Friday, July 11, 2014

Surreal Beauty of Sikkim, In Pictures - Goecha La Trek


Goecha La is a high altitude trek in West Sikkim famous for grand views of Mt Kanchenjunga. Over a week, we climbed to 5000m and were suitably rewarded with surreal views. Here's a quick story of what happened and what we saw, in pictures!

Note : The beautiful zoomed in pictures of the mountains was possible only because of the super steady Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens I rented from Tapprs - A Bangalore Based Photography Gear Rental Company. It was really really hard to stay still in that cold! :)


Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
I'm not going to make you wait to show you what the trek was all about! Here's a grand view of the 8586m high mammoth of a mountain, the mighty Kanchenjunga, third highest mountain in the whole world. We trudged up to a height of 5000m, walked for a whole week, in the night, in the morning, in the evening for this. For this view, we hiked from 1AM till 3PM the next day, worth it? Totally!


Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
Sikkim is famous for two things, unobstructed view of Mt. Kanchenjunga and the stunning rhododendron bloom that paints the landscape in all shades in April/May. We didn't miss the glory, we saw flowers of all colors - pink, yellow, red, white! This was on the second day of the trek, we gained a height of whopping 5000ft in a single day. It was crazy as hell. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The treks starts from Yuksom in West Sikkim. The first day we entered Kanchenjunga National Park and walked through dense forests with nasty little flying insects and abundant yaks for company.  We started from Yuksom and camped at Bakhim(9000ft) for the night. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The next day was a long day. We started from Bakhim towards Dzongri at 14000ft high. The climb was long and endless but this view at the Devrali Top made up for it. For the first time, we saw the clouds clear up to show the mountains hiding behind them. It was a glorious day, two things Sikkim's known for were right in front of us - the mountains and the flowers.

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The third morning, we woke up at the ungodly hour of 3AM and climbed to up to a sunrise point, Dzongri Top at 15000ft. Because sunrise happens here at 4.30AM. It was so damn cold that it was impossible to stand still, we had to keep moving to generate body warmth. Taking pictures was next to impossible for me as I tend to get very cold very easily. But having a good lens helped! Early morning glory shining on the mountain tops. This looks like Mt. Kabru but need confirmation.

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
Same morning, same place, another view. Turning back from Dzongri Top I saw clouds fill up the valleys, ready to leave. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
On the fourth day, we marched towards Lamuney, the camp before Goecha La. The terrain was flat, felt like high altitude with little vegetation and stark landscapes. We walked on the pleasant terrain for a while before the altitude dropped like crazy. We went down to Kokhchurung all the way down to the river and walked up again to our campsite. From 14500ft we lost the altitude just like that. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
So it turned out the campsite at Lamuney was full, so we stopped at Thansing. But the catch was on the summit day, we'll have to cover that extra distance and climb to the pass and walk back extra to reach back to Thansing. So we did, woke up at 1AM and climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed. It was a long climb to 5000m/16000ft and back! But we did it, for the sake of mountains. Seen here is Mt. Pandim glowing in the moonlight. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
We reached Goecha La View Point 1 by sunrise time, it was a very difficult climb for me considering I hadn't exercised at all in 2 years but I made it. Barely so, but I reached. We got a small glimpse of might Kanchenjunga, the same picture you saw at the beginning of the post. But then we proceeded towards Goecha La View Point ahead for a close up view of Kanchenjunga. That was the longest hike ever, at least if felt like that. We crossed a desert, a barren rocky field and a huge mountain slope covered in scree. Only I know how I crawled through the landscape, and thanks to few other friends who were equally tired but wanted to reach the viewpoint2, I managed to reach the second viewpoint. But what a disappointment because Kanchenjunga was right in front of us, completely shrouded in clouds! No view, zilch! But the silver lining was this gorgeous glacial lake, Goecha Lake. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
This is the view of Kanchenjunga from Dzongri Top, since we didn't see anything from Goecha La View point 2, I'm showing you this. :) My friends went ahead on another hour long hike to the original Goecha La while me and a friend embarked on the impossibly long hike back to campsite.

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The hike back to the campsite, Thansing was so long it felt like an eternity. We we were so spent with the climb up that walking back felt impossible. We slept on the desert, stopped by the moraines, sat by the lake side and yet the campsite was nowhere near. We walked all afternoon and finally reached 14 hours after we started. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The sparkling blue Samiti Lake just below Goecha La Viewpoint 1. The sun sparkled for few minutes to reveal its colors. It was cloudy for most of the trek, I didn't see blue skies, gorgeous sunsets or glorious mornings. It was cold and cloudy all the time but at least we got view of Kanchenjunga when it mattered!

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The surreal landscape of high altitudes in Sikkim. The land was barren but stubborn vegetation dotted the landscape.  A clear water stream ran through the valley and somewhere between this is Lamuney campsite. We walked past it to the next campsite. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
On the fifth day, we were back to greenery. We walked along the river for a long time before entering dense forest where no yak has littered the path. It was extremely long again, but beautiful nonetheless. Our guide, Basant enjoying the view or rather waiting for the laggard, me! ;)

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
Yaks are used as the pack animals in Sikkim. And the thing with yaks is they carry little, are quite stubborn and they shit a lot! So you can imagine the trail with the rains, slush and abundant yak shit. The trail was the dirtiest I've ever walked upon and I wondered at my own decision of hiking with yaks. Sometime in future I'd like to do away with pack animals and hike alpine style. But for now, I had to live with the guilt. This trail from Kokhchurung to Dzongri however was only for hikers, yaks go through another route. This day was again very long but also extremely beautiful. We climbed through narrow trails amidst dense misty forest and full of rhododendron bloom. The next day, another long walk later we were back in Yuksom.

Goecha La is a trek unlike any other I have been on so far. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful in terms of views but the route is a little bit tricky. You climb almost every day, even when you are returning back. But there are trekkers huts everywhere making the trek a little but comfortable. The views were worth the effort however, Sikkim is very very beautiful. I was convinced of this again. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

7 Interesting things about Bhutan you probably didn't know!

Bhutan, the last Shangri-La and a beautiful Himalayan Kingdom, was once reclusive but now charms visitors with its unique culture, history and a whole lot of natural beauty. Earlier this month I spent a week in this magical land and was quite taken by this country and its many fascinating peculiarities. Here are 7 things you probably didn’t know about Bhutan.

1. A flower was so rare, it was thought to be a myth, like the Yeti!

Rare Himalayan Blue Poppy
One cold morning, I was languidly walking on a trail at Chele La(3700m). Prayer flags fluttered ferociously as the mountain gust forced its way over the pass. Yet I walked absentmindedly, when a brilliant blue flower suddenly stopped me in my tracks. The petals of the clearest blue were gently hanging from a yellow center and a long stem. It was mesmerising.

That afternoon, I came to know that the gorgeous flower was Blue Poppy (Meconopsis Grandis) and that it is the national flower of Bhutan! Perfectly makes sense, a beautiful national flower for a beautiful country. But what I didn’t know was that this is a super rare flower, thought to be a Himalayan myth like the Yeti for several years because only a handful had ever reported seeing it. And if you are batman fan, you know that rare blue flower that grows on eastern slopes that Ra’s-al-ghul wanted Bruce Wayne to find so he can join the Shadow of the Leagues? Yup, this is the one! But that’s not all; this plant grows only in the barren high altitudes from 3000m to 5000m for several years before blooming only once and then dies. Oh if that’s not exclusive enough, it blooms only during a short window during early monsoons (Late May to July).

Talk about luck, that I walk about on some random hilltop and find the exotic rarity, the iconic Blue Poppy! (P.S - Still can’t wrap my head around it, that I saw something so rare)

2. A Capital City with no traffic lights!

Thimphu, A Capital City with no Traffic Lights
The glowing capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu. 
Thimphu is one of the only two capital cities in the world to not have a single traffic light. They had one installed at one intersection but had it removed and got back the traffic police upon popular demand! The residents felt traffic light was too impersonal. Now that’s a thought. If the country’s busiest city doesn’t have a traffic light, I think it is safe to extrapolate the whole country doesn’t! I’m not sure but it seems like a good possibility.

Anyhow, having seen the way people drive in Bhutan I guess they’ll do just fine without traffic lights. They easily give way to other vehicles and do not mind waiting to let other’s pass before them and when someone gives way, the driver always thanks them in return. Turns out Bhutan got the roads, motor vehicles, electricity etc only after the 60s, I wonder how long before they give in to the ways of the rest of the “developed” world like incessant honking and such. But for now, it is still the last Shangri-La.

3. Is it a goat? Is it a cow? It’s both, it’s a Takin!

Takin, Bhutan's National Animal
And giving the national flower tough competition in the exotic category is the national animal, Takin! It’s a weird cross between goat and cow, both the face and the height falls somewhere between these two animals. It’s found only in Bhutan and parts of China and northeastern India.

The legend goes something like this; there was once a “Divine Madman” who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. He was asked to perform a miracle during one of his lectures, to which he obliged but only if he was provided lunch – a full cow and goat. After his sumptuous meal, he rearranged the left out bones of the cow and goat, goat’s head on a cow’s body. With a click, the strange chimera was bought to life and it started grazing the pastures. Since this animal had many references in Bhutan’s folklore, the king deemed it fit to be a national animal. It was declared so in 1995.

Also, the National Bird is a raven!
Three eyed raven anyone?

4. That’s right! It’s an erect penis you saw painted on the house.


Phallic Paintings on houses in Bhutan
Phalluses can be seen painted on the walls of many houses in Bhutan.
Apart from Takin, another oddity that can be attributed to the “Divine Madman”, the maverick saint Drukpa Kunley, is the ubiquitous phallus! Known for his crazy ways of enlightening others, legend has it that he subdued evil spirits and turned them into protective deities by hitting them with his erect member, which by the way is also referred to as “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom”. He is known as the fertility saint and the site blessed by him is home to the famous Temple of Fertility, Chimi Lakhang. Women from all over the country come here seeking blessings to conceive a child, and you ask how is one blessed? By being struck with a wooden phallus, of course!

This belief that Kunley’s “thunderbolt” can ward off evil spirits led to the tradition of painting giant phalluses on the walls of houses and hanging little wooden replicas on the four corners of the roof. Thankfully, we skipped visiting Chimi Lakhang, otherwise it would’ve been quite awkward with family in tow. But I did see houses with phallic paintings and shops selling wooden phallic souvenirs in plenty.

5. Money doesn’t buy happiness and they know it!


Tiger's Nest Monastery or Taktsang Monastery
The iconic Tiger's Nest or Taktsang Monastery at Paro, Bhutan
Which is why Bhutan measures the country’s growth in terms of Gross National Happiness as opposed to the Gross Domestic Product as followed by the rest of the world. I don’t know how they measure the intangibles - sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation and good governance but these four pillars form the basis of GNH measurements. As part of this they have taken several noteworthy measures like it is mandatory to maintain at least 60% Forest cover! To deal with the cultural obliteration and environmental degradation that unchecked tourism can bring in, they work with a concept of “high value, low impact” tourism where visitors are charged $250 per day as visa fees. But this includes accommodation, transport, guide charges. Locals are given a yearlong training in Bhutanese culture, history and hospitality before they can officially guide tourists. At the outset, people do seem quite happy as we expect them to be in a Shangri-La!

Reportedly, a local once told a NatGeo Reporter “In our most beautiful places, we build temples and monasteries, and everybody goes there. In your most beautiful places, you build five-star resorts, and only the very rich go there.” With that attitude it's no surprise Bhutan's one of the happiest nations in the world!

6. Indian Army has a huge base in Bhutan!


Indian Military Training Team Base, Bhutan
Indian Army Training Mission in Bhutan
One afternoon, we were driving towards Haa Valley in eastern Bhutan when a faintly familiar sight of green rooftops greeted us. Few winding curves later, we saw a group of women walking by. They were looking very much Indian. While we were wondering out aloud, quickly our driver quipped, “They are Indian wives!”
“Wives of whom?”
“Of the Indian Army men stationed below” he said pointing to the green rooftops below.

What I thought to be Haa Village turned out to be the Indian Army’s training mission in Bhutan. No wonder the rooftops looked so familiar, just like the ones we see in Ladakh. The Indian Military Training Team is responsible for training and equipping Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) and Royal Bodyguards (RBG) personnel. The RBA was formed in 1950s, one of the reasons being the pressure from India because the country saw Bhutan as its weakest link in its defense against China.

Roads and Telecom came to Bhutan only in 1960s, but do you who built those 1500kms of roads in the crazy mountain territory? None other than our very own experts at Border Roads Organizations! No wonder our two countries are so friendly!

7. Only 8 pilots are qualified to fly into this airport!


Paro Airport, Bhutan
Landing and Taking Off from here is a tricky business, Paro Airport. 
Rumour has it only 8 pilots can land on this narrow strip between mountains as high as 18000ft that surround the city of Paro. When was the last time you saw a landing strip with so many obstructions in every direction? The pilots are required to navigate the valley through a series of sharp turns before landing or taking off. As you can see in the picture here, the airport is surrounded by mountains on all direction except for the narrow valley to the right, the plane will take several sharp turns during take off and landing.

Looking at the videos posted online, it’s scary how close the plane gets to the mountains. At places like this, there’s no room for error. No wonder only 8 pilots are skilled to nail the landing and take offs. In the video featured in the link below, we can see the pilot is taking sharp left and right turns at 1000ft, 500ft and even 100ft before landing! So basically we need skills like Baloo Bear from Talespin minus the crash landings. It is one airport where equal importance is given and should be given to visual judgment than relying on instruments.

So what do you think? Shocked or intrigued by any of these?

Photography Equipment:
The images were shot with my trusty Canon EOS 500D, Tokina 11-16mm F2.8 and a Canon EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM lens rented from Tapprs - A Bangalore Based Photography Gear Rental Company.

Friday, June 13, 2014

That’s it folks, I quit! :)

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” - Henry David Thoreau
Last month was my last at work. I quit, finally! 
Surprisingly, it wasn’t all about travel. 

Jumping With Joy

Although travel had a lot to do with this decision, it was also not entirely about it. It was something so much more than travel. Something that travel had introduced me to, freedom! The freedom to do things we want and things we must. I love to travel, no doubt, and having a steady job with good income and a great number of vacations per year was actually working out quite well for me. But somewhere along it felt like I was trying hard to play catch up and never really caught up. The last few months have been so crazy I’ve hardly been able to do anything I like. It was an exciting period both professionally and personally but it drained me out completely and left me mentally exhausted.

Despite having never gone to gym, I used to be pretty fit thanks to frequent short yet strenuous treks. But over the last few years I have become so dull, I struggled to climb every single time I have gone trekking in the recent past. Being unfit in the outdoors is so not fun, trust me! No treks, no sunsets, no cool evenings, it seemed all that time was spent in traffic. And the rest of the time, I was busy playing catch up. I got a lot of writing done (Read : Reflecting on a year as a Travel Writer!), got a lot of experience and all that slogging was part of the mandatory early learning curve but it had to go away. It had to end.

I had already given up on material possessions in favor of meaningful experiences, you know how travel does that to you, but I wasn’t counting the mental energy and precious time I was still investing to keep up this lifestyle. One fine day, as I struggled with this new discomfort, I came across Henry David Thoreau’s excellent quote “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” That did it for me, I decided it wasn’t worth it anymore. I didn’t want the extra money at the cost of living with stress and restraint. I wanted freedom - the time to indulge in my passions, to travel, to read, to write, to go visit my family and have the bandwidth to explore and do/create something meaningful.

I did not want to settle for what’s been handed to me. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t escape me for one moment that I’ve been blessed with extremely good fortune where I have a good life, am free to travel, have my health, earn well and have a supportive family that doesn’t require my financial support. Because I had nothing stopping me, it made all the more sense to go after my dreams or make better use of my time than participate in the rat race. If not, all that good fortune seemed just like a crutch to take support from forever instead of making it a pedestal from where I could fly higher. I’ve taken the path of least resistance so far(finished school, took up engineering, took up the first job I got) but now it’s time to tread new waters and push boundaries.

Years from now, I don’t want to be wondering “what if?”. Travel has showed me how beautiful life and this world can be and I intend to experience as much of it as possible. Cliched as it may sound, I want to feel alive and be free.

Of course I will be traveling more but I am not taking off on a six month trip to some place exotic because time is what I need, not more travel. All I want now is the bandwidth to try out different things, enjoy the sunsets, think about how the next years of mine should look like, write and read more. I want time to stand still while I figure this out. But since we do not have that luxury, I want to slow down or just stop in my tracks, turn back and start over. I do not want to escape the hard work, just that I want to invest my time and energy in doing things that matter to me and are close to my heart. And that’s the freedom I dream of.

I am excited about the future, that which is unwritten, wide open and mine to create.
The one where endless possibilities await!

New possibilities, the future is bright?

NOTE : In case you are wondering, I used to work in the IT Industry. ;)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Land of Thunder Dragon, Bhutan - Instagrammed!

I hadn't even fully recovered from the awesomeness of the Sikkim Trek and I was on my way to the Land of Thunder Dragon! I was with family and didn't plan it to be an offbeat trip. However, Bhutan surprised me totally. In this wild land, everything is beautiful! Of course the road less travelled will be even more awesome in Bhutan but even if you don't tread the lesser taken path, you will still be rewarded. I am yet to process images from Sikkim and Bhutan. So while I go do that, here's a quick glimpse of what I saw, through the mobile cam!

And while you are at it, do follow me on instagram! - http://instagram.com/neelimav :)

Rice Fields of Paro, Bhutan
Such delightful pastoral scenes can be found everywhere in Bhutan. Seen here, the rice fields of Paro at sunset.

One foot in India and one in Bhutan! At the Indo-Bhutan border, Jaigaon-Phuenstoling. And as a friend rightly pointed out, one foot is 30mins ahead of the other because Bhutan's 30mins ahead of IST. ;)

Every touristy place has a silver lining! Went upto Buddha Point in Thimphu and found hiking trails that led to this gorgeous view.

The gorgeous capital city of Thimphu on a gorgeous day seen through some gorgeous prayer flags. :-) This was seen on the hike close to Buddha Point.

Royal Fortress called Dzongs are aplenty in Bhutan, many of these beautiful buildings are used as administrative offices in Bhutan. This is in Thimphu.

Then we arrived at Paro. Absolutely picturesque countryside in Paro. Green fields and mountains everywhere. Love.

A river runs through Paro and it's the most beautiful ever! Sunset was always dramatic in this mountainous country, with pleasant temperatures and cool breeze for company, best experienced during the warm months of April to June.

Bucolic Bhutan. Green rice fields and the mountains in Paro with a clear river running through it. What a beautiful country this!

Hiked up to this gorgeous Taktsang or better known as Tigernest Monastery with brother and sister, novice trekkers both. Excellent performance however! Reached in about 3 hours. Awesome hike. :-)

108 Chortens built atop Dochu La, on a clear day you get to see Himalayan peaks all around. For me, it was all about the mist. :-)

A washed out view at Chele La(3988m) on the way to Haa Valley. I'll probably come back on a clear day to see the peaks in distance.

Blue Poppies, National Flower of #Bhutan. So beautiful! Found them in abundance at Chele La.

Haa Valley is a perfect place to do nothing! I mean, when the view's this beautiful, what else can you do other than stand and stare?

We arrived at Haa Valley. We bought the clouds with us. Then we lazed around all day. Then we missed the flight but that's another story. :-)

So have you been to Bhutan? Did you like the Land of Thunder Dragon? I, for one, have fallen head over heels in love with this wildly beautiful and well preserved country!

Also this marks the first international trip post on this blog.
The Wandering Soul is ready to go beyond India. Read this, I'll explain why now soon.
The world is my playground now! :)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Goecha La Trek, Sikkim - Instagrammed!

Sikkim is one of the most beautiful states of India. I had fallen in love with its wild mountains the first time I visited (Monsoons of Sikkim) and harboured the dream to return ever since. Two weeks ago, I went back to trek in the West this time. We trekked along the trail to Goecha La, a high altitude pass at 4940m with amazingly clear views of the 3rd highest mountain in the whole world, Mt. Kanchenjunga (8,586m). Not surprisingly, I fell in love with this tiny state all over again.

Do you see the colorful tents? That's the campsite we had to skip due to overcrowding! We started from the previous campsite covering more than 30 kms including gruelling climbs of Day 5, in the name of adventure!
But before I begin with the thousands of pictures hiding in the memory card sitting inside the DSLR, here's a quick glimpse of the trek through my phone. 

And while you are it, do follow me on instagram :) - http://instagram.com/neelimav
For email subscribers, if you are seeing white boxes instead of the pictures, please come visit the blog in browser. :) 


Little girl running across the bridge on the way to Yuksom. We crossed many such bridges on River Teesta and other rivers all along the trek and the journey.


Beautiful rhododendron flowers along the misty jungle trail, it was magical to say the least!


The 2011 Sikkim Earthquake caused this damage to the trekkers hut in Bakhim. We spent the night in this almost broken rest house, it was surprisingly comfortable.


It was a cloudy day all along and the views were obscured all through the killer climb from Bakhim to Dzongri. But the view opened up at Devrali top and we got to see Mt. Pandim and the rest of the mountains up close.


Mt Kanchendzonga(8,586m) and the rest of the gang, as seen from the very cold Dzongri Top on Day 3. We started the climb at 3AM in the morning to get here by sunrise. Worth it!


On the rest day at Dzongri, I went up a hill top and watched the crazy clouds rising from the valley incessantly, all day long!


Finally, high altitude scenery on Day 4! Today we hiked from Dzongri to Thansing, another long walk descending all the way down to tree line from high altitude.


Pretty wildflowers as we descended down to the treeline on Day 4, at Kokchurung campsite.


An obscured view from viewpoint 1 on our way back, tired beyond belief. Started the climb at midnight. Day 5. On a clear day you can see the entire Kanchenjunga mountain range from here. We got clear views at sunrise.


My fellow trek mate walking towards the blue Samiti Lake nestled in the mountains on Day 5.


More the sun shines, the bluer it looks, Samiti Lake.


The many colors of Sikkim Highlands. Dead tired and walking like a zombie by this time. Day 5, the longest!


Camping at 15000ft with Mt Pandim looming large. A rare sunny day in #Sikkim.


Yet another long walk through misty forests along a narrow trail on Day 6! The trek's ending but the climb's not.

So how did you enjoy this quick virtual tour of the trek? DSLR pictures and clear views of Mt. Kanchendzonga coming soon. Meanwhile, tell me where have you trekked/planning to trek this year? :)

A group of us organized this trek ourselves as part of the voluntary adventure group called Bangalore ASCENDers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Eclectic Secrets of a Charming City, Madras

What's common between Armenian diaspora, Thomas the Apostle and Nawab of Arcot?

Well, Madras and the landmarks they left behind.

I’ve lived in Chennai before and have visited it several times since but I never found it interesting enough to uncover its secrets. However, last month, Storytrails showed me around and told me its stories. Needless to say, I’m impressed. Well done, Madras. What a charming city you are!

I went on two city walks and of all the super interesting things I learnt, I’m going to tell you three most fascinating stories. For the rest, you’ll have to go on the walks yourself. ☺

1. The Armenian Connection

Armenian church in Georgetown, Chennai
Armenian Church in Georgetown, Chennai.

Hidden between the markets of Georgetown in Chennai is a 300-year-old Armenian Church. Predictably, the lane itself is called Armenian Street! So when and why did the Armenians come and settle in Madras? Turns out Armenians have settled in several locations across the world for various reasons ranging from trade to escaping invasions and holocaust. But the Armenians settled in India seem to be traders who had come through the overland route over the Hindu Kush mountain range. Since they were excellent traders, the society prospered wherever they settled. The British who were trading in cotton exports didn’t see the silk and gem trading Armenians as a competition and offered them patronage in Madras. They thrived and built a church in 1712 within the Fort George premises that was destroyed during the French occupation in 1746. 3 years later British recaptured Madras. In 1772, the present church was constructed in the Armenian cemetery where the graves of 350 Armenians are laid to rest.

One of the graves is of Reverend Haroutiun Shmavonian, who is considered to be the father of Armenian Journalism. Out of Madras, the first Armenian periodical in the world was printed. The Armenian community of Madras was responsible for the first draft of Constitution for an independent Armenia in 18th century. The community played an important part in upholding the Armenian culture and laid groundwork for an independent Armenia as early visionaries. However, Armenia was able to gain freedom only in 1991 after the dissolution of Soviet Union.

Starting 1600s the presence of Armenians in Madras was prominently recorded and felt. The noted merchant Shahamir Shahamirian financed the construction of this church. Another merchant Coja Petrus Uscan gave Madras its bridge over River Adyar and the 160 steps to reach Thomas Mount. The bridge has been rebuilt since but Uscan’s contribution is remembered in the form a plaque at the new bridge. Today there are no Armenians in this city but they left behind an Armenian Street and the church as stark reminders of a thriving community. A last group of Armenian community in Kolkata funds the church’s upkeep today. It’s a significant church in many ways.

2. The heartwarming story from Mylapore

Kapaleeswara Temple, Mylapore, Chennai
Kapaleeswara Temple, Mylapore

Mylapore’s history can be traced back to being much older than Madras itself, almost to 2000 years where as Madras recently celebrated its 400th year of existence. In this cultural hub of the city is the Kapaleeswara temple, a buzzing landmark of this locality. The original temple built closes to the coast, was destroyed by the Portuguese and rebuilt again in the current location. The story of temple goes like this. In a fit of rage, Shiva once cursed Parvathi to be born as a peacock on earth. She quickly reminded Shiva of how he would live without her. Lord Shiva then tells her to pray for his love and he will come rescue her soon enough. All the praying happened here in Mylapore under a tree, which is now within the temple. The tree is a now turned into a wish-fulfilling tree or Kalpavriksha where women who want to get married or bear a child come to pray for fulfilment of their wishes. This explains the abundance of peacock motif in Mylapore, even in the Santhome church next to the crucifix. Also, "mayil" means peacock, hence Mylapore. You see? 

But that’s not the heartwarming story as you might have clearly guessed. Now according to the traditional Hindu architecture, every temple will have its own temple pond that is used for all cleansing rituals of the Gods and the devotees. When the Kapaleeswara temple was built, they couldn’t find suitable land for constructing the pond next to the temple. There was one open ground, which was not considered because it belonged to the Nawab of Arcot, a Muslim. Left with no choice, the temple authorities asked him if he would lease the land. The Nawab, instead of leasing the land straight away donated the land to the temple. However, he donated on the condition that the Muslim brethren are welcome to use the temple pond only on the 10th day of Muharram. The deed was done, signed and documented!

Like the Armenian Church with no flock, the temple pond hasn’t seen Muslims since. But if they do arrive, what a heartwarming sight that would be, the Armenians or the Muslims.

3. Santhome Basilica, one of the only four of its kind in the world and the Dhwaja Stambha

Santhome Basilica, Mylapore, Chennai
The beautiful Gothic Style Santhome Church

I don’t know why I never knew about this, maybe I was living under a rock but St. Thomas is said to have reached India preaching gospel in 52AD and martyred in Mylapore in 72AD. The famous Thomas Mount of Chennai is where it is believed St. Thomas was speared, upon the orders by the local king furious of his growing influence. His remains were buried in Mylapore, later most of which was transferred to Ortona, Italy. However, a bone from his hand and the lance that killed him are still at Mylapore, in Santhome Basilica. The interesting thing is there are only 4 basilicas in the world built over Apostle’s tombs and one of them is this church. This makes it pretty special.

The British rebuilt the present day Gothic style Santhome church in 19th century after the Portuguese style church built in 15th century perished in a fire. Inside the church on the stained glass panel, is etched the story of Doubting Thomas. So I wasn’t aware of this phrase’s origin either. It was like finally being able to connect the dots, I knew all these things but never knew the common thread that connected them. But one more thing that took me by surprise was the presence of a Dhwaja Stambha at this church. These traditional Hindu flagpoles can be found in most of the South Indian Temples, which are used to signal the festival celebrations when the flag is hoisted. However, in a weird twist of cultural assimilation, most of the churches in Tamilnadu now carry a Dhwaja Stambha!

Santhome Dhwajastambha, Mylapore, Chennai
The panchaloha Dhwaja Stambha at the Santhome Church

So there, don’t you think Madras’s history is awesome? I, for one, can’t wait to get back to exploring more of its landmarks and the stories behind them.

About Storytrails:
Storytrails is a company that believes India exists in her stories and every sight has a story to tell. Of course every sight has a story but Storytrails' specialty lies in combing through the mundane and telling you the most interesting things. They organize citywalks with an expert storyteller at the helm to help you navigate the bylanes of a city and get under its skin. The team is as eclectic as the stories they tell which is clearly visible in the quality of the research done and the overall presentation. Currently they operate only in Chennai and Madurai.
http://www.storytrails.in/

I went on two city walks of 3 hours each, the Bazaar Trail and the Peacock Trail. Peacock Trail comes highly recommended. I personally loved this trail for every thing except the general temple architecture explanation, which I was already familiar with. The Bazaar Trail is about the local produce and the markets, which I’m not very fond of. But the Armenian Church, which I absolutely loved, was part of this trail. I was very doubtful about how much I would enjoy exploring a city, and that too by visiting temples and churches but clearly my fears were unfounded. Nobody can resist a good story.

After the two walks and talking to the founder and the storytellers, I felt every city should have these trails. History never seemed so much fun and this is the best way to explore to a city. And I can’t wait to try the Steeple Chase and British Blueprints trails someday, I’m sure there are some fantastic stories waiting to be told!

Trail prices start from Rs. 900/person and upwards.

Further Reading:
The Armenian link with Chennai on The Hindu - Return to the Roots
An excellent and detailed account of the Peacock Trail by fellow blogger Sudha - On the peacock trail from Mayilapuram to Mylapore

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