Journeysmatter

A blog on journeys, great destinations and fantastic travel experiences

Seeing Myanmar along the Ayeyarwady / Irrawady River – Bagan, A Cultural Capital

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The landscape of Bagan as viewed from the terrace of Htiliminlo temple is breathtaking. This scenery needs to be viewed at different times of the day to experience what was once the Cultural capital of Myanmar

The Irrawady river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the country’s largest river flowing from North to South and also a commercial waterway. Yes, the country flourishes along its banks. What better way to experience Myanmar. Towards the latter part of the Monsoon, we embarked on a 3 night cruise on the river on board The Strand.

The Strand Luxury Cruise boat on the Ayeyarwady complete with luxury cabins, great food, wines and the best of Asian hospitality
The Strand on the Ayeyarwady

In Part 1 of this blog series we explored the U-Bein bridge in Mandalay. In Part 2 of this blog series we explored the township of Mingun in the Mandalay region. In Part 3, we continued our exploration of Mandalay with a shore expedition to Innwa also called as Ava. Here we cruise on the Irrawady and arrive at the shores of Bagan, another reason why Myanmar is on the world tourist map.

After an early start to the day in Innwa followed by shore excursions, rest of the day was reserved for cruising downstream along the Irrawady river within the Mandalay region. It gave us a glimpse in to the daily life of people working in the water and along the shores of the river. Along the way, the cruise personnel kept us busy with activities like applying Tanaka on each other, different ways of tying a Longyi and of course a sumptuous high tea. The Longyi is a fantastic alternative to the trouser – During formal occassions let it down, during emergencies when one has to wade through water or slush, just lift it up and tie it around your waist. Its a fabulous utility attire. The same attire is called Lungi / Khaili and is worn extensively across the southern states of India.

Mid Day activities on board the Strand cruise to keep the guests busy plus give them an introduction to the daily lives of Myanmarese like tying the lawngyi and applying Tanaka.
Mid Day activities on board the Strand cruise to keep the guests busy plus give them an introduction to the daily lives of Myanmarese like tying the lawngyi and applying Tanaka.

The Kingdom of Bagan

Bagan’s glories stretched from the 9th to the 13th century under the Pagan Kingdom. The Kingdom is largely credited for unifying the various regions that make up the modern day Myanmar. During this period the Kingdom is said to have constructed over 10,000 religious monuments. These monuments also served as centre for studies and attracted Monks and Students from nearby countries. Given that the same period also saw influence of Hindu civilization stretch towards south east asian countries of Cambodia and Vietnam, Myanmar too must have benefited from the Trade, Economics and spiritual wisdom of Ancient India. 

Around 2000 of these temples remain. Earthquakes have been responsible for bringing down many of them. Lack of restoration expertise has led to shoddy reconstruction using modern materials. The price being paid – Inspite of such a rich past, Bagan is yet to get declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This, despite being a strong contender and thousands of tourists descending in to experience this heritage. 

Shwegugyi, ThatByinnyu, Dhammayangyi and HtiloMinlo temple

Shwegugyi means "the Golden Cave" in Myanmar. t was built by King Alaungsithu in 1140 A.D. There is a legend saying, that there was a huge block of brick about 12 feet high sprouted from the ground in response to the king's greatness of accumulated merit. So with the huge block of brick, formed the plinth in the formation of the temple. It was mentioned that the Shwegugyi was completed in 7 months and 7 days. (Courtesy : http://bagan.travelmyanmar.net)
Shwegugyi means “the Golden Cave” in Myanmar. t was built by King Alaungsithu in 1140 A.D. There is a legend saying, that there was a huge block of brick about 12 feet high sprouted from the ground in response to the king’s greatness of accumulated merit. So with the huge block of brick, formed the plinth in the formation of the temple. It was mentioned that the Shwegugyi was completed in 7 months and 7 days. (Courtesy : http://bagan.travelmyanmar.net)
Thatbyinnyu is Bagan's tallest temple at almost 200 ft. (or 61 m.; some indicate 217 ft. or 66 m.) and represents a transition from the Mon period to a new architectural style that would soon be followed at the Sulamani, the Gawdawpalin and at Htilominlo. Constructed during one of the high points of Bagan political power and during a period of re-dedication to Theravada Buddhism and religious scholarship, it reflected that era's innovative architectural and artistic creativity. Paul Strachan, the important Bagan scholar, calls Thatbyinnyu "an expression of the self-confident Burmese spirit of nationhood." (Courtesy : www.orientalarchitecture.com)
Thatbyinnyu is Bagan’s tallest temple at almost 200 ft. (or 61 m.; some indicate 217 ft. or 66 m.) and represents a transition from the Mon period to a new architectural style that would soon be followed at the Sulamani, the Gawdawpalin and at Htilominlo. Constructed during one of the high points of Bagan political power and during a period of re-dedication to Theravada Buddhism and religious scholarship, it reflected that era’s innovative architectural and artistic creativity. Paul Strachan, the important Bagan scholar, calls Thatbyinnyu “an expression of the self-confident Burmese spirit of nationhood.” (Courtesy : http://www.orientalarchitecture.com)
The Dhammayangyi (or Dhamma-yan-gyi) Pahto, extending approximately 255 feet (78 m) on each of its four sides, is Bagan's most massive shrine. As much as it is huge in its appearance, there is still considerable amount of controversy regarding the identity of its builder. Ghastly events are said to have been inflicted on its alleged builder who didnt exactly lead a life of virtue (Courtesy - www.orientalarchitecture.com)
The Dhammayangyi (or Dhamma-yan-gyi) Pahto, extending approximately 255 feet (78 m) on each of its four sides, is Bagan’s most massive shrine. As much as it is huge in its appearance, there is still considerable amount of controversy regarding the identity of its builder. Ghastly events are said to have been inflicted on its alleged builder who didnt exactly lead a life of virtue (Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com)
he Htilominlo Pahto was built by King Nandaungmya (r. 1211-c.1230 AD) early in his reign to commemorate his selection on this spot as crown prince from among five sons of the king. The white umbrella had tilted toward him, and he became his father's successor. (Courtesy - www.orientalarchitecture.com) Right in front of the Htilominlo is a narrow entrance which took us to a terrace from where we could get a panoramic view of Bagan's Temple landscape. The terracota structures set amidst greenery is a photographers' delight.
he Htilominlo Pahto was built by King Nandaungmya (r. 1211-c.1230 AD) early in his reign to commemorate his selection on this spot as crown prince from among five sons of the king. The white umbrella had tilted toward him, and he became his father’s successor. (Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com) Right in front of the Htilominlo is a narrow entrance which took us to a terrace from where we could get a panoramic view of Bagan’s Temple landscape. The terracota structures set amidst greenery is a photographers’ delight.

The Ananda Phaya Temple, Shwezigon Zedi and Wetkyi-in Kubyauk-gyi Temple 

A strong influence of Indian Architecture from many temples of Bengal and Orissa is very clear.The Ananda Phaya Temple - Bagan. A strong influence of Indian Architecture from many temples of Bengal and Orissa is very clear.
The Ananda Phaya Temple – Bagan. A strong influence of Indian Architecture from many temples of Bengal and Orissa is very clear.
The Ananda temple was built in the year 1105. The Buddhist temple houses four standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of East, North, West and South. The temple is said to be an architectural wonder in a fusion of Mon and adopted Indian style of architecture. The Archeological survey of India collaborated extensively with Myanmar and provided assistance for Structural Conservation and Chemical preservation of the Ananda Phaya Temple.
The Ananda temple was built in the year 1105. The Buddhist temple houses four standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of East, North, West and South. The temple is said to be an architectural wonder in a fusion of Mon and adopted Indian style of architecture. The Archeological survey of India collaborated extensively with Myanmar and provided assistance for Structural Conservation and Chemical preservation of the Ananda Phaya Temple.
The Shwezigon Paya (pagoda, stupa or zedi), is one of the Bagan area's, and Myanmar's, most significant religious structures.It truly is a 'national' pagoda, since it served as a prototype for many later stupas built throughout Myanmar. The Shwezigon is also a major national center of worship. Pilgrims come from many parts of Myanmar for its festival held during the Burmese month of Nadaw (November/December) both because of its historic character and because of its religious significance for Burmese Buddhism. It is said to be one of the earliest symbols of the triumph of the purified 'Theravada Buddhism'. Courtesy - www.orientalarchitectures.com
The Shwezigon Paya (pagoda, stupa or zedi), is one of the Bagan area’s, and Myanmar’s, most significant religious structures.It truly is a ‘national’ pagoda, since it served as a prototype for many later stupas built throughout Myanmar. The Shwezigon is also a major national center of worship. Pilgrims come from many parts of Myanmar for its festival held during the Burmese month of Nadaw (November/December) both because of its historic character and because of its religious significance for Burmese Buddhism. It is said to be one of the earliest symbols of the triumph of the purified ‘Theravada Buddhism’. Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitectures.com
The Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan has a very simple representation of the Four sights that led Siddhartha, the Prince on his road to becoming Gautama. An old Man speaking about the consequences of aging, A sick man suffering from disease and pain, Sight of a Dead body and finally the sight of an ascetic who devoted himself to find out the cause for human suffering.
The Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan has a very simple representation of the Four sights that led Siddhartha, the Prince on his road to becoming Gautama. An old Man speaking about the consequences of aging, A sick man suffering from disease and pain, Sight of a Dead body and finally the sight of an ascetic who devoted himself to find out the cause for human suffering.
Wetkyi-In Kubyauk-gyi temple in Bagan, Myanmar
The interior of the Kubyauk-gyi is filled with numerous mural paintings, including an excellent representation of “The Temptation of Mara” behind the east-facing Buddha, and 544 jataka tales along the side walls and ambulatory. However, a number of the jataka plates are missing as they were plundered in 1899 by a German art thief, Th. H. Thomann, who inaugurated the grim tradition of modern-day looting to resell Bagan-era antiquities on the international market. Although Thomann and his team were caught by the local British authorities, a number of items reached Europe where they were acquired by Museum of Hamburg in 1906, though they have subsequently gone missing. Perhaps because of the heightened awareness surrounding art theft at Kubyauk-Gyi, the temple retains a full-time guard who also ensures that visitors refrain from photographing the murals. Although this a sensible precaution as flash photography easily damages Bagan-era pigment, the prohibition also extends to long-exposure photography using ambient light (Image and Text courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitectures.com). Some of these murals have been whitewashed and unravelling these Murals by getting done with the whitewash without damaging the Murals is proving to be an ordeal.

Lacquerware in Myanmar

Myanmar is well known for its Lacquerware works. Transcends from trinkets, personal accessories to decorative pieces. A family business by name Bagan Lacquer House has a workshop where one can watch the craftsment at work and also an inhouse store to pick up a few items for personal use or gifting.

This is a Must see for all those visiting Bagan. Nominally priced there are numerous gifiting options. The process starts with the Inner shell being made with Bamboo followed by lacquering the interior and covering it with “Thayo” a made resin paste with lacquer and mixed ashes. This work is in general carried out with the hand (or with very fine gloves). When an application is made on the mould in bamboo, one must then dry it in an obscure and wet place. The duration of drying is of approximately a week. Once finished drying, the lacquers carefully are washed and sandpapered if necessary. This stage is important for the quality of the future lacquer. After the first drying, one carefully sandpapers the object, one washes it, then one passes by again, the second layer and one turns over to drying. The object thus makes several outward journey and return with the warehouse of drying. Each time it thus receives a new layer of lacquer. It is only on the last layer that one colours.Engraving is done with free hands, without model, entirely of memory, directly with naked hands, using a stylet and of a brush.
This is a Must see for all those visiting Bagan. Nominally priced there are numerous gifiting options. The process starts with the Inner shell being made with Bamboo followed by lacquering the interior and covering it with “Thayo” a made resin paste with lacquer and mixed ashes. This work is in general carried out with the hand (or with very fine gloves). When an application is made on the mould in bamboo, one must then dry it in an obscure and wet place. The duration of drying is of approximately a week. Once finished drying, the lacquers carefully are washed and sandpapered if necessary. This stage is important for the quality of the future lacquer. After the first drying, one carefully sandpapers the object, one washes it, then one passes by again, the second layer and one turns over to drying. The object thus makes several outward journey and return with the warehouse of drying. Each time it thus receives a new layer of lacquer. It is only on the last layer that one colours.Engraving is done with free hands, without model, entirely of memory, directly with naked hands, using a stylet and of a brush.

We end our cruise on The Strand in Bagan and fly out to experience the capital city of Yangon.

Getting to Myanmar

Travelling to Myanmar is now a breeze. Number of airlines fly in to Yangon with a single stop at any popular hub. Mandalay and Bagan are well connected from Yangon.

  1. China SouthernAll NipponBangkok AirwaysCathay PacificSingapore AirlinesThai Airways among the carriers from the Asian and South east Asian region
  2. Qatar Airways and Emirates from the middle east
  3. Air India offers twice a week flight between Kolkata and Yangon on Saturdays and Mondays. Its a surprise that the two countries which share such a common heritage still dont have good direct connectivity.

Tourists can check visa requirements on The Myanmar eVisa website. This is a government website and one can apply online for an e-visa. Check out for countries for whom Visa is provided on arrival. Indians can now apply for visa upon arrival. A recent government order to this effect. However, as a travel best practice it is always wise to utilize the e-visa facility offered. One however has to be careful while entering the passport details in to the Visa application form. Mismatch very clearly results in deportation.

Seeing Myanmar along the Ayeyarwady / Irrawady River – Innwa An Ancient capital

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A family out for their morning chores use traditional bullock carts for their travel. The graceful lady of the house presents a confident smile while cradling her little one; All this while the husband while watching the road is also keeping an eye on his family

The Irrawady river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the country’s largest river flowing from North to South and also a commercial waterway. Yes, the country flourishes along its banks. What better way to experience Myanmar. Towards the latter part of the Monsoon, we embarked on a 3 night cruise on the river on board The Strand.

The Strand Luxury Cruise boat on the Ayeyarwady complete with luxury cabins, great food, wines and the best of Asian hospitality
The Strand on the Ayeyarwady

In Part 1 of this blog series we explored the U-Bein bridge in Mandalay. In Part 2 of this blog series we explored the township of Mingun in the Mandalay region. We continue our exploration of Mandalay with a shore expedition to Innwa also called as Ava

Creating Travel Experiences in #Myanmar

As we wound up our excursion in Mingun, the Strand Cruise team helped us to our rooms, introduced us to the staff on board, amenities available and ensured that we got comfortable with the facilities. The ever smiling staff accompany you during excursions with a picnic basket containing refreshments, wet towels as it can get extremely sweaty after monsoons and during summers and upon return to the boat you just feel like gulping all the cold drinks on offer. The staff request you to place your sandals which are cleaned off the mud and delivered outside your room. Comfortable slippers are provided to walk around inside the cruise boat. 

After a long day in Mingun, we continued 35 kms along the Irrawady river and halt for the night on the banks of the Ancient Capital City of Innwa or Ava as it was called when it was the seat of the Burmese Empire. The empire lasted over 360 years between 1365 to 1842 on 5 separate occassions. 

Tourism has provided the residents of these towns a wonderful opportunity to talk about their country, listen and understand what Tourists expect and ensure they carry home wonderful stories. Out of the moored Cruise boat in the morning, we board Horse carts to take us through the narrow and rain washed streets of Innwa to various places of interest. While it may seem like a very uni-dimensional way to travel, Myanmar will slowly but surely bring in experiences even to the smallest of monuments / destinations. However this opportunity we got was to explore a raw country which had just opened up. No sanitised experiences as of now like in Singapore, Malaysia and other SE Asian counterparts.

Pagodas & Monasteries of Wingaba, Myint Mo Thaung and Lawka Dawtha Man Aung

Based on interactions with locals during his journeys in Burma, Robert Bruce Thurber in his book In the Land of the Pagodas (Paya as referred by the locals) gives the probable reason for many Pagodas lying in a state of repair. It is believed that no merit accrues to anyone who repairs a Pagoda, except those of great note, repair-merit going to the original build. We really dont know if this is now a business of the state or Myanmar has transcended these beliefs.  

Wingaba, a square shaped Monastery is a deviation from the standard spire shaped Pagodas one regularly finds. Looking in dire need of maintenance, the flat roof seems to have remnants of spires that have collapsed. Insides of the Monastery have stairs to provide access to the top
Wingaba, a square shaped Monastery is a deviation from the standard spire shaped Pagodas one regularly finds. Looking in dire need of maintenance, the flat roof seems to have remnants of spires that have collapsed. Insides of the Monastery have stairs to provide access to the top
The Myint Mo Thaung is a Circular shaped Pagoda or Paya as it is called locally, with a staircase on the outside leading to the top. Seems a simple climb from outside but tests your lungs first thing in the morning. Nevertheless, the views of the countryside from the top are stunning. The rains leave a marshy pathway to be negotiated carefully.
The Myint Mo Thaung is a Circular shaped Pagoda or Paya as it is called locally, with a staircase on the outside leading to the top. Seems a simple climb from outside but tests your lungs first thing in the morning. Nevertheless, the views of the countryside from the top are stunning. The rains leave a marshy pathway to be negotiated carefully.
The spired stupa is the Lawka Dawtha Man Aung Pagoda. The Pagoda encloses a small shrine with a statue of Buddha in a small building nearby. The Pagodas house relics but not always one is able to find original relics and house them. Many Pagodas have housed replica of the relics and have drawn the faithful.
The spired stupa is the Lawka Dawtha Man Aung Pagoda. The Pagoda encloses a small shrine with a statue of Buddha in a small building nearby. The Pagodas house relics but not always one is able to find original relics and house them. Many Pagodas have housed replica of the relics and have drawn the faithful.

The Yedanasini Temple

The temple in Innwa is in a state of ruin yet looks spectacular. The temple is said to have been build way back in the year 1820’s/1830’s. A major Earthquake in the year 1839 brought down the temple to its current state. 

The Yedanasini temple is probably among all the well photographed temples in Myanmar. Set amidst thick countryside vegetation, the brick monument stands out in contrast in terms of color values.
The Yedanasini temple is probably among all the well photographed temples in Myanmar. Set amidst thick countryside vegetation, the brick monument stands out in contrast in terms of color values.
The complex houses the remnants of a triad of Buddha statues in good condition. These images have graced the pages of many travel magazines.
The complex houses the remnants of a triad of Buddha statues in good condition. These images have graced the pages of many travel magazines.
Assembly halls with multiple bays, windows and columns are said to be thematically similar to Siamese assembly halls of Ayutthaya (Courtesy - www.orientalarchitecture.com)
Assembly halls with multiple bays, windows and columns are said to be thematically similar to Siamese assembly halls of Ayutthaya (Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com)

The Leader

The people of Myanmar have shown tremendous grit and have survived numerous crises as they transitioned from Freedom – Military Rule – Democracy. Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been at the forefront of this transition. Respect to her is played out at almost all the places that we travelled to.

Suu Kyi also referred to as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi apart from being a Pro-democracy leader who has led her country on the path of democracy is also a source of inspiration for her countrymen. Youngest daughter of Aung San who died aged 32, she has battled hard to ensure that her countrymen are able to savor the freedom that democracy offers. She currently holds the post of a State Councillor which is equivalent to the post of a Prime Minister.
Suu Kyi also referred to as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi apart from being a Pro-democracy leader who has led her country on the path of democracy is also a source of inspiration for her countrymen. Youngest daughter of Aung San who died aged 32, she has battled hard to ensure that her countrymen are able to savor the freedom that democracy offers. She currently holds the post of a State Councillor which is equivalent to the post of a Prime Minister.

Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery

Probably the best preserved monastery, one that survived the great earthquake of 1839 and subsequently got the attention it deserved towards re-building. This monastery is said to have been constructed by a queen for the Royal Priest. 

The monastery is a brick replica of typical wooden monasteries of that period. Constructed on a large base course / foundation with Masonry stairs, there are a total of 8 stairs leading to the shrine which is recognized by the Pyathat - a multi staged roof with an odd number of tiers. Within the monastery, there are living quarters for Monks along with a classroom; On the same level are the Royal Priests’ residence and Buddha’s image chambers.
The monastery is a brick replica of typical wooden monasteries of that period. Constructed on a large base course / foundation with Masonry stairs, there are a total of 8 stairs leading to the shrine which is recognized by the Pyathat – a multi staged roof with an odd number of tiers. Within the monastery, there are living quarters for Monks along with a classroom; On the same level are the Royal Priests’ residence and Buddha’s image chambers.
There are two sets of Perimeter corridors within the main Monastery. While walking through the corridors, it provides perfectly habitable weather with no requirement for any artificial lighting and ventilation. Today the monastery is no longer inhabited but is maintained in good condition. (Courtesy - www.orientalarchitecture.com)
There are two sets of Perimeter corridors within the main Monastery. While walking through the corridors, it provides perfectly habitable weather with no requirement for any artificial lighting and ventilation. Today the monastery is no longer inhabited but is maintained in good condition. (Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com)
Chinthes are Leogryphs or Lion like creatures seen at the entrances of Pagodas and temples in Buddhist countries in the region. The chinthe is revered and loved by the Burmese people and is used symbolically on the royal thrones of Burma. Predating the use of coins for money, brass weights cast in the shape of mythical beasts like the chinthe were commonly used to measure standard quantities of staple items.The Chinthes seen here are at the entrance to the Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery.
Chinthes are Leogryphs or Lion like creatures seen at the entrances of Pagodas and temples in Buddhist countries in the region. The chinthe is revered and loved by the Burmese people and is used symbolically on the royal thrones of Burma. Predating the use of coins for money, brass weights cast in the shape of mythical beasts like the chinthe were commonly used to measure standard quantities of staple items.The Chinthes seen here are at the entrance to the Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery.

Moving on from Mandalay, our cruise set sail towards another ancient capital city of Bagan.

Getting to Myanmar

Travelling to Myanmar is now a breeze. Number of airlines fly in to Yangon with a single stop at any popular hub. Mandalay and Bagan are well connected from Yangon.

  1. China SouthernAll NipponBangkok AirwaysCathay PacificSingapore AirlinesThai Airways among the carriers from the Asian and South east Asian region
  2. Qatar Airways and Emirates from the middle east
  3. Air India offers twice a week flight between Kolkata and Yangon on Saturdays and Mondays. Its a surprise that the two countries which share such a common heritage still dont have good direct connectivity.

Tourists can check visa requirements on The Myanmar eVisa website. This is a government website and one can apply online for an e-visa. Check out for countries for whom Visa is provided on arrival. Indians can now apply for visa upon arrival. A recent government order to this effect. However, as a travel best practice it is always wise to utilize the e-visa facility offered. One however has to be careful while entering the passport details in to the Visa application form. Mismatch very clearly results in deportation.

Seeing Myanmar along the Ayeyarwady / Irrawady River – Glories of Mingun

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The Mahamuni of Mingun

The Irrawady river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the country’s largest river flowing from North to South and also a commercial waterway. Yes, the country flourishes along its banks. What better way to experience Myanmar. Towards the latter part of the Monsoon, we embarked on a 3 night cruise on the river on board The Strand.

The Strand Luxury Cruise boat on the Ayeyarwady complete with luxury cabins, great food, wines and the best of Asian hospitality
The Strand on the Ayeyarwady

In Part 1 of this blog series we explored the U-Bein bridge in Mandalay. We took The Strand cruise boat got us across the shore towards Mingun. Here we set out to explore on a Trishaw. Myanmar is a Theravada Buddhist country with over 90% of its population practicing the religion. Practitioners of the Theravada Buddhist school of thought claim to adhere most closely to the original doctrines and practices taught by the Buddha. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are the other countries where the Theravada Buddhism prevails. In a Buddhist countries, Pagodas are unmissable. A temple complex, Pagodas have been used to house relics or remains of saints and Kings. They also served as seats of learning and as a resting place for mendicants. Kings built numerous pagodas to earn the goodwill and blessings of the saints who were part of the kingdom or were passing by.

The Mahamuni

We set out to get an understanding of how these play a role in peoples lives. Starting with the Mahamuni Pagoda. Built in 1785, the pagoda is very reverend to the locals as it is said to be hosting a living expression of representing Buddha’s life. The king of Arakan is said to have hosted Buddha and his 500 disciples when he was on tour and the Buddha agreed to have his image crafted by the king. The Mahamuni’s face is washed daily by priests and also has his teeth brushed. The towel used to wipe the face is later handed over to the devotees to keep in their homes

The richly decorated interiors of The Mahamuni Pagoda. The Yellow paint already gives a feeling of the Pagoda glistening in gold. The impressive work on the arches in the corridor and the Jade stone walls are to be observed for their richeness. THe devout are seen in plenty and many come in with their travel bags enroute to their destinations.
The richly decorated interiors of The Mahamuni Pagoda. The Yellow paint already gives a feeling of the Pagoda glistening in gold. The impressive work on the arches in the corridor and the Jade stone walls are to be observed for their richeness. THe devout are seen in plenty and many come in with their travel bags enroute to their destinations.
Devotees get close to the Mahamuni and humbly submit their offerings usually in the form of gold leaves that are applied on the supporting pedestal along with a silent prayers.
Devotees get close to the Mahamuni and humbly submit their offerings usually in the form of gold leaves that are applied on the supporting pedestal along with a silent prayers.
The Myanmarese place their faith in the living entity that is the Mahamuni. The crown is adorned with precious stones etched in gold. Rest of the Mahamuni's structure is enriched with Gold Leaves
The Myanmarese place their faith in the living entity that is the Mahamuni. The crown is adorned with precious stones etched in gold. Rest of the Mahamuni’s structure is enriched with Gold Leaves

One of the interesting things about Myanmar is about the Gold Leaf. This forms the main offerings at all the Pagodas. Sharing a video from the archives of the Smithsonian Channel showcasing the making of the Gold Leaf.

The Gold Leaf Making factory. Kind courtesy – Smithsonian Channel

Bagaya Kyaung Monastery

Teakwood is native to Myanmar. The water reistant nature of Teak makes it an ideal material suitable for furnitures, ship building and as we have seen in the case of U-Bein, even for bridges. In Mandalay however you should be able to visit the Bagaya Kyaung Monastery that has been completely built in Teak. Said to have been built in 1834, the monastery has over 267 columns, all resting over stone pedestals. going by the carvings in the Monastery, the Craftsment would have found Teak as an excellent medium for expressing their skills.  

The Majesticity of the Bagaya Kyaung monastery has been achieved with the simplest of materials - Wood. Even after two centuries, the monasteries do not seem ravaged by time. One takes of their shoes before entering the Monastery. There are many quiet places around for a 21 minute meditation session.
The Majesticity of the Bagaya Kyaung monastery has been achieved with the simplest of materials – Wood. Even after two centuries, the monasteries do not seem ravaged by time. One takes of their shoes before entering the Monastery. There are many quiet places around for a 21 minute meditation session.
The main shrine is in the auspicious East-West direction. Large parts of the monastery are served by ample natural light and excellent cross ventilation. Figurines representing door keepers to the shrine can be seen along with frescos which detail Buddha's life.
The main shrine is in the auspicious East-West direction. Large parts of the monastery are served by ample natural light and excellent cross ventilation. Figurines representing door keepers to the shrine can be seen along with frescos which detail Buddha’s life.

Mingun Pahtodawgyi

This one reminded me of Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, India. Construction of this enormous “unfinished” pagoda began in the year 1791 to house a replica of a Buddha tooth relic. Massive earthquakes in 1821 and 1839 are said to have led to abandonement of construction. The pagoda currently has only only limited use as a place of worship

What looks like a massive granary is actually an unfinished Pagoda. It is not as frequented as a place of worship. One can just stand and look at PahtoDawgyi and imagine what could have been. It is massive and if it was completed could have been a structure to rival the pyramids. Alas, time decided to tell other stories.
What looks like a massive granary is actually an unfinished Pagoda. It is not as frequented as a place of worship. One can just stand and look at PahtoDawgyi and imagine what could have been. It is massive and if it was completed could have been a structure to rival the pyramids. Alas, time decided to tell other stories.

Hsinbyume Pagoda

Mount Meru is said to be the axis Mundi or at he center of the Buddhist cosmos. The Hsinbyume Pagoda is said to have been built in the early part of the 19th century and is said to represent Mount Meru. The White Pagoda has seven concentric terraces that represent the seven rivers and mountain ranges encircling Mount Meru. The Pagoda is named after a princess who died in childbirth in 1812. Climb up to the shrine for prayers and fantastic views of the Irrawady river. 

The first sight of the Hsinbumye is absolutely spectacular. By the time one reaches Hsinbumye you are already expecting another gold peaked Pagoda; A spotless white Pagoda is an absolute delight. The story behind the Pagoda is heart wrenching.
The first sight of the Hsinbumye is absolutely spectacular. By the time one reaches Hsinbumye you are already expecting another gold peaked Pagoda; A spotless white Pagoda is an absolute delight. The story behind the Pagoda is heart wrenching.
The Hsinbyume is said to resemble Mt Meru, the axis of the universe that is attained after one crosses the 7 seas seen here in a beautiful representation. The climb up is short and each step is about a foot higher than the other. It is well worth the effort to climb up to the top.
The Hsinbyume is said to resemble Mt Meru, the axis of the universe that is attained after one crosses the 7 seas seen here in a beautiful representation. The climb up is short and each step is about a foot higher than the other. It is well worth the effort to climb up to the top.
Clear views of the Irrawady river and the nearby Pahtodawgyi pagoda can be seen from atop the Pagoda.
Clear views of the Irrawady river and the nearby Pahtodawgyi pagoda can be seen from atop the Pagoda.

The Rockstar of Mingun

On our way from Pahtodawgyi to Hsinbyume, we came across this Rockstar of a lady who had set up a Cheroot stall just outside her home and served as the best ambassador/endorser for her product. Cheroots are popular truncated cigars made from a choice blend of tobacco, bark, stems, roots and sundry leaves wrapped in a corn husk tied with a red silk thread. More popular than smoking cheroot is chewing of Betelnut.

The lady had Tanaka paste all over her and was probably enjoying her post lunch Cheroot. She was also hawking them. Houses are built on stilts probably to escape from flooding and reptiles.
The lady had Tanaka paste all over her and was probably enjoying her post lunch Cheroot. She was also hawking them. Houses are built on stilts probably to escape from flooding and reptiles.

Our next stop as part of the cruise was Innwa, another former kingdom of Myanmar with its own set of stories to tell. Mandalay and Mingun ended Day 1 of the Cruise.

Getting to Myanmar

Travelling to Myanmar is now a breeze. Number of airlines fly in to Yangon with a single stop at any popular hub. Mandalay and Bagan are well connected from Yangon.

  1. China Southern, All Nippon, Bangkok Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways among the carriers from the Asian and South east Asian region
  2. Qatar Airways and Emirates from the middle east
  3. Air India offers twice a week flight between Kolkata and Yangon on Saturdays and Mondays. Its a surprise that the two countries which share such a common heritage still dont have good direct connectivity.

Tourists can check visa requirements on The Myanmar eVisa website. This is a government website and one can apply online for an e-visa. Check out for countries for whom Visa is provided on arrival. Indians can now apply for visa upon arrival. A recent government order to this effect. However, as a travel best practice it is always wise to utilize the e-visa facility offered. One however has to be careful while entering the passport details in to the Visa application form. Mismatch very clearly results in deportation.

Seeing Myanmar along the Ayeyarwady / Irrawady River – The U-Bein Bridge

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U-Bein Bridge in Mandalay

The Irrawady river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the country’s largest river flowing from North to South and also a commercial waterway. Yes, the country flourishes along its banks. What better way to experience Myanmar. Towards the latter part of the Monsoon, we embarked on a 3 night cruise on the river on board The Strand.

The Strand Luxury Cruise boat on the Ayeyarwady complete with luxury cabins, great food, wines and the best of Asian hospitality

The Strand on the Ayeyarwady

The cruise begins from the Amarapura township in Mandalay city. Amarapura was one of the capitals of Myanmar. You are initiated straight away to experience a pride of Myanmar, The U-Bein bridge.

The bridge is named after a gentleman of the same name who served as a clerk to the Mayor of Amarapura. Facts and History behind the bridge

  • Bridge is over 160 years old, measures 1.57 kilometers
  • Built with over 1000 teak wood pillars over Taungthaman Lake
  • U Bein Bridge connects to the village of Taung Tha Man Inn (Yadanar Bon University) to the east and Htan Taw to the west
  • The planks of teak that make up the surface of the bridge were taken from the old royal palace of Inwa, a former Burmese capital, that had been razed a number of times

In the past, Taungthaman Lake was a natural reservoir that would fill during monsoon season along with the Irrawaddy River’s rising water levels, and see waters recede in the summer months.

Given the extreme humidity, wear light clothing, a sun hat and of course plenty of the locally used sunscreen – The Thanaka. A round trip on the bridge (2 miles/3.2 kms) by foot is free of charge and offers a fine glimpse in to the daily lives of people living around the lake. These days with tourist influx, a number of joints selling souveniours and local snacks have come up. Yet, the place still feels authentic while the people are slowly discovering that that their country is now on the world map.

Fishing is the most lucrative occupation for residents living on the periphery of Lake Taungthaman. Solo fishing, Family Fishing, and Sitting on tubes for small catch.

Fishing is the most lucrative occupation for residents living on the periphery of Lake Taungthaman. Solo fishing, Family Fishing, and Sitting on tubes for small catch.

Students going to the university on the western side of the bridge, Vegetable sellers, Daily wagers, Government officers, Contractors and of course very well trained tourist guides traverse the bridge everyday.

Students going to the university on the western side of the bridge, Vegetable sellers, Daily wagers, Government officers, Contractors and of course very well trained tourist guides traverse the bridge everyday.

If you cannot make it from one end to another in the sweltering sun, the builders very thoughtfully erected small rest points along the length of the bridge. Bite in to a spiced mango while resting and enjoying the waft of cool breeze blowing across the Taungthaman lake.

If you cannot make it from one end to another in the sweltering sun, the builders very thoughtfully erected small rest points along the length of the bridge. Bite in to a spiced mango while resting and enjoying the waft of cool breeze blowing across the Taungthaman lake.

Floods have prompted replacement of wooden pillars with Concrete ones at certain places. Presently undergoing conservation works – Department of Architecture at Mandalay Technological University, the Department of History at Yadanapon University and officials from the Mandalay Department of National Museum and Library in cooperation with three wood conservation experts from Germany and an expert in conservation management.

Conservation works are regularly carried out on the bridge by replacing the wooden sleepers. All efforts are afoot to keep this Heritage structure the way it was built.

Conservation works are regularly carried out on the bridge by replacing the wooden sleepers. All efforts are afoot to keep this Heritage structure the way it was built.

Cleanliness efforts near the U-Bein bridge – Phyo Wai Kyaw/The Myanmar Times

Students lead the way towards bringing in a culture of cleanliess. Here they are seen participating and leading a cleanliness drive along the banks of the U-Bein bridge.

Students lead the way towards bringing in a culture of cleanliess. Here they are seen participating and leading a cleanliness drive along the banks of the U-Bein bridge.

U-Bein bridge brings an assortment of experiences. Cheerful youngsters wanting to take a snap with you, tourist souvenir sellers, photographers, local snack sellers and of course people who go about their lives caring two hoots of who is around them.

Fresh catch from the lake pasted with spices and fried - include shrimps, crabs and fresh fish. Along with this, there are stalls selling tropical fruit. These are usually mixed in the form of a salad spiced up and served. Mangoes, papayas, watermelons are popular. Steamed groundnut is another delicacy and a perfect accompaniment when taking a break in the rest house.

Fresh catch from the lake pasted with spices and fried – include shrimps, crabs and fresh fish. Along with this, there are stalls selling tropical fruit. These are usually mixed in the form of a salad spiced up and served. Mangoes, papayas, watermelons are popular. Steamed groundnut is another delicacy and a perfect accompaniment when taking a break in the rest house.

The choices are in front of you. The traditional bark of a tree ground in to a paste called Thanaka has been used by the Burmese for over 2000 years as a natural sunscreen. This is placed at almost all points across the country for people to use free; even in 5 star  hotels. Once you apply this, the Sun hat option fades.

The choices are in front of you. The traditional bark of a tree ground in to a paste called Thanaka has been used by the Burmese for over 2000 years as a natural sunscreen. This is placed at almost all points across the country for people to use free; even in 5 star hotels. Once you apply this, the Sun hat option fades.

Students dominate the bridge and they dont miss an opportunity click a snap with tourists. They are friendly and look colorful in their local dress. The Men wear a Longyi and a Taipon for a vest where as the ladies wear a Thummy. The Thummy fabrics vary with various regions of Myanmar. Flip Flops are the most common footwear.

Students dominate the bridge and they dont miss an opportunity click a snap with tourists. They are friendly and look colorful in their local dress. The Men wear a Longyi and a Taipon for a vest where as the ladies wear a Thummy. The Thummy fabrics vary with various regions of Myanmar. Flip Flops are the most common footwear.

Travelling to Myanmar is now a breeze. Number of airlines fly in to Yangon with a single stop at any popular hub. Mandalay and Bagan are well connected from Yangon.

  1. China Southern, All Nippon, Bangkok Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways among the carriers from the Asian and South east Asian region
  2. Qatar Airways and Emirates from the middle east
  3. Air India offers twice a week flight between Kolkata and Yangon on Saturdays and Mondays. Its a surprise that the two countries which share such a common heritage still dont have good direct connectivity.

Tourists can check visa requirements on The Myanmar eVisa website. This is a government website and one can apply online for an e-visa. Check out for countries for whom Visa is provided on arrival. Indians can now apply for visa upon arrival. A recent government order to this effect. However, as a travel best practice it is always wise to utilize the e-visa facility offered. One however has to be careful while entering the passport details in to the Visa application form. Mismatch very clearly results in deportation.

Cheer up! That is really a remote possibility. We will next explore the Amarapura township.

Welcome to Banteay Srei, #Cambodia

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THe Banteay Srei Temple

In my previous post, I wrote about Kabal Spean, The valley of Thousand Lingas, situated close to the temple city of Siem Reap. On one’s way back from Kabal Spean, we get to visit the temple complex of Banteay Srei. The complex houses remnants from the Khmer empire during its glorious Saivite period.

Said to have been completed in 967, Banteay Srei was the only major temple at Angkor not built for the king; instead it was constructed by one of king Rajendravarman’s counsellors, Yajnyavahara. The construction is said to have begun during the period of RajendraVarman (assigned the title Sivaloka upon his demise) and completed by his son Jayavarman V (assigned the title Paramavirataloka upon his demise) The temple was primarily dedicated to Shiva (the southern buildings and the central tower were devoted to him, but the northern ones to Vishnu). It lies near the hill of Phnom Dei 25 km (15 miles) northeast of the main group of temples, where the capital of the time (Yashodharapura) was located. It remained in use at least until the 14th century. The town of Isvarapura was centred on the temple.

The temple’s original name was Tribhuvanamahesvara — “great lord of the threefold world” — named as usual after the central image (in this case a Shaivite linga). The modern name, Banteay Srei — “citadel of the women” or “citadel of beauty” — is generally taken to refer to the intricacy of the carving and the tiny dimensions of the architecture.

The temple was rediscovered only in 1914, and was the subject of a celebrated case of art theft when André Malraux stole four devatas in 1923 (he was soon arrested and the figures returned).

Banteay Srei entrance, Walkway, moat and sandstone ruins

The Banteay Srei Temple complex was said to have been constructed during the 10th century . Construction is said to have begun by Rajendravarman II and said to have continued and completed under Jayavarman V

Banteay Srei’s style is a mix of the archaic and the innovative. It is built largely of red sandstone, with brick and laterite used only for the enclosure walls and some structural elements. Although Banteay Srei’s coloration is unique, sandstone of other shades was later to become the norm.

The Plan view of Banteay Srei Temple

Map representing the layout of Banteay Srei temple. THe Moat surrounding the temple helps maintain the water table and ensures that the temple structure is not damaged

Pediments are large in comparison to entrances, in a sweeping gabled shape. For the first time whole scenes appear on the pediments(the triangular upper part of the front of a classical building, typically surmounting a portico), while the lintels (A lintel is a structural horizontal block that spans the space or opening between two vertical supports) with central figures and kalas on looped garlands look backwards. The guardian dvarapalas and the colonettes are also old-fashioned. Decoration covering almost every available surface is deeply sculpted and figures rounded. Like most Khmer temples, Banteay Srei is orientated towards the east.

Two Monkey or Va-Nara resembling door keepers

THe Dwarapalakas near the southern library portion of the temple. Curious to see the Dwarapalakas in the form of Va-Naras. Well built, fantastic in posture and gaze fixated in a common direction, the figures epitomize discipline

Stories galore

The temple, like any other temple in India seems to have been a place for learning of art and forms, language, texts etc., and serving as a place for meditation, rest and prayers. Apart from the above, the pediments are filled with stories, many of them which have been told across the lands of India and SE Asia.

Ravana shaking Mount Kailash

The sculpture is very beautifully carved out in four tiers, each representing different categories of creatures – from the four legged in the fourth, half-human/half animal in the third, Rishis in the second and Shiva and Uma on the top-most pedestal, all of whom look petrified other than Lord Shiva.

The Supreme God sits majestically oppressing Ravana’s strength with his toe and one cannot take his/her eyes off Shiva’s consort Uma/ Parvathi – created with a fear filled jerk.

Ravana shaking Mount Kailash where Lord Siva and Parvati are seated

A famous piece in Banteay Srei. The depiction of Ravananugraha or a favour being shown to Ravana.Ravana was trying to get Siva’s attention by shaking Mt Kailash, abode of Siva. The lord trapped Ravana under the mountain by bringing the mountain down with his feet. Trapped, Ravana sang the praise of Siva for over 1000 years till he was blessed by Siva with a Sword and a powerful Linga for prayers

Krishna killing Kamsa

In the eastern facing part of southern gopuram. Krishna dragging kamsa by hair and killed by a dagger. In the bhagavatha purana it is said that Krishna killed Kamsa by sheer force of his weight. THis in response to Kamsa’s orders to arrest krishna’s adoptive father, confiscation of the wealth of Gopas and ordering the death of vasudeva and ugrasena, the king of mathura.

Image of Krishna holding Kamsa by Hair and piercing him with a dagger

The stories at Banteay Srei seemed to cover all the Yugas. Krishna is said to have emerged towards the end of the Dvapara Yuga and with Mahabharata he is said to have seen the transition in to Kaliyuga, the present times we live in. Here, he is seen slaying his Uncle , dragging him by hair and killing him with a dagger. In the bhagavatha purana it is said that Krishna killed Kamsa by sheer force of his weight. THis in response to Kamsa’s orders to arrest krishna’s adoptive father, confiscation of the wealth of Gopas and ordering the death of vasudeva and ugrasena, the king of mathura.

Siva burning Kama who is attempting to shoot an arrow at him

Kamadeva readying to fire an arrow towards Lord Siva

Kamadeva in the process of trying to disrupt Siva’s meditation gets burnt. While he was just doing the biding of the gods who coaxed him to the job so that Siva is attracted to Parvati, Kamadeva is burnt to ashes leaving his grieving wife Rati behind.

The Travel of Karaikal Ammaiyar, one of the 3 women among the 63 Nayanmar’s (Poet saints) of Siva. One of early Tamil Literature’s greatest figures, she is said to have lived during the 6th century. The Chola period of Tamilnadu which began during the 9th century is believed to have had a large sphere of influence across South , south east of India and South East Asia. Researchers from the team of varalaaru, a respected Tamil historical publication state that, ” Political Non-turbulence at home, Cordial Diplomacy abroad and Economic Affluence beyond high seas are indeed factors to prove that overseas Tamil Trader Settlements would have played a quintessential part in Religious Acculturation of the Southeast Asian Kingdoms they were living in.”

Dancing Siva or Nataraja and Karaikal Ammaiyar

Cultural Influences of India were found absorbed in the nooks and corners of Cambodia. The dancing Siva with his ardent lady Devotee – Karaikal Ammaiyar, a 6th century saint from TamilNadu, India. THe Image on top is courtesy of http://www.varalaaru.com; Below is a representation of Ammaiyar, an ardent devotee of siva and finds a place among the pantheons of 63 Nayanmars (saint poets)

Indra, a vedic deity for the Hindus, Guardian deity for the Buddhists and King of the highest heaven in Jainism is depicted across the Bantey Srei complex

Indra on Airavath

One of the first images that greets you at the entrance from the East corridor is the image of Indra the god of heavens on his vehicle or vahan, Airavath his elephant. Carved in sandstone, the Elephants are sheer delight. Indra with large ear holes are typical of Khmer architecture.

Another pediment shows Indra creating rain to put out a forest fire started by Agni to kill a naga living in the woods; Krishna and his brother aid Agni by firing arrows to stop the rain.

Indra creating rain to put out the fire started by Agni

On the north library’s east pediment, Indra creates rain to put out a forest fire started by Agni to kill a naga living in the woods; Krishna and his brother aid Agni by firing arrows to stop the rain. The photo on top is courtesy of Angkorshafie.com

Lord Siva with his consort and Yama

Lord Siva with his consort Parvati on his faithful Nandi

Lord Siva with his consort Parvati on his faithful Nandi. Around him are Siv Gans, his attendants

Lord Yama on a Buffalo

Lord Yama, the god of death on his vehicle, the Buffalo

A crucial point in the epic Ramayana where Rama vanquishes Vali

Rama, Lakshmana, Vali and Sugreeva with other Va-Naras

A beautiful depiction of a turning point in the Ramayana. Vali and Sugreeva fight while Rama and Lakshmana wait to strike. Here, Rama can be seen striking Vali.

Other pediments with stories of Bheema killing Jarasandha and Lord Narasimha killing Hiranyakasipu the demon. Also featuring Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Kartikeya.

What is a Siva temple without his trusted vehicle and attendant, Nandi. There are many snanadronis which dot the landscape of the temple. The main Nandi faces the sanctum which housed the main deity.

Nandi and two snanadronis

Starting from top left, Nandi the bull without whose consent one cannot not enter the altar of Lord Siva. Often people can be found whispering their prayers and requests into Nandi’s ears. Snanadronis at Banteay Srei which would have contained lingas

Kabal Spean with Bantey Srei will keep you immersed for a day and will leave a lasting imprint on your mind.

Getting to Siem Reap – Siem Reap is served by major Flag Carriers who also service india. Regular services from major Indian cities to #Bangkok (Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways), #Kualalumpur (Malaysian) and #Singapore (Singapore/SilkAir) will get you to Siem Reap with just one halt. The Visa facility too has been eased with the introduction of e-visas. Hotels are in plenty and one can find hotels to suit one’s budget with the assistance of an excellent ground travel agent. Travel agents offer excellent service right from suggestions on hotels to suit budgets, tying up with a registered guide, park tickets based on the interests and other add ons like a visit to the magnificient Tonle Sap lake.

Content Credits

http://www.varalaaru.com – Images of Karaikal Ammaiyar, talking points about Banteay Srei temple especially the content regarding dancing nataraja and Karaikal Ammaiyar. Map of Banteay Srei temple

http://www.cambodgemag.org – Images of Indira creating rains

http://www.angkorshafie.com – Descriptive content regarding the Banteay Srei temple

 

Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

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Hundreds of lingas sculpted on rocks lying on the river bed of Kbal Spean

On a trip to any country in South East Asia, it is a rarity to not come across a Hindu Temple – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia, all of them have benefited from contacts which they have had with India over the centuries.

Map of SOuth east Asia 900 CE showing various kingdoms

THe region of Kambuja had deep connects with India between the 6th/7th century right up to the 12th/13th century. Not only Kambuja, Monstates(present day Myanmar), Champa (central and south vietnam), Annam (North Vietnam), Java and Malaya regions too benefited from Indian influence – all without use of force or economic coercion

Historian RC Majumdar writes in his lecture series, Ancient Indian Colonization in South-east Asia, “The term Hindu is used here in a very broad sense. As is well-known, the word Hindu is derived from Sindhu, the name of the mighty river on the western border of India. The parsis used this name to denote also the territory lying on the bank of the river, that is to say that part of our country which was known to them. Gradually the name Sindhu in its phonetically changed form Hindu came to denote the whole of this country. Advent of the Muslims necessitated the use of two different terms to denote the two distinct classes of people. Henceforth the term Hindu came to denote the people of India other than the Muslims.”

This Diwali vacation, i had the opportunity to visit Cambodia, a vibrant tourist hotspot famed for the UNESCO world heritage Angkor Wat temples, beach city of Sihanoukville, historic capital city of Pnohm Penh and of course the mighty Mekong river which emerges from Tibet and nourishes countries on its way before emptying in to the South China Sea.

With Siem Reap being the only stop in #Cambodia, my effort was to go beyond Angkor Wat and explore the visible remnants of the region and how Indian culture had an influence. One such place of Interest is Kbal Spean, an Angkor era archeological site which is also called as the Valley of 1000 lingas.

Before embarking on a trip to Kbal Spean, one has to purchase the Angkor Pass – One day for USD 37, Three day for USD 62 and Seven day for USD 72. These are available at the complex on the main road to Angkor Wat. Kbal Spean is an hour’s ride from Siem Reap and the access begins at the Kulein mountains. Enroute is another major temple complex of Banteay Srei with Banteay Samre being a detour. The three put together form a day excursion. It is important to note the timings in order to avoid disappointment.

The walk to the valley of the 1000 lingas begins at a checkpoint. It is 1.5 kms but takes a good 40 minutes as one navigates slippery rocks and rough terrain. Stairs are available at steep climbing points but one definitely needs to watch their step at every point to avoid a fall. Pause and take a look at breathtaking views of the forests below, the rainforest canopy, natural rocky outcrops, tough creepers and climbers and of course a few reptiles. There are countdown boards egging you on during the short but tricky trek.

Way to Kbal Spean where nature mesmerizes you

The Walk to Kbal Spean from the base camp is about 1.5 kms and takes a good 40 minutes across boulders, rocky paths, natural rocky outcrops, valley views and beautiful creepers and vines

For the majority of visitors Kbal Spean is a picnic spot with a waterfall to cool off; The first sight of the lingas carved in to the river bed just made me bring my palms in union. It was not just about the reliefs of Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi that were carved in to the river bed but how the thoroughness with which Indian culture and civilization , in all its aspects would have been imbibed in Kambuja (ancient name of the great kingdom of present day Cambodia)

Two bas relief's showcasing the trinity brahma, vishnu and siva

Top above, Siva and Parvati on Nandi; Vishnu reclined on sesha with Brahma emerging from his navel. Below – Lord vishnu, Brahma and lakshmi on a lotus at Vishnu’s feet

Scholars, priests, merchants and persons of various hues who travelled from India to Kambuja desa left a distinct imprint whether it was about a religious, ethical & spiritual life, spirit of piety & renunciation and most importantly the concept of emancipation from birth & deaths. A peek in to texts of scholars, archeologists and historians who have taken immense pains to read through inscriptions (In sanskrit and Khmer) will tell us that all the cultural maturity was achieved between the 6th century and 12th century. The indian influence was without any force or economic colonization. The 700 golden years of Kambuja desa ended as India was trampled upon by the Mughal empire and Cambodia remained a French protectorate till atleast the 19th century.

Images of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva

Brahma, Vishnu and Siva at various points in rocks strewn across the river bed in Kbal Spean

The site at Kbal Spean was discovered by Jean Boulbet, french ethnologist in the year 1969. Cut off during the Cambodian civil war, it was not until 1989 that the site was thrown open for visitors.

4 images of lingams and snanadronis at various places on the river bed

Not only the presence of lingas on the river bed, there are a number of Snanadronis without their lingams. Snanadronis are sculpted structures which drain the water flowing over the lingam

During the period from 6th and 12th century, Kambuja Desa began as a Saivite (rever Shiva as the supreme being) kingdom. The Angkor Wat temple was dedicated to Vishnu (Vaishnavite – Vishnu as the supreme being) around mid 12th century before Kambuja desa embraced Theravada buddhism as its main religion. The Kbal Spean site is said to have been carved during the 11th and 12th century which saw the reigns of some of the greatest kings of Kambuja – Suryavarman I and his successor UdayadityaVarman II. The kings had laid out very clear rules in society – conduct of oneself, treatment of seers & the learned and priests & physicians being held in high esteem.

Lord Siva is venerated across many temples in the world. THe most commonly worshipped form is the linga and the linga is kept cool with a continuous dripping of water at its head. The Kbal spean site with its “SahasraLingas” (1000 lingas in Sanskrit) has a continuous stream of water flowing on top of it. The water having flown over the sacred lingas enters the city of Angkor thereby said to be blessing the city.

Lingas on the river bed and representation of Shakti

The full stretch of the river bed over which the river flows bathing the lingams perpetually and keeping them happy and cool. There is also a grid pattern with the water flowing out representing the Yoni, a representation of Shakti, Siva’s consort

The carving sites have been fenced off to ensure that visitors dont desecrate the holy site. Still, one can reach out and grab a hanful of the cool water that has flown over the lingas and drink up without fear of any contamination. On a hot afternoon it is an absolute delight.

Walking downstream one can watch revellers below a cataract which further flows over many more lingas before meandering its way through the forests and entering the city of Angkor.

4 images of a rainforest stream, waterfall, a chamelon and tree mushrooms

The downstream area of Kbal spean is full of vibrance. Cataracts, reptiles, mushrooms and beautiful Rain forests dot the landscape

Having visited Kailash Mansarovar in the year 2015, the import of the visit to Kbal Spean and the opportunity to be in his presence was not lost on me. The place is pure energy and brought out a determination in my wife who despite a tricky trek was able to make it and savor the moment.

After this visit, i came back and immersed myself in two books by a highly respected historian of India – Shri R.C Majumder. Kambuja Desa – An Ancient Hindu Colony in Cambodia (Sir William Meyer Lectures 1942 – 43) and Ancient Indian Colonization in South East Asia (The Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad Honorarium Lecture, 1953-54). These opened the door to understand the extent of influence of India in the region. Needless to say, i am restless to go back to Cambodia and explore other wonderful places of the Kambuja Empire.

Getting to Siem Reap – Siem Reap is served by major Flag Carriers who also service india. Regular services from major Indian cities to #Bangkok (Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways), #Kualalumpur (Malaysian) and #Singapore (Singapore/SilkAir) will get you to Siem Reap with just one halt. The Visa facility too has been eased with the introduction of e-visas. Hotels are in plenty and one can find hotels to suit one’s budget with the assistance of an excellent ground travel agent. Travel agents offer excellent service right from suggestions on hotels to suit budgets, tying up with a registered guide, park tickets based on the interests and other add ons like a visit to the magnificient Tonle Sap lake.

#Amritsar Memories : Attari – #Wagah border and FarmStay #vacations

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The Indian Tri color

Part 1 of my blog on a rejuvenated Amritsar focused on the newest attraction in town, The Partition Museum, dedicated to the pain and suffering endured by millions during one of the largest and most brutal mass migration in history. The museum has since officially opened for viewing and more sections are being opened in a phased manner.

Part 2 focused on the serene Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple), Akhal Takht, Sarovar and its surroundings. I spent a whole afternoon exploring the nooks and corners of the Darbar sahib complex, learning about the contributions made by the Sikh Gurus, ordinary folk, Armed forces, Agricultural community and the role of Punjab in shaping the history of this great country.

In the 3rd part, i share my experiences and feelings about the newly minted precincts of The Heritage street, another tragic memorial from the freedom struggle – The Jallianwala Bagh and finally the humble Guru ka Langar.

In the Fourth part, I wrote about various dishes on offer and also introduced readers to other Vloggers who have been covering the Amrtisar food scene with so much of passion

The final part of the Amritsar experience is rounded off by a visit to the Attari (Indian Side village) – Wagah (Pakistan side village) border and a visit to a Farm Stay, a concept that seems to be catching up and should a huge boost to the tourism sector and thereby incomes in the state.

My visit to the India – Pakistan border which falls between #Attari village on the Indian side and #Wagah border on the Pakistan side was planned a saturday. All previous traveller accounts including those of my wife and in-laws spoke of an exciting spectacle comprising of dances, singing and finally the Beating of the retreat finally culminating in the lowering of flags and slam closing of the gates. I was eagerly looking forward to this experience. The ceremony has almost gone on uninterrupted since 1959 except during periods of confrontation on other parts of the border. While the Border Security Force leads from the Indian side, the Pakistan side is led by the Pakistan Rangers.

The drive from the centre of #Amritsar takes about 45 minutes to an hour. With the ceremony expected to start by 5 PM, we assumed that reaching with an hour to spare would help me get an entry and a seat at the stadium.  We were wrong! From the parking area to the entry point it is a mile and to my surprise i found that the crowds that were pouring in far outnumbered the capacity of the stadium. Since entry was on a first come first served basis, the crowds i was given to understand were pouring in from noon and had occupied the stadium unmindful of the scorching pre-summer sun.

Busloads of tourists were alighting, civilian defence personnel were getting in to the stadium with valid ID papers, mounted #BSF horsemen were keeping a strict vigil and were respectfully requesting tourists to maintain order and of course ice cream vendors were busy attending to tired visitors. When it was finally clear that it was impossible to make it in, the left out visitors had to contend with watching the ceremony on a huge but very unclear LCD screen.

Attari border crowds waiting to enter the stadium to watch the beating of the retreat

Tourists and visitors who were unable to get in to the stadium to watch the beating of the retreat mill around the premises and try to get as close as possible to the gate and the LCD screen

Lesson learnt – On weekdays during the tourist season (Oct – March), it is advisable to head to the border atleast 3 – 4 hours ahead of the start. On weekends, one should head there atleast 5 – 6 hours in advance. Am assuming that such a punishing wait is not required during off season and summer months. Carry water, a hat along with optional sun screen. Entrance to the border ceremony is free and if anyone pretends to sell tickets you will know that you are with a tout.

The excitement however is palpable and hearbeats rise as the BSF guards start marching in to the narrow strip leading to the border. On the other side of the border one can see the 400 feet high pole on which the Pakistan flag is flown and a large portrait of Quaid e Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. Once the ceremonies begin, all the music, foot stamping are drowned out by the raucous crowds on either sides of the border. The LCD screen is blur and does not give a nice viewing experience. I tried to jostle my way up to the barricades amongst young, elderly, children perched on parents’ shoulders but gave up after while. I eagerly look forward to the day when the whole experience could be webcasted on 4K video.

Attari Wagah border images

THe Indian flag flies high. Unlucky visitors milling around the gate waiting for the ceremony to begin. A glimpse of the narrow strip leading to the border. The Pakistan gate is visible along with the portrait of MA Jinnah

On the last day before taking my return flight back to base, i had an opportunity to do a familiarization trip to a farm stay. The farm, owned by a tour operator is located in his native village a 30 minute drive from Amritsar. Within 15 minutes of leaving the city precincts, one is welcomed by lush green wheat fields, swathes of mustard fields identified by the golden yellow flowers, farmers transporting produce on their tractor trailers and local gurudwaras where people congregate. The Farm Stay consisted of a ground level where the guest rooms were located, about 4 of them to be precise, a well laid out dining area offering breakfast and optional lunch and dinner. The owner resided upstairs and the care takers were housed in the staff quarters. Fresh vegetables and milk are from the farm and meat is brought from outside for preparation.

Farm fresh vegetables and villa entrance

Farm stay. Fields with Pea, Radish, Cabbage, Beetroots and just harvested and dried potatoes and peas

It was calming to see the cows lazing around their fodder house.

Cows on the property and the fodder preparation and feeding area

Cows on the property and the fodder preparation and feeding area

Agriculture is Punjab’s mainstay with Wheat and Mustard fields dotting the landscape in and around the farm stay. With the likes of AirBnB allowing holidayers to plan in a jiffy without having to go through the rigmarole of hotels, the concept of Farm stays, if backed up with a clear government policy, could provide tourists with a wonderful option.

Wheat, Mustard fields and a tractor

Wheat, Mustard fields and a tractor

Other attractions in Amritsar include the Gobindagarh Fort built in 1760. It was earlier occupied by the Army but is now home to a museum showcasing Punjab and its glorious history. Be notified of any private events in the fort which may prevent visitors from entering. On the lines of Chokhi Dani in Jaipur, Amritsar now boasts of Sadda Pind, a village themed resort. One could plan a visit to these places based on the interest levels of the touring party. Amritsar is a fabulous Winter destination. An extension to Amritsar is a trip to Chandigarh (5 hours) and further to Dalhousie and Dharamshala. Amritsar on its own is perfect for 3 nights / 4 days.

Getting to Amritsar – Airlines Indigo, vistara and Spicejet fly direct from Mumbai. They also fly direct from New Delhi along with Air India and Jet Airways.

Trains – There are a total of 27 trains between New Delhi and Amritsar. The Journey takes a little over 6.5 hours and one has a choice between day and night time trains. Advance reservation can be done on the Indian railways booking portal.

Go ahead, pack your wollens and head to this fabulous urban destination.