Sharmi on the Trot

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Archive for the category “History”

Experiencing Midsummer Celebrations in Estonia

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The beautiful rooftops of Tallinn.

“This is so strange,” AK pointed out. “It’s difficult to imagine going to sleep at bedtime in complete daylight!” We had just met and struck up a conversation in the Tallinn hostel. Our bodies felt tired and sleepy but with no darkness descending, our minds were confused – to retire or not.

My sister and I who visited East Europe last summer, unknowingly found ourselves in the middle of Midsummer celebrations in the Baltic countries. Honestly, we don’t pour over travel guides or spend hours on the internet searching for details about the places we planned on visiting. We do the obvious bit like figure out how expensive are the tickets are and where can one stay. Barring that it’s spur of the moment situations and going by local recommendations.

As Midsummer approaches in 2017, my mind can’t help but revisit those beautiful Baltic memories.
(Read: How I Learnt To Balance Technology And Travel In Hungary)

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The Old Town Square in Tallinn has flea markets on certain days of the week.

Estonia is simply beautiful filled with natural beauty. It’s well worth the early morning budget airline flying and spending a night on the cold floors of Stansted Airport. If one weighs the options – leaving cold and rainy London behind for warm sunshine and 24 hours of daylight, the cold night on cold floors is well worth it.

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Cobble-stoned paths in Old Town Tallinn

“Roam around guys. Enjoy the coffee and experience the weather,” is how the hostel-in-charge put it. The afternoon was hot and sweaty which came as a surprise. Walking along cobbled pathways in the Old Town we found quaint alleyways to explore and the clear blue sky with cotton candy clouds greeted us with warmth. It was somewhat hard to believe we were in a country which for years was just a name on an atlas.
(Read: 5 Ways To Plan Your First Europe Trip On A Budget)

Most people in Tallinn around this time (June-July) are tourists. Locals are usually at their summer houses celebrating the event with beer and meat. St John’s Day or Jaanipäev is a big deal. With almost 24 hours of daylight and official holidays, midsummer is celebrated with gusto by every citizen. The eve, usually June 23, is the day when everyone celebrates with dances, folk songs, bonfires, games and barbecue. One of the best places to experience an authentic and traditional celebration is at the Open Air Museum, a bus ride away from the Old Town.

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The entrance to the Open Air Museum. The place seems huge doesn’t it? It is!

The Open Air Museum itself is huge. Touching the shores of the lake, there’s so much greenery that one can often let one’s imagination run away. For visitors, its an insight into how people in the area lived in the olden times. There are recreated structures of huts and living quarters, of agricultural utilities and everywhere there are signs clearly explaining Estonia’s past.

During the Midsummer celebrations, the performers liven up the Museum. There are small skits happening in different parts, while singers and dancers show off their skills in an open space. Locals sing and dance along as tourists get a taste of Estonian culture and watch the shows. In today’s day of technology, however, mobile camera phones are everywhere filming those memories. It’s the smell from the food counters that ensure long lines are formed, each waiting to taste the mouth watering local delicacies. An boy it’s worth the wait. The salad and potatoes are well roasted while the meat is tender and juicy as you bite into it. Glasses of Kvass keep the throat well moistened.
(Read: Eating My Way Through Spain)

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Outside an exhibit at the Open Air Museum. See the girl in the red jacket? That’s the younger sister and travel partner!

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The Bonfire is an integral part of the celebrations.

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Traditional Estonian performances at the Museum.

After spending some hours soaking in natural beauty and experiencing traditional Estonia, it was time to head back to our hostel. “Did you guys have fun?” we were asked. Nodding in affirmative back at the common room, travellers formed a circle as Midsummer stories were shared over pints of beer. There was no night as the natural light kept us company till dawn.

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Traditional Estonian food washed down with Kvass.

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In Photos: An Impromptu Visit To Fatehpur Sikri

It was last year this time that about 10 friends had come home for lunch. From devouring chicken curry with rice, fish in mustard sauce and ending the spread with two desserts (chocolate cheesecake and lemon pie if memory serves), talks turned to travel. It’s no surprise really because every time the gang meets, travel plans are discussed. The only issue, they fall through because it’s very difficult to get so many people who are free at the same time.
The conversation went somewhat like this… “Its been ages since I travelled,” said A. “Oh I can’t remember when I just packed my bags and left.” “Where did you go?” asked B. “I just came back from Kheerganga,” informed C. “Roadtrips man, it’s been a while,” said D. “Why don’t we go for a roadtrip tonight?” a voice was heard from among the chatter.
We all turned at her. “It’s Sunday tomorrow. We are all off. So why don’t we leave tonight from Delhi to someplace nearby and we’ll be back in the afternoon?” That was an idea! Quick calculations later, we zeroed in on Fatehpur Sikri. Three cars, munchies, a good music play list and a need to get out of town is what egged us. We had all been there before of course, but there’s something so tempting to go back to places we’ve been to before. Beer helps in that decision too, just saying!

The view as one enters the complex

The view as one enters the complex

For history buffs
Akbar, the third great Mughal ruler, built this city and shifted his capital here in 1571. However, after his death and thanks to insufficient water supply, it was abandoned but the majestic Indo-Islamic architecture wows travellers to this day. Barely 40km away from Agra, the red sandstone walls of the palace has found its way into many must-see travel lists.

Inside Fatehpur Sikri

Inside Fatehpur Sikri

The complex is famous for structures such as the Buland Darwaza, Paanch Mahal, Diwani-Khas, Tomb of Salim Chisti, Palace of Joda Bai, Hawa Mahal etc. As one enters the complex, it’s a step back in time. You realise the grandeur of the Mughal era, wishing you had a chance to see it when it was a flourishing city. It must have been a fantastic sight to behold.

That's a pose in front of the massive Buland Darwaza

That’s a pose in front of the massive Buland Darwaza

It's a massive door - Buland Darwaza

It’s a massive door – Buland Darwaza

The Darwaza from inside the complex

The Darwaza from inside the complex

Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid

Corridor in symmetry

Corridor in symmetry

Anoop Talao

Anoop Talao

Diwani-Khas, the picture we've seen in history books all our lives

Diwani-Khas, the picture we’ve seen in history books all our lives

The Paanch mahal was being worked on, so the next best thing was to go under it

The Paanch mahal was being worked on, so the next best thing was to go under it

Tomb of Salim Chisti

Tomb of Salim Chisti

The sunrise from the hill top, before entering

Seeing the sunrise before entering

The sun rises

The sun rises

The beautiful complex

The beautiful complex

Heartbreak at the Killing Fields

I knew what I was getting myself into. I love the travel, but the single greatest joy I get when I’m on the road is learning. Be it learning the history of a community, a local recipe, the joys and sorrows of people I meet on the way or even a new hangover cure. History fascinates me, it always has. We are because of what we’ve learnt. Or not.

The area is tranquil today, unlike in the late-1970s.

The area is tranquil today, unlike in the late-1970s.

There I was standing under the shade of a tree on a hot summer day, amidst the desperate cries I kept hearing in my head. Men, women, children screaming in pain, hoping against hope for a miracle when the sickle hit their skulls. The audio guide kept telling me to move from one spot to the next, but it took me a long long time. I was at the ‘Killing Fields’, a few kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh.

You make your way in a tuk tuk via many turns and corners to reach Choeung Ek. One of the most prominent killing fields discovered after the Vietnamese invasion, the area is serene and peaceful. There’s a sense of quiet all around, of unknown pain.

Green and quiet. There's a sense of calm

Green and quiet. There’s a sense of calm

I sometimes wonder what made Pol Pot what he was. He was educated, a teacher at that, and yet Khmer Rouge chose to dehumanise humanity on the pretext of creating a self sufficient community. A country which was so rich in tradition and steeped in history, everything was wiped out in a span of four years.

It’s a pretty big area, the Killing Fields that is. There’s a little museum which details the rise and fall of the gruesome regime. It has pictures and uniforms depicting the true picture. You feel so angry and helpless, you really do. Your ‘why’ joins the millions of others who have thought the same for so many years.

As you listen to the audio guide and move from one spot to the other and feel the atrocities that were committed, the one which broke my heart was where little babies where killed. How can anyone be so inhumane?

A commemorative stupa filled with the skulls of the victims and the weapons used

A commemorative stupa filled with the skulls of the victims and the weapons used

You listen to horror stories from survivors. Each story leaves you gutted. Someone killed for bananas, someone for wearing spectacles. Is this what humanity is about? Killing one another? The audio guide signs off by saying that the world must learn to prevent such genocides. But do we actually learn? Bosnia and Rwanda prove otherwise.

I’m from India, a country which for hundreds of years had been dominated by different rulers. Visiting Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar or going to the Cellular Jail in the Andamans had left me drained, feeling miserable. But what I felt standing at the Killing Fields, looking at the weapons and skulls, was something different. Something needs to change. Something has to change for the better.

Stumbling upon the Royal Cemetery in Bangkok

Bangkok is only about two hours away from Pattaya. Take the highways, drive fast and you’re there even earlier. I had chosen to stay near Jomtien beach, away from the hustle and bustle of South Pattaya. After all, when you’re in Thailand for three days, a stopover really before you head to Cambodia, you really want to dive into the pristine blue sea and swim away all tensions.

The temple entrance

The temple entrance

But, I did decide to head to Bangkok for a day just to see what the city was about. Ever since I swayed to ‘Shall we dance’ from The King and I, the name Siam conjured up images of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr dancing away to their hearts content. But that was as a child when Hollywood had captured my heart. I’ve always been eager to go to Thailand, not because I love the cuisine, but also to discover the beautiful places.

If I’m honest, the first impression of Bangkok really didn’t set my heart on fire like I had hoped it would. I did the touristy stuff – visiting the Royal Palace, the Emerald Buddha, Golden Buddha… but it was an unexpected discovery which made my day. It was hot and humid and I did feel dehydrated. But just the fact that I walked into the Royal Mausoleum on the one day in the year when it’s open to the public according to the Lunar calendar (without any prior knowledge) made me smile. This is what travelling is about isn’t it?

So peaceful

So peaceful

Gothic architecture in Thailand

Gothic architecture in Thailand

Not a must-see attraction, the Wat Ratchabopit, or Royal Cemetery, is peaceful and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle cities are associated with. Located just a few minutes away from the Royal Palace, the peace welcomes you. The memorials dedicated to Thai royalty are so varied. From Gothic to Indian to Thai, the architecture of the different memorials seem to have been inspired from many styles. When I walked around the memorials, I was alone. No tourists, no cameras, just me. There is no entrance fee but you do get asked ‘how did you find out about this place?’ And you say, ‘by chance’ with a smile.

The main temple inside was shut for the public till 2pm because of prayers. Apparently there were a lot of visitors early morning because the Royal couple had come to offer prayers to the ancestors.

Inside the temple complex

Inside the temple complex

Now let me tell you something. Everything yellow you see in the complex is gold. Yes, it’s not coloured in gold paint to impress tourists.

The gold shining in the sun

The gold shining in the sun

Once you enter the main temple, you’re left amazed at the art work because everything is done by hand. The doors have inlaid work in pearls, gold statues of Buddhas in different postures are found around the temple. Go inside and the red carpet is so lush. It’s so quiet there that one can spend hours just sitting and gazing. See the monks talking to youngsters as they try to imbibe their words of wisdom.

It’s always wonderful to discover something new and to stumble upon something so beautiful by chance, brings me great joy.

Details on the walls, all by hand

Details on the walls, all by hand

The ceiling inside

The ceiling inside

Words of wisdom

Words of wisdom

Witnessing an Angkor Wat Sunrise

The alarm went off at 4am sharp, the shrill sound penetrating the heavy air. It was pitch dark as I rubbed my eyes, glancing out the first floor window. The street outside may have been quiet but two windows on the otherside of the guesthouse lit up along with mine. I knew I couldn’t be the only one. There are few people awake at this hour. Newspaper vendors, students cramming for examinations and those who’ve dreamt of Angkor Wat for a long time.

Just before day break

Just before day break

I had been dreaming of going to Cambodia for ages now. For a history junkie like me, I would read anything I could lay my hands on about the country. So, as I got up to get dressed, I couldn’t get rid off the big smile on my face. I would finally get to see the gorgeous temple basking in the morning sun.
Every iconic Angkor Wat photograph shows the temple and it’s reflection in a lotus pond with different colours of the sky in the background. Well, it may sound cheesy, but I’ve always wanted to be there and photograph it myself.
As I made my way out of the guesthouse, a dim light flickering in the darkness led me to the tuk tuk. The guesthouse was located in a bylane but as you made your way to the main street, you realised just how many people have the same dream.

Deemed a World heritage site, Angkor is mindbogglingly gigantic. It’s not only about Angkor Wat but countess other temples which showoff the rich complex architecture of the Khmer empire from about 9th to the 15th century. What’s fascinating is with the Brahmanism and Buddhism spreading to far off shores from India, Cambodia and many South East Asian countries have imbibed Indian influences with their own. Thus, while you have the epic Ramayana in India, Cambodia has Reamker. Indian mythology has found a balance in Khmer expressions everywhere in Angkor.

The sky changes colour

The sky changes colour

When you visit for the first time, the enormity of the area hits you. In the darkness of the early morning as you drive by the moat around Angkor Wat, you realise its late. Because there are thousands behind and ahead of you. With flashlights, DSLRs, tripods and steaming cups of coffee, travellers, photographers, history buffs — they all made their way to the pond.

Look at the crowd!

Look at the crowd!

And we waited. The sun was supposed to rise at 6.05am. Very slowly the sky began to change colour. From a dark midnight blue to pale purple, from orange to red and then light blue. At one point it seemed the colours of the sky came together to form a unique hue. The shadow of the famous temple  reflected in the water. It was so magnificent that I didn’t have words to describe it. I let my eyes witness the sunrise. As the darkness gave way to morning light, the grandeur of Angkor Wat became even more prominent to the naked eyes.

Isn't that a glorious morning?

Isn’t that a glorious morning?

It’s only during the equinox that the sun rises directly above the central temple tower. I missed that unfortunately by a few days but as the sun slowly began to rise from the right of the central tower, there were shouts. No one wanted to turn away. Probably more than a million photographs would have been taken by the numerous cameras around that early morning.

A morning view from the entrance

A morning view from the entrance

As I made my way back to the guesthouse to sleep a little bit more (I would explore more of the ancient temple a couple of hours later) I couldn’t stop smiling. I finally saw what I had been dreaming about for so many years.

The sun shows itself, finally

The sun shows itself, finally

When Hyderabad beckons…

I first visited the City of the Nizams during my teenage years. My parents had decided I hadn’t travelled to southern India enough and that it was important to know the history and culture of the existing states to help understand what India truly consists of. So, there we were, travelling for a month across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and finally Andhra Pradesh. I loved biryani even then but there was something about Hyderabad which made me really like the city. Whether it was the food, the museums or rich traditions, I’m unsure, but I really enjoyed myself.

Years later I often travel to Hyderabad for work. Thanks to a hectic schedule, I don’t get time to visit or do things I love but I try to do at least one of the things I like. But, if you ever find yourself in Hyderabad, do not leave the city without trying at least one from my must-do list!

Visit Old Hyderabad for a history lesson

There’s nothing like visiting the Charminar. The symbol of the city, the structure built by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah in 1591 has people from all over the world stopping by for a visit. Yes, it’s very crowded but that makes it even more special. It has a hundred and forty nine steps that lead to the top and is beautified by many flowers and animal motifs.

The gorgeous Charminar!

The gorgeous Charminar!

But the Charminar is not the only historical spot in Old Hyderabad. If you have time, book a ticket for one of the many Heritage Walks conducted by AP Tourism to relive the glorious past. You will get to visit Kali Kaman, Mecca Masjid, Chowmahalla Palace and Jama Masjid among many lesser known sites.

Shop at Old Hyderabad

From pearls to perfumes to bangles, you need a bit of time to shop here. While you’ll find exquisite glass bangles at Laad Bazar with gracious shopkeepers making you feel special. One of them told me last time that glass bangles will never go out of fashion with women flocking to buy sets during marriages and other functions.

Pretty bangles everywhere

Pretty bangles everywhere

Then you have the Perfume street or Ittar as its commonly called. They are locally produced perfumes which are sold in various quantities in glass vials. Expertly named after a lot of tongue twisting, you often forget which one you tend to buy because you smell so many! My father gets me to buy him Musk every time I’m in the city.

How can you visit Hyderabad and not buy pearls right? A friend even went there for a day to purchase pearls for her wedding last year! Thanks to the Nizams’ patronage, pearls became symbolic. Funny but these days the pearls are imported from all over the world and drilled in Chandanpet. Prices vary according to shape, size and sheen. It’s the simply string which is most popular but I love my pearl studs. Gives you a regal feeling I tell you.

Want to buy one of these?

Want to buy one of these?

More pearls... Use your imagination to create magic

More pearls… Use your imagination to create magic

The museum/fort trail

The Salar Jung museum is probably the most famous in the state. It holds the largest one-man antique collection in the world. For scholars, its a must visit destination. Thanks to Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan or Salar Jung III, the collection includes art from India, Europe, the middle East while delicate Persian carpets and porcelain from China enthrall visitors. You will find Aurangzeb’s sword and artifacts from Jehangir and Shah Jahan’s time. Benzoni’s Veiled Rebecca will leave you breathless.

The AP State Museum is also popular. Exquisite pieces housed in a grand building, what’s not to like? From Buddhist artifacts to sculptures from the Vijayanagara period, the museum also has the mummy of Nasihu, the daughter of the sixth Egyptian pharaoh dating back to almost 2500 BC.

The Golconda Fort was one of the strongest in India. Though the fort dates back to the Yadava dynasty, it came to be during the Qutb Shahis (1518- 1687) and then it was conquered by Aurangzeb. Apparently there used to be a secret tunnel leading all the way across the city to the Charminar for the safe passage of the nobles. Oh how I wish I could go there! Take time out to visit the light and sound show in the evenings. It will be worth your time.

Eating like a royal

Biryani is food for the soul. With many versions all across India, the one found in Hyderabad is served with Raita and Salan. The fragrant rice combined with succulent pieces of meat melt in your mouth. While Paradise is the most popular joint, locals prefer Hyderabad House or Bawarchi. A friend says, “The tourists are enamored by Paradise but ask any local, they would prefer a less known eating joint any day.” Well I leave the local biryani battle to the experts.

Deliciousness at Paradise

Deliciousness at Paradise

You can’t leave the city without picking up biscuits from Karachi Bakery. They have a stall in the airport so indulge in the tasty fruit biscuits on the plane too!

For the water babies

Hussainsagar Lake connects the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. An 18m tall white granite Buddha statue stands in the middle which can be seen from miles away. Go for a walk around Tank Bund (the common name) and watch the sunset. You’ll find peace.

 

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