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.

 


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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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coeur Mount Girnar is an undisputed must-see while you’re in Gujarat. Climbing the 9999 steps to its summit leaves an imperishable memory. The atmosphere is serene and friendly and the views are breathtaking.

Mount Girnar (Mount Neminath for the Jains) is in fact a cluster of hills and peaks about 4km from the town of Junagadh. Its summit, at 1118m, is the highest point in Gujarat.

Girnar is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus and Jains alike, with temples of both religions.There are hermitages and ashrams dotted all around the hill.

A Pradakshina or circumambulation of the hill is held annually; it is considered a very holy ritual, like those at Mount Govardhan near Mathura and Arunachala in Tamil Nadu.

Bavnath temple at the foot of the hill is very old, and is famous for its Mahashivaratri festival when hundreds of naked Naga Sadhus gather.

 

The pilgrimage


The ascent starts at the Damodar Kund at Damodar temple (a kund is a bathing tank). It is best to start early, around 5am, to avoid the scorching afternoon heat.

Damodar Kund

Along the way you walk past the Bhavnath temple to Shiva, famous for its Mahashivaratri festival (see below).

The start of the pilgrimage

The steps begin after you have passed a porch and several small temples. You are walking by the light of your torch when the first glow of dawn appears and reveals the undulating outline of the hills. You climb. And you climb. 1000, 2000, 3000 … 4000 steps.

Group of 12th-16th-century Jain temples

At the 4000th step you reach a plateau with a number of very lovely 12th-16th-century Jain temples. The most famous is the 12th-century Neminath Temple. It is said that the 22nd Tirthankar (Jain saint) died here after 700 years of meditation.

Amba Mata

At the 6000th step, you see the Amba Mata Hindu temple. In fact both Hindus and Jains visit this temple, and newly-weds come here to have their union blessed.

The highest peak, Gorakhnath

Another 2000 steps take you to the highest peak, Gorakhnath. It is said that the footprints of the saint Gorakhnathji are imprinted here. Here you recover your breath and gaze in admiration at the panoramic view. With your legs beginning to show signs of fatigue, you still have to go down 1000 steps and, worst of all, up the final 999.

The Dattatraya peak

After three hours of effort you reach your destination at last. There, perched on the Dattatraya peak, you find a small temple with the padukas (sacred sandals) of Dattatraya, considered to be an avatar (incarnation) of the three Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, collectively known as Trimurti.

Naga saddhu on the way to the Dattatraya peak

A quick darshan of the temple (darshan: beholding of a saint or holy object) and then it’s off back the way you came.

Expect to take at least six hours to complete this pilgrimage.

[ Watch my Girnar Pilgrimage! 🙂 ]

 

Mahashivaratri Bhavnath Mela


Each year in February and March, the day before the new moon in the lunar month of Magha, ‘Mahashivaratri’ or the Great Night dedicated to Shiva is celebrated in Bhavnath temple. No fewer than a million pilgrims gather for the event.

Naga Sadhus

The Naga Sadhus (naked ascetics) come down from the Himalayas in vast numbers to attend the ceremony. There is a five-day fair during which you can hear many accomplished musicians play.

Naga Sadhus at the Bhavnath Mela

But the main attraction is the midnight Naga Bawa procession with hundreds of naked sadhus and sadhvis (women sadhus) taking part. The procession ends with a sacred bath in the Mrigi Kund, the bathing tank at Bhavnath temple, and a Maha Puja (great ceremony) at the temple’s Shiva Lingam.

 

Girnar Parikrama or Lili Parikrama


Parikrama, or Pradakshina, means “circling” or “circumambulation” in Sanskrit. Each year pilgrims set off to walk round Mount Girnar.

Girnar Parikrama

This 36km walk is considered deeply sacred. It is compared with the Parikrama at Govardhan, Krishna’s mountain near Mathura, and the one at Arunachala in Tamil Nadu.

Girnar Parikrama ends at Bhavnath temple

The walk starts from Girnar Parikrama Gate in Rupayatan and ends at Bhavnath temple. Pilgrims take about three days to walk round, stopping overnight at villages along the way.


Patan is a fortified town dating from the 8th century CE. It was the capital of Gujarat until 1411, when the sultan Ahmed Shah moved his capital to Ahmedabad. It now owes its fame to its magnificent Rani-Ki-Vav stepwell, a Unesco World Heritage site, built under the Solanki period. It is also renowned for making much-sought-after saris in hand-woven patola fabric.

 


Rani-Ki-Vav stepwell


The Rani-Ki-Vav (“queen’s well”) is said to have been commissioned by Queen Udayamati in 1050, in memory of her husband Bhimdev I (1022-1063 CE). He was the son of Mularaja, founder of the Solanki dynasty.


It was buried in silt after repeated floods from the nearby river Saraswati and was only rediscovered in 1960, by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Stepwells are a distinctive form of subterranean water resource and storage systems on the Indian subcontinent, and have been constructed since the 3rd millennium BC.


Rani-ki-Vav was built at the height of craftsmens’ ability in stepwell construction and the Maru-Gurjara architectural style, reflecting mastery of this complex technique and great beauty of detail and proportions.

Designed as an inverted temple highlighting the sanctity of water, it is divided into seven levels of stairs with sculptural panels of high artistic quality.

More than 500 principle sculptures and over a thousand minor ones combine religious, mythological and secular imagery, often referencing literary works.

The fourth level is the deepest and leads into a rectangular tank 9.5 m by 9.4 m, at a depth of 23 m. The well is located at the westernmost end of the property and consists of a shaft 10 m in diameter and 30 m deep. (source UNESCO)


Art of Patola


Patan’s other speciality is the art of patola. Patola is the term used in Gujarat for double ikat silk weaving.

Double ikat is produced by tie-dyeing both warp and weft threads with all the colours to be used in the design, at very precise intervals, so that when they are woven together the pattern emerges with all the right colours in the right places.

This method makes the cloth reversible, as it is almost impossible to tell the difference between the two sides.

For high end saris the dyes are made from natural pigments. The colour is said to last for more than 300 years.

Kirron Kher wearing a Patola sari of the designer Gaurang at the Lakme Fashion Week 2013

Because the technique is so complex, it can take six months to a year to make a double-ikat patola sari – which is why they are so expensive. The cheapest cost about 140 000 roupies (€2000).

Of the original 700 families of Patan patola weavers there are now only three who continue the traditional double-ikat technique. One of these families, the Salvi family, has built the Patan Patola Heritage Museum not far from the Rani-Ki-Vav. Their small workshop in the city centre also bears eloquent testimony to the beauty of the art.


Other places of interest


Sahasralingam tank: This is one of the many artificial reservoirs built in different parts Gujarat under the patronage of Siddhraj Jaisinh (1093-1143 CE). It is one of the largest. Sahasralingam tank takes its name from the many small temples containing Shiva lingams that once stood around it, though they were demolished at the end of the medieval period.

Panchasara Parsvanatha Jain temple – Patan has more than 100 Jain temples, reflecting the importance of Jainism in the Solanki period. One of the largest is the Panchasara Parsvanatha. It is dedicated to Parsvanath, the 23rd Tirthankar (Jain saint), who lived in the 9th century BCE. The temple was built in the 16th century CE and has several courtyards and a number of finely sculpted shrines.


Indian food without herbs and spices is unimaginable. They are at the heart of every dish. They have been used since ancient times and are mentioned in Hinduism’s oldest sacred scriptures, the Vedas.

Most of the numerous spices used in India are grown on the subcontinent. Some are “hot”, others add a delicate flavour to the dish. Each spice can be used on its own, but they are usually mixed in subtle combinations to give unique fragrances that differ from one region to another. Read More

Dussehra marks the end of one of the biggest Hindu festivals called ‘Navaratri’. This festival lasts for nine nights and ten days. Its purpose is to celebrate the Universal Mother, or Shakti: the primordial force. The tenth day is commonly called Vijayadashami, the day of victory of light over darkness. Vijayadashami is also called Dusserha or Dasara in some parts of India, where it associated with Lord Rama. Read More

It is said that Kanchipuram gives eternal happiness to those who visit it. Located 65km from Madras on the banks of the river Vegavathy, Kanchipuram is known as the City of Gold or the City of a Thousand Temples. It is one of India’s seven most holy places, the Sapta Puri. Read More

To Hindus, the Sapta Puris are the seven holiest cities in India. Sapta means ‘seven’ and puri means ‘town’. These seven holy cities are also called the Sapta Moksha Puris, the ‘seven cities of liberation’ or the Sapta Tirtha, ‘seven places of pilgrimage’. Read More