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

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Meenmutty Falls inside Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary: A Beautiful Tropical Jungle Trail

The gorgeous Meenmutty waterfall that flows through the dense tropical forests of the Western Ghats

Some people love the mountains. Some love beaches. I love forests and waterfalls. Like the Himalayas in the north, the Western Ghats in peninsular India is full of absolutely amazing forest and wildlife trails. And I have a deep penchant for exploring these beautiful green trails that are full of nature’s wild action.

There is one such trail that I happened to discover recently. It is located inside Peppara wildlife sanctuary in Southern Kerala. And this trail meanders through tropical evergreen forests leading you to a gorgeous forest waterfall called Meenmutty waterfall (there is another waterfall in Wayanad that goes by the same name. Do not get confused with it).

The jungle trail leading to Meenmutty Falls inside Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary

This Meenmutty waterfall is on the Kallar river that starts deep in the Peppara wildlife sanctuary. You get a glimpse of this beautiful mountain river right before you pull into the forest check post. Behind you are the majestic mountains of the Western Ghats and in front of you lies the dense jungle canopy. The jungle trek begins right after you complete the entry formalities at the forest check post. You walk under a dense forest canopy with the Kallar river to your left. The trail climbs slowly crossing overgrown tree roots and caves. Somewhere in between, forest officials check your bags and take away all plastic items from you. Plastic water bottles are allowed against a refundable deposit which can be claimed when you show that you have brought the bottle back (A very cool concept to protect this fragile ecosystem from the plastic menace). As the trek gets steeper, the forest gets denser and the air gets steamier. Pretty soon, you come across a river crossing. Here, you have to cross this wild river while hanging on to thick sets of ropes tied to either river bank. You will invariably get wet while crossing the river. This is good as by now you would have worked up quite a sweat, though it might be prudent to take care of your mobile phones and wallets. By now, you can hear the thunderous applause of the waterfall, but you can’t see it as yet. A couple of forest bends later, you can see as well as hear this lovely waterfall that is surrounded by dense forests. If the water levels are low, you can take a swim in the pool under it. But, if the water levels are high, all you can do is simply enjoy the view. And if you do wish to get wet, there are many spots downstream where you can get wet and play in the river.

Scenic mountain highway to Ponmudi hill station, Kerala

This beautiful jungle trail and waterfall can be combined with a scenic ride or drive to the offbeat Ponmudi hill station, which is located about 20 kms away. While the trek allows you to get deep into the steamy jungle, Ponmudi allows you to experience a 360 degree panorama of the Western Ghats. In essence, they make for a great forest / waterfall / hill station / road trip idea in India’s deep south. This is an experience that I recommend with many thumbs up, especially for all you nature lovers!

Meenmutty waterfall inside Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala

How to get here:

Trivandrum is your nearest airport and railway station. While Peppara wildlife sanctuary check post is about 30 kms from Trivandrum, Ponmudi hill station is about 55 kms away by road. It is best to have your own mode of transportation here.

Some points to remember:

1) Wear comfortable walking shoes

2) Carry a dry bag for your gadgets and valuables

3) Carry a towel and spare change of clothes in case you wish to get into the water

4) Please refrain from any form of pollution inside the forest (plastic, cigarette buds, soaps, shampoos, food items, etc.)

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Friday, March 29, 2019

Bhubaneshwar Heritage Walk: Lose yourself in 1300 years of temple and cultural magic

The stunning Linagaraj temple of Bhubaneshwar

Some of India’s richest art, culture and history is depicted in its gorgeous temples. These temples, which have weathered the test of time, speak of amazing stories from our glorious past. One such group of temples that speak beautiful stories are the temples from the Kalinga empire that are located in Bhubaneshwar, the capital city of Odisha.

Bhog ready to be served to the lord at Ananta Basudev temple, Bhubaneshwar

These temples, which are part of a cultural and heritage trail in Odisha are best explored by foot and that too early in the morning. On my recent cultural holiday to Odisha, I ended up going on one such morning heritage walk with Ekamra Walks (run by the government of Odisha) and boy was it an enlightening experience.

When  you enter this part of Bhubaneshwar old town just before sunrise, most of these temples are shrouded in mist. And as the sun rises up, these temples make a grand appearance from under the mist and a diverse set of people go about their yoga, walking, jogging, morning shopping at the street food markets and offer their prayers to the lord.

Beautiful carvings at 7th Century Parasurameswar Temple, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha

And then there are some like us who are in the old town with a spring in our steps, a sparkle in our eyes and a camera in our hand, eager to explore the art, history and culture of these utterly beautiful temples.

Early morning market scenes in front of Lingaraj temple, Bhubaneshwar

This two hour long Bhubaneshwar heritage walk begins at 10th century Mukteswar temple that is considered the gem of Odishan architecture and from there meanders its way through narrow lanes lined with trees and old structures to the 7th century Parasurameswar temple, Kotitirtheswar temple, Bindusagar lake, the busy kitchen at Ananta Basudev temple, the British era Dharamshala, the colorful street market called Ratha Danda, the elevated platform offering a panoramic view of the Lingaraj temple campus, 13th century Sari Deul temple and matha before finishing the walk at Vaital temple and the herbal medicinal garden called Ekamravan.

While the entire heritage walk offers a splendid experience, there are some highlights that you should not miss. And more so, you should keep your ears open and listen to your Ekamra guide when you are at these spots.

Stunning Filigree work on the walls of the Mukteshwar Temple, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha

These highlights are:

1) The stunning archway, intricate carvings, sculpting and filigree designs at Mukteswar temple

2) The preparation of the morning bhog in the temple kitchen of Ananta Basudev temple

3) The view of the Lingaraj temple from the elevated platform

4) And the fact that most of this Bhubaneshwar old town was a prototyping ground for the temple architects of that era, which you can see through the many small temples built in such a small area

The arched gateway that greets visitors entering the Mukteswar Temple of Bhubaneshwar, Odisha

While you will spend most of your time at Mukteswar temple as this is the most beautiful and well preserved temple, I loved every bit of the Bhubaneshwar heritage walk and hoped to spend quality time almost at all pit stops.

Lingaraj Temple in the early morning sun

The mythological stories of the formation of Bindu Sagar lake, the sheer early morning cooking action at Ananta Basudev temple, the simple charm of the dharamshala for the pilgrims, the colorful vegetable sellers and the locals haggling for the prices, the sheer divinity at Lingaraj temple, the tantrik practices of Vaital temple and so many other rich experiences can be made while walking though this paragon of beautiful history.

Bindu Sagar Lake, Bhubaneshwar

This heritage walk run by Ekamra and their very knowledgeable guides make the overall cultural and heritage experience so much richer. Not only can you stare at the beautiful pieces of stone, but you can even listen to their astounding meanings and stories when explained by the Ekamra guides. And some of these stories will really blow your mind and certainly captivate everyone’s imagination.

Mukteshwar Temple and pond covered in mist

And once you get a good lay of the land and get to understand its hidden riches, you can make many other morning trips just to amble around 1400 years of heritage and may be even indulge in some quality photography and videography.

Lion-Elephant combo animal on the walls of Mukteshwar Temple, Bhubaneshwar

You can either go on this temple walk at the beginning of your trip or at the end after exploring Puri, Konark, Cuttack, Chilika lake and other hotspots. Or you can even do it on a short weekend trip to Bhubaneshwar. But, whatever you do, do not miss out on experiencing this rich temple heritage from India’s glorious past. It is a must experience for all temple, art, culture, heritage and travel lovers!

Traditional Kitchen of Anant Basudev Temple, Bhubaneshwar

Key points to remember:

1) Bhubaneshwar can get quite hot during the non winter months. Hence, it is recommend to carry a hat, umbrella, a small bottle of water and sunglasses to protect yourself from the elements.

2) Wear comfortable shoes as you will be walking about 3 kms in total.

3) Wear decent clothing as most of these places on the heritage trail are still working temples.

4) No mobile phones, cameras, leather goods and bags are allowed inside Lingaraj temple. There are lockers where you can keep your belongings for safekeeping.

5) Non Hindus are not allowed inside Lingaraj temple.

The musician and his tabla - Bhubaneshwar heritage walk

Timings for the Bhubaneshwar Heritage Walk organized by Ekamra

The temple walk is organized every Sunday at 6:30 AM. The walk is free of cost, but one has to register online at Ekamra Walks website.

Their other heritage walks:

The Khandagiri and Udayagiri cave walk is organized every Saturday at 6:30 AM.

The Musueum walk at Kalabhoomi is organized every Sunday at 3:30 PM.

The intricately carved ceiling of Mukteshwar Temple, Odisha

How to get here:

Bhubaneshwar is well connected by air, rail and road with all of India and thus reaching this city isn’t a problem. The Bhubaneshwar old town is just a 10 minute drive from the airport and easily accessible from most places in the city.

Standing proud - Mukteshwar Temple, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha

Best time to go on this heritage walk:

It is best to start this walk just before sunrise to make the best use of lack of crowds, good weather and for street market action. One can also go around sunset time for a different experience.

Summers in Bhubaneshwar can get seriously hot, so it might be prudent to plan your trip during non summer months. The heritage walk is a joy during the rains and the cold winter months.

Garbha Griha - Mukteshwar Temple, Bhubaneshwar

Where to stay:

Bhubaneshwar has plenty of stay options – from luxury hotels to traditional homestays and budget guest houses. If you wish to visit the temples often, it is advised to stay closer to the old town.

Bhog being prepared at Anant Basudev temple, Bhubaneshwar

Nearby Tourist Attractions:

1) The ancient cave temples of Udayagiri and Khandagiri

2) The coastal temple town of Puri

Early morning magic at Mukteshwar Temple, Bhubaneshwar

3) The Sun temple of Konark

4) The chandua artisans of Pipili

5) The heritage village of Raghurajpur

Plethora of small temples in the Mukteswar Temple complex, Bhubaneshwar

6) The sound and light show at Dhauli Stupa

7) The authentic Odisha Rasgula experience at Pahala

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Monday, March 25, 2019

Dreams do come true at Disneyland!

Sleeping Beauty Castle of Disneyland

Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

This great animator gave the world an alternate world characterised by fun and fantasy. He created a dream world that your kids and maybe even you want to experience, at least once in your lifetime.

While most dreams require you to sweat it out, a desire to experience the thrill of dancing with your favourite Disney character and walking into magical castles is not that tough. Just buy your tickets for Disneyland and live your dream!

From adventurous rides to fascinating attractions, there are many things in Disneyland that will delight your kids and you. Below are a few highlights:

Attractions at Disneyland

1) Sleeping Beauty Castle

It’s a fairy tale castle right at the centre of Disneyland park, that will take your kids into the magical world of fantasy. With mesmerising interiors, the place will cast a spell on you too. This castle is the most recognisable landmark in Disneyland, so don’t forget to click a picture with it in the background.

2) Fantasyland

This is one place your kids are sure to fall in love with. Filled with characters from their storybooks, this place has many exciting segments inside it. From Mad tea Party to Mickey’s Toonhouse, this place will leave you delighted like nothing else.

3) Adventureland

With its jungle theme, this place has many attractions like Tarzan’s Treehouse, Enchanted Tiki Room, Indiana Jones Adventure, etc. This place will take you on an adventure ride with all that it has to offer.

4) It’s A Small World

An iconic attraction in this fascinating world, where a boat ride will take your kids past different Disney characters all singing and waving at them. This activity will leave your kids giggling and smiling all the way!

5) Hyperspace Mountain

Found in Tomorrowland area of the park, this signature attraction is USA’s best roller coaster ride. With a Star Wars theme, this is more exciting for adults as the rides have frightening speed.

6) Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh

In this four-minute ride in a beehive, you and your kids will see the life of Pooh and his dear friends in the hundred-acre woods.

7) Mickey’s Toonhouse

Mickey's Toontown of Disneyland

In a cutely designed mini-metropolis, here your kids can walk into Mickey and Minnie’s house, stores with exciting activities and meet and greet life-size characters.

Many other exciting places like Autopia (little car tracks), Star Tours, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad also add to the fun quotient here for kids and adults alike. There are many adventure rides here too that can give anyone a great adrenaline rush.

However, as kids are prone to injuries, it is vital that you tell them to be careful while taking such rides. Moreover, you can even buy overseas travel insurance to cover your family and yourself against any contingency, whether medical or otherwise. Tata AIG offers reimbursement of emergency expenses incurred on account of hospitals and medication incurred while travelling.

Disneyland around the world

Owing to the craze and yearning of the people to visit Disneyland, Walt Disney’s company opened Disneyland is in more than one place. So, now there are six Disneyland parks in the world. So, you can decide to visit any one of these according to your budget and plan.

To help you plan, we’ve listed below all the places where this fun-filled and exciting land of dreams can be found:

Disneyland Anaheim, California

Walt Disney’s original Disneyland, this one has been divided into eight themed lands. Part of the whimsical Disneyland resort, here you can also experience fine dining, character dining, character experiences, spa and many other things along with the adventure at the park.

Walt Disney World, Orlando

Just like the Disneyland in Anaheim, this one in Orlando is also a part of Disney resort. This too offers just the same kind of additional fun and recreational activities. This one too promises you a wholesome Disney world experience.

Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea, Japan

A 115-acre theme park, this one is owned by Oriental Land Company which took a license from Walt Disney’s company. Here, you are likely to find certain changes and addition to what is there in other Disney Parks.

Disneyland Paris, France

This was the second Disneyland that opened outside of the U.S, following the Tokyo Disney resort. It completed 25 years in 2017, and about 320 million people have visited this one so far.

Hong Kong Disneyland

Located on Penny’s Bay, Lantau Island, this one is the largest theme park in Hong Kong. Here too, certain changes have been made according to local culture, but still, mostly, it offers just the same fun and frolic as other Disneyland.

Insure your travel and roam stress free

Disneyland Railroad Engine

Make your kids experience the thrill and adventure that the Disneyland has in store for them, by planning your next trip to one of these places only. Not only are they going to love it, but the kid in you too will get ecstatic.

However, with all the adventure in mind, don’t go easy on the safety matters. Whenever you plan your trip here, safeguard yourself well in advance against injuries or another type of travel-related contingencies by buying overseas travel insurance. Travel insurance plans from insurers like Tata AIG can reimburse your emergency medical expenses, flight delays, loss of luggage etc. anytime during the planned trip.

So, book your tickets and let your kids and you enjoy the Disneyland dream in real!

Photo Courtesy: All the 3 photographs in this article have been borrowed from under the creative commons license. Each photo has been linked to its host page on wikipedia.

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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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