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A quick trip to Chennai

Revisiting the grandeur of Pallavas is a must when in the capital of Tamil Nadu.

Nature sometimes does love to show its humorous side. So, here I was trying to escape the chill of the north. A quick getaway to Chennai looked like a sign from heaven.
Being a light traveller though did attract a worried 'your luggage is very less for two days ma’m' from the chauffeur, little did I know that his concern would actually translate into one. Who would have imagined that otherwise much-dreaded heat and humidity of this city would choose to be a no-show just when desired! 

Just when I was reliving the childhood memories of the shores of Mahabalipuram, heavens decided to open. The accompanying winds were pleasant at first as they sang in tandem with the crashing waves, making it a perfect setting to appreciate the seventh-century Pancha Rathas or Five Rathas. A part of UNESCO World Heritage Site in Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, the monolithic rock-cut structures are also popular as Pandava Rathas. Despite no connection with Mahabharata or any religious significance as the structures never reached the sanctification stage, the five chariots are still named after the epic’s characters – Yudhishthira, Bhim, Arjuna, Nakul-Sehdev and Draupadi respectively.
While the Draupadi ratha resembles a hut, and the Nakul-Sehdev one being simple with little embellishments, the rest three are examples of architectural elegance. The Dharmaraja or Yudhishthira ratha and the Arjuna ratha are quite similar with four and three-tiered carvings on the roof respectively. The former is, however, the tallest one. The lion-mounted columns of the Bhima ratha, and its apsidal architecture is quite stunning. Though referred to as temples also, dedicated to Vishnu, Indra, Durga, Shiva, it is quite likely that their design reflects the wooden temple chariots of the Dravidian era.
The stand-alone elephant, meanwhile, is what makes you fall in love instantly. Called Gajaprishthakara, meaning elephant’s back, for that is what you see first as you enter the compound; it has to be the most perfectly-sculpted elephant you would have laid your eyes on. The bull, Nandi, besides Arjuna’s ratha, though a fine specimen, ends up looking like a poor cousin in comparison. And, you can definitely find many of his siblings at the Shore Temple, which gets its name from its location on the Coromandel shore overlooking the Bay of Bengal.
Standing pretty like an old guardian, more so with dark clouds up above and a drizzle adding to the aura, among the gardens and ancient courts, this Pallava dynasty structure is one of the oldest stone temples of South India. Though no longer a worshipped temple, it makes for magnificent background every year for Mahabalipuram Dance Festival which is held in the month of January-February. Also built under the rule of king Narasimhavarman II and a UNESCO World Heritage site, it stands on a 50 sq. feet. platform and rises 60 feet.
Marco Polo and the European merchants and seafarers called the site Seven Pagodas, one believed to be the Shore Temple, probably due to its pyramidal shape and multi-tiered carvings on the top. The 2004 tsunami not only exposed an old temple built entirely of granite blocks on the shore, it also renewed speculation about the seven pagodas, six of which were always thought to be submerged under the sea. Built of cut stones rather than carved out of one giant rock, Shore Temple is a complex of three temples housing shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva and Vishnu, seen reclining on the Sheshnag in one of them. Then there is a carved stone panel, called Shivaskanda, in which you can see Shiva with goddess Parvati and their sons Vinayaka and Karthikeya. The legend has it that Indra had become so jealous of the splendour of this place that he flooded the area and submerged everything, with only few like Shore Temple having survived that.
It was only after hours that it dawned upon me that the dusk had quietly set in while I was admiring the way mere rocks and stones can take awe-inspiring shapes. More so when the lights from the vehicles create a light show for you at Arjuna’s Penance, an enormous stone carving on two boulders. While many believe that the relief shows Arjuna undertaking a penance to obtain a rare weapon, some think that it portrays the legend of the River Ganges’s descent to earth. Whatever the reasons, it is one of the most beautifully-carved structures at Mahabalipuram.
By then wet feet and clothes were making me shiver a bit; quite uncharacteristic of Chennai. The nature, however, didn’t stop at that. It was only after it drenched me more than a couple of times due to sudden showers in the next few hours that it finally stopped it antics and left me with a dry pair for the journey back.
Travel Diaries editor Garima Verma was hosted by AccorHotels.
The French Hospitality brand recently added Novotel-Ibis combo property, on Chennai’s Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR), also known as the IT hub, to its long list of properties in the country. Novotel, the upper midscale brand of AccorHotels has 153 rooms while economy ibis has 189 rooms, giving the guests a wonderful mix of four-star and three-star to choose from. Their food is another major attraction apart from the cosy rooms and various amenities. With the launch of this property AccorHotels now has 53 properties in India divided among its 10 brands.

While Novotel has a corporate touch to it, the ibis seems more youthful with its bright décor (and, the common ice dispenser and ironing board on each floor). And, for the ones who make their what-to-eat list for every journey, Novotel’s casual dining restaurant, The Square, is quite a delightful place. With both international and regional flavours on offer, it tickles and then well satiates your tastebuds. The live cooking stations help you put on the thinking hat of a chef and experiment. The dessert bar is an absolute not-to-be-missed, because if you do the appetizing display of flavours and colours (check the picture below) might give you sleepless moments.

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Govardhan: Where Lord Krishna played

The 21km parikrama of the hill is both spiritual and a test of fitness.

After a month of climbing hills and walking a lot in the Northeast, I was quite confident of acing the parikrama with flying colours. The locals, however, were not too sure of us city-dwelling folks aiming at completing the whole round in one go.
So, as a few of them advised to perform the parikrama in two parts, self-doubt set in. The smaller part of the parikrama is 9 km (popularly called choti parikrama); the husband and I decided to accomplish it first. A km into the trail, we could make out that all the people performing the parikrama were barefoot. Quite a dilemma for us that was. Carrying a bit of guilt in our hearts we asked an elderly gentleman if it was okay to wear shoes. “Beta, bas bhaav hona chahiye mann mein, kaise bhi laga lo (your heart should have the feelings for the Lord, that is all that matters),” he said. And, isn’t that is all that should really matter?

As we traversed through various settings, from the woods on one side of the path and open lands on another, to houses lining both sides of narrow lanes, the colours and confluence of so many believers just amazed us. The bright red of vermillion being sold on the carts, multi-hued dresses for ladoo-gopalji in every other shop, the ramshackle buildings still hinting at that lost glory and architecture or the big and small temples all through, it is a treasure trove for curious minds and excited hands at the camera.

Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu temple, Uddhav Kund, Radha Kund, Mansi Ganga and Kusum Sarovar are must-visit. Built in red sandstone, the temple has wonderful carving and reflects the life of the spiritual leader who not only popularised chanting of Hare Krishna but also located the lost holy places associated with Lord Krishna.

While quite a many stoppages meant a little delay, still we could finish the 9km goal in 3.5 hours. Feeling glad, we then treated ourselves to a round of chaat, crispy golgappas and the husband’s favourite kulhad chai and hot dry-fruit milk. We were more than excited to take on the bigger (badi parikrama) the next morning.

An early and quick breakfast (make sure never to fill up your tummy too much as you might feel sluggish) coupled with lovely sun made sure we were in the best of spirits to tread the spiritual path and even check on our fitness level. Unlike the choti parikrama, this one is not so full of wonderful distractions and has a broad road and a walkway on the side all along to aid your speed.

The Govardhan Hill, though not very high and at some spots quite low in height, however, is visible only in this part of the full parikrama. The legend has it once Pulastya Muni came upon Govardhan Hill in the Himalayas. He requested Giriraj’s father Dronachala to let him carry the beautiful mountain to Varanasi. While Dronachala gave his permission with a heavy heart, Govardhan made a condition that, “I will go with you, but wherever you place me to the ground, I will not move from there.” As Pulastya Muni was passing by Braj Bhumi, he got an urge to respond to the call of nature. Thus he had to place Govardhan down. He tried with all his strength, but Govardhan would not move. He became very upset and he cursed Govardhan that, “Everyday you will reduce in size equal to that of a mustard seed”.
Hence, the hill that was miles and miles high, reduced to a size where Lord Krishna was able to perform his pastimes easily. He even famously lifted Govardhan once for days at end to protect his fellow villagers from the wrath of Indra. Now its highest point is just about 80 feet.

A tale of two states, as the bigger parikrama goes from Uttar Pradesh to Rajasthan and back, its main attraction is Poochri Ka Lautha and Daan Ghaati Temple at the end where you can thank the Lord for giving you a chance to be at this holy place and offer prasad
When the saints told us the day happened to be amavasya, considered auspicious to perform parikrama, it felt as if the things were meant to be in a divine way. And when we saw a lot of people performing the tough dandavat, we promised ourselves that next time we could at least try to walk barefoot. Dandavat parikrama, which can take days, weeks or even months, is performed by standing in one spot, offering prayers by lying flat on the ground. One then places a stone where the fingertips touched the ground in order to mark the spot, the routine repeated for every stone, the number of which can go up to 108. Standing up, one moves to the stone marker and again offers the prayers. When it’s time to call it a day, one has to retreat to a place to rest and start from the same spot the next day. Sounds like an unachievable feat, but as they say, if you have faith, the will surely finds a way to your heart. And, we saw many examples right there.

Travel Diaries editor Garima Verma was hosted by Shri Radha Brij Vasundhara Resort & Spa.
Located within the first two km of the bigger (12-km) parikrama, the property is spread in an area of 26 acres. Boasting of a wonderful location with landscaped gardens and cottages, it indeed has the potential to become the top option for stay in the region. It is, however, issues like cleanliness and service that leave a lot to be desired.

As understood, the resort is quite a hit for weddings and family functions. For those visiting for complete relaxation and calm, that could be a problem since wandering guests in such functions tend to forget their room number a bit too often. And, waking up in the middle of night to see confused faces would not be anyone’s idea of vacation.

The food is always worth the wait and would make you come back for more. Almost every preparation on the menu (even if you sometimes may not find everything available), be it the delectable paneer tikka masala that goes so well with the khasta roti, Gujarati poha in the breakfast or dum aloo, are soul-satisfying.

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St. Mary's Island, Malpe-Udupi

We have spent the entire first half of the day, praying in some of the amazing temples of Udupi. After having local Mangalorean style lunch, we were all geared up for the Malpe Beach and the St. Mary’s Island.
6 km. from Udupi town, Malpe is a natural port, one of the major fishing harbours in Karnataka and above all is home to peaceful beaches. Malpe Beach is one of less explored places and off late have started offering water sport and other adventure activities for visitors.
Blue green water on one side, green trees on other side and in between option of long walks along the coast. Settings and ambience makes this place a perfect definition for heavenly place. Malpe Beach is one of most happening places in and around Udupi.
Apart from the settings, the biggest attraction here is the St. Mary’s Island which is approx. 6 km. from the coast line. And taking a ferry is the only way of getting to this island. Sit relaxed in a ferry, bring your camera to action mode and enjoy the cool breeze of Arabian Sea.

Along the way you will come across many ferries with excited souls on way to St. Marys Island.

Ferry operator gave us 1 hour (60 minutes) for the island sightseeing. At first glance it looked like more than enough as the island covers an area about 500 m. x 100 m. only. However very soon we were about to realise that 60 minutes will pass in a flash as one of the most amazing time of our lives. Welcome to St. Mary’s Island.

Legend says that in the year 1498, Vasco da Gama, first landed at St. Mary's Islands on his journey from Portugal, named one of these islands, O Padrão de Santa Maria, dedication to Mother Mary, before proceeding to Kozhikode in Kerala. Looks like it is from this that the islands got their current name. Did not knew that we were going to a part of time travel?
Distinct and gorgeous rock formations is the first thing to be noticed as soon as ferry is about to touch the St. Mary’s Island coast. Actually these rock formations are all basaltic rock formations.
Scientific studies suggest that the basalt of the St. Mary's Islands was formed by sub-aerial sub-volcanic activity. At that time Madagascar was attached to India and Madagascar rifted apart around 88 million years ago.
Taking camera is allowed inside the island premises after paying prescribed Fee of INR 200, else you can deposit the camera in the designated counter and let your mobile capture the stunning natural landscapes.
Prominently covered with coconut trees, the island is also called Coconut Island. There is no habitation on the islands.

At certain places rock formations are so unique that you will forget your beach activities and will turn in to a Geologist.

Likewise, the northernmost island has a hexagonal basaltic rock formation, the only one of its type in India.

The beach here is also a heaven to the seashell collectors. Collect seashells of various shapes and sizes littered along the coast. My kid had collected so many shells that I had to carry them in my pockets and then inside one compartment of my camera case.
However, you will not be able to test your swimming skills as there is very less sand on the beach and the beach it is crafted with basaltic rocks all around. Security guards have been deployed around the beach to check any extra adventurous souls.
Also there is a small eatery on the island. Please be informed that littering on the island is strictly prohibited and officials keep a vigil for enforcement of the rule.
Regular ferry service (Rs. 300 per head) ply from Malpe Beach, however frequency depends upon number of passengers. Despite getting crowded with many people in the afternoon, the Malpe Beach is extremely neat and clean. White sandy Maple Beach is quickly getting popular with those who are seeking solace with some adventures.

Buses ply regularly from the Udupi town to Malpe Beach. If you have time and want to explore the nearby areas, we suggest to hire a taxi as there are many spots like Malpe Fish Market, Delta Beach, Kemmannu Hanging Bridge and others to be explored and enjoyed. 

Do you know:
  1. The St. Mary’s Islands are one of the four geological monuments in Karnataka state and declared as one of the 26 Geological Monuments of India declared by the Geological Survey of India in 2001. The monument is considered an important site for "Geo Tourism".
  2. Malpe is the first and only Indian beach with a 24/7 WiFi and also has a luggage counter to store your luggage.
  3. Malpe Beach is also a centre for numerous beach side concerts and festivals organised in Udupi.
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