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madhugopalan

Travel

Things to do in Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi is a historical neighbourhood at the edge of the modern city of Cochin, or Kochi. Kochi was an obscure town until the 14th century, when a devastating flood in the Periyar river propelled it into prominence. There was a major port for spice trade called Kodungallur about 30 km to the north of Kochi. The deluge permanently blocked that port and created a new natural harbour in Kochi. And all that flourishing spice trade shifted to Kochi, which started attracting the attention of the various European powers looking for a monopoly in the region.

 

In the 15th century, the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived on the Malabar Coast via a maritime route. He was the first European to do so. The Portuguese quickly negotiated an agreement with the local Rajah of Kochi, set up a trading post here and built a small fort that gave this area the name Fort Kochi. In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company captured Fort Kochi after a siege and a century later, they ceded it to the British, with whom it remained until independence.

 

Because of its rich history, Fort Kochi is crammed with influences from different parts of the world. It’s a very small and compact neighbourhood though, so the best way to experience it is to walk, walk, walk. Here are some nice things to do and see in this picture perfect quarter 🙂

 

1. Stroll through Fort Kochi’s pretty streets
Princess Street, Burghar Street, Napier Street, Rose Street, Lilly Street – Fort Kochi’s charming cobblestoned lanes have names as pretty as them. They are full of beautiful colonial homes that have been restored and converted into heritage hotels, home-stays, cafes, boutiques and art galleries. It is a joy to wander about these photogenic streets with their bright colours, beautiful architectural details, quirky street art and pops of greenery.
Streets of Fort Kochi
Rossitta Wood Castle

 

2. Beautiful colonial era churches
The St. Francis Church was built by the Portuguese in 1503, just a couple of years after Vasco da Gama’s first visit, making it the oldest European Church in India. Vasco da Gama died during his third visit to the Malabar Coast, and was buried in this church. His remains were moved to Lisbon a while later, but you can still see his original burial site.
St Francis Church or Vasco da Gama Church
The Santa Cruz Basilica is just a 5 min walk away from the St Francis church. It was built by the Portuguese, and rebuilt in its current form by the British.

Santa Cruz Basilica

 3. The Indo-Portuguese Museum

Honestly, this museum isn’t very interesting. However, the cool thing about it is that in its basement, you can see a bit of Fort Kochi’s (now sunken) fortification originally built by the Portuguese.

 
4. The Old Jail Complex

This is a prison with 8 cells in it, and during India’s struggle for independence, freedom fighters from Kerala were imprisoned in them by the British government.

Old Jail Complex Fort Kochi

Old Jail Complex Fort Kochi

5. Dutch Cemetery
There’s a Dutch Cemetery with more than a hundred graves just a couple of minutes from the beach. It is usually kept locked, so you can only take a peek through the gate.

Dutch Cemetery

 6. Parade Ground

Fort Kochi’s Parade Ground has been in use right from the days of the Portuguese occupation. The armies of all three colonial powers used it until independence. Today, you’re more likely to find a bunch of local kids playing football, but the VOC gate overlooking the ground was built by the Dutch East India Company in 1749. VOC stands for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, which is what the company was called in Dutch.

VOC Gate overlooking Parade Ground

7. Fort Kochi Beach
The original seaside fort that stood here is mostly gone, but there are traces of it like the remains of a gunnery, a couple of steam boilers, etc. The seashore isn’t the cleanest, but is lovely to walk along during a downpour, with the sea and the sky taking on a thousand shades of grey. The biggest attraction here are the Chinese fishing nets. They say Chinese traders who came to these parts in the 13th century introduced the cantilevered fishing nets here.
Fort Kochi Beach

Chinese Fishing Nets

8. Kerala Kathakali Centre

If you’re in the mood to catch a traditional performance of Kathakali, Kalaripayttu, Mohiniyattam, etc, this is where you need to go. And if you get there early, you can catch a demonstration of how Kathakali dancers put on their makeup. You can find the schedule on their website here.

 

WHERE TO EAT
I’m a vegetarian, and not a very knowledgeable foodie, so I’m probably not a very good person to write about food, but I still thought I’d share some of the places that I really enjoyed in Fort Kochi.

 
David Hall Gallery Cafe

This was my favourite because not many things in the world are better than eating a hot, yummy wood-fired pizza in a pretty garden, watching the pouring rain. David Hall was built in the late 17th century by the Dutch East India Company. It first served as the residence for one of their governors, and later as the home of a Jewish merchant. Today, it houses an art gallery with a charming garden cafe. The pizzas here are quite well known, and with good reason. Do try the Green Pizza – it is soooo delicious, piled with spinach, basil, parsley and coriander. And the best part – you can almost convince yourself that you’re only eating salad 🙂

David Hall Gallery Cafe

David Hall Gallery Cafe

Teapot Cafe

This is the most darling cafe ever, so I think I might do another post about it. True to its name, it is decorated with a huge collection of antique teapots. The menu has quite a big selection of teas, and simple, hearty food. My favourite was the yummy blueberry cheesecake.

Breakfast at Teapot Cafe

Teapot Cafe

Another charming art gallery with good food – this is a breakfast-all-day, soups, salads, sandwiches, cakes kind of place. I loved their lemonade flavoured with a local herb called narunandi (also called sarsaparilla or nannari). It is used in Ayurveda as a coolant, and is said to help alleviate many disorders.

Kashi Art Cafe

Kashi Art Cafe LemonadeSaffron
During the non-tourist season in Fort Kochi, many places work limited hours or shut down altogether, so late dinners can get a little tricky. The Saffron restaurant in the Spice Fort Hotel is a nice option as it is open from 7:30 AM to 10PM. They claim to be an organic restaurant, which is another plus. The menu is quite huge and I really enjoyed their appams and stew.
Spice Fort Saffron Restaurant

Many more places like Oy’s Cafe, Dal Roti and Loafer’s Corner Cafe are highly recommended, but since we were there during the off season, they were closed most of the time.
 

I hope you liked this mini guide to Fort Kochi! I’m going to do a few photo-posts too, with pictures from Fort Kochi and the adjacent neighbourhood of Mattancherry – please do come back to take a look 🙂
Travel, World Heritage Sites

World Heritage Site : The magnificent ruins of Hampi

The ruined city of Hampi by the Tungabhadra in Karnataka, is all that remains of the capital of the Vijayanagara empire, one of the most glorious kingdoms in India’s history. At its peak, it covered practically all of South India. The empire rose at a time when several kingdoms in the south were being defeated or weakened by invasions by the Delhi Sultanate. The Kakatiyas of Warangal, the Pandyas  of Madurai, the Hoysalas of Dwarasamudra – none of them could withstand the onslaught and the Sultanate appeared poised to take over the south.  
 
However, things changed dramatically in the early 14th century. Muhammad bin Tughlaq took over as the ruler of the Sultanate. He was quite the tyrant, and his reign was full of rebellion. One rebel took refuge in a tiny kingdom called Anegundi, a small village near Hampi. Tughlaq’s army hunted him down, killed him and brought down Anegundi. A general stayed back to administer the region, but he soon returned to Delhi, leaving two young men named Harihara and Bukka Raya in charge. Theories abound about the origins of these brothers, but many accounts say they were princes from one of the ruling families in the region. Harihara and Bukka Raya didn’t declare themselves as kings at first. Quietly, but rapidly, they expanded their territories. Other rulers in the region aligned with these men who seemed capable of warding off the invaders from Delhi, and this unified kingdom became the mighty Vijayanagara empire.
 
Around the same time, another kingdom was founded to its immediate north, following another rebellion. Alauddin Hassan Bahman Shah, a commander in Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s army, revolted against the despotic Sultan, declared independence in the Deccan and founded the Bahmani Sultanate. In about 2 centuries, the Bahmani Sultanate broke up into the five Deccan Sultanates of Ahmednagar, Berar, Bijapur, Bidar and Golconda.
 
In the 16th century, the Vijayanagara ruler Aliya Rama Raya got involved in conflicts between these Sultanates repeatedly, sometimes supporting one, and sometimes another. Finally, the Deccan Sultanates got together in an alliance, and waged war on Vijayanagar. This was the iconic Battle of Talikota (a town known as Talikoti now), in which the Sultanates defeated Vijayanagar and killed Aliya Rama Raya. They then  plundered and destroyed Hampi to the ruined state in which it lies to this day. The slain king’s brother survived the battle; he moved to Penukonda in present day Andhra Pradesh, and ruled the now weakened and diminished kingdom from there. The last Vijayanagara king made Chandragiri his capital, which was captured by the Golconda Sultanate, putting an end to the empire.
 
Hampi is magnificent even in its ruin, and one can only imagine what it looked like in its days of splendour. The city has often been compared to Rome, for its size, its riches, its flourishing art, architecture and literature, and also its abrupt destruction. Vijayanagara architecture is essentially Dravidian in its style, and scattered all over Hampi are an assortment of structures in varying degrees of dilapidation including temples, palaces, bazaars, mandapas, gardens and military structures. It is like Disneyland, but for heritage enthusiasts – here are some pictures 🙂 
Ugra Narasimha, Hampi

‘Ugra Narasimha’, a fierce form of Vishnu’s lion-like avatar

Virupaksha Temple, Hampi

The imposing Virupaksha Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, said to be Hampi’s oldest temple

Virupaksha Temple, Hampi

Inside the Virupaksha Temple

Virupaksha Temple, Hampi

This region is believed to be Kishkindha, the monkey kingdom mentioned in the Ramayan

Virupaksha Temple, Hampi

The Virupaksha Temple somehow escaped the plunder intact, and is still in worship.

Sasivekalu Ganesha, Hampi

Sasivekalu Ganesha. Sasivekalu means mustard seed. I don’t see the resemblance. You?

This is probably a good place to mention Krishna Deva Raya, the most iconic ruler of the Vijayanagara empire. The kingdom reached its zenith during his reign, and literature in Telugu and Kannada received a huge boost under his patronage. Many important monuments in Hampi were built in his time, like the Krishna and Hazara Rama temples below:
Krishna Temple, Hampi

Krishna Temple, built to commemorate Krishna Deva Raya’s victory over Udayagiri in present day Odisha

Krishna Temple, Hampi

The Krishna Temple is not in worship since the main idol was destroyed.

Hazara Rama Temple Hampi

The Hazara Rama Temple replete with bas reliefs depicting tales from the Ramayan

Underwater Shiva Temple, Hampi

The ‘underwater’ Shiva temple with its sanctum submerged in water

Lotus Mahal, Hampi

The Lotus Mahal in the zenana, or the ladies’ wing of the palace zone

Zenana, Hampi

Ruined structures in the compound wall around the zenana area

Elephant Stables, Hampi

The beautiful elephant stables in the palace area

Hampi's famous step well or Pushkarini

Hampi’s famous step well or Pushkarini

Queen's Bath, Hampi

The Queen’s Bath, believed to date back to the reign of the king Achyuta Raya

Vittala Temple

I saved the best for last – the absolutely stunning Vittala Temple

Vittala Temple, Hampi

The stone chariot in the Vittala Temple that has become Hampi’s most famous icon

The group of monuments in Hampi were included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in the year 1986. It’d probably take months to even skim the surface of Hampi’s treasures,  but I hope you enjoyed the small glimpse into the medieval town from my short stay there.
 
Hopefully useful information
Nearest railway station: Hospet or Hosapete, 13km away. We took a train from Hyderabad.
Transport: Auto rickshaws, cabs, rented bicycles/scooters
Stay: Hotel Malligi, Hospet. My friend Ajay suggested it, and I totally recommend it too.
Memorable meal: Hotel Swati near the Hospet bus stand. We went because yamsivam recommended it on Twitter. Best dosas in the world. Seriously. Do not miss.

In Photos, Travel

Matangeeshwarar Temple, Kanchipuram

On a recent visit to the historical town of Kanchipuram (read my earlier posts here), I went to a small but very beautiful shrine called the Matangeeshwarar Temple. It is an early Pallava temple, maintained now by the ASI. The temple is hidden away behind a tiny gate on a busy road, and I’d never have been able to find it, if not for google maps. Once you enter the gate, it feels like you’re in a different world – a silent and ancient one.

 

The temple seems to have been built in the 8th century. The lion pillars typical of Pallava architecture are present here, along with beautiful depictions of forms of Lord Shiva. Sadly, the carvings in the temple seem to have been eroded by the ravages of time. I haven’t been able to gather much else about the temple – if I come across any more information, I’ll come back to this post and add to it. Until then, here are some photos 🙂
Mathangeshwara Temple, Kanchipuram

Matangeeshwarar Temple, Kanchipuram

Mathangeshwara Temple Wall Carvings

Wall carvings on either side of the sanctum.

On the left of the above diptych: Shiva performing his cosmic dance or tandav. I don’t recognize the depiction on the right.

Carvings on either side of the sanctum

Carvings on either side of the sanctum

Carvings on the exterior of the temple

Carvings on the exterior of the temple

Carvings on the exterior of the temple

Carvings on the exterior of the temple

A typical Pallava lion on the outer wall of the temple

A typical Pallava lion on the outer wall of the temple

Travel

Chandragiri : A Small Fort With A Rich History

Chandragiri is a village in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh with quite a rich history. It is home to a small fort originally built in the year 1000 AD, by the Yadavaraya rulers who ruled these parts for about 3 centuries. In the 14th century, the fort became a part of the Vijayanagara empire which had its capital in Hampi. In the 16th century, an alliance of Deccan Sultanates defeated the Vijayanagara army in the Battle of Talikota, and killed its ruler Aliya Rama Raya. They then proceeded to plunder and destroy Hampi to ruins. The slain king’s brother survived the battle, and he moved to Penukonda in present day Andhra Pradesh. From there, he ruled the now weakened and diminished kingdom. The last Vijayanagara king made Chandragiri his capital, but the empire disintegrated after his death. Next, Chandragiri passed into the hands of the Golconda Sultanate and finally the Kingdom of Mysore.
The Chandragiri Fort with a granite hillock behind it

This granite hillock forms the backdrop of the Chandragiri Fort

Now the fort – you enter it through two gateways, with carved pillars typical of Vijayanagara architecture. There are two parts in the innermost enclosure – a lower fort and an upper fort. The upper fort was closed to public when we went – I’m not sure if it’s always like that. A granite hill forms the backdrop to the lower fort, which has two important buildings. The first is the King’s Palace, a three storeyed palace with a durbar hall in the middle. Apparently, the greatest Vijayanagara ruler, Krishnadevaraya, lived here until he ascended the throne. If you’ve been to Hampi, you’ll notice the resemblance this building has to the Lotus Palace there. The ASI runs a museum in the King’s Palace now. The other building is the Queen’s Palace, which is smaller, but similar in design. It is believed to date back to the reign of Krishnadevaraya’s successor.
Chandragiri Fort, Chittoor District

The King’s Palace, Chandragiri Fort

The Queen's Palace, Chandragiri Fort

The Queen’s Palace, Chandragiri Fort

There is a reservoir at the base of the hillock, which would collect rain water flowing down the slope, making the fort self-sufficient for its water needs. The moat around the fort was filled by rain water as well.

Chandragiri Fort, Chittoor District

The gate that leads to the innermost part of the fort

The ornate pillars on the inner gate

The ornate pillars on the inner gate

Chandragiri Fort, Chittoor District

Details on the inner gate

Chandragiri Fort, Chittoor District

Details on the inner gate

Chandragiri Fort, Chittoor District

The very ornate entrance gateway in the second fortification

Details in the entrance gateway

Details in the entrance gateway

Chandragiri Fort, Chittoor District

Ornate Vijayanagara style pillars

Chandragiri Fort, Chittoor District

Details in the entrance gateway

Chandragiri is about 145km from Chennai, and 230km from Bangalore, but I really wouldn’t recommend going all the way – for all its rich history, the fort itself is not too remarkable. But if you are in the vicinity, like in Tirupati, which is just 14km away, do check it out. A sound and light show happens at the fort every night, with narration by Amitabh Bachchan. I didn’t watch it, but since the history of Chandragiri is rich, I’m guessing it must be good. Please note that the fort is closed on Fridays.
 
And finally, another interesting bit of trivia about Chandragiri: in the 17th century, the British East India Company purchased from Chandragiri’s king’s general, the piece of land where they built Fort St. George. The regions around the fort grew into present day Chennai, known as Madras earlier. You might have heard of the Madras Day celebrations that now take place each year – they are held on the anniversary of that historic transaction.

Travel

The picturesque ruins of the Sadras Dutch fort

A not-so-well-known fact about Tamil Nadu is that there were three major (and some smaller ones) Dutch settlements along its coast in the 17th-19th centuries. One in Pulicat, straddling the state’s border with Andhra Pradesh, one in Nagapattinam, and one just about 80km south of Chennai, in Sadras, short for Sadurangapattinam.
 
If you are driving to Mahabalipuram from Chennai, Sadurangapattinam, anglicized to Sadras, is just about half an hour further. The erstwhile settlement, adjacent to the Kalpakkam (of nuclear plant fame) township, has the ruins of a picturesque seaside brick fortress built by the Dutch after their arrival in the mid 17th century. Sadras was famous for muslin, that was woven (or spun?) in its looms. During the Carnatic wars, the warring parties would often conduct their negotiations in the fort, because while the British and the French picked sides and got involved, this Dutch settlement was neutral territory. Back then, the Sadras fort was referred to as Fort Orange, because orange is the colour of Dutch royalty. The British captured it from the Dutch in 1781, but returned it to them in about 40 years. Later, in the 19th century, the Dutch once and for all ceded all of their Indian settlements to the British. Greenery In Sadras
The fort is mostly in ruins, but has some intact structures like a granary, stables and a Dutch cemetery. I don’t know if it is always so beautifully lush, but I went right after the colossal rains of December 2015, so maybe that was it.
Sadras Dutch Fortress
Sadras Dutch Fort
Sadras Dutch Fortress
Apparently, this structure was to help people climb onto elephants:
Sadras Dutch Fort
Sadras Dutch Fortress
Sadras Dutch Fort
If you go to the back of the fortress and climb up the steps there, you can see a lovely blue sliver of the sea!
View of the Sea from the Dutch Fortress of Sadras
The next one is a blurry iphone photo, sorry about that, but I had to include it because it shows a part of the roof in one of the structures of the fort, that has caved in, leaving a gaping hole!
Sadras Fortress Caved In Roof
The ornate tombs in the cemetery date back to the 17th century. It is usually kept under lock and key, but the details on the graves are really beautiful, so make sure you find the caretaker and request him to open it for you. The double decker tomb in the following picture, apparently belongs to two brothers.
Sadras Dutch cemetery
Sadras Dutch cemetery Sadras Dutch cemetery
And finally, a little bit of greenery 🙂
Sadras Dutch Fortress
Greenery In Sadras
Greenery In Sadras
Greenery In Sadras
Travel

Thiruvaiyaru: A Confluence of Music and Architecture

I used to learn Carnatic singing back when I was in school. Sadly, as it often happens, life got in the way and I drifted away. But I’m still very fond of music, and when my sister asked me if I wanted to go to the Thyagaraja Aradhana in the riverside town of Thiruvaiyaru last week, I jumped at the idea!
 
Thyagaraja, or Thyagayya, was an 18th century composer-saint and one of Carnatic music’s most prominent icons. He was an ardent devotee of Lord Ram, and wrote innumerable songs in his praise, mostly in Telugu. He was born in another town called Thiruvarur, but he lived in Thiruvaiyaru almost all his life and died there as well. ‘Thiruvaiyaru’ translates to ‘five sacred rivers’, and gets its name from the five rivers that flow in its vicinity. It is about 11km from Tanjore, a major town in Tamil Nadu.
 
Every year, the Thyagaraja Aradhana, a 5 day festival to honour Thyagaraja, is held at his samadhi on the bank of the Cauvery river. Thousands of music lovers from around the world attend the event. The highlight of the festival is an hour-long rendition of his Pancharatna Kritis, a collection of five monumental compositions. ‘Pancharatna’ translates to five gems. The kritis are sung by everyone present on the last day of the festival, led by some of the most eminent Carnatic vocalists and instrumentalists of the country. We were lucky to attend this particular session and it was truly one of the most special experiences of my life. I’m so glad my sister made me go. Thyagaraja Aradhana Thiruvaiyaru (5)
After spending some time at the festival, we set off on a temple trail along the Cauvery – my dad went positively berserk and kept adding more temples to our list through the day! I want to tell you about two of them, both dedicated to Lord Shiva. The first was the Panchanadeeshwara Temple (also called Aiyarappan Temple. Both names translate to the lord of the five rivers.) just about a km from Thyagaraja’s samadhi. The temple, which must be at least a 1000 years old, has two sections, and the northern part was commissioned by Queen Lokamahadevi, the wife of Rajaraja Chola I, the greatest of the Chola rulers.
Panchanadishwara Temple (7)
Our next stop was the highlight of the day – the Brahmapurishwarar Temple about 12-13km from Thiruvaiyaru. It is also called the Pullamangai Temple, and is in a village called Pasupathikovil. From the outside, you might not even notice it, because it looks like any random newly built temple in South India. But when you enter and walk to the back of the temple, you are rewarded for your persistence. The front portion is new, but the back of the structure dates all the way back to the 7th century AD, and is believed to have been built during the reign of the third Chola ruler Parantaka Chola I. The vimana is in a reasonably good state of preservation and has some exquisite early Chola sculptures.
Brahmapurishwara Temple

The very unremarkable entrance to the temple

Walking to the back of the Brahmapurishwarar Temple

Look at that beauty back there!

There’s an interesting legend about how the main deity here gets his name. Apparently, Lord Brahma was acting a little stuck up because he had the power to create. This didn’t go down too well with Lord Shiva, who chopped off his fifth head and left him powerless. Lord Brahma then had to pray to Lord Shiva, until the latter forgave him and lifted the curse. This form of Lord Shiva that Lord Brahma worshipped, is called Brahmapurishwara.
Lingodhbava, Brahmapurishwara Temple

Below: Lingodbhava – Shiva emerging from a Lingam. Above: The beautiful vimana or tower of the temple

Lingodbhava at the Brahmapurishwarar Temple

A closer look at Lingodhbava

Lord Brahma, Brahmapurishwara Temple

Lord Brahma

Ganesha, Brahmapurishwarar Temple

Lord Ganesh surrounded by Ganas, the plump attendant deities of Lord Shiva

Vimana of the Brahmapurishwarar Temple

A closer look at the vimana

Ganas, Brahmapurishwara Temple

The side of the vimana

The number of temples in the regions around Tanjore and Kumbakonam is absolutely unbelievable. I think we went to about 7-8 major temples that day within a span of just about 35km, including the exquisite Airavateshwara Temple of Darasuram. It is a part of the trio of World Heritage Sites called the Great Living Chola temples – take a look at my post about them.

 
PS: I’ve moved my blog to my own domain. If you are reading this on a blog reader of some sort, hopefully, you should be able to see this just fine. Do take a look at the website and tell me what you think!