Museum hopping in New York City

New York City is home to one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world. From the brilliant graffiti at SoHo to the many art galleries dotting Chelsea and the sheer number of museums across the city, art lovers are spoilt for choice. So when I was planning my trip, I knew I had to have some kind of a shortlist in place, or I’d probably go museum-happy!

The Frick Collection | Metropolitan Museum of Art | Solomon R. Guggenheim | The Museum of the American Indian | Madame Tussauds | Museum of Sex

The Frick Collection

The Frick Collection

First up was The Frick Collection. Founded by Pittsburgh coke and steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who bequeathed his New York residence and most of his art collection after his death, the museum has an excellent collection of early Italian gold-ground devotional paintings. Most of these are small panels depicting scenes from the Bible and from Jesus’ life, including Cimabue’s The Flagellation of Christ, Barna di Siena’s Christ Bearing the Cross, with a Dominican Friar and El Grecko’s Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple. Although some of these were quite interesting, and a lot were by painters I hadn’t even heard of, this style of paintings doesn’t interest me much. After a quick stroll through that room, I moved on to the Boucher Room.

This breathtaking room originally served as Mrs. Frick’s sitting room. Hanging on the walls are paintings by François Boucher, complemented with groupings of decorative art objects, including Vincennes and Sèvres porcelain, a writing table by Riesener and an elaborate dressing table by Carlin. And though this room was jaw-droopingly beautiful, I wonder just how comfortable it would have been in day-to-day usage. Surrounded by such exquisite works of art, wouldn’t you always be afraid of spilling or breaking something?

The other room that knocked the breath out of my lungs was the Fragonard Room. The dominant feature is The Progress of Love ensemble, which includes six floor-to-ceiling canvases — The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned, Love Letters, Love Triumphant and Reverie — four overdoors, and four slender panels of hollyhocks. For a while, I was dumb founded, my mind went blank, and my heart very nearly stopped beating. These were paintings that I had gazed at for hours in books. To imagine someone once having lived surrounded by these, and to be actually standing before the original canvases, was almost unbelievable.

The museum boasts other masterpieces such as Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid, Degas’ The Rehearsal, and Monet’s Vétheuil in Winter; as well as a beautiful collection of sculpture, furniture and brick-a-brac. Overall, the best thing about visiting The Frick Collection is that it feels like you’re visiting someone’s tastefully done up private home with an excellent collection of artwork, sculpture and furniture that you can see in a couple of hours without getting overwhelmed.

Metroploitan Museum of Art

Metroploitan Museum of Art

Contrast this with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguably New York’s largest museum. Spread over more than 7 square miles and home to over 3 million works of art, you’ll need at least a week (if not more) to look at everything on offer. If you’re a tourist, and an international one at that, chances are you won’t have that kind of time. To squeeze everything into one day, the only piece of advice I can give you is this: plan beforehand.

Before I even booked my tickets to New York, I had started listing and refining the galleries that I absolutely had to see. I started with a list that was a mile long. But when I actually reached the Met and took in its sheer size, that list quickly dwindled to two, maybe three departments that I had to see or I would cry. These included the Egyptian collection and the famed Temple of Dendur, the European masters, and the impressionists.

Room from Hotel de Cabres, Grasse, recreated at the Metroploitan Museum of Art

Room from Hotel de Cabres, Grasse, recreated at the Metroploitan Museum of Art

Of course, I couldn’t just go directly to those areas. That would be sacrilege! I spent a lot of time gawking at the European and Greek sculpture and sighing over the gorgeous rooms – like the English State Bedroom, Wainscoting from the Chapel of the Château de La Bastie d’Urfé, and The Lansdowne Room – that have been recreated within the Met. I took a quick trot through the arms and armory section, ran through (yes, ran) the Japanese room. I also managed to squeeze in some Islamic art, American stained glass and pottery along the way.

I know there’s a lot at the Met that I did not see, but some of it was closed, and some of it was uninteresting for me. The opportunity to see canvases by some of my favorite painters, to walk through the Temple of Dendur, examine some fine Egyptian artifacts up close and personal…to just be at the Met, was enough. Of course, I’d better start making a list of the other galleries that I would love to see if I do go back to New York!

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Speaking of European masters, the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Tannhauser collection, which includes works by Pissaro, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Picasso, was the main deciding factor for its inclusion on my list of museums to visit. However, the collection is housed in one largish room and has only a limited number of paintings on view. Apparently, the Guggenheim never puts its entire collection on display, instead letting out most of its space to showcase the works of different artists.

During my visit to New York, most of the museum was given over to the Lee Ufran: Marking Infinity exhibit. Some of the pieces on display were interesting, but most of them left me unmoved. There were multiple canvases with one line painted either horizontally or vertically, in the middle of the canvas or on the side. It apparently shows the passage of time. But anyone – and I mean even my 5-year old niece – could have painted that line across a canvas and passed it off as the passage of time. I mean, really?

There were also numerous installations of boulders and metal sheets in different groupings and placements, boulders with cotton, with wire…I heard the audio commentaries on the pieces, but I still couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to pay good money to see something like this. Call me an ignoramus if you must, but I do not understand modern art. End of topic.

And so, when I came home after that visit, I moaned and groaned about the whole experience. And the wee sis made me strike MoMA off the list, saying that’s a lot more of the same stuff. I now think it might have been a mistake to not see MoMA, but I was running out of time, and didn’t want to waste money and time to go through another set of canvases and installations that I just wouldn’t get.

A sculpture flanking the entrance to the Museum of the American Indian, New York

A sculpture flanking the entrance to the Museum of the American Indian, New York

Far removed from the heady world of classical paintings is The Museum of the American Indian. The museum is housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, which is rich in architectural detail and is one of the finest examples of Beaux Arts architecture in New York. At the main entrance are four huge sculptures of seated female figures representing America, Asia, Europe and Africa – the major trading partners of the US. Above the columns of the main facade are 12 statues representing the sea powers of Europe and the Mediterranean, while above the main-floor windows are sculptures representing the different races.

The exterior elegance does little to prepare you for the gorgeous interiors. The rotunda dome in the main lobby is decorated with two series of murals – one depicting early sea explorers and the other tracing the course of a ship entering the New York harbor. We scheduled our visit to coincide with the Building Tours (45 min.–1 hr. Monday & Friday: 1 PM; Tuesday : 3PM), which took us through the Collection room, where captains had to come in to pay taxes, and the gorgeous Collector’s Reception Room with oak-paneled walls and Tiffany lamps. This room is only opened up for this particular tour, which gives you a more in-depth understanding of the history and significance of the building.

The Collector's Room, US Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian, New York)

The Collector's Room, US Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian, New York)

During the time of my visit, the museum also had a special exhibition showcasing the work of internationally renowned glass artist Preston Singletary. Titled Echoes, Fire, and Shadows, the 54 glass objects displayed Preston’s interpretation of Tlingit myths and legends. There were some stunning samples of his work, including a huge glass scuplture titled Clan House, which shows the interior of a Tlinglit longhouse.

The other galleries in the museum showcase various objects of cultural, historical and aesthetic importance, such as tunics, chief blankets, headdresses, jewellery, shoes, and pottery. On weekdays, the Insider Tour (2–3 PM, except federal holidays) – an interactive session with a Cultural Interpreter – offers an insight into Native American life and crafts such as beading, music, textiles and traditional foods.

And finally, onto two completely different museums – Madame Tussauds and The Museum of Sex.

Waxwork at Madame Tussards, New York

Waxwork at Madame Tussards, New York

Located in Times Square, Madame Tussauds brings you up close and personal with the who’s who of celebrities. The Opening Night Party and Gallery are incredible spaces, bringing you face-to-face with Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Robert Pattison, Julia Roberts and more. The Gallery features numerous historical and political figures, including The Oval Office Desk with President Obama and Michelle Obama standing attendance, and the White House press room. The Spirit of New York is the newest interactive exhibit celebrating everything, well, New York! From classic movie scenes to daily New York life, there’s a little bit of everything in this space.

Museum of Sex, New York

Museum of Sex, New York

And finally, the Museum of Sex . Do I really need to say anything about what you can expect here? 😉 I’ll just tell you about two of the best exhibits I saw there: Action: Sex and the Moving Image – an audio-visual walk-through of the visual history of sex on the screen, from the first kiss caught on film through to the rise of the modern porn industry; and the Comics Stripped exhibit, which explores the limitless sexual imagination of comic artists from the 1930s through to the present using humor, scandal and fantasy.

Of course, there are so many, many more museums that you can explore in New York City. But if you’re pressed for time, these should certainly be on your must-see list!

Do you have a favorite New York (or other) museum not listed here? Let me know in the comments!

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Marching to a different beat: the difference between India and the US

Marching to a different beat: the difference between India and the US

Statue of Liberty, New YorkEgypt. Venice. Turkey. The top three destinations on my must-visit wish list. Europe, Australia and South East Asia are some of the other places I want to travel to. The US has never been high on my list of priorities. Yet, for my first international vacation as an adult traveling on my own money, I chose New York City.

Why you ask? Well, my wee lil baby sister lives there and I have a US visa courtesy my office. The official trip fell through, but I figured the visa shouldn’t be wasted.

I managed to wrangle a 3-week vacation, and decided to spend that time in NYC, Washington and Orlando. I could have rushed through a few more places, but I wanted to soak in the atmosphere instead of checking things off an imaginary things-every-tourist-must-see-and-do list.

Picnic at Brooklyn Park

Picnic at Brooklyn Park

The differences between the US and India were palpable almost from the moment I got off the plane. Within the first few moments, I saw both the famous American rudeness courtesy an airport ground staff member who harangued a bunch of passengers who were standing unobtrusively in one corner and quickly filling out their immigration form, and American friendliness, as another staffer patiently explained the immigration process to an elderly man on a wheelchair who was evidently visiting the US for the first time.

Walking out of the airport, the first sight that greeted me was a line of yellow New York taxi cabs. That’s when the feeling of being abroad really sunk in, and the excitement mounted. So what if I never had New York City on my places to visit before I die list.

New York taxi cab

New York taxi cab

The wee sister lives in Weehawken, New Jersey. The cheapest way to get there was by the bus – the cab charges $40 from Port Authority, opposed to the bus, which takes $2.50 for the 7-minute ride – which we took from the Port Authority bus station. That was a bus station? It was HUGE! The advertisements called it a place to hang out and have fun…and maybe even take a bus. If you really wanted to hang out at a bus station, you could choose to go there for a meal, a quick coffee or deserts, and even to do some quick shopping! Plus, it was clean, and despite the huge number of people, it was quiet! A sharp contrast to Delhi’s main bus terminal (for inter-state travel), which is a huge, sprawling, littered cacophony of noise and smells.

Grand Central Station, New York

Grand Central Station, New York

Being a tourist in a foreign land with a limited amount of money means that you have to do the unthinkable and use public transport. I rarely use public transport in India. My only experience is with the Mumbai local train, which most people in my adopted city of Delhi find nightmarish. I mastered the trick of using the local early on, though. Positioning. Position yourself in the middle of the crowd waiting to board or disembark from the train, and the mass of humanity will push you in the right direction. You really don’t need to do anything else. In Delhi, though, I either drive or call for a cab. So the thought of having to use the New York subway gave me the heebie-jeebies. Until I got to the subway station. And got into the tube. No pushing and shoving. No touching and feeling. Even if the compartment was crowded and there was no place to sit. What a revelation that was! If someone accidentally bumps into you they immediately apologize and try to create some more space. Which is so welcome after the uncouth Delhi men. Though that also means that I had to be careful about invading someone elses space. Stand too close (like at an arm’s length away from someone) to a person and you’re likely to attract dirty glances. In India, we’re used to this kinda closeness. To people glancing over your shoulder at the cash counter, for example, to look at what you’ve purchased. Or to just stare at you. Yeah, that happens a lot. You just get used to it. So being ‘invisible’ in the US felt…good!

Zumba class outside Macys

Zumba class outside Macys, New York

Then there’s the politeness. Though my uncle, who has been in the US since, like, forever, calls it a ‘chocolate’ society, as a tourist, you’ll find that the people are friendly. And friendly starts from your bus driver. Who you actually greet when you get on. And thank when you get off. Amazing. Especially since I come from a country where drivers are transparent. Seriously. Though in the US, so are we women. The people may be friendly and polite and nice, but no one really looks at you. Even if you wear clothes that show more than they hide. No lecherous stares. No lewd comments. No sleazy men following you around. Liberating!

New Yorker walking her dog, Battery Park, New York

New Yorker walking her dog, Battery Park, New York

Then there’s the sense of fun. If they like something, they’re vocal about it. Like on a Thursday outside Macy’s on 34th and Broadway, there was a free Zumba class. People kept joining in. Spectators watched. Tourists took pictures. And when they finished, everyone cheered and clapped and hooted. In India, you wouldn’t catch anyone doing anything like that out in public in the middle of the day. Ever. Nor would you find couples on the street or in the park, train, shop or restaurant smooching or hugging or publicly displaying affection. Not that it doesn’t happen at all, but let’s just say that it’s restricted to high-end malls and isn’t quite that blatant.

Hanging around in the park

Hanging around in the park

Ingrained with that sense of celebration is a love for parks. For sitting under the shade of a tree (or even out in the sun on the steps of a monument) listening to music, having lunch, working, relaxing. Which is probably why you’ll find a small park on almost every street. With a Witch store selling sandwiches and coffee. And more often than not, in those parks and on the streets (and even inside stores!) you’ll find fashionable New Yorkers with their four-legged friends (almost always dogs). You can’t go more than a few steps without spotting a dog and its owner. And if you, dear tourist, want to experience what that’s like, you can buy yourself a dog-shaped balloon that skims across the road alongside or behind you. Yes, really!

Fashionable, vibrant, bustling, always-awake New York – you own a piece of my heart!

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Museum hopping in New York City

If you are looking to book a holiday to New York, try Best At Travel for a wide selection of the best accommodation in the “Big Apple”

My big, fat summer vacation

That picture on my previous post? It’s the New York Public Library. Yup, my big, fat summer vacation was in the US of A. And it was an amazing experience!

I have so much to share – both observations on the cultural and civivc differences between India and the US, and details on my travels.

I’m also dreaming up some new features, which are currently in the execution phase, so watch this space for some interesting action coming soon!

In the meantime, here are a few pictures from my trip.

Beat the heat at Culture Gully, Kingdom of Dreams

Boulevard, Kingdom of Dreams

The boulevard, Kingdom of Dreams

With the weekend rolling by and the mercury touching new highs, figuring out what do to over the weekend can be a chore. Although there are many malls that you can haunt, mall fatigue does set in, even for a retail junkie. Ahem! A visit to Culture Gully at the Kingdom of Dreams in Gurgaon is a fun way to beat the heat.

A faux beach created near the Goa and Kerela stalls

A faux beach created near the Goa and Kerela stalls

Everything at Kingdom of Dreams is large and grand, and the entry to Culture Gully is no different. The grand entryway, set inside a 20ft high golden lotus flower studded with tiny mirrors evokes images of the grandeur that must have been enjoyed by the royals in times of yore. Step inside the boulevard, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking that you are still outside and wondering how the temperature is so cool. The air-conditioned boulevard is topped by an atmospheric blue sky. Some skilful wizardry (read lighting and decoration) ensures that you get a feel of being in an open-air marketplace – the sky and lighting change throughout the day to closely mimic the outdoors.

Mumbai stall, Kingdom of Dreams

Mumbai stall - the entrance resembles a Mumbai local train

Spread across 90,000 sq. feet, Culture Gully is a visual treat of theme restaurants and architecture styles from 14 Indian states. Each kiosk is designed to showcase the best of the state. The Punjab stall, for example, has a woven cot and truck parked outside the dhaba; you enter the Mumbai stall through a local train compartment, which is topped by the façade of the Victoria Terminus and Bollywood movie posters. Towards the end of the boulevard are the Goa and Kerala stalls, complete with a faux beach and a beach shack serving up grilled sea food.

Each state also has a handicraft store where you can pick up some cool Get a sketch, Kingdom of Dreamssouvenirs, ranging from earrings to clothes, coffee mugs to home ware, and glass bangles to branded diamond jewelry (go figure!).

On the second level, you’ll also find a fortune telling center, with tarot card readers, palmists and astrologists.

Walk around the boulevard and poke around the stores, catch a street performance, get your fortune told, get a family portrait sketched – there’s a lot for you to do at Culture Gully.

Kulfi stall, Kingdom of Dreams

The stall selling kati kulfi

Once you’ve explored it all, decide where you’d like to eat – warning: it might just be a tough decision to make! With restaurants from all 14 states offering up local cuisine, you can choose to experiment or stick to what you know. The mutton biryani at the Lucknow stall, filter coffee at the Kerala stall and kati kulfi opposite the Punjab stall are highly recommended.

It’s best to get in early, as the place starts getting very crowded towards early evening.

If you want to make an entire day out of the trip, catch a show at Nautanki Mahal, which is currently playing Zangoora. It’s worth every penny! (Click to read a review of Zangoora.)

Worshiping on the beach: Mahabalipuram

Located on the Coromandel Coast, Mahabalipuram is a 7th century port city that served as the capital of the Pallavas.

Mahabalipuram_beach_near_Shore_Temple

The beach at Mahabalipuram

When we were planning our vacation, I had initially thought of spending a couple of days at Mahabalipuram, but things didn’t quite work out the way I’d hoped. Still, since it was just a 2–2.5 hour drive from Pondicherry, and could easily be covered as a day trip, I was determined to visit the city.

Mahabalipuram, referred to as an “open-air museum,” (similar to Nawalgarh in Rajasthan) is home to a wide variety of architectural styles, from rock-cut caves to temples hewn out of a single rock to gorgeous bas-reliefs. Some believe that the area was a school for sculptors, and this does seem plausible as the many different sculptures and types of architecture found here could easily have been demonstrated by instructors and practiced on by students.

Pancha_Rathas

Panch Rathas, Mahabalipuram

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Pancha Rathas (five chariots), where each Ratha – carved from a single piece of granite – depicts a different style of sculpting. In addition to the chariots are a few animal sculptures, notably a lion and an elephant, which were also carved from a single rock.

Opposite the Pancha Rathas complex is a huge, open air complex where stone workers have their workshops. This is a great place to see artists at work and pick up souvenirs to take back home.

Artist_at_work_Mahabalipuram

The Varaha Cave temple is located in a park (entrance free), which is also dotted with a lot of other stone temples and sculptures. The entrance to the temple is guarded by lions, carved into the base of the pillars, while Pallava doorkeepers guard the main mandapa. The four walls of the mandapa have large sculptured panels – the Northern panel depicts Vishnu as Varaha (the boar) holding up Bhumi (the earth goddess).

Varaha_Cave_carving

A carving at the Varaha Temple, Mahabalipuram

Once you see the temple, take a walk through the park, which is home to a ton of monkeys! The husband and me walked about a bit, until the sheer number of monkeys spooked us and we decided to turn back. I was keen to explore a bit more, but the hubs was tired, so he sat it out while I went on to explore some of the other old temple structures perched high up on rolling hills. Some of these places were rather simple, but the views were breathtaking.

Monkey_eating_ice_cream

One of the monkey's wheedled an ice cream from a tourist and was sitting on a trunk enjoying the treat!

All this walking about in the heat was getting us rather irritable, so we decided to get some lunch before continuing further. I wanted to have some seafood, so the driver took us to a place called Luna Magica, which I had heard about and wanted to try. The hubs took one look at all the fresh fish there and decided he couldn’t eat anything there! A brief argument conversation later, we decided to move out and find another place to eat. We ended up at a beach café, I don’t remember the name, where I did get some coastal food, but it was nowhere close to what I expected! Has anyone been to Luna Magica? Is the food as good as the reviews say it is?

Arjunas_penance

Arjuna's penance

Oh well! The food debacle behind us, our next stop was Arjuna’s Penance. Measuring 27 meters by 9 meters and carved on two gigantic stones, the bas-relief is among the largest in the world. The carving breathes life into the Panchatantra story of Ganges’ descent from the Himalayan mountains. Legend has it that King Bhagirath brought Ganges down from heaven to purify the souls of his ancestors, but when he realized that doing so would flood the earth, he prayed to Lord Shiva to intervene. Shiva allowed Ganga to descend on his head, allowing the flood to trickle through his hair, dispersing the waters safely in innumerable streams worldwide. The most famous part of the mural is the cleft between the rocks, which depicts Shiva’s descent from Heaven through the colossal waterfall.

Shore_temple_mahablipuram_mamalapuram

Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram

The highlight of Mahabalipuram, though, is the 60 ft high, 5-story high Shore Temple, built on a 50 ft square platform overlooking the Bay of Bengal. In contrast to the rest of the rock cut temples in this city, the Shore Temple is built from dressed stone, and is one the important structural temples in South India.

The temple is a combination of three shrines. The main shrine is dedicated to Shiva as is the smaller second shrine. A small third shrine, between the two, is dedicated to a reclining Vishnu. The outer wall of the shrine to Vishnu and the inner side of the boundary wall are extensively sculptured and topped by large sculptures of Nandi. The whole temple has this wind swept look though, as the stone has slowly eroded away. The carvings still retain their beauty, but you can clearly see the damage that is being caused by wind erosion.

The temple is separated from the rest of the beach, which reminded me a bit of the beaches of Goa…next time we plan a trip down South, I’ll definitely block a couple of days for a stay at Mahabalipuram!

See also:
Pondicherry – A heady mix of India and France
Pondicherry – Sights and Sounds
An experiment in community living – Auroville

An experiment in community living – Auroville

Auroville_visitor_center

The visitor centre at Auroville

Located 10 kilometers out of Pondicherry down a narrow, tree lined lane punctuated on both sides with cafes and shops is Auroville, an experimental township founded by The Mother (Sri Aurobindo’s disciple) in the late 1960s. Her vision was to offer Aurovillans an experience of community living. Anchored by the Maitri Mandir (the soul of Auroville), a golden golf ball shaped structure, the community is currently home to about 50,000 people from 16 countries.

Inside_Maitri_Mandir

Cross-section of the inside of Maitri Mandir, visitor centre, Auroville

“Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.”

When you reach Auroville, your first port of call would be the visitor center, where you can read about its history and charter and watch a short movie on its philosophy and on the establishment of the Maitri Mandir. There is also a bookstore selling titles by The Mother and on Auroville.

Auroville_way_maitri_mandir

On the way to Maitri Mandir. Want to see what the old lady looks like? Click on the image

Visitors are allowed to see the Maitri Mandir from a viewing point some distance away from the main temple. The walk to the Mandir is beautiful and peaceful, along a narrow tree shaded walking path. If you want to go in to temple, you will have to take an appointment after you have seen the Mandir. The Maitri Mandir isn’t a temple in the traditional sense, there is no religion followed and you aren’t supposed to pray. It is for

“those who want to learn to concentrate…No fixed meditations, none of all that, but they should stay there in silence, in silence and concentration. A place for trying to find one’s consciousness.

The Mandir “wants to be the symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection.” but I didn’t get that from its shape – a golden golf ball in the center of 12 petals. Ah well!

Maitri_Mandir_Auroville

The Maitri Mandir, viewing point, Auroville

After we had seen the Mandir, we rode around through the township, though the best way to really understand what Auroville is all about is to stay there. Since that wasn’t happening on this trip, we thought we’d gather information and be touristy. 😀

Auroville is famous for its arts and crafts, incense, and organic foods. There are three boutiques in the complex, which sell a variety of products, ranging from silks, knits, and leather to pottery, metal work, and wood craft, to incense, aromatherapy products, massage oil, shampoos and lotions. All of these goods are hand made using traditional techniques that do not harm the environment.

Sustainable_energy_installation_Auroville

An audio-video installation on sustainable energy, Auroville

When at Auroville, you should definitely have a meal at the café, which serves up organic food with raw materials that are either grown at Auroville or procured from nearby places, with a strong focus on sustainability. I had an absolutely fantastic fried fish and a yummy lemon cake. The thought of those dishes can still make my mouth water! We also picked up a plum cake from there, and it was one of the best plum cake’s I’ve ever eaten!

On our way back, we stopped at a cute open air cafe for a cup of refreshing lemon tea…then drove on back to our hotel…and spent the rest of the evening at the beach! Bliss…

(text in italics is from Auroville’s website)

Read more from my trip:
Pondicherry – a heady mix of India and France
Pondicherry – sights and sounds
Worshiping on the beach – Mahabalipuram

Pondicherry – sights and sounds

As our flight started its descent into Chennai, I looked out the window and was mesmerized by the green and blue expanse I saw below me. Delhi seen out the plane window does have a surprisingly vast green cover, but the concrete jungle has very firmly gained the upper hand. From the air, Chennai looks gorgeous, with luscious greens and shimmering blues, and houses that seem to be sprinkled around sparingly.

pondicherry_sunset

Sunset on our drive to Pondicherry

The three hour drive into Pondicherry is very pretty, passing as we do along verdant green fields interspersed with still, blue backwaters. Through the tinted windows of the taxi, the sky took on a dramatic blue hue, and I wore down the battery on my iPhone, shooting multiple photographs of the setting sun.

Since we reached our hotel in the evening, and were pretty tired after a full day’s travel, we decided to freshen up and head to the beach – a mere 2 minute walk from our hotel. Pondicherry has a rocky beach, so instead of digging ourselves into sand we sat ourselves down on the rocks and watched the waves crash in – this was our evening ritual for the duration of our stay in Pondy. The Bay of Bengal is pretty rough and choppy, and the waves generally come in strong…but the soothing sound of the surf, the mesmerizing pull of the waves, the cool sea breeze, and the feel of sea spray on my face felt like pure bliss…I could spend hours just perched there on a rock, watching the world pass me by…lost in my own thoughts…

pondicherry_rocky_beach_man_at_beach

A man at the beach, watching the world go by

There are so many ways in which this trip was different from the rest of our annual holidays. Since we’ve spent a lot of time in Rajasthan, an element of familiarity had crept in to our vacations. This trip down south was like a breath of fresh air – everything was different, right from our mode of transport (flight vs drive) to the people, architecture, landscape, and language.

The French side of Pondy has shaded streets, some of which are still cobbled, beautiful large colonial houses, a lot of boutiques and hotels, and it is fun to walk around to take in the architecture and poke around in the stores. While walking around, you’re also apt to notice a lot of statues dotted around the city. A famous one that you’ll not miss is a statue of Gandhi with four old temple columns around the image, located at one end of the beach. There are some beautiful statues in the oddest of places, like one of an angel on the rooftop of a house!

Pondicherry_French_statue

A statue shot through the open gates of a house

Since we had limited time, we hired a bike and went to the Aurobindo Ashram, which is in the French part of the city. Photography isn’t allowed inside, unfortunately, as they have a beautiful cactus garden, with some amazingly tall cactus plants. The Ashram houses the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, and is adorned with fresh flowers everyday. Devotees come in and offer up prayers and letters of thanks, which are collected in a little letter box near the Samadhi. They have a small bookstore where you can literature on Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. They have also preserved the drawing room where Aurobindo and The Mother used to rest, complete with Persian carpets, sofas and bookshelves.

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The elephant outside the Ganesh temple blessing a devotee

In the next lane is the 300+ year old Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Dedicated to Lord Ganesh, there are 40 different forms of the deity painted on the temple walls. The golden and silver chariots at the temple that are used during specific ceremonies or for particular prayers were made from devotee donations. The main attraction of the temple is the elephant outside – once prayers are offered at the temple, devotees feed the elephant and seek its blessing. Parents make their small children sit on its back (with the mahout) for a few moments to seek its blessings. It’s quite a sight, as the elephant takes the food offered to it and blesses the devotees with its trunk!

One stark difference I noticed here was the relative lack of beggars outside the temple complex. Around most temples you will almost always be hounded by beggars, but here, there were just one or two people asking for alms, and no one got after us.

The museum at Pondy is also supposed to be really good, but it was closed while we were there, so we were unable to visit it.

If all the sight seeing gets you tired, hop onto your bike (or into a rickshaw) and go over to Hot Breads for a cup of hot coffee and croissants. Their choco Danish is excellent, and was my staple breakfast while we were in Pondy.

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Sun and sand at Pondicherry

And if you really want to dig your toes into some sand, you’ll have to drive down toward Auroville – there are two sandy beaches there – The Auro Beach and Serenity Beach. You can take surfing classes or hire a surfboard and catch the waves at the Auro Beach if you’re so inclined. I’m not sure which beach we made it to, but our strip of the sand was almost deserted. The husband and I had a blast, standing ankle deep in the water, clicking pictures, soaking up the sun, digging for shells…Unfortunately, we discovered the sandy beach on our last day, else I’m sure we would have spent much more time there. Next time, I guess!

Read more from my trip:
Pondicherry – a heady mix of India and France
An experiment in community living – Auroville
Worshiping on the beach – Mahabalipuram

Pondicherry – a heady mix of India and France

While planning our annual holiday this year, I was very sure of one thing – I didn’t want to go to Rajasthan yet again! Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the state! But that doesn’t mean I go there every year, right?

This year, I could almost hear the call of a cool sea breeze…of palms swaying in the wind…of lazing on the beach and unwinding…But Goa around Christmas/New Year is jam-packed with tourists, so we decided to head further south, to Pondicherry (popularly referred to as Pondy).

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Sea views from the rooftop of the hotel

Ruled by the French until 1954, a canal splits this oval-shaped city into two – the French side (Ville Blanche) and the Indian side (Ville Noire). The Indian side of the city is like any other small town in the country – sleepy, dusty, and congested. Move into the French side, though, and you are greeted with cobbled, shady roads and sprawling houses, many of which overlook the beach.

We left Delhi on a cold, grey Christmas morning, and arrived in warm and sunny Chennai – the closest airport to Pondy – in the afternoon. A 3-hour picturesque drive later, our holiday had finally begun!

The hotel we had chosen was on Rue Dumas in the French quarter, just one lane behind the beach. So though our room looked out onto the quiet, shady street, we had a lovely sea view from the rooftop cafeteria. A 2 minute walk took us to Goubert Salai, the seaside promenade, which during the peak season is almost always crowded with locals and tourists walking along the pavement or sitting on the rocks watching the waves crash in. During off-peak periods, I suspect the rocky beach, the strip of white sand and the pavement would be quite deserted, giving it the look of a sleepy French sea-side village.

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Rue Dumas, Pondicherry

There isn’t much to do at Pondy, so you’ll never feel rushed or hurried. We spent all our evenings at the beach, sitting on the rocks, people and wave watching. We hired a bike and rode to Auroville one day, on another we took a day trip to Mamalapuram (Mahabalipuram), and on the third we visited the Aurobindo Ashram and the 300+ year old Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple (a Ganesh temple), which was in existence even before the French settled in Pondicherry (i.e. before 1666), and then rode over to one of the other (sandy) beaches around Pondy.

We found it a bit hard to find a good place to eat in Pondy, though. The popular names, such as Le Club and La Teresse, were disappointing to say the least. Le Club was over-priced, and their food was barely passable; the food at La Teresse was insipid. So, I chucked the travel guide aside and asked around for good places to eat.

Hotel du Park has excellent continental food (their Fisherman’s basket and grilled fish are excellent, as is the fresh fruit with ice cream and the divine chocolate cake) or try Le Rendezvous (it looked and smelled excellent, though we didn’t eat there as they had a 1 hour waiting for dinner!). I also heard good things about Don Giovanni, a pizzeria on the rooftop of Hotel Corbelli. If you want to sample some South Indian non-vegetarian fare, you can’t go wrong with Apichi – their prawn fry and lappam is like manna from heaven! For pure vegetarian South Indian food, you can try Surguru (opposite Hotel du Park) – I quite liked their dosas. Oh, and for a nice breakfast spread, you can head to Hot Breads (loved their Choco Danish!)

Read more from my trip:
Pondicherry – sights and sounds
An experiment in community living – Auroville
Worshipingon the beach – Mahabalipuram

Zangoora: A Bollywood musical extravaganza

Billed as the largest Bollywood musical extravaganza, Zangoora — The Gypsy Price is one of the first musicals to be staged in India along the lines of musicals staged abroad. Since it’s being staged at the Nautanki Mahal at Kingdom of Dreams, Gurgaon, I had to go watch it. My only worry was that the husband might balk at the prices — the extravaganza doesn’t come cheap, with prices ranging from Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 6,500 — as he’s not into musicals and theater, but he agreed without batting an eye!

Zangoora - the gypsy prince

The Nautanki Mahal is done up in old-world style. It follows a predominantly red and gold color scheme, evoking the grandeur of a bygone era, with beautiful, huge chandeliers dominating the central dome in the waiting area, throne-like chairs scattered around, a bar at both ends of the waiting area, and walls painted to look give an inlay effect.

Photography wasn’t allowed inside the theater, while the play was going on, though I did get a shot of the stage before the play began. 😉

The story itself is simple. The play opens with the Prince Rudra’s first birthday celebrations, during the course of which the king declares that he will not charge taxes during the year, and asks his kingdom’s three chieftains to make the same declaration in their provinces. The three — Thodamal, Daulat Rai and Zohravar — are none too pleased with this decision, and hatch a plot to wipe out the king and his family.

Opening scene: elephant throne

Prince Rudra, however, is saved, and ends up with a gypsy caravan, where he is brought up as Zangoora (Hussain Kuwajerwalla), the leader of the gypsies, who sets the stage on fire with his gypsy dancing partner Laachi (Gauahar Khan). Meanwhile, Zohravar (Sadanand Patil) takes over the throne and launches his reign of terror on Shaktisheela. Of course, since this is a Bollywood musical, the story has to end well, with good winning vs. evil and Zangoora, a.k.a. Prince Rudra, winning back his rightful place on the throne as well as his lady love, Sonali (Kashmira Irani).

The dancing gypsies outside their caravan

A typical Bollywood plot, you say, whose chances at the box office may not be that great? But hey! This is live…and it’s magic!

Right from the opening scene, where you have the king and queen holding court on the back of an elephant, to the electrifying, high-energy dances, the play keeps you captivated and begging for more! The cable work is excellent, reminiscent of a Broadway musical, as actors fly through the air, spin cartwheels, fly into a dream sequence, or come onstage, suspended upside-down, to deliver prophesies to Zohravar. The sets and props are excellent, breathing life into the different sets — be it the forest, the gypsy caravan, or the throne room. One scene in particular, which is set underwater, is breathtaking. LED screens and special effects are used to show fishes and plants, while two mermaids swim through the water suspended on cables. Pure magic!

Celeberating Zangoora's coronation

If you’re around Delhi/NCR, this musical should be on your must-watch list. It’s slated to go on until December, so you have plenty of time to catch it!

Still need some convincing? Check out this sneak preview of the musical. Note: this is a shot from a promo night, so it doesn’t showcase all the scenic elements.

Liked what you saw?

Images from Reuters blogs.

Exploring the land of the Dalai Lama: 3 days in Dharamsala (part 2)

<— Read part 1 here

View of the town nestled in the hills

The main anchors of the central square of McLeod Ganj are Mcllo Restaurant (totally avoidable – lousy food, so-so ambience) and the oldest shop in the city – Nowrojee and Son, which was founded in 1860. From there, streets radiate in about 5 different directions. We picked a street at random and set out in search of lunch. Of course, along the way we were distracted by a beautiful red and gold monastery and all the shops lining the street. But, before we could do any sight-seeing or shopping, our tummies were crying out for food. We eventually found our way to the Tourist Information office, got directions to Jogiwara Road (where a lot of the amazing eateries are located) and elected to eat at Carpe Diem (I loved the name! Seize the day [or whatever was left of it] was just what we intended to do next!)

McLeod Ganj

Once we had our fill of some excellent grub, we headed out to explore the town — but were distracted before we had taken 10 steps by this really amazing store called Jewels of Asia, and then again by a store selling thankas, and then by yet another store…so yes, as you can guess, we spent the rest of the day exploring the shops in tiny Dharamsala.

Buddha statue at the monastery

We reserved sight-seeing for the next day, and even then, all that we really saw was the main monastery. It was a bit disappointing, as it didn’t look anything like the pictures we saw online. But the statues at the temple were awe-inspiring. The central Buddha image towers over visitors, encrusted with colored stones, with the silence and sanctity that can only come from years of prayer, surrounded by paintings depicting the Buddha lifecycle, Wheel of Life, and various other mandalas. There are also some really beautiful statues of Tara and the Tibetan protector Goddess at the temple that are gorgeous. The Goddess looks serene and calm and yet stern, all at the same time; that, in my opinion, is artistry at its height.

Monks making a mandala

We ended up spending quite a bit of time at the monastery, ‘cause it started raining pretty heavily. While we were there, we saw two monks making a mandala with chalk colors. They were just starting out, but the precision and concentration with which they were making the mandala was like meditation in motion. I spent a lot of time hanging around there clicking pictures, and their concentration just didn’t waver, even when people came over asking them what they were doing — they answered their questions and went on with their task — totally zen. I really wish I could have stayed and watch them complete the mandala, or come again later to see the completed image, but alas! That was not meant to be.

Prayer bells

By the time the weather cleared it was lunch time, so we decided to head over to Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen for lunch (good Italian food, though a bit over-salted; to-die-for chocolate mousse!). Along the way we did some window shopping at the stalls (most of the goods on offer were over-priced and the owners were pretty rude!), though I did pick up a pair of yak bone earrings and some CDs.

Lunch over, we decided it was time to hit the stores! Where there are women, shopping can’t be far behind, eh? Normally, I would have wanted to go do more sight seeing, but since I had already decided that I would return to Dharamsala, this time for longer, I figured it would be OK to choose shopping over sightseeing, especially since this was our last full day in town.

Sign near the monastery

I won’t bore you with details, but by the end of the day, the husbands were hanging around at the main square while the three of us were off stuffing our bags with all our purchases!

Shopping done, feet tired, we decided to head back to the hotel. It was bye-bye McLeod Ganj! We were planning to spend the next day just relaxing at the hotel and exploring the institute.