Secret Destinations

Secret destinations are not so secret if you are not solely focused on the destination you came after. Martin Buber stitched travel to my heart with this immortal line.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware”.

Martin Buber

We all go on our journeys. There is a said destination that a contented traveller gets to. But a real traveller goes far beyond. Because the destination is not the end point. Several story(ies) start after you arrive!

There are elements like what else you discover in a journey. Like the lay of the land and markers in its evolution. Like this glorious temple of a 1000 years. It’s historical undulations. Some scripted in stone and other new tales that are spun to suit today’s skies. The internet tells you about this land’s past glory, the minerals beneath it and the flow of the water across the hills and much else. You can drink all of it in like a voyeur with no skin in the game or like a lover who is immersed in her love.

The rich air tells you a few stories, only if you are ready to stop and take in a breath without necessarily being coveted by the dull lure of THE destination you came after. Sometimes, I infer my lessons by looking at the people and their ways. Their quick stride, the simple ways, easy smiles, the quite common afternoon snooze under the neem tree and the collective bath by the lakeside.

At night when I peruse my random notes to realise, secret destinations are not so secret if the focus is on curiosity and possibility beyond what is apparent.

Today, I make my notes sitting in the shade that the Sun and a 1000 year old wall come together to offer.

There are two others men there. Animated in conversation.

One tells another a story from history about the king and his valour. He speaks as though he has seen it first hand. Passionate. Lyrical. And filled with energy. I am hooked. The story meanders.

And suddenly, he looks into his watch and remembers that they have to be somewhere else by this time. The other agrees. Their destination interferes with a story that was building up well. Both of them get up, dust themselves up and move.

Leaving me with their incomplete story. I let the king stay within me whilst shuffling my feet and wondering what new secret destination awaits the king. And me.

Hope in history

The cities of India are paved with history. Such a surfeit of history with such a pronounced range, splendour and class that most of it is not given more than a passing glance. Take for instance, this Mandapam that sits right in the middle of the Vaigai river. Its supposed to have been sitting on from 1293 AD.  That was almost two hundred years before Columbus landed in America!


This is a picture from a few years back. Now, though, the river has dried up. Little boys play cricket on what was once the river bed. Scrounging the ground a tad more for it to hold the three bent sticks from a nearby tree, that masquerades as stumps. At spots were perhaps the fish laid eggs or warriors buried stolen treasures. In the words of one famous commentator, ‘ultimately cricket is the winner’!

Allow me to drag your mind from cricket even as you wonder what TV commentators have for breakfast for them to come up with such stellar stuff with such odious frequency and get our sights to stay trained on the Thenur mandapam.

Anywhere else in the world, this would have been earmarked as a piece of heritage, marked with concerted steps to keep it as it is. Maybe weave a few stories around the place. Get a few school children visit it and learn.  Ah, but thats anywhere else in the world. When you have a surfeit of something, you perhaps tend to take it for granted. Architecture that depicts history is one such.  I  am sure most residents and tourists of the city dont have a clue of how old this place is and how much of value we miss by not stopping by to take a second look.



It has traditions and several stories to run alongside culture that has evolved!  When you are done with this blogpost, find a minute to read its history.

Today all the rich history, stories and the traditions over seven hundred years call out loud only through deep cracks and large gaps in the structure. Enough to seed a frown on you, if you care for such things that is. Your blood will begin to simmer first at the garish colours and then boil at the degree of deep neglect that seems to seep through all the crumble. The blaring horns of traffic threaten to knock your ear drum silly and you wonder if these loud horns and our perpetual preoccupation with ‘development’ has made us so myopic that we fail to hear the silent sobs and tearful sighs from this seven hundred plus year old structure.

There can be spanking new bridges, swanky new cars and technology that captures the world in our palms through phones that sit inside our pockets. Not so long ago, this and structures like these did the same job as people came here and narrated stories they had heard in exchange for stories others had carried with them. A splendid flowing river kept them company and perhaps making its own swirling additions as it sped downstream to the sea!

Today, there is no river. The crumbling edifice reminds us that things are changing. The gaping holes left behind by young boys and the cricket stumps on the river bed indicate that the river is done with the flowing under the bridge. The sands of time shimmer prominently through the cracks on the wall.

Wont someone take notice? You are prone to ask, if such things matter to you, that is. A monument that is standing on its last few legs. In its sepulchral stoic standing, it seems to announce to every other day that it stands, that it has stood for one more day. Even while that announcement gets feebler, as the cracks make their ominous presence more visible,  urgently pointing to an inevitable end. On that day, the landscape of the dry river will forever change.

The world will have other things to focus on. New toys and fancies will continue to grip collective imagination. It will garner a mention in the newspaper. A couple of laments on blogs like these, before moving on to discuss other aspects that dominate our lives today.

But hold on. Perhaps we make a mistake in not shining the light on other minds. Minds who have hope in history. Minds for whom this is not a physical structure but a representative structure.  When this structure and even pictures of this structure brings about a warm fuzzy feeling of a different time. When there was some water in the river. Of a bundle full of memories. When the age was young and conversation was king. To those minds, this structure will continue to be the lasting edifice. Sans cracks. Sans crumble. Sans dereliction .

It is in those minds that this and structures like these thrive. Sometimes the steps of the daily day are powered by an overarching ache that comes from a clutch of memories.  Some edifices provide them with aplomb. This is one such. From new hopes that emerge, there will be new edifices.

Such is life. Always. Well, at least most of the time.

PS : You may want to read this and more importantly, this.

Soulful symmetry

The hard disk has a lot of snaps. Adjectives don’t do a complete job of describing these. Although, it can safely be said that ‘100s of snaps’ or ‘1000s of snaps’ etc are improper qualifiers. Several of them I gloss over. Part upset. More embarrassed of me wasting of a grand moment with an inept handling of the camera. Leaving me with an image that distorts far more than what it reveals and reducing a moment that should last in the mind to another passing one that is glossed over with ease.

There are some pictures that sit pretty on the hard drive. I can keep staring at them and get drawn back to the time I clicked them. Only some. Truth be told, a concoction of luck, pluck and a decent camera make it possible.  As the missus thoughtfully observed once, even as I was all chuffed looking at a photograph of a raging bull that I had clicked sometime ago, “Any donkey with a DSLR thinks attributes much less to the DSLR than what it deserves”.

My only deviant answer to that question was, ‘that is not a donkey, as you can see. That is a bull.”

Her cryptic response which said much more than what it said was, “Ah, Bull”

While that may be the general tenor and disposition, there are moments when I catch a whiff silent admiration as she looks at some of my clicks. Just a whiff. Of course, the slow chap that I am, I notice that there was a whiff that I should have caught,  long after the whiff passes by. As with most things in life, these whiffs don’t come announcing with cymbals and bugles. ( Only Weddings happen that way).

These are moments that happen. For example, when the missus looks at a snap that I have clicked for three milliseconds longer than the normal two milliseconds she usually reserves for my pictures, I reaffirm my faith that all is not lost and there is still hope for me. If she tosses her head to a side and examines it like a kid examining a new math textbook, with interest laden disinterest, I know that I have nudged my image a notch higher in her mind.

This was one such image which she even looked at twice. The Rameswaram Temple photo, as I call it. With a ‘The’.  Naturally, I had to share.


Rameswaram. The temple itself is as old as the 17 century, in its current form. In an earlier form, from the 11th century. If you have to see the interplay of light, symmetry, art and sheer scale of imagination on one scale and minute attention to detail on another, replicated multiple times, this is the place to go.

Go you must, with a truck load of time and with a desire to soak up what the place has to offer. Beyond the Gods and the pilgrims. Even as countless pilgrims scurry around running from one temple tank to another dripping water, you could soak up the grandeur of the magic of yesteryear. Of a way of life that paid attention to detail, imagination, symmetry and yet was comprehensively grounded anchored to ancient practices. All in the name of God.

If you just sit there, as I did and let the imagination roam to think what it must have taken to put all this together, pulling off such a grand structure that continues to awe and inspire for centuries, a few things happen. At a spiritual level, something happens. Its a feast for your eyes. Its a bounty for imagination. In a completely indescribable way, it is refreshing.

If it gets the missus to give it a second glance, me thinks God is in his elements. Whatsay? 😉

Shooting into the sky! The Pyramids of Giza

So I landed up at looking at the Pyramids and the Sphinx. In the city of Giza located 20 KM south west of Cairo. Now, Giza in itself holds the key to several facets of history. But for the moment, lets stick to the pyramids. 

All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon” said Voltaire.  Which is a pretty good thing to say. But then, there objects that have continued standing for long, that have been the dots for people to weave stories around. The pyramids are one of them. And you hear such wonderful stories and imagination runs riot. All of them seem plausible. You don’t know for sure, but then they just could have been!  

It is a spectacular sight and no amount of reading Wikipedia and Lonely Planet can prepare you to just see the scale, proportion and angles. The scale, proportion and angles are just one part of the story. The beliefs, the time and the thoughts of another age that caused these to sprout in the first place, shake the last remaining lumbering trails of slumber in the mind! 

The mere thought of mans unquenchable quest to soldier on, in this life and in the next continues to reach great heights taking other subliminal forms these days. But those perhaps were the mind was more straight and simple.  As the guide keeps giving story after story, my mind race to connect the dots and leaves it yearning for more. 

There is way too much of history for me to wrap into one post here. I am leaving you to the deep data that Wikipedia provides here

The guide regales me with other accounts. Like why there were not many other pyramids. One plausible theory was that such structures attracted robbers.


The Sphinx is nearby. Broken nose notwithstanding. Staring into a far distance with a steady gaze and an arc of stoical presence.  

There is a sound and light show. Of course, in the evening. One of the best I have seen. The narration, the story line and the lights themselves kept me warm with wonder on a rather chill Cairo evening. 

The pyramids are a place where you must go see. For no other reason but this : These are the oldest serving edifices around. Tall, stately and all that.  There is a line in the Sound and Light show that caught my ear and poked my memory. “Man fears time. But time fears the pyramids”.  

It evokes a guffaw first and then realization dawns that hundreds and thousands of people must have come here from 2500 BC to catch a glimpse, stare at the sheer scale of belief, the trust in ‘knowledge’ and the consequent concerted action that an ancient civilization had. 

Alexander to Ceasar to Napoleon and then, of course, every chap that thought of himself as some kind of ruler (or genuinely was one) have come training their steely gaze at the pyramids and perhaps wondered what other fellow rulers did to perpetuate their souls. Albeit thousands of years ago. The modern day Pharaoh has many pyramids built in Swiss banks and who am I to know how tall! 

I too train my eye on the pyramids. The magical synchrony in the construction that shoots into the sky is mind boggling. But the thought that legions of people worked tirelessly for years to put something like this under the command of his majesty reveals about a certain age. Where there perhaps was an innocent air and a firm ‘knowledge’ of now complicated things like life, death and after life. 

Life must have been good. If after many thousands of years later, the pyramids not only firm stand but offer livelihood to thousands of people, well, they souls of the Pharaohs have continued to bless the place. So my mind thinks.  

“ 2500 years before the birth of Christ!” says the guide.  

He says, to make it amply clear that this isn’t another monument that some airbrushing on Photoshop can transform into a monumental piece of ‘heritage’ on a tourist brochure. “The only surviving wonder of the seven wonder of the ancient age fame” he adds. With a remarkable sense of satisfaction.  If you were slightly tipsy, you would think that he was taking credit for building them in the first place.   

‘Jesus Christ’ I say. In exclamation. 

The guide catches that. And says, ‘Yes. 2500 years before him” Looks at me and smiles. And adds “much before that expression”. 

Wah Taj !

Many call emperor Shah Jahan a mad man. To have built such wonderous a monument like the Taj.  And I would agree.  Not only did he build such a monument of magnificence, for several years he has had families like mine, visiting this place in the dead heat of summer!

And still left shaking their heads with disbelief at the scale, splendour and the sheer magnificence of the place.  The fact that it is still standing after some 380 odd years ( and earrning money for the government and many others, is another aspect altogether). 

His love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal and her death (while bearing his 14th child) brought him to build this monument.  As far as I can recall, my history books didn’t talk of his post Mumtaz marriages. But apparently he did and was still a disappointed man. 

Bollywood, tollywood, kollywood and such other ‘woods’ have woven the mystique of love into countless songs . Poets have sighed over its splendour while crafting wily lines of love, longing and such else.  

Presidents of the world, some of them after signing arms deals with the government, have had photographs of themselves and their companions taken at the Taj. Striking poignant poses , sitting on whats come to be known as ‘Lady Di’s chair’ named after Princess Diana ( sitting alone) !

Our guide told us of Shah Jehans plans to build a replica of the Taj adjacent to the current one, in black marble. He told us as though the Mughal emperor had summoned him to his private chambers and whispered his desire in his ear.   

Going on to narrate a story of Aurangazebs cruelty and Shah Jehan’s forlorn lost last days.  It was happening in real time : melodrama spiking history big time in present continuous tense ! 

I digress. 

The Taj itself is a fantastic monument. We visited in blinding daylight. The moonlit Taj we were told was far more resplendent.  As an afterthought, it was mentioned, the fees for moonlit viewing were different

Obviously it’s a ‘must see’. It’s a place teeming with security and a global melting pot of people. All trudging in to see the’ monument of love’.  

Every visitor has lasting memories of this place. Every visit has left me with a memory or two. This one was when about half a dozen people at varying lengths in time, walked upto me, seeing the camera, the camera bag et al, and asked, ‘how much do you charge for a photograph’.

I seem to have arrived as a photographer. At the Taj ! 🙂

The straight line across the sea

The dull day with an overcast sky coupled with a sprinkle of rain didn’t deter this railway man from walking across the sea. The camera lens stayed trained on him, he walked. And walked. On the original Pamban bridge.

Oblivious to the camera’s zoom lens and and curious tourists who stood on the new road bridge that has come about in much recent times.

In the modern day world where ‘middle class’ apartments zoom into the clouds and stretch home loans all the way to the moon, architectural wizardy is commoner than common cold and everything appears ‘doable’ !

Well, take a look at this bridge.

In the light of all the fancy publicity that modern day bridges and buildings attract with fancier opening ceremonies that court controversy in some form or the other, this would look to have been built by folks that specialised in giving functional elements the ‘stodgy humdrum’ treatment ! Much Like the index pages of a history book. Rarely read. But greatly valued by those that read.

Here are some facts that are worth considering !

This bridge will complete a 100 years of holding up trains that whizz by ! A 100 years ! If only the bridge had a voice, oh what stories would it tell! Being privy to the many facets of British rule. Of the freedom struggle. Of simple life back then and the present day’s pervasive opulence ! That in itself is a striking thought pregnant with several reams of imagination !

Imagine the number of prayer laden people who have gone across the sea on this bridge !! Give a thought to the scores grief stricken relatives as they sat holding the urns containing the remains of a loved one ferried to be immersed in the sea !

Or perhaps think of the droves of the love struck honeymooners and seemingly listless tourists ambling along. From black & white to technicolour. From the horse carriage to heavy duty horse power inside hoods that sport Japanese, German, American, Korean..names ….

A 100 + years ago, folks from Gujarat were employed by the British to build this rail line across the sea ! It must have been a jaw dropping thought. To build a bridge across the sea, when the only transport was a boat ride that bobbed and weaved to the seas whim and fancy.

As though that wasn’t good enough, the bridge was supposed to open up to let those big ships pass through. Well not a big deal in modern times. But in the 1890s when work began, must it have not caused a sea of eyebrows to arch ?

Heres one more, like a maths professor who derives great satisfaction in complicating a simple problem : The place is supposed to be the worlds second most corrosive place after Miami !

Ladies and gentlemen, to rub it in, the bridge works! Till date !

The modern day world doesn’t speak much of those that built this (and such) bridge(s). No celebration is made of the the chutzpah they possessed to stand on this side of land and think it possible to draw a straight line across the sea to the that side of land, and leave it standing for more than a 100 years ! Much less is heard of their character which wove this all together without the tremor of a taint.

Perhaps it was a different time back then. Where it was fashionable to just stand up and let the work do all the talking. Exacting in expectations from oneself and superlatively uncompromising in its execution. Perhaps !

Of all the blessings and wishes that the tolerant old man up there keeps showering on us, perhaps of this quality, he can be more liberal, more can be asked !

The straight line across the sea that’s still standing, needs a cogent explanation you see !

Rameshwaram diaries

The sleepy town of Rameshwaram has many facets to it. That the old man Ram was there with his army and the supposed bridge that they built to Sri Lanka is perhaps its chief claim to fame. It being considered one of the holiest of cities quite obviously translates to hordes of pilgrims.

With the proximity to Sri Lanka and it attendant consequences, the arc lights never go off here. There is always a refugee boat that lands. Or an LTTE man that rose from the sea. Or the Sri Lankan navy shooting down a hapless fisherman ! Something or the other.

The splendour and architecture of the Ramanatha swamy temple is best masked by the simplicity of its gopuram. All in plain white. Standing straight and simple. Amongst the many facets that it conceals is the 1000 pillar corridor which screams a silent yet eloquent beauty with all interplay between light and darkness that blossoms into a collage of a splendid magnitude can arrest you. Forever.

The communist party showing the way to Lord Ram’s feet was an ultimate picture !

Some distance away is Ramar Patham. (Ram’s Feet). A smaller temple that plays host to an imprint of a feet. Purported to be those of lord Ram and rightly so. The story spices up the belief very well that there is a mile between you and the d in doubt. A pot bellied priest chants the virtues of worshipping those feet and also slips in a message to ‘help’ the priests themselves. Its but natural, you see ! Especially, when said in the same breath !

The other reason that Rameshwaram is frequented is to perform rituals for the dead. An assortment of rituals, which by itself can be an intricate lesson in permutation and combination and math of such order. The net result could be a huge subtraction in what was there in the wallet !

This is one money spinner that’s not going to fade away in a jiffy. For death is but natural and such beliefs stay on. The paraphernalia of all those articles that are supposedly required to please the dead person’s spirits, can well resemble an annual shopping list of a whole neighbourhood ! From the barber to the beguiled tourist : all contribute to the bee like buzz in the air !

Mention must be made of the Pamban bridge, now named after one of the Gandhis. This times it is Indira. (I think). Built on the sea, much before the Bandra-Worli sea link. Well used now, every single lamp post is still there. Of the lights that were supposed to be atop the lamp posts, well it’s a different story !

It’s a sleepy town. Down in the down south. But then, it keeps many awake. All through. Think about it. History. Mythology. Architecture. Strategic defense. Death. Life. Living. Gods. Tourism. The sea and the ocean. All in one place.

Very few places that can boast of that assortment !