Many people do not know it, but India is one of the world’s oldest civilisations. It has been the birthplace of many fundamentals recognised by today’s society, in science and in the arts. After traveling tirelessly around India and immersing myself in its flavours and traditions, I wanted to bear witness to its incredibly rich cultural and spiritual heritage. If this website sparks a desire to pack your bags and set off for an Indian adventure, it will have achieved its purpose. Have a good trip around the website and pleasant wanderings in the sacred land of Bharat!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Padmanabhaswamy temple is an iconic temple and pilgrimage centre in the centre of Thiruvananthapuram.
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, 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.
At Attukal Bhagavathy temple the main deity is the hindu goddess Kannaki (one of the names of Parvati).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 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 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 ]
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Boating is the big thing in Alappuzha, set as it is beside the brackish lagoons and lakes of the Kerala 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.
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.
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.
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 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, “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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
Along the way you walk past the Bhavnath temple to Shiva, famous for its Mahashivaratri festival (see below).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! 🙂 ]
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.
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.
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.
Parikrama, or Pradakshina, means “circling” or “circumambulation” in Sanskrit. Each year pilgrims set off to walk round Mount Girnar.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
For high end saris the dyes are made from natural pigments. The colour is said to last for more than 300 years.
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.
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