January 1, 2018

A Visit to the Great Living Chola Temples!

Hi Guys,

Wish you a very Happy New Year 2018! I’m here back with another post on my recent mini trip across three famous ‘Great living Chola temples’ as referred by UNESCO. It was an adhoc trip and it turned out to be a great one.

Day 1 – Train to Kumbakonam and Sunset at Gangai Konda Cholapuram
I started by journey via Cholan Express to see the temples built by the Cholans. This train is one of those rare trains in Indian Railways which doesn’t run on optimal passenger load thanks to the presence of sleeper and AC coaches in a daytime train. So, it is a suitable train for Adhoc trips. Nevertheless, let me skip the train journey and focus more on the temples.  The train was an hour late as it reached Kumbakonam on the verge of 3 pm. It meant that I had to cut down Darasuram from Day 1 and keep it for day 2.

I kept my backpack in a nearby Hotel and got into a bus for Gangai Konda Cholapuram which is approximately 40 kms from Kumbakonam. The trip has a scenic dam on the way across Kollidam River. The dam has an island called ‘Anaikarai’ in between and the bridge on either side is one way which means vehicles have to stop on one side and wait for their turn. It was around 5.30 pm by the time I reached Gangai Konda Cholapuram.

Gangai Konda Cholapuram was built by Rajendra Cholan after he expanded his kingdom till the branches of the mighty river Ganga. He constructed the imposing temple here and moved the capital city to this place. A look at the place today and you will see it as nothing more a giant temple amidst a village. It is hard to believe a mighty kingdom was ruled out of this place once.

The Silhoutte of Gangai Konda Cholapuram amidst Sunset
The temple is completely built out of stone as are the other two temples. The temple’s main tower is the heart of the whole architecture. It is built very similar to the Thanjavur temple, but the key difference is that after the first two layers, the structure is more spherical in nature as against the tapering square in the Thanjavur temple. Incidentally, the temple is also named as Brihadisvara temple in line with the temple at Thanjavur. The temple has a giant Shiva Lingam and is a very peaceful temple with very little crowd around. The peace adds to the mystical feel of the temple. Outside the temple, the landscape is well maintained by ASI with lawns and trees attracting hundreds of pigeons and parrots. At Sunset, there was constant screeching from the parrots as they were settling down. Apart from the main temple, the surrounding complex has been destructed over time. After strolling across till sunset, I took a bus back to Kumbakonam and stayed there for the night.

The giant tower in Gangai Konda Cholapuram!

The big Nandi Statue and temple Flagstaff
Day 2 – Darasuram and Thanjavur
After thinking of starting as early as 6 am in the morning, I slept off and got ready by 7 am. Darasuram is a Suburb of Kumbakonam and is only 2-3 kms away from the main town. It was around 7.45 am when I reached the deserted temple. The temple is constructed a bit lower than the surface which means that you have to climb down a few steps and get into stagnant water (from the rains) to get inside the temple. Since, the temple is below surface level, water keeps creeping in through the stone floor, which has resulted in Algae bloom and not so pleasant odour.

This temple known as ‘Airavateswara Temple’ was built by Raja Raja Chola II in the 12th century. The temple is said to be a much bigger complex with seven streets. However, only the main complex is present today. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. As I went in so early, the priest was yet to come and he came leisurely after 8 am, by when a few tourists had come. So, a late start did help the process.

The temple is not as magnificent as the other two in terms of size, but it makes up with the intricate carvings on stones across the temple. For this reason, the temple reminded me of the Vittala temple in Hampi.
Darasuram temple entrance, which is a few feet below the ground level

The Chariot Shaped temple that reminded me of Vittala temple in Hampi

Those Intricate Stone Carvings!
I then came back to Kumbakonam, had my breakfast and started to the biggest and famous of the three temples in Thanjavur. After a bumpy ride, I reached Thanjavur around noon. Unlike the earlier two temples, this one was bristling with crowd and in particular lot of tourists had arrived at the complex.

This temple was constructed by the famous king Raja Raja Chola I in earlier 11th century and recently the temple celebrated its 1000th Anniversary. Named Birhadesvara which means the ‘Big Shiva’, the Shiva Lingam in the temple is huge fittingly. The temple is more famous for the giant Nandhi statue at the entrance and the colossal tower in the centre of the temple. The main tower is 16 storeyed with 13 of them tapering towards the top. The centre piece is the giant monolithic stone which completes the tower. It is an architectural wonder considering the grandeur and age of the temple.

Unlike the other two temples, this temple was significantly improved by the later Nayak rulers adding more sanctums and idols to the temple. Chief among them is the gigantic monolithic Nandhi statue at the temple’s entrance. It’s amusing that Raja Raja Chola’s son left this magnificent city and temple to construct a new capital at Gangai Konda Cholapuram. Had it not been for the later Nayaks and Marathas, Thanjavur too might have faced the same fate of the other two temple towns.
Unlike the other two temples, the main temple in Thanjavur had two giant entrance doors!

The magnificent temple complex!

Elephants and Horses carved on stones seems to be a common thing across the temples!

Not just the main tower, the other towers in the temple too are large and filled with intricacies which makes the complex an amazing one!
History is interesting! Cities that flourished once upon a time have fallen down big time today. While some like Thanjavur are still surviving albeit not to the full flurry, cities like Hampi or Gangai Konda Cholapuram have vanished. Forests and deserts have become big urban clusters today. Who knows what would happen to these cities tomorrow?

On that thought, I left Thanjavur and went to Srirangam before boarding a train back to Chennai!

Happy Reading!

October 14, 2017

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History - Elizabeth Kolbert - Book Review

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I grew up in a Sub Urban area with lot of vegetation around. As I grew up, the place was just being swallowed up by more and more houses. One of the hassles of the vegetation was that we used to get lot of uninvited guests to our home - weird insects, bats, worms and scary Snakes. One of the key lessons I was taught as a kid was what to do to protect myself from Snakes. I vividly remember a few six foot long venomous Vipers that we spotted in home. Today, the area has completely become an Urban jungle. Snakes have disappeared with more houses. We are happy with the fact that we need not worry about those snakes. But what has happened to those snakes? How has the loss of habitat affected them? What about other harmless insects and bats? A few endemic species could have disappeared. All because of us - Human Beings. This book, 'The Sixth Extinction' is exactly about this. How Human Beings are causing the sixth major extinction event of the world and how it is happening right in front of our eyes.

I was looking for a book in the last minute before my flight. I randomly came across this book on Amazon and decided to give it a shot. One thing I worried was that the book would turn out to be one of those preachy materials on the ill effects of Global Warming. This book by Elizabeth Kolbert is exactly that, but the author conveys it with a well strung research, tales and subtlety. Being a Journalist, the author has done justice to the job by spending a lot of time with fossil collectors, museum directors, biologists and conservationists to bring home the point of how we (Human Beings) are destroying the planet.

While unsurprisingly, the major cause of the Sixth Extinction is Global Warming, the author also points out to other strong factors that weigh in - Fragmentation of Habitats due to developing Urban Clusters and Forced movement of Species across continents, both knowingly and accidentally.

The author starts the book with how various species of Frogs have started disappearing in the recent years across Latin America. Frogs have been one of the resilient species on the face of earth. They have survived for the past 250 million years. Now, they have suddenly started disappearing. After a lot of research, it has been identified that Chytrid Fungus causes this. Chytrid Fungus is not a native found in Latin America. Humans have introduced it somehow and they have started playing havoc. These species that causes havoc are known as Invasive Species. Evolution would have equipped the frogs to save itself from known dangers, but then it never came across this Fungus in the past millions of years. Across the years as humans started travelling, we have introduced so many of these species.

What I really loved about the book was the abundance of information provided -

  1. How Fossils were identified and unearthed in the 19th century and the efforts of Georges Cuvier and Charles Darwin identifying the fossils and establishing the first theories on Extinction of Species.
  2. The relationship between increasing latitude and increasing number of species. While in the poles, there is nearly no diversity, there is abundance of diversity near the equator given the favorable climate.
  3. How Global Warming is making the Ocean more and more acidic - Water absorbs excess Carbon Di Oxide to form Carbonic Acid. This in turn affects the calcification process required to form Coral Reefs which are the base of Ocean Life.
  4. How it is not only animals that move, but also trees with change in temperatures. Some trees expand itself at a rapid rate through pollination and in the process negates the space for less invasive species.
  5. How the chances of a species survival reduces with reducing habitat and fragmentation. Certain species are endemic to Islands and they often disappear soon. The same happen with increasing Urbanization.

It has been established that we are not the only Human Species that has lived in this planet - one of the key human species that has lived alongside us is Neanderthals. It has been established that on an average nearly 4% of our DNA contains Neanderthal DNA. It has also been established that Human Beings or Homo Sapiens in specific were the main cause of Neanderthals extinction. After a long struggle, Neanderthal's DNA has been established. They are almost same as that of us. But over the years, some change has happened that has made us so dangerous. Some tiny little Gene has made us so superior to the rest of the species - that we have even killed our sister species. So, the author wonders what is this 'Mad Gene' that causes that change.

The author finally concludes with a positive note by capturing some of the super human efforts taken by conservationists to protect the few endangered species and says our hope is that. While, we have singly killed all those species, we also go in great length to protect the remaining species. Countries like Australia and New Zealand have strict Biosecurity laws to protect their native species. If the Mad Gene signifies despair, the same Mad Gene signifies Hope as well.

On the flip side, I found that the author had used too many Biological names for the Species which became too tough to follow at a point. I would rate this as one of the best books I have read about our planet and the species that live on it. Having read Yuval Noah Harrari's 'Sapiens' augmented this book very well, as Sapiens had established how we became the conquering deadly species that we are.

If you have a little iota of guilt that we cause to the environment, this book is a must read!

April 9, 2017

The Ocean of Churn - Sanjeev Sanyal - Book Review

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading 'The Land of Seven Rivers', I was fascinated when I read that Sanjeev Sanyal has written a book focusing on Indian Ocean, a key geography oft missed out in the history books.

The author has a very interesting pattern of writing books - he knows the drawbacks of contemporary history books. History has often been looked at from a linear and singular perspective. We say that the British invaded India and ruled us for 200 years, but often miss out on other countries fighting in our territory and the Indian kings who helped the British and other happening of those times. Second, history often glorifies the victors and suppresses the losers. So, we have heroes and villains when most of them were actually people with shades of grey. Third, the western world believes only in written piece of evidence. The author believes that Oral verses continuing over centuries can't be ignored. The same stories have been spread across different countries and cultures. They might have shades of fiction, but they do have a tinge of reality as to what happened really in those times.

The book covers the happenings of events around Indian Ocean from the early human settlements to the recent world wars. He covers both sides of India as to how the western part of the country traded with the likes of the Romans, Arabs and how the eastern part traded with the likes of Indonesia or Malaysia. The trade has had a long cultural impact in many countries. Particularly the South East Asian countries still have a lot of cultural similarity with the South Indian states. There are a lot of temples spread across these countries. Temples played a key role in the trade as they acted as banks of those days.

In the later part, there is a lot of focus on Europeans as to how they started trading for Spices like Pepper and Nutmeg with the eastern countries and went on to colonize them and fight violently for territorial disputes. A very interesting aspect here is that the Europeans have often collaborated with the local kingdoms and hired mercenaries to fight the battles. So, all the while when we imagine that it was British fighting India, it was the Indians on behalf of British fighting the Indians.

The author also touches upon Religion and the way Religion helped kingdoms and tribes across history. It is little wonder that Religion still fires up people and unites them to fight for something or the other. Still lot of the Asian countries have statues of Hindu gods and they peaceful worship them before worshiping Lord Buddha or they attribute them as Pagan Gods. The trade also had a wide impact on Language. Most of the South East Asian countries have languages originating from the Brahmi Script.

The final part focuses on the World Wars and how the east Asian countries widely affected don't get mentioned anywhere in the war related documents. Many Indian soldiers fought on behalf of the British and similarly many Asian soldiers were involved and countries affected by war including the likes of Malaysia and Singapore. It is also interesting that the Indian Naval officers strike was a key reason for British to exit India as the Indian Soldiers played a key role in enabling British administer India.

It is interesting that certain landscapes got shifted from One hand to another hand during the colonial rule. In 1667, the Dutch forced the British to hand them an Island in the Indonesian Archipelago which grew Nutmegs in exchange for a big Island in North America. It was considered a big victory. The big Island turns to be Manhattan. Looks like Real Estate investments have remained tricky over centuries.

Books like this are very rare for they cover a very wide spectrum of things and gives you a very new perspective to History. If you are a history buff, get in, get immersed and come out with a refreshing view.