Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Tragic Fort of Gingee

    Sometimes, ruins of a long gone era tell us the most interesting tales - the story of kings and their battles, grand temples and mosques built on their annihilated ruins, a patronage for art and a macabre hunger for war and plunder. And one such place is Gingee Fort or Senji Kotai which is around 150 km South of Chennai and 25 km from Thindivanam in Tamil Nadu. The fort looks exactly like the destroyed forts and palaces of fantasy fiction that authors like Tolkien describe for pages and pages and never get right.
From the top of Krishnagiri Hill - Ranganatha Temple, with the Rajagiri Hill in the background
    The first fortification of Gingee was done in 1200 AD by the Konar community. Since then, this place has been conquered and reconquered countless times by the dynasties that came later- Vijayanagara, Nayaka, Maratha, Mughal, Carnatic, Nawab, French and British. The Hindu rulers added on to the temples and fortifications built by their predecessors, the Muslim rulers razed the temples and built mosques and the French and British soldiers cared zilch about temples and mosques or their history and used the fort for lodgings.
The top of Rajagiri Hill, with the Kalyana mantap and palace at foot hill and Krishnagiri Hill in the background
    The fort was named after Senji Amman, the virgin goddess among the pantheon of Hindu goddesses. Gingee was a minor town for many centuries. In the 16th century, the Vijayanagara emperor Krishnadeva Raya who ruled from Hampi posted Krishnappa Nayaka as his viceroy of Gingee. Krishnappa Nayaka later became the founder of the Nayaka line of Gingee and ruler of the sprawling capital city of Gingee. More than a century later in 1674, Gingee was plundered and looted by the Muslims of Bijapur. Three years later, the Maratha leader Chatrapati Shivaji captured Gingee. The Marathas strengthened the fortress at the expense of the neighboring villages and retained control until 1691, after which the tyrant Mughal emperor Aurangzeb captured the famous Nayaka capital.

    As the Nawabs of Arcot grew more powerful in the beginning of the 18th century, Gingee lost its strategic value. By 1718, the destroyed fort no longer attracted economic activities. It was captured by the British from the French in 1780, Hyder Ali from the British in 1780 and was later regained by the British in 1823. Almost two hundred years later in present day, the only residents of the fort are a few ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) guards and notoriously aggressive monkeys.

Senji fort is actually a combination of three fortified precipitous hills of Krishnagiri, Rajagiri and Chandragiri.

Krishnagiri Hills:
    The Krishnagiri hill is an easier climb than the Rajagiri hill. There are plenty of hidden caves on the way up. Delve too deep into these harmless looking caves and you will find either snakes or embarrassed lovers cursing you.

    At the summit that took us around an hour to climb, there are granaries and oil tankers, temples and mosques, hidden vantage points and durbar halls with ornate swings. The fort is in a rather arid region and water was stored in caved granite structures to prevent evaporation.
Paintings in Laxmi Temple
    A Laxmi temple bereft of statues stands alone amidst the heat and dust, with a few pillars and paintings made from plant and animal extracts. The paintings were probably done long after the temple was built. The Ranganatha temple can be found above the Laxmi Temple and belongs to the Vijayanagara period. There is a sculpture of a snake charmer holding a cobra, something every foreign tourist in India seems to be enamoured with.

    There is an ornate Kalyana mantapa (marriage hall) outside the Ranganatha temple. A bit further, there are also remnants of a temple now converted into a mosque and tell-tales of treasure hunters who have dug up the walls and floors in search of gold. There is also a non-decrepit Krishna temple and a watch tower nearby. The durbar hall where the king collected taxes is at the top of the hill. The queen and her maids played on long swings in the chamber below. The view from the durbar hall is great and you can see for miles in all directions.
The Krishnagiri Kalyana Mantapa beside the Ranganatha Temple
    Unfortunately, not a single statue remains in the temples of Krishnagiri Hills. There are only ruins and half broken statues. An ASI employee guided us around; I got the feeling that the ASI has given up on this fort due to considerable amount of restoration work required.

Rajagiri Hills:
    The Rajagiri hill was of more strategic importance compared to Krishnagiri Hills. At the foot hills, there are two granaries with vaulted chambers, the royal living quarters, a magazine storage facility, the audience hall and chamber in Indo-Islamic style. There is a canon like structure in front of the palace called the King’s “ammi” (a small stone used to grind herbs in households) by the locals. The Kalyana Mahal (Marriage Place) of Rajagiri hill is a pyramidal dome on a four storied rectangular open air structure and grander than the pillared Kalyana Mantapa of the Krishnagiri Hill. There are terracotta pipes to keep the place cool even during the peak of summer. This Kalyana Mahal looks similar to the Queen Mahal in Hampi.
Another relic of the many wars fought on the footsteps of Rajagiri Hill
    The remaining landmarks of palace include a gymnasium, granary, barracks, the mosque of Mahabut Khan and royal harem for all the wives and concubines of the ruler. The Sadat Ullah khan mosque with Persian inscriptions record that the mosque was built in 1717-1718.

    The journey to the top in summer isn't exactly a jolly trip. Midway on the long journey to the top, there is a rather unremarkable shrine of Kamalakanni Amman and some interesting paintings behind it. There are also plenty of langurs and rhesus monkeys here and the latter can get quite aggressive and persistent if they see plastic bags!
Paintings on the Rock structure behind the Kamalakanni Amman Temple
A granary on top of the Rajagiri Hills
    The fort snakes along at many places and has cannons at a few strategic locations. The defense system of the fort was adapted to the requirements of time based on the advances in weaponry over four centuries. But overall there is nothing enlightening once you reach the top after a two hour long trek. Just a few granaries, mosques and more monkeys. Remember the entrance gates to the Rajagiri Hill close by 4 PM; so avoid the long trek up the hill unless you are into such things!

The Venkataramana Temple:
    The Venkataramana temple is truly a broken masterpiece. Built by Muthyalu Nayaka (1540-1550), it contains many Tamil inscriptions and is also known as the 1000 pillared temple. Sadly, not many of those pillars remain today due to marauding Muslim rulers bent on destroying art and the religious symbols of the kafirs. The British and the French attitude towards preservation were just as cavalier. During the French occupation in 1761, many pillars were carted away to Pondicherry to set up the statue of the French Governor Dupleix. The temple would have been a glowing tribute to Nayaka architecture but has been reduced to dust and ashes and consigned to oblivion.
The Entrance Gopuram of the Venkataramana Temple of Gingee
    In the 16th century, the Nayakas ruled over much of present day Tamil Nadu and were great patrons of temple building. They restored the Chola Temples of Gangaikondacholapuram to their ancient splendor and inherited and improved the Chola style of architecture that was prevalent more than 600 years earlier. The Dwara Palakas (door keepers) of the main sanctum of the Venkataramana temple are similar to those in the great Chola temples of Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram.
The entrance of the Venkataramana Temple. The scene depicts the churning of the ocean in Hindu Mythology

The Venkataramana Temple of Gingee was also called the 1000 pillar temple
    There are statues from the Narasimha avatar, Brahma and others Gods from Hindu mythology. And almost all of them look like they could fall off any moment. The entrance to the temple has scenes from the churning of the ocean or Samudra manthan, where the Devas and Asuras, in a moment of rare cooperation between sworn foes, churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality. The tricky Gods later drink the nectar themselves and refuse to share it with the Demons. Oh the betrayal! I still remember how bad I felt for the Asuras the first time I heard the story.
Chola Style Dwarapakas built by the Nayakas
    If you are a student of archaeology and history, this fort is a treasure trove. Recently the Chennai circle of the ASI unearthed a ruined palace with audience hall and a polished royal throne. No doubt, there are plenty more treasures and their stories hidden under these ruins. But unlike the Taj Mahal, these are not stories of love. History is generally written and romanticised by victors but here in the arid abandoned Gingee fort, there were no victors. Only cruel and dark stories of plunder, death, ruin and neglect. And a glorious past long gone by...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Notes from New York

    A colourful message outside a restaurant in New York reads “Life is too short to drink bad wine”. It's the last day of my trip to the US and I reckon this short sentence perfectly describes this amazing city and its people.
The City of New York from Empire State
     I reach New York just when winter seemed ready to settle in and stay at the famous Broadway Millennium Hotel, a stone’s throw away from Times Square. That very evening, a few of my relatives join me at the hotel and we set out to explore the bright neon lights of Times Square. The first thing I notice, apart from the blinding lights, is folks wearing costumes of every major Hollywood comic movie posing with tourists for a dollar or two. Batman's main gadget seems to be his red adidas bag to carry dollar bills. Woody is a big hit with tourists and Lady Liberty looks smug with a strained expression on her face. Surprisingly there is a guy in his underwear carrying an old stereo and braving the chilly winds; not sure which character he is though!

    Every time I visit Times Square, there is a token guy with the sign - “Need money for weed”. I imagine serious men working in shifts carrying the same withered board around and secretly winking at each other during the change-over. I wonder if the Mayor is responsible; somehow conspiring to show tourists how “free” the country really is. In India, such a person would have been hounded by the local cops and branded a drug addict. The irony is that there are plenty of beggars in India streets who are drug addicts but never come out openly and ask for “Money for Ganja” to avoid hurting sentiments of the conservative middle class that coughs up their moolah.
Times Square
    The area beside the statue of Father Duffy in Times Square doubles up as “Protester’s square”. Palestinians holding placards against atrocities in Gaza rub shoulders with Israelis protesting against them. If the statue were to magically come alive, it would know what to do for world peace. Tourists willing to shell out five dollars to street artists and sit still for a long time are rewarded with a caricature that looks remarkably close to their long dead grandfather. At times, there are mob dances that give the entire street the look of a never ending Roman carnival. A few street food vendors greet me with a “salam alaikum” as I pass by. Thanks to countless “Alif Laila” shows I watched in my childhood, I promptly respond with a “wa-alaikum-salaam”. They immediately smile and respond with a long sentence in Arabic that I don’t even pretend to understand!

    Times Square is chaotic but expect to be pleasantly surprised once in a while. But the charm of Times Square wears off pretty quickly, especially when you have to wade through the traffic there on a daily basis. After a few days, like the average New Yorker, I avoid it as much as possible.


    The Museums of the city are on top of my to-see list and thanks to my employer, I get a free entrance pass to all of them. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) or ‘The Modern’ is nearest to office and the first place I visit. Whether it is Van Gogh’s “Scream”, Edvard Munch’s “Melancholy” or Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”, the collection of the works of modern greats is unmatched. Thanks to the audio guide, I learn about cubism and abstraction allowing me to understand and appreciate the paintings better. The Friday evening crowd is such that it's easier to get a lunch token at Saravana Bhavan than take a decent picture of the Van Gogh's paintings.
MOMA: Edvard Munch's Melancholy"

MOMA: Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon"

MOMA: Van Gogh's "Scream"
    The metropolitan museum is the undoubtedly the best museum I have ever visited. The sheer weight of history in that place is overwhelming and unfortunately I rush through with only an hour to spend there. The museum is a treasure trove of relics from different eras of China, Egypt, Persia, India, Rome and Mayan civilizations. Visiting this museum definitely stoked my perpetual desire to travel around the world more to understand ancient cultures and their history.
The Metropolitan Museum
    The Natural History museum boasts of an amazing collection of fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals and a four story tall planetarium sphere! Visitors are transformed to a time when terrifying lizards and giant sharks ruled the world and our ancestors were just tea time snacks. I jostle for space with loud kids and their tired looking parents at the best exhibits. As someone very interested in evolution, I find the fossil of the pterodactyl( the flying reptile which is the missing link in the evolution of the flying dinosaurs) fascinating.

    The folks at work arrange a live tour of the Universe at the Hayden Planetarium of the Natural History museum. The tour starts humbly from the blue planet to the edge of the known Universe where even light has not travelled to in all these billion years. No better way to understand the pointless lives of a hominid ape species in an insignificant planet with a dying sun at the edge of a rather unimportant galaxy is to the grand universe where millions of stars are born and die daily.

    Whether it is the museums or the planetariums, importance is given to the young in this country. America has an amazing public educational system (compared to India) and some say that the quality of the public school indirectly determines the real estate price in a locality. At the museums, I notice mothers explaining the works of greats to their children and the first question at the planetarium is from a five year old. An appreciation of fine arts, history and science is drilled into them at an early age and I find this heartening because my exploration of India’s rich history and cultural heritage started only after I moved out of the formal educational system!
Tyrannosaurus at National History Museum
    Like most Indians, my first visit to America is on work. Working with people of a country gives more perspective and understanding than visiting all their tourist sites. If there's one thing that my co-workers were better at than us, it is at asking the question "why?" It doesn’t matter who it is addressed to or how many times they ask it; but they ask it until their curiosity is sated and concerns addressed. The educational institutions in America encourage questions and students carry forward this curiosity for the rest of their lives. In India, speaking up against elders openly, be it managers or professors or elders is discouraged. And this attitude, I believe, is the bane of our educational system – not substandard teachers and professors or the lack of quality research in our country. Perhaps I am being didactic, but in my opinion, we will never become a world power until we allow our students to ask stupid questions.


    One thing I absolutely love about New York is the food. My trip is three weeks long and I decide to eat anything but Indian food for that duration. The food in New York is probably the freshest I have ever eaten – clearly the benefit of local produce and cold storage. The taste of the soft Pizzas, the extra cheesy cheesecakes, the Mexican burritos and croissants that serve as breakfast are hard to describe for someone who has been smothered with spices since childhood. The competition among restaurants is fierce and every restaurant tries to outdo the other with better quality and service. The worst thing I ate at New York - the one dollar-per-slice pizza, is still better than the ones I buy in India.

    A lot of New Yorkers eat food from carts on the street, right from the investment banker to the homeless guy on the street. The street food in New York is mostly safe due to regulation and frequent checks; back home after eating in the wrong street or at the wrong cart, food poisoning and typhoid are the least of consequences one would have to worry about.

    New Yorkers as a group of people hate to wait and are generally impatient, especially when forced to wait for food. One gentleman stormed out of a restaurant, after a refund of course, when the food did not arrive in the promised time. “I don’t like being lied to”, he thundered and probably headed to his favorite street cart! Everybody wants to eat at once, pay at once and get out at once.


    Even though many friends recommend watching a Broadway show, I am not sure considering the prohibitive cost of tickets. For the same money, I could watch 30 movies in IMAX or 50 plays in Hyderabad. So when one of my aunts suggested Broadway show as weekend activity, I immediately acquiesce knowing that she would never ask her young nephew to cough up!

    Two of my aunts and I watch ‘Dead Accounts’, a dark comedy that is not the typical “dance and song” Broadway show. Katie Holmes, the star attraction, can act well unlike her performances in Batman would have you believe. The protagonist, brilliantly portrayed by Norbert Leo Butz, is a new age bank robber returning to hide in his conservative house from New York after stealing loads of money from dead peoples' accounts. He is quickly followed home by his ‘almost divorced’ wife who wants a share of the booty. His loser sister (played by Katie Holmes) and mother are shocked to learn about him and the family tries to come to terms with this ‘surprise’ reunion. Overall it is a great show and I love the sudden silences, the passionate monologues and Leo’s portrayal of a man who is more interested in his wife’s love than the money he stole.

    There are plenty of fashion wear stores around Broadway. New Yorkers are definitely the most fashionable people I have ever seen. When you roam around a city with observant aunts, you overhear enough conversation about fashionable boots and handbags that you eventually observe things you'd otherwise miss!


    When I was around 13, my 10 year old cousin from America visited Coimbatore and I think absolutely loathed the country of her forefathers. She asked me “Why do people in India spit so much?” Having grown up in a city where chewing beetal leaves after lunch, sucking out the juices and spitting the reminder on the street was more like a fundamental right, I responded naively “Doesn’t anybody spit in America?”

    So imagine my surprise when I come over to the promised phlegm-less land and find folks spitting on the roads and throwing plastic and paper bags just like the good folks back home! The New Yorkers, of course, blame tourists for this and vice versa.  But New York is a city that works. The garbage is cleaned up in time and the cigars that folks throw vanish by the next day.


    In New York, travel is mostly by the metro or by walk. The metro is a New Yorker’s favorite whipping boy. Often you hear statements like “Oh it’s too crowded”, “There’s no connectivity between avenues and I have to walk” or “When Sandy struck, the trains didn’t run for two full weeks!” Clearly such complaints can only come from somebody who has never traveled in the crowded buses of Chennai or local trains of Mumbai. And all this in spite of ferrying about a million people from the suburbs to the city on a daily basis. Whatever the complaints, I think many New Yorkers fail to appreciate the vision of people who built the most extensive public transportation system in the world more than 100 years ago.

    For my weekend shopping at New Jersey, my aunt drives me around. I want to get my hands around the wheels of my aunt’s BMW and give her not-so-subtle hints which she catches on early and flatly refuses. Apparently the traffic violation fines are prohibitive, especially for those without driver’s license. During my stay at their house in New Jersey, I am surprised to note that there are no walls or boundaries between houses. The suburbs are pretty sedate and boring and I get the impression that nothing ever happens there.

    There are a lot of rules when it comes to driving in America and what surprises me, pleasantly of course, is that people see benefit in and follow them! In the suburbs, the middle lane is reserved for essential services like ambulances and fire trucks. I am sure such a thing will never happen in India  and definitely not in Hyderabad!

    On the roads, most cars are huge and probably voracious fuel guzzlers; only one in a hundred cars I see is a hatchback. The limousines are monstrously long; roughly enough to fit in four Maruti altos and carry the same number of people as one Maruti alto.

    The first time I switch on cable TV, it takes 15 minutes just to browse through all the channels. There are plenty of “lose 20 pounds in 20 days” and “special tea” ads. Just like in TV back home, smartly dressed actors tell you what to do with your life and how to feel good about yourself by buying their product. Nevertheless the overdose of “Call Lawyers if you fall in the mall” and “home foreclosure schemes” tells an interesting tale about American society – the story of corporate greed and easy loans that cannot be repaid.
Rockefeller Center
    The craze for American Football or rugby mirrors our country’s love for cricket and Sunday mornings are inevitably spent in front of television. In American Football, organization of offense and defense lines takes long, timeouts are longer and 'advertisements' is the name of the game. Actual action, if at all it happens, occurs in short bursts and the players get back to forming a huddle and wasting time allowing more ads. The game is tailor-made for television and long advertisements! I learn never to expect the last five minutes of a typical football game to get over in five minutes.


    Perhaps I am romanticizing a bit but people here smile more and seem happier than most other places I have visited. This begs the question – “Does money equal happiness?” Frankly, if there’s one lesson in my New York trip, it is that even though money doesn't buy happiness, the experiences that money can pay for can definitely lead to happiness. A few Americans warn me about the pitfalls of chasing money and unbridled ambition, otherwise known as the American dream.


    There are a few parks in this concrete jungle called New York City. At Central Park, the fattest squirrels I have ever seen prepare for winter, runners go about their weekend long runs and anachronistic horse carriages and rickshaws give the impression of a bygone Victorian age. At Bryant Park, I learn ice skating; perhaps ‘learn’ is too strong a word. I mostly fall on my rear with kids zipping past and impersonating my falls like I were an over-sized egg with small feet. Nevertheless, it is the best fun I had for a while. On the last day of my trip, I visit the observatory at the Empire State building and get to see the city in its entire splendor from the top of the world.
Skating at Central Park
    A friend of mine once said that a great city encourages you to get out of your home and explore. As soon as I finished my work at office every evening, I got out walking around avenues and shops, discovering new places to eat and gawk at. Though I didn’t buy any “I love New York” mementos, I can declare that the three most interesting weeks of my life were spent in the greatest city of the world.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Loans, Banks and Damn Lies

I recently attended a talk on “Financial Planning”, mostly about loans, insurance and retirement plans. Prior to this session, I believed I knew enough about managing my own money. Ah the folly!

For the benefit of those who did not or cannot attend the session, here are a few notes. Hopefully you will learn a thing or two. And to all those with an MBA degree – Please go easy if you don’t find the blog technical enough and resist the urge to throw jargon and formulae at laymen. Comments and corrections are of course welcome.

After months of research, you have finally decided to go with that shiny black beauty and turn up at your bank to process the loan for your new car. The bank claims to have a lesser interest rate than its peers and once the necessary processing is done, you sign on the dotted line convinced that you walked away with a great deal. But did you? The primary components of a loan are Principal and EMI (Equated Monthly Installment). Let’s forget these two (as most will already know) and discuss something a bit more complicated that bankers generally don’t talk about – “Reducing Balance”.

Reducing Balance:
During loan processing, the agent requests you for the monthly EMI payment date. Assuming, or rather hoping, that your salary gets credited on the first of every month, you agree to pay the bank the monthly EMI on the second of every month. Here’s where things get interesting. Even though the EMI is promptly credited on the second, some banks will reduce principal amount only on the 30th of every month. Meaning for around 28 days, the bank gets an interest free loan on your EMI amount. The extra money is called “float” and the golden rule is “DO NOT give float to the bank”.
Some banks used to have half yearly reducing balance tenure- the new age daylight robbery. Ah those evil bankers intent of seven figure bonuses… Thankfully those days are gone and most banks have a monthly reducing balance nowadays. Some banks like SBI have a daily reducing balance, so it does not matter which date you pay your EMI. But if your bank has a monthly reducing balance, ask for the reducing balance cycle period and pay one day before the balance is reduced.
Pages 3-5 of any loan document generally have important details like reducing balance etc. And of course nobody ever reads them.

There is nothing standard in the world of loans. So always negotiate, whether it is processing cost or prepayment terms.

Flexi Accounts:
A "flexi" account is a savings account linked to your home loan. When you transfer money to it, your principal is reduced by the transferred amount. When money is withdrawn from the flexi account, the interest is now calculated on the original principal. When taking a loan, always enquire if your bank has a flexi account. And remember that as per SEBI, banks cannot charge prepayment amount for closure of housing loan.

Flat Rate:
A sweet sounding female tele-agent calls up and offers a 10% personal loan. You’d immediately jump for it right, knowing that many banks charge as much as 15% for a personal loan? Wrong... Your first question should be whether the interest is a flat rate or not? If yes, your 10% rate is interest is actually around 20% in reality.

Simply put, flat interest rate is based on simple interest rate (calculation based on PNR/100) for the entire amount and a general thumb rule is flat rate * 2 = reducing rate. So when an agent uses the word “flat rate”’, run like your life depends on it; at least you‘ll lose weight.

The best retirement scheme in the market currently is - NPS or New Pension Scheme. Nobody wants to sell an NPS because the margins are very low. If you go to banks and enquire about NPS, they try to sell their own ULIPs to which you should respond with a resounding “No”.

In NPS, the choice of Pension Fund Manager and the investment option rests with the subscriber. In plain English, it means the subscriber can choose who manages the money(LIC, SBI, UTI etc.) among seven competitors and also whether the money goes into equity, debt or balanced. Younger people should have a better appetite for risk, invest more in equity initially and move the yearly interest earned to ‘debt’ section. This way, if the stock markets are down during retirement, a substantial portion of the money remains in ‘debt’ funds which is not subject to market fluctuations. This sort of planning is called STP or Systematic Transfer Plan. 

            Start your retirement plan before you hit thirty. But remember that it’s never too late. Read more about and invest in NPS here:

We all know the joke about equity. We invest in the stock market with gusto and when the markets go down – we call it a technical correction. When it falls further, we call it a deeper correction. And when the shares hit rock bottom, we are resigned to calling those shares family property and praying that the market would rise again... So be very careful when investing a lot of money in equity markets. 
Life Insurance is term insurance. PERIOD. With insurance, never talk returns, instead talk risk cover. A thumb rule is that your insured amount should be 7 to 10 times your annual pay.

            When buying term insurance from any company check the CSR (claim settlement record) for that scheme. A CSR of 40% means only 40 people out of 100 who claim insurance are actually handed over the money. LIC of course has 100% but you will end up paying a lot more premium because of this. There are some schemes with around 99% CSR and cost a lot less. But if your term insurance scheme has a CSR of 40%, chances are your dependents will never get the money after you die.

There is an innocuous option in term insurance called MWP or Married Woman Protection. If the MWP option is chosen, the insurer's wife is guaranteed to get that money even if debtors attach all his remaining property or assets. The biggest beneficiary of “MWP” option is scamster Harshad Mehta’s wife. Even though Mehta lost all his property and assets after his infamous fraud, his wife got 5 crores after he died due to “MWP” protection and the debtors could never claim that money. Sadly, there's no MMP.
Use to compare insurance prices. Always go online for most investments since it cuts out the middle agents.

You’d assume that after you pass away, your insurance nominee would get the money, Right? Wrong. A nominee is not the beneficiary of insurance. He or she is just a trustee in charge of distribution of the insurance amount.

The legal will determines who will get your insurance amount. A Will is an absolute must because if you die without leaving a will and have a house in Raisina Hills beside Lutyens, chances are some evil insurance agency guy is going to file a claim to your property claiming to be a long lost relative. The insurance amount will not be disbursed until this claim is settled in the civil court. In India, that can easily take more than a couple of decades and chances are all your descendants will be dead by the time the verdict arrives...

If you have a lot of money in the bank savings account, you are doing it wrong. DON'T LET money rot in the banks; rather invest in liquid mutual funds. Money invested can be withdrawn with just a day’s notice and investments are safe as they invest in govt. treasury. More importantly they give 8 % interest, better than any savings account returns out there.

Also some banks like Yes and Kotak give around 7-6% returns on their savings account, a lot more than the usual 3-4% of other banks. So yes; open a “Yes” Bank account. Remember that Savings account interest up to 10000 Rs is not taxable (thanks to Pranab da).

To conclude, I would once like to thank the trainer for an enlightening lecture about things I should have known a decade ago. Please be advised that very little of the above financial advice is actually coming from me; so you should be safe!! And finally the usual disclaimer – “If you use the above and screw up, you can’t sue me. Promise…"

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mahabalipuram - The Pride of the Pallavas

    The 6th to 9th century AD was supposedly the dark ages in South India, the Pallavas from Kanchipuram were constantly at war for their survival; against the Chalukyas of Badami in the West and the Pandyas of Madurai in the South. In between their wars, they built magnificent temples, expanded the horizons of art and architecture and experimented with monolithic and rock cut temples before mastering the Dravidian style of temple building.

    In Badami, the Chalukyas were excavating temples from red sandstone that is easier to sculpt. Down South in Mahabalipuram, the Pallavas had only granite hills. Granite is a difficult stone to sculpt and consequently the temples here do not possess the level of intricacy or detail that you will find in a sculpture of any sandstone based temple. The objective of the kings of South India turned to building grander and loftier temples. After three centuries of war, the Chalukyas finally overran the Pallavas’ capital in the beginning of the 9th century; but the granite stones of Mahabalipuram still tell us tales of a lost era of flourishing art and architecture and their terminal decline.
Shore Temple
    In a land like India where civilization stretches to at least a few thousand years, it’s difficult to unravel fact from fable and history from mythology. For instance, there are many explanations as to why the city is named Mahabalipuram (place of great sacrifice). The town was supposedly named after asura (demon) king Mahabali who ruled these shores before being vanquished by the Vamana avatar of Lord Vishnu. It was also called Mamallapuram after the Pallava King Narasimhavarman took the epithet Maha-malla (great wrestler).

The Structural Erections – Shore Temple:
    The Shore Temple was built by Narasimha Varman II in early 8th century; the last substantial work of the Pallavas and one of the oldest structural (versus rock-cut) stone temples of South India. The temple was designed to look like a monolith but a major portion of the temple has actually been reconstructed after the tsunamis and cyclones. A paste made of shells, honeys, eggs, lemons and sand was used in place of cement as the binding agent giving the walls a distinct look.
Durga on a lion with small carved shrine
    The temple is built right on the shore such that the first rays of the rising Sun falls on the Shiva lingam located on the eastern side of the temple. Around a hundred grand Nandis (sacred bull who is the gatekeeper of Shiva's realm) surround the sanctum of the temple from all sides. There is a lion statue with a small carved shrine of Durga in the middle and a water tank beside that which could have been used for ritualistic sacrifice of animals. The statue bears a striking resemblance to the national symbol of Singapore!

    The Shore Temple, though dedicated to Lord Shiva, has a reclining Vishnu on the Western side of the temple. You will find a lot of coins and the odd ten rupee note on this statue; a shameful desecration of a monument of great historical value. There are also sculptures of Parvathi (Shiva’s consort), Murugan and Ganesha (Shiva’s children).

  The effects of erosion due to years of being submerged in water and centuries of facing the rough seas and the salty winds are clearly visible in this temple. Once in awhile, the ASI covers the temple with paper pulp and casuarinas to protect the sculptures by adding an additional coating to the surface.

    The Shore temple, as per folklore, is the last of the seven pagodas (temples) of Mahabalipuram. When the 2004 tsunami lashed across the eastern coast of India, the water initially receded around half a kilometre before rushing back landward. If you had been standing at the shore temple at Mahabalipuram at that point in time, apart from staring at your own death, you would have been one of the fortunate few to see remnants of the lost temple city. After the tsunami, the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) undertook underwater excavations to confirm the carvings and sculptures. In the aftermath of the tsunami, an auditorium like structure was discovered just beside the temple and a huge Shiva lingam was found washed ashore that is now safely ensconced in a New Delhi museum.

The Govardhana Dhari – Krishna’s Mantap:
    Many rock hewn caves and structural temples can be found in a black hillock at the centre of village. The Govardhana Giri mantapa is a rock cut monolith that was built by Krishnadevaraja and the elegantly sculpted scene shows Krishna lifting the Govardhana Mountain to protect the villagers from heavy rains that lashed Mathura. Various scenes from the daily life of villagers can also be found in the tableau.
Govardhana Dhari - Krishna's Mantap
Mahishasuramardini cave temple:
    The sculptures depict the story of goddess Durga killing the dreaded asura Mahishasura.
Mahishasura Mardhini
Varaha Cave temple:
    The rock-cut temple of Varaha, one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu, dates back to the 7th century. There scene shows Varaha holding a Devi after rescuing her from an asura. Another scene shows Goddess Durga and her devotees reverently sacrificing their eyes and hands at her feet. Durga is a hard God to please and gory ritualistic self-sacrifice was necessary to gain her divine blessings. The dark ages indeed; unfortunately such masochistic sacrificial practices are still followed in the present age.
Goddess Durga and her devotees. Notice the devotee on the left sacrificing his eyes.
    The Ganesha ratha beside the Varaha temple boasts of an interesting architecture – a stupa like structure on top, the traditional Dravidian style in the middle and also arches with Roman architecture. The pillars for many of the structural temples come in many shapes - simple square, octagonal shaft type pillars and ornate fluted lion based forms. This temple is a definitive indicator that the Pallavas were experimenting with design and architecture of temples.
Ganesha Ratha - dravidian temple with stupa like top
Arjuna’s Penance:
    The monolithic Arjuna’s penance is one of the largest open air-rock sculptures in the world. The tableau is called Arjuna's Penance and depicts Arjuna, one of the five Pandavas of the epic Mahabharata, praying to Lord Shiva in the jungle for the powerful pashupathi astra (weapon) to defeat the evil Kauravas. Arjuna is shown as a gaunt bearded man standing on one leg with his arms upraised, in a yoga posture. Lord Shiva stands to the left with the pashupathi astra. Various demigods are showing watching over the warrior prince with interest. Many animals like deer, lions and two huge elephants indicate that the penance is happening in a forest.
Arjuna's penance. - Arjuna is the bearded man in yoga posture. Lord Shiva is to his left
    The entire scene is carved on Granite, a hard rock that’s not very malleable, so using the soft iron tools of the 8th century to create this masterpiece must have required a lot of skill and patience.

    A Tapasya or penance, in the context of Hinduism, is where a devotee prays seeking a boon or a powerful weapon from his favourite God, forsaking food and water until he grows a long beard which is later covered by forest creepers. Once in awhile the Lord of heavens, Indra, jealous and fearful that the devotee seeks to supplant him, sends one of his beautiful apsaras (heavenly damsel) to entice the devotee and disrupt the penance. Hindi movies add a customary raunchy song at this point! Arjuna, however, manages to please Lord Shiva and obtain the dreaded weapon to use in the coming war.

    The sculptors also throw in a warning about charlatans and false prophets. A cat is shown meditating with the same pose as Arjuna while a few mice are praying to the cat. The cat obviously finishes his prayer and devours the devout mice. How much ever the devoutness, the laws of nature always takes precedence.
Full panel view of Arjuna's Penance
    The deers shown in the panel have found their way into the Indian ten rupee note. Though the tableau is called Arjuna’s penance, the Hindu epics have plenty of penances and the scene is also interpreted as the story of Bhagiratha, a king from the epic Ramayana, who brought the sacred river Ganges to earth through his devoted tapasya. Whoever it portrays, the work is a great display of vivacity and joyousness coupled with austerity and devotion.
Lord Krishna's butter cup.
Rest of the hillock:
    There are plenty of other monuments on this hillock that are worth visiting.
- Lord Shiva’s Cave temple (contains the sculpture of Andhakasur Vadh) and the Trimurti Cave temple. 
- Rayar Gopuram – A gateway built by Krishna Deva Raja.
- Tiger caves and Ramanuja Caves – Popular tourist destinations.
- A large spherical rock that has been christened “Lord Krishna’s butter ball”
Rayar Mantap
     There are also clues to how an ingenuous solution was adopted to quarry stones in those times. Blocks of wood were placed into in a row of pocket sized holes created on the rock. During the course of the day, the wood expands due to the Sun’s heat and the fissures in the rock open up a bit more. The Pallavas repeated the process until the rock split into required dimensions.
Stone quarrying - Wooden blocks were placed in these holes and which expanded due to the Sun's heat.
The Gateway of Mahabalipuram:
    This is a series of monolithic temples or rathas (chariots) built in honours of the Pandavas from Mahabharata. You will find rathas for Draupadi, Arjuna, Bhima, Dharmaraja and one for Nakula and Sahadeva. The five temples show many varieties both in ground plan, elevation and architecture. There are square (Dharmaraja, Arjuna and Draupadi) as well as rectangular (Bhima ratha) structures that range from single to triple storeys. These rathas represent the oldest and most well preserved Vimana models of Tamil Nadu.
The Gateway of Mahabalipuram - Rathas for the Pandavas
Each ratha has been built in a different style:
Durga/Draupadi                           North Eastern
Shiva/Arjuna                                 Dravidian
Vishnu/Bheema                          Stupa/Buddhist
Brahma/Dharmaraja                  Temple Arch
Airavatha/Nakula-Sahadeva   Gajapasta

    An interesting fact about such monolithic temples is that the top portion is built first instead of being fitted in last. There are also sculptures of Hariharan (Shiva-Vishnu) and Ardhanarishwara(Shiva-Parvathi) on the Dharmaraja ratha. You will also find the sculpture of a huge elephant and lion both of which are a hit with tourists. It's interesting that the Draupadi’s ratha is placed beside Arjuna’s ratha. Of her five husbands, Draupadi liked Arjuna best; so the Pallavas definitely had a good grasp of the Mahabharata.
The streets of Mahabalipuram
    In India, even after thousands of years, some things never truly die. Tradition lives on for generations; art is passed on from father to son for countless ages. The sculptors of Mahabalipuram still possess the skills and the passion of their forefathers along with sophisticated power tools and lathes. They can do in months what their forefathers took years. Even today the town is an open museum for a student of art and the roads are dotted with amazing sculptures. The rest of the world looks up to this historical temple town for granite sculptures, so don’t be surprised to see masterpieces when walking around the town. Historians might call the time of the Pallavas the dark ages due to the multitude of wars, but for Indian art and architecture the period was just the beginning of a golden era.