We did the drive from Aryaman beach to Madurai in the hottest part of the day. The car air conditioning laboured hard to keep the metal box warm as it sped across a hot plain next to the Vaigai river, swollen with the waters from the fringes of the weather pattern which flooded Kerala in the previous week. I was fighting a losing battle with sleep when I spotted the temple gopuram which you can see in the featured photo. I sat up and asked Sathiamoorthy whether we were in Madurai. He said “Yes. This is the Vandiyur Mariamman temple.”

The temple tank, called a teppakulam, is historic. I’d read somewhere that the Nayak kings’ palace of Madurai was built with bricks made from mud dug out from here. The pit was then remodelled into Tamil Nadu’s largest temple tank. In a festival which begin in January, the idols of Meenakshi and her consort are carried from their temple in the center of the old city to this place. I’d seen photos where the tank was full of water. The game of cricket being played in the grassy bottom of the dry tank was not something I’d expected to see.

Tamil Nadu is in rain shadow during the Indian Ocean summer monsoon. It gets its rain in a later pattern which starts in late September. We’d got an early shower or two. I wondered whether the tank would be full by January. I’m sure the festival is colourful. Maybe I will come back to see it one day.


Church of coral

The drowned town of Dhanushkodi was big. You can still see the railway station, a post office, a big school, and a church. I saw the front of the church with its niche for a bell from the road. We’d just wandered through the ruins of some houses, but Sathiamoorthy was happy to stop the car. I walked up to the church wondering whether the bell tolled as the Christmas super-cyclone of 1964 approached. Maybe they had tied it down against high winds earlier.

More than half a century, two generations later, there is no sense of tragedy here: only a romantic ruin standing on a clean beach. There’s a steady trickle of tourists. I waited for families to finish taking their group photos in front of the gaping doorway of the church. The last family was large, and apologized for the long time they were taking. I was happy to wait, I assured them. When they went in, the grandfather said to me, “I can’t walk any more.” I told him he was not in the way. I liked him sitting there to give a scale to the photo. So many tourists stop here that a large cluster of shops in shacks has sprung up around it.

I walked around the structure and looked in through a hole in the wall to find that the altar is fairly undamaged. It would have been raised fairly far above the pews, but it is now level with the sand. I realized that the hole that I was looking through would have been a window, possibly raised waist high above the floor of the church. That is a lot of sand, but then it has been many years since the church was abandoned.

There was something interesting about the wall. I stepped forward for a closer look. The church walls had been built of blocks of coral, brick was only used in arches. What an amazing thing to do. The church must have been for the use of the British functionaries here. Stones had been transported to make the railway station and the port. Bricks had been used in houses. It must have been a conscious decision to make this church out of coral. You can see three different types of coral in the photo above. The storm of 1964 killed the reefs here. I wondered whether the previous half a century of work in the surrounding waters had depleted the reefs so much already that the storm just struck a last blow.

We came back later before sunset to walk on the beach here. The sand is very clean. There aren’t even the remains of sea shells. From the number of shops here which sell things made of sea shell, I guess there must be beachcombers busy at work after every high tide, picking up whatever has been washed ashore. I walked out towards the incoming tide to take this photo. The salt wind and water must be at work to wear down this remnant of a short lived port. The atmosphere is gently corrosive. No lichens or moss grow on the walls of this church. We were on the verge of a bad sunburn as we walked away.

Kalam’s memorial

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gandhi, but I don’t have any Gandhi memorabilia to write about. Instead I have a photo of the memorial to the 11th President of India: A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. He started as an engineer, became the chief of ISRO, and after retirement was elected the president for a single term in 2002. When the memory of the Mahatma is fenced into the little boundary of keeping your house clean, it is good to break out of it to look at the country which he was partly responsible for creating. This is a country in which the son of a fisherman could become a president.

Kalam is buried in Pamban island, a few kilometers from the site of the house where he was born. We walked through the memorial built around his grave. From outside the building looks blocky and closed, but the corridors inside with enclose little gardens. From inside the structure is full of light and air, not at all like its forbidding facade. I wish I could find out which architect designed it.

Ancient neighbourhoods

The area around the Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram is full of shops, and some of them are open fairly late at night. I liked roaming these streets trying to take photos of people going about their lives. It is amazing to think that in the 7th century CE the Skanda Purana listed the temple and the Agni Teertham ghat nearby as holy places which one should go to. The island would have been a couple of kilometers out to sea. Getting here would not be as simple as it is today.

The temple of Rameswaram has grown in the last 14 centuries. I counted three layers of corridors around the central shiva linga. The outermost was created about three centuries ago. By the looks of the sculptures on the next corridor in, it must have been made about a millennium ago. Life around the temple would have been recognizably similar through these centuries. Shops would have sold flowers for pujas, others would have keepsakes. Electricity came in the last century or slightly more, before that there would have been oil lamps. The shops would have huddled as close to the temple as possible. It was interesting to walk here at night trying to imagine how the place could have looked a thousand years ago.

Drowned town

I had read up on the Christmas cyclone of 1964 before travelling to Dhanushkodi, but nothing had prepared me for the sight of the town which was destroyed by what we would now call a super cyclone. This was one of the first such storms to be imaged by satellite, and the largest storm which has ever straddled the equator. On the bright and sunny day when The Family and I walked through the destroyed town it was hard to imagine the storm.

A low pressure zone was spotted in the Andaman Sea on December 15. This grew as it traveled west-northwest towards Sri Lanka. Satellite imagery was at its infancy at that time, but the storm was unusual enough to attract attention. It developed peak steady winds of 240 Km/hour, with gusts estimated at 280 Km/hour, just before it hit Sri Lanka on December 23. The storm surge peaked in Dhanushkodi and reached 7.6 meters, completely drowning the town. A train was submerged killing 200 passengers.

The port of Dhanushkodi was an important link with Sri Lanka since 1914, with a busy custom house. Over 800 people drowned in the town, and many fishing boats were lost. A single road now passes through a narrow spit of land. We saw a row of broken houses near the old railway station and decided to walk up to them. They looked like colonial bungalows, the kind that would house the families of high-ranking railway staff.

The Family and I walked separately around the lonely building. The sea was slowly reclaiming it. Buildings of this kind had tiled roofs. They must have blown off right at the beginning, and the storm surge would have engulfed the whole structure. If there were people inside, they had no chance of survival. There is nothing here any more. Empty doorways gape at the sand and sea.

I had expected to find moss and growth. There’s very little of that. The tides wash up high fairly often these days. The coral reefs were destroyed in the storm, and the sea and sand have been shifting ever since. The plaster over the bricks is slowly falling away. The exposed bricks were wet and bright red. The tide was now at its lowest, but the bricks had not dried since the last high tide.

Salt wind and stone

I first visited the temples of Mahabalipuram almost thirty years ago. A local bus dropped me at a seemingly empty spot on the beach. I walked towards the shore, spotted the temples in the distance and trudged up to it in the summer’s heat. I was too young to worry about dehydration. I remember very little detail; what remains now is the impression of great antiquity and eroded stone.

Years later, in 2006, The Family and I visited the temples. The small village where I had something to eat decades earlier had grown. There were resorts, workshops of stone carvers, newly trained by the government, and many tourists. There is a certain charm in walking across level sands to find a thirteen centuries old temple. But it is clear that the more interest there is in such places the more likely it is that conservation efforts improve. The salt breeze and the tides of over a thousand years have eroded the sculpted stone, but windbreaks are being built now to protect them.

We walked slowly through the temples and caves and paused to admire the enormous relief sculpture called either “The Descent of Ganga” or “The Penance of Arjuna”. The featured photo of deer and the relief of a cat dancing in front of mice (photo below) are parts of this panel. These sculptures are on shaped faces of two enormous boulders, each almost 10 meters high and 25 meters long. I wished we’d brought ladders to stand on to look closely at different parts of this relief, there was so much detail to admire just in the parts close to us.

We spent a long time walking about the complex of caves, temples and the shore temple. The increased influx of tourists meant that there were many hotels to stay in. We’d found one earlier in the day and deposited our bags there. When we went back it turned out that we could sit out on the beach and watch the sunset with some beer and fish. There are so many advantages to increased tourism.

The kings of the South

When I plan to travel, some parts of southern India slip out of my mind. I recently remembered that Madurai is as old as Ujjain, Banaras, or Patna. This post is an attempt to get the outline of the chronology straight in my mind.

The statecraft of the Pandya, Chola and Chera kingdoms find mention in the 3rd century BCE treatise on administration and economics called Arthashastra. Ashoka’s edicts, from about this time, mention some of these kings. Trade routes linked the northern and southern kingdoms, and Ujjain, which lay on one of these routes, prospered as a result. This early period of Tamil culture was recorded in the literature of this, the Sangam, era. The literary tradition is believed to have continued until about the end of the 4th century CE. Madurai hosted some of these early meetings (called sangam) of poets, playwrights, and writers.

The next records come from the early period of Hindu revival in the 7th century CE. The shore temples of Mahabalipuram (featured photo) were built in the the early part of the 8th century CE by a Pallava king. There was a resurgence of the Pandyas of Madurai at this time. The conflict between the Pallavas and Pandyas presented an opportunity for the growth of the Chola empire. By the 11th century this empire extended all the way to South East Asia. The southern kingdoms were great sea traders, having links to the east as well as westwards to Africa and the Arabs. The earliest known travel guide, the Skanda Purana, from just before the start of this era, lists several sites in southern India as important points in grand religious tours of India. There are scattered remnants of the great architectural works of this time through the south of India, but most of the sites mentioned in the Skanda Purana were rebuilt later.

The medieval period was a time of warring kingdoms. The slow decline of the Cholas allowed smaller kingdoms to gain hold again. The rise and fall of these kingdoms was interrupted by outside events in the 13th century CE. During the Mongol era, the expansion of the Delhi Sultanate was contained within India. Iltutmish of Delhi held off the hordes of Genghis Khan to the west of the Indus, but also sent his forces as far south as Madurai, which his generals sacked in 1316 CE. This led to the formation of the Sultanate of Madurai, independent of Delhi, The subsequent centuries, with their mix of Hindu and Muslim kingdoms saw some of the best of the architecture that we can see today.

In the 17th century CE, the Maratha armies captured parts of Tamil Nadu, and were then displaced by the Mughals. In the power vacuum of the later Mughal period, local kings again held power. Many of the major temples of southern India were rebuilt or extended in the 17th and 18th centuries. After this European maritime powers captured large parts of southern India and launched operations into the rest of India from these bases.


The only thing I remembered from a visit eight years ago to the Krishnapura chhatris in Indore was the sandstone figures. I wrote about the chhatris yesterday, and I wanted to show you these memorable figures today. The featured photo shows the beautiful contrast of the red sandstone figures and the dark slate on which they are placed.

The two panels above show the range of activities which is depicted in these figures. I’d remembered the soldiers around the base of the chhatris. Maybe I hadn’t looked up on my earlier visit, but this time I did not miss the figures of musicians, scribes and ascetics which decorate the upper parts of external pillars. You can see a musician and a soldier in the photos above.

A psychopomp is a person who guards you in afterlife. Typically one thinks of such a character as a spirit guide. Since scribes and scholars, musicians and ascetics can guard rulers against falling into error, the collection of figures here are psychopomps for the dead rulers. In the photo above they guard the steps which lead up to the platform where the pyres of the kings were lit.

The two figures in the photo above are clearly court functionaries. There were very few courtiers here. Although the lives of the royals would have been hemmed in by such people, their presence is measured. I liked the balance that the design has between different walks of life. These are memorials to rulers in settled times; this shows in the choice of professions and the weight given to each.

The figure in the photo above is clearly from the early 20th century CE. The musket with a bayonet and utility pouches in various belts are clearly modern. But there is an air of dressiness in the breeches and leggings, and the non-utilitarian headgear, which speaks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I don’t know the exact date on which this chhatri was completed, although it could not have started before 1908, when Shivaji Rao Holkar, who is memorialized here, died. Very likely the chhatri was completed before the start of the first world war. This soldier would have been a contemporary figure.

Cenotaphs of Indore

On our earlier visit to Indore we’d hurried through the chhatris, but they left little impression on me; just a vague memory of small terracotta soldiers. I wonder whether it was the lack of time, or the fact that before their restoration they were not very easy to access that blanked out my memory. The chhatris stand close to the rajwada and right on the Saraswati river. The town and the river have been cleaned up, so the ambience may be closer to what it was when the funeral pyres of the old rulers were lit, and the chhatris erected over the ashes.

The oldest chhatri is the westernmost (photo above) and commemorates the death in 1849 of Krishanbai Holkar. The larger structure (featured photo) is a double chhatri, the western end in memory of Tukoji Rao Holkar II who died in 1886, and the eastern part of the cenotaph for his son and successor, Shivaji Rao Holkar who lived till 1908. It was pretty late in the day when we arrived, and the weak sun was close to setting. In spite of this, the spires of the chhatris looked very colourful: a dark slate, red sandstone, and white marble. There is also a smaller and more plain marble cenotaph raised on 1954 to the sister of the last king.

Funerals are traditionally performed next to a river, and this place close to Indore’s rajwada is an obvious location for the memorials. Unfortunately, that means that one has to look at the spires from very close, so foreshortening the view, or to walk across the river to get a perspective. Unfortunately, it was too long a walk, and it would be too dark by the time we got to the other side.

I climbed the steps up to the platform of Rani Krishnabai’s memorial. As you can see from the photo above, the elaborate roof and pillars are largely made of sandstone. I am certain that this is hard to maintain in the traffic fumes of the busy neighbourhood. On the base and pillars you can see the terracotta molded figures which I will describe in a later post.

The pillars on the platform are stunning in detail. There was a minor fashion shoot on even at this late hour, and I pirated their lights to get shots of the details of the stone work. This oldest memorial has the most elaborate carvings, and I wished I’d climbed into this first. The light was really low now, and I only had harsh artificial lights to work with.

There is a sense of calm here which many locals wander in to enjoy. Once you are inside it is easy to forget the mad traffic whirling past just outside the small compound. I seem to have startled such a person from his rest by trying to take a photo of the double cenotaph from inside the queen’s memorial.

The cores of the cenotaphs are guarded by doors. The remains of the queen’s pyre lay behind the finely carved marble screen which you see above. The other door, guarded by a Nandi and flanked by two statues, stands outside the remains of Shivaji Rao. One of the two statues is a representation of the king.

No large monument in a city is complete without blue rock pigeons. I spotted two of them here. The one half hidden in the darkness above the head of the statue seems to be a little bit of a giant.

Coins of Malwa

The Indore museum is not large but has a very interesting collection. The Family and I spent a couple of hours wandering through it. One of the first rooms we entered had a collection of coins. I have seen some wonderfully curated collections, and others which are haphazardly put together. Since I’m not fanatically excited by coins, I tend to pay attention only when the collection is curated well. This was surprisingly interesting.

I’ve written about the history of the Malwa region over several posts. The earliest coins in this collection came from the time that Ujjain was a republic, and after the time of the Buddha. Soon after this time the republic was incorporated into the Mauryan empire. The next coin was strictly not a coin of Malwa, but one which certainly circulated here: that is the golden coin in the featured photo, from the time of Chandragupta II. At this time Britain was a Roman colony. The copper coin of Narvarman Parmara is the next in historical sequence. He ruled around 1100 CE. In the larger world, the Hoysala empire was reaching its peak around then. The next two coins come from the age of Mandu: one from Hoshang Shah, the builder of the citadel, and one from Baz Bahadur, its last Sultan. The last two coins are from the end of the 18th century, during the reign of Maratha queen Ahilyabai.

The coins of the Ujjain janapada are close to the origins of coinage, before the round shape of coins became an established convention. I wonder about the significance of the elephant symbol on these coins. A hundred year old publication says more about the weights and measures of the coins of Mandu. The square coins were common in Mandu, and several other parts of north India, having been adopted from the coinage of Ala ud-din Khilji. Interestingly, the coins of Ahilyabai seem to use the Persian script.