The colossal Gomateshwara stands tall on its hilltop, like a lighthouse protecting the town of Shravanabelagola and benevolently guiding the traveller. This Jain holy place of rocks and palm trees breathes tranquillity. Read More

Breakfast in India is usually savoury and spicy. It’s a full meal and often versatile, some dishes being suitable for any time of day.  Read More

Baneshwar Fair is a huge folk fair held in Dungarpur district in Rajasthan. The 5-day event, which is sometimes called the “tribal Kumbh Mela”, takes place in January or February on a small delta where the Soma and Mahi rivers meet. It is primarily a religious festival, but it is also the annual get-together for Bhil tribal communities who come to pay homage to Shiva and Vishnu. Read More

Each February, the World Sacred Spirit Festival brings together eminent musicians from all over the world to explore the sacred through different forms of art from music and chant to dance and poetry. A festival of Sufi-inspired devotional music set in the magical and prestigious sites of Ahhichatragarh in Nagaur and Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur.
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Thiruvananthapuram is the capital of Kerala. Its name means ‘city of Lord Anantha’ referring to Anantha, the mythical snake on which the god Vishnu reclines.This city has great appeal, with luxuriant vegetation, colourful harbours, beaches of fine sand and the legendary cool of Kerala. You might never leave!

Thiruvananthapuram is a very ancient town and is said to have been a flourishing port city and a trade hub for spices, sandalwood and ivory as far back as the 5th century BCE. Legend has it that King Solomon’s ships called there.

Poovar beach

Thiruvananthapuram became powerful again after Marthanda Varma came to power as founder and ruler of the princely state of Travancore in 1729. The capital of Kerala was moved from Padmanabhapuram (Kanyakumari district) to Thiruvananthapuram in 1745. The town then became a major centre of artistic and intellectual life. Its golden age was in the 19th century under the Swathi Thirunal and Ayilyam Thirunal.


Festivals not to miss


Swathi Sangeethotsavam, carnatic music

Swathi Sangeethotsavam or Swathi Music Festival is a grand musical event organized every year to pay tribute to Sri Swathi Thirunal, who has composed many brilliant pieces of music which still fascinate music lovers. This great connoisseur and composer has to his credit more than 400 compositions in Carnatic music as well as Hindustani music. Held in the Kuthiramalika Palace, adjoining the famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum.

www.swathithirunal.in


Nishagandhi dance and music Festival

Nishagandhi Dance and music Festival popularly known as Nishagandhi Nritya Utsav is celebrated in the Nishagandhi Theatre, in Kanakunnu palace compound, in the city of Trivandrum or Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. This festival is about a week long and witnesses participation from artisans all over the country. The artists who are keen on promoting the diverse Indian heritage.


Attukal Pongal

Attukal Pongal is a special version of the Pongal harvest festival that takes place each year at the Attukal Bhagavathy temple, 2km from Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) in Kerala.On the ninth day of the ten-day Attukal Pongal festival, nearly 3 million women converge to within a few kilometres of the temple – the largest gathering of women anywhere in the world. In the streets women of all castes and all social ranks prepare pongal together in small earthen pots on wood fires.

=> READ MORE ABOUT ATTUKAL +


Follow the guide!


Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple


Padmanabhaswamy temple is an iconic temple and pilgrimage centre in the centre of Thiruvananthapuram.

It is built in the Dravidian architectural style more common in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

It is India’s richest temple, even richer than Tirupati temple since €15 billion worth of gold and jewellery donated by devotees was found in a secret chamber.

Padmanabha

Padmanabha, the main deity, is seen in Anantha-Sayanam or “eternal yogic sleep” pose, lying on the snake Anantha. Vishnu’s consorts Sridevi (goddess of prosperity) and Bhudevi (Earth goddess), are beside him. The statue was made from 12,008 salagrama fossils from the banks of the Gandaki river in Nepal, covered with yogam Katusarkara, a special Ayurvedic mixture of ingredients that works like plaster.

NB: Unfortunately the temple is out of bounds to non-Hindus, and Hindus must comply with a strict dress code.


Attukal Bhagavathy Temple


At Attukal Bhagavathy temple the main deity is the hindu goddess Kannaki (one of the names of Parvati).

Goddess Kannaki

The temple is famous for its annual Attukal Pongala festival, for which nearly three million women assemble to prepare pongal (rice cooked with additional ingredients) in small pots as an offering to the goddess Kannaki.


Kairali backwaters, Poovar Island


One very pleasant outing is a boat trip around the backwaters of Poovar.

Poovar is a small coastal village in the Trivandrum at the southern tip of Trivandrum . This village has a beautiful beach and backwaters.

Poovar backwaters

You’ll see a wide variety of birds, stop at a beautiful beach of fine sand and eat at one of the floating restaurants before coming back through the mangroves. The trip takes 2 hours in all.

Bald eagle in the mangroves


Poovar Beach


One of my best memories of Trivandrum is the landing of the fish catch and the market that follows.

The fishermen bring their boats in with the day’s catch around 6am. There’s a whole art to pulling the boat up onto the beach (see video below) and the fish market is just as fascinating to watch. An absolute must-see.

The fish market, early morning


Napier Museum


The Napier museum is as interesting inside as out.

The building was designed by Robert Chisholm, architect to the Madras government, in Indo-Saracenic style. It was completed in 1880.

It houses a collection of rare archaeological and historical objects such as bronze idols and ivory statues. It also houses the Sri Chitra Art Gallery, with works by Raja Ravi Varma and Nicholas Roerich.


The Churches of Trivandrum


There are several dozen churches in Trivandrum, many with colourful interiors that are well worth a look. The best known are St Joseph’s and St Peter’s.


Vizhinjam harbor (Kovalam – 16 km)


Vizhinjam is a wonderful little harbour with multicoloured boats and frenetic activity.

The Portuguese and Dutch had trading posts here and St. Mary’s, the church built by the Portuguese in colonial days, is still in operation. There is also a green mosque.


Kovalam Beaches (16 km)


Kovalam is famous for its crescent of three beaches separated by rocky outcrops along a 17km stretch of coast: Lighthouse Beach (very touristy), Hawah Beach and Samudra Beach.

For my part I prefer to stick to the beaches in Trivandrum, which are clean and much quieter.


Aazhimala Temple (20 km)


Aazhimala is a delightful little temple to Shiva about 20km from Trivandrum, on the other side of Vizhinjam. The site is very picturesque, with the sea as backdrop.


Padmanabhapuram Palace (50 km)


Padmanabhapuram palace is a perfect example of Kerala architecture and a good place to stop on the way to Kanyakumari.

Padmanabhapuram was once the capital of the Travancore kingdom. The elegant wood-built palace was constructed in 1601 by King Iravi Varma Kulasekhara Perumal and enlarged in 1750 by King Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma.

The interior boasts richly carved rosewood and some fine wall paintings. The palace complex consists of several structures: the king’s council chamber (Mantrasala), the queen mother’s palace (Kottaram), the theatre, a four-storey mansion in the middle, and the southern palace (Thekee Kottaram).

[ Watch the fishermen of Trivandrum ]


coeur Although few foreign tourists come here, this peaceful village on the banks of the River Pampa is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus and is famous for its Krishna temple and the “snake-boat” race held every year during the Onam festival. Aranmula also has another unique claim to fame: sacred mirrors called kannadi are made there using a centuries-old technique whose secret is closely guarded.


Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple


The Parthasarathy temple, built in typical Keralan pagoda style, is one of the 108 revered Vishnuite divya desam temples and also one of Kerala’s Pancha Pandava temples. According to Hindu legend, these temples were each built by one of the five Pandava brothers.

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Parthasarathy temple by night

The legend goes that after King Parikshit was crowned the Pandava brothers set off on a pilgrimage. They visited Kerala and each built a temple there. Yudishthira built one at Thrichittatt, Bhima at Puliyur, Arjuna at Aranmula, Nakula at Thiruvanvandoor and Sahadeva at Thrikodithanam.

It is said that Arjuna built the Parthasarathy temple at Nilakkal near Sabarimala, to atone for a sin. But Nilakkal was in dense forest, making it difficult to perform daily rituals there. The idol was therefore brought to Aranmula on a raft made of six bamboo poles – whence the name Aranmula, which means “six bamboo stems”.

Parthasarathy idol

Several “snake boats” or chundan vallams accompanied the procession across the River Pampa. The idol was installed in the temple on the day of Uthrattathi in the month of Chingam (August-September) according to the Malayalam calendar, Uthrattathi being Arjuna’s birthday. The village of Aranmula celebrates this event each year with a snake-boat regatta during the Onam festival.

The main idol in the temple is a statue of Lord Krishna as Parthasarathy, i.e. in his role as the charioteer who drove Arjuna into battle in the Kurukshetra war, as described in the Mahabharata epic.


Vallamkali, Snake-boat race


The Aranmula Uthrattathi Vallamkali or snake-boat race is one of the year’s biggest festivities in the village of Aranmula and one of the oldest traditional races in Kerala.

aranmula

The snake boat of Aranmula

It is linked to the Parthasarathy temple and takes place every year on Uthrattathy day in the month of Chingam in the Malayalam calendar (August-September), four days after Thiruvonam (the Onam festival).

aranmula

The snake boat race of Aranmula

People of all social classes and religions living in and around Aranmula get involved in the Vallamkali. It is organised by the Seva Sangam Palliyoda, an organisation made up of two members from each of the 48 villages or karas that possess a snake-boat.

=> READ MORE ABOUT THE SNAKE-BOAT RACE !


[ Watch my video of Aranmula race 2015 ]


Aranmula’s sacred kannadi mirrors


aranmula

The precious and mysterious kannadis of Aranmula are metal mirrors of a unique kind. They are made only in this village and are exported throughout the world.

The story goes that a few generations ago, eight families from Tirunelveli who specialised in temple art came to Aranmula at King Pandalam’s command to work on the building of the Parthasarathy Temple.

While working on the temple idol’s bronze crown the craftsmen discovered the exceptional reflective qualities of a particular alloy of tin and copper. But they were unable to reproduce the alloy until Parvathi Amma, a widow in their community, received the exact composition of the alloy in a dream. That composition is kept secret to this day by the few artisan families still transmitting the craft from generation to generation.

aranmula
Most mirrors consist of a sheet of glass with a silver or aluminium backing which reflects objects through the glass.

If you place a finger on an ordinary mirror, you will see a gap between the finger and its reflection. But if you place your finger on a kannadi mirror, there is no gap: the finger and its reflection meet, because there is no glass in between.

The kannadi of Aranmula have a distinct old-world charm. They are generally round or oval hand mirrors set in brass frames. These are stamped, as the mirrors are protected by an official Geographical Indication. They count among the eight auspicious objects or ashtamangalyam in a Kerala bride’s trousseau.


[ Meet Mr Murukan R. Aranmula, Kannadi’s master craftsmam ]

Tucked between the Laccadive Sea and a network of interconnected rivers and lagoons, Alappuzha (Alleppey) offers a picturesque waterside spectacle of palm groves, luxuriant rice fields, kingfishers darting over the water and cormorants lazily stretching their wings, fishermen repairing nets outside their doors and laundry women busy at their task.

 


Follow the guide!


Backwaters
Alappuzha

Backwaters

Boating is the big thing in Alappuzha, set as it is beside the brackish lagoons and lakes of the Kerala backwaters.

Alappuzha

Kayaking in the backwaters

Touring the backwaters in a traditional canoe or, if you’re the sporty type, a kayak, you can reach the most out-of-the-way parts of the waterway network, close to nature and the life of the villages along the banks.

Alappuzha

Villages along the banks

The more romantically inclined will opt for a trip on one of the famous house-boats or kettuvalloms (literally “rice boats”), made from eco-friendly materials such as bamboo and coconut fibre. Kettuvalloms were once used for transporting goods to isolated villages.

Alappuzha

Kettuvalloms, Kerala’s traditional house-boats

Once roads were built and ferries introduced these elegant barges lost their goods transport function and were gradually converted into floating hotels. A kettuvallom trip is a wonderful way to explore the beauty of the backwaters in comfort, with a cosy bedroom and delicious meals.

Chavara Bhavan Church
Alappuzha

Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara

This peaceful sanctuary, lost among the Kerala backwaters and reachable only by boat, was created by a Catholic priest, Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara, a social reformer who played a major role in educating the poor.

He was canonised by Jean-Paul II in 1986. The hut where he preached can still be seen, and there is a small church.

Alappuzha

Alappuzha and Marari Beaches
Alappuzha

Marari Beach

Alappuzha Beach is a fairly ordinary family beach, but Marari Beach, some 20km from Alleppey, is an absolute dream of a tropical holiday postcard spot with fine sand, palm trees, lagoons, turquoise sea and all. Perfect. To be missed on no account.

Amritapuri Ashram (60km)
ammaji

Amma embracing devotees

 

Amritapuri, “place of immortality”, is the birthplace of Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Amma (Mother) and considered a spiritual guide and saint not only in India but in many countries around the world.

The ashram began as two simple huts beside Amma’s family’s home, and officially became an ashram in 1981. It is now home to over 3000 spiritual seekers from all over the world and the headquarters of Amma’s NGO, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math (MAM).

Amritapuri Ashram, view from the backwaters

As a small child, possessed of an immense love of humanity, Amma wanted to help all the suffering people she met: she gave them food, care and clothing and began to console them with hugs. She has been hugging people like a loving mother ever since. A hug from her is considered darshan, an auspicious glimpse of a saint. She is said to have hugged 34 million people around the world to date.

She also tours the world spreading her message of love and tolerance.

Coir, ropes made out coconut fibres

The NGO she founded, Embracing The World, is now a vast network of charities including orphanages, dispensaries, hospitals, social services, schools, training centres, micro-credit programmes, ecological projects and more. ETW also has Special Consultancy status at the UN as an organisation with expertise in emergency relief.

The best way to get to the ashram is by ferry across the backwaters.

Chinese fishing nets on the way to Amritapuri


Festivals not to miss


Nehru Trophy Boat Race


The Nehru Trophy Boat Race named after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is conducted on the Punnamda Lake, near Alappuzha, on the second Saturday of August every year
. On the day of this fiercely fought boat race, the tranquil lake front is transformed into a sea of humanity with an estimated two lakh people, including tourists from abroad for watching it. For the people of each village in Kuttanad, a victory at this race for their village boat is something to be celebrated for months to come.

The boats used are called chundan vallams or “snake-boats”. The long, 100–120ft canoes, made from a wood known locally as aanjili thadi, are manned by about a hundred men who row to the rhythm of the vanchipattu, the boatmen’s song. Don’t miss this race if you’re in the area at that time of year.

+ KNOW MORE ABOUT THE SNAKE-BOATS


Payippad Boat Race 

snake-boat This is a snake boat race held annually on the Payippad River in Alappuzha. It commemorates the legend associated with the installation of the idol at the Subrahmanya Swamy Temple, Haripad.

The race has the largest participation of snake boats after the Nehru Trophy boat race. Apart from the breathtaking race of the snake boats and other country boats the event is made more impressive by colourful water pageants.

Neelamperoor Pooram Padayani

1380662_553777754696122_422471622_nNeelamperoor Pooram Padayani is one of the famous festivals celebrated in the Indian state of Kerala. This festival is hosted at the Neelamperoor Pally Bhagavathi Temple which is situated in a village known as Kuttanadtaluk in the district named Alappuzha in Kerala. The main divinity of this 1700 year old temple is Goddess Vanadurgaalso known as Maa Kali.

A parade known as Padayani is one of the main celebration during the festival. This march symbolizes Goddess Kali’svictory over Darika. The parade begins as the village people gather with few dry leaves of coconut lighted, known as choottu. They move ahead raising the choottu blissfully.

Chettikulangara Bharati

20131031143708_10_1Chettikulangara Kumbha Bharani is an important festival celebrated every year at the Chettikulangara Devi Temple, Chettikulangara, Alappuzha district.

It is held is in the month of March or April, the date being determined according to the Malayalam Calendar. The festival is under consideration to be bestowed with the Intangible Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO.

What makes the festival stand out among the other festivals of Kerala is a spectacular event called Kettukazhcha, a ceremonious procession of brightly decorated structures.


From 1556 to 1658, Agra was the capital of the Mughal Empire. Today it is best known for the Taj Mahal, one of the world’s most famous monuments and now a kind of emblem of India. With no fewer than 10,000 visits per day, the Taj Mahal seems to enjoy a prestige like no other place in India, probably because of the romantic legend of its origins.

The city of Agra was founded in 1501-1504 by Sikandar Lodi, Sultan of Delhi, who made it his capital. In 1526 Babur, the first Mughal emperor, defeated the Delhi sultanate and seized Agra. His grandson restored the town to its status as capital in 1556.

The city’s heyday ran from the mid-16th century to the mid-17th, under the successive reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. It was Shah Jahan who had the Taj Mahal built in 1631, before he transferred the capital of the empire to Delhi.

As well as the famous Taj Mahal, the Mughal emperors left Agra a rich architectural heritage that attracts millions of tourists every year.

 

Festivals not to miss
  • taj-mahotsav-2014Taj Mahotsav: Taj Mahotsav is celebrated at Shilpgram near the Eastern gate of “Taj Mahal”. This 10 days long carnival is actually a vibrant platform that gives you information of India where you can find India’s rich arts, crafts, cultures, cuisine, dance and music.Taj Mahotsav is organized by UP Tourism and it is a source to increase Indian Tourism.

 

  • kailash-fair-agraKailash Fair: Organized at Kailash temple in Agra, (12km from Agra) in the honor of Lord Shiva, Kailash fair is celebrated to memorialize the appearance of Lord Shiva in the form of a stone lingam here in the monsoon months of August and September.The followers of this god of the Hindu pantheon memorize his visit, offer prayers to him and contribute in all the fun and amusement of the fair.

 

To visit

Taj Mahal***

agra

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal (the name is Iranian for “palace of the crown”) stands beside the river Yamuna.

It is a white marble mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory, it is said, of his favourite wife Arjumand Banu Begam, also known as Mumtaz Mahal. She died in 1631; the building of the mausoleum began the same year and was completed, for the most part, in 1643. Shah Jahan died in 1666 and his tomb stands alongside his wife’s.

The Taj Mahal is a World Heritage site and is considered a supreme example of Mughal architecture, which combines Iranian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian elements.

Taj Mahal

Mosquée sur le côté du Taj Mahal

On either side of the mausoleum stands a sandstone building with three white marble domes.

The building on the left is a mosque, built to sanctify the place and provide pilgrims with a place of worship. The one on the right, called the Jawab (“reply”), is an exact symmetrical replica of the mosque; it was built for the sake of symmetry and not used as a mosque since it is not oriented towards Mecca.

MT1

Mumtaz Mahal et Shah Jahan

The romantic tale of the Taj Mahal’s origin has been dismantled more than once.

According to some, it was built to demonstrate the emperor’s power rather than to house his favourite wife’s tomb. This is argued mainly from the character of Shah Jahan, who was by no means a sentimental type.

It took him 22 years and 22,000 workmen, treated as slaves, to build the Taj Mahal. Over the course of his life Shah Jahan is said to have kept no fewer than 2000 wives effectively imprisoned in his harem, and Arjumand Banu Begam, the favourite buried in the Taj Mahal, died from bearing too many children (14 of them). He certainly doesn’t sound like a romantic.

Another theory, put forward by Purushottam Nagesh Oak, is that the site was a palace and Vedic temple to Shiva, called the Tejomahalay, before it was transformed into a mausoleum. This theory has not found favour with the scientific community.

Mehtab Bagh, Moonlight Garden**

agraThe Mehtab Bagh or “moonlight garden” was the last of 11 Mughal style gardens built along the Yamuna river opposite the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort.

The first was the Ram Bagh, reportly built by the emperor Babur in 1530. Originally it was an extension to the Taj Mahal garden on the other side of the river. It was planted with scented flowers and used in the cool of evening to gaze at the reflection of the Taj Mahal in the river and in the octagonal pool built for that purpose.

The Mehtab Bagh was later lost under an accumulation of mud from successive floods; it was restored in the 1990s.

Agra Fort***

agra-fortNear the gardens of the Taj Mahal stands an important 17th-century Mughal monument known as the Red Fort of Agra.

This powerful red sandstone fortress encloses the imperial city of the Mughal rulers in a 2.5km rampart wall. It includes numerous palaces such as Jahangir Palace and the Khas Mahal, built by Shah Jahan, as well as audience halls such as the Diwan-i-Khas and two very fine mosques.

The earliest mention of a fort here dates from 1080, when it was a simple brick fortress belonging to the Sikarwars, a Rajput clan from Rajasthan.

It was a military stronghold until Akbar transformed it into a place of residence and had a number of palaces built there. The architectural style was Hindu at first, the Mughal style superseding it later, under the reign of Shah Jahan.

Jama Masjid Mosque***

Jama-Masjid-in-AgraThe Jama Masjid or Friday mosque stands opposite the Red Fort.

Built by the emperor Shah Jahan in 1648, it is one of the largest and most respected mosques in India. It reflects the elegance of Iranian architecture.

Tomb of l'timad-ud-Daulah ***

Agra-2The tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah is often regarded as a draft for the Taj Mahal.

It is often described as a jewel-box or a “mini-Taj”. Its interior decor is indeed thought to have inspired that of the Taj Mahal.

The complex includes numerous outbuildings and gardens. The mausoleum was built between 1622 and 1628 on the orders of Nur Jahan, wife of Jahangir, for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg who had been granted the title of I’timad-ud-Daula (“pillar of the state”).

Chini-ka-rauza Mausoleum (1km)***

Chini_ka_Rauza,_AgraThe Chini ka Rauza is a mausoleum housing the tomb of Allama Afzal Khan Mullah, a scholar and poet who was prime minister to the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.

It was built in 1635. It stands just 1km north of the I’timad-ud-Daulah mausoleum, on the east bank of the river Yamuna.

The Afghan style monument is renowned for its beautiful glazed tile mosaic work, called kashi or chini, after which it is named.

Akbar's Mausoleum (8km)***

tombAkbar’s mausoleum is in Sikandra, a suburb 8km from Agra city centre, on the Mathura road.

Akbar the Great (1555-1605), the third Mughal emperor, started building his mausoleum during his lifetime, in 1600. It was completed in 1613, after his death, by his son Jahangir. Akbar was one of the greatest emperors in the history of India.

It is built mainly of red sandstone and decorated with superb inlaid panels.

Mariyam's Tomb (8km)***

Mariam's_Tomb,_Sikandra,_AgraThis unique, delicately carved red sandstone tomb can be seen in Sikandra, a suburb of Agra.

It is the tomb of Mariam Zamani (Heer Kunwar), wife of the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great and daughter of King Bharmal Kachwaha of Amber. She died in Agra in 1623.

Huzur Swamiji Maharaja's tomb (10km)***

340x220_samadhiswamijimaharajbagh_49346This white marble building in its huge garden is the Samadhi (i.e. tomb) of Huzur Swamiji Maharaja (Shri Shiv Dayal Singh Seth).

He was the founder of the Radhasoami faith, a spiritual movement based on ethics and a fusion of the principles of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Sikhism.

Fatehpur Sikri (50km)***

Fatehpur SikriThis “City of Victory” 50km south of the Taj Mahal is a remarkable architectural complex.

Especially notable is the huge Jama Masjid mosque. Apparently it was once as holy as the one in Mecca… READ MORE +

 

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