Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Kanheri Caves in the Borivali National Park

Sometime ago I had a couchsurfer over and I was wondering how to entertain her. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was due a visit to the Kanheri Caves in the Borivali National Park and it would be a great idea to time it during Jo’s stay with me.

Jo is a Jamaican of Indian origin who was brought up in Toronto, Canada and now lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Such an interesting history. She is a wonderful girl, very soft spoken, easy to be with, quite accommodating, ever willing to go with the flow and try new things. So when I discussed Kanheri Caves with her, she was keen to go.

It is best to go as early as you can before the hordes of tourists and local Indians descend on the caves. Also it is much cooler in the morning and you can take beautiful pictures. And try and go there on a weekday so that you get the place to yourself.

Kanheri Caves is a popular destination for school picnics. However, I doubt many people living in Bombay actually are aware or appreciate having these historic caves in their backyard. I found them fascinating and I must admit that I felt like kicking myself for not having visited earlier and more often.

The caves are situated deep inside the Borivali National Park. They date back to the 1st century BC. There are about 109 caves carved from basalt rock. Kanheri was an important Buddhist settlement on the Konkan coast by the 3rd century AD. There are quite a few caves which are quite spartan and unadorned which I believe were living quarters for the monks. But there is a huge congregational hall with stone pillars and a stupa (Buddhist shrine). There are beautiful reliefs of the Buddha and his disciples all over.

They say Kanheri was a university centre in the times of the Mauryan and Kushan empires. It connected with many trade centres and ports. Most of the caves were used as Buddhist viharas meant for meditating, studying and living.

We got there by about 10 am and had the place pretty much to ourselves. I was pleased as I could take many pictures with no people in the background. At the ticket office, Jo passed off as an Indian from Kerala. Her Indian blood came to some use after all. We spent an hour walking around, peeking into the caves and discovering the ancient water systems. From the very top of the hill you could see the golden dome of the Vipassana centre at Gorai. The view of the greenery of the national park and then the dense skyline of the suburbs of Bombay brought home the paradox of the city we live in. Truly we need more green spaces to ease the pollution in our overcrowded city.

We then decided to try the “Tiger and Lion safari” in another part of the National park. As we were leaving the caves area, we saw buses of tourists drive in. Boy, were we glad to have had the place to ourselves before the swarming masses drove in.

The safari was a joke. We were asked to wait till there were 25 people enrolled. Luckily we didn’t have to wait for long. We were huddled into a mini bus with grills outside the windows. I was concerned that we would not see the big cats as it was too hot but the guide calmly told me that we would definitely see them as this was the first bus trip of the day. I soon realized why and felt like a complete fool. First stop, the bus halted outside a building with a grill door. We were asked to look out for the lions. I was wondering how could there be lions near a building. Silly me! Suddenly we heard a lot of roaring making me wonder if someone had prodded the lions with a stick or something. Then the grill door was raised and a poor lion walked out. He looked at us and then quite calmly turned his back on us as if to say “Get lost. I am the King of the Jungle and you are but minions in my kingdom”. He then proceeded to rub his back against the bark of a tree and then answered nature’s call. He refused to turn towards us so we had no choice but to move on. We then passed some deer and later we stopped outside another enclosure where there was a white tiger basking in the sun and in another enclosure a yellow tiger hiding amongst the grass. They were too far to see clearly or take any pictures.

I felt sad for these majestic animals as they should be left to live in their natural habitat. They definitely do not deserve to be gawked at by tourists in a grilled bus! I felt cheated as an individual as the entire experience was quite pathetic. Nevertheless, the National Park and the Kanheri caves are a true treasure which every person in Bombay must cherish.

Friday, November 2, 2012

There is always a first time for everything

There is always a first time for everything. Last evening was my first tango session. It had been on my bucket list for a while, so finally I pulled myself together, got some friends interested and off we went to the milonga at Balthazar.

The “first time” is always made up of a bit of nervousness, tension, excitement, anticipation and expectation. So with a bundle of nerves and butterflies in my stomach, I drove to Balthazar.

As I was driving, I thought of some other memorable “first times”. The first time I watched a cricket match, I was mesmerized by the electric atmosphere of the stadium with the thousands of screaming fans. Though not a lover of cricket, I will forever after jump at the chance of going for another cricket match.

The first time I flew in a helicopter was equally memorable. Bombay looked so beautiful from the air that one quite forgot the squalor, filth and chaos on ground. The pink flamingoes on the mudflats at Sewri and the fishing boats at Colaba made for a pretty picture. Despite the electronic chatter from the radio conversation between pilot and air traffic control and the general noise from the rotor, I felt calm looking at my beautiful city from above.

I have been on many airplanes but to jump out of one at 12000 ft was madness. The first time I skydived, I was numb. It took a lot of courage to go through with it considering that I had a fear of heights. The long wait for my turn was unbearable and nerve racking but once we were kitted up, briefed, photographed, interviewed and boarded on the tiny plane, there was no time to think or agonize. Before I knew it, I was jumping out of the plane strapped to my instructor who kept whispering into my ear to breathe and stay calm. His reassuring words were what kept me sane. My first reaction on jumping from the plane was “gosh, I am going to hit the wing” and later “wow, I am actually floating through the air” and finally “this is so awesome”. Once the parachute was inflated, it was heaven. I felt like a bird, someone disconnected from earth, observing the beauty of the lakes around Roturua – a truly spectacular location to choose to skydive. I was intoxicated from the experience for the next 3 months.

My first hot air balloon ride, recently concluded in Cappadocia, is still fresh in my mind. The peace one experiences floating above the earth in the stillness of the dawn is a personal memory that is special. Once again the unique landscape with its volcanic rock formations and pinnacles added to the surrealism of the experience. You are forgiven if you believe that you have landed on the moon. At some point I was a bit nervous thinking about crashing into one of those pinnacles which looked sharp as needles. Thankfully we floated away for an hour before we safely landed in on a grassy field and popped the bubbly to celebrate.

I still remember the first time I had sashimi. I could not bring myself to eat the raw fish. My mind was blocking my senses. And adding fuel to the fire was the dollop of wasabi that I swallowed! Now, sashimi and sushi are my preferred cuisine. What a long way I have journeyed, from looking at sashimi as a slimy sliver of fish and being repulsed to the present where I savour the freshness of the flesh and enjoy the texture of unadulterated taste enhanced by the wasabi and soy.

I also remember very vividly my first time at the Formula One Race. I had won a prize for two to view the Sepang race in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My brother was the lucky one who got to accompany me. However my boss heard I was there and invited us to the Paddock Club to cheer his team. The Paddock club in itself was an experience with abundant exotic food and drink continuously flowing as well as entertainment like spas, caricature artists and visits to the pit lane, garages and meetings with the drivers. Observing the pit stop and the precision team work was a lesson in management. From having no interest in Formula One, I was hooked with the entire experience. Since, then I am a keen follower of the races and in particular our team.

So as I drove to Balthazar, I felt a bit reassured with my memories of the various “first times” in my life and my butterflies calmed down a bit allowing me to get there with a positive frame of mind.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Talent Connector

Adversity is a time when you introspect, appreciate what you have and see things in a different light.

With all the time in the world, I was able to actually take notice of people and things around me. Many of the people around me seemed depressed, bogged down with the events at work. But there were quite a few others who had lifted themselves up, dusted their backsides and got down to work – work which they loved doing. Picking up on hobbies long forgotten or focusing on areas that they enjoyed, turning their hobbies into money earners.

I was inspired. I wondered how I could help them achieve their dreams. I did what I knew best. Created a blog – The Talent Connector – which is meant to be a repository of all the various talented resources I come across. Easy to access and helps the people featured to promote their services and achieve their dreams.

So please check it out if you want personalized cakes, fancy meals for your loved ones, doggy treats, handmade jewellery, someone to plan your event or learn to dance or even show your guests a glimpse of Bombay.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cappadocia - a land quite unique

You are easily forgiven if you believe you have landed on another planet! Underground cities, fairy chimneys, cave houses, secret churches and a unique landscape made from windhewn volcanic rock. These are some of the interesting natural, historical and cultural facets of Cappadocia. It was here that the early Christians sought refuge, practised their religion and flourished in peace.

I spent two days there and managed to get a good feel for the region known as Cappadocia. It covers a large geographic area in Central Turkey and is served by 2 airports - Kayseri and Nevsehir. I stayed in Urgup but most people stay in Goreme or Nevsehir as well. Cappadocia has a markedly continental climate, with hot dry summers and cold snowy winters. Rainfall is sparse and the region is largely semi-arid.

Some of the places to visit and things to do:

Avanos - famous for its pottery

Cavusin - where you can hike through the Rose valley, view the sunset at the Red valley and admire the Pasabag fairy chimneys.
  Göreme - fairy chimneys in the rock city

Güzelyurt - historic town close to Ihlara Valley

Nevsehir - capital of the region

Ortahisar - with its rock castle

Uçhisar - with its rock castle

Ürgüp - has many cave hotels and is a good base to explore the area.

Ihlara Valley (Ihlara Vadisi) — lots of churches carved into rocks. This valley is about an hour west of the core of Cappadocia, i.e. Ürgüp/Göreme area

Hot air Balloon ride - this is one of the best places in the world to do a balloon ride. Magical.

Turasan wine factory - Cappadocia is one of the biggest wine-producing regions in Turkey, and many wineries thoroughout the region's towns offer winetasting options.

Fairy chimneys

Cave houses

Interiors of a cave house.

The unique landscape

A potter demonstrating his work

The famous Avanos pottery

An early Christian church set in the rock

Because they were supposed to be "secret", the symbols and pictures were quite cryptic

In the shape of a rabbit's head

In the shape of a camel

Cappadocia wines are quite famous

Sunset over the Red valley

Urgup town

Amazing how huge these rooms were.

The monastery

Rose Valley

The town amidst the pinnacles

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


There are many adjectives to describe Istanbul and small would definitely not feature in the list! It is anything but! It is huge, populous, covers a huge surface area, lies on both sides of the Bosphorus, is old, is new, is traditional, is modern, is religious, is forward thinking, is orthodox, is European, is Asian,  is Islamic, is Christian, is trendy and is definitely THE place to visit.

It is currently the hottest (and here I don't mean the weather) place to visit and features on all the travel sites, magazines and wish lists.

So I will do my best to share my experiences without sounding cliched.

The best place and the most convenient to stay would be the Sultanahmet area. Taksim Square is the next best (in my opinion). I preferred Sultanahmet because it is right at the heart of the main tourist area which allows you the most efficient use of time if you are constrained in that area.

I was fortunate that my hotel was right besides the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.

The Hagia Sophia is a former Orthodox Basilica which later became a mosque and is now a museum. From the date of its dedication in 360 until 1453, it served as the Greek Patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople. Interestingly, between 1204 and 1261 it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral and was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931, when it was secularized.

It is famous for its massive dome which is considered to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have changed the history of architecture. At the time of its construction it was the largest building in the world and remained so for nearly a thousand years till the Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.

The church contained a large collection of holy relics and featured, among other things, a 49-foot (15 m) silver iconostasis. It was the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the religious focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly one thousand years. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, who subsequently ordered the building converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels were removed and many of the mosaics were plastered over. Islamic features – such as the mihrab, minbar, and four minarets – were added while in the possession of the Ottomans.

Hagia Sophia was the principal mosque of Istanbul for 500 years and served as a model for many other Ottoman mosques including the Blue Mosque.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque as it is popularly known is opposite the Hagia Sophia. It is a functional mosque and is open to the public throughout the day. It is known as the blue mosque because of the blue mosaic tiles. It was built from 1609 to 1614  and incorporates the design of both the Ottoman mosque and the Byzantine church development. It is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period.
The Basilica Cistern is right next door to the Hagia Sophia. It was built in the 6th century and is the largest of the many hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. Before being converted into a cistern, a huge basilica stood in its place. It was built between the 3rd and 4th century in the early Roman age as a commercial, legal and artistic centre. Later a fire ravaged it and it was reconstructed with gardens and huge colonnades which is rumoured to have been built by 7000 slaves. It was then converted to a cistern which provided a water filtration system to the Grand Palace and other buildings.

The Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of the Sultans for 400 years till 1856. Today it is a museum and has important holy relics of the Muslim world, including the Prophet's cloak and sword. As you wander through the huge sprawling palace, its courtyards and the harem area, you are transported into a fantasy world. The beautiful view of the Marmara sea enhances the feeling of dreaminess.

Another beautiful palace is the Dolmabahce Palace which I passed by when I took the cruise on the Bosphorus. The design contains eclectic elements from the Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles, blended with traditional Ottoman architecture to create a new synthesis. The palace layout and décor reflect the increasing influence of European styles and standards on Ottoman culture and art during the Tanzimat period.
When in Istanbul, don't miss the cruise on the Bosphorus, also known as the Istanbul Strait, which forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. It - along with the Dardanelles - is one of two straits in Turkey. The world's narrowest strait used for international navigation, it connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara (which is connected by the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea, and thereby to the Mediterranean Sea.) The strait is 31 km long and is 36 to 124 m deep. It is the best way to see and admire Istanbul from the water. Do not get lured by the various tour operators who will try to sell you a romantic cruise or the best cruise. Instead just head to the Eminonu pier and take the public ferry for a fraction of the price. It take an hour and a half to get to the furtherest point where you can explore a Roman fortress and have a meal with fresh catch.

The Grand Bazaar is a bigger and badder version of our Crawford Market. It has 30 streets with thousands of shops selling all kinds of stuff. Unless you know what you are looking for, it might be a waste of time (for someone from India) or you might get lost or you might just end up buying more than you require. They also have a Spice Bazaar for those who want to buy spices, nuts, etc.

The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora or the Chora Church is considered to be one of the most beautiful surviving examples of a Byzantine church. In the 16th century, during the Ottoman era, the church was converted into a mosque and, finally, it became a museum in 1948. The interior of the building is covered with fine mosaics and frescoes.

Finally don't miss strolling down the Istiklal avenue which is in the Beyoglu district. It is the Grande Rue de Pera, an elegant pedestrian street three kilometers long, which houses exquisite boutiques, music stores, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, theaters, libraries, cafés, pubs, night clubs with live music, historical patisseries, chocolateries and restaurants.  The avenue, surrounded by late Ottoman era buildings (mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries) that were designed with the Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Beaux-Arts, Art Nouveau and First Turkish National Architecture (Birinci Millî Mimarî Akımı) styles; as well as a few Art Deco style buildings from the early years of the Turkish Republic, and a number of more recent examples of modern architecture; starts from the medieval Genoese neighbourhood around Galata Tower and ultimately leads up to Taksim Square.

The best way to get to Taksim square is to take the tram from Sultanahmet to Kabatas and then the metro connector up and then walk downhill to Galata whilst window shopping. Or you could take the tram to Karakoy and then the funicular Tunel at the second oldest subway station in the world. Either way, it is an experience.

And if you are Catholic and wanting to hear Mass on Sundays, there is a beautiful old church, St Anthony of Padua, on Istiklal Caddesi.

I was fortunate to witness a show by the whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi Order. They were truly poetry in motion and they had us mesmerised by their silent and continous whirling in praise of God. The Mevlevi believe in performing their dhikr (remembrance of God) in the form of a "dance and musical" ceremony known as the Sema, which involves the whirling, from which the order acquired its nickname. The Sema represents a mystical journey of man's spiritual ascent through mind and love to the "Perfect". Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth, and arrives at the "Perfect". He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, able to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.

Another great experience is the food which is cheap, healthy and absolutely delicious. There are innumerable stalls selling juicy corn on the cobs, refreshing fruit platters including water melon and a local bread/bagel. They have a local speciality which is like called Turkish ravioli but is more like a rumali roti with different kinds of stuffings. There are plenty of tasty options for both vegetarian and nonvegetarians. You can finish your meal with the local ice cream Dondurma which is known for its texture and resistance to melting.

Finally you can round up your evening at Cemberlitas and soak your weary bones in the hammam.

The Blue Mosque

The blue tiles that give the mosque its name

Hagia Sofia

The cavernous interiors of the Basilica

The ancient mosaic of the Virgin and child

The entrance to the Topkapi Palace
The view from the Topkapi Palace

The sweetmeats

The Tunel

St Anthony's at Istiklal Caddesi

The Galata Tower

The Dolmabahce Palace

A busy street leading to the Grand Bazaar

One of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar

The Basilica Cistern

The Medusa Head
One of the many historical sites that one passes when on the Bosphorus cruise

The ice cream man flipping the Dondurma.
Seems to be the local sport.