Sunday, February 15, 2009

Belur, Halebid and Sravanabelagola and MUNNAR!

This is going to be a recap of the days from after Mysore to our sweet break from the heat in the cool hills of Munnar. After the beauty of Somnathpur, David and I decided to visit two other Hoysala sites, Belur and Halebid, about 4 hours North of Mysore. The sites are a few kilometers away from each other, and we used Belur as our base. It is in Belur, at the glamorous Vishnu Residency Hotel, that we were finally introduced to how to correctly look at Hoysala art. This "warning" is located in the hotel's "wing" dedicated to all the Hoysala sites in the area:

(If you can't quite make it out, the text : "Oh Pilgrim! Adore at the door, before you enter. This is not only the STONE, it is a NETWORK of STONE ART.")

In any case, the art in both Belur and Halebid mainly consisted of variations on the Somnathpur theme. I enjoyed the temple at Somnathpur more than the temples at these sites, as it was located in the quietest and smallest of the towns and had some of the more intact and subtly sculpted details. Below are just a couple of images (all from the Halebid site) to give you a general idea of what we saw:

(Although the temple at Halebid was not as intricately carved in the higher parts of the building as Somnathpur, it had a much more intricate floor plan, resulting in these labyrinthic niches all around the outside walls.)

(A great image, possibly of an avatar of Vishbu, holding up the earth - with its trees and fruits - surrounded by all of creation.)

We spent one day visiting Belur and Halebid. The next morning, we took yet another bus to visit the giant Jain Buddha at Sravanabelagola. I talked about the hybrid nature of this site before (the result of a mix of patronage for both Jain and Hindu beliefs). On a hill situated in the middle of a large plain, there are about 650 steps carved into a giant boulder that take you up to the temple. It's really great walking up there!

The Buddha at the top is indeed HUGE: 17.38 meters. Again, one of those objects of which you will find better pictures all over the internet, etc. In any case, the shot below gives you a sense of the detail and simplicity of the sculpture:

This Jain Buddha is called Gomateshwara. It is always depticted naked, in standing position, with vines climbing up his body, and an anthill at his feet. The story tells that he was a prince, son of a very powerful emperor. When his father died, the prince and his brother fought a long and horrible battle to succeed him to the throne. When the prince was just about to win, he realized the futility of it all, left the empire to his brother, and went off to a forest, where he eventually reached enlightenment. The vines and the ant hill in the sculpture are meant to symbolize the prince's total absorption in his meditation: he didn't even notice plants were growing on him! His nakedness stands for his giving up of all material things. Very beautiful in its simplicity, and a nice break from all the detail and decorations of the Hoysala temples.

In Sravanabelagola, on our way to catch a bus to Bangalore, we ran into a fun musical procession moving along the main road. We weren't quite sure what was going on, but eventually were told it was a wedding! The couple seemed really excited to have their picture taken. Later David tried to run after them to get their emails (in order to send them the photos), but by the time we had the idea they had already moved far! It was a really festive procession :-)

(The couple is walking under the umbrella. She is wearing green and carrying some fruits in a basket, he's wearing white and a turban. They had great smiles!)

(The musical accompaniment.)

We eventually left Sravanabelagola on a 4.5 hour bus that took us to Bangalore, where we caught a plane to Kochi (Kerala). The Bangalore International Airport just opened up 8 months ago and felt as clean and fresh as a hospital after our 3 days of constant bus riding. I could actually feel the dirt on my clothes/skin while standing there.

We slept in Kochi, or rather it's neighbouring town, Ernakulam, in order to catch a bus to Munnar the next day. Here is the only memory I want to preserve of Ernakulam (where the only food we managed to eat was one samosa each at the bus stand, and not because of lack of time):

(This was the COURTYARD of the Paulson Park Hotel, where we slept in Ernakulam. Fantasy inspired. Very, very strange...)

So far, Ernakulam makes the top of our "worst places we visited" list. It was a chaotic, polluted, noisy town. The people at our hotel also seemed slightly dazed and generally confused every time we asked for information. It was a bit of a worrying introduction to Kerala... Luckly, by escaping to the hills (on yet another 4.5 hour bus ride, this time with no glass windows and very hard seats), we found some relief. Munnar is a small town 1,450m high, located in a valley sorrounded by tea, cardamon, and coffee plantations. I had never seen tea plantations before, and the first impression was of a gigantic and very manicured Japanese bonsai garden, with dense green bushes that look like puzzle pieces fitting into each other, and random rocks springing up every now and then. Really stunning.

We went on several walks around Munnar. One early morning we found this print in the sand:

(David circled the print. It's a little hard to tell because of other shade in the image, but it consists of 1 paw with 3 claws, facing left.)

Different people who saw it said it's a tiger print. It was close to some hoove-like prints, like the ones of a deer. There are tigers around Munnar, but it still seems hard to believe!

In our walks around Munnar we encountered women cutting down the tea bushes

caught glimpses of beautiful views,

and were amazed by the biodiversity of the jungly forests all around.

We also learned that while tea needs the sun to grow, cardamon needs the shade. The bushes/leaves at the bottom of this image are cardamon:

And, for the first time, I saw what fresh coffee beans look like. They look like this (the bean is left to dry inside the fruit):

Very instructive, our walks.

We left Munnar yesterday afternoon, with a car drive that turned just scary enough once the sun set. David told me "If you don't look, it will hurt less," so I tried not to pay too much attention to the cars and buses driving towards us in our lane.

Now we are in Allepey, were we met up with Aoife, Erica and Brian and with whom we plan to hire a house boat to travel South along the famous back waters of Kerala. We are staying at the Vrindavanam Heritage Home, a pleasant hotel with two interior gardens in a building that is more than 180 years old.

(The courtyard of our hotel. Definitely a great place to stay in Allepey. And their cook is great!)

We had a lovely sleep in the humid warmth of the ocean and I am about to leave this post to go have breakfast.

A presto,


  1. checking comments going through. margot

  2. loved the commentary loved the pictures learning lots from your trip BUT need to hear a voice too last blog was 2/15. where are you two wonderful people? love margot

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