Milan and Turin: A tale of two cities

A chill February wind from the Alps shuffles me from the open piazza in front of the Duomo di Milano into the relative warmth of the corridors that make up the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The oldest active shopping mall in the world, this galleria in Milan was completed in 1877. It is an architectural marvel, with two giant glass-vaulted arcades over the streets connecting Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Scala that intersect in an octagonal central dome. The glass-and-iron roof is a distinctive 19th century design.

I join the flow of locals and tourists wandering aimlessly amongst the artistically modern window displays of luxury brands like Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton that vie for attention alongside 150-year old stuccos, friezes, columns and a sigh-worthy mosaic floor.

I see a river of people pooled around a curious sight on the mosaic floor. I peer into the crowds, looking through slits and gaps between arms, waists and handbags to see the figure of a rampaging bull in beige-on-blue mosaic. Odder still, I see visitors join a queue for the chance to go up to the mosaic and “crush” its testicles by standing on them, and rotating thrice at the spot.

A tourist “crushing” the privates of the galleria’s mosaic bull. Photo: iStock
A tourist “crushing” the privates of the galleria’s mosaic bull. Photo: iStock
Continue reading “Milan and Turin: A tale of two cities”

Dhanushkodi, the ghost town to Sri Lanka

The road to Dhanushkodi is smooth and straight, flanked by gabion boxes that protect it from gales with velocity of 70-80 kilometers per hour. The panorama fills with salty water, an endless silver and blue, merging with the mercilessly heated up skies. The waters of Bay of Bengal roar on our left while the cerulean depths of the Indian Ocean glimmer on our right.

We are on the 19 kilometre national highway that links Rameshwaram, a popular pilgrimage town on Pamban island in Tamil Nadu to Dhanushkodi, the abandoned ghost town on its south-eastern tip.

Just 18 miles from there, as the crow flies, lies another country, Sri Lanka.

An ancient Hindu legend claims this as the place where Rama built the Rama Setu, a bridge of floating rocks that could connect the islands of Pamban and Sri Lanka and enable his legendary monkey army to reach King Ravana’s abode, the modern day Sri Lanka. When Rama won the war against the King of Lanka, he was asked to destroy the bridge, which he did using the end of his bow, hence the name ‘Dhanushkodi’ which literally translates into ‘end of the bow’.

Continue reading “Dhanushkodi, the ghost town to Sri Lanka”

The river Ganga: Myths, folklore and stories you want to retell

On Dasashwamedh Ghat in Banaras, people jostle with each other to touch the holy waters of the river Ganga. Old people take careful steps, while younger ones jump into the river from a height, slapping, playing, and laughing. Some mutter prayers to Goddess Ganga as they take dips ritualistically amidst the flotsam of rituals, decayed flowers and pieces of bones and plastic kiss the corners of the ghats. Cows munch on garbage while tourists crane their cameras from boats, their fingers pressing the button for panicked clicks. It’s a chaotic scene that celebrates life and death in an endless cycle.

She’s a goddess who travels through three worlds

For the river Ganga, with a whopping 2,525 kilometers of length that begins in western Himalayas and continues through the Gangetic plains into Bangladesh and then the Bay of Bengal, is not just a river for Hindus in India. She’s a goddess who travels through three worlds, making her an important highway if you want to reach either Heavens or Netherworld from Earth. In Sanskrit, Ganga is also called Triloka-patha-gamini or Tripathaga, or one who travels the three worlds.

Continue reading “The river Ganga: Myths, folklore and stories you want to retell”

The ultimate Bangalore dosa map. What’s your favourite dosa place?

Bangalore dosa map

Bangalore dosa map? Now that’s called craziness. As I write this, I giggle. A friend recently asked me why do people in Bangalore make early morning plans for dosa rather than evening plans for a drink. It’s true. If you’ve been in Bangalore long enough, or have turned to become one with the city like I have, well, you do talk dosa and breakfasts.

Bangalore dosa mapMy husband, Ashwani, who is absolutely crazy about dosas have always thought about making an ultimate map of all the dosa places that come in our favourite haunts. Which is why when we came across this map, made by a friend of a friend, Niranj, we were absolutely thrilled. It lists down all places where you can have a scrumptious dosa. Know of some they’ve missed? Add them in. So if you’re in Bangalore, explore these spots. For others, come over, we’ll take you there! For there’s nothing better than that sumptuous, delectable thing we call dosa (or dosai, dosha, doshai, dhosa, anything. What’s in a name till oodles of ghee is added on top of it?)

Note: The above dosa image is not from Bangalore. We rarely take dosa pictures, for obvious reasons. This was in a small darshini somewhere in Andhra Pradesh. I can give you the town’s place, but only if you comment below and ask me!

Mamallapuram’s drowned temples

A long time ago, seven granite temples stood on the beach of Mamallapuram near Chennai, a port at that time. Myth has it that lord Indra, the god of thunderstorm became so jealous of the town’s beauty that in his anger, he brought out a great storm from the Bay of Bengal, gobbling six of the temples. And so only one remained, the Shore Temple, built on an outcrop of land on the beach, to guide the travellers coming from the sea.

Some 60 kilometers from sweltering Chennai on the East Coast Road, Mamallapuram is more of a popular weekend beach retreat now than a port. Cheap homestays, larger-than-life resorts, backpacker hostels, restaurants and cafes pepper its lanes, each of which weaves down to the sandy beaches. Built by the Pallavas during the seventh century, it used to be a famous trading port on the east coast. Traders and merchants travelled all the way from countries in South East Asia and even the Mediterranean to reach its shores. Legend has it that Marco Polo, the famous Venetian merchant traveller, found his way to this port, marking it on his Catalan Map in 1275. It was during the Pallavas that Sangam literature and Bhakti movement flourished here.

Continue reading “Mamallapuram’s drowned temples”

Are ghosts real?

Are ghosts real? As an author interested in the paranormal and supernatural, this is the question I get asked a lot. Do I believe in ghosts? Have I experienced any? Do I think ghosts exist around us? I’ve had a few experiences which defy logic. And I’m okay with them, because you cannot find a logical or scientific answer to everything. Continuing the blog series of real life ghost stories, here are four more tales.

 Mystery man in Patna

When she was little, a friend of mine moved to a new home in the outskirts of Patna. It was pretty much undeveloped then and the kitchen window overlooked a farm. Everything was great except her mom noticed a man sitting outside in the farm, when she cooked. He looked like a farmer and stared at her, silently. She called out. No response. She ignored and continued cooking. Every afternoon, he was there, for five odd hours, staring in through the kitchen window as her mother made food. In the beginning, she was freaked, but later on her mother got used to the situation and ignored the man. “He remained there, sitting outside in the overlooking farm, staring, for five hours, for two years,” she said. “We assumed he was a peaceful ghost and let him be.” Two years later, he vanished just as mysteriously as he’d appeared.

img_20150315_103024

Woman in white in Manali 

A long time ago, as a teen, I’d gone to a camp from my school. We camped in a valley near Manali. It was a beautiful clear night, the sky was laden with stars. We’d finished dinner. It was late and we sat on a ledge away from the camps, chatting.

About 30 meters behind the ledge, I saw a figure in white. At first I thought it was girl, but there was something weird about the figure. It was hazy and gliding towards us. Not walking. I blinked and asked others if they saw the same thing as me. The figure shimmered in the starlight almost like she had a torch under the white ensemble. And kept gliding towards us. All of us were now looking at the figure, wondering what it was. We tried to fit a lot of logics, but nothing worked. The figure vanished a few minutes later. Till now I don’t know what it was.

Click here for more real life ghost stories

The fat lady in Haridwar

This story comes to me from my grandmother who recently passed away. By retelling her tale, I hope to immortalize a part of her. She’d heard it from her brother, who’d heard it from the rickshaw driver who experienced this. One day this rickshaw driver gave a ride to a really fat lady who wanted to go to Har-ki-paudi, the popular holy ghat on the banks of Ganga. Surprisingly, though she was really fat, the driver peddled the rickshaw as if it was empty. She felt weightless. They reached the ghat, the lady stepped down and asked him to wait. “I’ll be back in 15 minutes after a quick dip in Ganga.” She gave him a handkerchief tied up into a pouch. The driver waited for the lady. He waited an hour, a few hours and begun to worry. Had she drowned? He went to the ghat and found her clothes, floating in the water, without any woman inside them. He finally remembered the little handkerchief that she had given him and opened it. The kerchief had precious emeralds and rubies and diamonds inside it. He went back to the same road he had picked her up from and inquired about the lady. Finally he found out that she was a rich lady and had died in an ashram with a wish to take a dip in the Ganga on her lips. A year before she’d met the rickshaw driver. He’d been rewarded with money because he’d helped with her last wish.

Backtracking woman on the Lonavala road

“It’s a true story,” stresses my friend from Mumbai, who called up to understand exactly what he’d seen. Early morning, as he was returning with his two friends from Lonavala back to Mumbai, they saw a woman. “We were driving slow as we wanted to enjoy the early morning scenery on that road. The woman from afar looked like a beggar, really tall, thin and lanky.” The weird thing was, she was walking backwards. They were driving slow, at 40km/hour, and passed her and saw her disappear into their rearview mirror. “Maybe she was drugged or a nutcase,” he says, “else why walk backwards?” Though they were tempted to, they didn’t dare turn around and see who the person was upclose.

Read a real-incidents inspired ghost tale based in Manipal


Have any paranormal incidents to share? Put in a comment below. I would love to hear your experiences.

 

Real life ghost stories I’ve heard

Have you heard a real life ghost story? Whenever I’m travelling and meet someone new, this is the first thing I ask people. Have they seen any ghosts that have jumped onto them from spooky corners or any hazy female figures dressed in white that they saw shimmering on a lonely, dark road? I write ghost stories because I’m highly curious about ghosts, monsters and all things that belong to the dark. In this blog, I wanted to share with you a few stories I’ve heard from friends and strangers over the years. They’re all true, atleast to the people who told them to me.

Double suicide in IIT Kanpur

I stayed at the beautiful IIT Kanpur campus for a few weeks a couple of years back. It’s a dense, big campus, a whopping 1055 acres of lung space in the outskirts of the chaotic madness that is Kanpur. At a literary meet, on asking, a student told me about a room in one of the hostels, where there had been two suicides in a row. After the second one, the authorities locked up the room. In the night, some students could hear a rattling sound from the room, if someone was trying to open the door from inside. This student even approached the room door one night when the noise was disturbing him from his late night studies. “The door knob turned even though I knew there was no one inside,” he said. He ran back to his room, firmly shutting the door. “Yeah,” said another, “but the next year the room was cleared and just given to a first year student. The ghost is forgotten.” I wondered if the first-year student had experienced anything, but I never got to talk to him.

img_20150314_124827

The man with a lantern

I heard this story in the mountains somewhere in the Himalayan region. Most people there have various paranormal experiences in their pockets. They tell them as if it’s an everyday occurrence and don’t think of ghost stories as something unnatural, the way we city dwellers do. In this case, an old man told me about a time when he was young. He was walking down a lonely stretch of road at night, in darkness as there was not much moonlight. He saw a man up ahead of him walking with a lantern and called him since it was too dark and the jungle had a lot of snakes and wild things. The man didn’t turn. He reached the man and touched his shoulder. The man turned and the lantern he carried illuminated his face. There was nothing there. No eyes, no lips, no nose. “I turned and ran so hard that I have no idea where I went,” said the old man.

Click here for more real life ghost stories

A dancing table in Switzerland

I got this story from a friend, an enthusiastic blogger who has experienced it herself when she was little. “My great-grandmother had a small round wooden table, a tabletop with a central stand on three split legs that would rock and knock when people gathered around it for a ‘spirit’ session,” she says. Ever the curious, she approached the round wooden table one evening with a few cousins and an uncle, determined to dispel the illusion. When the table started to wriggle and tilted to stand on one leg, she asked her uncle to stop pushing it and freaking them out. “I got an electric shock from the offended table because I refused to believe it could shake on its own accord.”

Read a real-incidents inspired ghost tale based in Manipal

 


Have any paranormal incidents to share? Put in a comment below. I would love to hear your experiences.

The djinn-saints of Delhi

There’s a djinn that lives next to the Feroz Shah Kotla cricket stadium in Delhi. His name is Laat Waale Baba (The Pillar Saint) and he’s older than the stadium and older than the British rule. Some whisper he’s even older than the city-fort which was built by Sultan Feroz Shah Tuglaq in 1356, after whom the stadium is named. Laat Waale and his assistants, thousands of other minor djinns, live in the skeletons of the once royal city. And they live royal lives. For they get a heap of letters and coins and prayers and fruits and sweets from worshippers every week.

The ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla

Come Thursday, be it sweltering hot or bone-chilling cold, hundreds of worshippers gather around the Minar-e-Zarreen, a 13.1 meter high, polished sandstone pillar that stands in the middle of the ruins. The pillar, which is believed to be the pathway for the djinn and his minor army, is surrounded by a protecting grill put up by the Archeological Survey of India who maintain the Tuglaq ruins. The worshippers stretch their arms through the grill, futilely to try and touch the pillar, their hands full of letters, photocopies and hope. After the trial to touch, they kiss the grill and tie up these letters, full of prayers. They even bring photocopies and photographs so they can post multiple letters to multiple minor djinns in case one of them is not heard. All letters are full of prayers and pleadings, asking for a wish or hoping the senior djinn or one of the minor ones will help them in matters of the heart, or marriage, of wealth or of health. Some even bring their possessed relatives for exorcism in ruined caverns with bats hanging upside down in the dampness, witnessing the thrashings and shrieks.

Letters to the djinns

A worshipper whispered to me that a hundred years ago, under the British rule, these ruins were haunted by ghosts and pretas and thugs and tantrics and dogs and bats and the Pillar djinn wasn’t a saint. He turned into one post Independence when partition changed the dynamics of the capital city. That’s when, people, maddened by grief of what humans could do to other humans, left with no hope and no other saints or gods, crawled to the ruins, clutching letters of hope. They turned to djinns when they saw the worse in human nature. For they hoped that djinns, who according to Islamic mythology live for centuries and are made of smokeless fire, might know something about life and dignity that humans forget. Continue reading “The djinn-saints of Delhi”

A few good Khasi tales

In the beginning of things, there was vast emptiness. God created two beings out of it – Ramew, the guardian spirit of Earth and her husband Basa, the patron god of villages. They had five children, the Sun, the Moon, Water, Wind and Fire. The family provided for Earth, giving it rich soil, fruits and trees and flowers. All it lacked was a caretaker and so God called upon seven families from Heaven and told them to take care of the Earth and planted a divine tree that served as a golden ladder between Heaven and Earth. Every day, these seven families would climb down from Heaven to Earth to till it and cultivate crops. However, soon humans were discontent and began to steal, swindle, cheat and even kill for gain. Angered, God decided to pull up the Golden Ladder and so the seven families were stranded on Earth and had no option but to make it their home.

DSC00061

The story rings true as I look over the endless emerald of the rolling hills of Meghalaya’s Cherapunji-Mawsynram Reserve Forest. We’ve stopped at a roadside tea kiosk to sip on sweetened black tea. For a split second, as you see the sun peeping through laden clouds, you can also see a ladder from the skies to earth, the golden light its beams.

Like this origin myth, Khasi people have many stories. Their language didn’t have a script before the missionaries, when they adopted Roman script.

For centuries, oral stories have carried forward Khasi traditions, their collective knowledge and their ideas, generation to generation. There is a story for everything in Khasi legends. Thunder and lightening, a gigantic boulder that looks like an overturned conical basket, the name of a waterfall, a hill, a forest, a village…everything. They even have a story on how they lost their script. The story goes that once a Bengali and a Khasi scholar had to cross a river. The Bengali tied the books to his hair, while the Khasi put it between his teeth. When crossing, the Khasi, a mountain person, almost drowned. Instinctively he opened his mouth and took a deep breath, swallowing his text by mistake. The Bengali script remained intact. However the Khasi script was lost, though the knowledge remained in people’s minds.

DSC00135One of my favourite stories is about a dragon spirit called thlen. Legend goes that thlen was born near the village of Rangjyrteh, an abandoned village which stood on top of the famous Dainthlen waterfalls. According to the legend, whenever a group of people passed up their way to the village, the dragon-demon would attack and devour half of them. The only way anyone could escape was to walk alone as the thlen couldn’t devour a half of a single person. The people of the village approached U Suidnoh, a brave and devout keeper of the grove to get rid of the monster.

U Suidnoh befriended the dragon demon by feeding it goat’s flesh daily. After gaining its trust and confidence, he heated a bar of iron in a huge furnace, went to the cave and called out to thlen to open its mouth. When the dragon opened its mouth, he shoved red-hot-iron down his throat. Taken unaware, the thlen violently choked and died. The carcass was cut up and distributed to all for a public feast. A strict instruction was issued that the meat should be ingested at the site and even a single scrap should not be left uneaten as that will allow the monster to spring back to life.

photo credut: http://folkfestivals.blogspot.in/2010_10_01_archive.html

However, an old Khasi woman saved a piece of it to take home for her grandchild. When she reached home, she forgot to give it to the child and lo, the thlen came to life again. In exchanged for sparing her life, the thlen demanded shelter in her house and a regular diet of human blood. It also promised increase of wealth for its keeper. Ever since then, keeping a thlen makes you wealthier, but for that you have to provide sacrifice humans and feed it blood.

DSC00056It’s a tale that cautions against human greed and private ownership of land. Decades before the government made private land owning possible, the land in Meghalaya belong to the community and not individuals. In case the owner died, within a few years, the land would go back to the community, ensuring that a single person’s greed didn’t destroy the resources meant for all. Something all the more relevant as mining, both legal and illegal, is fast devouring these iron, coal and limestone rich hills, leaving chipped and ravaged empty shells behind.


First published in Discover India. Credit for a few images go to FolksFestival.in

 

Gond Ramayani: Ramayan in tribal comic format

I found my first Gond story in a Gond painting exhibition by Indra Gandhi National Centre of the Arts in Bangalore. The series of paintings, in ten by ten feet frames, was a graphic narrative like I’d never seen before. And I was wowed.

It’s Ramayana, I exclaimed, a story I knew, peering to understand the visuals and corroborate it with the story my grandmother had told me ages ago. The story I’d seen again in Ramananda Sagar’s Ramayana TV series which was inspired by the Awadhi text Ramacharitra Manas written by Goswami Tulsidas. However, I couldn’t decipher the visual story. It didn’t collaborate with the Ramayana tale I knew. The one I considered the right one. Curious and fascinated, I contacted IGNCA, started to research on this unusual Gond version, emailed people, called scholars, read books and piece by piece constructed the story that is sung by the bards of Gond, where Ram isn’t the main hero. And so I build up the whole story. Or atleast a version of it. For I’m a storyteller too.

Have you heard the story where Lakshmana is the real hero in Ramayana? And Ram, that ideal husband and king is but a side character who orders his younger brother to fetch his dice for a game and then blames him for trying to sleep with his wife. I hadn’t.

So I’m going to retell one of the Gond Ramayani tales to you.

Continue reading “Gond Ramayani: Ramayan in tribal comic format”