2019 - Be On The Road | Live your Travel Dream!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Discover the Arabian History - Top Historical Places to Visit in UAE

Walking along the corridors of the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The United Arab Emirates have become a prominent destination for luxury lifestyle and superlative tourist attractions over the last two decades. However, behind this sophisticated world, lies a humble and deeply rooted culture that are still meticulously preserved and cherished. Discover the rustic charms of the UAE and take a trip to an era that existed long before the country got swarmed with rising skyscrapers and luxury malls. Here’s a peek into the best historical places of UAE one should definitely visit on their UAE trip.

Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai

Al Fahidi Fort Dubai

The Al Fahidi Fort in Dubai is said to be the oldest existing building in Dubai. It was built to stock artillery and weapons and as a prison for defaulters. Located at the south of Dubai Creek, the fort now houses the Dubai museum that offers a glimpse into the bygone eras of Dubai’s traditional lifestyle. A visit to the fort offers visitors a chance to get acquainted with Dubai’s heritage as it is now home to some of the unique collection of authentic paintings, dioramas and antique assortments of pottery, weapons and other tools. The attraction lets you comprehend Dubai’s extraordinary progress from a modest settlement to a pioneering modern city.

Hatta Heritage Village, Hatta Mountains

Heritage Village Abu Dhabi

Get a gist of an Emirati village at the Hatta Heritage Village. Sprawling at the foothills of Hatta mountainous region, this restored settlement is one of the oldest traditional mountain village sites of UAE. The entire village, right from the architecture to the interiors is made out of locally used materials of Bedouin era. Located at the outskirts of Dubai, this also happens to be a popular offbeat excursion for Dubai visitors.

Al Bidya Mosque, Fujairah

Al Bidya Mosque Fujairah

Known as the oldest mosque of UAE, Al Bidya Mosque or the Ottoman Mosque is a simple mud and brick structure consisting of the main hall and four domes made in simple geometrical patterns. The exact date of the mosque’s construction is unknown but it is still a functional place to offer prayers. Located at Dibba village in Fujairah, a visit lets you appreciate its simplicity as well as enjoy the sweeping panoramas of the Hajar Mountains and the nearby Persian Gulf.

Al Bastakiya, Dubai

Al Bastakiya, Dubai

Sometimes, it is quite hard to fathom that Dubai was once a simple village settlement that consisted of trade merchants, pearl divers, and fishermen. However, if you visit the Al Bastakiya neighbourhood in Dubai, you will get the exact idea of Dubai’s humble settlements. Away from glitz and chaos of the modern city, this sleepy township filled with earthy toned buildings, serene Arabian courtyards and winding alleys are a soothing retreat to visit. A stroll through these narrow lanes reminds you of the simple lifestyle of Dubai locals before its surge to be a global metropolitan. Al Bastakiya is one of the historical places to visit in UAE that should be on your Dubai travel bucket list.

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization

Sharjah Museum

Here’s a UAE attraction that offers you everything you need to know about Islam. This stunning museum located at Sharjah’s scenic Corniche Street flanked by the on the Majarrah Waterfront offers you an insight into the Arabian culture and has over 5000 Islamic artefacts from all over the world which includes scriptures, calligraphy, carvings, handiworks, paintings to name a few. One of the main attractions not to be missed is the zodiac mosaic in the huge central dome.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi

An iconic landmark in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is an absolute beauty to watch and a popular attraction to visit in Abu Dhabi. The grandeur and splendour of the architecture will leave you awe-struck. This majestic mosque sprawling 1,380 feet is the largest mosque in UAE and can accommodate over 40,000 worshippers. This white pure white marble structure accentuated with touches of gleaming golden designs will catch your attention with its sheer simple beauty. Inside the mosque, you will be surrounded with grand crystal chandeliers, intricately woven carpets, intricate designs with semi-precious stones and marble mosaics. The courtyard leading to the mosque is considered to be etched with the largest marble mosaic in the world. The mosque is a beautiful blend of traditional and modern Islamic architecture and looks mesmerizingly beautiful when illuminated during the night.

Qasr Al Hosn Fort, Abu Dhabi

This fort is a popular and one of the oldest landmarks of Abu Dhabi. Known as the White Fort, this structure with conical towers was first built as a watchtower to protect Abu Dhabi’s one and only fresh water well. Later, it became the abode of the ruling family. Today, it is a national monument and is a place for cultural discovery. The fort lets you journey through the life of Arabian artisans and the rich history of the country. Qasr Al Hosn Festival is an 11-day festival held annually where you can enjoy art, music and live performances showcasing UAE’s heritage.

Hili Archaeological Park, Abu Dhabi

Hili Archaeological Park Al Abu Dhabi

Located in Al Ain in Abu Dhabi, Hili Archaeological Park takes you back into the bronze age. Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this archaeological site dates back to Umm an-Nar period (about 2500 BCE to 2000 BCE) is the largest bronze age site in UAE. The exhibits comprise of early settlements, tombs, and underground water canals. All these archaeological sites have been integrated into a verdant, well-manicured landscaped garden dotted with fountains and green plants which makes it an ideal spot to enjoy a quiet time amid nature and history.

A Jahili Fort, Al Ain, UAE

These attractions are a great way to understand that UAE is more than just sophisticated cities and opens up a new window of new experiences and knowledge for UAE visitors. So next time you apply for Dubai visa online and plan your Dubai tip, expand your vision to its neighbouring emirates as well and journey through its cultural experiences. The seamless blend of modernity with traditional heritage will make your UAE travel experience worth cherishing a lifetime.

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Varkala Beach: That stunning cliff beach of Kerala where you can wash away all your sins

The stunning cliff beach of Kerala at Varkala

The west coast of India is home to some sensational beach holiday destinations that are full of beautiful blue waters, gorgeous sands, coconut palms and relaxed settings. Some of them are special because of their backwaters, some are known for their estuaries and some are famous for their turtle nesting. Kerala’s iconic Varkala beach is known for its cliffs and for its 2000 year old temple.

Super gorgeous cliff beach of Varkala, Kerala

Varkala beach or Papanasam beach is one of those gorgeous locations where you can not only enjoy a relaxed beach holiday, but also wash away all your sins by taking a dip in its waters. Located about 50 kms away from Thiruvanthapuram, the capital of Kerala, this beach of Southern Kerala has multiple facets to its story. First and foremost are its cliffs that tower right by the beach. Varkala is the only location in Southern Kerala where you can find such cliff formations. Second, this beach is located super close to the 2000 year old Janardana Swami temple. May be, it is due to this proximity that you see brahmin pandits sitting under an umbrella on the beach offering to appease your ancestors and to help you absolve of all your sins. And a bath in the Arabian Sea here after such offerings are set to wash away all your sins. This is kind of similar to Papanasam temple in Tamil Nadu, but there it is the Thamarabharani river and here it is the Arabian Sea. And third, this beach owing to its cliff edge allows two kind of perspectives – one from the beach floor and the other from the top of the cliff for a bird’s eye view of the beach.

The Papanasam beach at Varkala, Kerala

The highlight of Varkala beach is its cliff edge walkway that is lined with Ayurveda centers, spas, tattoo studios, restaurants, cafes, hotels, guest houses, villas, resorts, souvenir shops, clothing shops and many more. While one can enjoy the beach and the water during the cooler times during the morning and evening, this cliff walkway is the perfect place to hang out during the mid day heat and during the night when this walkway comes alive with live music and lights.

Varkala beach and the cliffs that tower above it

If you are looking at your next beach holiday destination in India, I would recommend taking a look at Varkala beach. Apart from its amazing cliff beach and views, one can also experience the off beat locations of Southern Kerala and while at that can wash all your sins away. A win-win-win in my opinion!

Taking a stroll on the cliff overlooking Varkala beach

How to reach here:

Varkala is located somewhere between Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram. The nearest airport (domestic and international) would be Thiruvananthapuram, about 50 kms away. The nearest railway is Varkala, which is located about 3 kms away. Excellent roads connect it with most other popular places in Kerala.

A day at Varkala beach, Kerala

Where to stay:

If you want close proximity to the beach while enjoying the best views, stay at one of the properties near the cliff walkway. If you wish to be a bit away from the hustle and bustle of the beach, then stay in any of the village homestays close by. For uber luxury accommodation, either opt for the 5 star hotels in Thiruvanthapuram or any of the luxury villas near Varkala.

Taking a walk on the scenic Varkala cliff beach in South Kerala

Nearby tourist attractions:

1) Kappil beach, where the beach is sandwiched between backwaters and the Arabian Sea (about 10 kms to the north)

2) Ponmudi hill station for fantastic panoramas of the Western Ghats (about 85 kms towards South East) and one of the most beautiful locations in India’s Deep South

3) Mountain railways of Kerala for one of South India’s oldest railways that pass right through dense forests (about 60 kms towards the North East)

4) Thenmala forest for waterfalls, wildlife and birding and for a truly offbeat location in Kerala (about 70 kms away)

5) Kerala’s oldest motorable suspension bridge at Punalur (about 50 kms away)

6) Ashtamudi Lake, that massive mountain of water near Kollam (about 50 kms to the north)

7) Kovalam beach (about 60 kms to the South)

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Ravana Chhaya: 6000 year old Shadow Puppet Play of Odisha

Shadow Puppetry of Odisha that orginated somewhere in the 5th Century BC

Did you know that shadow puppetry originated in India around the 5th century BC, about 6000 years back. Although exact point of origin has not been found, it has found mention in many ancient literary texts, such as Mahabharata of Vyasa (5th century BC), Mahabhasya of Patanjali (4th century BC), Arthasatra of Kautilya (2nd century BC), Kamasutra of Vatsyana (7th century AD) and Uttara Rama Charita and Mahaveera Charita of Bababhuti (8th century AD) among many others.

It is quite probable that you have seen this ancient art form in action in our Indian villages during a festival or other event. I have been privileged to see it at quite a few places in India during my school summer holidays when we traveled to different parts of the country. At that time, I never understood its heritage value, but now that I do, I yearn and hope to see more people and places try to keep shadow puppetry alive. For some weird reason, the mere sight of a shadow puppet play makes me feel like a child again.

Ancient Shadow Puppetry Culture of Odisha

My latest tryst with shadow puppetry came during my culture holiday to Odisha, where I got to meet the expert artist Dr. Gouranga Charan Dash and his team and where I got to immerse myself into the world of shadow puppet plays both from the front of the stage as well as backstage, which is way more fun in my opinion. This shadow puppet play is called ‘Ravaa Chhaya’ in Odisha. It goes by other names in different parts of India, such as ‘Tholu Bommalattam’ in Tamil Nadu, ‘Togalu Gombeeatta’ in Karnataka, ‘Tolu Bommalata’ in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, ‘Chamdya Chaya Bahulya’ in Maharashtra, ‘Tol Pavakoothu’ in Kerala and ‘Chaya Putul Nacha’ in West Bengal.

Shadow puppetry by Dr. Gouranga Charan Dash

In this shadow puppetry art form of Odisha, colored shadows, background voice overs and music present stories from the Ramayana, especially popular ones such as abduction of Sita and quest for Sita. While stories from Ramayana are the mainstay for Ravana Chhaya performances, many artists also present stories from Mahalaxmi Katha, Krishna Leela and even contemporary and modern stories.

Shadow puppet play of Odisha

The puppets of Ravana Chhaya are hand made using a single piece of untanned deer and cow hide. Either they are left in neutral color of the hide or they are colored using natural substances to depict clothes, jewellery, accessories, etc. The music which is played in the background is an interesting blend of folk, classic and modern with many traditional musical instruments such as tambourine, cymbal, daskathi, mridangam and tabla.

Leather puppets - part of the shadow puppetry heritage of Odisha

The entire Ravana Chhaya shadow puppetry performance is managed by a group of artists who don different hats. Some are in charge of playing the musical instruments, while the others are in charge of manipulating and controlling the puppets through the prop that is attached to its lowest part. Depending on the scene, there could be one or more people holding puppets against the light. And similarly with voice overs, it could be one person telling the story or it could be more than one. One of the specialties of Ravana Chhaya is the voice over where heavy emotional tones are used to convey the emotion of the scene to the audience.

When you are looking at the performance from the front, all you see is an empty white screen at the beginning and a play of still and moving puppets during the performance. When you are back stage (behind the white screen), it is a different world altogether. A maze of puppets are strewn all over the floor. Different artists are crouched below the white screen and are manipulating their puppets with their fingers to give that feel of life like motion to the audience. One of them who is the leader handles all the main characters, while the support staff handle the puppets which portray the other elements of the story, such as animals, birds, trees, etc. Behind these artists is the strong light source, which is instrumental in casting the shadow and behind them are the musicians who add beat and rhythm to the shadow puppet play.

Different props and themes in the shadow puppet play of Odisha

The sheer diversity of puppets, the beautiful flow of emotions in the voice overs, the melodious music and the popular stories makes Ravana Chhaya a riveting experience. And the way they bring characters to life through shadows, their movements, voices and music is what makes this ancient art form so very special.

Shadow puppetry of Odisha

Such gorgeous ancient art forms are to be treasured by the entire human race. This Indian heritage can certainly awaken the child in you and make you leave the auditorium with a big smile on your face, a spring in your step and pure joy in your heart and soul. I would certainly recommend experiencing Ravana Chhaya during your next holiday to Odisha.

Shadow Puppetry, ancient heritage of Odisha

Where to experience it:

Srirama Institute of Shadow Theatre, Ananda Ashram, near Kutari munda in the Angul district of Odisha. Ask for Dr. Gouranga  Charan Dash, Sri Prahlad Behera or Dr. Sabitri Dash.

How to get there:

Bhubaneshwar is the nearest airport. From Bhubaneshwar to the ashram is about a 4 hour road trip. The nearest railway station is Talcher, about 40 kms from the ashram.

Water Puppet Show

If you love puppet shows, you might want to check out the water puppet show of Vietnam, which I feel is one of the 7 must have experiences in Vietnam.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Persepolis: Jewel of Persia

Persian empire reliefs at Persepolis, Iran

Getting out of our mundane world is one of the best perks of traveling! Don’t you agree? And while we forget the day to day humdrum, albeit for a short while, we learn to appreciate the sheer beauty of the world around us, our rich human past and amazing stories of our evolution. I experienced one such story from our evolution at Persepolis, the capital of the mighty Persian Empire, during my backpacking holiday to Iran.

Persepolis landscape with the tomb of Darius the great in the background

This story takes you to the time of the Archaemenid empire, the first Persian empire. The time period was around the 6th century BC, which means that I am taking you back by almost 8000 years. Founded by Cyrus the Great, this massive empire ranged all the way from the Balkans and Eastern Europe in the west to the Indus valley of the Indian subcontinent in the East. It was one of the largest kingdoms to have existed on planet earth and it was a time of absolute power and amazing riches. And it was around this time that the religion of Zoroastrianism was born.

Stunning Bas-reliefs from the Persian empire of Persepolis

Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of this Persian empire. It was founded by Cyrus the Great and many additions were made to the city during the reign of Darius the Great, Xerxes and Antaxerxes, the future rulers. It was neither the largest city in the empire nor was it the seat of power. Rather, it was occupied seasonally most probably to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, held at the spring equinox.

Gate of Nations, Persepolis, Iran

For almost 200 years, Persepolis became a place to celebrate the glory of the Persian empire. It was home to mighty gates, colossal buildings, ornate palaces, majestic throne hall, exquisite living quarters and beautiful tombs. Persepolis was as majestic a capital as there could be till Alexander the Great took over the city in 330 BC and plundered it. Around the same time, a fire is believed to have started and destroyed most of the city. And thus began the fall of this mighty capital city.

winged human faced lion guardian at persepolis, Iran

Today, tucked amidst the Zagros mountains of Southern Iran, Persepolis exists as a maze of stone columns, colossal structures and beautiful designs and bas reliefs that tell us a story of the once powerful Persian empire. Most of the city is in ruins today, but thanks to the efforts of the various archaeological communities, a lot of the ruins have been re-structured to give us an inkling of an idea about the grandeur of this historic Persian city.

Persepolis Frieze depicting Persian immortals

A lot of movies, books, documentaries and travel stories have tried portraying the beautiful past of Persepolis, but nothing comes close to experiencing it in real. Right from the time you set your eyes on the Gate of Nations and stare in awe at the griffins and the horses, a visit to Persepolis is bound to astound you at multiple levels. The Apadana palace is the true highlight of Persepolis. This palace is a stunning mix of gargantuan size and ornate beauty. Its tall columns, oak and cedar wood beams, massive stairways and walls are full of foundation tablets of gold and silver, animal sculptures, carvings and bas reliefs.

Symbol of Zoroastrianism and the Persian Empire at Persepolis, Iran

Then there is the throne hall, the imperial treasury, the Hadish palace of Xerxes I, the council hall and various other palaces, stables and quarters. Each one of these building remnants tell you a story about the glorious past. And then overlooking all of this gorgeous city are the tombs of the Persian kings themselves where they have been resting for the past thousands of years next to their prized jewel of a city.

Persepolis bas-relief - bull fighting lion

If you love ancient stories, are a culture or history buff or simply like to experience new places, this UNESCO World Heritage Site called Persepolis is sure to keep you riveted with deep interest. After all, it is jewel of Persia for a reason!

A Persepolis classic moment as you see it

How to get here:

The nearest international airport would be at Shiraz. Emirates, Etihad, Air Arabia and Mahan Air connect Shiraz with the UAE and India, thus making it easy for us Indians to experience this heritage site. You can also fly into Tehran and do the road trip to Shiraz.

Darius the Great, his followers and his soldiers

Where to stay:

The nearest city is Shiraz, which is located about 60 kms away. One can choose from a variety of stay options in Shiraz that caters to a wide array of budgets.

Archaemenid Griffin at Persepolis, Iran

Other nearby tourist attractions:

1) The Pink Mosque is a must experience. The colors will blow your mind away

2) The various gardens of Shiraz

3) Yazd and Isfahan, if you have more time at hand

And when you are in Iran, do not miss the opportunity to experience these 5 off-beat travel experiences of Iran.

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Saturday, March 02, 2019

130 year old Paper Carving Heritage: Hidden Artisans from Patan, Gujarat

Portrait of Patan Paper Carver

Are you a culture aficionado? Are you one of those who is always on the look out for hidden cultural trails? Well, if you do, you will enjoy this artisan that I discovered in North West Gujarat in the erstwhile capital town of Gujarat. This artisan and his family have been practicing the art of super intricate paper carving for the past 130 years. But, paper carving wasn’t in their blood always. Rather, they were into wrestling. Sounds fascinating, right?

Paper Carver from Jadiya family of Patan, Gujarat, India

I met Mr. Narendra Jadiya, the paper carving artist, when I was at the Patan Patola museum trying to know more about the rich heritage of the Patola saris. Apparently, he used to practice at his home till a few years back, but once the Patola museum was built, the Salvi family (who are the traditional weavers of the Patola Sari) were kind enough to offer him a space to showcase his craft too. And that is how I managed to bump into the iconic paper carvers from the Jadiya family.

When I asked Mr. Narendra Jadiya how it all started, he told me that his ancestors were all into wrestling and they were far away from the creative arts, but all that changed during the time of his great grandfather who took to paper carving as a hobby. There was no specific effort to make money from it, but his great grandfather was so in love with the art that he kept practising it till he was alive and passed on this art form to his children and from there to his grand and great grandchildren.

Today, Mr. Narendra Jadiya continues to practice this art form started by his great grand father in his family and hopes that his son will also follow in his footsteps. Through his paper carving art, he depicts mythological stories of the various gods like Ram, Shiva, Buddha or Ganesha and many other diverse topics such as architecture, nature, birds and animals, etc.. But, the gods remain his primary interest. He either makes simple carvings or something that is extremely detailed and that is very work intensive.

The Paper Carver of the Jadiya Family of Patan in action

First, he sketches the image that he wishes to carve onto a thick card board paper. Then he keeps it over good quality white paper and then using a semi-sharp knife like instrument, he starts carving the image on the white paper. A thick board is kept at the bottom for support and the work is either done next to a sun lit window or under a powerful table lamp so that attention to detail isn’t lost. Simple paper carving art takes a few hours and complex ones can take a few weeks or so.

Do pay him a visit the next time you are in Patan for a culture and heritage holiday. You should definitely spend time with him and watch him go about his craft. His work looks simple to the untrained eye, but it involves a lot of patience and skill. You will only realize that when you see his best work products, which he usually keeps hidden in his drawers. They will certainly blow your mind. Do remember to coax him to show a few to you! And may be, if you like anything in particular, you could even buy it from him.

In case you can’t find him at the Patan Patola Museum, you can either email him at papercarving1890@gmail.com, call him at 08866567702 / 9033719148 or meet him at his residence on Ramprasad road next to Girdhari temple in Patan. I hope you enjoy his unique paper carving art as much as I did!

Paper Cutting Work at Patan, Gujarat

How to reach here:

The nearest airport is Ahmedabad. Mahesana is the nearest long distance railway station, though Ahmedabad would be your best bet for all air, road and rail connectivity from all over India. Patan is about a 2 hour drive from Ahmedabad.

Where to stay:

You could either stay in a guest house or hotel in Patan, in a home stay in any of the surrounding villages or in a luxury hotel in Ahmedabad.

Nearby cultural attractions that you can also visit:

1) The 10th century Modhera Sun Temple

2) Rani Ki Vav, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

3) The Heritage town of Siddhpur

4) The Patan Patola Museum to know about the rich heritage of the Patola saris

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Thursday, February 28, 2019

When God came home: A Video Story of a Rural India Tradition

Gorgeous Interiors of South Indian Temples

We all go and see god in his home (temple), but have you heard of gods coming to your home to see you. Well, I am not joking! It does happen quite often in the villages of South India. It happens else where in India as well, but I have seen it happen more often in the South. Or may be because I have better access to it. Well, the Rath Yatra that happens at Puri Jagannath Temple is possibly the biggest example that I can think of. But, it is of massive proportions and it happens only once a year. But, in the South Indian temples it happens quite often. And that is what I wish to bring to your attention through this video story.

Apart from the main sanctum sanctorum where the idol of the main god(s) exists, there is a panchaloha or brass version of the god(s) kept at a corner of the temple and this idol is called Utsava Murthy. These Utsava Murthy gods take to the streets in pomp and grandeur during important festivals and occasions. Decked in beautiful clothes and ornaments, the Utsava Murthy god is kept on top of a chariot that is pulled by the people of the village. Sometimes, only brahmins are allowed to pull the chariot. However, at many times, anybody can pull the chariot of the lord. This chariot then takes a circuitous route and makes its way through the different streets of the village and stops at each home. When the god arrives at their home, the people rush out of their home, offer coconuts, fruits, flowers and even clothes to the lord and seek his/her blessings. This rath yatra can take place only on one day or every day for a fixed number of days. It could happen during day or night. All the variables depend on the temple, the god, the festival and the dates.

Utsava murthy of different temples take to the streets on different days of the year. For example, the Garuda god of the Vishnu temple in my village takes to the street on each Saturday of the Poratassi Tamil month and this video story that you see is the Thiruvadarai festival when Lord Shiva took to the streets. During this Thiruvadarai festival, Lord Shiva visited the people’s homes every evening for 6 days and then on the 7th day, which is also the day of Thiruvadarai in Margazhi Tamil month, he visits everyone’s home in the early hours of the morning. This is his last trip for this festival and then he returns to his temple and stays there till the next festival when he can take to the streets again.

I got to experience this rich tradition at Kallidaikurichi, a beautiful village in India’s deep south and that is a perfect place to experience the beautiful traditions of Tamil Nadu and South India. Apart from such unique experiences, one can also experience the festival of Pongal in such traditional villages to get a true festival experience. This village also happens to be my ancestral home. So, if you are around for a rural holiday, do give me a shout out!

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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Story of King Ashoka through the Light and Sound Show at Dhauli Stupa, Odisha

Dhauli Stupa, Odisha

King Ashoka or Ashoka the Great, was one of India’s greatest kings. The grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, King Ashoka ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from 268 to 232 BC. From Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the East and from Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala in the South, his empire’s reign was absolutely massive. The turning point in his life came right after he won the bloody Kalinga (the land we know as Odisha today) war. He was deeply affected by all the bloodshed and that is when he made the switch to Buddhism and became one of the strongest preachers and ambassadors of Buddhism in the world. It was because of him that Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Tibet, China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries in the far east.

King Ashoka edicts on Dhauli hill

As Indians, we have learned and read about him in our schools and books and see his influence on our Indian flag, our currencies and at many other locations across the country (I am referring to his emblem as seen on Sarnath’s Ashoka pillar). But, nothing comes close to the experience of transporting yourself 2,500 years to the time where lands were known as Kalinga, Magadh, Patliputra, etc. and re-living the life of one of the greatest kings the planet has ever known.

Story of King Ashoka on Dhauli Stupa, Odisha

One of the best places to have this experience is Dhauli Stupa, the place from where you can see the Kalinga battlefield and the place where King Ashoka left his violence behind and embraced the guidance and teachings of Lord Buddha. This story is told every evening at Dhauli Stupa through a spectacular light and sound show. Created by renowned Russian artist Maria Rud and local sand artists, this visual and auditory treat carries the iconic voice of Om Puri (in Hindi), Kabir Bedi (in English) and Bijaya Mohanty (in Odia). During this show, the white peace pagoda of Dhauli is morphed into a fast moving mural canvas with the latest 3D projection mapping technology and 5.1 surround sound. It is a must experience for all visitors on a holiday to Odisha!

Below is the entire light and sound show in 3 video parts for all those who cannot travel to Dhauli and experience it in person. Do watch it on big screens with highest resolution and good quality sound system to appreciate it more. I took all three videos using my Google Pixel 2XL mobile phone.

P A R T 1

P A R T 2

P A R T 3

Timings: There are 2 shows every day. One at 6 PM and the other at 6: 45 PM. The show lasts a total of 35 minutes

Cost: The ticket for each adult costs INR 25 and INR 10 for students

How to reach there: Bhubaneshwar is your nearest airport, railway station and bus hub. You can reach Dhauli by road in about 60 minutes from Bhubaneshwar. You could either hire an auto rickshaw or car for the commute. There are a few steps that one has to climb to reach Dhauli hill from the parking lot.

Best Season: Winter would be the ideal season to see this show as temperatures would be very pleasant.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

Times Passion Trails: Making you experience the destination from a richer perspective

A Odisha countryside priest portrait shot

In my over three decades of living and traveling in India, I have understood pretty clearly that one lifetime isn’t enough to experience our own magical backyard and diverse land that we proudly refer to as ‘Incredible India’. We are one of the oldest living civilizations in the world. Which means that there is so much heritage to discover in so many different corners of our country. And we might not even know about it even though we might be living next to it or we might have visited that place many a times.

Goti Pua dance and its various positions

I went through a similar experience during my recent trip to Odisha, the land that is dubbed as ‘India’s best kept secret’. Now, I have visited Odisha quite a few times in the past, but on this trip, I saw her in entirely new light. And I have to thank Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism for it as it was them who took me and 20 other people on a culture and heritage trail across Odisha. What I saw, experienced and learnt on this trip makes me ponder in amazement at the sheer riches of our country. And for that to happen on our trips, we need a good travel partner. A partner who can let us see us experience the real and hidden India that most of us are blatantly unaware of.

Enjoying the view of the sculptures at Udayagiri caves, Odisha

Times Passion Trails, an initiative by the Times of India, is one such partner who allows you to experience the destination from a richer perspective. I am so happy that I went on this Odisha heritage trip with them. They are not your regular travel agent or tour operator, but they offer curated experiences that take the game to a whole new level. Below are some of the highlights of traveling with Times Passion Trails.

1) Unique service offerings due to partnerships with state and other local tourism boards

India's Sand Art specialist Sudarshan Patnaik

One of the USPs (Ultimate Selling Point) of traveling with Times Passion Trails is the opportunity to relish unique travel experiences, which is something that all of us look for in our holidays these days. This is made possible through their close partnerships with the state and other local tourism boards. This partnerships opens doors that are usually pretty hard for others to access. And this definitely provides a fabulous experience for the knowledge traveler as some of these experiences are simply legendary. Here are a few examples:

1) Live sand art sessions with Padma Shree Sudarsan Patnaik, the person who has won many awards and accolades in this field

2) Live stone sculpting sessions with Padma Shree Sudarsan Sahoo, the person who is single handedly keeping this ancient art alive

3) Live session with the Tarakasi or silver filigree artisans of Cuttack in their homes

Shadow puppetry by Dr. Gouranga Charan Dash

4) A special shadow puppetry session with Dr. Gouranga Dash, one of the leading experts in the field and the ability to see and experience this rare art from close quarters (both back stage and front stage)

2) Trip curated by subject matter experts

The other key highlight of traveling with Times Passion Trails is the fact that each of their trips are curated by subject matter experts who they refer to as ‘Experience Architects’. They are not your tour guides, but specialists who have spent their entire life in that field. The experience architect on my trip was Dr Navina Jafa, a Fulbright scholar who has worked at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, taught about Indian and South Asian cultures at various universities, a trained Indian classical dancer and someone who has been interpreting heritage for the last two decades. She not only gave us information about the destinations we visited, but made us aware of the entire cultural story, which included people, history, art, dance, food, languages, etc. and thus allowing us to think and appreciate the heritage locations from a whole different perspective.

Entering the Pushpagiri university at Ratnagiri, Odisha

And in addition to this special Experience Architect, we also had access to a knowledgeable local guide. So, we not only got the intellectual download, but we got a good understanding of the local stories and the folklore too.

3) Managed by a flexible and accommodating bunch of people

Tribal woman spotted just outside of Udayagiri caves, Odisha

I usually travel independently because tour groups aren’t usually flexible with their time and plans. But, it is here that Times Passion Trails surprised me yet again. On this trip, I noticed how effortlessly they accommodated the time, whims and fancies and requests of the different people on the group. Be it shopping, medical emergencies, special food needs or just some crazy request, they seamlessly tried to accommodate all of it. And due to that, they won a lot of brownie points in everybody’s book.

4) Affordable price point

Sadhu baba in front of Khandagiri caves, Odisha

’Paisa Vasool’ is the usual motto when we Indians spend our money. Times Passion Trails fits that bill well. They offer stay in 4 star or equivalent hotel, they offer sumptuous food, they offer experience architects and guides, they offer air conditioned ground transportation and the best of breed experiences for a very affordable fee. My Odisha culture and heritage trail was priced at INR 35,000 for 5 night and 6 days and the Odisha wildlife and bird photography trail that starts today is priced at INR 40,000 for 6 night and 7 days.

5) Absolutely amazing companions

Colorful Chandua work seen at a shop in Pipli, Odisha

One of the key things that I treasure the most about my trip with Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism are the people with whom I explored the various art, culture and heritage trails of Odisha. They were a varied bunch ranging from ex army personnel, doctors, archaeology students, dancers, businessmen to individuals working in different rungs of the corporate world. Even though all of us came to this trip from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds, we all seemed to relish the time we spent in Odisha and all of us took a huge liking to the hidden heritage trails of Odisha and the local desserts. And ended up creating a ton of memories in the interim.

There is some scope for improvement

The stunning Linagaraj temple of Bhubaneshwar

Things weren’t always rosy and good. There were some small issues with logistics a couple of times. To me, it was adventure. But, for some, it was tiring. So yes, there is scope for improvement and I am pretty sure that Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism will address it in their next trips. What I liked the most about Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism is their eagerness in asking for personal feedback. And no, it wasn’t cliché feedback forms, but in person feedback session at the end of the trip by the top management of both organizations. That according to me is pretty special.

Next Trip for Times Passion Trails

Portion of Buddha statue in Bhoomi Sparsha position at ruins of Lalitgiri, Odisha

Their next trip is a wildlife and bird photograph trail through some of the popular and lesser known wildlife trails of Odisha. The trip starts on February 25th, but unfortunately, all the registrations for this trail have been closed.

Some Recently Completed Trips for Times Passion Trails

Artisans work their crafts in front of their homes at Raghurajpur, Odisha

1) Kumbh Mela and its heritage in Uttar Pradesh

2) Madhya Pradesh’s rich culture and history along its holy Narmada river

3) Ahmedabad Heritage photography

Light and Sound Show at Konark Sun Temple, Odisha

4) Wildlife and bird photography in Gujarat

5) Jaipur Sufi Poetry and Music appreciation

Give them a look when you find time and do keep track of their upcoming trails. You never know, they might have something that might pique your interest!

Disclosure: I was invited on this trip by Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism, but all the thoughts mentioned in this article are purely based on my personal experience and have been written without any prejudice and with complete honesty and transparency. They genuinely echo my sentiments.

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