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Bhongir : where history meets geology

A pleasant 50km drive from Hyderabad takes one to a small town called Bhongir, where history meets geology. Long before you enter the town, its trademark egg-shaped hillock looms into view. The hillock is actually a giant rock, called a batholith. A batholith is a huge igneous rock that is formed when molten magma cools and solidifies, often running kilometers deep into the earth. The Bhongir batholith is said to be comparable in size to the one in Uluru, Australia, a World Heritage Site.

Bhongir Fort

Bhongir Fort

Bhongir Fort

Bhongir was named Tribhuvanagiri after the Chalukya ruler Tribhuvanamalla Vikramaditya, who is believed to have built a fort on top of the rock in the 12th century. Tribhuvanagiri became Bhuvanagiri, which eventually became Bhongir. Later, the fort passed through the hands of the Kakatiyas, the Bahmanis and the Qutb Shahi Sultans of Golconda. Most of the present structure dates back to the Bahmani and Qutb Shahi era, and you’ll notice similarities with the forts at Golconda, Bidar and others built by the various Deccan Sultanates.

Bhongir Fort

Bhongir Fort

Bhongir FortBhongir Fort

The climb to the top was lovely the day we went – there was a light drizzle throughout, like a gentle spray. On a blazing hot day, I’m not sure how fun it’ll be! There are steps hewn into the rock for the most part, and railings for support when the slope gets steeper. It takes about an hour, plus or minus, maybe longer if you stop frequently to take pictures.

 

At the very top, there is a pavilion that looks strikingly similar to the Balahisar Baradari, the topmost pavilion in the Golconda Fort. When you reach it, you realize it’s a bit larger than it appears from below, dwarfed by the huge hillock. The panoramic views of the countryside are breathtaking, and you can’t help wondering what it must have been like to be a ruler standing up here and surveying your kingdom. In reality though, the Qutb Shahi kings did not actually stay here. They stationed a governor in Bhongir, and used this fort to imprison people who tried to grab the throne.

Bhongir FortBhongir Fort

Since the hillock is almost egg shaped, it has sheer drops all around,  attracting adventure sports enthusiasts. Bhongir even has a rock climbing school that teaches bouldering, rock climbing and rappelling.

Bhongir Fort

You can combine a trip to this fort with a visit to the famous Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Temple in Yadagirigutta, just about 14kms away. Also combinable is Kolanupaka, home to a stunning Jain temple, only 30 kms away.

 

In Photos, Travel

The Streets of Fort Kochi

Obviously, I’m not done with my Kochi posts. The pretty streets of Fort Kochi have quaint names like Princess Street, Burghar Street, Napier Street, Rose Street and Lilly Street. These cobblestoned streets are lined with beautiful colonial homes that have been restored and converted into heritage hotels, home-stays, cafes, boutiques and art galleries. Some pictures:Streets of Fort KochiStreets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi Streets of Fort Kochi

Travel

The Colours of Mattancherry

Mattancherry is a historical neighbourhood adjacent to Fort Kochi, known for its Jewish legacy. Two communities of Jews are said to have migrated to the region – the Malabar Jews, who claimed descent from King Solomon of Israel, and the Sephardic Jews who came from the Iberian peninsula. The latter were white skinned, and locals referred to them as Paradesi Jews. Paradesi or pardesi means foreigner. Just like Fort Kochi, Mattancherry is Instagram heaven, and is best explored on foot. Here are some of the most interesting things in the area:

 

Jew Town, Paradesi Synagogue, Jewish Cemetery
The main point of interest in Mattancherry is the Paradesi Synagogue, built by the Sephardic Jews in 1567, on land granted to them by the Raja of Kochi. The area around it is called Jew town, and has a very pretty market selling antiques, ethnic clothes, hand embroidery and other such things. There is a Jewish cemetery nearby as well.
Paradesi Synagogue

Paradesi Synagogue

Jew Town
Jew Town
Mandalay Hall, Jew Town
Jew Town
Mattancherry Palace, or the Dutch Palace
This palace was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and gifted to the Raja of Kochi. When the Dutch took over the settlement, they occupied the palace and made some modifications to the structure. Today, it is a museum known for its collection of exquisite Kerala murals.
Dutch Palace

Dutch Palace/Mattancherry Palace

The Church of Our Lady of Life
A pretty 17th century church.
Church of Our Lady of Life

Church of Our Lady of Life

Bazaar Road
Without a doubt, my favourite part of Mattancherry. With its crumbling mansions and colourful spice warehouses (Kochi had a flourishing spice trade, which was what attracted the colonial powers here), this street is incredibly photogenic. This post was basically an excuse to share at least some of my gazillion Bazaar Road photos!
Bazaar Road
Bazaar Road
Bazaar Road
Bazaar Road
Bazaar Road
Bazaar Road
Bazaar Road
In Photos, Travel

Fort Kochi Beach : A thousand shades of grey

I opened up wordpress to compose a post on Mattancherry, but the steady drizzle outside my window took me back to the Fort Kochi beach under the pouring rain. The monsoon is my favourite time of the year, and grey skies give me so much joy. You’ll never see me complaining about ‘gloomy’ days – this is India, after all, and any respite from the heat is most welcome!

 

The Fort Kochi beach is truly gorgeous during a downpour. The famous Chinese Fishing Nets are here too – apparently, these cantilevered fishing nets were introduced to the Malabar coast by Chinese travellers who came from the court of Kublai Khan in the 13th century. The artificially reclaimed Willingdon Island (India’s largest man-made island) across the water houses the Kochi Port and the Southern Naval Command of the Indian Navy. The sea washes a fair bit of debris ashore, but there is enough beauty around to help you overlook that. Check it out:
Fort Kochi Beach 6Fort Kochi Beach 5 Fort Kochi Beach 3
Fort Kochi Beach 2
Fort Kochi Beach 7 Fort Kochi Beach 8
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.