Where to go in 2019: To be a Culture Vulture
Andhra Pradesh, Lepakshi
Why Go Now: Gods (and saree designs) etched in stone
Lepakshi, which is 120 kilometres north of Bengaluru, might be lesser-known, but believes in a grand welcome. The first thing you’d encounter on the town’s main road is a 15-foot-tall, intricately carved Nandi statue. Beyond lies Lepakshi’s main attraction, the Veerabhadra Temple, which like the statue, was built in the mid-16th century during the reign of the Vijayanagara empire.
Folklore about Shiva and Parvati, their royal wedding and subsequent separation, along with stories of Ram and Sita abound in Lepakshi. It is believed that when Ravana kidnapped Sita, Jatayu fought against the king and died in battle at this very spot. As it lay wounded, its wings cut off by Ravana, Rama said with compassion, “le pakshi” (rise, O bird!), hence the name, Lepakshi.
Some of these stories will live on in the temple for centuries. Pillars, etched with carvings, support the ceiling of the natyamantapa (dancing hall) at the temple’s core, on which murals of divine musicians, a dancing Parvati, Brahma playing the cymbals, Surya on the nadaswaram, and Shiva as Nataraja are painted using vegetable and floral dyes. The temple’s main draw is a ‘hanging pillar,’ a carved column that doesn’t touch the floor, ending a few centimetres above ground. It is believed to have been moved slightly from its original position by a British engineer who attempted to understand the architectural anomaly—in vain. The outer courtyard or latamantapa, is adorned with elegant nature motifs, now immortalised in the borders of traditional sarees from the region.
Why go now: Boat races at India’s only eastern lake palace
Those seeking to foray into Tripura’s heritage for a palace experience with fewer tourists than Ujjayanta should head to Melaghar, about an hour’s distance from the capital, Agartala. Here, in the middle of Rudrasagar Lake is Neermahal (Water Palace).
Constructed by the former king Bir Bikram Kishore in 1930, the palace is easily recognisable for its serene white-and-red facade that reflects off the water, making for an ethereal spectacle. While Ujjayanta melded European and Mughal architectural tastes, Neermahal leans heavily in favour of the latter. Spread over 5.35 square kilometres, this was once the summer residence of Tripura’s royalty. It can be reached by a boat ride from Melaghar. The palace’s andarmahal, or royal residence, has 15 rooms and an open garden area, which used to be a venue for musical and theatrical performances. Visitors are advised to come to Neermahal in August or December, when the palace hosts the Neermahal Water Festival, a three-day fiesta featuring cultural shows and sporting competitions. However, the festival’s top billing is its boat race, which lights the place up, recalling the pomp and gaiety of a time long gone.
Why Go Now: Watch the revival of the traditional puan
“At a time when synthetic fabrics abound, I’m proud of the fact that my pieces are woven with pure cotton or eri silk,” says Charlee Mathlena, who’s accompanying me to Thenzawl, a tiny village in Serchhip district about 96 kilometres from Mizoram’s capital, Aizawl. Charlee runs Heritage Mizoram, an Aizawl-based cottage industry-centric firm which produces home furnishing items, fashion accessories, apparel, and bamboo crafts. But it’s the story of the puan that fascinates me. This local version of a skirt is ubiquitous in Mizoram—at Sunday mass, weddings, high-tea soirees, and even in Aizawl’s bustling Zarkawt area. Puans are also worn by men, albeit sparingly.
Traditionally, puans were made of cotton, given Mizoram’s reliance on jhoom cultivation. Mathlena shows me a loin loom, and I am hypnotised as the weavers work the rhythmic motion. I marvel at the sakeizangzia design (a tiger print), the puanlaisen, and puanchei (both characterised by a burst of red). In the distance, church bells ring. Save for the call of the divine, there is little else that draws the artists away from their looms.
Why Go Now: Revel amid myths and deodars
“Everyone in this languid, spiritual village dotted with ancient shrines, is a storyteller and spins their own version of mythological tales, Chandra says. “If you stay long enough in Jageshwar, around its ancient shrines, with long peaceful hours to while away, you’ll do the same,” he smiles. A few metres from our lodge is a shrine that looks like an eight-foot pile of rocks: The Rin Moksh blesses those with pending debts. “If you have EMIs, you should pray here,” laughs Chandra.”
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Arunachal Pradesh, Old Dirang
Why Go Now: Walk through a medieval stone city
Home mainly to the Monpa people of Arunachal, the town of Dirang in the West Kameng district sits on a hilly spur above the Dirang river. An online search will throw up little about the town, but wander about and you’ll spot stone fortifications rising up the hillside. Frayed prayer flags flutter above walls adorned with Buddhist motifs and emblazoned with the words ‘Dirang Dzong.’ There is little to no information about the origins of the dzong. Some say it dates back nearly 500 years, other versions trace it to between the 17th century and mid-1800s.
Inside the fortified area, narrow alleys are lined with Monpa style houses of stacked stone and carved wood, built to withstand the harsh weather. A clutch of families live in these homes, some of which are also estimated to be about 500 years old. Women sit in tiny gardens, setting out red chillies and vegetable peels to dry; bunches of fat yellow corn hang outside homes. Locally grown red finger millet grains and maize are used for local brews, such as raksi and bhangchang.
At the settlement’s centre is a locked Buddhist temple, and an eerie stone tower with latched doors. Locals say this used to be a prison. From the top of the fort’s walls, one can see the Dirang river and the Khastung Gompa.
Uttar Pradesh, Jaunpur
Why Go Now: Lessons in Mughal history in a little-known town
When it comes to India’s hidden treasures and culturally vibrant towns, few places surprise as much as Jaunpur.
It is widely accepted here that one does not return from Jaunpur without tasting Beniram Pyarelal’s famous imartis. On the hunt for the syrupy sweet, walk across the Shahi Bridge on the Gomti River. Also called the Akbari Bridge, the arched stone structure with chhatri viewpoints is the favourite subject of stories. Proud locals tell tales of the Mughal emperor ordering the construction of the bridge, and of it being rebuilt after the Nepal-Bihar earthquake of 1934. In fact, the structure also finds mention in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Akbar’s Bridge.”
Imartis taste best when they are fresh out of the fryer. After you’ve had them, go explore the nearby Shahi Qila. Right beside the bridge, the fort’s quadrangle premises house a two-storey residential and administrative building, a mosque, and the most stylish hammam.
Next, walk to the famous paanwallah by the Atala Mosque, about five minutes away. The paan is excellent, and the sheer size of the 15th-century stone mosque, the intriguing frescoes in the prayer hall, and the curiosity of visitors exploring Jaunpur’s secrets transform this little-known town into a delicious memory.
Madhya Pradesh, Bhojpur & Ashapuri
Why go now: Catch rare 11th-century Shiva temple ruins
About 29 kilometres southeast of Bhopal, towards Bhimbetka along the Betwa river, lies the small town of Bhojpur. What’s a traveller to do here, of all places in Madhya Pradesh? See remains of a temple, with a 22-foot shivaling believed by some sources to be the tallest in the world.
The temple was said to have been built by Raja Bhoj, an 11th-century ruler from the Paramar dynasty. Built on a 17-foot high platform, the temple rises up to 40 feet, supported by four pillars and many pilasters. Apart from the scale of the structure itself, what’s of interest are the engravings on the rocks adjacent to the temple. These engravings include sections and elevations of the mandapa’s shikhara and other parts of the temples. Another fascinating aspect is the ramp on the back of the structure, indicating how large stones were carried to the top of the temple.
Take the mud road leading out of Bhojpur to halt at the village of Ashapuri, yet another footnote in the story of the Paramar kingdom. Along a lake’s shore here, are the ruins of 26 Shiva temples. Set against the light of dawn or dusk, it is a panoramic scene of epics erased by time.