Monthly Archives: February 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Nothing Succeeds like Success

Jai Ho to all the fellow Indians inhabiting the planet earth or wherever in the universe, History was created last night at the Kodak theater of Hollywood when Slumdog Millionaire won 8 Oscars out of a total 9 categories on which it was nominated at the 81st Academy Awards. This included among others the best film and best director along with two for A.R.Rahman’s magical score.

With this perhaps India has truly catapulted on the mainstream international film scene as it conquered the final frontier- the Oscars.

Rarely does a film have stirred the imagination of a whole nation as the Slumdog Millionaire. The film set on the slums of Mumbai is based on the book “Q & A” by a career diplomat Vikas Swarup is all about optimism. This is the optimism that keeps Mumbai and the rest of India going despite terror attacks, abject poverty, corrupt politicians et al.

The Slumdog story is not just not the story of one Jamal Malik, a 18 year old orphan from Mumbai it is also the story of underdogs, the skeptics and finally the sweet taste of success.It is also the coming of age of small town guys making it big. Resul Pookutty of Vilakupara village in the Kollam district of Kerala just 50 km from Trivandrum is now a hot celebrity having own the Oscar for Sound Mixing.

Taking cue from the success, IHR continues its foray into the Bollywood land with new destinations added everyday. Celebrating the triumph of the underdogs is a true salute to the indomitable spirit of the Slumdog Millionaire.

Celebrating the success of Slumdog Millionaire

Celebrating the success of Slumdog Millionaire

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Mahashivaratri at Srikalahasti: Being the witness to faith

Maha Shivaratri celebrations of Srikalahasti are celebrated with gaiety and fervour. It is a major draw here. It does not matter if you are Shiv Bhakta or not, on Mahashivratri day of february 23 you must head for Kalahastiswara Temple at Srikalahasti and be witness to the spectacular sight of the sea of humanity descending for jal abhisekham of the lingam.

Srikalahasti is in the Chitoor district of AP just 36 km from Tirupati. Thousands and thousands of devotees congregate here from not only Andhra Pradesh but also from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Maha Shivaratri this time is also a bit special as this year it is coming on a Monday, the day of the lord. The festivities have already commenced at Srikalahasti with a ten day fair to mark the occasion. The whole town dazzles with huge illuminated cutouts of Lord Siva and the Linga.

The lord Srikalahasteeswara and his divine consort goddess Gnana Prasunambika are taken out in a colourful procession through the streets of the town. After that `Dhwajarohanam’ is performed. Later in the night ‘Lingodbhava abhiskam’ to lord Shiva takes place.

A great way to start the day before offering prayers to the lord is to take a holy dip in Swarnamuki River near the temple along with thousands of devout devotees.

Coming to importance of this ancient temple, supposed to have been built by the Chola dynasty, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is one of the panchabhootha sthalams. Temples of the Panchabhootha sthalams celebrate Lord Shiva as an embodiment of the five basic elements that universe is made up of. Lord Shiva is worshiped at Srikalahasti Temple as Vayu Linga. This observation of the Puranas is supported to this day with a flickering flame present in the Garbhagraha of the temple even though no wind can enter the shrine.

Another interesting piece of information for those interested in knowing the reason behind the naming of this place, as per legend Sri (spider), Kala (cobra) and Hasti (elephant) supposed to have worshipped Lord Shiva here and subsequently attained liberation (Moksha.) Hence then the place came to be known as Sri-kala-hasti.

So be there and make your Shivaratri a sacred affair to remember.

The Srikalahasti Temple of Lord Shiva

The Srikalahasti Temple of Lord Shiva

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Luxury Tax: Lets not ignore the fine prints

When was the last time you were out for a vacation or business? Strong chances are you are already traveling and reading this post on your laptop. Have you ever taken note of a small but mighty thing printed innocuously on one small corner of your hotel Bill? Perhaps you haven’t. You are not alone as tourist fraternity does not give this a thought and only when you have to loosen the purse string an entity called “Luxury Tax” start biting you. It is this tax that sometimes keeps one of your favourite hotel or destinations out of your budget.

Let’s understand what a luxury tax is. Luxury Tax is a tax that is levied by most of the state governments (not all) to fill their coffers at the expense of you and me. And the funniest part is, you have to pay it actually on the official tariff of the room where you had put up. Take a hypothetical situation consider you are on a holiday, say at Ooty and the Hotelwallahs happily gave you a discount of 20 % on the rack rate. The rack rate is the one that is mentioned on the reception and the usual official rate. Supposing accommodation you chose was for Rs 1500 and the reception lady smilingly gave you the room for 1200, a 20% discount as it was off-season. You felt on top of the world to strike a good bargain in the hard times.

Now when it is the time to say adieu and pay the bills you are up for a rude jolt. You find that on the bill a 14% luxury tax has been levied and that too upon the rack rate which in this example was Rs1500.

Furious with anger at the thought of being cheated, you start haggling. Alas, not much headway could be made and you have to pay the tax of 14 % as applicable for hotels in Karnataka on the rack rate.

Coughing the extra amount you felt helpless and started cursing the agency which booked your hotel or the hotel owners. Little did you realize that the LT not only irks the ordinary travelers but is adding to the woes of hoteliers and the travel agents. Hit by recession and terror the hospitality industry is facing a lull, the luxury tax is not making it any easier. Most of the time we at IHR have to face a not so amused client venting his ire at the exorbitant Luxury Tax after the holiday is over.

Luxury Tax is something which varies in India from 5 to as high as 25%. Let’s see which states of “Incredible India” are the worst offenders. In the South the charge is led by Kerala with a whopping 15 % slap of Luxury Tax and then it is Karnataka and Tamil Nadu with 12.50 %, Andhra fares better with a somehow moderate 5 %.

Gateway to north, the capital Delhi fares worst with a levy of 12.5 % on room rents above 1000. Himachal and Rajasthan the two most oft visited tourist destination taxes @ 10%. UP with the Taj Mahal and Uttarakhand is better not only in terms of attractions but also light on your pocket with 5%.

Coming to the west and Central India Maharashtra and MP leads the brigade with 10 % , while Gujarat it seems is not only a good destination for investors it is tourist friendly too with only 4 % as Luxury Tax. In Matheran, a lovely hill station 80 km east of Mumbai inaddition to 10 % luxury tax charges another 5 percent as service charges.

On the eastern front Orissa, Bihar and Bengal does not make life easier for visitors with a 10% LT. Finally the North Eastern States, one had seriously hoped that the State Governments to be as friendly and simple as the local people. Putting all hopes to water the onslaught is led by Asaam, the gateway to the seven sisters of NE with a luxury tax of 20 %. The situation becomes additionally worse in Guwahati with a levy of another 5 % as service charges.

By this time you might feel suffocated under a “burden of statistics” Hold on! After all our intention is not to hurt you or mar your vacations. There is something to cheer about also. The Union territories are not only scenic and make a nice vacation but they are not heavy on your purse also. So Pondicherry, Lakshadweep, Daman & Diu, Andaman & Nicobar Islands have not yet thought of burdening the tourists. They do not have a LT. One exception among the states is the vivacious Goa where good sense prevails and the tourists breathe easy without luxury tax.

The union Government must do something to cap the LT at an uniform rate at all the states. Till that time ignoring the one in fine print can….

Pondicherry a Zero Luxury Tax Destination

Pondicherry a Zero Luxury Tax Destination

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Ashta Vinayaka Darshan: On the Holy Trail and Beyond

The fabled Ashta Vinayaka Darshan is not just a simple pilgrimage but a rare glimpse into the Maharashtra hinterlands. After undertaking this journey we came out more knowledgeable and with a strange unanimity on the desirability of going through this journey once again.
All the eight temples of the Ashta Vinayaka fame are within a periphery of around 110 kms from Poona. We decided to stick to the chronological order of the Darshan route which starts with the Mayureshwara Temple at Morgaon and ends with the Chintamani Temple of Theur. Other Darshans in this sequence are Siddhi Vinayaka Temple at Siddhatek, Mahaganapati Temple at Ranjangaon, Vagnahara Temple at Ozar, Girijatmaja Temple of Lenyadri, Ballaleshwar temple at Palli and Varada Vinayaka Temple at Madh. En route Morgaon the Khandoba temple at Jejuri is the ninth attraction. Let’s start the trail of Chaturbhuj.
Mayureshwara of Morgaon: The God in a Fort
The first Ganesha Temple on the trail of Ashta Vinayaka is located in the small village of Morgaon also known as Bhuswananda Bhuvan. Morgaon is 64 km from Pune. Legend has it that lord Ganesha roaming on a peacock killed the demon Sindhu. Sindhu’s head fell here. The temple complete with four minarets looks almost like a fort from a distance. The Mayureshwar temple has a 50 feet high wall surrounding it. The temple shows a distinct influence of the Islamic architecture as it was built during the reign of Bahamani Sultans of Deccan. The idol here is small but appears bigger due to generous application of vermilion. It is flanked on two sides by the consorts Riddhi and siddhi while a Cobra encircles the head. Photography is not allowed as well as entry into the garbagriha. Another interesting aspect of the temple is the presence of a statue of Nandi, the bull, generally identified with a Shiva Temple.
Siddhi Vinayaka of Siddhatek: Lording Over Bhima
The Siddhi Vinayaka temple is located off the Pune-Solapur highway in Ahmadnagar district. Siddhatek is 98 km east of Poona. The temple on the banks of river Bhima is actually atop a hillock. A ferry ride to reach the Siddhi Vinayaka Temple is a good option. One interesting aspect of the idol here is that the trunk points to the right, the only one among the Ashta Vinayaka idols to be so. The idol is in a seated posture here and placed in a brass frame with intricate carvings. Here also entry into the Garbagriha as well as photography of the idol is not permitted.
According to legend the beautiful stone temple of Siddhatek overlooking the Bhima River is the very place where Lord Vishnu meditated. He received Siddhi from the Ekdanta before going on a battle with the notorious demons Madhu and Kaitava. , Daund Railway station On Pune-Solapur railway line is merely 18Km from here.
Ballaleshwar Temple of Pali: The Lord as a Brahmin
Ballal Vinayaka or Ballaleshwar temple is located at Pali 115 km west of Pune in the Raigad District. The temple is nestled between Sarasgad fort and Amba River. Here Ganesha is famous by the name of his devotee and is dressed up as a Brahmin like his young and ardent devotee Ballal. This is a temple where a rare phenomenon takes place on Equinoxes. On this occasion rays of the sun fall directly on the idol through the roof.
The temple faces east and has two sanctums with intricate wood work. Another attraction of the temple is a huge bell gifted by Chimaji Appa, the brother of Balaji Peshwa. Photography of the idol is not allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum. Sarasgod Fort is a nearby attraction but only if you are trekking buff.
Varada Vinayaka Temple of Madh: The Bestower of Progeny
The 4th temple on the Ashta Vinayaka Darshan is that of Varada Vinayaka. The temple located at Mahad or Madh near Khopoli is at a distance of 44kms from Pali. Mahad is 83 km from Poona and merely 63 km south east of Mumbai.
The temple premises are on one side of a beautiful pond. Here you can enter the Garbagriha (sanctum sanctorum) but taking snaps is not allowed. Here you can also find a small idol of Mushika, the carrier of the lord. In the same premises a small shrine can be found of Lord Data along with the idols of Navagraha and Shani Devta. Another attraction here is the Nanda deep, a magnificent lamp that is burning incessantly for a long time. The temple which attracts huge crowds during Magha Chaturthi is open 24 hours, something very unique.
Chintamini Vinayak of Theur: The wish fulfilling Ganesha
The Chintamani Temple at Theur is located around 25 kms from Pune on the Pune Sholapur highway. Theur lies at the confluence of Bhima, Mula and Mutha Rivers. The ride is smooth all the way. Legend has it that Prince Guna had stolen the wish granting Chintamani Gem from Sage Kapia. Feeling hopeless the sage turned to lord Ganapati. Pleased with the prayer, the lord brought back the jewel. However a gratified sage Kapila put it in Vinayaka’s neck. Thus the deity got its name Chintamani Vinayak. All this took place under a Kadamb tree that is why Theur was known as Kadambanagar in olden times. The atmosphere is very serene and the temple well maintained. The inner hall of the temple is replete with precious carvings. The sanctum also shows gold and silver inlay work. The other attraction is the palace of Madhavrao peshwe in a garden.

The Girajatmaja Temple of Lenyadri: The Lord among the Buddhist Caves
The sixth of the Ashta Vinayaka idols and in a most unusual setting is the Girijatmaja temple. Located in the Lenyadri village in Junnar Taluka the temple is set upon the Lekhan Hills in a cave by the banks of the river Kukdi. The cave is reached by a flight of 321 steps. This temple of the Ashtavinayak is the only one which perched on a high hill and is set in a Buddhist cave-temple. The drive itself is an awesome experience with sugarcane fields on either side and later on amidst the tall Eucalyptus trees.
There is a total of 18 caves here all of Buddhist origin with proof that they date back to even 3rd century. The Girijatmaja temple is carved out of a single stone without any pillar to support the 57 ft by 51 ft hall. Unlike other idols of the Ashta Vinayaka fame the gAnesha idol is bereft of any décor.
Legend has it that Parvati performed penance to beget Ganesha here hence Girija’s (Parvati’s) Atmaj (son) is Girijatmaj. This temple stands amidst a cave complex of 18 caves of Buddhist origin and is the eight Cave. A Buddhist stupa is also located just beside the main cave. Another nearby attraction here is the Shivneri fort where the legendary Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was born.
Shri Vigneshwara of Ozar: The Remover of Obstacles
Vignahara Temple of Ozar is around 85 km from Pune via Narayangaon on the road that leads to Nashik. The drive through lush green setting is a refreshing experience. The temple is on the banks of the river Kukdi. The east facing temple is surrounded by a thick stone wall. The golden dome of the temple is possibly built by Chimaji Appa of the Peshwa clan to commemorate the victory over Portuguese rulers. Another attraction here is the water sports facility available in the River Kukdi. This completes our seventh Darshan.

Mahaganapati of Ranjangaon: The Lord to the aid of Mahadev
The last on the Ashta Vinayaka itinerary is the Mahagnapati Temple of Ranjangaon. The temple is located just 50 km from Pune on the Pune-Ahmednagar highway on the way to Aurangabad. The temple is very sacred as according to mythology Devadidev Shiva Shambho himself is supposed to have consecrated the Ganesha idol after worshipping him before he set out to kill the demon Tripurasura. Here also as in Ballaleshwar Temple of Pali during dakshinayan( Equinoxes) sun’s rays directly fall on the idol. Entry is not permitted in the Garbagriha but photography is allowed. A well and a small garden is located in the temple complex. After Darshan splurge on some tempting Batata Vadas, a local specialty.

Khandoba Temple: Paint the Town Yellow
Khandoba Temple atop the Jejurigad hill is a special attraction for those on the Ashtavinayaka Darshan. The temple dedicated to Lord Shiva as Khandoba lies 50 km from Poona and 16 km west of Morgaon, the first darshan. The temple can be seen from a quite a distance away on the Poona Satara highway. Yellow is the colour here. Devotees chant Yelkot Yelkot Jai Malhar throw generous quantiies of bhandara (turmeric powder) in the air in praise of the lord. That is why this place is also called as Sonyachi (Golden)Jejuri. Somwati Amavasya sees lakhs of pilgrims descent here. The stone temple is reached by a flight of 350 steps. Imposing deepmalas, a total of 145 line the flight of stairs. The temple is unique in design. This is because in terms of architectural lineages it shows a strong Islamic influence.The arches of the Sabhamandapa( sanctorum), the vimana (crest) with minaret-like structures along the four corners bears a testimony to that.

The main deity inside the sanctorum is that of Khandoba, idols of Mhalsa and Banu, the lord’s consort and the “Dvaya” linga are also seen.

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