global travel shot: champaner, a 500-year-old indo-saracenic poem in stone

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“Look up, at the ceiling.” I am broken from my reverie, as I drift through a forest of 172 stone pillars, by my guide Manoj’s voice prodding me to halt in my tracks and raise my eyes, heavenwards.

High up, inside a dome above the main mihrab is the most exquisitely carved sculpture I have seen to date. And I find myself gasping in awe. Is this for real? I am not too sure what stuns me more. Its immense size, the fineness of the swirling leaves, or its incongruous placement—I am in a 500-year-old mosque in Champaner, and the sculpture is Hindu-Jain in style and content.

For those new to the eclectic mix of religion and spirituality which makes up India, Jainism, along with Hinduism and Buddhism, is one of the major religions which developed in ancient India.

Built in 1484 by the Sultan of Gujarat, Mahmud Begada, and abandoned in 1535 with the advent of the Mughals, the medieval city of Champaner [Mahmud called it Muhammadabad] is one of India’s finest representations of this eclectic mix. A mix, however, created more by accident rather than any calculated design to propagate secularism.

So how did this happen? Whilst the orders for the mosque’s construction came from a foreign Muslim ruler [the Gujarat Sultans were of Turkish descent], the masons, sculptors and artisans who gave shape to his architectural vision were indigenous Hindus and Jains. The latter, familiar only with their own art, used their personal artistic sensibilities to embellish the structures. The result is a unique style typical to Champaner, later imitated by the British Raj under the name “Indo-Saracenic.” Hence, we have domes and minarets decorated with swastikas and diyas.

The deserted city is now, together with the nearby Pavagadh hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its prized centrepiece, Jami Mosque, once the main public mosque crumbles around me under the withering sun, suspended in time, whilst a couple of baboons shriek out at me for trespassing into their home.

With much difficulty, I tear myself away, this time taking a piece of a Hindu-Jain heaven in an Islamic place of worship back with me, promising myself I will blog about it for another kind of posterity. ❤

praha, the royal bohemian city of 500 spires—photo essay

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One of my wanderings in Central and Eastern Europe was through Prague—or Praha in Czech—the economic, political, and cultural centre of Central Europe for most of its 1,100 years of existence. Generally acclaimed as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it is after London, Paris, Istanbul, and Rome, the fifth most visited European city.

An overnight train from Budapest in a dark, panelled, velvet-clad train compartment took me to the “City of a Hundred Spires” [based on the count of a 19th Century mathematician]; a statistic which has now increased to 500 spires piercing its ethereal skyline. Praha was left largely untouched by the second World War unlike other European cities since Hitler made it a Nazi Germany protectorate in 1939. The result is a precinct pulled straight from the pages of a mythical past: Those that are romanticized and reminiscenced about, and are a treasure trove of art and architectural styles. Continue reading

36 hours in krakow

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Krakow is my last stop as I travel through Central Eastern Europe.

The royal capital of Poland, the city is unlike any other I have visited. And yes, this may well sound clichéd, but its past justifies the claim. The Old Town with its Jewish Quarter and Auschwitz II-Birkenau were one of the first to go on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Pronounced “Krakuf” in Polish, the medieval city of Krakow is straight from a mythical tale replete with dragons and princes. According to legend the 1,000-year-old city was founded by Krakus, a Polish prince who slayed the evil Wawel Dragon, and went on to build his castle and city over its lair on Wawel Hill by the banks of the River Vistula.

A set of bones of a pleistocene creature hangs over the Wawel Cathedral entrance. I am told they belong to the dragon and “The world will come to its end when the bones will fall on the ground.” Continue reading

global travel shot: remembering german nazi auschwitz, 70 years on

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When the bus dropped me off at Auschwitz II–Birkenau—a former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp on the outskirts of Krakow in Poland—on a summer day in 2012, I was not sure what to expect.

I was no stranger to scenes of debased humanity, having wandered through the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and explored the corridors of Robben Island in South Africa. I knew I would see pain, suffering, and the manifestation of an absolute ruthless version of humankind. But to what extent and how it was mourned 70 years on in Auschwitz II–Birkenau gave me both the jitters and hope. It still does. Continue reading

the spectacular treasures of samarkand

Registan, Samarkand

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

~ James Elroy Flecker

One cannot claim to be a traveller, and not have made the journey to Samarkand. Or at least have thought of it, fantasised about it. It would be blasphemy.

Samarkand is everything the traveller searches for, within and outside of oneself. It reveals secrets about life held gently amidst its spectacular edifices in blue and gold. The romantic exotic tile-clad mosques, madrasahs, tombs, bazaars and squares transpose one back 500 years in time to a grand fairy-tale city, deep in arid windswept Central Asia. On a philosophical note, Samarkand is the semi-mythological place of “justice, fairness, and righteousness” in Islamic Classical literature.

Much like Flecker’s reference to it, a lust for knowing more about ourselves and these ideals, makes the passage to Samarkand one of those non-negotiable, mandatory journeys one just has to take. 🙂 Continue reading

shakhrisabz, tamerlane’s home town

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The grandeur of the Ak-Saray Palace and the simplicity of his own intended tomb, both in Shakhrisabz, perhaps best describe Amir Temur (1336-1405), better known as Tamerlane [Temur, the lame], the person. Complex, multi-faceted, termed history’s most callous butcher, conqueror of southern, western and central Asia, he was the founder of the Timurid dynasty, and the great-great-great-grandfather of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. Continue reading