The Spiritual Temporal divide

Sometime over the last year, as I started travelling, while always feeling I wasn’t travelling enough, I decided that I should travel through more of India. There are a number of interesting places an easy overnight trip from Bangalore that I haven’t yet visited. This needs to be corrected.

Decision made, the question was where? One of the reasons why I hadn’t visited a lot of India was because there is a lot India to visit. Picking a place to start is as painful as a ride on bad roads in a bus with not enough space between the seats.

So, I decided to pick a theme. An easy theme is food. I have places that I have wanted to visit for a while for food. For example, after eating at idly shops advertising a Madurai antecedent, and after hearing from a colleague from that part of the country, I had been thinking about going down to Madurai for food. And I need to haul my ass back to Thalassery to remind myself that while others might claim that their biryani is from Thalassery, there ain’t no biryani like the biryani in Thalassery. And there is the meat of Lucknow, and the poha of Indore. So many places to go, food to eat.

The problem with planning an India exploration, and structuring it around food is that …

Let me tell you a story. In late 2015, while planning a trip to Bhutan, I found that I would be back in Delhi with three days of vacation left. I could return home early (not really an option), stay on in Delhi (unfortunately, my friends were not going to be around), or I could figure out something to do around Delhi. I decided to go visit Amritsar.

Thus, as the midnight of 31st December, 2015, gave way to the new year of 2016, I found myself on the streets of Amritsar, trying to find my hotel. Next morning, on the first day of the year, I woke up early, and went in search of Chole Bhature and Kulche.

Later, after returning from Amritsar, someone shared an advice that he had received before he went to Amritsar: If you think you can eat two Kulche, order just one. Unfortunately, the advice came too late for me.

By 9 AM on that new year, I had managed to stuff myself so full of wonderful, wonderful food, that I just barely managed to get back to the hotel and sleep.

I did manage to wake up in the evening, visit the Golden Temple, eat some more, etc, but, I am forever going to regret that in a city with wonderful food everywhere, I slept through lunch.

So, this then is the tragedy of food while traveling. I’m only going to be able to eat about three normal meal (or five mini meals) in a day. If I push myself, I might even end up deep in a food coma after a couple of Amritsar-class meals. Thus, while I plan to do elaborate trips of gluttony, those would have to be slow trips. I might spend a day in a town, and a couple of day (or three) in a city of particular brilliance.

Early this year, I decided to visit Hampi. Almost everyone from work had visited Hampi, and everyone who had visited had loved it. It was close enough to take an overnight train. It was large enough to keep me engaged for a whole extended weekend.

Late last year, and early this year, I was greatly troubled by the way the world had moved, and in looking for relief, I read and re-read a lot of the good Ex Urbe blog. In one of the posts, I found this:

Do you ever play the game where you imagine sending a message back in time to some historical figure to tell him/her one thing you really, really wish they could have known? To tell Galileo everyone agrees that he was right; to tell Schwarzschild that we’ve found Black Holes; to tell Socrates we still have Socratic dialogs even after 2,300 years? I used to find it hard to figure out what to tell Machiavelli. That his name became a synonym for evil across the world? That the Florentine republic never returned? That children in unimagined continents read his works in order to understand the minds of tyrants? That his ideas are now central to the statecraft of a hundred nations which, to him, do not yet even exist?

But now I know what I would say:

“Florence is on the UNESCO international list of places so precious to all the human race that all the powers of the Earth have agreed never to attack or harm them, and to protect them with all the resources at our command.”

I don’t know if it was from reading the above lines, or because Hampi is a World Heritage Site, but I decided that the theme for travel this year should be World Heritage Sites.

India has 35 items on the World Heritage List. This includes 7 which are natural (most of them national parks), 1 mixed (Khangchendzonga National Park ) and 27 cultural. The cultural items, which are located at 36+ locations, include archaeological sites, along with a few that are modern: Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mountain Railways of India (at three sites) and a building by Le Corbusier.

I decided to tackle the list of cultural sites. And immediately found something to club with the Hampi trip. A couple of hours from Hampi are the magnificent temples of Pattadakal. While I had trouble on the first day in Hampi (the River Tungabhadra was almost dry,and I saw people crossing it by jumping from rock to rock; I tried to do it and manged to a) fall into the river (no major trouble) b) sprain my foot (a lot of trouble)), since I was there for an extended weekend, I managed to visit Pattadakal (along with Badami and Aioli).

It was wannerful. Right down to the North Karnataka style thali outside the Pattadakal site. [Me: Isn’t Badami the only big town around here, should we stop for lunch? Driver: No, we will lunch in Pattadakal.
Good call, Mr. Driver. Good call.]

And I was on my way. Except that the sprain took forever to heal. My sister had gone to a few temples in Tamil Nadu, while I was in Hampi, so, the sites in Tamil Nadu (three Chola temples + Mahabalipuram, excluding the mountain train in the Neelgiri) was visited. A friend called to say that she was getting married in Vizag. The wedding was on a Thursday, which meant that I could travel over that weekend. So, Konark, overnight train ride (plus a hour in a bus) from Vizag, also had me breezing through.

[On side trips, I recommend Bojjana Konda, a Buddhist site near Vizag, and the temples around Lingraj Temple. For food, I recommend, Kari Dosa at Simmakkal Konar Kadai in Madurai, Prawn biryani at Raju Gari Dhaba near GITAM in Vizag, and the meals at Hotel Odisa in Bhubaneshwar. (All also listed on Lonely Planet, but this is my personal guarantee.)]

Lovely sites. Now, while Mahabalipuram and Hampi had multiple monuments, religious and otherwise, others were a host of temples from about the 7th Century CE to 16th Century. So, among other things, I have got a small peek into the evolution of temples in South India. I don’t understand it. But I got to see, some of the differences.

This is kind of important. The visit to all of these temples has now made me ultra curious about Angkor Wat. But, since it is on a scale far removed from any of the sites I have visited, I have decided to finish all of the Indian temples on the World Heritage List.

Since, I have pretty much exhausted the sites no more than 12 hours from me (excluding the train in Neelgiri), I need to do some proper planning to club together the sites that I can. And, the priority for now, is temples. So, I put it all up on a map.

And I have marked sites that are largely religious in nature in orange, and the ones that are broader (such as Hampi, or Forts in Rajasthan) in Blue. And, there is the diagonal line separating western India – which has a lot of sites, most of which are broader in nature, – from the rest of the country – where temples and similar sites dominate.

I wonder why? Anyway, makes my life easy. I think, the only other major site that is mainly Hindu temples is Khajuraho. Most of the other spiritual sites are mostly Buddhist (Bodh Gaya, Sanchi).

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