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City Focus: Majuli, Assam

The title of this post is misleading when it says, ‘City Focus’. Instead, we are going to focus on a unique village that has settled on the largest river island in the world.  We will also see the unique Satra culture of Majuli’s settlement and why Majuli is perfect getaway for a day or two. Majuli holds a special place in our hearts, because we celebrated 3 years of our marriage on this island. Continue reading

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City Focus: Mussourie, Uttarakhand

While Uttarakhand, especially Garhwal region, is known for its holy destinations, such as river-side temples, river origin temples and Kshetras dedicated to Lord Shiva (hence referred to as Dev Bhoomi or Shivalik), there is one town which exhibits lot of British character. That’s because it indeed was built and inhabited by the British. In fact, an author of famous childrens’ books, who was born in India but is of British descent, Ruskin Bond, lives at this charming hill station. We are talking about Mussoorie in Dehradun district. Continue reading

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City Focus: Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir

Movies from around India have shot romantic duets on the snowy slopes and among the pine trees of Kashmir. But it is only when you take in the beauty of Kashmir with your own eyes that you realise how really beautiful it is. In the middle of the valley is a system of lakes and the Jhelum river, around which the capital city Srinagar has evolved. The city has really old roots, going well back to the days when Takshila University was a hub for students around the world to flock to. There is so much to see and do at Srinagar, but at the same time, it is just enough to sit down, relax and simply soak in the ambience of the Dal Lake and the snow-capped peaks surrounding it. Here is what we learned about Srinagar during our visit, along with a list of what you can do there.

Geography of Srinagar

Kashmir is a maze of high-peaked snow mountains interspersed with large flat valleys that have a number of major rivers and lakes. Among one such flat expanse of land that contains the Dal Lake and the Jhelum river, the city of Srinagar has grown to what it is today. Dal is one of the many lakes in Srinagar. There are others like Nigeen and Wular, all connected to each other by canals. Based on the lakes and their banks, we can classify Srinagar into two parts: the city on land and the city that thrives in water. That’s true. Along with the part of Srinagar’s landmass that stretches from Ganderbal suburb in the north to Badgam in the south, there is a complete settlement that lives inside the lake itself, with unique areas like Meena market and Char Chinar island.

Scenes like these are plentiful in Kashmir. Flat tracts of land with acres of cultivated farms. It is a fallacy that the whole of Kashmir is mountainous, bitterly cold and covered in snow. Rivers like Jhelum ensure that the valley lying at lower altitudes are fertile and green.

To the south and south-east of Srinagar is the flat expanse of Kashmir valley, highlighted by large farmlands which grow saffron, apples, fruits and vegetables. To the west of Srinagar are the mountains that lead to Gulmarg hill station and its skiing institute. To the north, you will come across Himalayan mountains that are sparsely inhabited and lead to the Line of Control with Pakistan. Driving to the east of Srinagar, you can reach other interesting destinations such as Sonmarg, Kargil and Ladakh. The Jhelum river, that originates at Wular lake and flows near the Lal Chowk junction, marks the end of Lake Area Development Authority of Srinagar and seperates the city from the southern suburbs.

In Kashmir valley, one can spot many varieties of pine trees, but the one that is most revered is the Chinar tree, with its clovered leaf looking like a Canadian maple. Chinar is sometimes referred to as the Indian maple.

People of Srinagar

While the name Srinagar has Hindu roots, majority of the city is Islamic. They are the Kashmiri Muslims who are locally called ‘Koshur’. Ramzan is an important month for Kashmiri Muslims just like Muslims around the world. Without getting controversial, let me just state that the other ethnic group, Kashmiri Hindu Pandits, are very few in numbers in Kashmir region itself and are rare to come across anymore. You can also find Sikhs in Sikh colonies around Kashmir.

Kashmiris speak Kashmiri language which is a descendent of Farsi tongue from Iran. During India 360, we found Kashmiri to be the sweetest and the best sounding language. Hands down. No other Indian language, the way it is spoken on the streets, comes close to the melody that day-to-day Kashmiri produces. It is easy to assume that Hindi is spoken throughout Kashmir. But in reality, what you hear is Urdu. It is common for people to use terms like ‘Janab’ when they address you. The two languages are identical to hear. But Hindi uses Devnagari script and plenty of Sanskrit words, whereas Urdu uses Arabic script and plenty of words derived from Arabic, Farsi and Afghan. The youth of Kashmir are very fluent in English too.

Kashmiris have plenty of occupations. Most people are connected to agriculture and the processing and trade of agricultural products. The highest selling agricultural product are Kashmiri saffron, Kashmiri apples and Rose Gulkand. Other fruits and nuts like apricots, figs, almonds and walnuts are also grown and traded here. Exquisite wood carving, elaborate carpet weaving and the production of woollen bedsheets and blankets, especially with Pashmina wool are major and flourishing occupations for the people here.

We are not Kashmiri, but we got to dress up like them 🙂

Let’s now look at the places to visit in Srinagar

Dal lake boat ride

if you are given just one day in Srinagar, then this is what you should do. Taking a boat ride in one of the local boats, named shikaras, is a unique experience and can only be done in Srinagar. The magnificently constructed boats have a curtained chamber and you can just sit back and relax while the boatman takes you on a ride around Dal and Nigeen lakes. On the way, you’ll be shown landmarks like Hazratbal, areas like Rainawari, the view of the snowcaps around Gulmarg and the lake market called Meena Bazaar. Dal lake boat ride should be the one thing you should not miss when in Srinagar. You can get shikaras on the eastern bank of the lake, at one of the gates that face the main road, which is called the Boulevard road.

Dal lake shikara ride

The only caveat about these rides is that there are too many vendors. Too many jewellery sellers, snacks sellers, flower sellers and spice sellers approach your shikara and sell hard to get you to buy their wares. Thankfully, these are restricted to the lake area closer to the city. Once you leave the city and are in the depths of the lake, you will only find mangrove shades and migratory birds. Snow-capped mountains in front of you and a tranquil peace around you. It’s hard to say whether you should keep your eyes open for the beauty around you or keep your eyes shut to enjoy the tranquility. That’s confusing. But the one certain is NOT to TALK during a tranquil shikara ride. The song from Mission Kashmir, ‘Chup ke se sunn, is pal di dhun’ (Hindi song that says: Stay silent and listen to the tunes of this moment) rings true.

Dal lake boathouse stay

A boat ride will show you around the lake, but what about staying inside the lake itself. You should check out the boathouses that line the Dal Lake gates 1 – 10 (eastern bank of the lake). These are entry level boat houses, but still look fabulous, with their wood carved bed headboards and window frames. For breakfast, you will be served Kashmiri bread and Nun Chai, which is a salty version of tea, slightly pinkish in colour. Then comes the exotic tasting Kahwa, a non-milky tea infused with the taste of saffron and cardamom. It is customary for Kashmiris to treat special guests with a cup of kahwa and you will be treated no less than a very special guest.

Enjoying the idle and beautiful setting of a Kashmiri boathouse on Dal lake.

But the best thing to do on a boathouse is to take one of seats along the verandah and sit gazing at the lake and the city. It is quite relaxing.

Mughal-style gardens

Being a city ruled for long by Muslim monarchs, you can expect their landscaped lawns, rose gardens and fountains to crop up around the city. Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, while ruling over Srirangapatna for just 49 years between them, built a palace and a garden. Then what can you say about Srinagar? Well, there are 5 Mughal style gardens around Srinagar, all in different areas. But the theme in each of them is the same. Lawns, rose beds and multi-coloured flower beds in multiple terraces at increasing levels, with water fed by a central fountain. The five Mughal style gardens are: Mughal Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh, Chashme Shahi Bagh and Badamwari.

Nishat Bagh is very close to Dal lake.

Each of these gardens were built either by the incumbent rulers or by their ministers, mostly as a statement to exhibit their artistic taste. These were mostly a show of one-upmanship as the latest garden was built in more opulent a style than the last one. But who are we to care? The intense competition makes it great for us to visit Srinagar and feast our eyes upon beautiful fountains and magnificent flowers.

Hari Parbat

Hari Parbat is a hill on the western bank of Dal Lake, opposite to the side you usually embark on boat rides. The name of the hill is due to the fact that the fort at the top was used by the last monarch of Jammu Kashmir, Raja Hari Singh. The fort at the top of the hill was built by Mughal emperor Akbar. There is also a Gurudwara, a dargah and a temple. The hill can be reached by bus or Sumo taxi that is bound to Rainawari. You should alight at ‘Maqdoom Sahib ropeway’. A little distance ahead is a narrow road that winds up the hill. After a kilometre uphill, the road ends and a stairway starts. This stairway goes all the way to the top, with branching stairways to important points along the way. The hill is now patrolled by the Indian Army, who have a vantage view of the entire city from here.

The city of lakes is in full display from the top of the Akbar fort, along with the surrounding Himalayas.

Akbar fort has bastions with viewpoints towards Srinagar. There are also dungeons and a place for execution. Another important place is the Swayambhu (self-formed) temple of Lord Shakti called  Sharika Devi, a deity with 18 arms.

Dargah Maqdoom Sahib is on the side of the hill away from the staircase and can be reached by taking a ropeway from the base.

Shankararchya Hill

While Hari Parbat is to the west of the lake, Shankaracharya Hill is to the east, the same side as the gate for shikaras and also the side where you can visit most of the Mughal-style gardens. Thus, it makes sense to combine this hill with a boat ride and garden visits, while Hari Parbat and Badamwari garden (the only Mughal garden to the west of the lake) should be combined with a visit to Rainawari old town.

Adi Shankaracharya performed his own version of ‘India 360’, but during the 8th century, with no motor transport, no trains, no personal vehicle or planes. This revered man went to several places teaching the principles of Hinduism and establishing some of the most important temples in India. One of them is the Jyeshteshwara temple at the top of the hill that faces Srinagar from the east. Today we know this hill to be the Shankaracharya hill.

Rainawari and Hazratbal

A view of Hazratbal from Dal Lake.

Hazratbal is a holy mosque in Rainawari township on the western bank of Dal lake. This area is the traditional Srinagar with old houses and narrow streets that have developed organically over centuries, rather than the highways and modern buildings on the east that has been developed recently by LADA (Lake Area Development Authority). LADA has left Rainawari alone to preserve it in its traditional state.

Hazratbal is considered holy among Muslims as the mosque that is home to Prophet Mohammad’s hair. While no one is allowed to see the Holy Hair on normal days, it is brought out for public viewing on special days such as the Prophet’s birthday as per the Muslim calendar.

Boulevard road

Houseboats in Dal lake at night, as seen from Boulevard road.

If you are not in a mood for sight-seeing, you can simply take a walk on the portion of the Boulevard road that runs parallel to the Dal lake’s eastern side for several kilometres. Of significance is the portion between Dal Gate 1, where the road starts, upto Nishat Garden. It is quite a sight to see multi-coloured boats floating on the water.

Meena Bazaar

A flower seller on his boat in Meena Bazaar.

When you take a boat ride in a shikara, the boatman will inevitably take you through Meena Bazaar, a floating market where vegetables, fruits, flowers and handicrafts are sold from boats that act as shops. We bought a Pashmina bedsheet from Meena Bazaar.

Rainawari lakeside shops

While Meena Bazaar is a floating market, the Rainawari Bazaar is a regular market on land, but with a difference. At Rainawari, the Dal lake narrows down into a canal that feeds into the Nigeen lake. On both sides of the canal, you can see shops that sell food, handicrafts and fresh produce. Of significance in this market, are apiaries that sell fresh honey produced from different types of flowers. Each honey has a health benefit for different parts of the body. Along with honey, the apiaries also sell beeswax.

Oriental apiary is a business where different varieties of honey are extracted by breeding cultures of bees. This apiary has been running for several years at Rainawari, the old part of Srinagar city.

What to eat

If I were to write in detail about Kashmiri food, it would run into a seperate blog. So let me keep the list concise with really short descriptions.

For non-vegetarians: Lamb kebab, tandoori chicken, fresh lake fish. We are vegetarians, so we can’t comment on the quality and taste.

Kashmiri pulav: is a slightly sweeter version of the regular pulav, because it has dry fruits like raisins added. We had Kashmiri pulav once, but then stuck to regular veg pulav otherwise.

Kashmiri pulav is a variant of the traditional Indian pulav, with garnishing like fresh fruits, dry fruits and coconut kernel. The pulav tastes slightly sweet and can be had with spicy gravy.

Bakery: As with all Muslim territories, there is an assortment of baked delicacies in Kashmir, although all of them use egg yolk. Kashmiri bread, pastries, cookies, mawa cake and nankhatais are all really delicious.

Kahwa (DO NOT MISS): At least once during your Kashmiri trip, you MUST have a cup of Kahwa. Kahwa is milkless tea infused with saffron and cardamom.

Nun Chai: is a tea-based beverage that is pinkish in colour and is salty.

Gulbadan: is an ice cream that looks similar to kulfi. Gulbadan is made of milk, khoa and Gulkand (e.g. rose pulp).

What to buy

Kashmir has so many souvenirs, that you’d need a seperate bag to carry them. Here are some things that you can consider buying. If you are purchasing a large item, then Kashmiri traders have the option of shipping it to your home address without you having to carry them.

Pashmina wool products: Pashmina is a special type of wool that is extremely soft. You can buy shawls, bedsheets and blankets made of Pashmina. These aren’t of use if you stay in a place that remains warm even in winter, e.g. coastal peninsular Indian cities such as Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi or Kanyakumari. But at least they feel very soft and rich, even if there is no cold to protect you from.

Spices and tea: You can definitely load up on spices, especially SAFFRON. Nowhere in India will you get saffron for the price that you get in Srinagar. In fact, Pampore village, just 11 km south-east of Srinagar, has some of the biggest saffron fields in Kashmir. So the spice is produced hyper-locally and sold without the complication of packaging and preservation. You will even get them during a shikara boatride. Be aware that not all saffron is Kashmiri saffron. Some of them are cheap imports from Iran. If you put a strand of saffron on your palm and wet the strand with a drop of water, there should be a deep saffron colour residue on your palm. If your palm isn’t coloured or if the colour is too light, then the spice is a cheap duplicate.

You can also buy boxes of Kahwa tea, that you can boil with water and spices and serve at home.

Carved wooden boxes: Wood carving in Kashmir is one of the most admirable art forms you’ll ever see. In fact, Srinagar railway station has carved wood panels that make the station really beautiful. You can buy small boxes for keeping spices or ornaments.

Srinagar railway station is an excellent exhibit of one of Kashmir’s most celebrated handicraft skills, carving on walnut wood.

Shawls, carpets and ornaments: are some more things you can buy. But making out a quality product requires an expertise that we at India 360 do not have. If you are in the company of someone who can make out product quality, then go ahead by all means.

Honey: We have already talked about apiaries in Rainawari. So visit one and check out the different types of honey and also products made of beeswax.

Getting to Srinagar

Srinagar is reachable through multiple options. Let’s look at each of them.

Air: Flights to Srinagar are available from all the major cities in India. They are also available multiple times a day. In winter, your best bet may be to arrive via flight, since all terrestrial transport get cancelled frequently due to snow.

Rail: There is a special DEMU (diesel-based local train) that runs from Jammu region’s Banihal railway station to Kashmir’s Baramulla, which is 12 km from Pakistan border. This train passes through Srinagar. Trains are available every 1 hour between the two cities.

Road: Jammu Kashmir Transport Corporation (JKTC) buses are available for the 400-odd kilometres between Jammu and Srinagar. So are buses by private transport operators. There are also tour operators’s taxis, usually Tata Sumos, between Jammu’s Hari Market to Srinagar’s Batmaloo or Dal Gate 1. Buses are also available from Leh, Baramulla and Gulmarg.

Self-driving: You can approach Srinagar either from Jammu side or Ladakh side. To approach from Jammu side, you should first reach Jammu city. The usual road for this is New Delhi – Panipat – Ambala – Ludhiana – Jalandhar – Pathankot – Jammu. This road is known India-wide as Grand Trunk or GT. It is India’s most central and longest highway that runs from Kanyakumari to Srinagar. It is best to join this highway at New Delhi. If you are driving from Haryana or Punjab, then use Ambala, Ludhiana or Pathankot to join this highway. From Jammu, the route is Udhampur – Chenani – Nashiri – Ramban – Banihal – Qazigund – Anantnag – Awantipora – Srinagar.

Some people do a Ladakh – Kashmir circuit by their own vehicle, either by themselves or with a tour-operated convoy. If you are driving on your own, and wish to cover Ladakh before Kashmir, then you should first use the Kullu – Manali – Leh highway. From Leh, you should follow the road, Leh – Lamayuru – Kargil – Dras – Sonmarg – Ganderbal – Srinagar route.

There is one more road that goes via Pathankot – Dharmsala – Dalhousie – Killar – Kishtwar – Anantnag – Srinagar and one that covers Manali – Keylong – Killar – Kishtwar – Anantnag. But DO NOT use the Killar – Kishtwar section if you do not have any experience driving in the Himalayas. This route is often referred to as the world’s most dangerous highway, due to narrow roads, tight turns and the need to negotiate heavily loaded trucks and large buses coming from the opposite direction.

Is Srinagar safe?

Here is an exercise for you. I want you to follow the news channels (boring, I know) just once a day. Note down the days on which some negative incident happens in Srinagar and for how many days the effects of the incident continue, e.g. curfew, stone pelting, etc. At the end of the year, please count the number of days as per news on which Srinagar was off limits due to violence. You will probably count approximately 50 days to upto two months. More than other cities in India, but that still leaves 300 days on which you can pack your bags and arrive at Srinagar.

With the probability calculation out of the way, here is a practical tip to time your Kashmir trip. Favour the months of September, October and November, which is around the time that the state is harvesting saffron, apples, apricots and figs. Whatever be the political or religious situation, Kashmiris would never let emotions or violence destroy their most priced crops, the roads to ship their wares and their most lucrative business. It is also at this time that the youth are at their busiest, harvesting, packaging and marketing their year of hard work put into the soil. They don’t have time for emotions to political causes or to create mobs. Also, these three months are when the roses in the rose gardens are in full bloom and the snowing season is still far away. The temperature is mild and pleasant. The third quarter of the year is the best time to visit a beautiful and safe Srinagar.

Conclusion

Kashmir may definitely look beautiful on the TV screen through movies and documentaries. But to feast your eyes on the beauty of the valley is an experience you deserve in your lifetime. Srinagar is the crowning glory within Kashmir. You will thoroughly enjoy the city like we did. In fact, Srinagar was our favourite destination throughout India 360.

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City Focus: Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu

Just like Chhatrapati Shivaji for Marathas, Akbar for Mughals and Krishna Devaraya for Vijayanagara, the rule of Rajaraja Chozhan is considered to be a golden period for Tamil Nadu’s Chozha empire (also spelt as Chola empire). Thanjavur or Tanjore was the capital of the Chozhas for a long time and it flourished particularly during the rule of Rajaraja Chozhan. After a short period of uncertainty, the city underwent another cultural renaissance during the rule of the Maratha king Serfoji II. While Rajaraja Chozhan’s time was good for Tamil literature and Chozha architecture, Sanskrit was the main focus of Serfoji II.

Let’s learn more about one of India’s most ancient cities.

Geography of Thanjavur

Thanjavur is the headquarters of the district of the same name. The city is to the south of the five rivers that diverge from Cauvery river to the east of India’s oldest dam — Kallanai or Grand Anicut. The rivers are Kollidam, Cauvery itself, Kudamurutti, Kuruvadi and Vennar. The southern-most of the five, Vennar river is the closest to Thanjavur city.

Thus Thanjavur is part of a very fertile plain. Along with neighbouring Trichy (Thiruchirapally) district, Thanjavur district is one of the biggest contributors to Tamil Nadu’s agriculture sector. For this, both the districts have Cauvery river system to thank.

The land around Thanjavur is flat and one can see no hills or even undulations for several kilometres.

People of Thanjavur

The majority of Thanjavur city is populated by Tamil-speaking Hindus, mainly belonging to the Paraiyar and Vanniyar castes. Most of the people are employed in agriculture, government jobs, medicine, teaching and in private industries that mostly cater to agriculture, such as production of fertilisers, production of irrigation pipes, sugar extraction, husking, etc.

A small section of people in Thanjavur city are descendents of the Maratha rulers and their subjects. While fluent in Tamil, among their own they speak a dialect of Marathi which sounds significantly different from the one spoken in Maharashtra, north Goa and north Karnataka. But because of this option, several contractors from Maharashtra take up temporary work in Thanjavur.

Here are the best places to see in Thanjavur city.

Brihadeeshwara temple

Brihadeeshwara temple is the crowning glory of Thanjavur. It is one of the largest temples in India. The temple is one of the main reasons for Thanjavur to flourish as a tourist centre in Tamil Nadu. Brihadeeshwara temple is a UNESCO world heritage structure.

Brihadheeshwara temple

The temple was built during the time of Chozha emperor considered to be the greatest in the dynasty — Rajaraja Chozhan. The temple is also referred to as Rajarajeshwaram. The temple was finished in 1010 AD.

The vimana (main dome) of the temple is an extremely tall 16-storey tapering structure reaching a height of  66 metres (220 feet). The base of the vimana sits on an massive 30 sqm or 100 sqft base. Inside the vimana is the largest monolithic Shiva Linga in the world, measuring 8.7 metres (29 feet) in height. Hence the name Brihadeeshwara (the huge Lord).

The temple sits on a massive courtyard, thus making it the largest temple complex including only temple facilities, in the world. It ranks second behind Srirangam temple of Trichy in terms of area inside temple perimeter, but Srirangam includes the town and the residential area itself inside the temple gates.

Please note that similar to many major Tamil Nadu temples, the main sanctum is closed to public for darshan from 12 pm to 4 pm. So plan a visit either in the morning or in the evening. The temple gates and the courtyard complex remain open during those 4 hours.

Thanjavur palace

Thanjavur palace is the palace of the Maratha kingdom that ruled Thanjavur. The palace was built during the rule of Venkoji, who started the southern Maratha kingdom. Venkoji was a half-brother (brother through another mother) of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the most influential Maratha ruler. After an uncertain period for the Marathas which including plenty of turmoil with the neighbouring kingdoms and foreign invaders, king Serfoji II signed a peace treaty with the British, that forfeited all of Marathas’s conquests to the British, except for Thanjavur district remained under Serfoji II. With peace restored, Thanjavur was able to focus on literature and art yet again, and was peaceful until the annexation by the British in 1800.

Inside Thanjavur palace

The period of peace was a good one for the palace, especially for the palace’s main highlight, the Saraswati Mahal. This is the royal library that has nearly 50,000 volumes, some of them older than 1000 years. The library has collections from the time when paper was not used as a medium. There are collections in palm leaves and papyrus. The majority of the collection is in Tamil, followed by Sanskrit. The rest are collections written in languages no longer used in India, such as Pali, Magadhi, etc.

Saraswati Mahal library inside Thanjavur palace

Besides the library, the palace has other points of interest, such as the durbar hall with a statue of Serfoji II, open terraces, a central courtyard and a couple of museums. The museums show traditional Thanjavur artefacts such as the Thanjavur dancing doll and Thanjavur decorative plate.

A Thanjavur dancing doll. The neck keeps moving from side to side.

Mani Mandapam

Rajaraja Chozhan Manimandapam, which is also Rajaraja Chozhan museum

Towards the southern end of the city is a triangular park with a tower dedicated to Rajaraja Chozhan. The tower is 5 storeys high and tapering. The park itself has a statue of Rajaraja Chozhan sitting on a prancing horse. At the base of the tower is a museum showcasing Chozha architecture and their lineage.

Also around Thanjavur

It takes a complete sight-seeing day or even two to explore the Brihadeeshwara temple, Maratha palace and Mani Mandapam. But while you are staying at Thanjavur, you can take the opportunity to see some other places of interest, all of them within 50 km of Thanjavur, but in various directions.

Kallanai / Grand Anicut: is India’s first dam built on a river. The dam was built with stones during the time of Karikaalan Chozhan, the king who ruled the dynasty around 0 AD. The dam was built using the strength of several elephants.

Grand Anicut, one of the world’s first dams.

The dam is on the highway between Thanjavur and Trichy. So if you are headed to Thanjavur from Trichy (like we were), then you get to see this dam before reaching Thanjavur.

Thiruvaiyyaru: The name Thiruvaiyyaru can be broken down as ‘Thiru ai aaru’, which means the ‘five holy rivers’ in Tamil. Read the geography section of this post to learn more about the 5 rivers. This village itself is famous as the town where the Carnatic song composer Thyagaraja sat by the Vennar river and wrote Telugu songs mostly as a devotee of Lord Rama. Every year on Thyagaraja’s birthday as per the Hindu calendar, Carnatic music’s most famous practitioners assemble at the hall of what was once Thyagaraja’s house and recite the songs composed by him. These songs are referred to as ‘Kriti’s.

Swami Malai: On the highway between Thanjavur and Kumbakkonam, just 8 km before the latter, is the temple of Swami Malai, a temple dedicated to Lord Murugan. Swami Malai is one of the six ‘Aruppadai Veedu’s or ‘the six abodes of the Lord’. An interesting thing to observe in Swami Malai is the sixty steps on the stair case that lead to the sanctum. Just like the Chinese calendar repeats in a cycle of twelve years, each year dedicated to an animal (e.g. the pig year, the dragon year, etc), the Tamil calendar repeats in a cycle of sixty years, with each year given a name. Each name repeats once every 60 years. One complete cycle involving sixty years is known as a ‘Sangamam’. In Tamil Nadu, a person who turns sixty is celebrated with a ceremony, since he/she has seen one complete Sangamam.

The Tamil Sangamam year names are written beside each step. From top to bottom in this photo are: Bramhadi, Vegudhanya, Ishwara, Naadhu, Yuva, Bhava and Shrimukha.

Kumbakkonam: is a city about 50 km from Thanjavur, known for its various temples. Almost every locality in the city has one major historic temple. The city was built during the time of Rajaraja Chozhan and several temples were later added by successive rulers. At the centre of the town is a pond called the Mahamahan tank, where a festival happens every 12 years. During this festival, people from around Tamil Nadu take a bath in the holy pond to wash off their sins.

Dharasuran: is a village near Kumbakkonam and is home to the Airawateshwara temple, another temple with Chozha architecture. Of particular interest in this temple is the staircase of seven tunes or the ‘Sapta Swara’. Tapping or stomping on the stairs makes sounds, each of them in tune with the Indian musical scale ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni’. Unfortunately, due to structural damage, these stairs have been fenced off and are now closed to public.

The musical steps, sadly fenced off from the public.

Thiruvarur: was the capital of the Chozha empire during the time of Kulothungan I. It is famous for the Thyagaraja temple, a Shiva temple. The holy trinity of Carnatic music, the three composers, Shyama Shastri, Thyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshithar, were all born in Thiruvarur. An annual temple chariot festival is held at Thiruvarur every April. The chariot is the largest and heaviest in Tamil Nadu.

Gangaikonda Chozhapuram: Rajendra Chozhan I defeated the Pala dynasty in present day Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. In victory, he collected some water from river Ganga. After his return, he constructed another Brihadeeshwara temple in a town about 70 km north-east of Thanjavur and to the north of Kollidam river, the northern-most of the five. The new temple was also called Brihadeeshwara temple, and the new town, that served as a capital, was named Gangaikonda Chozhapuram or ‘the town of the Chozha who won over Ganga’. Similar to Thanjavur temple, Gangaikonda Chozhapuram temple is also a UNESCO world heritage.

At Gangai Konda Cholapuram

Reaching Thanjavur city

Air: Thanjavur has an airstrip used by the Indian Air Force, but there are no commercial flights. The nearest airport is at Trichy with flights to major cities all over India, the most connected of them being Chennai and Bengaluru.

Rail: Thanjavur Jn is a railway station in the Southern Railway zone’s Trichy division, but is not on a frequently used route. There are two train routes on the route Chennai – Villupuram – Trichy – Madurai. One of them, the ‘main’ line is actually no longer the preferred route. Between Villupuram and Trichy on the main route, we come across several towns such as Neyveli, Chidambaram, Mayiladuthurai (Mayavaram), Kumbakkonam and Thanjavur before reaching Trichy. But because of dense population and the presence of several towns, the speed limit on the route is restricted.

Another route between Villupuram and Trichy is the the chord route, which is straighter, shorter and faster, with only one town, Virudhachalam on the way. Super fast express trains like Pandian Express, Vaigai Express, Duronto and Sampark Kranti prefer this route. The running time is two and a half hours shorter than the main route.

The main route, that passes through Thanjavur, is less favoured by the railways and used by slower trains and passengers. It’s advisable to check the train timetable to decide between a train that covers Thanjavur or rather a super-fast train from which you can alight at Trichy and take a bus to Thanjavur (40 km bus trip). The latter may actually save you time.

Road: Thanjavur is a major bus depot in Tamil Nadu. It is connected to all major cities, with the frequency of buses being particularly high for Trichy and Chennai. One can reach either of the two cities by air or rail and take a bus to Thanjavur.

Self-drive: If you are driving from the east of India, e.g. from north-eastern states, Assam, West Bengal, Odisha or Andhra Pradesh, then you should reach Chennai by joining the Kolkata – Bhubaneshwar – Vishakhapatnam – Rajahmundry – Vijayawada – Nellore – Guduru – Chennai coromandel route. Thereafter, you should use the GST (Grand State Trunk) highway via Chennai – Tindivanam – Villupuram – Ulundurpettai – Perambalur – Trichy highway. From Trichy, take the Trichy – Thanjavur highway.

If you are driving from Kerala, then take one of the following routes: Palghat – Coimbatore, Thrissur – Athirapally – Valparai – Pollachi – Coimbatore, Munnar – Theni – Dindigul. Trichy is about an hour from Dindigul, with both cities being part of Grand State Trunk Chennai – Madurai highway. From Coimbatore, you can use the Coimbatore – Tiruppur – Erode – Karur – Trichy highway. Having reached Trichy, you can drive to Thanjavur on the highway connecting the two cities.

From anywhere else in India, you should join the NH4, i.e. Mumbai – Pune – Satara – Kolhapur – Belagavi – Hubballi – Bengaluru – Hosur – Krishnagiri – Vellore – Kanchipuram – Chennai highway. E.g. People from north India / Delhi / Chandigarh can join at Pune or Mumbai. People from Karnataka can join at Hubballi or Bengaluru. The highway ends at Chennai, but you needn’t go there. Instead, take a detour from Hosur to take the following highways one by one: Hosur – Dharmapuri – Salem, Salem – Namakkal – Karur, Karur – Trichy, Trichy – Thanjavur.

Conclusion

Thanjavur is one of the most ancient cities in India, with its glorious days being during the rule of the Chozhas. After some turmoil, a second innings happened during the rule of the Marathas. Thanjavur continues to be an important city today, with high quality engineering and medical colleges and an Indian Army airstrip. But no other time was greater than the one with the Chozhas. You can travel back in time with just one look at the Brihadeeshwara temple.

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City Focus: Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

Ganga river has a lot of cities on its banks. The first city that Ganga flows through after descending the HImalayas is Rishikesh. Rishikesh is in Tehri Garhwal district and is surrounded by the mountains of the Garhwal range of Himalayas. The city is quite unique in the sense that there is something here for everyone. Whether you want to visit temples and watch Ganga Ghat Aarti, or if you want to learn yoga, or if you want to get your adrenaline pumping with white water rafting and bungee jumping. Continue reading

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City Focus: Chandigarh

Several cities in India are named after a powerful Goddess, have a beautiful lake with a promenade, have tree-lined roads, are hosts to unique museums, have been developed with a plan and are very close to hill stations and getaways. But there is only ONE city that has some unique features apart from the ones mentioned above. This city is the capital of two states. This is the only city with its own unique hand gesture. This is the only city where you’ll find areas with no names like Mahatma Gandhi road or Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg or Akbar street or D’Souza lane. No, this city uses only numbers, like sector 17, sector 25, sector 42 and so on. All roads are laid out in neat and straight lines, intersecting at right angles at traffic islands, none of which have statues of politicians, sportsmen and freedom fighters. The city has a unique garden made by a government official who gathered waste material and scrap and turned them into something beautiful. A school in this city has a unique collection of dolls from all over the world and prides itself as the International Doll Museum. The city was built by the French designer Charles-Edouard Jeanneret or Le Corbusier (‘raven’ in French), a nickname apt for the man with a far-sighted vision, a vision well into the future.

Can you guess which city this is? It is the first city that India developed with a city plan after independence (so not counting ancient towns like Harappa or Hampi). It is Chandigarh, a union territory, which is also the capital of both Punjab and Haryana states. We say this with Chandigarh’s unique hand gesture: ‘We Love Chandigarh’. Continue reading

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City Focus: Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Long before the start of Indus Valley civilisation and the establishment of the Aryan race in India, the land to the south of the Vindhya mountains, which we we now call peninsular India or colloquially as south India, was inhabited by the Dravidians. The time origin of Dravidian history is unknown, but the Tamil language is one of the oldest continuously used languages in the world. While major ancient languages like Latin and Sanskrit have no confirmed native speakers today, Tamil continues to be used although now it is in modern form. At the centre of Tamil culture and also right in the centre of the state of Tamil Nadu is the city of Madurai.

Situated by the banks of the Vaigai river and with the four gopuras of the Meenakshi Amman temple dominating the skyline, Madurai is one of the oldest continuously habitated and functioning cities in the world. No one really knows for sure how old the city is. Madurai was supposedly the home town of the three ancient Tamil Sangams or a period of generation of scholars who worked on literature. The original works from the first and second Sangams that predates Aryan history have been lost. The stories of the third Sangam are available to us today. The oldest stories about Madurai may actually be lost in history since the technology of documentation was scarce and unreliable. Continue reading

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City Focus: Vadodara, Gujarat

Which city of India has a major financial bank named after it, but does not belong to the State Bank group? I’ll give you some hints. It is to the west of India and flourishes by the banks of the Vishwamitri river. It is named after the Sanskrit word for a banyan tree. In fact, the emblem of the city is a banyan tree. The British named the city something other than its original name and that English name is more famous. The city is the second most important city in the state of Gujarat. It also has the second most important railway station in the Western Railway behind top-placed Mumbai. The name is Vadodara, while the anglicised name is Baroda. The city is the home of Bank of Baroda. Continue reading

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City Focus: Patnitop, Jammu and Kashmir

Today, we look at a tiny hill station in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. The state is famous for its Himalayan destinations such as Gulmarg and Amarnath. But little is known about the town of Patnitop. While most Indians do not know about it, the city of Jammu has been considering this little town a getaway for a long time. During weekends, the entire urban population of Jammu can be seen at Patnitop. This pine tree lined hill station is to Jammu, what Lonavla is to Mumbai / Pune, Nandi Hills is to Bengaluru, Shimla is to Chandigarh and Ooty is to Coimbatore / Mysuru. A convenient one-day or a weekend trip to escape the big city. Let us learn more about this town. Continue reading

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City Focus: Darjeeling, West Bengal

Often called the queen of hill stations, Darjeeling is a dream honeymoon destination for several couples. Nestled in the high Himalayan mountains of Gorkhaland, a Nepali-speaking district in West Bengal, Darjeeling has been a fascination since the British rule. It was built as an escape for the aristocrats of the East India company from the summer heat of their capital Calcutta. Later, Darjeeling evolved as a town with several boarding schools and one premier institution to teach mountaineering. Darjeeling is beautiful, but there is no beauty comparable to the mountain looming from the city’s north. This mountain stands as a backdrop to the busy town, almost watching over it like a guardian angel. It is the third highest mountain in the world — Kanchenjunga. Continue reading