There can be no doubt about the fact that Steve McCurry is one of the greatest photographers ever. Award winning contributions to leading publications notwithstanding, there is a very humane, down-to-earth appeal that is immediately evident in all his photographs.
One of my favorite photo essays are his vignettes of the Grand Trunk Road, which crisscrosses the Indian subcontinent, stretching from Kabul to Kolkata, and is dripping with history at every turn. Virtually all of these photographs will transport you to a different era, in a different place.
Pay attention to the way he captures the proletariat in these places, going about their daily lives, against cinematic scenes unfolding in the background (for e.g., a coal fired train chugging over a bridge, crowded markets buzzing with action); narrating stories of an era long lost.
“Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims – and potters – all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood. And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. Such a river of life as no where else exists in the world.” – Rudyard Kipling, Kim
India’s neighbor, and erstwhile inseparable part of the family is no different when it comes to being blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. How naive it is though, to be a tiny part of a massive universe and see more of the differences between us than the similarities.
In his series of photo essays from the magical land of Skardu-Baltistan (geographically contiguous with Ladakh and the Tibetan plateau), Bukhari gives us a glimpse of the treasures his country has been blessed with. After going through it, there lingers a romantic hope that someday, may there be no borders.
“I was walking on a narrow strip, when a window of a nearby home opened, and a boy with green eyes and a warm smile waved at me. All my exhaustion seemed to just melt away.
I then, made my way to the main road, crunching over fallen leaves that had covered both sides of the road.”
For it is such a beautiful world that we live in ! Click the link below to view the photo essay.
Little Tibet, the last Shangri-La, Moonland, Broken moon, Lamaland. Ladakh has been fondly called many names by countless travelers in the past. One of these travelers, and chronicler extraordinaire, was a British gentleman by the name of Sir Alexander Cunningham. It was Cunningham who laid the groundwork for what was to become the Archaeological Survey of India. He visited Kashmir and Ladakh in the mid 19th century. In his notes, he mentions the earliest Chinese traveler to India, Fa-Hsien who seemingly referred to Ladakh as “Kie-Chha” during his visit there, circa 400 AD. “Kie-Chha” means a country where snow never melts and Fa Hsien described the natives of this country as “men of the snowy mountains“. Cunningham also cites Hiuen Tsiang, the great Chinese traveler, famous for his 17 year overland journey to India, “..from Lo-hu-lo (present day Lahaul) to the north, for over 2000 li, the road is very difficult, with cold wind and flying snow; thus one arrives in the kingdom of Mo-lo-so, or Mar-sa, (synonymous with Mar-yul, a common name for Ladakh)”
However, it is these very characteristics – the rugged and unique geography, the barren land, and a climate that vacillates between unforgiving and downright inhospitable – that drive tourists and converts them into ardent devotees. Ladakh is not your typical vacation destination. People have been known to have come down with sunstroke, altitude sickness or frostbite; for an unfortunate few, all three at the same time. For the Ladakhis have a saying on the lines of, “Only the fiercest enemies and dearest friends will visit this land..” Nonetheless, antithetical though the region may be to the idea of human life, life does abound in the fertile valleys irrigated by the great Indus and its tributaries, most notably the Shyok and the Zanskar.
Many a time has an enthusiastic tourist made the long journey to Jog falls to end up with something like this.
This was in the peak of the monsoon season, as you can make out from the greenery around. Supposedly, one of the highest waterfalls in India, its moniker ‘Joke falls’ among blogging circles is well-deserved going by this photograph. And to think, the state authorities have created a parking lot, a state tourism hotel, viewing areas to benefit the hordes of tourists. Just wonder whether somebody forgot to turn on the secret waterfall switch.
Honestly though, I have no idea if this is due to the rainfall deficit or the dam built across the Sharavathi river.
Either way, just compare the above photograph with Jog at its mightiest. This photograph was taken during the monsoons as well.
I was at one of Bangalore’s famous bakeries the other day. Never had heard of any of their fresh baked cookies, never tasted any of them either; the only point of reference was my friend’s opinion. One taste of the cookies and I was totally blown away – incredibly tasty and soft, the melts-in-your-mouth variety.
We lost no time in ordering 100 gms of the plain cashew variety, 100 gms of the chocolate plus cashew variety and a 100 more grams of the almond filled variety.
Standing beside me was an elderly man dressed in a a dhoti and a white, soiled kurta. He was accompanied by a kid, probably his grandson. The kid was wearing clothes that weren’t worn out or soiled, but looked tacky all the same. He was trying hard to get the shopkeeper’s attention, all the while pointing with his outstretched hand at a mouth-watering chocolate pastry enclosed in the bakery window. His grandfather though, was trying hard to cajole him as his choice of pastry cost more than they could bear to spend. You see, in the other hand of the kid was a 5 Re. note and a 1 Re. coin.
6 Rs. My own grandfather, when he was alive, would buy me things worth more than that from bakeries in that old town in Kerala. But that was way back in the early 90s. Almost two decades of inflated prices and scary increases in customer spending power hence, what do you get from a bakery for 6 Indian rupees ?
The plight of that kid and the old man made me shed a silent tear. I don’t think a lot needs to be said about the disparity in living conditions in a country like ours. I see a lot of money being spent by people around me, on things that are not really a need, only an object of desire born out of excessive wants. And there never seems to be an end to it.
I have never felt more strongly about the need to cut down on wasteful expenditure. I have never felt more strongly about the need to start giving back to society. In terms of money and in terms of intellectual and social capital. I hope one day I can really put all this education to good use. And I hope that quite a few of the students graduating this month from India’s elite management institutes will too. One day.
The lady at Lakshmi Heritage was kind enough to sew back the button on my shorts the previous day (Shorts or capris are necessary in Hampi’s heat, combine it with a linen shirt for maximum comfort) – extra points for the stay then.
Phaddu, a round shaped snack made from dosa batter, is a popular snack in Hampi and you will find various small shops selling phaddu early in the morning. Phaddu is what we had for breakfast on the second day, with spicy green chilli chutney and some very bad south Indian coffee for company.
After wolfing down copious amounts of phaddu, we asked around for motorbikes or bicycles available for hire. There are very few motorbikes available for rent, but you’ll find a lot of mopeds on hire at around 200 bucks a day + petrol charges extra. Bicycles are available at around 60-80 bucks a day, but be sure you have the stamina to ride the bicycles all day. The terrain is not really flat in Hampi and we saw plenty of tourists huffing on their cycles while climbing up the gradients on some of the roads.
Our first stop was the Virupaksha temple, accessible by a small walk down the road from our stay. The official website mentions that this is the oldest temple in Hampi, and one of the oldest ones to still remain functional in India. You can read up more about the temple here. The temple premises are inundated with monkeys and it would be a good idea to not carry eatables into the premises. I saw a monkey jump onto the head of a shrieking girl and do away with the ‘prasad’ that she was carrying.
The temple elephant, as in any other temple in south India, has been cleverly trained to pass on any currency or cash offerings from devotees to the mahout. Any eatables go straight into its mouth.
Moving on from the Virupaksha temple, we went to the banks of the Tungabhadra river. The banks themselves are a photographer’s delight with snake charmers, coracle rides, women washing clothes, hawkers displaying umbrellas, bangles, jewellery and other stuff made locally. If you plan to buy any of them, remember to inspect thoroughly and bargain hard.
For a sum of 20 bucks per head, a boat will transport you to the other bank, which stands out in sharp contrast to the earlier one. Here you will find lush green fields of rice plantations dotted by coconut and palm trees. There is so much greenery on display that it would be hard to not seek a moment of solitude to take it all in.
We hired a diesel auto rickshaw for all of us, a cool 400 bucks for the day and asked him to take us to various locations on that bank. He started off with the Anjaneya hill, where a temple dedicated to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman stands, and is believed to be his birthplace.
The climb up to the hill is steep, laborious and extremely energy sapping. It would be a good idea to do this climb as early in the morning or as late in the evening as possible. But once you do make the effort, the views from the top are to die for.
The auto driver took us to Pampa Sarovar and a few other places on the same bank but these were inundated with devotees and we found nothing notable on any of them after the architectural delights from the previous day.
After lunch and a few snacks, we decided to call it a day in Hampi then and proceeded to Hospet where we spent some time at the magnificent Tungabhadra dam and then made our way back to the bus stand to catch the return bus to Bangalore.
Hampi really stood out for me as one of the better trips I’d been to. Amidst the boulder-strewn landscape and all the ancient architectural marvels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that time somehow stood still in Vijayanagara. Do not expect a lot of creature comforts in Hampi and make it a point to stay in Hampi itself, not Hospet like many visitors do. An ideal time would be to visit it during Oct-Dec. Any later and with the tourist season starting, you’ll have to contend with crowds and higher hotel fares.
A special mention for the ‘Purple Grass’ restaurant in Hospet – they served a most scrumptious fare. Do make it a point to drop in if you plan to have dinner there, all the dishes are worth every penny. The owner’s name is Nuthan Shetty. Consult him for their best dishes and if he asks you on the source of the referral, remind him of a ‘Mahesh Bhupathi’ look-a-like and he’ll know.
Moving on, the auto rickshaw guy took us to the Zenana enclosure in Hampi. Wikipedia tells me ‘Zenana’ is a persian term that was used for areas reserved for women, whereas the areas reserved for men were called ‘Mardana’.
To the left portion of the enclosure lie the remains of what was probably a huge palace in those days. Speculation abounds about what it would originally have been or looked like, with some even saying that the structure was built of sandalwood and pointing out traces of sandal wood found during excavation. However, no conclusive evidence exists. Pictures of the other attractions follow:
I had read stories about an air-conditioning system that was used to keep the interiors of the Lotus Mahal (reserved for the queens of the empire presumably) cool. Entry is denied inside the Lotus Mahal itself and there was no way I could check up on traces of such a system.
Further up ahead from the Lotus Mahal, is a gate that leads to the famed elephant stables and the guard quarters.
With the heat bearing down even more, (this was in October and I can’t imagine how it would be in summer), we took a quick break for lunch in some run down place that the auto driver took us to. We moved on to the famous Vittala Temple after lunch.
The Vittala temple compound contains the face of Karnataka state tourism – the famous stone chariot. Tales abound of how, at one point in time, the stone wheels could be used to move the chariot around. The elephants drawing the chariot, as many articles will tell you, are replacements for horses. Be warned however, any attempt to mount the elephants will earn you a stern (and well-deserved) reprimand from the guards there. The compound also houses the famous musical pillars temple, which is now undergoing repairs and is cordoned off to the visiting public.
Thankfully, there was an ice-cream vendor just outside the Vittala temple. The mango dolly he serves is recommended, very highly, not for the taste but for the heavenly bit of coolness it induces.
Our last stop for the day was the Malyavanta Raghunatha temple which stands atop the Malyavanta hill. The auto guy told us that Rama, while on his exile, shot an arrow that struck the ground here and caused water to spout. That spot is now marked by a well inside the compound but other articles and blogs online differ from the events he narrated. Anyway, the hill provides an excellent view of the boulder-strewn landscape of Hampi against the setting sun.
Sight-seeing for the day done, the auto rickshaw drivers dropped us near the Mango Tree for dinner. Our experience in the Mango tree, buttressed by raving reviews from other visitors was like a damp squib. Quite a few menu items were not available and the ones that were, didn’t really live up to expectations. A special word on their drinks menu though- do stay away from the lassi, especially the Pineapple lassi – it tastes like vomit. After dinner, we walked back to our stay from the Mango Tree in pitch black darkness, helped only by intermittent light provided by the moon when the clouds allowed it to.
With such a long and tiring day behind us, it wasn’t possible that we had the energy to stay up for long and I slept like a child that night. A long, dreamless sleep that was a preclude to the early morning visit to the Virupaksha temple that we had planned for the next day.