Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Brussels - a vibrant, modern yet traditional city

In the streets of Brussels

On the steps of the Stock Exchange
Brussels is a city that is vibrant and colourful.  It is famous for its open and highly progressive culture that accepts and celebrates both the young and the new along with the old and the traditional.  It is a fine blend of history and modernity.

The super-cute and friendly Belgian cat!

She wanted to spend time with us!
We stayed in an Air B&B apartment right in the heart of the city and found it extremely convenient to walk around and cover a lot of places.
The streets are narrow and one gets to experience more by strolling around at a leisurely pace, stopping every few strides to let the place, people and sights slowly sink into our consciousness.

The very grand Grand Place

Grand Place building
First on our itinerary was the Grand Place that is situated in the heart of the city.  This is a huge and impressive square, with cobblestone paths, surrounded on all four sides by extremely tall, spired buildings.   We spent several minutes just taking in the panoramic 360 degree view and the sheer grandeur of the place. The buildings date back to the late 17th century, and are covered with baroque gables.  One of the buildings is the City Hall and has several sculptures lining the downstairs entry way.  We witnessed a gay marriage - the couple stood on the first floor balcony and waved to the crowd assembled below while everyone cheered and celebrated their union.
Manneken Pis - Brussels' most famous icon

Zinneke Pis - meaning Dog Pissing - a street sculpture
We then walked through the narrow cobblestone paths and proceeded to see the much- loved iconic Belgian symbol – the Manneken Pis.  This literally means ‘Boy Pissing’ and it is exactly that – bronze statue of a young naked boy urinating into a fountain’s basin that was created in the early 1600s. Legend has it that the boy who was named Julien found enemies trying to use gun powder to attack the city of Brussels.  He put out the burning fuse by peeing on it and thus became a hero.   We also spent some time locating the other urinating statues - Jeanneke Pis( Girl pissing) and Zinneke Pis (Dog Pissing).

TinTin and Captain Haddock - on a roadside wall
Brussels is home to the famous writer Herge – who introduced TinTin to the world.  We were excited to find a huge painting of TinTin on a building wall.  And of course, we stopped to take pictures with the young and famous investigative reporter!  In fact, we learnt that there are nearly 30 murals of Belgian cartoon characters painted on building walls throughout the city.

Inside Les Galeries Royale St.Hubert

A shop display
We then wandered through the high-end shopping street called the Les Galeries Royales Saint Hubert.  This is a beautiful glass-roofed shopping arcade, lined with cafes, and stores selling luxury labels.  We took a leisurely stroll, stopping at places to admire the display.   

Outside the cathedral of St.Michael and St.Gudula 

The beautifully sculptured pillars of apostles
Our next stop was the highly impressive 11th century historic church – the Cathedral of St Michael and St.Gudula.  This has been constructed on a hill and the first view, as we approached the church was spectacular.  It took nearly 300 years to be completed, with each Brabant king adding a specific structure.  It is dedicated to and named after Brussels’s patron saints Michael and Gudula.  The church building is nearly 100m in length and we slowly went around admiring the various statues – noted among them are those of the 12 apostles -, the gothic architecture, the beautiful glass-stained windows, the stone columns, the grand ceiling.  Over the centuries, the church has been witness to several coronations and royal weddings – every pillar and every wall is steeped in history and that made for a memorable experience.

A chocolate lovers' heaven - with free samples too!

Tasty Belgian fries
Brussels is famous for chocolate, waffles, beer and potato fries, and not necessarily in that order!  While walking around, we stepped into a couple of small, attractive shops and were magically transported to a flavourful world of chocolates, chocolates and more chocolates.   The shop assistants let us sample a variety of chocolates before we bought a few.  It was a heavenly experience!   We visited the popular Fritland Fries store to try out the famous Belgian fries.  We were certainly not disappointed. – they tasted  great with some unique sauces to accompany them.
Drag Queen!

The Grand Place is lined with quaint little cafes offering tasty fare.  We took a table at a roadside cafĂ©, had some great locally brewed beer, and listened to live music.  Later in the evening, we were surprised to see men dressed in women’s clothing, with complete accessories and heavy make-up and parading through the Square.   This is the Drag Queen culture that is extremely popular in Europe.  
Thus, we spent a fascinating day in the beautiful city of Brussels - admiring its past and imbibing its present.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Sigiriya - The Lion Hill Fortress

------published in The Hindu dated July 12th 2018
Sigiriya - The Rock Fortress

Sigiriya – the mansion in the sky - is an architectural marvel.  Aptly named Lion Hill, the rocky citadel rises up like a majestic lion, ascending to a lofty height of nearly 200 metres from the surrounding plains.  It has rightly been considered as the 8th wonder of the world by the Sri Lankans and is one of their most visited tourist attractions. The rocky fortress and the adjoining garden complex is nearly 1600 years old, dating back to the 5th Century AD. 
Sigiriya is situated close to the village of Dambulla, which is about 100 kms from Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Kandy.  An early start from Kandy will ensure that one can reach the fortress and start the climb before it gets extremely hot.   As we approach this ancient piece of marvel, we can only wonder at the sheer ingenuity of King Kashyapa who built his palace atop the hill and created a small city for his people surrounding the hill.  Even in those ancient days, the King could blend the natural beauty of the plateau with the architectural splendour of his fortress.  He also deployed scientific methods for building gardens and underground reservoirs.

The Lion's Paw
The story of King Kashyapa’s life is also very interesting and is filled with intrigue and drama. He is born as the eldest son of the then king Dhatusena.  But Kashyapa is denied his rights as the rightful heir to the throne as he is the illegitimate son – born to the King’s concubine.  His step-brother, Mogallana claims the title of ‘yuva raja’ or ‘crown prince’ as his mother is the royal queen of King Dhatusena, who also favours his younger son to become the king. 
Kashyapa resents this usurping of his entitlement, kills his father and takes control of the kingdom.  Mogallana, fearing for his life, flees to India.  Kashyapa then crowns himself as the King.  But being worried that his brother may come back to attack him, he decides to build his fortress and palace atop the huge lion-like structured rock; thus, Sigiriya, the impregnable citadel is born. From the top, it provides unhindered views of the surrounding plains.

While climbing up the fortress
Today, we can climb several flights of steps, up the rock to reach the top.  Half way through, we get to see the huge claws of a seated lion that King Kashyapa had got sculpted. The upper body of the lion is no longer visible.   His appreciation for the arts can be gauged by the beautiful frescoes that cover the rock walls.  Though these paintings of pretty damsels were done around 460 AD, the natural colours remain intact and still retain their shine despite the ravages of time.     Higher up the hill, on the rock surface, is the ’mirror wall’.  Using a material found locally, King Kashyapa got this ‘mirror’ installed – the rock surface was scoured and polished till it resembled a mirror.  It reflected the image of the beautiful landscaped gardens, and ponds filled with aquatic flowers that were maintained right below the hill.  King Kashyapa employed engineering skills to have an underground reservoir built that remained filled with water even during the dry season.  He ensured the scientific use of rain water to provide water to his garden.  A complex hydraulic system of canals, lakes, bridges, fountains and surface/underground pumps was set up to irrigate the gardens and the surrounding moat and ramparts.  These are functional even today.

At the base

After the slow and arduous climb to the top, the view is breath taking.  We also get to see the ruins of the erstwhile palace constructions – the royal throne, the king and queen’s apartments, ponds.  King Kashyapa ruled from his secure palace for nearly 22 years till 495AD.  His deep-rooted fear that his step-brother would return with an army and wage a war became a reality.  Mogallana attacked the seemingly impregnable Sigiriya Fort, killed King Kashyapa and took over the reins.    

Bikaner - Fort, Palace, Bhujia and the Temple of Rats!

---------published in The Hindu dated 2nd August 2018

The Junagarh Fort - Bikaner

Tucked away in a small dusty town in Deshnoke near Bikaner of Rajasthan is the temple of Karni Mata Devi.  This is no ordinary temple – it is a temple where rats rule the roost and is thus aptly called the Temple of Rats.

When we embarked on a road-trip in Rajasthan, we started from Jaipur in the east and drove across to Jaisalmer in the west.  En-route, about 350 kms from Jaipur, we decided to stop over at Bikaner, in the north-west part of Rajasthan, a city which is known across India for its popular snack - the Bikaneri Bhujia. 

Anup Mahal
Bikaner owes its formation to Rao Bika, a fierce Rajput warrior and son of Maharaja Rao Jodha of  Jodhpur.  Rao Bika named  his kingdom after himself as Bikaner and ruled it in the late 15th century.  The city boasts of a massive fort built using red sand stone, called the Junagarh Fort.  This was built almost a century after Rao Bika and several other kings who followed later added more embellishments, leaving their names enshrined in the history of the fort. The interiors of the palace within the fort are architectural marvels – comprising of the Baadal Mahal where the walls and ceiling are patterned like blue clouds, the Anup Mahal that has beautiful pillars and arches sculpted with ornate filigree work in a golden hue,, the open courtyards with white marble floors and the arches inlaid with delicate designs, the highly impressive Durbar Hall that was used by the kings to meet officials and royal dignitaries during formal functions.   Every ceiling, wall, arch and doorway inside the fort leaves a lasting impression of architectural beauty, elegance and artistic creativity.   

Baadal Mahal
The city of Bikaner also boasts of another beautiful palace called the Lalgarh Palace that was built by Maharaja Ganga Singh in the late 19th century.  This palace is also the residence of the current royal family. A part of it has been converted into a heritage hotel called Laxmi Niwas Palace.  The neatly manicured lawns, the vast expansive grounds, the red sand-stone construction, the pretty little arched towers, the perfectly aligned geometrical  symmetry of the building– all these and more make the palace a stunningly beautiful one.

Entrance to the Karni Mata Temple

Rats feeding on milk
From Bikaner, we drove the short distance to Deshnoke to visit the Karni Mata Temple.  From the outside, it looked like any other temple, built of white marble with a huge silver door at the entrance. But as we stood in line to enter the temple doors, we were in for a big surprise.  We found plenty of rats – of different sizes and in different shades of grey.   There were more than half a dozen of them sitting on the ledge of the door.   Once we got over our initial surprise, we looked around and spotted several more peeping out of a small crevice in the wall.  And then when we daintily walked over the temple threshold, there were plenty of them scampering around all over the black-and-white tiled temple floor.  We saw a good number of rats gathered neatly around a huge plate of milk and drinking the ‘prasad.’  It was a remarkable sight!   There were rats in every nook and corner and some inside the sanctum sanctorum too.  We learnt later that Karni Mata was revered as an incarnation of Goddess Durga.   The locals believed that the rats were actually her devotees, who after their death were reborn as rats.  That was the main reason they enjoyed total freedom within the temple.  Another folk lore mentioned that when Karni Mata’s son died, she prayed to Lord Yama, the God of Death, to let him go.  Yama relented but said her son would become a rat.  Thus after that, all her children were born as rats and could freely move around in the temple.
Inside the Sanctum sanctorum
 In fact, if any visitor to the temple stepped on any rat or killed even one of them accidentally, he had to pay a big price for the vile deed.  The visitor had to get a rat sculpted in silver and donate it to the temple! 

We carefully walked around the temple, making sure that we did not trample any rat – that was one unforgettable, if a little creepy, temple experience!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka - A Few Pointers

Buddhist temple in Dambulla

Sri Lanka, the island nation, known variously as Emerald Isle of Asia, Ceylon, Serendip - is beautiful and captivating.  It is a tropical paradise that is green and clean.   It offers many things to the tourist – its sun-kissed beaches are a haven for the young and jolly beach revellers; the Buddhist temples and the Hindu temples dating back to more than 3000 years and the Ramayana offer salvation to the religiously inclined; its elephant sanctuaries and national park provide the right environment for the nature /animal lover; while its hill stations provide the much needed respite from the intense heat and are extremely scenic.

General Information for planning a trip to Sri Lanka

Our first step on Lankan soil - right outside the Bandaranayake Airport


Flight tickets to Sri Lanka are very reasonable.  Mihin Lanka, a low-cost Sri Lankan airline, offers tickets for as low as Rs.6000 from Chennai.   Indigo also offers round-trip fares - Bangalore –Colombo-Bangalore at an unbelievably low cost of Rs.10,000!  This is far lower than air ticket costs for travel within India.


Sri Lanka offers both visa on arrival and online e-visas that one can apply for before the travel date, once the flight tickets and hotel accommodation have been booked.  For Indian visitors, visa fees amounts to US $20 (e-visa).  Visa on arrival costs US $25.  Hence it is better to apply for e-visas which is a simple process.  The approved visa is sent by e-mail and is given within a few minutes of applying for the same.
Here is the link to the visa page -

With our friendly AirBnB Hosts in Kandy


Air BnB offers the convenience of booking homestays or booking complete homes for various budgets.  It is easily the best option for people travelling in larger groups.  When we with our extended family of 7 members visited Sri Lanka, we booked complete 3-bedroom homes in Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Galle.   All of us had comfortable rooms and the price we paid was fairly reasonable.   Similar accommodation in regular hotels would have cost us quite a bit.  In addition, we got to use the well-equipped kitchen to prepare breakfast (when it was not part of the deal) and dinner on days we decided to have a simple Indian meal.



There are plenty of Indian hotels in Colombo that serve tasty Indian fare.   In most places, we were able to get vegetarian food.  We also tried Sri Lankan local food like String hoppers – which are basically rice noodles or Idiyappam served with a curry.  Kerala cuisine like Aapam, Puttu, Parota are also popular here. Pol  Sambol is an accompaniment that we tasted – very similar to the thenga molazhapudi .  Our hosts in Kandy offered this for breakfast and it tasted extremely good.  It is made of freshly grated coconut, onions and red chillies. 
We also picked up fresh milk, thick curds, fruits, cucumbers, onions and tomatoes, and rice from the local store in Colombo and Kandy and prepared simple meals of cooked rice with MTR Puliyogare powder (which we had taken from Bangalore), salad, and curd rice.  Pineapples and jackfruit are also available in plenty and we gorged on them.
It is best to carry some essential food items like Puliyogare powder, Pickles, Indian snacks and ofcourse, the all-time favourite of Maggie Noodles.  With 5 youngsters who were ever hungry, our one large suitcase dedicated to food and snacks came in handy.     
In Galle, we had a Sri Lankan buffet lunch.  It was fantastic – some lip-smacking memorable items were the jackfruit curry cooked in coconut milk, and their version of the brinjal curry.

Budhi - our Tour Guide welcoming us!


We hired a vehicle from Erenga Kurera Tours.  Their driver, Budhi picked us from the airport and took us all over Sri Lanka.  We traversed the roads in a Toyota Kdh van.  It was most convenient and quite comfortable for the seven of us and our luggage. Budhi was a silent but friendly driver.  He drove carefully and acted as our tour guide.   

Here are the highlights from our trip -

We were a family of seven – 3 adults and 4 children (2 teens, and 2 pre-teens) who set out to visit the beautiful island country of Sri Lanka.   Considering the motley crowd, we had to plan the trip to cater to everyone’s needs.  We needed to pack in some adventure, some amount of history and culture, a little bit of leisure, plenty of beach-time, and of course great food.  After reading up and researching online, we zeroed in our 10-day vacation with the following itinerary. 

Colombo – Pinnewala Elephant Sanctuary – Kandy – Nuwara Eliya – Galle – Colombo

Our Sri Lankan itinerary

We covered a total distance of nearly 1000 kms over the 10 days.  We wanted to visit the Udawalawe National Park to the south before reaching Galle but could not fit this in.  We will have to plan another trip to Sri Lanka to include the northern territories and the eastern coast.

Sri Lanka - the Beautiful and Historic Island-Nation

 Our 10-day trip to Sri Lanka can be described as one beautiful holiday.  We got up close to the Sri Lankan way of life -their food and cultural flavours, their rich history and relics, the amazing temples, Buddhist shrines, the picturesque locales both on the mountains and near the sea. It was a great pot-pourri of experiences.


Near the Independence Hall - statue of SriLanka's first Prime Minister - Don Stephen Senanayake

Our Mihin Lanka flight from Chennai landed into Colombo  which is a fairly large city with beautiful, broad roads.  It had a Victorian feel to it, with a blend of modern buildings and the typical British structures with wide open spaces and plenty of trees.  In fact, it reminded us of the quieter and beautiful Bangalore of yester years.  We visited the
·       Independence Memorial Hall which was constructed to commemorate the gaining of independence from the British in 1948.  It is a multi pillared hall that stands majestically.
·       Surrounding the Hall is the Cinnamon Gardens -  a great open park with plenty of greenery and situated right in the heart of the city.  One can take a stroll, jog, cycle or just ramble around.
·       Galle Face Promenade - This is a beautiful stretch of road right beside the sea and is ideal for taking a leisurely walk while enjoying the sea breeze.  The vendors with push-carts provide local street food –a  unique way of trying out new cuisine.  
·       House of Fashions – A great store to buy branded clothes at decent prices.
·       Opel Store -  A good place to pick up Sri Lankan knickknacks and gift items.

By the Galle Face Promenade

The famous Galle Face Hotel

In the Cinnamon Gardens

The Colombo Town Hall

Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary 

At Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
While proceeding to Kandy from Colombo, we stopped at Pinnawala to visit the Elephant Orphanage.  There are more than 50 elephants here and the place is well-maintained.  We got a chance to feed the elephants, give them a shower with a hose-pipe and also watched them enjoying themselves in the river.   We witnessed almost 40+ elephants walking down in a procession to the river close-by.  We had balcony seats in the restaurant beside the river and had a ring-side view as the pachyderms played and frolicked in the river.    

Elephants bathing in the Maha Oya River

Feeding time! The young calf enjoys its drink!

Kandy -

The Botanical Garden, Kandy

We arrived in Kandy, the second largest city in Sri Lanka.  It is also considered as the administrative capital.  It is a very old city with a lot of history and religious importance. It lies at an altitude of 1600 ft. above sea-level and hence has a more pleasant climate.   Being a hill town, its roads are narrow; traffic jams are very common and frustrating.  Kandy has dense trees - plenty of rubber plantations are found on the road from Colombo.   We visited the following in Kandy  

  •  Royal Botanical Garden – is a vast space of greenery right in the heart of the city.  It is beautifully maintained and has several attractions like the Hanging Bridge, the colourful orchid park with flowers of several sizes and shapes, an artificial lake, rubber trees.
  • Temple of the Tooth Relic – is a prominent and sacred Buddhist temple.   It houses the tooth of the Buddha.  We don’t actually get to see the tooth - it is kept secure and covered in a jewel-box of sorts – but the temple itself is a big attraction.  It is well maintained and exudes serenity. The vast building and grounds of the temple were earlier part of the royal palace.
  •  Lake – the Lake lies right in the heart of Kandy, next to the Tooth Relic temple.  Similar to most hill-stations in India that were developed by the British, this is also a man-made lake.  Several well-known administrative buildings can be found adjacent to the Lake. 
  •  The Sri Lankan Cultural Performance – This 2-hour dance and music programme is a great way to learn about Sri Lankan customs and culture. 
A Sri Lankan breakfast - String Hoppers with Sambol

At the Orchids Section of the Royal Botanical Garden in Kandy

Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy

On the roads of Kandy

Sigiriya and Dambulla

Sigiriya - The impregnable rock
From Kandy, we set out early in the morning around 5:30 AM to Sigiriya. Our Air BnB host was good enough to pack sandwiches for us which we had before reaching Sigirya.  It took us two and a half hours to reach Sigiriya.  We wanted to start the climb of the fortress before it became too hot.  Sigiriya is an imposing huge rock-fort that looks impregnable.  When King Kashyapa built it in 300-200 BC, his intention was just that -  a strong-hold that could not be breached.  Apart from the actual climb, the technology used by him is mind-boggling.  He built gardens and water storage tanks to make good use of the rain water.   His keen sense of art is displayed by the beautiful paintings created on the cave walls and a huge set of lion’s paws cut out from the rock surface.  He built his ancient palace and other dwellings on the flattened area at the top of the rock summit.  The climb is a little arduous but definitely doable.  The view from the top is breath-taking and well worth all the effort.

After getting down from Sigiriya, we then proceeded to the Cave temples in Dambulla, also known as the Golden Temple.  In the foreground, there is a huge temple with the seated Buddha’s golden sculpture rising mightily into the sky.  Towards the rear, a  climb up a series of steps leads to the cave buildings.  There are 5 sections or levels in the caves and all of them are covered with beautiful paintings and Buddha statues of different sizes and in different poses.  A huge 15-metre long reclining Buddha statue is a magnificent piece of sculpture dating back to more than 2200 years.


An imposing back-drop

The climb up the rock fortress

Huge set of lions paws engraved in stone

The Lotus Temple in Dambulla

Statues and paintings inside the caves

Nuwara Eliya

Tea estate in Nuwara Eliya - with the tea-pluckers
This is a cool and pleasant hill-station filled with tea estates.  It reminds one of our very own Munnar, with beautifully manicured tea gardens.  It is a great place to escape the sultry climate of the sea-side towns. The British built a lake right in the centre of the city called the Gregory Lake.  We visited
·         The quaint colonial building that houses the Post office. 
·         The Seetha Amman temple – on the rock beside the stream, Hanuman’s big foot print is seen.  Seetha is believed to have stayed here – near the Ashoka vanam.
·         A 10km walk through the Norton Plains with beautiful view points and waterfalls.
·         Tour of the Ambewala Dairy Farm – we got to see the milking of cows using machines, the huge male studs, the cheese factory

Aim and shoot - at a view point

The iconic Post Office in Nuwara Eliya

The Norton Plains - before the start of the walk

On top of the world!

World's End - a beautiful View Point

The Hills are alive!

Baker's Falls

Galle - 

At the Turtle Farm in Galle

Galle is a beautiful sea-side town to the south-west of Sri Lanka.  It is famous for its lovely and clean beaches.  It instantly reminds one of Goa and the carefree spirit can be felt in the air. Of all the places we visited in Sri Lanka, I think Galle remained the favourite.  It is a great place to unwind and relax - walking and playing in the sands, feeling the salty breeze on our faces, and watching the waves lap around our feet.   We did the following in Galle
·     Visited the Fort area which is a little walled town, built first by the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch. No automobiles are allowed inside and the place can be explored by walking around the clean but narrow lanes that are lined with offices, quaint shops selling antiques, and pretty little cafes.  View from atop the fort is breath taking.  We also get a good view of the picturesque Cricket stadium.
·         Had a slow and lovely dinner sitting on the beach and facing the sea.
·         Visited a Turtle Farm.  Saw several s varieties of turtles that were bred in the farm.  Also got a chance to let a newly hatched Oliver turtle back into the sea.
·         Japanese Peace Pagoda

View of the International Cricket Stadium in Galle
The Fort walls and the light house with the sea beyond
A shop selling curios within the Fort

On the walls of the Fort

The Indian Ocean!

Walking through the streets of Galle

Beach time in Galle