Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Grand Chola Experience!

A part of the Chennai Super Bloggers Team - Winners of the First Indian Bloggers League!

A blogger meet organised by Indiblogger is something every blogger looks out to- as a perfect opportunity to meet, greet and rub shoulders with the wonderful people who are known through their writing, with awesome venues, great food and lots of fun thrown in as a bonus.

This time round, the Indiblogger meet provided a sneak preview into Asia's largest hotel, the ITC Grand Chola at Guindy and it was little wonder that 95% of the registrants reached despite the really short notice.

When I reached the venue, the car was guided along to circumambulate the hotel to reach the Chola entrance, and believe me, it was like circumambulating the Big Temple at Thanjavur! All along the walls, were motifs of elephants (machine cut, and not handmade as I had visualised)welcoming the visitors.

One good thing about the Grand Chola is the pre-reception lobby containing escalators on either side, which enable users of the banquet halls and restaurants to move upstairs without having to enter the main reception!
How efficient!

The indiblogger meet was organised at the Rajendra Banquet Hall, a pillarless wonder that can house upto 3000 people if the panels were all opened up or could be divided into eight smaller conference halls.

Rajendra outside the Banquet Hall

The hospitality of ITC was amazing. With unlimited welcome drinks doing the rounds, the participants settled down comfortably in the round tables, which had i-pads configured for bloggers to participate in the #TweetsForTreats competition organised as part of the launch, whereby winners get awesome treats for innovative tweets about the hotel.

The Marketing head of ITC Grand Chola made a brief presentation about the hotel and its special features and it was indeed amazing to note that the entire hotel was operated on wind energy and this was achieved by the numerous windmills installed in Salem.

After a warm up round of HUR...HUR....HURRAY, and some fun questions by Anoop about the capabilities of the I-pads in the ITC Grand Chola hotel rooms, that earned participants experience vouchers of Rs.500 each (self included :)) and a musical chair to the tune of Gangnam Style, we were all set to enjoy the awesome hi-tea which was almost a meal, and the royal guided tour of the hotel with our charming hostess Meghna.

The Suites have been named after Karikala and Rajaraja, the Board rooms after Kaveri and Thanjavur and the Banquet Hall after Rajendra. The Sangam Lobby has a lotus motifed ceiling with acoustics planned in such a way that the voice of a person who spoke below it was magnified. This, we were told was an inspiration from the durbar halls of the Chola Kings (!) where such an arrangement existed, so that everyone heard when the King spoke.

Our tour started at the Sangam Lobby, resplendent with marble, the curving staircases fit enough for a king. We were told that different types of marble from many parts of the world were used liberally in the construction of the hotel as the Cholas had used marble to build palaces and temples. (Is that true? I thought the Mughals had specialised in using marble for construction).

The Sangam Lobby with the splendid chadeliers and the lovely staircase

We went through the different entrances - the Kili entrance for the Serviced apartments and the Sembian entrance for the Conference facilites.

We peeped into the restaurants and coffee shops - Madras Pavilion, Cafe Mercara, and Ottimo,
had a lovely mocktail at the Tranque"bar"- a bar named after Tharangambadi of the Chola Kingdom,
breezed through Cheroot - the Malt and Cigar Bar and Nutmeg, the wonderful chocolate and cake place,
and the Kayakalp Spa, before checking out the Tower Room, where every move was "I-Pad" controlled, the spacious Gym and the lovely swimming pool.

Sipping a Mocktail at the Tranque"bar"
Our final stop was at the Kavery and Thanjavur Board Rooms - the State of Art Board rooms with elegance and efficiency where everything happened at a touch of a button.

The die-hard Chola fan in me was a little disappointed that other than the antique artifacts from different parts of India, there was no other symbol or reference from the Cholas in the restaurants or rooms - but then, I guess they have done the best they could, considering business priorities. It would also help immensely if the staff were given a lesson in Chola history so that they are able to relate and narrate facts better.

Meghna told us that the Sembian entrance was named after Sembianmadevi, a queen who was well known for her hospitality! I could not resist telling her that the Cholas took the name of Sembian, to show that they were descendants of King Sibi and Sembianmadevi was well known for her philanthropy and devotion to Lord Shiva and that she had spent many an year in her life and a huge part of her wealth in renovating Shiva temples and in popularising the thevaram! (Phew!)

Bottomline: I decided not to apply too much of history and to enjoy the ambience that had been so meticulously put together by several thousands of people!

I do not want to go into repeating every single detail that Meghna told us, to spoil the fun for those who want to check out the regal splendor and responsible luxury of this hotel that spans over 6,00,000 sq. ft, but here are some glimpses of images that stayed in my mind long after I went home!

That Wonderful Grand Chola Experience! - Through my eyes! Do read the description of each picture, to understand more about the unique features of this magnificient hotel.

A sincere thanks to Indiblogger and ITC Grand Chola for a wonderful fun-filled evening, great food, and  lovely treats to take away as parting gifts! We will be back soon to enjoy the regal ambience yet again! May the glory of the Cholas live on!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Durga Betta and Vali Gufa!

The steps up to the Durga Temple start here

Anegundi - The Land of the Vijayanagara Kings, the Kishkinda of yore, the land that becons me again and again to it. NavabrindavanamChintamani and Pampa Sarovar are places that I visit every time I get an opportunity to do so. Another noteworthy temple that one must visit while touring Anegundi is the famous Durga Temple up a small hillock, popularly known as Durga Betta. There is another Durga Betta near Udupi.

The Goddess Durga here has been the favourite deity of the Vijayanagara Kings, who did not fail to worship her before proceeding on an important activity or war. The festival of Dussehra was celebrated with great pomp and show, with an elephant coming up the hill to carry the Goddess, down to the town of Anegondi, where the Dussehra procession to celebrate the victory of the Goddess over the Asura was carried out through the city. Even today, this ritual continues.

Panting up to the entrance under the midday sun

Shallow steps lead up to the temple. From the picture, you can see that the temple is within a fortress, the remains of which can still be seen.

On entering the temple, there is a small shrine for Hanuman. The priest here, performs elaborate harathi and offers tender coconut water as prasad. The Hanuman is beautifully decorated and it is indeed unique to see a Hanuman shrine inside a Devi temple.

Dwara Hanuman

We then walk into the main temple complex. The ancient Durga shrine stands right in the middle as a single small structure. Extensions have been built on either side in modern times, to create an Artha Mandapa, Dining Hall and other living quarters for the Sadhus who stay and perform poojas to the Goddess.

One noteworthy feature at this temple, is the sincerity and devotion with which the Swamis perform Pujas. There are at any  point of time, a number of tourists who wait outside to get darshan of the Goddess, some of them noisy too. But, the priests are just not distracted. They continue to perform the Kumkumarchana or poojas with complete concentration, not even turning once to look at the crowd outside. Once the Pooja is complete, the people are allowed to go in one by one to collect the Kumkuma Prasad and flowers.

There is a huge tree in front of the Durga shrine which has a number of coconuts tied up in colourful clothes to it. These coconuts have been tied by devotees wanting to have their wishes granted by the Mother. 

Coconuts tied to a tree in front of the Sanctum Sanctorum

The vibration in this temple is simply awesome. When you stand in front of Her, you feel goosebumps rising. The idol is about four feet high, and one has to stoop to have a close and complete look of the Goddess. But the energy emanating from her, has to be experienced to be believed.

Goddess Durga in her regal splendor - Watch the Asura at her foot

Just look at her - as she sits so majestically, holding Chakra (Discus) and Sanku (Conch) in her upper arms, and Trishula in her lower right hand. In her lower left hand, she hots the arm of the Asura, held in a convenient posture for Samhara. Look at him, twisted in a failing attempt to escape. Her eyes seem to look upwards towards the sky, but when you stand before her, you have a feeling she is looking directly at you! 

I cannot describe the emotions that went through me when I stood before her. It was as if she knew how I instantly fell in love with her, that the Swami turned and beckoned me to crouch down and receive the coconut, flowers and Kumkum as he tied a string (Raksha) around my right wrist. I was overwhelmed, and had tears in my eyes as I stepped out making way for those behind me to have darshan and prashad.

Murali, the young man at the shop who sells pooja items, books and CDs at the temple, is always smiling and willing to help. He speaks Hindi, Kannada and surprisingly, Tamil as well. He mentioned that the temple opened at 4.00 am in the morning and closed at 10.00 pm at night with no break in between. So one can have darshan of the Goddess at any time of the day. Abhishekam is performed every day at 4.00 am and Pujas at 7 am, 12 pm and 7 pm. Every day, Kumkumarchana is performed thrice and Lalitha Parayana thrice.

Murali also told us that this temple was built around 1336 AD by Harihara Raya I under the guidance of their  Guru Saint Vidyaranya. During the time of Harihara, the Vijayanagara capital was Anegondi and it was only during his brother and successor Bukkaraya's regime, that the capital was moved to the other side of the river to Vijayanagara.

A decorated trolley at the temple

Our previous visits to the Durga Temple have been restricted only to the temple, but this time we decided to go up the fort. We asked Murali about the Krishnadevaraya Samadhi. Murali told us that there were a couple of Samadhis on the way to Vali Gufa (Vali Cave) but he did not know if any of them belonged to Krishnadevaraya.

Vali Gufa? I needed to know more.

One of the Sanyasis at the temple knew Tamil. (Phew!) He explained that Vali had ruled over Kishkinda with Pampa as his capital city. At that time, he and his brother Sugreeva were united. One day, an Asura named Mayavi, challenged Vali to a fight. Vali accepted the challenge and they started attacking each other with maces.

At one point, Mayavi lost his mace and unable to bear the blows of Vali, started running away. Vali followed him and they both landed up in a cave. They wrestled for several days, as an anxious Sugreeva kept watch outside. One day, blood started flowing out of the cave. Fearing that Mayavi had killed Vali, Sugreeva blocked the entrance of the cave with a huge stone and ran away. The truth was that Vali had killed Mayavi. When he tried to get out of the cave, he found that the entrance had been sealed by Sugreeva. Vali thought that Sugreeva had deliberately done so in order to usurp his kingdom from him and to leave him to die inside the cave. This misunderstanding created enmity in the mind of Vali, and Sugreeva had to run to Rishyamukha Parvatha to save himself from Vali losing his wife and kingdom in the process.

It was this cave that the Sanyasi was speaking about. He also told us that there were a couple of samadhis of the Vijayanagara empire - he did not think any of those were Krishnadevaraya's and a well dug during Vali's time which had been reconstructed by the Vijayanagara kings.

We were really excited. Although there were a few people in the group, who had difficulty in climbing, they too decided to climb up slowly, not wanting to miss visiting these places.

Entrance of the Fort
When we reached the fort, there was another Sadhu (this one mercifully spoke Hindi) who took us inside and showed us the various places. In the picture, to the left lies a piece of musical stone, damaged recently by some miscreants.

The two samadhis belonging to the times of Krishnadevaraya stand in solitude. The Sadhu said that one of them was that of Ramaraya, son-in-law of Krishnadevaraya and the other he was not sure. People had piled stones all around the Samadhi. The Sadhu said that they prayed to their rulers and did this. When they came back the next time, if they found the stones had fallen or changed pattern, they believed their wishes would be granted! 

Samadhi of Ramaraya?

The Sadhu then pointed out the well which is supposed to have been constructed during Vali's times. He pointed out that it is not common to find wells on hills and Vali had dug the well to ensure there was adequate water inside the fort even if someone laid siege for several months. This well is said to have been improved and reconstructed by the Vijayanagara rulers.

The well on the way to Vali Gufa
By now, we were close to the huge boulder and the cave beneath it and a small board read "Vali Gufa" in Kannada and Hindi. There was already a group of tourists at the entrance of the cave. We waited for them to pass on, before approaching the cave. The Sadhu explained that what had once been a cave where a gory battle had taken place, was the abode to some Sadhus today.They spend several hours meditating inside this cave.
The Blue door signifies the entrance to the Vali Cave
The cave as you can see is below the huge rock boulder and there is a small blue gate that allows one to enter and peep in.

A peep into the cave

The cave is in such a manner that one has to literally crouch to enter the cave but after entering there is adequate space to stand and move about. The other end of the cave, tapers down again. It is amazing how Vali and Mayavi would have entered this cave and then engaged in a gory duel.

A protective steel mesh has been installed to prevent unauthorised entry or misuse of the cave. As you can see from the picture, there is an idol of Vali inside the shrine and a couple of mats which show that the Sadhus have been staying inside and meditating.

The Sadhu from Assam who showed us around

The Sadhu who stays here took us around and explained everything. He refused to accept money offered by some members of the group, saying he did not need it. We gave him some fruits which he took, after some persuasion. We are indeed grateful to him for having explained all the details expecting nothing in return.

It was noon when we returned to the Durga temple. The Sanyasis there asked us to have our lunch, as the temple provides free meals daily to all those who visit. As we had made alternate arrangements at Anegundi, we had to refuse. Had we known about the arrangements, we would have planned to take prasad at the temple.

We thanked Murali, who had motivated us to go up the fort to see these exciting places. 

Anegundi is across is the river and just 5 kms away from Hampi. One could also travel by road from Mantralayam, which is what we did. Anegundi is located at the Gangavathi Taluk in Koppal District of Karnataka and it takes three hours to drive down from Mantralayam.

If you happen to be in this part of town, especially during Navaratri, do not miss visiting Durga Betta (not to be confused with the one near Udupi) and Vali Gufa.

Contact Details:

For accomodation and food at Anegundi : Shri B Mallappa, Vaibhav Guest House - 09449432520/ 09480794104

For tourist guide assistance at Anegundi and Hampi - Shri H Manjunath - 09449284490/ 09449653598

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tamil Newspaper Dinathanthi allows article with copied content from Aalayam Kanden to be published!

This morning, I started reading the newspaper as usual. When I started glancing into the Aanmeegam Supplement, I was shocked to find that the article on Dhatriswarar Temple,Sithukadu had content and photographs copied verbatim from the post on the temple on Aalayam Kanden.

So much so, that even the watermark in the photograph had not been removed by this great Author, Mr. P.Thirugnanasambandar, from Thiruvallur and the newspaper, that calls itself No.1 as far as subscription is concerned, has not done any due diligence,or quality checks before accepting the article for publication.

Enraged, I tried to find a contact number or email address where I could send my webpage as well as the copied photographs from it.

After great difficulty, I was able to get a phone number. When I called on it, a gentleman called Senthil came on line saying he was working on the Aanmeegam supplement. When I shared my concern with him, I was told that everyone was on leave and that I should call back again tomorrow.

Aalayam Kanden totally condemns the unprofessional act of Thirugnanasambandar (why does a man who resorts to such cheap acts have such a saint's name) and Dinathanthi which has allowed the publishing of the article which has clear watermarked pictures from Aalayamkanden.

Bloggers like us, spend a great deal of time,money and effort to create original content in order to promote awareness about lesser known temples, and it is cheapsters like these who really dampen our spirits and intent.

I once had a medical doctor, lifting content and pictures verbatim from my blog site, and on confronting him, he removed the unauthorized content and gave a link to my page. I shudder to think, if this is his idea of ethics, what would happen to his patients?

My humble request to all plaguirists, current and future, if you cannot create original content, fine, no sweat, please do not copy content verbatim without acknowledging the creator. Atleast, have the courtesy to acknowledge the creator.

My Article on Sithukadu Dhatriswara Temple on Aalayam Kanden:

The article that was carried in Dhinathanthi today:

You can see that the picture of Garudakodi Sitthar clearly shows the aalayamkanden watermark right in the middle. Similarly, the photograph to the right is also copied from the blog and the watermark removed.

I truly hope the media in India and the so called No.1 newspapers will pay more attention to quality checks so that cheapsters like Thirugnanasambandar from Thiruvallur do not get an opportunity to gain cheap publicity from other people's content.