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Travel: At this Azerbaijan fire temple, Sanskrit and Punjabi inscriptions find place

Ateshgah 2

Photo credit: Shyam V. Krishnamurthy

Ateshgah, it turns out, is a fascinating little relict of history, of globalisation and the inter-cultural exchange between the Indian sub-continent and Europe

Shri Ganeshaya Namah is not an incantation you’d expect to see etched in the heart of Azerbaijan, the tiny Muslim-majority, former Soviet nation on the banks of the Caspian Sea. But it’s what catches my eye on a stone archway as we enter Ateshgah, a fire temple near Surakhani, Azerbaijan.

There are five more lines in Devanagari, invoking, among others, Jwala Ji, the Hindu deity of fire.

There are similar inscriptions in Sanskrit or Punjabi on almost every doorway leading into the pentagonal fire temple compound, all left behind by Hindu and Sikh travellers to the region over 500 years ago.

Ateshgah, it turns out, is a fascinating little relict of history, of globalisation and the inter-cultural exchange between the Indian sub-continent and Europe, dating back to the 16th century.

Azerbaijan was part of the Silk Route that connected Asia and Europe, and it is believed that merchants from the Indian subcontinent came to hear of the legend of the ‘burning earth’ and ‘eternal flames’ that the Absheron peninsula in Azerbaijan was renowned for (Azerbaijan, in fact, is often referred to as ‘The Land of Fire’). And so, Indian travellers and pilgrims arrived in the late 16th and early 17th century, building Ateshgah in its current form, and worshipping the sacred flames alongside their own gods such as Ganesha and Shiva.

Open flames

On the day of our visit to the temple, the wind is very strong, whipping up dust around us; we are, after all, less than 20 km from the capital city of Baku, unofficially called the ‘City of Wind’ in Azeri. But the sacred flame in the raised main fire altar at the centre of the temple compound burns on regardless.

That central flame, and the open flames that burn in the two circular platforms on the side are today lit by Baku’s main pipeline of gas. But for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, they were a naturally occurring phenomenon, the result of the country’s massive natural gas reserves that leaked through holes in the rocky surface, igniting into flames as it came into contact with air.

Zoroastrian origins

These ‘eternal flames’ have been venerated by fire-worshippers throughout Azerbaijan’s history — there are mentions as far back as the 7th century by travellers to the region. Indeed, historians believe that the fire temple itself existed in an earlier form, built by Zoroastrians long before the Indian travellers came.

Part of an older structure was found beneath the current one during renovations done at the temple in 1969, and the name ‘Ateshgah’ comes from Persian, meaning ‘house of fire’. There are indications that the old temple might have extended beyond the existing perimeter, but any remains were most likely destroyed when the surrounding land was excavated for oil and gas from the late 19th century onwards.

That was also what caused the end of the glorious natural phenomenon of the eternal flame — the aggressive century-long mining of the natural gas reserves meant the flames went out by 1969. And possibly the reason why worship ended at the temple in the late 19th century as well — historians speculate that the pilgrims were driven away by the setting up of petroleum plants in the Surakhani region.

A pilgrimage site

But thankfully, the 500-year-old temple itself still stands, and retains traces of its multicultural past. The central altar isn’t purely Hindu in its structure, with similarities to traditional Zoroastrian fire altars, and one of the inscriptions in the temple compound is in Persian as well. The Zoroastrian influence in Azerbaijan is old but deeply rooted, a remnant of the days when pre-Islamic Persian dynasties ruled the region. Even today, Nuvroz, the Zoroastrian new year celebration, is a major festival in their calendar.

Fittingly enough, according to historical accounts, Ateshgah in the 19th century became a pilgrimage site for Parsis from Bombay who came to visit the Indian temple that was once a Zoroastrian place of worship.

Following its restoration in 1969, the temple was converted into a museum in 1975, and was officially listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1998.

Today, each of the tiny cells that line the pentagonal perimeter of the compound tells stories of the pilgrims and ascetics who lived there, showing them doing tapasya, draping themselves in heavy iron chains or indulging in extreme acts of self-denial and fasting. Chants of Om Gam Ganapataye Namah float out of one cell, another houses a Nataraja bronze, and yet another displays shards of pottery used in rituals long ago.

The author of The Shrine of Death is a journalist, sometime singer-songwriter and full-time mom, based in Dubai.

This article originally appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine supplement.


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Restaurant with a view, Dubai-style

A view of the Mall of the Emirates. See the ski slope?

As you’ve probably guessed from the subjects of these two most recent updates (they’ve been a long time coming, haven’t they? I’ve been a terrible blogger of late), I’ve been on a visit to Dubai. While there, I was living not far from the massive Mall of the Emirates — otherwise known as the mall with its own indoor ski slope — which pretty much dominates the landscape in the area. I mean, you can see that damn ski slope (covered of course, can’t have all that artificial snow melting in the desert sun) jutting out of the top of the mall’s roof from miles away; it looms in the horizon as you zoom down Sheikh Zayed Road and prepare to  turn off into Al Barsha (the area of Dubai where the the mall is located). With the possible exception of the local LuLu Hypermarket with its unapologetically garish, hard-to-miss red, green and purple signboard (part of a chain of huge and kitschy stores in the Gulf that Indians head to for all their needs, and the ultimate symbol of Malayali pride in the Middle-East, owned as it is by a Mallu who’s giving the sheikhs a run for their money), Mall of the Emirates is the single largest landmark in the area.

Which is why I found the name of this tiny roadside restaurant tucked away on one of the side streets by the humungous mall so very perfectly apt. Above a cheerful red and white canopy, the signboard of the restaurant proclaims simply, “Mall-View Restaurant.” It even has, beneath said canopy, little tables and chairs set out on the pavement, so its patrons can, presumably, sit, sip coffee, smoke a sheesha, and drink in the view of The Mall. Even if all you can see are tall, sand-coloured side walls of said mall. After all, everywhere else in the world, you have restaurants and bistros and hotels enthusiastically named “Sea-View” or “Ocean-View” or “Lake-View” or “Mountain-View” or “Spring-View” or “Park View”, even if you can only glimpse at a sliver of the ocean waves from one corner of the restaurant, or if you need to lean waaay over the rails of your hotel room balcony to actually see a dash of green from the park. It’s all about location, and owners have for years and years taken advantage of any sort of proximity to city landmarks to make their establishments seem more attractive.

Well, what are the landmarks of Dubai? Malls, malls, malls and more malls, right? Okay, there’s the sail-shaped super-swish Burj Al Arab hotel, and the world’s tallest building (at least I think it still is… who can keep up these days?), the Burj Khalifa (which, incidentally is linked to — what else — the city’s biggest mall, the Dubai Mall). But apart from that, all you have as distinguishable landmarks in a city covered with homogeneous, glass-fronted skyscrapers are its malls. You have the ridiculously exclusive pyramid-shaped Wafi Mall, you have the Aspen of Dubai, the Mall of the Emirates, you have the Persian domes and Chinese pagodas of Ibn Battuta mall (it tracks the travels of Ibn Battuta, see), you have Madinat Jumeira, a mall modeled to look like an old-world souq (ironically one of the few chances you’ll have to see any traditional architecture in Dubai), and you have the mall that’s so big, it’s called a city and has its own waterfront — Festival City. Everything in Dubai revolves around these malls. You give directions based on these malls. Visitors plan their itinerary around how many malls they can cover in a day. Residents mark the passing of time by counting the number of new malls that have come up recently.

And so it is that Dubai boasts of probably the world’s first ‘Mall View Restaurant’. It makes such perfect sense, doesn’t it? Why waste your time on Sea-View or Desert-View restaurants in this city? This savvy restaurenteur has it figured out just right; he’s positioned his property close to and named it after one of the landmarks that really matter in Dubai’s landscape — that mecca of merchandising, the mall. Wish I’d taken a picture of it!

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Travel: Falconry in Dubai

Photo: Shyam Krishnamurthy

The sun is beating down hard on us when we arrive – a motley group of tourists from across the world – to watch a falconry display in Dubai late one afternoon. We’re on the edge of a vast expanse of open desert, smoothly undulating sand dunes as far as we can see. The setting couldn’t be more perfect.

But I’m feeling rather cynical, jaundiced really, after the camel ride we’d just been fobbed off with. The horsey ride I took on the Marina as a four-year-old was longer and more thrilling, and when (like said four-year-old) I’d tried to wheedle for a longer ride, I’d been denied with a firm ‘Yalla!’ by the Arab in charge.

Still, I wait patiently. After all, falconry in the U.A.E. is supposed to be something special, an ancient tradition that has morphed into a modern sport patronised by the rich and the powerful of the land. The falcons and their falconer arrive in a smart white four-wheel-drive vehicle, and I’m mildly disappointed as they dismount. I’d vaguely assumed that the birds would be bigger (I’d been picturing something more majestic, along the lines of a Bald Eagle), and their falconer would look more fierce.

Instead a slim, unassuming-looking young man in blinding white traditional garb goes about setting up his paraphernalia expressionlessly. The falcons – they’re Peregrines, I later find out – are tethered to a perch in the sand, with a delicately ornamental hood covering their eyes (it seems cruel to me that they’re blinded, until I find out that it’s needed to allow the birds to adjust their powerful vision to the new surroundings).

Still, with no change in expression, the falconer gets one of the birds to perch on his arm (covered with a cushiony cuff), and the tourists promptly erupt in a volley of photo-clicking. The bird is then transferred onto the arms of the more intrepid visitors and there’s even more picture-taking. After about 20 minutes of this, I’m convinced that the gentleman is soon going to pack up and leave, and if I asked for more, I’d get a stern ‘Yalla!’

Boy, am I wrong. Because once the pictures are taken, the real show begins. Out of an old bag comes a hapless pigeon tied to a long rope (the prey, I realise in a dawning mix of horror and awe), and one of the falcons is released from its hold, its hood removed. With a single shout, the falconer swings the pigeon into the air, and the falcon takes to flight. Swooping through the air, gliding and diving, the falcon suddenly doesn’t seem that small. Suddenly, it’s just as majestic as I’d imagined it would be.

Now begins a cat-and-mouse game between the falcon and the falconer, as they recreate the age-old chase of predator and prey, the pigeon swinging just out of the reach of the falcon each time it nears. Centuries ago, the Bedouins captured and trained these falcons to hunt for meat that would supplement their diet of dates and camel milk. Today, the falconer might be merely putting on a show for a group of tourists who ‘ooh’ and ‘ahhh’ with each swoop of the bird; but, I realise, some things are unchanged. Such as the intensity of the falcon’s attack, as it pounces, withdraws, re-assesses the situation and swoops down again in increasingly aggressive motions; and the skill and training of the falconer, as he matches wits with the predatory bird.

It’s like an airborne bull-fight, between the falconer who swings the prey away in increasingly wide loops, and the hungry falcon bearing down upon him. It’s fascinating, a little scary and borderline cruel, especially when the victorious falcon is tethered again after getting just a couple of pecks at the pigeon. Now falcon number two is released, and it becomes clear very early that this one isn’t following the script. It’s bigger, more ornery and less in control, and swerves dangerously close to the watching group of tourists a few times.

Turns out it’s because this one is newer to training although it’s older by six months (they’re both females, I’m told, and the first is just a year old). How long does it take to train them? I ask our laconic falconer later. He shrugs. “It depends on the brain of the falcon,” he says in his heavily-accented English, tapping his head. “Sometimes, a week is enough. Sometimes months.”

When the show is done (the second one brought to heel by our ever-calm falconer), the falcons are cooled down with water, and then, finally, allowed to have at the pigeon. As a group of delighted little kids watch (with gleeful shouts of ‘Ewwww gross!’), they rip into the pigeon in a National Geographic-style moment that’s both impossible to turn away from and faintly nauseating to watch.

The whole thing really is quite an adrenaline rush, and this is just the tame, touristy version of the sport. Definitely better than the camel ride. Yalla!

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Travel: The call of the fronds


Travelling into the Palm Jumeirah feels disappointingly… normal. I mean, here we are, driving onto a manmade island in the shape of a palm tree, an island whose engineering is something of a technological miracle. And it feels as though we were going down any other Dubai road, smooth and lined with painstakingly pruned greenery on either side.

Well, it is just another Dubai road, I’m reminded by my family. Albeit built on reclaimed land in the shape of the giant trunk of the giant palm in the middle of the Arabian Sea.

The aerial shots on the National Geographic documentary made it seem much cooler, I grumble.

Then I see the road signs, and my disappointment lifts. Because, you see, on Palm Jumeirah, you don’t have street names; you have frond names. Signs all around us read ‘Frond A to G’ or ‘Way to Frond D’, and it dawns on me (to my delight) that all those turns off to our left and right are actually the fronds of the giant palm. With perfect little houses on them. Finally, I declare, I’m feeling it – I really am in the middle of the world’s only island in the shape of a desert palm (or any other tree for that matter).

There’s more to come, as our laconic Malayali driver unexpectedly reveals himself to be a treasure trove of island gossip. These aren’t just any old frond-street houses, he tells us conspiratorially. That one, he points, belongs to none other than King Khan himself, and that one to football superstar and metrosexual extraordinaire David Beckham (I’m suitably impressed and make a mental note to Google for further goodies.) 

The fronds are where the bulk of the (ridiculously expensive) independent homes are – the main road is where the action is, or at least is supposed to be. Right now, the tall, elegant buildings that line the road wear a rather forlornly empty look. The economic downturn has hit the Palm project very hard, and the road that ought to be jumping with happening hotels, restaurants, clubs and stores lies still and quiet.

One joint that really is buzzing is the magnificent – there’s no other word for it – Atlantis at the heart of the island. The outrageously over-the-top hotel that was launched with much fanfare a couple of years ago is a rhapsody in beige and aquamarine, all soaring arches and towers. A thematic hotel based on the legendary Lost City of Atlantis (how fitting that it’s on an island that arose out of nothing in the middle of the sea), it boasts of a huge aquarium with an assortment of marine wildlife (65,000 animals in all), a maze of underwater tunnels and halls, décor that’s just the right mix of the mythological and the surreal, and of course, tons of water sports for the adventurous. (It’s so popular, in fact, that on this holiday, some of its public areas resemble a fish market more than a mysterious underwater kingdom.)

In the evening, we take a ride on the monorail shuttle that runs through the island. At every turn, the sea glints at us in the moonlight, and every building on the silent main street is beautifully, subtly lit. We’re confused by a stop that seems to have nothing there, until the monorail conductor explains it’s the site of what’s going to be the biggest mall in Dubai. It’s already the most amazing, he quips – it’s invisible. Like so many other ambitious projects on the island, this one too is stalled. In some ways, by nightfall, the Palm begins to resemble a ghost town, humbled by the worldwide recession. Then we see the Atlantis sparkling in the midst of it all, and it seems like perhaps there’s hope for the lost island of Palm Jumeirah.


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Article: All Afloat

Everything floats effortlessly on the Dead Sea, they say. And so, as we make our way from Amman in Jordan to the banks of this unique water body — the lowest point on the Earth’s surface — I have these wonderful visions of bobbing about casually in the Sea like a cork.

Our first image of the Sea does nothing to dispel these illusions. Under a dull dust haze, it’s a vast expanse of absolute pale-blue calm. It isn’t hard to imagine being buoyed by this smooth surface like a rubber duck in a bathtub. Especially once we spy some swimmers floating about on their backs or in a semi-upright position (as if they were sitting on an invisible chair of salt).

But it isn’t as easy as it looks, as we discover about 15 minutes later when we wade in wearing our swimwear. The unbelievably salty water (so salty, indeed, that no life can survive in this sea) has a viscous, oddly oily feel to it, and we find out very quickly that getting it in your eye hurts like crazy (not to mention it can do some serious damage). You don’t want to be getting all that salt in your hair either — which is why the more experienced swimmers get in with swim caps and goggles.

We also discover that the amazingly buoyant nature of the water (a result of its super-high density for the physics geeks reading) means that while the floating is easy — the water virtually pushes your limbs up — getting back to standing position is a toughie. By this point, one member of our group has absolutely red eyes, and it takes the combined efforts of the rest to get another back on his feet, so we’re all treading carefully. (I cravenly opt to lean on a rock and surrender only my legs to the water, so I can clamber back — albeit ungracefully — to my feet myself, and — yes, like the girl I am — keep my hair safe).

Our grand plans of bobbing about in the water have turned into a bit of a damp squib. But then, we discover The Mud. Black and slimy, it doesn’t look like much, but we’re told that this gunk from the bottom of the Dead Sea is amazingly rich in minerals, and does wonders for the skin. All around us, intrepid tourists are smearing the stuff all over themselves, and wandering about waiting for it to dry (we get a bit of a shock the first time we see them).

No woman can resist natural (and free!) skin treatment, so, of course, we head straight to the troughs, regularly filled with mud from the sea bed, and cover ourselves in an all-body mud pack.  To all you sceptics out there rolling your eyes in disbelief — the stuff really works. Getting it off is a bit of a chore — you have to hose yourself down with freezing cold water at the water’s edge, and however thorough you are, the black stuff stubbornly sticks on various hard-to-reach spots. But, boy, is it worth it!

So we may not have floated with much success. But we have thoroughly experienced one of the world’s natural wonders. And, our skin is positively glowing to boot. What more could a girl ask for?

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Article: Remains of the Day

JERASH Where touristy souks and the sprawling cultural centre of the Roman Decapolis of Gerasa, complete with amphitheatres, temples and baths, happily co-exist

Walking into the ruins at Jerash feels a little like tumbling down the rabbit hole with Alice.

One moment you’re in a grossly commercial, touristy souk at the heart of modern-day Jerash, the next, you’ve been transported to 1 AD, to the unexpectedly sprawling cultural centre of the Roman Decapolis of Gerasa, complete with amphitheatres, temples, baths and more.

Rightly touted as one of the largest, most well-preserved ruins of a Greco-Roman city, the remains of Gerasa are remarkable in more ways than one. The sheer size is mind-boggling — we plan to spend an hour there, expecting to saunter casually through a cluster of old buildings. Instead, we end up trekking for close to four hours in the mid-day heat through ancient, colonnaded main roads, the smooth stones of which still bear the marks of chariot wheels that travelled over them thousands of years ago.

On either side, the towering columns bear beautiful Greco-Roman carvings, as do the stone water troughs placed at regular intervals (for those hard-working chariot horses). So does the ornate fountain and intricately-worked Nymphaeum (a monument to water nymphs) we pass along the way. We climb up and perch, almost dizzy, at the topmost seats of the soaring Southern Theatre, and listen in fascination to the old Jordanian bagpipers at the smaller Northern Theatre.

We stand and marvel at the gorgeous Oval Forum, surrounded by tall columns, once the bustling marketplace of the city. We go up the endless steps to the beautiful temple of Artemis at the highest point of Jerash, past its palatial portico and up to the sanctum sanctorum, as our guide fills our ears with stories of the mighty goddess of the hunt.

This is no museum; Jerash is one of those rare locations where history comes alive vividly. As you walk down those uneven stone pathways between rolling, grassy plains, you can see the city as it must have been thousands of years ago, a thriving, wealthy trade hub that flourished between the first and third century AD. You can almost hear the horse-drawn chariots clatter over the stone streets; the hawkers selling their wares at the the main street; the clamour of toga-clad men filling the forums during political debates…

Perhaps the most striking aspect is how well-preserved the city is — buildings, roads and all. The story goes that Gerasa, which was one of a confederation of 10 cities of the Roman Empire known as the Decapolis, was buried in sand for centuries, accounting for how well it seems to have withstood the ravages of time.

Indeed, Jerash was little more than a sleepy village for the longest time; the magnificent city under the sand was rediscovered only in 1806 by German traveller Ulrich Jasper Seetzen. Excavations and painstaking preservation work continues to this day, and, little by little, Gerasa reappears from its hiding spot. What remains is, however, mostly the cultural and administrative centre; the area where most of the houses were was mostly destroyed, it is said, in a series of earthquakes that rocked the city in the Eighth Century AD.

Our final stop is the majestic temple of Zeus, and we pause to look down upon the sprawling grass-and-stone vista — the grand oval of columns that is the Forum, the main street, the arches and amphitheatres — that somehow survived those quakes and still stands magically in the midst of the thriving modern city of Jerash. And, we’re just grateful we took that tumble down into this historical wonderland.


* Getting to Jerash is easy. Just an hour’s drive away from Amman, the capital city of Jordan, it is reachable via road by car or by bus.

* Make sure you give yourself enough time to explore these ruins and the small museums within — at least half-a-day is recommended.

* Carry plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes — there aren’t many rest stops once you’re in the midst of the ruins.


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