30 is a good half a kilometer from Cave 29, with the others farther beyond and I had to abandon my visit to Ellora at this point as it was already closing time.

I went to Grishneshwar, the Jyotirling temple, after Ellora closed at dusk. Not too crowded when I visited. However, they were insisting that all the men strip to the waist if you wanted to enter the sanctum sanctorum. Very strange, I thought. I declined and simply wended my way past the main door. The temple itself is quite small, but very pretty. And there is a panel of pictures on a wall nearby telling the story of how the Grishneswar temple came to be (the story involves two sisters, one with murderous intent).

I hopped back into my car and headed back into Aurangabad town and Bibi Ka Makbara. Aurangzeb was not known to be a great builder, unlike Shahjahan who has Taj Mahal, Red Fort in Delhi, and Agra Fort under his belt. He is credited with building the Moti Masjid in Red Fort, the Badshahi mosque in Lahore, and with building the Bibi Ka Makbara as a mausoleum for his wife. However, there are counter claims that it was Prince Azam Shah who had this built in his mother's memory. I find that a stretch because Azam Shah was just 4 at the time his mother died and this mausoleum was put together in the years that followed. There is an outside possibility that it was Aurangzeb's daughter Zeb-un-nisa - the fifteen year old elder sister of Azam Shah, herself reputed to be very wise and sure of her thoughts - who commissioned it in her mother's memory and let Azam Shah as the oldest male child have credit for it.

I reached the site late in the evening, after nightfall, but I had been assured that unlike most ASI monuments, this does not close at dusk. The ticket office, I discovered, WAS closed by the time I reached. Some ASI monuments have a QR code printed ticket, while others have a token based entry with turnstiles. The Maqbara is one of the latter. The security guard at the turnstiles gave me a token to allow me access and pocketed the twenty rupee fee. I will never find out whether that fee was ever credited to ASI's account or not.

What awaited me beyond the turnstile was one of the most mesmerizing sights of my life. The mausoleum, an all white building, was tastefully lit up to highlight its best parts, the dome, the minarets, the arched faux windows, the chhatris, et al. I was tired and weary by the time I reached the Maqbara, but all my weariness dissolved in the persence of this most ethereal of visions.

It would be heretical to many if I say that I do not find the Taj Mahal very beautiful. I have visited it multiple times and each time I have found that it falls a little short of the impressions that its photographs create. It is too imposing and cold, to me. Bibi Ka Maqbara, on the other hand, comes across as very intimate, pristine, and delicate. There is no inlay work here. The designs on the wall are made of plaster, not carved into marble, but they are as endearing as the finest of any specimen of floral and geometric patterns that other Mughal era buildings boast of.

The mosque, a latter day addition by the Nizam of Hyderabad, disturbs the symmetry of the structure, but even then it complements the beauty of the mausoleum with its fine arches and slender columns.

After lingering a long hour at the tomb, I returned to my hotel room and crashed without a care in the world.

The next morning was a little bit more leisurely. I used public transport on the Sunday and found it was significantly more costly than the fares I am used to in Hyderabad.

Daulatabad is infamous in Indian history, thanks to the maverick migrations enforced by Muhammad bin Tughlaq from Delhi to Daulatabad and the reversal just a few months later.

The fort is a large sprawling complex with a circumference of about 3.5 km. There are a number of cannon on display in the fort - with one collection right at the entrance, and another about 200 m from the entrance (the Cannon Gallery), and a couple of giant pieces at the top of the citadel. A note says that there were 259 cannon which were located at different places in the fort. The Chand Minar is a 63m tall minaret inspired by the Qutub Minar, towering over the countryside. It has four floors, with three ornate balconies. It is attached to a small mosque. A much larger mosque lies in front, across the cavalry way. That mosque has now been repurposed as the Bharat Mata Mandir. The Minar is about 200m in from the main entrance. A little farther on, one comes across a succession of gates set at right angles to each other to slow down any onrushing armies. The Chini Mahal, a building once adorned by tiles stands just before the innermost of the gates. This blue tiled palace was used by Aurangzeb to imprison the for the last king of Golconda, Abdul Hasan Tana Shah until his death. the climb up the citadel from this point grows progressively steeper - with a gradient of nearly 1:3. The low bridge that crosses the moat (now rendered redundant by the new bridge put in place by the ASI) mrks the beginning of the steepest part of the ascent, including a stretch through a dark tunnel cut into the mountain's rock (Andheri). This passage has a number of LED lights along its walls now, but there are still sections which are dark and can cause the casual visitor to stumble. A Ganesh temple offers one resting point, followed by a relatively flat ramp up to the next steep flight which takes one up to the Baradari - a colonnaded hall which commands a near 360 view of the fort. Moving on from the Baradari, one can go farther up to the peak of the fort where there are two cannons mounted, one just below the other - The Durga cannon, and the Mendha cannon.

The climb took my breath away - quite literally. The view from the top reveals a large, dusty plain, and a panaromic view of the fort walls and ramparts, overgrown by scrub in large parts. Bhajans blaring from a distance of several hundred meters away were notable more for the fervour with which they were sung, than for any musical ability.

The climb back down to the main entrance of the fort took less than thirty minutes.

I refreshed myself with a triple helping of mixed fruit juice (at thirty rupees a glass!) before I took a bus to Khultabad, where Aurangzeb - the last Mughal Emperor of note - and Malik Ambar are buried. Aurangzeb's tomb is totally unremarkable. It is open to the air, by his own request, and lies close to the grave of his spiritual leader, Sheikh Zainuddin Shirazi. The marble flooring and screen around the grave are later additions at the behest of the Nizam of Hyderabad. That a man of immense power and wealth could also be so humble as to request a simple burial (fourteen rupees and twelve annas, the caretaker informed me) at the feet of his teacher inspired moments of solemn reflection.

Malik Ambar's tomb is about a kilometer away on the other side of the main road running from Daulatabad to Khultabad. It comes under the aegis of the ASI. There are several smaller tombs nearby which are not provided formal protection by the ASI, but they are as run down as Malik Ambar's tomb (or not), with only a compound wall to distinguish the protected monument from the others in the vicinity.

I headed back to Aurangabad for one more look at Bibi Ka Makbara. It was late in the evening by now. The monument now stood with all its scabs exposed, a little shabby and worse for the wear. The large sprawling lawns which were already closed when I had visited the previous evening were now accessible. The gardens were laid out in the lavish style of the best of Mughal Gardens, with paved walkways, fountains, and rotaries. Sadly, the fountains are waterless today, the tiled patterns eroded over time and not restored, and the grass which had grown a little long and brown had a sad look, amid the plentiful chiku and mango trees thoughtfully planted in the grounds (No flowers or fruit on the mango trees even though it was mid-March). I waited until the lights came on and darkness embraced the mausoleum again. I looked around at the luminescent structure glowing in the dark one last time before I headed back.

My trip to Aurangabad was done.

Glossary Architecture Links
Big Temple
Bricks to melt even a heart of stone
Two Days in Aurangabad
Soaring to the Sun
Passing the baton
India's Heritage: The Glory and the Threats