Old Turks

Old Turks
Phugtal Monastery, Photo Credit: Sheetal Vyas
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An absolutely 'new bunch' of heritage sites that makes for some interesting history

Amitabha Dasgupta
April 17 , 2014
18 Min Read

Chhoti Dargah, Maner, Bihar
About 30km west of Patna lies the ancient site of Maner.  A place of some historical importance, Maner is home to the tombs of two revered saints of the Kubrawiya-Firdausi Sufi sect — Hazrat Makhdoom Yaha Maneri and Shah Daulat. Their tombs are locally known as the Bari Dagah and Choti Dargah respectively. Although the former dates back to the 13th century, the later 17th century Mughal-era Chhoti Dargah is the real beauty. Built by the Mughal governor of Bihar, Ibrahim Khan, the Chunar sandstone mausoleum is an elegant piece of high Mughal architecture. A central dome and four cupolas are surrounded by an extensive Mughal garden and fronted by a large baoli. The mosque itself is a prime example of the syncretic building style of the Mughals, with the elegant dome offset by some intricate patterns on the eaves and buttresses. Largely unknown outside the state, it’s an understated and underrated gem.

Getting there: Maner is a mere 30km from Patna, so hire a car and get there.

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Manikya Temples, Udaipur, Tripura
The Manikya kings of Tripura were great builders, and the temples the dot Udaipur, their medieval capital by the Gomati river are some of the finest of the late-medieval era. Largely built in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Manikyas imported the Bengali char chala temples and added a Buddhist stupa-like crown and Islamic dargah-like pillars to create structures of great beauty. Udaipur has countless such temples, but the finest of the lot are the Gunabati guchcha (group) of three temples in the main city, the red Tripurasundari temple or Matabari just outside town, the crumbling red Vishnu temple and the Bhubaneshvari temple on the north bank of the Gomati beside the ruins of the palace. Evoking the three main cultural heritages of Tripura, these temples are little-known masterpieces.

Getting there: Udaipur is a two-hour drive from Agartala.

Yogini Temples, Hirapur and Ranipur-Jharial, Orissa
In late first millennium AD, when tantric forms of worship had become a parcel of mainstream religious and folk beliefs, central and eastern India witnessed the building of a number of mysterious circular, open-air shrines dedicated to female spirits or Yoginis, commonly 64 in number. Orissa has two of the best-preserved ones. The one at Hirapur, just outside Bhubanesvar, was discovered only in 1953. Built of coarse sandstone, the small temple boasts of 60 exquisite chlorite images of Yoginis, in niches all around the temple. Beautiful maidens all, some of the Yoginis ride o fish, others on wheels, some adjust their anklets while others play the drums. There’s an elephant- headed yogini, and a horse-headed one, and another one sanding above a decapitated head.  Wearing bone garlands, many of them drink from skull cups. The Ranipur-Jahrial temple, located close to the Chattisgarh border, is surrounded by remains of Buddhist and Saiva temples. The images are larger, and feature a large number with haunting animal faces, including a cat, a leopard, a sow, a snake and a horse. Yoginis were influential figures in both Buddhist and Hindu tantras, and these spectacular shrines brim with a haunting beauty. You can also see beautiful Yogini images in some Bhubanesvar temples of that era like the Vaital Deul, the Muktesvara and the Varahi temple.

Getting there: Hirapur is only 20km from Bhubanesawr and can be reached easily. Ranipur-Jharial is much more remote, about 8km from Mundpadar village on the Titligarh-Kantabanji road in the Bolangir district. 

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai
While everyone knows about the Elephanta caves, very few people know that the suburbs of Mumbai have Buddhist sites of great antiquity and importance. A major Buddhist centre till roughly the 12th century, the rock-cut Kanheri caves just north of Borivali inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park  was famous in the medieval world as Krishnagiri or the Maharajavihara, one of the main seats of Vajrayana Buddhism in India. Famous siddhas like Rahulagupta had their seats of learning here while figures like Atisa Dipankara and Buddhajnanapada came here for their tantric diksha. Consisting of a series of 109 caves, many of these are stark and unadorned, but some, like a large congregation hall, contains huge pillars and a massive stupa like the one at Karle. Some of the caves contain a treasure-trove of bas reliefs of Bodhisattvas, especially Avalokiteshvara. Some others have exquisite but damaged murals. A large number of epigraphs, some of them royal ones, testify to the importance and prestige of the Buddhist community here.            

Getting there: Practically within Mumbai, you can hire a car to take you to the site within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

Bibek Bhattacharya

Dhanyakuria – a village of palaces
Not featured in the list of tourist destinations of Bengal, the small settlement Dhanyakuria near Basirhat, North 24 Parganas district showcases plenty of lavish Mansions of fusion architecture, belonging to Zamindars and merchants of yesteryears.

Once a part of Sunderbans, Dhanyakuria was converted into a proper settlement for living in 1742 when one Jagannath Das settled here with his family.  Likewise families of many traders like Mandal, Gayen, Sau and Ballabhs came and settled in the village and became affluent.  This is when these families built up several mansions. The area was famous for Rice and Sugarcane. Vaishnav culture was predominant in the area.

The mansions of Gayen, Ballabh and Sau are still well maintained. Many films have been shot here. The residence of the Gayens is a huge pink building having an Indian adapted European style of architecture. The Ballabh family residence has several interesting figurines on the building.  Both the Gayen and Ballabh Residence have impressive towers. Inside the Sau residence there are many awesome fresco works and a beautiful courtyard with a Thakurdalan.  There is also a massive rashmancha in the village which looks like a typical navaratna temple

The Gayen Garden is now a State run orphanage. Located on the main road, it features a European style gate with two towers and a statue of Two Europeans fighting with a lion. The compound showcases a building resembling that of an English Castle which is perhaps one of the best examples of fusion architecture of Colonial Bengal

Although entry inside the buildings is subsequent to the will of the owners, usually a curious visitor is not deprived.

Getting there: Dhanyakuria is  two to two and half hour drive from Kolkata. It falls on the kolkata Basirhat bus route. It is a day trip. There are no facilities to stay there.

Best option is to drive there by a car. There are bus services too. You have to go to Barasat from esplanade and then take another bus from there to Basirhat and get down at Dhanyakuria. For train route take Basirhat local from Sealdah and get down at Malatipur. You will get local conveyance from there to Dhanyakuria which is only 6 km from there.

Amitabha Dasgupta

Muchukunda murals, Thiruvarur, Tamil Nadu
The Thyagarajaswamy Temple in Thiruvarur is one of the Thanjavur delta’s great, sprawling temples, its vast dimensions perfectly proportioned and quite splendid (it has such a large and deep tank that motor boats offer joyrides). Thirteen years ago, a priest requested Ranvir Shah, founder-curator of Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation to “do something” about the Nayak period paintings on the roof of the Devasariya Mandapam here. It took him eight years to get the necessary permission (seriously) to restore and document what came to be called the Muchukunda murals, after the early Chola king who is said to have brought the temple’s deity to Thiruvarur, the legend depicted in more than 300 beautifully rendered panels, touched up gently by Intach and the Chitrakala Parishad Art Conservation Centre (ICKPAC) over three years. The project led to a book by famed Indologist David Shulman with photographs by the late V.K.Rajamani. This lonely labour of patience, both physical and financial, deserves more than a glance from visitors; the old mandapam that houses it also given a non-intrusive makeover. Stay at Prakriti’s lovely and mod-conned Mangalam homestay in Tirupugalur, 18km from Thiruvarur and miles ahead of any standard accommodation you’ll find in town (Rs 2,300 per night from April to September, Rs 4,025 otherwise, breakfast included; 99406-23628 — Mr Bala, mangalaheritagehome@gmail.com). 

Getting there Karaikal Exp and Velankanni Exp are excellent overnight trains from Chennai to Thiruvarur. Trichy (110km) is the nearest airport.

The ruins of Cossimbazar, Murshidabad, West Bengal
So quiet and forgotten is Cossimbazar these days that it’s difficult to believe this triangular island by a river of the same name (now called Bhagirathi but not so in the British records) was once Bengal’s throbbing, chaotic and vitally important trading centre, its proximity to the Nawabi capital of Murshidabad the chief reason for its rise to a happening place in history. Cossimbazar’s demise was just as dramatic — the Bhagirathi changed course in 1813 to flow three miles away, leaving an uninhabitable, malarial swamp behind. That was then. Today, if you happen by on an ordinary morning, you would find the Rajbari or the Cossimbazar Palace in stately dotage; the Sripur Palace or what was left of it and renovated three years ago; the temples, watch tower and museum of the well-kept Choto Rajbari, the ‘small palace’; and the sylvan British and Dutch cemeteries, in the former of which lies buried Warren Hastings’ wife among other folk who lived in those exciting times, remembered mostly by tombstones, some of them richly ornamented or elaborately inscribed, others unexpected monuments like a cupola, a pillar and a pyramid. A walkabout can also include the remains of an earthen rampart, the historic Dutch factory in Kalkapur, an Armenian settlement (there’s a lovely renovated red brick church with a bell tower and garden), a French factory (in Farasdanga, or the ‘French land’), and two old temples to Shiva. It may be said that such a stroll would be remarkably more soothing than anything it might have been in the past. It would be best to take a guide along (Rs 600 for 4-5 hours) from Hotel Sagnik (Rs 800 for AC doubles; 03482-271492; hotelsagnik.com) in Murshidabad, which compensates with enthusiasm what it lacks in upward mobility. Cossimbazar is 14km or about half hour away (Rs 1,100 for half day all-points cab hire). 

Getting there: Several trains run from Kolkata to Murshidabad (200km) but the Hazarduari Express from Chitpur Station is the most convenient of them, leaving at 6.50am and arriving in four-and-a-half hours.

 Lalitha Sridhar

Garh Kundar, Madhya Pradesh
There’s an eerie silence that holds sway in this hill-fort. Built to replace a Chandela stronghold, Garh Kundar in Tikarmgarh was founded in 1180 as the capital of the Khangars. It was wrested by the Bundelas and finally abandoned in 1531 when they moved to Orchcha. Consequently, the fort has witnessed as many centuries of drama as it has neglect. The drama includes grandeur, battles, massacres and scenes of jauhar, the neglect stretches over years of desertion – curiously, even by vandals! Stay in Orchcha (Amar Mahal Hotel, from Rs 3500, www.amarmahal.com), pack a picnic basket and make a day-trip to these crumbling ramparts – you’ll find beautiful pillars to the Sun and the Moon, a temple to the Goddess Gajanan Maa, another to Giddha Vahini... the palace itself is a wonderful three-storeyed structure standing around a spacious courtyard. 

Getting there: Garh Kundar is accessed by road from Orchcha (55km) or Jhansi (75km).

Rosary Church, Karnataka
When the Gorur dam was built on the river Hemavati in the 1970s, it submerged over 22,500 acres and 46 villages. It also submerged our point of interest at this moment – the stately Rosary Church at Shettihalli that French Missionaries had built in 1860. As the water flows and ebbs the church is flooded or revealed – making it a rather piquant destination, for you never really know what you will find. It is possible to drive right up to it in dry circumstances, but it makes an even more picturesque scene of melancholic magnificence half-submerged. Stay at The Rappa (from Rs 1,200 plus taxes, www.therappa.com) near Hassan, bespeak a coracle and wade through the skeleton of what was once a shrine. 

Getting there: Shettihalli is 200km/4 hours from Bangalore and 15km from Hassan.

Phugtal Monastery, Jammu and Kashmir
It is one of those remote monasteries they’re always talking about: even in this age, it takes nearly three days to reach – on foot, of course. Nestled under a yawning cavern, fitting so snugly into an assortment of crevices and footholds that it seems to grow out of the mountain, the Phugtal gompa is an astonishing piece of architecture. It’s a bit shocking to know that the Buddhist monastery – built on a foundation of twigs and mud – has successfully survived the extreme ravages of the Zanzkar landscape, along with other laws of physics since the 12th century, when it was founded by Gangsem Sherap Sampo. Overlooking a gorge through which flows a tributary of the Lungnak River, this retreat harbours 70 monks, prayer rooms and a library. 

Getting there: Phugtal is approached by a 2-3day trek from Padum, from Rs 2,800via Rera and Purne. Speak to Overland Escape for customised tours (01982-257858, www.overlandescape.in).

Manjarabad Fort, Karnataka
The best vantage to see the full beauty of this hill-fort at Manjarabad would be the sky above it – but failing the bird’s eye view, you should at least settle for a look via satellite: an impeccably geometric eight-pointed star, built on the lines of the ‘trace italienne’ or star design that the Italians conceived and the French finetuned into an art. The star design was thought much more effective against artillery attacks than the ring-shaped one. Built by the beleaguered Tipu Sultan towards the end of the 18th century, this fortification offers panoramic views of the surrounding country, and the fort itself is rumoured to have a tunnel that leads to Srirangapattana near Mysore. However, militarised though it was, Manjarabad’s name is poetically inspired: it derives from ‘manju’, Kannada for mist. 

Getting there: Manjarabad is about 10km from Sakleshpura and 46km/1.5hr from Hassan. Stay at MakkiThitta Home Stay (from Rs 1,500 for 2D/1N, 09448318277, www.makkithitta.com).

Mitawali, Madhya Pradesh
The district of Morena is a particularly lucrative one for heritage junkies. Take Mitawali for one, with its spectacular 8th century hilltop temple dedicated to the 64 yoginis or tantric goddesses. With a central shrine to Shiva, this is a wonderful piece of architecture, one that many say influenced the Lutyen-Baker design of the Indian Parliament building. Most of the yoginis are missing, alas, but there is much by way of ambience in this once-tantric centre. There’s more in the 10km radius: Padavali, with its magnificent ruins and an ancient temple to Vishnu dating back to the Guptas; and Bateshwar, with its temple-complex of nearly 200 shrines – temples made of sandstone, belonging to the 8-10th century. Stay in Gwalior (Deo Bagh, from Rs 4,000 doubles, www.deo-bagh.neemranahotels.com) for this must-do circuit. 

Getting there: Mitawali is about 38km/1hr from Gwalior by road.

 Sheetal Vyas

Naranag temples, Kashmir
Often the only Kashmiri temples tourists visit, perforce, are the ruins of Avantipur on the Jammu-Srinagar highway. But there are several other ancient Hindu and Buddhist shrines — frequently, in spectacular and remote settings — that underscore the region’s multifaith roots. The Shiva temples of Naranag in the Ganderbal district, for instance, are off the main tourist drag. A shadow of the grand temple complex it once was — built by King Lalitaditya Muktapida in the eighth century and praised in the Rajatarangini — Naranag is, however, among the better-preserved monuments. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with the Wangath river roaring down a gorge below it, the two temples here strike quite a pose on their high perch in the Kangan belt…the massive interlocked stones and fluted pillars standing tall against a bucolic backdrop. Also a base camp for the trek to the Gangabal Lake, they draw but the most persistent researchers and trekkers, apart from the Kashmiri pundits who, in the warmer months, immerse the ashes of the dead in the lake.

Getting there: Naranag is about 50km north of Srinagar; best done as a day trip. The only way to get there is by road. 

St Olav’s Church, Serampore
A lot can change in two hundred odd years. But the transformation of the pre-colonial Danish settlement of Frederiksnagore into Serampore, now a concrete carbuncle by the Hooghly, is almost complete. Making amends for such sustained apathy and neglect are a team of architects and historians — part of the Serampore Initiative — from the National Museum of Denmark and the West Bengal Heritage Commission. On top of their list is the restoration of St Olav’s Church — arguably, the town’s most prominent feature, its steeple visible from Barrackpore across the river. Built in 1806 (although parts of the structure, including the bell tower and the portico were only constructed in 1821) with the help of public grants and private endowments from individuals both in Denmark and Serampore, the church was named after the Danish Governor Ole Bie, who was the driving force behind the project. Also being restored are the square in front of the church (used as a bus terminus), the local sub-divisional court or the erstwhile Governor’s House next door, the Catholic Church and the well-preserved Serampore College further down the Strand. 

Getting there: Barely25kmfrom Kolkata, several (local and long-distance) trains connect Serampore to the state capital. You can also drive north via Dum Dum, Bally and Uttarpara; best done as a day trip.

Palaces of Darbhanga, Bihar 
North Bihar today can hardly aspire to the regal resurgence that changed the fortunes of tourism in Rajasthan. But in this forgotten corner of the country — once a part of Mithila, one of the first kingdoms of India — interested travellers can still find several charming examples of recent history. The dusty, nondescript town of Darbhanga, for instance — the erstwhile capital of an eponymous princely state — has half a dozen minor palaces built by the rulers of the Khandavala Dynasty (1577-1947). Standing tall among them for hundred and twenty odd years is the Anand Bagh or Laxmivilas Palace — a red-brick structure that was damaged and rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1934; it currently houses the Kameshwar Singh Darbhanga Sanskrit University. The imposing and well-maintained Bela Palace also doubles up as an educational institution — a postal training college, and so does the massive but featureless Nargona Palace. The latter’s austerity is often attributed to the fact that it was built expressly to withstand earthquakes after 1934; a year when the Moti Mahal Palace was almost completely destroyed. The handful of tourists who visit the town, also make time for the privately owned (and the oldest) Ram Bagh Palace and Dilkhush Bag, both of which lie within the ramparts of the local Fort. Accommodation options here are basic — try the new A P Palace (from Rs1,400; appalace.com).

Getting there: Darbhangais only about 130km from Patna by road. Although it takes a while longer, consider taking a train, such as the InterCity or the Bagmati Express (4-5 hours).    

 Soity Banerjee


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