The night train takes you from Delhi to Haridwar in less than 5 hours. You could also drive down by road if the weather is pleasant.

Haridwar is fast emerging a business destination as well with the incentives being offered by the Uttarkhand government to set up manufacturing facilities there. This is also evident with the presence of a Ginger hotel there.

In Rishikesh, the places popularly frequented are the yoga centres and the jhoolas- Lakshman and Ram jhoola. Jhoolah literally means swing and the bridges are “hanging” bridges, there are gigantic cables holding them up and it depresses with the growing weight of users on the bridge. The Ganges is huge but not glorious – far from sparkling and pure- it looks muddy and dirty as you can see in this picture.
Lakshman Jhoola

There are ropeways to get you to the 2 main temples on the hills and I was surprised at how temples differ by region. Temples in the South are exquisitely carved and mammoth in size as well. These temples looked like modern concrete slabs in comparison. The deity is usually metal or black stone in the South versus marble in the North. In the South larger temples at least use genuine jewelry and adorn the deities with silks or cotton whereas I was amused to see synthetic fabric on the Goddesses there. Here is a pic of an imposing Shiva on a road side.
Mammoth Shiva

The lighting of lamps at the end of each day, at Har ki Pauri, in prayer by countless devotees in Haridwar is really mesmerizing. It begins soon after sun set and thousands of diyas make their way across the river.

As for “paet puja” you will find a number fo sweet lime juice vendors all through the one hour drive from Haridwar to Rishikesh. Also try and catch up with Chotiwala in Swar Ashram - a much touted restaurant near the lakshman jhoola- it is truly value for money and even has a garish chotiwala who ushers you in. Alcohol and non vegetarian food is banned in the city.

The colour of the river, the number of guides, touts and obviously drug addicted sadhus made me very uncomfortable. I was left feeling that one would have to be a very firm believer of God to like these two places.

Or you could be a rafting ( at Shivpuri) or a yoga enthusiast ( like the Beatles).

On our trip to Europe, we went to 5 cities and villages, of which Paris was the only one where we stayed in a hotel, since this came as part of a deal with our air tickets. In 3 places, we stayed at homestays, which as I always feel, turned out excellently, while in London, dear friend Desigirl put us up. So that left us with Paris, where hotel prices are quite high and rooms inversely small. Being budget travellers, and within the limits of our package, we took the cheapest rooms possible, at about EUR 80 per day. To give an idea of how high this is, at our next stop in rural France, we paid EUR 55 per day for a bedroom with a small attached living room as well as cosy patio for eating breakfast. In Paris, I could circle around the room twice and cover all of it! Still, we hardly stayed indoors, so I’m not complaining.

Now, coming to the title of this post. Parisian breakfast. Mainly bread, in the form of croissants, with butter and jam.

null

This, we expected. But with the croissants, there was this really hard bread, which almost broke my teeth and took me ages to swallow. Does anyone have a clue what this is?

null

The highlight of the breakfast was the really strong and flavorful coffee. It was just fantastic! I’ve heard before that you can’t get a bad coffee in Paris, and it is true – even our tiny, cramped hotel had superb coffee. With the coffee, came these sugar cubes, loads of them. I wonder, do Parisians drink their coffee so sweet? I’ve never seen so many sugar cubes being offered, and look at the wrappers – all Japanese anime!

null

And in case you are wondering, no, I didn’t eat them all!

Apologies for the long absence! While Art has been keeping busy in my absence, I promise to be more regular now…

Contrary to what you might think, on seeing the title of this post, I am not talking about the Parisian Metro Rail. Rather, this post is about a strange attraction in Paris, spooky and sombre, which nevertheless seems to have its fair share of visitors. This is the Catacombs of Paris, subterranean tunnels, which once served as quarries, but have now become the home of long dead Parisians, or rather, their skulls and bones. An interesting skeleton in the closet, isn’t it!

We landed in Paris from London, on the Eurostar Channel Train, and the next morning, the first thing that we popped out to see, was not the Eiffel Tower, or the Arc de Triomphe, or any other of these famous monuments. Instead we decided to give ourselves a good dose of horror and popped over to see the Catacombs instead. These underground tunnels are a large network of almost 300km running under the city, and not all parts are open to the public officially. (Catacomb lovers, known as cataphiles apparently do know of unofficial entry points that lead to other, officially closed parts of the network).

How and Why did these bones end up underground? Well, the quarries themselves are much older, but eventually they ran out of limestone. In the 18th century, there was an outbreak of infectious diseases in some areas of Paris, related to contamination from certain graveyards, where the dead had not been buried properly. Hence, the movement of remains from a large number of graveyards to a safer underground location.

To enter the Catacombs, one has to first walk down a series of flights to quite a distance. (The catacombs are around 25 metres below ground). Then, you enter a small chamber that tells you a bit about the history of the place, and then the entrance to the ossuaries, the chambers where the bones have been stored. Here is the realm of the dead, the sign says, splendid isn’t it!

null

To reach the ossuaries, we further walked down long dark passages. Now, the authorities don’t let in more than 200 people into the tunnels at any point of time. I assume this is for reasons of safety. Even then, 200 people seems to be a good number. We were surprised then, to find that while we were walking down this really long dark passage, we could not see anyone before or after us. The ceiling is just about high enough for a 6 foot tall person to walk through. Sounds carry very poorly and the lighting is low. All the time we knew that we were in a guarded place, run by the authorities, safe enough. Yet. Irrationally, the mind does panic a little and all sorts of unsavoury thoughts go through one’s head. What if I am left in here forever!

Ofcourse, forever as it does seem, the passage does come to an end and then the ossuaries begin. Chamber after chamber of neatly piled up skulls and bones, with narrow passages in between for visitors to walk through. The bones are within touching distance and there are no barricades, though respectfully, none of the visitors venture too close. Signboards list the cemeteries from which they were taken and occasionally there are small round chambers with high walls that end in a dome shaped cup. I believe these do serve some purpose in terms of keeping the tunnel architecture stable. But besides that, they give one the feeling of a sacred space, perhaps something to do with the state of mind after passing through tunnels of human remains. A good reminder of the end of all life.

null

null

While the visible portion of the ossuaries take about a half hour to go through, at many places we noticed barred off tunnels leading to other parts, giving one the impression of how large the tunnels really are. And all along the ceiling, we noticed dark gree or brown lines drawn continuously. It emerged that prior to the electrification of the tunnels, these were drawn to help miners, and later those who brought down the remains, maintain their bearings in this dark place.

We emerged into sunlight again climbing up a very steep spiral staircase. The Catacombs are obviously no pleasure grounds. Still, they are an interesting relic of the city and offer a very different experience.

Other useful information
Nearest Metro station : Denfert-Rochereau
Not suitable for those with kids, or for the really faint hearted, or those prone to shock.
Fairly strenous climbing, may be tough for the elderly.

Madurai enjoys the sobriquet ‘Athens of the East’ and stands on the banks of the Vaigai river. We drove down from Kodai and found it a comofrtable journey despite the heat.

The story goes that a king of Madurai was childless for a long time. He prayed rigorously and was granted a three-breasted girl (an avatar of Parvati). A divine voice assured him that the third breast would disappear as soon as she fell in love. The girl grew into a brave and beautiful princess, won many battles and lost her heart to Shiva. Her third breast disappeared and she was married to Shiva. They came to be known as Meenakshi and Sundareswarar- the main deities of the Madurai temple.The temple could be as much a historian and architect’s delight as it is a religious believer’s.

Ruled by many, it was the capital city of Pandya Kings and they built the Meenakshi-Sundareswar Temple. Then Alauddin Khilji’s men plundered it and after a while it went to the Vjaynagar kings. Their Governors- nayaks- “naikars” took charge and restored/enhanced the glory of the shrine.

The city was originally like a set of concentric circles – with the Madurai Meenakshi temple at the center and the streets around it are named after Tamil months. There are five entries to the temple but the east one is preferred ( possibly because it leads to the Goddess’ sanctum). I wonder how Lord Sundareswarar or Shiva feels about being second to his wife. The Meenakshi idol is beguiling with a parrot and bouquet, so I am sure she knows how to appease him.

Spread over many acres, you can see the 12 colossal towers of the temple – Gopurams- beckon you from almost anywhere in the city. They represent the various directions. To the western & uninitiated eye the gopurams with the idols numbering over 1000 each, may appear kitschy with the over powering colours and clutter even. But it will leave everyone mesmerized. And as kids are wont to do, counting the tiers of a Gopuram will leave you with a strained neck! The Southern Gopuram is the tallest at 160 feet and the only one that may be climbed.

Apart from the Shiva and Meenkashi shrines, you cannot miss the gigantic Ganesha called Mukkurini Pillaiyar. One of the Nayakars unearthed this idol elsewhere and erected the same here.  Dwarapalakas, apsaras, various other gods adorn the temple walls. There are colourful murals depicting celestial weddings. The ceiling art include Vaishnavite themes as well. The Musical Pillars, the thousand pillar hall, various mandapams, the old stump of the Bilva tree, the God of Delivery, are all worth seeing and have some myth related to them.

And there is the Golden lotus tank. Huge corridors border the tank and it is surprisingly kept dry and fairly clean for the amount of footfalls it gets. The corridors are said to have been the meeting ground for the Sangam poets. Any literary work was judged by throwing it into the tank. Only if it did not sink was it considered worthy of attention! A case where the writing material would have been more important than the written matter!

The Meenakshi temple is open to public from 5 am-1 pm and from 4 am to 10 pm

Also go here

What began as a sanatorium by an American Mission in the nineteenth century, is today, a rather untarnished hill station- possibly South India’s more scenic answer to Matheran.

It is off season now by definition- but a boatman explained that the weather in Kodai is great all year through, from cool to cold. The off season comes from lack of holidays and therefore lack of visitors! This was a blessing since we did not have to contend with long queues and unruly crowds while sight seeing.

We were 13 of us, including 5 kids. The gang from Blore joined us at Kodai road station. We set off in a mini bus, a 3 hour journey to Kodaikanal. Halted en route for fruits and corn ( ensure you try the pears, star fruit, avocado, tree tomato and raamphal, a variation of custard apple)

We stayed 3 days, 2 nights and that was just about right.

Being such a large gang we settled for the Sterling Lake view rather than the Carlton ( a more stately 5 star hotel) . There seem to be many other good options to choose from anyway including home stays.

The Sterling property is really nice and comfortable that too since we got the rooms with kitchens attached. While the intention is not to do full fledged cooking, coffee, noodles are easy access what with little children around. The property is full of flowering plants and you would love to walk despite the steep inclines.Sterling offers the usual mix of a children’s park, just about acceptable dining fare, and interactive games including the ubiquitous housie( tambola) each evening.

There are cycles available on hire. Near the lake, there are a lot of horses to choose from as well. Since we were so many, we took a tourister.

Any travel book will tell you all the various points with their old worldly names- Coaker’s walk, Green Valley, Echo Rock, Dolphin Nose, Bryant Park, Moier Point, etc and waterfalls and the Kurinji Temple that you could see. It has not been raining enough in Kodai which is why the waterfalls were not in their full glory- a sore point for me specially since I love waterfalls.

Among the do-not-miss places are the Pillar Rocks…. They even have a cross at the peak that a father-son duo put up there. The vast and gorgeous pine forest’s claim to fame is the many movie songs shot there so we did the rounds of the trees and took snaps as well Bollywood style.

A 500 year old Jamun tree still stands tall and yields fruit as well and close by you will see countless pear trees.

There is Devil’s kitchen, a cave where in complete access is denied since people have lost their lives in it, but this could have been intriguing. It was the one that Gunna starring Kamal Hassan was shot in.

The mandatory boat ride in the main lake, was enjoyed by all of us with the mist hanging over often. Life jackets are not provided. There are boat races three times a year- one for outsiders, one for the Kodai schools and one for the boatmen. You can have the paddle boat to yourself if you wish but we opted for one with a boatman since we were not sure about Anushka’s response.

Plastic has been banned but it is not very well enforced as you can see by the lake bank. And there has been a stay order on the lake “clean up” machine since it does not do a good enough job.

Onto food. While there is a Punjab Dhabaa, a restaurant near Foodworld and a nicely named Rasoi, the one we went to was a quiet, almost desolate little Patel joint for very homely Jain/ Rajasthan food with fluffy hot phulkas. There is an excellent pastry shop near the bus stand.

And a very unassuming cheese store which can teach you a lot about the subject without going to Switzerland. It is just opposite Savitri- Gemini Ganeshan’s house. As you would have noticed there are a lot of “cine ” connections in Kodai.

The must buys are dry fruits such as figs, cashews, walnuts, raisins and spices, cheese and tea. And of course home made chocolates. Also native to Kodai are the hand made earrings which you can bargain down to Rs 10 a pair. Makes for an excellent gift.

(While Apu has a bout of laziness, and is yet to pen her mainland Europe stories, Artnavy brings in a short tale from the Western Indian coast)

On the less advertised Konkan coast, near Ratnagiri, in Maharashtra, lies a serene beach village called Ganapathi Phule.

Named after the Ganesh temple which Chatrapathi Sivaji is said to have visited, the beach can rival, but is not as well known as those in Goa or Kovalam. It is pristinely beautiful with fine white sand and the water is so clear that you can see your toes right through the water. But it can turn hostile – so we were warned against venturing too deep.

This is THE place if your idea of a holiday is drawing circles in the sand, going on long walks, picking up shells and just ruminating on your own thoughts – soul searching.

Back in my teens, a bumpy car ride from Ratnagiri ( about 50 kms ) got us to the MTDC cottages there. The cottages were cosy, a little frugal but clean. They adjoin the beach so you can watch the sea from the cottage. For the more adventurous of spirit you can also hire tents and some water sports are available.

Talking of spirits, back then only beer was served. I guess you could carry your own or go without for a couple of days. The food was not good for a veggie but I am told the sea food is fantastic. Now you could check out Hotel Durvankur, Bhau Joshi’s Lunch home and Kelkar Lodge which offer good Maharashtrian veggie fare.

Apart from the beach and the Ganapathi temple, if you are one of those restless ones, you could explore the Fort at Jaigad, the Light house and Pavas, the abode of Swami Swarupanand, if you are into spiritual stuff.

Kokum juice, cashewnuts and alphonso mangoes are ideal souvenirs – if in season. Srikhand, Thaali Peeth and sol kadi you should get all year round anyway…

I don’t usually post pics with “us” in them over here, but Charu, in her comment on the last post, raised the question of weird English pub names, which brought me to this mini-post. Well, its not just the pubs that have some strange names. In this photo below, can you see what my husband is walking towards?

null

As for the title of the post, well, we know what would smell as sweet by any other name – for more dope, go read Charu’s lovely piece on roses at Regents Park in London

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.