Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Jade Buddha Temple

The Jade Buddha temple is a recent construction. It was built in 1928 over an older temple, to preserve two rare relics. Both relics, statues of the Buddha were brought down from Burma by a monk Huiegen. The temple sits in a poorer part of Shanghai or so it seems. Outside there are several shops selling souvenirs. As we walk on an old man asks us for alms. Its a side of the city I am seeing for the first time.

Entrance to the Temple

The front yard is filled with visitors, some tourists, the others here to pray. A coat of incense hangs in the air. During the cultural revolution which overthrew the Monarchy of the Quin Dynasty, the old temple was destroyed. But recognising the historical importance of the relics, the two Buddha's were housed in a newly constructed temple. Unless told it would have been hard for me to guess that this had not been the original place to house both statues.
For the temple retains its old world charm and has an aura of peace. The interiors are with the signature gold and red

The Buddha

Inside the temple

The sitting Buddha in his moment of enlightenment, is made of a rare white Jade. Jade is considered auspicious by the Chinese. It towers over the visitor and is a beautiful presence in the dimly lit room.

As we go around the temple , the aisle is lined with other statues. It reminds me so much of the smaller deities lining our courtyards in the beautiful temples of Southern India. They are called 'Gods of the Twenty Heavens'. Its amazing how cultures so distinct, intersect and converge in strange ways.

Gods of the Twenty Heavens

The resplendent seated Buddha


Outside visitors burn offerings with incense in an enclosure. Its sunny. A beautiful day out in Shanghai.


Memories of Shanghai

China fascinated...Five long years after I first visited I can still vividly remember the five weeks I spent there. For no good reason I decide I would go through with the exercise of blogging about it.So here I go..

We first landed in Shanghai. Shanghai is in every sense the realization of the Chinese dream. Its China's advertisement of success to the rest of the world. And its such a wow city!

Shanghai is a veritable concrete jungle. A colleague of mine told me that 1/3 of all the world's concrete was possibly found here The evidence in favor of that argument was so overwhelming that it did not occur to me that I should doubt that statement. Though this is what the world was to see of China I was told that vast areas of China were poor and economically deprived and many people faced the same struggles that others from across the world face in the battle for survival. I did not get to see the other side as my travels only took me as far as Shanghai and Beijing. But someday I hope to go back and see much more of this vast ancient country. Though China's emergence as an economic  giant is fairly recent, trade between India and China go a long way and has been mentioned in several Indian books
Entrance to the Free Trade Zone in Pudong..
From Shanghai

AS most big offices which have made their foray into the vast Chinese market place, ours was in the Free trade zone in Pudong, which means 'East of the River' in Chinese. The river in question is Huangpu , a tributary of the great Yangtze before it empties into the East China Sea. the lifeline of Shanghai, the name of which means Yellow Bank River , it also serves as a major waterway. The impressive Shanghai metro has several branches which run under the river. Morning comes and we see a flurry of cyclists cross our path. I have never seen so many people cycle to work,the green alternative to motored transport. The cycle lanes have been beautifully planned and built hugging the huge motorways, all the way upto the Special Economic Zone in Pudong.

Local Cuisine..
From Shanghai

The world arises in Language they say, and the purport of the statement hits you square on the face when you visit China. They had no need for English except in the recent past, and so we had no way of communicating. We realize that even Sign language has heavy cultural biases and what we thought we were saying was always met with blank stares. Our way around the problem was to get small bits of information written on paper in Chinese which we would hold up :). Limited but effective. Being a vegetarian, I had my little sheet saying I do not eat meat or fish. The communication barrier surpassed, there really is nothing to worry. Instructions are followed to a T. :). While we are on the topic of food, being a vegetarian I had absolutely no problems here. There was plenty to eat. The average Chinese meal comprises of a couple of serving of meat and a couple of servings of vegetable, along with a small quantity of rice. I even tried a little imitation meat, made entirely of Soya. The cultural nuances of Chinese eating would have been lost, if we had decided to get rid of the chop sticks and stick to forks instead. For each meal is served on a circular table, from which you pick up food and eat. Rice was a smaller bowl than we expected and was often eaten alone, picking up the grains with the chopstick, without any accompaniment to go with it. That also explains why we did not see too many fat people there. The other reason as explained to us by a colleague was the enormous amounts of green tea the Chinese consume. Even hotels do not serve water with a meal. Its only Tea that is drunk to sate parched throats.

 Hoardings in Xintiandi
From Shanghai

One evening we visited Xintiandi, the flashy and affluent area laden with shops and eateries and with a beautiful view of the skyline. Xintiandi means 'New Heaven and Earth'. Very close by is the site of the first communist party of China. In this place of bright lights, big hoardings, shopping malls and narrow cobblestone streets we stroll around

View from the Pearl Tower
From Shanghai

Shanghai's skyline is impressive. And no better way to see it then from the top of one of the tallest buildings , 'The Pearl Tower'. All around the Huangpu river snakes around the city meandering its way into the sea. Tiny barges flicker in the distance. The Shanghai World Financial Center, towers like a giant above midgets. At 492 m, its the tallest building adorning the skyline.

Shanghai is a spectacular city. First opened up to trade under the 'Treaty of Nanking' in 1842, to mark the end of the first Opium war, the city has grown in stature as one of the foremost commercial hubs in the world. The city has known a long history and has been at the center of many a conflict to where she stands now. Shanghai was the succor to Russians and Jews fleeing persecution from the newly established Soviet Union and was also the center of the radical leftist movement. Prized and coveted though out history, Shanghai is a gem of a city.   All around us we see evidence of China's growth as a global power. But as we wander along the tiny lanes leading up to the Jade Buddha temple, we also see evidence that some have been left behind.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Clock Towers of Venice

Venice boasts of some really beautiful clock towers. The first, the most famous here, the clock tower standing on St Mark's Square. In striking Blue and Gold, with signs of the zodiac marking the 24 hours of the day, the clock tower is an eye-catching piece. A coming together of two number systems , The Roman numerals are on the outer edge indicating the passing of hours. The minutes are measured by the Arabic numerals sitting on the right. The clock tower dates back to the 15 century. But the clock itself had to be restored many a time to ensure that it was an accurate measure of the passing minutes. The archway below the tower leads out of St Mark's square and into the main street of the city leading up to Rialto.

The Golden pointer has an image of the Sun. And within the clock face one can also see the earth and the moon. Clocks such as these are called Astronomical clocks.

The Clock Tower in Pizza San Marco
Two gigantic structures stand on top , these strikers of the bell, are symbolic of the young and the old..  Both of which have equal grasp of time, for time waits for none. The size of the structures was to ensure that they could be seen by ships in a distance.
The bronze structures that strike the bell every hour..

Clock Tower in Rialto Market,..

Walking down Rialto Market, we see another clock tower. Sadly time stands still for this one in strange contrast to the feverish activity in the market circle. Its more straightforward that the more famous cousin in St Mark's Square, but is extremely pretty nonetheless...


Sunday, December 26, 2010


After our recent trip to South America, our choice of a place to visit to mark the first anniversary fell on someplace quiet :). A little English village would be perfect..
And it was easy to find Castlecombe, the prettiest village in England in 1962 as most articles on the net described.
In the heart of Wiltshire and a little away from the city of Bath, The closest station to Castlecombe was Chippenham. With A journey time of little over an hour from Paddington, London we reached the Chippenham station a little past 3:00 PM. From there we were told the best place way to get to Castlecombe would be to take a Taxi. We got off from the taxi and walked a bit, only to find that we were at the end of the village.

Our stay for our little holiday was 'The Georgian House'  owned by Lady Long, our delightful hostess.
It was a very cold day, colder than any we had seen so far that winter.  So it was good to be indoors and we spent most of the evening talking to Long  about the village and planning what we could do during our stay there.

Our Stay..
  After Breakfast, we set out discovering the village. It has just begun to snow and the entire village truly looked frozen in time. It was cold , but lovely and we walked on.

The Market Square stands in the center of the village. When this structure was built is not known. The village website says it was in use around 1590 , when  most of the villagers were involved in the clothe industry. The brook further down which we would pass by was the primary supply of water for industry.
As with the history of most places it is mostly the river which sustains life. and in this village it was this little brook which nurtured the woolen industry around the area. Things changed in the  17th century when the decrease in water levels saw weavers migrate to other places around Castlecombe.

The Market Place..
Though several houses have been rebuilt, Castlcombe still retains its distinct character.
It was lovely walking through the narrow streets, with the snow coming down..
Traces of brown still pepped through white sugar coated roof tops. The creeping cold was a constant reminder that there were warmer places like the village pub that we could head to. But we kept walking.
A view of the Village
We passed the little brook and found that we were lost.  A passerby gave us the secret to unlocking the door leading up to the manor hotel :).  Tea at the hotel we decided.

On one of our walks..
The Manor hotel is one of the architecturally renowned buildings in Castlecombe and is as old as 1664.  We were told that the house along with the manor was put on auction in 1947. We walk around the sprawling green surrounding the hotel , and cross the little bridge. We head into the hotel and treat ourselves to a welcome cup of steaming coffee.  We walk past the hotel, and find that we are now behind St Andrew's Church.

The Manor Hotel..

A 13th century monument, the church is beautiful.  Its amazing that there is so much history woven into the  the relics here; A monument to Sir Walter de Dunstanville, Baron of Castle Combe, who died in 1270,  and a clock believed to be one of the oldest working ones there is..
St Andrew's Church
But what really caught my eye was the beautiful stained glass paintings along the windows of the church. The light filtering into this place of beautiful quiet made it all seem dreamlike.

Inside St Andrew's Church
The first of our walks donw, we went down to the local pub for lunch, Large portions and beautifully flavored English food.  The best Jacket Potatoes I've eaten so far.  :)
Row of Houses.

For the second of our walks, we decide it would be wise to ask for advise. Our hostess gives us a book and a map.. We think this should suffice.  This time we are walking over the hills.
Before Castlecombe came to be an important center for the wollen industry, it was a British fort, tkaen over by the Romans and then the Normans.. The Normans built a fort , the remains of which we are told can be seen on the hill..

The Village Bridge..
We cross the village bridge again and head straight up. Theres a little brooke that seems to be traveling along with us. We take a small road on the side of the brooke as shown on the map and head up straight. A Wooden Gate seems to be the first indication that we are indeed on the right trail.
As we move along the frosted furrows ,  bits of the brown earth seem to peep through. We are careful as we walk along. Autumn is still stubbornly standing her ground and the red foliage against the backdrop of the fresh snow is amazing.
A walk through the wilderness

Berries on Trees
We reach the very top from where we can see the village church.  its a beautiful sight. We can see the neatly spaces stone houses of the village from here. We now trek down and the road meets the motorway  which leads us back to the Market place.

 "The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep..
But I have promises to Keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.."

- Robert Frost
A view of the church from the hilltop
We rest a while and then head out to have dinner . A beautiful two days, and we end on a celebratory note. S tried the Salmon , a recommendation by our hostess. We talk about how time seems to fly..Its been a year already :)
Down to the village pub after dinner and we already seem to know a lot of faces. Everybody seems friendly and as usual sport seems to be the conversation starter... A link across cultures :). This time it was Rugby scores.

The little celler inside the B&B where we stayed..

At Breakfast the next day, we talk to Lady Long. As always travel conversations span the length of the world. Lady Long told us about her time here and then we begin religon and religious beliefs. Theres a beautiful cellar in the house full of intresting relics of the Greek orthodox church. I am amazed.
I discover yet again that the need to relate to a higher power comes from an ingrained need for succor, to make meaning in an ever changing world. And the need not to strangely comes from the same..
I have for long now decided against the use of labels and so I stay non committal in my beliefs. The truth is not always black and white , but a somber shade of pretty Grey :).

Castlecombe has been truly wonderful and we shall come by to see her again.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Autumn in Greenwich..

I come form a country of two seasons, - Summer and Winter. Winter is just summer to a milder degree and nothing else :). So Autumn swept me away with all its beautiful colours.
Spring was pretty, Green and young and full of the laughter of gentle winds, Spring fell and then there was Autumn- The reds, the browns, the yellows, I loved them all!
So one lazy Sunday we decided to take the bus to Greenwich which is my favorite place in the whole of London. A walk down the park with all its ravishing colours, was the perfect end to a busy week.

I would have loved to stay longer. But this time of the year also means we move into darkness early. So it was time to head home.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Some links..

Here's a link to the Masanugudi travelogue i wrote on MustSeeIndia.
....And the link to the article I wrote on Jew Town in Cochin 
Pretty excited :)


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Crossing Over.. (From Peru to Bolivia)

Its not often that I've crossed over from one country into the next.. A pedestrian bus, halted on the border its passengers getting off to have their passports checked. The border control a small dimly lit office, with two guards not very menacing looking standing outside ushering the lines of tourists shuffling in..
We took the bus from Puno in Peru, having visited the floating islands of Titicaca and not wanting to linger on in Puno any longer. Puno save the islands did not have much to offer. It was extremely touristy and small as it was, we were done walking the few streets the previous evening..

The drive to La Paz was beautiful. We wound our  way round roads hugging the mountain side , never once steering clear of the beautiful waters of Lake Titicaca.  Her mood was definitely a different shade of blue to what we found in Peru. We caught some pics on the mobile , as the camera had lost charge..

Lake Titicaca..
We were in and out of border control in half an hour. We had to change buses at this point. We hauled our luggage and hurried to the bus stop. I was already panicking as we were a little late.. The better half assures me that the bus will not leave without us.. This only makes me walk faster.. :)

Border Control - Bolivia

We board our bus in Copacabana on the Bolivian border. Pity we don't get to see much of this city. I've read and heard so much about Copacabana, that I feel sad that our encounter with her is barely fleeting.
Our journey inside Bolivia was fairly uneventful until the bus pulled over and we all disembarked...
We were told we would have to take the ferry and our bus would be ferried too..
I have never seen anything like this before. It was chilly and pulling our jackets closer for warmth, we hurried to buy tickets. We got onto the ferry. It was dark. The ferry was packed. There were about 8 life jackets for the entire boat. The motor roars to life and the boat moves swiftly along, its noisy passengers punctuating the otherwise silent night..
And then the boat stopped. A problem with the engine we are told. At this point there nothing much we can do but sit and wait...
Ten minutes later we are on our way..

Crossing Lake Titicaca

Once on the other side , we await our bus. The scenes unfolding are intriguing. As we stand a truck is ferried across in a what looks like  a huge flat boat being rowed across the river. Take a few pictures.
Its freezing . There's nothing much around this place.  After what seems like a looooong time our bus arrives. And we are on our way to La Paz..

Meena Venkataraman

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Uros Islands of Lake Titicaca..

Travel Diaries: 8th Oct

The Reed Islands of Titicaca

There are plenty of tours on offer...and the thing to do in Puno is visit the reed islands of Titicaca.
We haggled a bit and got ourselves what we though was a good good deal for 15 soles each.
We were picked up from our hotel and found ourselves waiting in the port.  The port is incredible, crowded with boats,  and to the naked eye looks like they are encroaching on the land beyond into the Hilly city of Puno

The Port in Puno
Our boat was soon ready. And before we knew it we were off on the ride. The invigorating breeze  carried the smell of the water as the boat sped through the clear waters.  Our first glimpse of the Islands of Uros was when we saw cows eating grass on what looked like land....
 Our First glimpse of the Uros Islands
The Uros are an ancient  tribe. Legend had it that there were here on Earth even before the Sun , the sustainer of life warmed it. Every civilization seems to have a tale very like the Garden of Eden...
And in this culture it is believed that the Uros, once so mighty that they could not even be struck by lighting lost their super human powers on account of disobeying the law that they should not mix with humans. The condemned tribe became the Uro Aymara.

"History becomes legend and legend becomes myth" - JRR Tolkein in the Lord of the Rings

Whatever the legend has to say may seem impossible to believe, but this is known for certain that the Uros predated the Inca Civilization. The Reed islands are masterfully built and speak volumes of what the Uros were capable of. They once payed taxes to their Inca conquerors and were even taken as slaves.

The Reed islands of Titicaca
We got of from our boats to a traditional welcome from the Woman folk of the Uros and then sat around listening to our guide talk us through how the islands are built
Earthern Pots

Woman of the Island Cooking..

Handicrafts made on the island..
Cooking fires are always built on a layer of  stone or clay. This is done to protect the highly inflammable reeds from potential fire accidents.
The Reed Boats
The reed boats are one of the oldest known boats in the world. They take up to a month to build. These boats called Tatora are the principle means of communication between the islands.
Model demonstrating how the islands are made
The islands are made from what is called 'Tartora Reeds'. The reeds are native to the ecosystem here . The dense roots of the reeds form the base of the island. It is this base that supports the layers of reeds put out on top. The reeds rot and so have to be regularly replaced. The reeds are even eaten and are believed to keep teeth and gums strong. We were given samples. Lets just say its an acquired taste :).
You bring out the Peruvian in me :)
The people here turn to the sea for a living, in recent times supplementing their meagre incomes through tourism. We were welcomed warmly into their houses. It was fun trying on the local attire. :)
The Reed Boats of Titicaca
We took a small boat ride through the island. It was lovely. The short ride took us to an island on the opposite side , a much bigger and more touristy proposition.
The Island of Titicac
There are close to 40 islands in this area. Our guide pointed out to solar panels. There were schools on the islands. But the closest Universities are all in Puno.  There are close to 2000 people who live here.  Only a few actually live in the island. Through the years , through marriage there has been intermingling between the Uros and the people from mainland Puno. The original language Aymara is no longer spoken. Through the years it has been linguistically eroded and has consequently almost disappeared.

It is amazing that the people of the Uros have managed to maintain their culture in the midst of all huge challenged , the chief among them being loss of livelihood to commercial fisherman. Tourism has provided sustenance and thrown in some sort of a lifeline. No matter what hurdles they have left behind over  the present century will present bigger challenges. And here's hoping that this ancient people show the same resilience they have shown over the past 500 or more years.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Passion Flower (Flowers of Peru)..

The passion flower is vividly beautiful , deeply revered and rich in symbolism. The 10 petals are the 10 apostles present during Chsirt's crucifixion, the filaments The 'Crown of Thorns', the anthers the wounds and the stigma the nail...

Driving Down (From Cusco to Puno)..

Travel Diaries: Oct 8th

We left early to Puno.  The sun had just risen. Still tired after the trek, we relished the slow pace we had set ourselves that day. But strangely we got on the bus ruing the loss of an entire day in travel. Its so much more convenient travelling overnight. But this was the best we could do. We decided we would catch some sleep. Half an hour into the ride we realised how wrong we were. The scenery was in some ways overwhelming , nothing like what I had seen before.
In a bit I was wide awake , camera in hand, not knowing but hoping that  my lens would somehow obliterate the reflections from the glass windows in front of me (No the windows could not be opened , if that's what you are wondering about :))

We drove along sides tracks laid deep into the gorgeous tawny brown ground. A sprinkling of houses provided the right amount of detail. The rolling hills in the background, gentle and all observing stood back silent enjoying the gentle sun. There were no trees. But inspite of the dry earthy colours of the landscape shifting rapidly past us, the mind seemed to conjure up images of the rich earth lying beneath suggesting life and continuity rather than  the opposite...

The railway line foretold our journey, almost prophetic, withholding just enough for us to savor the experience by ourselves, but travelling with us a fair distance before vanishing behind the hills.

Llaamas graze, their heads bent. Some it  seemed were also keeping watch as they others devoured the warm grassy earth beneath :)

We stopped at a place. There seemed to be a lot of activity ahead and around us. We got off to explore. It was a street Market; Alpaca shawls, sweaters, bags, gloves, local musical instruments all on display, Passersby busy haggling out a good deal..
The mountains stood out in the background, stark against the vibrant hues all around

A bustling Market by the roadside..

"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard 
    Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; 
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd, 
    Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone" (John Keats in Ode on a Grecian Urn)

We departed. The sun was beginning to set. Grey waters of a sullen river flow past. They seem to catch the light of the setting sun. The sky is overcast casually threatening rain, holding back probably just for the fun of it or so it seems.

Our first glimpse of Lake Titicaca

Our first glimpse of Titicaca was breathtaking. Stretched out in infinite blue she almost looked like the sea.
All around we could see millions of rooftops...

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all 
       Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  (John Keats in Ode on a Grecian Urn)


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