Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – 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.

A Rejuvenated #Amritsar – Part 2 Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple)

A Rejuvenated #Amritsar – Part 2     Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple)

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.

The Darbar Sahib well known as The Golden Temple is among the holiest of Sikh Gurudwaras (Gateway to the Guru). Moving beyond text books, calendar pages, i yearned for a visit. As a first timer visiting the Golden Temple, I felt a child like enthusiasm. The Gurudwara complex welcomes you from all four cardinal directions indicating acceptability of one and all. My driver guide parked his vehicle at the parking lot just before the Heritage street. The grand statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji is a prominent assembly and a selfie point. One walks from here, follows directions leading to the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple).

Statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji at the junction of Heritage street and Town Hall road
Maharajah Ranjit Singh Sandhawalia (November 13, 1780 – June 27, 1839), also known as “Sher-e-Punjab” (“The Lion of Punjab”), became the first Sikh Emperor after uniting the 11 Sikh Kingdoms of Punjab on the foundations of the Khalsa and under the banner of Sarkar-i-Khalsa, from 1799-1839.

There is a free Footwear safekeeping area. The volunteers hand over a numbered token to help you retrieve the footwear after your visit. There is a steady flow of water near the entrance footsteps. Visitors must compulsorily cleanse their feet before entering the Gurudwara complex. You are watched by the sentries at the gates to ensure that this mandatory act is completed.

Chowk Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) entrance to the Darbar Sahib / Golden Temple
The entrance from the eastern side is from Chowk Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower). To the left is the shoe safekeeping area followed by a feet wash before entry

The moment you enter the complex, the Darbar Sahib glows in the crystal clear waters of the Amrit sarovar. There is no specific direction in which one needs to move before walking to Darbar Sahib. I headed straight to Darshani Deorhi, the doors leading to the bridge connecting to the Darbar Sahib. The glittering entrance has intricately carved marble walls with semi precious stones, a chandelier and wooden doors which were presented to Maharaja Ranjit Singh way back in the year 1800.

Entrance to the Golden Temple Pathway
Darshni Deori, entrance to the bridge connecting to the Darbar Sahib

There is absolute orderliness and decorum amongst the devotees. On special occasions and holidays one can expect a wait of atleast an hour before reaching Har Ki Pauri (entrance to Darbar Sahib; steps of the almighty). Elders and children are willingly given the right of way. Gurbani (Hymns from the central texts of Sikhs – The Guru Granth Sahib) recitals are played on the speakers and engage the visitors and devotees. Tireless groups of volunteers keep the bridge and surroundings clean with water and a mop.

Bridge connecting to Har Ki Pauri
Har Ki Pauri or Footsteps of the almighty is just before one enters the Darbar Sahib or The Golden Temple

Once inside the Darbar Sahib, one can go up one level, listen to Gurbani hymns, pay respects to the eternal living Guru, The Guru Granth Sahib. There is no ushering but sentries to ensure orderliness with respect to entry and exit. Even with a huge stream of devotees and visitors, there is absolute calm within Darbar sahib.

A pious ceremony is conducted every morning and late evening. At the end of a day, the palanquin containing the Guru Granth Sahib (Palki Sahib) is carried to the Akal Takht and is got back to the Darbar sahib in the early hours. This procession is said to attract huge crowds not withstanding the early / late hours when it is conducted.

History – The excavation for the Amrit sarovar (Holy tank of Nectar) began in 1577 during the lifetime of the 4th Guru, Ram Das based on instructions of the 3rd Guru, Amar Das. The final excavation of the tank was completed in the year 1588 by the 5th Guru, Arjan ji.  The temple construction was completed in the year 1601. First edition of The Guru Granth Sahib was installed in 1604. The first caretaker or granthi was Baba Budha ji. One can visit the old tree where the Baba used to rest and supervise the construction of the temple. A lot of the walls, domes and doors were overlaid with gold during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji.

The Darbar Sahib has been witness to conflicts throughout history and has stood as a rock and served as a rallying point for sikhs. Legendary sikhs have risen from time to time to restore the honor and dignity of the Darbar Sahib after every desecration.

Visitors then walk to the Karah Parshad distribution center (A sacred food) to partake of the offering distributed by the sevadars. I also watched devotees return their quota of parshad at another counter and partake of only what is handed back to them.

Water fountain/water distribution center quenches ones thirst on a hot summer day. Volunteers tirelessly hand out steel bowls full of water to refresh oneself. Pause to catch a glimpse of the Darbar Sahib amid a few sips of water.

The water distribution center at Darbar Sahib for Devotees and visitors
The water distribution center at Darbar Sahib for Devotees and visitors

Devotees perform sevas as a thanksgiving in various forms one of them being the cleaning of the complex as a family

The Akhal Takht is the highest temporal seat of Sikhism founded in 1606 by the sixth Guru Hargobind Sahib. He wore two swords – Miri & Piri symbolizing Religion and Governance at this place. Two towers across the Akal Takht symbolize Miri & Piri. Historical weapons pertaining to Gurus and Sikh soldiers are displayed at the Akal Takht.

Akhal Takhat and Miri Piri
Akhal Takhat the temporal seat of Sikhism is a must visit. The significance of Miri and Piri in Sikhism should be read by all visitors

The political cum military power of the sikhs may be regarded as a reaction against the intolerance and bigotry of the muslim rulers leading to the oppression of the Hindus. Before founding of Sikhism, Punjab was trampled upon for over 500 years by invaders from central Asia. The people of punjab endured maximum suffering as hordes passed through it to the rich plains of the Ganga or to the south. Various army units that were raised have dedicated a slab of marble to commemorate their raising. These can be seen while heading towards the exit of the temple complex.

Dedication by the Armed Forces
A whole lot of marble slabs dedicated by various companies of Armed Forces praying for their safety and well being.

The Journey within the Golden Temple complex continues with a meal at the Guru Da Langar and a walk on the Heritage street.

Getting There : Amritsar is a 7 hour journey by road covering over 450 kms. It is well connected by direct flights between Mumbai and Delhi. Plenty of trains run between Amritsar and other important cities of India namely New Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Mumbai

Text Sources:

  1. Sikhism by R.C Majumdar part of the series on The Mughals

 

 

 

 

 

The Sweetness of Chettinad – Part 1

The Sweetness of Chettinad – Part 1

After a road trip across Rajasthan, my daughter Rashmi takes another shot at blogging. This time she talks about a trip in to Chettinad in the state of Tamilnadu. This road trip, beginning from chennai is spread over 2 Nights and 3 Days. The route traverses through Chengalpattu, Tindivanam, Villupuram and Trichy over a duration of 7 hours. There are a number of clean and hygenic breakfast & lunch joints with toilet facilities on the highway. Hiring a comfortable SUV with an experienced driver-guide is important. The highways are wide and multi-laned with short stretches which may turn narrow. Experienced driver-guides maintain a steady speed with safety as a top priority. Here she goes….

Chettinad, the unexplored part of South India and Tamil Nadu. It is a place which contains the real essence of Tamil Nadu, where one shall discover the glory and heritage of ancient mansions built decades ago and opens us up to understand south Indian culture and their business instincts.

I recently went on a Short holiday to Chettinad in the month of December along with my family, and if you ask why chettinad, it’s because we all our bored of doing the same old Tirupati, Navagraha temples, Madurai, Kodaikanal and etc…So for a change, we decided to explore an unexplored part of Tamil Nadu which is Chettinad.

Chettinad itself feels like a small state like Goa, which is surrounded by serenity, nature, beauty and warmth. We drove down from Chennai to Kanadukathan, which is a district in the Chettinad region itself. It took us about 6 hours non-stop to reach Kanadukathan, where we stayed in a heritage property known as Visalam, which is managed by CGH Earth Group of hotels, which has over 10 properties across India, mainly in Southern India. So we decided to stay there for 2 nights and 3 days and personally I feel that even after spending 2 days in such a small region, I never felt like leaving Chettinad because anyone who ever comes here, gets settled in the homely atmosphere of Chettinad.

So as soon as we entered the district of Kandukathan, we immediately drove to our resort Visalam, where we were given a very warm welcome by the staff, who welcomed us in the traditional south Indian way along with refreshments and bangles for the ladies and angavastra- which is a part of the traditional south Indian costume for men worn like a dupatta.

Visalam by CGH earth
The CGH Earth property – Visalam at Kanadukathan in Chettinad

Sanjeev Sanyal in his recent best seller, The Ocean of Churn – How the Indian ocean shaped Human History, pays glowing tribute to the chettiar business community of Kanadukathan. He writes, “Tamil chettiar merchants and moneylenders spread across South East Asia. In Malaya the lent to Chinese Tin miners and European platers, and in Burma they supplied credit to farmers. They operated through a system of guild-like firms and agencies, usually run by members of the extended family. One of the largest of these firms, established by Muthiah Chetty in the early 1900s was headquartered in Kanadukathan in chettinad”. It was wonderful to visit a part of history and learn of how well regulated Non Banking Financial Organizations were. He also mentions the role temples played in re-capitalizing some of these businessmen who lent to businesses.

Visalam who lends her name to the property, the courtyard and the sitout
The Courtyard or Miththam within Visalam. Spacious and an airy seating area.

As soon as we checked in, we were given 2 cosy and extremely spacious rooms for the 4 of us and we spent the rest of the afternoon by ordering some simple lunch and taking rest. Next in the evening, when we all got freshened up and had some tea-coffee along with snacks, we got dressed for some photography and a visit to the Pillayar Patti Temple, which was about 15 minutes away from our resort. The temple is dedicated to Karpaka Vinayakar (Elephant headed god, Son of Lord Shiva). It is considered as a very holy temple where hundred’s of people come every day to get the blessings of the lord, who is said to be very powerful. In this huge cave temple, there are rock cut images of Lord Shiva and many other Gods and Shrines as well. As soon as we got a beautiful darshan of the Lord, we headed back to our hotel as it was quite dark and there was nothing much to see after sunset. We headed back to our hotel and went around the property, clicking photographs and discovering chettinad heritage- the glorious mansion, Athangudi tiles on the floor and Traditional vessels for cooking and serving.

Kitchen wares - cooking and serving, Radio and a water boiler
Clockwise from Top left – Porcelain pickle Jars, an antique and working Radio, Water boiler, Brass serving vessels, Brass cups and cutlery and brass storage vessels for water and other kitchen ingredients

We were also told about the history of visalam.

It was originally built by K.V.A.L.M Ramnathan Chettiar for his loving daughter Vishala. Except for occasional family weddings, the mansion was rarely used. CGH earth while renovating have spared Visalam from the stress of renovation and have just breathed a fresh lease of life in to it with restoration. Using original materials like Burmese Teak wood, the new managers have retained the original charm while making rooms, polishing the marble floor and putting up exquisite woodwork.

Next, we had a delicious and traditional south-Indian Dinner, which was served on a banana leaf. It was a complete meal with starters, a main course and of course, a desert too, which were all completely prepared in a south Indian way!

Masala Seeyam, Sweet Pongal, Vellai paniyaram
Starters Left – Vellai Paniyaram OR Deep fried Rice Pancakes with Danker, a Dip of Tomatoes, onions and Tamarind Right – Sweet Pongal made from Rice and Jaggery with Masala Seeyam, a deep friend lentil and rice dumpling with Coconut chutney
Main course - rice string hoppers, idlies, Dosa with a variety of sides
Clockwise from Top Left – Idiyappam with a Curry, Idlies with a Mix Vegetable Curry, Idlies with Sambhar and Dosa with a Brinjal Curry

Dessert and warm milk to end the day
For Dessert – Masala Milk and Kavani Rice, a purple sticky rice pudding, a product of south asian influence

After that, we headed back to our rooms for a sound sleep that we needed, to begin a fresh new day!

Getting there: Chennai is connected to all major cities across India and the world. From Chennai, chettinad is a 7 hour drive.

More in Part 2

Experiencing Varanasi…..Part 1

Experiencing Varanasi…..Part 1

“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”………….Mark Twain

Varanasi, also known as Benaras and Kashi as the locals lovingly call it, is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Since 2014, It is being represented in Parliament by India’s Chief Executive – Narendra Modi.

Fall, Winter and early spring (October – March) are the best seasons to head towards Varanasi. The city has convenient connections by Air from New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Khajuraho. All of India’s major airlines – Jet Airways, Indigo, Spicejet and Air India fly in to Varanasi. We booked ourselves in to an Indigo air flight from Mumbai, reaching Varanasi in time for a 12 noon check in. Our land package was planned by Narmada Holidays. The airport is a good 45-60 minutes away from the main city and the roads pass by the country side of Eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Our stay was at Rivatas by Ideal. A well equipped 4 star hotel and apart from Rivatas, there are other options like Radisson and even Heritage options like Taj Nadesar Palace and Suryoday Haveli.

Our lunch was simple fare in the in-house restaurant, Ocean. Try the Indian breads (Roti), spinach and cottage cheese based gravy, lentils and Rice; Winter brings in the freshest of fruits and vegetables and it pays to try the season’s freshest. Lunch done, it was time to head out towards the Ghats situated on the banks of the river Ganges. Varanasi infact derives its name from the merger of rivers Varuna and Assi.   There are plenty of options to get to the drop off point at Godowlia Chowk. You can hire an auto rickshaw costing approximately between 50 and 70 Rupees or a tri cycle rickshaw which pedals you for approximately 30 – 40 Rupees. If you have hired a cab for your transportation needs, the cabbie or the guide will drop you off at this junction (Godowlia Chowk). Have fun as your transportation takes you through a cantonment area, below a railway under bridge, mosques and other places of worship, busy streets selling clothing, utensils, electronics, sweets and savories, milk based products and of course numerous restaurants. Mark the spot where your transportation drops you in case you are doing the rounds of the ghat all by yourself. Soak in the chaos of the junction, feel the humanity surge in to you, hear the policeman shout in to the microphone asking erring cabbies and vehicle owners to give way, urging people to wear their helmets and what not….

The road leading from the chowk down to the ghats are vehicle free (not entirely as bi-cycles are allowed). Don’t be under the assumption that you can swing your arms and enjoy a leisurely walk. The roads a chock-a-bloc with people and you will need to be swift and be able to maneuver yourself for the next 0.5 mile. Before you head in to the ghats don’t forget to sip a hot cup of tea, served in a mud cup. Hot and mildly spiced, you are definitely not going to stop with one. Costs all of 5 – 6 Rs.

There are 87 ghats in Varanasi and each one of them was built by India’s former princely state leaders. Each Ghat was a donation to help pilgrims conduct their religious rites and offer a place to stay. Families chose Varanasi to perform the last rites of their near and dear as it is believed to offer complete salvation for the soul.

Dashashwamedh ghat is the most splendid ghat in Varanasi and plays host to the famous aarti to lord shiva, sun god, river ganges and the fire god. Priests pray every evening to the Holy river with hymns running in the background. This elaborate ritual starts every evening towards twilight. Get in early, find a good seat – either on the steps behind the priests or on the boats in front of the priest. Bargain for your boat seat with the boatmen. The aarti ritual mesmerizes you for more than an hour. There are free lance photographers who offer you instant prints at nominal prices.

The evening draws to a close as guests head out to roam around the narrow streets around the ghats. The streets are crammed with curio shops, sweet shops and interesting international eateries. Evenings are reserved for the best of Varanasi food….Part 2….

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